Saturday, 24 July 2010

Why did John Mcleod lose his lands?

Wednesday, June 13th, 1883. The Napier Commission is sitting in Tarbert, the main village in Harris and is interrogating 62-year old John Mcleod, a crofter and fisherman from Ardhasaig, a few miles west of Tarbert. Commissioner Sheriff Nicolson asked him how he lost his land thirty years ago.

Thereby hangs a tale. There was a lady in Uist and a gentleman in Skye, and my brother had a vessel, and he came in the vessel with Donald Macdonald from Monkstadt [Isle of Skye], and he went to Balranald [North Uist] in order to remove from thence the young lady, whose parents were not willing that she should marry the young gentleman in the ordinary way. They wished her to marry the man who was at the time factor upon the estate; but this man took her away. The factor, Macdonald, had his revenge upon me and my two brothers for this act, though we were quite innocent of it. One of my brothers was at the time in Borv, and another in Scalpa, and I had a sister in West Tarbert. The four of us had lands at the time, and he deprived us of them all. One of my brothers went to Australia, where he is still. That is how I lost my land—the sole cause. I did not get lands since.


The Napier Commission is sitting in Tarbert, Harris, in June 1883. Another excerpt from the submission by Ardhasaig crofter John Mcleod. He describes the consequences of the clearances in Harris. 

The end of it was that my family, when they grew up, scattered into all parts of the earth; and some ot them are dead in a foreign land, and others I know not where they are,—and I am alone. Hundreds suffered equally with myself. There are at least twice as many both in North and South Harris without lands as there are that have land. I think it is a sad condition of affairs in this place. There is not a family in the whole of Harris where there are two sons but one of them at least is in the service of the Queen, perhaps two, and neither they nor their fathers can obtain a foot of the soil upon which they could live. It would appear that, when Britain becomes involved in a struggle with another nation in the future, they must send for the deer and sheep of Harris as well as its young men, and then they can see which is the best bargain.

Clearances: Rodel, Harris

Donald Macdonald, an man of 74, was called to give evidence to the Napier Commission of Inquiry into the conditions of crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands when it came to Tarbert, Harris. He represented the village of Grosebay, corrupted to Grosaway in the Napier Report. In response to question 18122, this story emerges of the clearance of Rodel.

I saw my mother with her youngest child taken out of the house in a blanket and laid down by the side of a dyke, and the place pulled down. My mother was in child-bed at the time. The child was only born the previous night, and my father asked M'Leod, who was proprietor at the time, whether he would not allow them to remain in the house for a few days, but permission was not given, only he came to the dykeside where she lay and asked what this was, and when he was told he asked him to lift her up and remove her to an empty barn, and it was there she was put.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Lady Matheson's Memorial

