Tuesday, 31 January 2006


Lewis War Memorial. A crowd has gathered for the 2005 Remembrance Sunday

So another two British soldiers have lain down their lives in the service of Queen and country in Iraq. You may well think "What on earth does that have anything to do with a Scottish island??" I'll explain.

In the First World War, 1,000 men from the Isle of Lewis alone perished. From a population of about 25,000, six thousand joined up for the armed forces. That's about HALF of all menfolk. Of those, 1 out of every 6 never came home again. 200 drowned within sight of home at the sinking of HMY Iolaire, on the Beasts of Holm, 2 miles south of Stornoway.

The First World War was a politicians' war, a conflict that had been brewing for a long time before the fuse was lit in Sarajevo, in 1914, when an Austro-Hungarian archduke was shot and killed in the street. A long litany of alliances between various European states then rolled into action, with war being declared in August 1914. I am convinced (personal opinion) that the man in the street at the time wasn't that fussed with a nobleman being assassinated in the street of some Balkan town. There had just been a bloody conflict there, again, only a year or so before. The story of the Christmas truce has surfaced increasingly frequently in recent years. It was touch and go whether the war would have fizzled out at that point. It was very, very near. But it didn't, and after a year of atrocities there was no truce at Christmas 1915.

Scotland generally and the islands in particular have always loyally provided cannon fodder for the forces. The economic situation in the islands was so dire that the honour, glory and payment associated with the colours was a powerful lure. Others joined the merchant navy, which suffered harshly under the U-boat campaign in the Atlantic. Naval reservists were called up and were transformed into foot soldiers under Winston Churchill, a pretty bad decision by all accounts. They were sent to defend Antwerp against the Germans, to no avail. I've described in a previous post that 100 Lewismen ended up in a Dutch internment camp for the rest of the war.

In 1914-18, people did not openly question the politicians' decisions about going to war. These days, we do.

Tuesday, 24 January 2006

Stornoway has got historical links with Holland. Its history as fishing port was given a boost when the Dutch discovered in 1637 that the herring were plentiful in these waters. The Earl of Seaforth, in charge of the island at that time, was more than happy to encourage them. Unfortunately, the King was not happy to see his rivals from across the North Sea gaining a foothold on his back doorstep, so he sent some armed men across to boot them out. Contrarily, at one stage, there was a possibility that the islands could have been ceded to Holland. However, one of the many wars between England and Holland, in 1652, put paid to any further cooperation. The herring fishery was firmly established though and Stornoway never looked back after that.

If you have a look round Stornoway, particularly along Cromwell Street, you'll see evidence of architecture that would not look out of place in Amsterdam. The pink facade of DD Morrison's shop (above), as well as the old Town House (below), now a Chinese restaurant, are both firmly reminiscent.

Further afield, Dutch fishermen were also involved in Lerwick (Shetland), and perhaps a Shetland blogger could pick up on that connection. Another Dutch connection, going back many many years can be found in a small island in Orkney. Papa Westray, famous for having the shortest scheduled airservice in the world (2 minutes to and from Westray) has a very ancient little church dedicated to St Boniface. He was an Englishman, who was charged with spreading Christianity round Northern Europe in the 8th century. He was murdered by robbers at the city of Dokkum, in northern Holland in 754. But not before he had established churches and missionaries all over northern Europe.

I'm aware that my comments about Orkney and Shetland are outside my remit as Lewis blogger, but I spent a month in Orkney and Shetland in September 2004, and found the wee kirk on Papay singularly appealing. Again, perhaps someone in Papa Westray itself could comment further.

