Sunday, 30 May 2010

Let them drink beer

Napier Commission Report on South Uist.

Due to sheer poverty, the people of that island were reduced to feeding their children tea, rather than milk in the 1880s. A translator, acting for the Gaelic speaking witnesses at the inquiry, had this to say on the subject.

11529. Do you find that the children are properly clothed generally 1
—Well, upon the whole they are. You meet with exceptions, but upon the whole, they are fairly well clad. Of course there are cases where clothing is pretty scanty.

11530. You don't think they are so badly clothed that it has any generally injurious effect upon their growth or health ?
—I don't think so. It is insufficient feeding that has to do with their health, as I find, especially tea-drinking.

11531. A man to-day spoke about giving tea to the children. Is it common ?
—Quite prevalent.

11532. I suppose you don't consider that good for children ?
—I think it most injurious.

11533. In the absence of milk, what would you recommend them to drink?
—Beer, if they had cheap beer; certainly anything but tea. I think it is doing a great deal of harm to the people, especially to the rising generation.

11534. [...] At what age would you begin to give beer to the children ?
—At a year or two or three years of age. I think if there was cheap beer made it would be much healthier than living upon tea.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Clearances: South Uist

These quotes from the Napier Commission's report from South Uist, describe the clearances there. It starts with an excerpt from a statement of complaint from the township of Kilpheder in the far south of South Uist. The Commission then proceeds to quiz John Mackay from question 11143 onwards on the actual events. John is 75 years old at the time of the Commission's visit in May 1883.

[People were] compelled to emigrate to America; some of whom had been tied before our eyes, others hiding themselves in caves and crevices for fear of being caught by authorised officers.

11143. Will you relate what you heard and saw?
—I saw a policeman chasing a man down the macher towards Askernish, with a view to catch him, in order to send him on board an emigrant ship lying in Loch Boisdale. I saw a man who lay down on his face and nose on a little island, hiding himself from the policeman, and the policeman getting a dog to search for this missing man in order to get him on board the emigrant ship.

11144. What was the name of the man ?
—Lachlan Macdonald.

11145. What was the name of the previous person you referred to?
—Donald Smith.

11146. Did the dog find this unfortunate youth
—The dog did not discover him, but the man was afterwards discovered all the same. He had got into the trench of a lazy bed.

11147. What was done with him ?
—He was taken off.

11148. And really sent off like an animal that was going to the southern markets ?
—Just the same way.

11149. Did you hear that the same thing was done to others, although you did not see it ?
—A man named Angus Johnston, whose wife gave birth to three children, and another child was dead before, he was seized and tied upon the pier of Loch Boisdalc ; and it was by means of giving him a kick that he was put into the boat and knocked down. The old priest interfered, and said, ' What arc you doing to this man ? Let him alone. It is against the law.' The four children were dead in the house when he was caught and tied, and knocked down by a kick, and put on board.

11156. Were they in the habit of sending away husbands without their wives?
—No. I never heard any instance of that kind, unless a man voluntarily left his wife when they would disagree.

11157. But you understand that one man was put on board a vessel by force with four dead children in the house, where was the wife at that time ?
—She followed him on board.

11158. The dead children would be buried before that ?
—The four dead bodies were buried before the mother went on board.

Thursday, 27 May 2010


If you want to read a description of what poverty was like in the Isle of Barra in 1883, read this account by Allan McIntyre, aged nearly 60 at the time. Contrast that with the condescending attitude of one of the major farmers in the island, Dr McGillivray of Eoligarry comes out with this beauty of a statement in his interrogation by the Commission, only a few minutes before McIntyre's questioning.

10803. [...] Do you think there is more disinclination to emigrate now than there was at that time?
—Well, I think that if the people saw they were to be assisted they would go. The general impression now is that the population is getting thronged again.