Lady Mathesons Memorial
Lady Matheson's Memorial
This small memorial stands prominently above Cuddy Point in Stornoway. It is a memorial to Sir James Matheson, proprietor of Lewis from 1844 until his death in 1878, erected by his wife. The memorial was recently restored and a ceremony was held to celebrate the event.
Sir James was a controversial figure in history, both on the international (opium) and national stages. In recent times, I have transcribed the findings of the Napier Commission into the conditions of crofters in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, which took place in 1883. His chamberlain, William Mackay, waxes lyrical about Sir James’ achievements, listing all the improvements he has made in his 34 years in the Lews in reply to question 16833 on the link here. Be warned: it is a lengthy statement.
By the time of the Napier Commission’s visit to Lewis in June 1883, Sir James Matheson had been dead for five years. His wife, Lady Mary Jane Matheson, showed herself to be a less than sympathetic landowner. Another blogger from Lewis (”Croft”) has written a good summary why that description is apt.
It is beyond me why the memorial to the Mathesons was restored and their memory lauded in recent years. It is my personal opinion that Sir James and Lady Matheson have been a disaster for Lewis, and a disaster for Great Britain.
I’m closing with some correspondence, quoted at the Napier Commission’s hearing at Keose on 12 June 1883. It is worth pointing out that 14 months passed between the first letter and Lady Matheson’s inexecrable reply.
Mr Cameron and Mr Fraser-Mackintosh are members of the Napier Commission; Mr Mackay is chamberlain to the Lews Estate.
[Question 17454]
22nd Nov. 1881.
—Unto Lady Matheson, liferent proprietrix of the island of Lewis, residing at Lewis Castle.
—We, the undersigned fishermen, labourers, and royal naval reserve men residing in the villages of Gravir, Calbost, and Marvic, in the parish of Lochs, Lewis, understanding that the present lease of the farm of Park, Lochs, expires at Whitsunday 1883, would take the liberty of approaching your Ladyship on the subject. At present we are either squatters, or hold small patches of land from other crofters in these villages, all of which are quite inadequate for the support of ourselves and families; and unless some means are devised to extend our holdings, to enable us to support our families, we must either have to emigrate or become a burden to the estate; and that, in the opinion of the undersigned, were a portion of the land of Park farm, which comprises the low land adjacent to the sea, let to crofters and fishermen, the doing so would not militate against or depreciate the farm for shooting, sporting, and other purposes. The undersigned would therefore most respectfully solicit that the portions of the land of Park farm, known as Orinsay and Steamerra, on the north side of Lochshell, which were at one time let to tenants, be set aside in order to be let to the undersigned in such lots or parts, and at such reasonable rents, as may be arranged under the management of your chamberlain or other officers. Should the prayer of the petitioners be granted, they will bind themselves to conform to and obey all the rules and regulations of the estate, and submit to any new rules that may be considered necessary; and further, so far as they themselves are concerned, they bind themselves to do all they can to protect the interests of the proprietrix and the sporting tenant or tenants occupying the farm of Park and adjacent lands. Copy petition signed by thirty-two fishermen.’
—Calbost, Lochs, by Stornoway, 23rd December 1882.
—Lady Matheson of the Lews, Honoured Lady, On behalf of a number of fishermen residing at Calbost, &c. Lochs, I beg leave most respectfully to send you herewith copy of a petition addressed by us to your Ladyship through Mr Mackay, chamberlain of Lewis last January, and to which we had no reply. May I take the liberty of asking that you be so good as let the petitioners know your own views regarding the matters contained in the petition. I have the honour to be, your Ladyship’s obedient servant, KENNETH NICOLSON
Park, Parish of Lochs, 5th December 1882.
—William M’Kay, Esq., chamberlain of Lewis, Sir, Understanding last year that Mr P. Sellars’ lease of the Park farm was on the eve of expiring, we addressed to you a petition, signed by thirty-two inhabitants of this part of the parish, with reference to that subject. We have patiently waited for the last twelve months for your reply, having called for the same at your office repeatedly to no purpose. We most respectfully request a reply in writing, so that we may consider what steps should be taken so as to secure our object. We expect that the prayer of said petition has been favourably received by Lady Matheson and all concerned, and that our very distressing condition, which is becoming more and more serious, may induce you to give us an opportunity of earning an honest livelihood in our native island, specially when such a suitable opening occurs. Waiting your reply, in name and on behalf of said petitioners, we respectfully remain your obedient servants, KENNETH NICOLSON, KENNETH M’ KAY, KENNETH M’LEOD, JOHN M’LEOD, RODERICK M’KENZIE, ANGUS MORRISON, DONALD M’KENZIE, DONALD KENNEDY, ANGUS M’ PHAIL , &c.
To certain of the fishermen, labourers, and royal naval reserve men residing in the villages of Gravir, Calbost, and Maravich, in the parish of Lochs, Lews.—Lady Matheson regrets that the above named respectable class of Lewis men should have been led to address her on a subject of such importance as that contained in their petition by adding to it a letter which causes her to set aside their request, as Lady Matheson is too devoted to her Queen and the laws of which Her Gracious Majesty is the representative, to listen for one moment to a petition accompanied by a threat from them to infringe the laws by which all are governed, and by the support of which, as individuals, the well-being of the land and its communities at large can alone be promoted.—13 Cleveland Row, St James’s, London, 3rd January 1883.’]
17455. Mr Cameron.
—Where is the letter containing the threat referred to by Lady Matheson ?
—So far as I understand, all the papers are there, and you yourselves can judge whether there is a threatening letter among them. I myself am of belief the people have not threatened. I am convinced they uttered no threats ; but it may be put in this way, that if they did not get their request they might persist in asking it.
17456. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh [to Mr Mackay.
—Have you a copy of the letter that was sent with the original reply ?
Mr Mackay.
—No, I never saw the reply from Lady Matheson.
17457. But the paper says the original petition was sent to you?
—I got more than one petition, and I sent them to Lady Matheson.
17458. Do you recollect ever seeing any letter or paper in the form of a threat?
—No. There was a petition presented to me at one time which I sent to Lady Matheson—a second petition—and I remarked to the people that Lady Matheson had refused it already, and it was in vain to apply, but that I would send the petition. They remarked that they would have it, should they lose their blood.
17459. Was that by the word of mouth ?
—By word of mouth.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


