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

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Contempt, Sympathy and Romance - Krisztina Fenyo

I have been intending to write about Krisztina Fenyo’s book, Contempt, Sympathy and Romance, for several years and, in particular, to focus upon one particular nugget that it contains.

The book, subtitled Lowland Perceptions of the Highlands and the Clearances During the Famine Years, 1845-1855, is a scholarly (the book is essentially her PhD thesis of 1996) but extremely readable account of contemporary Scottish newspapers’ attitudes to Highlanders and Islanders during these turbulent and troubled years, attitudes which she categorises into the trio that gives her book its title.

However, it is a letter* written by Sir Charles Trevelyan in 1852 upon which I intend to focus, a letter in which he:

contemplated with satisfaction...the prospects of flights of Germans settling here in increasing number – an orderly, moral, industrious and frugal people, less foreign to us than the Irish or Scottish Celt, a congenial element which will readily assimilate with our body politic.” (Italics as in the quote in the book).

At this time Trevelyan was Chairman of the London Committee of the Highland and Island Emigration Society (HIES) which he co-founded with Sir John McNeill (** for links to previous pieces), publicly voicing the view that emigration benefited the emigrants themselves and was an economic necessity, but this quote clearly shows the racism underlying the removal of Gaels from Scotland. The Gaels weren’t being removed because of overpopulation but because they were deemed to be the wrong people to inhabit the Highlands and Islands!

Sir Charles Trevelyan’s ‘day job’ was Assistant Secretary to the Treasury and, in the climate of hostility to the Gael that Fenyo describes so brilliantly in her book, it is inconceivable that the attitude he so boldly elucidated in private wasn’t a core belief underlying his chairing of the HIES.

To have such a clear statement of an aim of ethnic-cleansing from such a senior civil servant in the mid-nineteenth Century is extraordinary but even today, as attempts are made to right the wrongs of the Clearances and repair the damage done, particularly in terms of Highlands and Islands depopulation, Gaelic language and culture remain under attack. 

I highly recommend reading Contempt, Sympathy and Romance and will end with these closing words from the book:

“In the mid-nineteenth Century, the Highland Gaels were viewed in many ways – from inferior race to picturesque and poetic heroes - but, with few exceptions, they were never seen as equal, fellow human beings.”

*Source: National Records of Scotland: HD4/2 Letterbook of HIES (2)
Trevelyan to Commissary-General Miller, 30 June 1852

**Sir John McNeill:

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Olaf the Black and North Uist

Óláfr Guðrøðarson, perhaps better-known as Olaf the Black, was a 13th century sea-king
who ruled the Isle of Man and, at least, parts of the Hebrides. He was a younger son of Guðrøðr Óláfsson, King of the Isles, King of Dublin, and his wife Finnguala, a grandaughter of Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn, High King of Ireland, King of Cenél nEógain.

Uist in the Sagas

Godred, a son of Olaf the Red, left three sons, Reginald, Olaf , and Ivar, of who, shortly before his death, he recognised Olaf (born in 1173, and afterwards known as Olaf the Black) as his lawful heir.”

“In 1202 King Olaf was residing at ‘Sandey’, in the Sudreys which Captain Thomas identifies as being the district and former parish of Sand, in North Uist, which...both from its central position and comparative fertility, would appear in every way the more likely residence to be chosen by a ruler of the Long Island.”

(Source: North Uist, Erskine Beveridge, 1911, p20-21)

According to the saga of the celebrated chief and physician, Hrafn Sveinbiarnson c1166-1213 (as cited in A.W. Moore’s 1900 publication A History of the Isle of Man), Hrafn “and the bishop-elect, Gudmund, sailed from Iceland towards Norway in the year 1202, but were driven by storms to Sandey, one of the Sudreys, where they happened to find Olaf and the bishop, and were compelled by the former to pay a tax, that Reginald had assigned the Hebrides to Olaf.” This saga was presumably the source that Captain Thomas and Professor Munch had used in their earlier respective researches into the matter and it was the Captain’s interpretation regarding the location of Sandey that Beveridge referred to in his book.

Thus, thanks to the scholarship of Captain FWL Thomas, we have evidence suggesting that Olaf the Black lived in North Uist in the area of Cill Chaluim Cille (Kilcolmkill) in the vicinity of the burial ground at Clachan Sands and near to Tobar Chaluim Cille , the well of St Columba’s Chapel.

