Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Kildun Cottage, Arnish

Arnish Farm in the 1950s
The above image is of Kildonan Cottage, as I was advised by a local man today. The picture was taken in the 1950s, and cannot be reproduced today.

The position of the photographer would be suspended in air, several dozen feet above the ground, as the hill he stood on has been bulldozed to make way for the Arnish Fabrication Yard. The cottage was burned down by way of demolition.

Related to today's topography, Kildonan Cottage stands between the Lighthouse and the Fabrication Yard, close to Downie's Pier.

This is the view, two years ago, from Charlie's Monument, just south of the Fabrication Yard.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Cutting the ears of the sheep

5878. What was the arrangement you spoke about with regard to the sheep pasturing on your crofts in winter. Was that by a special arrangement and included in the rent you paid for the croft?
—No it was no part of the agreement. But when Dr M'Lean would find our sheep in the fank, the owner of any sheep who was not prepared to pay half a crown on the spot for it would have the ears of his sheep cut close to its skull at once.

5923. You spoke about cutting the ears of sheep. I understood you to say that if the crofters kept the sheep and did not pay 2s. 6d., then the ears of the sheep were cut off. Did you ever see the ears of a sheep cut off ?
—Yes, I did see that in Dr M'Lean's fank at Talisker. I never saw it before or since.

5924. Was that a punishment of Dr M'Lean's invention, or is it the custom in this country ?
—I never saw it with anybody but himself.

5925. Had you any name for that mode of marking sheep ?
—No, we had no particular name.

5926. Did you ever hear it called the thief's mark?
—Yes, I heard it called the thief's mark.

Napier Commission: Soay

6343. There is a story about a number of people having been kidnapped, or induced to remove from Soay and other places in Minginish long ago ?
—I know it well.

6344. How long ago was it ?
—It is seventy years ago since my grandfather went, and it was before that.

6345. There were a lot induced to emigrate to Canada ?
—They took them away in spite of themselves.

6346. And they were not taken to Canada ?
—No, it was to Charlestown, where they were sold for slaves. He left them poor enough and robbed the clothes off their backs, before they came back to the same farm again.

6347. Who did that ?
—Old Kenneth M'Askill.

6348. Of the farm of Rhu Dunan ?
—Yes. we heard news from people who went to America. Many of them say they would rather be home in their native place yet, if they were the way they were before.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Evicted from Skye

4191. How many altogether were removed by Mr Gibbons?
—Seventeen. He placed these families as close together as the sea would allow him; and we have but very little land, and it will not support us ; and some of those he took from Minginish were placed upon peat soil, which had never previously been cultivated. When he packed the people in that way Ebost tack was then free, and he thought that was a better bargain, and gave up Feorlick. Then Major M'Kinnon succeeded him. He was not very severe on the people. They were paying rent in work, but he removed some of the people,—Malcolm Stewart and Murdo Macdonald ; these had not a place on earth on which they could put a foot. I myself saw them living under a sail spread on three poles under high-water mark. He warned off Donald Campbell for giving shelter to a poor man who had not a place to live in. I saw the officer coming to his house and breaking into it; and he went in with a pad of water and extinguished the fire, and a great steam arose in the house; and what with the noise of the fire extinguishing and the denseness of the steam, his wife went out of her senses. We were then advised that if we would tow her after a boat in the sea, she would get better; and we took her out, and she would not sink deeper than up to her breast. I myself was two years in an asylum in Glasgow. I was a keeper there, and I never saw one that was so mad as her. Now Major M'Kinnon went to Edinburgh, and it was said he was brained there. He was succeeded by Mr John Scobie, who came to Harlosh, where I live. He told us freely that M'Leod of Dunvegan had overgiven to him, that he might do what he liked with us, and he said it was God who sent him there. He came and took a view of Harlosh, as the spies did who went to spy out the land of Canaan. There is a place there called Ardmore Point—a peninsula in Harlosh. He thought that would make a splendid park for tups, and he thought that whatever became of the people, he would have such a park there, and he removed four of them, and said he would make them as comfortable up at Balmore as they were before. He said that he had told M'Leod about it, and that he had promised M'Leod he would make them as comfortable as they were before. The four people went up to see where they were to be located. There was a piece of mossy ground there, which had never been cultivated, and was in its primeval state, and when the people saw the place they would not go into it. John Campbell was one of them, John Macdonald was another, and they said they would trust to the providence of God; and if God should support them, they would go to Australia.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Abuse of power