At the hearings of the Napier Commission in Stornoway, in June 1883, the following discussion developed between the witness, Donald Martin from the village of Back and the Commissioners. It illustrates graphically the attitude towards Gaelic speakers by English speakers - including their own clergymen.

16138. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Are there no Gaelic words for 'compensation' and ' improvements ' ?
—Well, I would endeavour to express it in Gaelic.

16139. Is there not a good Gaelic word for improvement ?

16140. Why did you not put it in Gaelic when you were writing the Gaelic paper? Why did you choose English ?
—Because I was not certain that the Gaelic phraseology would express the same thing.

16141. If you never heard the people speaking, or if you had never spoken yourself about compensation for improvements in Gaelic, what first put it into your head ? Was it English-speaking people ?
—I knew very well what the English phrase meant, but I was not sure that I could express it quite accurately in Gaelic—that my Gaelic expression would be a quite accurate rendering.

16142. I asked that question because Lowlanders and English people will be apt to think that Gaelic people have no idea of improvement, and that they have no word for it. You understand what I mean ?
—I knew myself the meaning of the phraseology quite well.

16143. Is it not a pity that strangers should think that Gaelic people have no idea of improvement and no word for expressing it ? Is it not likely to put it into their head that the ideas of the people were got from outside, and not out of their own heads ?
—Perhaps it is.


[Rev. Mr Cameron, Free Church, Back.
—I wish to explain that the delegate or witness is in the habit of reading the newspapers for himself, and it is there he saw the words 'compensation' and 'improvement.']

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


Someone was looking for a Canadian soldier, surname Murray, who had died in the First World War, leaving behind a widow, Christina, and three young children. Christina died not long after the end of the war, and the children were adopted.

The question was: is there a Canadian soldier from WW1, who died in the conflict and was married to a Christina.

I looked up the listings for anyone called Murray on the website for Veteran Affairs Canada, which displayed all that were killed in WW1. I then cross-referenced those against attestation papers, which are displayed on the website for Library & Archives Canada, using the service numbers. And after more than 100 searches, I finally found the man I was looking for:

On the website of Veteran Affairs Canada, James Watson Murray is quoted as being the husband of a Christina Murray. His attestation paper does not mention the name of his wife, but he is marked down as married. James Watson lies buried at Contay; further details on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

I summarise the information:

James Watson Murray
Son of Robert Murray, of Aberdeen, Scotland, born on 18th April 1882.
Trade or calling: Decorator
Last address: 15 Markham Place, Toronto (attestation)
Last address: 2903 Lafontaine St., Maisonneuve, Montreal.(CWGC)
Name of spouse: Christina

Signed up to the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force on 5 April 1915 in Toronto.
He was assigned to 3rd Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment) with registration number 172080.

