Fàilte! (Welcome!)

Fàilte! (Welcome!)
This blog is the result of my ongoing research into the people, places and events that have shaped the Western Isles of Scotland and, in particular, the 'Siamese-twins' of Harris and Lewis.
My interest stems from the fact that my Grandfather was a Stornowegian and, until about four years ago, that was the sum total of my knowledge, both of him and of the land of his birth.
I cannot guarantee the accuracy of everything that I have written (not least because parts are, perhaps, pioneering) but I have done my best to check for any errors.
My family mainly lived along the shore of the Sound of Harris, from An-t-Ob and Srannda to Roghadal, but one family 'moved' to Direcleit in the Baighs...

©Copyright 2011 Peter Kerr All rights reserved

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Another Photo Of 'Jessie'?

In this earlier piece I discussed the 'Jessie' of Stornoway which my ancestors owned & sailed whilst plying the coastal trade around the islands & mainland of Western Scotland.

I have discovered another image of a two-masted cargo vessel in Stornoway that appeared in a catalogue of images published in 1893. It is to be found in the George Washington Wilson collection at Aberdeen University Library and is an extremely rare stereoscopic close-up showing the stern and deck of a cargo sailing ship working in Scotland towards the end of the 19th Century.

I cannot be sure that she is indeed the 'Jessie' but the photo provides the best image that I have seen of this type of vessel and allows one's imagination to explore what it would have been like to sail such a ship, taking all kinds of cargo around these coasts and providing a vital service to island trade and communications.

This link will take you to the full details and clicking on the image will open a new page with a view that may be zoomed & explored revealing many fascinating details.

I wonder who the gentleman (usefully providing us with a scale to estimate the size of the ship, etc) is?

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Borve Mission House, Isle of Harris


In the course of a piece of research, I came upon a wedding in 1904 that took place at the Borve Mission House, Harris.

The certificate records that the ceremony was performed ‘According to the Forms of the United Free Church of Scotland.’ The Minister was one Farquhar Kennedy from Lochalsh who in 1901 was boarding at Manish Cottage with the Davidson family of the late Free Church Minister, Alexander Davidson.

Not having previously heard of Borve Mission House, I endeavoured to learn more about it. A search on RCAHMS  produced the Mission House in the old school building on Scarp and a Mission Hall in Seilibost Seilibost . A more general search returned the Finsbay Mission House which is now an art studio but certainly was performing its earlier function according to the records of the 1901 Census when the family of the 44 year-old Missionary Ronald MacSween were living there.

That same Census also provides us with a United Free Church Missionary at Little Borve. He was 56 year-old Donald MacDonald with his wife and two daughters, the younger of whom having been born in North Uist some 18 years earlier unlike her sister and parents who were all born in Harris. Their home is not referred to as 'Borve Mission House' but whether that is significant or not I cannot tell.
(Incidentally, in the previous Census of 1891 there was a Missionary along the coast at Big Borve, Lachlan Munro, but this was prior to the formation of the United Free Church)

Turning to the United Free Church for possible assistance, I found this interesting and useful brief history but the only archives I can locate do not appear to include those of missionaries working in Scotland?

Finally, I have been unable to find Borve Mission House on any maps so if anyone can provide some more details about this building I would be delighted to hear from you!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Isabel Frances Grant (1887-1983) in 1891


I am intending writing a short piece on ‘Highland Folk Ways’, the book published in 1961 which remains perhaps the best single-volume introduction to the history of Scottish Gaelic culture in all its guises.

However, whilst I was undertaking some background research regarding the book’s author, Dr I F Grant, I discovered that at the time of the 1891 Census she was living in a particularly interesting household:

The three year-old is found with her paternal grandparents, Sir Patrick Grant and Frances Maria Grant, in the 'Chelsea Hospital' in London. Sir Patrick was a Field Marshall and Governor of the Royal Hospital Chelsea until his death in 1895.

Dr Grant was to found the Highland Folk Museum , and in 2008 her account of that work was published.

A more detailed biography may be read on Am Baile but I thought it worth noting the little girl’s presence at an institution which included many Highlanders & Islanders amongst its in-patients and out-patients as demonstrated in this brief entry regarding Chelsea Pensioners found in Harris.

A slight diversion from my original intention, but one that I thought worth sharing!

Friday, 6 January 2012

Untangling the Web (Makers)


A couple of years ago I wrote about the unusual occurrence of the term 'Web Maker' as an occupation amongst the good ladies of Harris in 1891 & 1901, ending with the promise to investigate further when the 1911 Census had become searchable.

I am revisiting the topic because in fact the term disappeared almost as quickly as it had popped-up in 1891! It is an occupation wholly unique to Harris and, with the sole exception recorded from 1901 in my earlier piece, exclusively in the 1891 Census.

However, its usage in that year was far more commonplace than I first indicated for, because I was still at an early stage in teaching myself how to interrogate the database, I had overlooked those ladies who rather than being recorded as a ‘Web Maker’ were listed as being a ‘Webmaker’.
A small but highly significant difference!

Thus in 1891 we find no less than 136 women on Harris who were Web Makers/Webmakers and of these no less than 121 specify that what they producing was ‘Tweed’.

This is significant for two important reasons:
Firstly, it reinforces my finding that the term ‘Harris Tweed’ made a very late appearance on the stage and only once those ladies promoting the ‘Home Industries’ via a variety of organisations had begun their endeavours.

Secondly, as I have been unable to discover any distinguishing features separating ‘web making’ from ‘weaving’ as being terms for the production of woven cloth from spun yarn, it means that we can add to the number of weaveresses these webmakers and hence review the economic importance of the production of Harris Tweed to Harris in 1891.

In 1891 Harris Tweed appears to have been being made by at least 247 Weaveresses and 136 Webmakers so that a total of 383 women were creating Harris Tweed at this time.
As there were some 2,662 women & girls living in Harris in 1891, that figure represents over 14% of the female population of the island!

This all fits rather well with an account from 1888 , which incidentally also demonstrates the longevity of the involvement of  'Mrs Captain Thomas' with the work of regenerating the island following the famines & failure of the Kelp-industry earlier in the Century.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Another Maritime Casualty


I mentioned in this earlier piece that John Macleod (1879-1911), who became John Kerr when his mother Margaret Maclennan married his stepfather Roderick Kerr, had been a sailor and that he died at sea.

The somewhat scant details are that sometime on Saturday 13th of May 1911, when the vessel Castlefield was in ‘Genoa Harbour’, John was drowned. The circumstances leading to the 31 year-old Able Seaman’s drowning are not recorded.

The 2255 ton (1483 Net Tonnage) Castlefield had been built in Stockton in 1890 and a record of the life of this ‘iron cargo steamship’ from then until her eventual demise in 1958 can be seen here. We can see that from 1906 she was the property of W. S. Miller & Co. of Glasgow whose flag may be seen here. 

John’s last place of abode is given on his certificate as 204 Kelvinhaugh Street, Glasgow but this is followed by the word ‘Ship’ in brackets which is a slightly enigmatic addition? What is certain is that he was British and born in Harris for each of these is stated unambiguously.

I can barely begin to imagine the loss felt by his family back in ‘Obbe’, Harris when they received the news of the loss of their son, a term I use because I am sure that Roderick was a loving stepfather (he allowed John to take his name, for example) and, as the wee lad was only in his second year of life when the couple married at Scarista on Tuesday 22nd of February 1881, Roderick would have been the only father that John would have known.

RIP John (Macleod) Kerr 1879-1911