3596[...]— Statements prepared by the Tenants of Edinbane. Our lots are from 6 to 8 acres of arable land. There are about 20 half lots from subdivision. A large piece of the hill has been taken from us called Ben Dhu, and no compensation, given. Several of our lots have been taken down by 1 acre, and no reduction of rents. The proprietor has never done anything for the land. The houses are built and maintained by ourselves. On removal we get compensation for the roof only. We think our rents too high, when so much land has been taken from us, and the rent in many cases raised. They were last raised to give the factor Mr Robertson votes. We are not in arrears. Seven days' work is claimed by Mr Robertson from each lot, and 2s. is taken from us for every day we miss. He likes us to give him the first offer of stock, but he does not fix the prices. A lot is allowed four cows and twenty-four sheep. Four cows are too many for the pasture. The profits from sheep go direct to Mr Robertson for rent. We never touch a penny of the money. The money from our sheep for the rent, instead of being put in the bank for us until Martinmas -when it is due, is kept by Mr Robertson for his own use, and we get no interest from him for it. We cannot utilise fishing for the want of proper boats, &c. Fishing should be distinct from crofting. There were plenty of evictions in Grishornish and Coshletter before the time of the late Mr M'Leod. Many of us have seen the law officers come and strip the roofs in Edinbane, and pour water down on the fires. The people evicted mostly emigrated. They got no compensation. The land is now largely in the hands of Mr Robertson, the factor. We would migrate, not emigrate. No Gaelic is taught at our schooL We would like our children taught to read the Gaelic Bible. The school rates are a shilling. Fees for standard IIL Is. 6d. There are eight paupers on the estate; most of these on Ben-Dhu have come from other places. Several cottars have been removed by the late Mr M'Leod and by Mr Robertson from Grishornish and Coshletter and put upon us. The poor-rates are 8d. Mr Robertson, the factor, has the lands once belonging to us of Kerrol and Ben-Dhu in his own hands. We received no reduction when these lands were taken from us. Mr Robertson keeps a meal-store, and we nearly all deal with him. We are this year already very deep in his books for meal. When Mr Robertson put the money on to our rents, for votes for himself as he said, he promised to make it good to us, but he has never done so, although we protest every year. We can give many other instances of oppression. One man took in a lodger against Mr Robertson's wish. He was fined a £1, and had to pay the £1 for five or six years, and was only pardoned last Martinmas. Another man for selling a stack of corn off the farm, although he had offered it to Mr Robertson several times, and was in sore need of ready money, was punished by having his rent raised from £3, 8s. 5d. to £4, which he still pays. The year before last two men quarreled about the march of their crofts. Mr Robertson ended the quarrel by fining the man with the largest croft 10s. a year on to his rent, and no corresponding reduction to the man with the small croft. In November last the factor put 7s. on to a half lot, with the reason stated, " I want to make a gentleman of you, and give you a vote." Mr Robertson has two shares of sheep in the hill, and although we complained, he will not pay for the grazing, and he refuses to let our sheep go over the lands of Kerrol, which is our right in winter, and makes us twice a year build up the dyke that keeps our own sheep out of our own grazings. We have to submit to such things as these, for fear of being evicted. Reforms wanted. More land and fixity of tenure. We cannot improve our lands at present as they will not support our families while we are improving them; but if we had enough of land to keep us on it the whole year round, and if we were made secure against fines and evictions from petty spite of the factor or other causes, we would improve it, and there would be no more heard of destitution in hard years like this. When the credit which this bad year drove us into is settled for, there will not be much of our stock left to us we think.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

