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

Friday, 6 November 2015

Norman MacCaig's Island Family

Joanna McCaig (MS McLeod) died in Edinburgh on 2 December 1959 of Cardiovascular degeneration. Her son, Norman, registered the death.. His widowed mother would have been 82 just a few weeks later.

In an earlier piece I mentioned that Johanna had been born in Scalpay on 28 December 1877 to William MacLeod and his wife Effie Martin. She was the seventh of eight children and we first glimpse the young family, six years before her birth, in the census of 1871 when they were in Scalpay Village:

William MacLeod, 35, Fisherman, Head, b. Isle of Pabbay
Effie MacLeod, 26, Wife, b. Scalpay
Julia MacLeod, 6, b. Scalpay
John MacLeod, 5,b. Scalpay
Flora MacLeod, 1, b. Scalpay
Chirsty MacLeod, 2months, b. Scalpay

This is the only reference we have to William being from Pabbay but the 1841 Census, the last before that island was Cleared to replace people with profit, shows the 8 year-old William together with his siblings Flora (6) and Donald (2) . Their father was an agricultural labourer, John MacLeod (50) and his mother Catherine MacLeod (30). However, there was also a woman in the household called Julia MacLeod (40) and it is interesting to see her name given to William and Effie's firstborn.

William and Effie's neighbours in 1871 were Donald MacLeod and family, including Donald's mother, Chirsty. Both Chirsty and Donald were born in Pabbay and I think therefore were William's brother and mother, the whole family having been driven from their home in Pabbay during the 1840s.

At the time of the 1881 Census William and Euphemia's household comprised:

William MacLeod, 46, Fisherman, Head, b. Harris
Euphemia MacLeod, 37, Wife, b. Lochs, Ross & cromarty
John MacLeod, 15, Fisherman, Son, b. Harris
Flora MacLeod, 11, Daughter, Scholar, b. Harris
Norman MacLeod, 8, Son, Scholar, b. Harris
Roderick MacLeod, 6, Son, Scholar, b. Harris
Johanna MacLeod, 3, Daughter, b. Harris
James MacLeod, 1, Son, b. Harris

I am slightly confused by the reference to Effie (Euphemia MacLeod) having been born in Lochs, but it may well be that her mother, Flora Martin (MS MacLeod), was a Lochie for there are many connections between Harris families and those in Lochs, Lewis.

Julia MacLeod, 17, was visiting another family in Scalpay at the time of the census, and Chirsty MacLeod appears as Christina MacLeod who, at the tender age of 10, was already working as a 'General Servant' for a family of MacSwains in the island.

At 8 o'clock on the morning of Saturday 28 January 1882 Effy MacLeod died of influenza, having been ill for some eight days. Her son, John, registered her death giving her age as 39.

At 9 o'clock on the morning of Sunday 12 February 1882 William MacLeod died of severe cold, having been ill for some fourteen days. His son, John, registered his death giving his age as 48.

William had survived his wife by just fifteen days and their eight children aged from 2 to 15 had been orphaned in just a couple of weeks. It is almost impossible to comprehend their situation.

Nine years later the 1891 Census finds John MacLeod, a 25 year-old fisherman, heading the household that contains his two wool-spinning sisters, Julia (26) and Christina (16), and their brother James (12) who is still at school. Half of the family have stayed together under one roof in Scalpay. Flora (21), Norman (18) and Roderick (16) appear to be absent from Scalpay but may have been elsewhere in Harris.

I cannot locate Johanna MacLeod (13) in the 1891 Census, but she is definitely not in Scalpay nor in Harris, however by 1901 Joan MacLeod is working in Leith as a Laundry Maid, the only person with Gaelic in the family she serves. There is also a visitor called William A Peterkin whose occupation is given as 'Artist (Vocalist)' which is somewhat unusual.