In the Sleat History or History of the MacDonalds it is recorded that Olaf the Red, Olaf the Black’s grandfather, killed a MacNicoll in North Uist, although it has also been suggested that it may have been the grandson Olaf the Black who was responsible. Either way, we have two clues pointing to the presence of one or both of the Olaf’s in the island during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Erskine Beveridge also notes that nearby Loch Amhlasariagh derives its name from this period:

Loch Aulisary; Norse, from Olafs-erg or Olaf’s shileling” (Source: p105, as previously)

It would therefore appear possible, perhaps even likely, that it was Olaf the Black who had his summer residence somewhere on the shore of this tidal lagoon which is located within the old farm of Newton and Cheesebay, now known as the Newton Estate, and who gave his name to the loch.

Beveridge remarks that:

On the north side of Portain, near Loch Aulasary, occurs a group of three place-names, Cnoc Mòr an t-Sagairt, Cnoc Beag an t-Sagairt, and Loch an t-Sagairt – all obviously referring to a priest, and at least suggestive that a chapel formerly stood in that vicinity. (Source: Beveridge, p278)

Is this, perhaps, a further link to Olaf and the bishop (possibly Michael) cited in the saga?

We shall never know for sure but it is tantalising to think that more than 800 years ago this ‘remote’ corner of Uist was in fact sufficiently well-connected to attract a Norse ruler and his ecclesiastical ally to make their respective marks by leaving clues within the naming of the landscape.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Eureka - 59781

What began with the discovery of two seafaring brothers who died on consecutive days in September 1872 has developed into the story of the vessel that they were serving on at the time of their deaths.

The Eureka arrived at King William’s Dock, Dundee from St Petersburgh on 27 August 1872 with 494 bales and 1431 bobbins of flax weighing more than 170 tons.* She was owned and sailed ‘In the General Coasting Trade’ by Ewen Campbell of Scadabay, Harris but all 240 tons of this brigantine had been built in 1870 across the Atlantic in Prince Edward Island for John F Robertson.

Malcolm and Ewen Campbell appear to have been joint owners of the Eureka from the outset, Lloyd’s Register 1871 showing the owners as M & E Campbell. There were many fine sailing ships built at that time in Prince Edward Island for Scottish shipowners.

A week before her arrival in Dundee, on 20th August 1872, the Eureka had collided near Elsinore with another vessel, the Mercurius of Harlingen, and the latter ship appears to have suffered some little damage in consequence.* This was not the last incident to befall the vessel in the autumn of 1872 for on 27th September the Eureka was being towed into Yarmouth having lost her boat and sails when she struck the bar and began taking on water.*

Sandwiched in between these unfortunate accidents were the tragic deaths from smallpox of the brothers Angus and Neil Kerr on the 11th and 12th of September.

Malcolm Campbell also died a few months later on 26th December 1872 at Scadabay and at some point Ewen sold the ship and she was eventually lost in Archangel when she grounded during a heavy snow storm.

It would be a quarter of a century before another link was forged between the Campbell’s of Scadabay and the Kerr’s of South Harris, this time in the form of the marriage in 1896 of my cousin Marion Kerr from Rodel to Ewen and Malcolm’s nephew, John Campbell, eldest son of Roderick Campbell of Rodel who also held the tack of Borve, Berneray before it was rightly recrofted in 190.

Note: I would like to thank Seumas MacKinnon of Scadabay for alerting me to the fact that the vessel my relatives were sailing in was not the one owned by James Deas of St Andrew’s, and for supplying information used in compiling this entry.


Eureka registration Prince Edward Island: http://www.islandregister.com/1870newvessels.html
Eureka Lloyd’s Shipping Register 1871-72 p197: http://www.archive.org/stream/lloydsregisters32unkngoog#page/n4/mode/2up
Ewen Campbell on Lloyd’s Captains List p19: http://www.history.ac.uk/gh/capsC.pdf
Euphemia, Eureka and Anna Dhubh: http://www.isleofharris.com/stories/euphemia-eureka-anna-dubh/

With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk) the British Library Board

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Story of Three Harris Seamen

On the shore of Ob Liceasto in East Loch Tarbert stand the tobhta, or ruined walls, of a house that was built two hundred tears ago. It was home to a tailor John Kerr from Strond and his wife Margaret Martin. They had five sons and five daughters and at least three of the brothers became sailors in the Merchant Service.