In the army - in the 1850s

Join the army in the Crimean war, mid 19th century. What did you get? Well, paragraph 1123 from the Napier Commission inquiry into the conditions of the poor of the Highlands and Islands gives a flavour:

But when you were in [the army]?
—Well, for one time I had two years and four months without ever stripping or going to bed. From the time I left Portsmouth till I returned, I never stripped. I was in clothes all the time, and it was hard enough work for all I got.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

The Napier Commission

On 8 May 1883, Lord Napier visited the Isle of Skye and other areas in the Highlands and Islands. He had been charged by Queen Victoria to investigate the grievances of crofters and cottars against the prevailing system of land ownership, security of tenure (or lack thereof) and living conditions. I have a transcript of the report, and it makes for deeply depressing reading. However, if anyone wants to understand the recent history of the north of Scotland, this is compulsory reading.

I copy the first 21 paragraphs, which gives a flavour of society in those days.
For reference: the man interviewed, Angus Stewart, lives in an area called the Braes, 8 miles southeast of Skye's main town, Portree. When the landowner found that the local cottars were not paying the rent, he sent in the constabulary. The police were met with a fully fledged riot, and retreated bloodied to Portree. A Royal Navy ship was sent to the area, by which time the uprising had come to the attention of the authorities in London.

1. The Chairman.—Would you have the goodness to state what is your occupation ?—A crofter.

2. Have you also been engaged in fishing ?—Yes.

3. Were you born here, at the Braes?—Born at the Braes.

4. Have you lived here all your life?—Not all my life. I have been away, but not very far off.

5. From time to time?—From time to time.

6. But you are thoroughly acquainted with the feelings and interests of the people here?—Yes.

7. Have you been freely elected by the people to be their delegate!— Yes.

8. Now, will you have the goodness to state to me what are the hardships or grievances of which the people complain who have elected you ?— Yes; but it is in Gaelic that I prefer to speak.

9. You desire to be examined in Gaelic?—Yes. [From this point the examination of the witness and of subsequent witnesses in Skye was conducted through Mr Dugald McLachlan, sheriff-clerk depute, as interpreter.]

10. Then you wit! have the goodness to state what are the hardships and grievances, if any, of which the people whom you represent at this place complain?—I would wish that I should have an opportunity of saying a few words before I tell that, and that is that I should have the assurance that I will not be evicted from my holding by the landlord or factor, as I have seen done already. I would not have a fire in my house at Whitsunday I want the assurance that I will not be evicted, for I cannot bear evidence to the distress of my people without bearing evidence to the oppression and high-handedness of the landlord and his factor.

11. Have you anything more to add to your preparatory statement?— No.

12. It is impossible for the Commission to give you any absolute security of the kind which you desire. The Commission cannot interfere between you and your landlord, or between you and the law, but we trust that no act of oppression or severity would ever be exercised towards you or any one else by the landlord in consequence of your courage and goodness in telling the absolute truth.

Mr ALEXANDER MACDONALD, Factor for Lord Macdonald—examined.
13. The Chairman.—You are at liberty to speak if you desire to make any observations?—In the first place, I may say that I am surprised at this man's statement, because he is not one of our crofters at all. He is a crofter's son; he is not a crofter. That is the first thing. In the next place, I do not think that he has any reason whatever, or that any person has any reason whatever, if he tells the truth, and nothing but the truth, to fear anything. In fact, we consider it rather insulting to us to insinuate anything of the sort. We despise to do anything of the sort. We expect and trust that the men will tell the truth and nothing but the truth, and the whole truth.

14. There is something rather ambiguous in the statement which you have made. Am I to understand that you publicly state that no proceeding will be taken against any tenant or inhabitant of this place in consequence of what they state before the Commission on this occasion?—I believe not.