So, when Norman MacCaig visited his mother's family in Scalpay it was her siblings that he remembers and celebrates in his poems. Aunt Julia is perhaps the best known, but Uncle Roderick clearly returned to Scalpay for we have this wonderful poem about him which contains the lines:

Round Rhu nan Cuideagan
he steered for home, a boy's god
in seaboots. He found his anchorage
as a bird its nest.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Valuation Roll of Harris in 1855 (Part 1)

The latest release of Valuation Rolls online provides an excellent window into Harris at a time when people on the estate were still suffering from the after-effects of famines, forced emigrations and the fear of further clearances.

It was being administered by the Factor John Robertson MacDonald on behalf of the Tutors of the 14 year-old 7th Earl of Dunmore and a cursory glance at the Harris Timeline may help provide the context within which this particular roll sits. In this account I have used the spellings as they appear on the original document.

The record begins in Berneray where the whole of Borve, the cleared township occupying the fertile machair on the west of the island, was a Sheep Farm rented to William MacNeil for £120. The township of Rushgarry, on the other hand, wa divided into 21 separate crofts paying rents ranging from £4 to £20 and totalling £161 12s 6d.

The islands near North Uist in the Sound of Harris, owned by Harris following a fifty-year long legal wrangle, we being rented for £7 7s by 'K MacDonald', presumably the farmer Kenneth MacDonald who, in 1847, was the Assistant Factor responsible for the debacle of the attempted resettlement of Borve in Harris. He would later appear before the Napier Commission to give his view of how Harris had been faring during his long period of residence.

We then reach the island of Harris itself and here there are listed seven Sheep Farms and their tenants, plus the one on the island of Taransay:

Hushinish – Sheep Grazing (Alexander McRae £884 6s 11 1/2d)
Luskintyre (Finlay McRae £320)
Taransay (John McDonald £177 10s)
Rodil (John Robertson McDonald £160)
Scarista Vore (Kenneth McDonald £120)
Marig (Widow C Morrison £83)
Ardvourlie (Donald Stewart - Shepherd £80)
Borves (Kenneth McRae £76)
Little Scarista (Robert Clarke £67 4s 6d)
Bunavin Edder (Alexander Grant - Shepherd £47)

It is, I think, worth noting that four of these men, John Robertson MacDonald ( Factor, born Snizort, Inverness-shire) John MacDonald, Tacksman, born Harris), Alexander McRae (Tacksman born Glenshiel, Ross-shire ) and Robert Clark (Surgeon, from Argyll) were on the dozen-strong Parochial Board of Harris in 1851 .

One thing I am currently unclear about is whether Luskintyre was held by Finlay MacRae, the Minister in North Uist who happened to also be the factor John Robertson MacDonald's brother-in- law, so if anyone can assist in clarifying that then I would be most grateful.

Finally, we have the Deer Forest of Harris rented by Lord Hill for £300 and Scalpay Light House Grounds for which the Commissioners of Northern Lights were paying £24 5s 5d annually.

Next time: Crofters & Cottars.

Monday, 15 June 2015

North Uist Weavers & Weaveresses

I thought I would take a wee look at the census records for those engaged in weaving in North Uist:

1841 Male - 2 Female - 21 Total - 23

1851 Male – 6 Female – 103 Total - 109

1861 Male – 2 Female - 63 Total - 65

1871 Male - 2 Female - 89 Total - 91

1881 Male - 3 Female – 102 Total - 105

1891 Male - 1 Female - 132 Total - 133

1901 Male - 0 Female - 76 Total – 76

What strikes me is that the pattern in North Uist is remarkably similar to that in Harris where weaving throughout the nineteenth century was primarily a female occupation. My analysis for Harris can be read here.

Incidentally, about a quarter (26 of 103) of the women weaving in 1851 describe themselves to be a 'Hand Loom Weaver' this number falling to 2 in 1871 and rising to only 6 in 1881 before disappearing from the censuses altogether.

I discussed the recording of these 'HLW's in this earlier piece.

Incidentally, it is also only in the 1891 census that we see the word 'tweed' appended to the weaving role and, indeed, there are only 5 weavers in that year (and only 1 a decade later) who refer to their produce as 'tweed'.I think this further emphasises that the marketing of woollen produce as 'tweed' only starts to occur in the islands as we approach the end of the century.