Wednesday, 4 January 2006

Deserted villages

In Lewis, there are at least 30 of them, most of those thirty being in the district of Eishken. Since the early 19th century, this large chunk of the island has lain derelict. It was the old story that sheep made more money than people. Incidentally, during the Napoleonic wars, the landowners were more than happy to have people on their land. They could nicely rake in all the kelp, which was the base material for gunpowder in those days. Because of the blockade of Britain by Napoleon's fleet, imports of guano (bird droppings) were halted. An alternative source of nitrate had to be found, and burning kelp was found to be yielding nice quantities of potassium nitrate. But when the war was over, and ships were able to bring in guano again, there was no more need for kelp in the huge quantities that the war required. As stated above, sheep were found to be more profitable than the dirt poor cottars, so the lairds employed all sort of tactics, fair, foul and anything in between, to shift the people off their land. Most readers will have heard the stories of the ship in the bay, a party of men sent ashore to torch the houses and the residents told to board the ship. Others were sent packing to another part of the island.
Lewis has seen quite a lot of these tactics. From the west of the island come stories of people from Uig being shunted across Loch Roag to Carloway; Gearrannan residents moved to Dalmore, then to Dalbeg, then to Shawbost. And further north. One man who worked for the Mathesons in their day was rewarded for his loyalty by having his croft extended at the cost of a neighbour's, who was in arrears in rent. A chunk of the neighbour's croft was taken away and awarded to the loyal worker. Who subsequently couldn't show his face in the village again.

Returning to the southeast, Eishken was cleared of its 30 villages in the 1820s. I have tried to locate them, but the only decent 19th century map in Stornoway library is post-clearance and shows no traces of the old settlements. When people were moved to other areas in the island, this led to a degree of 'congestion'. There was not sufficient land to go round. In the history of the Highlands and Islands, the year 1886 is a red-letter year. This was the year when the Crofters' act came into force, which awarded security of tenure to crofters, and made it impossible for landowners to summarily evict people from their land. The following few years were very important in Lewis, as they were punctuated by civil disobedience if not uprisings. One such event focused on Eishken, and has become known as the Parc Raids. In 1887, a group of men, led by a Balallan schoolteacher, committed a mass trespass on the Eishken estate and helped themselves to deer. As they sat consuming the venison, the men were ordered off the land, which they refused to do. The sherriff had to come down and read the men the riot act. As there was no intention to stay for any length of time, the park raiders left Kinloch Shell and were arrested. They had made their point. A monument to the raid stands by the Stornoway to Tarbert road, at the junction of the 7 mile road to Eishken.

To this day, Eishken stands empty. It is the playground of the rich for shooting deer. There are plans, as I mentioned in an earlier post, to build a 133-turbine windfarm on the estate. It would mean the desecration of a magnificent mountain landscape, not just of Eishken itself (with Beinn Mhor up to 1900 ft), but also of the adjacent Harris hills. Instead of planting turbines, why not use that piece of legislation I heard about which requires landowners to allow people to resettle on derelict and unused land? Wouldn't it be nice if places like those listed below were repopulated?

The number after each name represents the Ordnance Survey national grid reference, which should be prefixed with the letters NB to obtain the full reference. There were reputedly 36 villages, 27 of which I have the names. The names of another 9 are unknown to me, the location of several known ones eludes me as yet. Further info welcome. Map reproduced with kind permission of HM Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Apologies for its quality.

1 Bhalamos Beag - 291010
2 Bhalamos Mor - 298016
3 Caolas an Eilean -
4 Bagh Ciarach - 251021
5 Ceannamhor - 223067
6 Scaladale Beag - 220100
7 Scaladale Mor - 218120
8 Stromas
9 Brinigil - 277159
10 Bagh Reimsabhaigh - 258025
11 Smosivig - 273049
12 Glean Claidh - 253066
13 Brollum - 322031
14 Ceann Chrionaig - 311055
15 Mol Truis - 359056
16 Mol Chadha Ghearraidh - 367066
17 Ailtenish - 368088
18 Budhanais - 332100
19 Ceann Loch Shealg - 294107
20 Eilean Iubhard - 380100
21 Isginn [Eishken] - 326119
22 Steimreway - 346116
23 Cuiriseal
24 Gearraidh Riasaidh
25 Bun Chorcabhig - 263033
26 Gilmhicphaic - 217083
27 Ceann Sifiord - 295163