10804. How is it getting thronged ?
—In the way I have mentioned, by their intermarrying, and not leaving the country.
It was perceived by some of the ruling classes that the sovereign remedy against overcrowding and poverty in their landed property was to get the people to emigrate. As the Commission correctly highlights elsewhere in Dr McGillivray's quizzing, many of the emigrants arrived in Canada in a state of destitution.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Views of a dead industry

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the herring industry was a cornerstone of the island economy, here in Lewis. The same applied up and down the coasts of the United Kingdom as a whole. In my transcription of the findings of the Napier Commission, I came across the testimony of a fish-curer from Burghead, on the east coast of Scotland. Thomas Jenkins had been plying his trade at Castlebay, Barra, for 13 years when he was quizzed by Lord Napier and his commission. It makes faintly sad reading to see the earnest and detailed outlining of the problems afflicting the herring trade in 1883 - and knowing that within a hundred years, there would be hardly any herring left. The only tangible memory of the herring trade in the Western Isles is in the statues of the herring girls along the harbour front in Stornoway, as shown on the left.

In the early years of the 20th century, young women would flock to the fishing ports of the UK to gut herring at a rate of 60 a minute, packing them into barrels, with copious amounts of salt. The barrels would go as far afield as Russia, where they were considered a delicacy by the ruling classes. Like the herringtrade, the ruling classes in Russia would be swept away within fifty years.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Napier Commission in St Kilda

On August 29th this year, it will be 80 years ago since the people of St Kilda left their native isle, never to return (to live there). They had requested to be removed as life there had become untenable. It is perhaps noteworthy to read the submissions to the Napier Commission, which visited St Kilda in June 1883. The replies by the three people who were called to give evidence have been transcribed into separate postings on the blog. Read the entries first, then return here, I ask.

In order to get an idea of the attitude of the “have’s” versus the “have-nots” of the day, I copy a few lines from a submission from the factor for St Kilda, in effect the landowner’s manager of the islands. John T. Mackenzie was not a bad man, as he did not pressurise any people if they could not pay the rent. Others in his position  would have their tenants evicted in case of default.
[...] the ” land question” to a great extent is in the hands of educated people, who know the danger of breaking the law, and who are responsible for their own actions. The crofter grievance is the ” land question ” in another form, but in the hands of a class who, fancying they have some hardships, know not what to do, but who are under the guidance and advice of irresponsible and, I am afraid in many cases, of thoughtless leaders, eager to gain notoriety through the simplicity and credulity of their followers
If you feel anger when seeing condescension and arrogance at such a breathtaking degree, stop for a minute and reflect upon the era we’re talking about. In the Great Britain of 1883, there was a gaping divide between classes in society. St Kilda people were regarded as “noble savages”, who could not look after themselves, and needed the benevolent hand of an educated and munificent landowner to guide their ignorant ways. Looking at this from a 21st century perspective, it is in fact the landowners who contributed in no mean proportion to the plight of their tenants - as the Napier Commission was finding out in 1883. Not all lairds were bad and evil, and neither were all their agents.

I can tell you that I have found the attitude, stated in the blockquote from John T. Mackenzie above, echoed to this day in certain quarters of those studying the social history of the Highlands and Islands. I am still angry at the Scottish First Minister who hailed the achievements of the emigrant Highlanders overseas, without making reference to the fact that many of them were kicked out under the most excruciating circumstances. Achievements that certainly deserve to be acknowledged - but why were they not allowed to make them at home.

I’ll get off my high horse now.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Out of the 1300 Lewismen who lost their lives in the First World War, one in ten served in a Canadian regiment. This proportion applies in fact to the entire contingent of 6,200 Lewismen who served in WW1. I have extracted their names from the Faces from the Lewis War Memorial website and transcribed whatever further information I could glean from Library & Archives Canada. The result is a new tribute site, entitled Lewismen in Canadian service.

A note on the above poster, which is so pertinent in this context. The names given on the Union Jack are in fact battlefields on the Western Front, which claimed many lives. The inference at the time was of course which other famous battlefields would be a source for glory for the Canadians. Ninety-five years on, it reads more like “which other fields of slaughter will be added to the list, how many thousands more will die?” I can understand that the number of volunteers dropped off after 1915 / 1916, and that the military draft was introduced in 1917. Neither am I surprised that I found at least two men who absconded and were subsequently arrested. One disappeared altogether and was written off the strength of the force.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Lewismen in Canadian service

I have compiled a new website, entitled as per header of this post. It shows information on 134 men from the Isle of Lewis who entered military service during the First World War as part of the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. They fought on the Western Front in Belgium and France.