I discussed this more fully in this piece regarding aspects of the development of the Harris Tweed industry in Harris.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Which Roderick?

Which Roderick?

At 11pm on the 10 August 1867 John McKinnon took his first breaths, his cries carried on the clear, cold air over Direcleit, Harris. John was the first-born of Anne Kerr and her husband Alex McKinnon, who came from Scalpay which was where the couple had lived since their wedding on 18 December 1866. The birth was registered by a cousin, Roderick Kerr of Strond, Harris who signed the register with 'his mark', an upright cross.

Now, there are two possible candidates for the informant for at that time there was Roderick Kerr, the Post Runner in Strond and also Roderick Kerr the Fisherman in An t-Ob, which today is called Leverburgh.

I am a little confused because a couple of years later Roderick the postie witnessed the marriage of Roderick the fisher, but seemingly with a signature rather than a simple cross. However, Roderick the fisher, who certainly never learnt to write and would have had to sign the register with a cross, wasn't a resident of Strond at the time of John McKinnon's birth.

Which Roderick was it? Well, the post runner was Anne's cousin and the fisherman was her nephew, and therefore John McKinnon's cousin so, although it surprises me slightly that there's a hint here that Strond's postman couldn't write, it looks as if it could have been either of them who registered the birth of their first Scalpaich relation!

More on the two Roderick's here:

Plus a wee snippet giving something of a flavour of the time:

Note on spellings: I have shown those used on the birth certificate in case others wish to look that document up online.

Friday, 27 March 2015

More on Pennylands...

In an earlier piece, I referred to a note from April 14th 1884 in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland called 'What is a Pennyland? Or Ancient Valuation of Land in the Scottish Isles'.

Its author was Captain FWL Thomas and a recent exchange regarding the redoubtable Fred's work in Harris led me to revisit his works in the online catalogue of the National Library of Scotland.

In 1886 volume 20 of the Proceedings appeared including a continuation piece that was published posthumously, Fred Thomas having died at the age of 69 on 25 October 1885 at his home, Rose Park, in Trinity, Leith.

On page 211 of the volume he states, giving his source as the Old Statistical Account:

In Harris, 1792, the ancient and still common computation of land was a penny, halfpenny, farthing, half-farthing, clitag, &c.

A tacksman might hold 20d.—that is, an ounceland; while a small tenant or crofter usually held a farthing land.

The stock or souming for a farthing land was four milk cows, three or four horses, and as many sheep on the common as the tenant had the luck to rear.

The crop might be computed, in general at four or five bolls, and the rent was 30 or 40
shillings, besides personal service, rated at one day's work per week.”

In the 1895 Crofters Commission Report the souming of each croft in Strond was 1 horse, 4 cows and 20 sheep which I calculated* to be 68 'sheep grazing units', or sgu.

At the same time the crofters in Direcleit were allowed just 4 cows and 20 sheep, or 52sgu.

A little over a century earlier a small tenant was allowed 4 horses, 4 cows and as many sheep as he could rear which means well over 96sgu were deemed acceptable.

This is one of the clearest illustrations of how the imposition of crofts held direct from the landlord contrasted with the lot of the small tenant renting from a tacksman.

We may note, for comparison, across the Sound of Harris that:

In North Uist, 1794, the small tenants usually held a ½d. land, on which they kept 6 cows, 6 horses, and raised enough grain to keep them all the year round.”

6 horses and 6 cows gives us 144sgu from a half-pennyland, demonstrating once again that the lot of the small tenant was vastly superior to that of the crofter a century later, and reinforcing the difference whereby a crofter HAD to supplement his income in order to survive.

*”The grazing of stock shall be calculated on the footing of one cow being equivalent to eight sheep, and one horse to two cows or sixteen sheep. Source: Crofters Commission Report 1896.


  • THOMAS, F.W.L. 1886, "Ancient Valuation of Land in the West of Scotland: Continuation of "What is a Pennyland?"", Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Proceedings, vol. 20, pp. 200.