The first-born, Malcolm, was born around 1822, the sixth child, Angus, around 1838 and the youngest, Neil, in 1848. Their birth years vary in the few written records that remain (primarily censuses as Statutory Registration in Scotland did not start until 1855) so I have used the ages from their death certificates.

Malcolm, my great, great grandfather, moved to Stornoway following the death of his first wife (who had given him a son) and he married again in 1848. His second wife, Mary MacDonald, was one of the 143 people cleared from Orinsay, Pairc in 1843 and they had three daughters and two sons, the oldest of whom, Alexander John Kerr , followed his father’s calling to the sea.

Malcolm worked in the coastal trade, sailing small vessels of 30 to 60 tons throughout the waters off the West Coast of Scotland including frequent voyages to Belfast and Larne. He was active in this trade for fifty years and died of a heart attack on board Alexander John’s ship the Crest in the Horseshoe Sound, Kerrera on the 15th of December 1898 at the age of 76. His Nationality was recorded as ‘Harris’!

Angus Kerr spent several years as a fisherman according to te censuses but on the 11th of September 1872 the 34 year-old father of five died in the Royal Infirmary, Dundee. His occupation was shown as Seaman M.S. and the cause of death was Variola, or smallpox.

Neil Kerr is recorded in the 1871 census as an Able Seaman aboard the Euphemia Campbell in Moray but just seventeen months later, on the 12th of September 1872, he too died from smallpox in the Royal Infirmary Dundee. He was 24 and single.

Their widowed mother, who was in her late-sixties or early seventies, had lost two sons in two days due to this terrible pandemic that reached its peak of 71 deaths per 100,000 people in Scotland in the year that Angus and Neil died. Her husband John had died only five years earlier and together they had borne the pain of the loss of their 18 year-old daughter Catherine a dozen years before that.

The entry before Neil’s in the register is that of 22 year-old Duncan MacLeod whose address, like Neil’s, was recorded as West Tarbert, Harris. At least three men from one small part of Harris were lost that week. The population of Harris in 1871 was 4,411.

I believe Angus and Neil’s deaths were mentioned in the Dundee Courier of Friday 13th September 1872 (where Neil was incorrectly named as Robert) and, if so, then they were shipmates aboard the Dundee-registered 69 ton vessel Eureka owned by James Deas of Market Street, St Andrews. I have checked the register and am sure that the article does refer to Angus and Neil:

Source: the Dundee Courier & Argus, Friday 13th September 1872.
Newspaper Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk).

I have only just discovered Neil’s death, and only recently learned about Angus’s thanks to the wife of a cousin, so I have not had time to reflect upon the effect that this twin tragedy may have had on the family. I wonder how many people Harris lost to smallpox at this terrible time?

I am proud of my maritime ancestry in Harris, which has tripled in just a few weeks, and I wonder how different things might have been had all three brothers been spared, as Malcolm was, to spend half-a-century sailing these waters through middle and into old-age, encouraging the next generation to take to the sea.

Update: The vessel Eureka was in fact not the 69 ton ship of that name owned by James Deas - more details will follow in the next entry!

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Eilean Beag Donn A' Chuain

There is a recording on Tobar an Dualchais of the song Eilean Beag Donn A' Chuain (Little Brown Island in the Ocean) by Donald Macdonald Morrison (1859-1951) who emigrated to Duluth, Minnesota.

His brother Murdo Morrison left with him but returned to Lewis where he became the postmaster at Bragar, married my cousin Mary Annabella Montgomery, and erected the Whalebone Arch at Lakefield.

Lyrics from the song are engraved in glass at the ferry terminal in Stornoway, a reminder to modern day travellers of the pain of emigration felt by all who have left their island home:

Do làmh, a charaid, gu Eilean a’ chuain,
‘S a h-eallach cho cruaidh is trom.
Tha ‘m bàs le cabhaig a’ sgathadh ‘s a’ buain
Gun duine nì suas a call.
Tha ‘n òigridh sgoinneil a sheòlas na caoil
An àite nan laoch a bh’ ann,
Gun bhonaid, gun bhròig, a’ siubhal nan raon
An Eilean an Fhraoich ud thall.

Your help, my friend, to the Island of Lewis
Since its burden is so difficult to bear
Death is reaping its terrible toll
With no one to make up the loss
The upstanding youth who sail the straits
Instead of the warriors who once were there
Are without clothing or shoes, traversing the moors
In the distant Island of Heather

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.