You may remember my main tribute site for WW1 casualties from Lewis, Faces from the Lewis War MemorialI have extracted those men who are marked as Canadians, and tracked down their details on the website of Library & Archives Canada. LAC have scanned the attestation (registration) forms of all 600,000 Canadian men who volunteered or were drafted into service during WW1. Apart from those that died, I am also tracing the 420 Lewismen who served as Canadians, but survived. It is startling to see the rate of volunteering dropping off during 1916, and compulsory military service being introduced in 1917. This leads to men absconding after being served their papers, being arrested and taken to their barracks. Some abscond and never return, and are marked as taken off the force.

The details on the attestation forms are quite personal, as shown on the front and back pages of this attestation of a man from Skigersta, Ness. Angus Morrison had emigrated to Victoria, on Vancouver Island, but volunteered to join up in 1915. He died in action two years later.

This poster says it all. On the flag are the names of battles where many died. And (as a consequence) they want more men to join up.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Lewismen in Canadian service (2)

I have been looking up further information on the Canadian casualties from Lewis from the First World War. The attestation papers give the address in Canada where the man in question lived before he signed up. It is possible for me to view the house courtesy Google Streetview. It struck me how many came from Fort William near Thunder Bay, Ontario. There is also a Fort William here in Scotland, 100 miles north of Glasgow. Many Lewismen emigrated to the Maritime Provinces of Canada, and were then transported up the Great Lakes to end up in places like Thunder Bay. Some crossed over into the USA, not far down the road, and abandoned all identifying items in order that they could not be sent back into Canada.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Lost villages of Pairc

I spent the afternoon mapping the villages of Pairc, which were cleared in 1821. Using an old map and modern satellite imagery, I could locate Brunigil, Stromos, Airigh Dhomhnuill Chaim, Rias, Scaladale Beag and Mor, Gilvicphaic, Ceannmore, Bagh Ciarach and Bagh Reimsabhaigh, Bunchorcabhig, Glenclaidh, Smosivig, Caolas an Eilean, Valamus and Valamus Beag, Ceann Chrionaig, Brollum, Hamascro, Mol Truisg, Molhagearraidh, Ailtenish, Buhanish, Gearraidh Righsaidh, Ceann Tigh Shealag, Gearraidh Reastail and Stiomrabhagh.

These foreign sounding names once meant home to small groups of people, scattered on the periphery of an area of mountainous moorland, whose highest peak, Beinn Mor, crests 1,700 feet. You can access the map on this link to find out which village each marker represents. Looking at the linked map, you can switch over to satellite view and zoom right into the marker. It will show a ruined house, homestead or even farmhouse. Kinloch Shell (Ceann Tigh Shealag) used to host an inn where the men from the district would come to drink. The ribbed appearance of the land is an indication of the runrig (or lazybed) system of agriculture. A lazybed is a ridge of ground generally used for growing potatoes and sometimes also for raising corn, the seed being laid on the surface and covered with earth dug out of trenches along both sides.

It is nearly 190 years ago since those villages were cleared, and its occupants packed off elsewhere. Not necessarily overseas, but certainly to elsewhere. To date, the evidence of their toil remains visible, even from as far away as outer space. The Eishken Estate, on which these tiny hamlets lie, is now the domain of the toffs, the shooting and fishing fraternity. In a few years, the hills will be desecrated by 33 wind turbines, each standing a third of the height of Beinn Mor, with attendant electricity transmission infrastructure.

Trying to read up on the history of the district pre-1821 yields practically nothing. It is heavily focused on the trials and tribulations of the Clan Mackenzie and the Earl of Seaforth. Nothing on the people who lived off the land. In a way, a distant echo came back from those days in the year 2005. The fifty folk living on the shores of Loch Seaforth objected to the Eishken Windfarm. But they were drowned out by the roar of big business.

I close with an image by BBC Islandblogger Molinginish showing Reimsabhagh.