15. You say you believe not, but do you engage that no proceedings will be taken?—That is all I can state: on my own property certainly there will not be, and, I believe, on no property. In fact, such an idea never entered our heads; but we expect the people will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

16. Mr Cameron.—Would you engage on behalf of the proprietors for whom you act; for all properties with which you are connected?—Most certainly; but this I would say, if we hear any man making a grossly false statement against us, which we can prove to be false, I do not think that in human nature it would be found we should like to continue that man as our tenant. If there is any statement which is made by a man thinking and believing it to be true, even though we ourselves differ from it, we would never dream of using any power that we have, but if the man tells a parcel of unfounded lies—which I do not believe any man here or elsewhere in Skye will do until I hear it—that is a different matter altogether. So far as we are concerned the people have full liberty to tell everything they have to say, without any fear.

17. The Chairman.—If you are able to do so I would rather that you availed yourself of this occasion to make a distinct declaration that whatever the people say no proceeding will ever be taken against them on that account,—that on this particular occasion whatever they may say, however mistaken you may think them, however erroneous or false, no proceeding will be attempted?—These are my own personal feelings, and certainly so far as the properties for which I am factor are concerned they will never know or hear anything about it—so far as I, as factor, am concerned.

18. Then I am authorised by you to assure this gentleman before me that nothing will ever be done to his prejudice on this occasion?—I expect that he will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and so far as I am concerned as factor, I will visit in no way anything upon him, and I believe Lord Macdonald will do nothing.

19. Mr Cameron.—You have heard what this witness has said, that except under certain conditions he refuses to give us evidence. We have been appointed by the Queen to investigate this subject thoroughly, and it is impossible that we can do so unless we get proper evidence from witnesses such as Mr Angus Stewart. Now, I am sure you would not Macdonald, wish that the evidence should fail to be recorded from any disinclination on your part to give the assurance which has been asked by the chairman — I give him the fullest assurance.

20. And I think all we wish was contained in the observation which I formerly made, namely, that so far as concerns the estates under your management nothing shall happen to any witness in consequence of any statement which he may make, whether you consider it truthful or not, before this Commission. If you give that assurance we may at once proceed ?—Certainly we expect the man to tell the truth.

21. The Chairman.—But let us come to a point on this matter. Will you state yes or no in reply to my question,—will you authorise me to state absolutely to this man that nothing will ever be done prejudicial to his interest or that of his family in consequence of anything he may say on this occasion ?—I believe I am quite at liberty to say so. I believe I am perfectly at liberty to say so, and from the first I could have said so.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The Politician

On 12 March 1941, the SS Politician was making her way from the United Kingdom to America, but was hopelessly lost in fog around the Hebrides. Although the captain thought he was near Skerryvore, he was in fact a good few miles further west, and heading into the narrow channel between the isles of South Uist and Eriskay. With a grinding crunch, the boat ran aground on a reef, just off Eriskay.

The Politician's crew decided she was not going to come off in a hurry, either refloated or sinking, so they rowed ashore at Eriskay and alerted the authorities. The islanders were alerted in the process and they went over to have a look around the wreck. Its cargo consisted of cases of Jamaican banknotes, several grand pianos, bathroom suites and... many thousands of cases of all kinds of whisky.

The story has become legendary, with the islanders helping themselves to unimaginable quantities of uisge bheatha [water of life] and having a high old time. Compton Mackenzie immortalised the story in his book Whisky Galore, changing a few names along the way. Apart from the whisky, the bathroom suites also found a good home. One set is reportedly still sitting outside a house in Eriskay, in daily use.

After a couple of days, the authorities intervened and retrieved part of the cargo. Several islanders were prosecuted for illegally retrieving goods off a wrecked ship. Bottles of 'polly' still turn up every now and again, If they have been in the sea, the spirits will have become undrinkable. But it's a nice story.