Upon medical examination, on 30 March 1915, James Watson was found to have the following characteristics:
Height 5 ft 4 in (1.62 m)
Chest girth when fully expanded 34 in (85 cm)
Range of expansion 1¼ (3 cm)
Complexion: dark
Eyes: blue
Hair: dark brown
Religious denomination: presbyterian
Has 10 tattoo marks on forearm
A scar on left hip

James Watson lost his life on 9th October 1916 at the age of 34.
This newspaper article reports his death.
He lies buried at Contay British Cemetery, grave IV. A. 9.
This picture shows his gravestone.

Friday, 9 July 2010

From the Napier Commission, 1883

Bosta Beach, 2006

In June 1883, the Napier Commission into the condition of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands visited the village of Breasclete, a mile from the famous Callanish Stones. They were hearing from a villager from Great Bernera, just across the water from Breasclete. The people of Bernera found themselves prevented from properly entering their cemetery, just off the beach at Bosta. I relay that part of the discussion. Today, in 2010, there are TWO gates into Bosta Cemetery.

14849. Lord Napier, Commission Chairman: With regard to the dyke which prevents you getting into the burial ground, why was there not a gate left in it through which you could carry the bodies ?
Murdo Macdonald, Tobson, Gt Bernera: When the dyke was being made I was working at it, and we made a gate for the purpose of access to the churchyard, and it was shut up and filled with stones, and notice was sent to us by the farmer of Linshader that we must fill it up.

14850. Did you make any remonstrance to the authorities at Stornoway ?
—I don't think so.

14851. Are you aware that it is not lawful by the law of Scotland to shut up a road to a burial ground?
—I did think so.

14852. Then why did you not apply to the authorities ?
—Because the local government was stronger than we.

14853. In consequence of the shutting up of the wall, are you, in point of fact, to this day, obliged to lift the bier over the wall when you come to it ?
—Yes, we are obliged at this time to lift the coffin up on to the wall, and men to stand there, with others on the other side.

14854. Do you know whether the proprietor or those in authority were aware of that fact ?
—I don't know.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Are these the same?

On 28 February 1916, a man named Norman Maciver walked into an army recruitment centre at Saltcoats in Saskatchewan, Canada. Norman was a man of small stature, half an inch short of 5 feet, with a chest circumference of only 30½ inches. He was apparently eager to join the Canadian Expedionary Force fighting in France. His mother, erroneously named Mary Macaulay on his enrolment paper, lived a dozen miles away in Wroxton. Norman was born in the Isle of Lewis in 1899 and not married in 1916. On 12 December 1916, he was signed off medically unfit.

On 20 January 1917, a man named Norman Maciver walked into an army recruitment centre at Melville in Saskatchewan, Canada. Norman was a man of small stature, half an inch short of 5 feet, with a chest circumference of only 31½ inches. but apparently eager to join the Canadian Expedionary Force fighting in France. His mother, Mary lived a dozen miles away in Yorkton, where he himself also lived. Norman was born in the Isle of Lewis in 1898 and not married in 1917. On 14 June 1917, he was signed off medically unfit.

Are these the same? It would appear so, tantalisingly so. I have been unable to find a birth certificate for a Norman Maciver being born in either 1898 or 1899, with a mother named Mary. But the similarities are striking. However, having gone through several hundred attestation papers, a chest circumference of 31 inches is very small (average being nearer 38), as is Norman's height of 4' 11.5" (1.50 metres). Maybe that prompted his dismissal as medically unfit? We shall probably never know.

Trapper trapped

My perusal of attestation papers for the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in the First World War revealed some unusual details, some actually quite tragic.

A 31-year old trapper from the Canadian Northwest Territories, George Mckenzie, was apprehended on 14 October 1918 after not reporting for military duty. Since 1917, the military draft had been in force in Canada. The numbers of volunteers had seemingly dropped off dramatically as the heroic battles on the Western Front showed themselves to be pointless bloodbaths in which thousands of Canadian lads had perished. George Mckenzie had been called up 11 months previously, but not reported for duty. His place of residence is quoted as Fort Smith, a settlement on the Salt River on the border between Alberta and Northwest Territories. He was born in 1887 in Fort Resolution, 60 miles to the north on the shores of the Great Slave Lake. If he was a trapper, it stands to reason he would not receive his summons for nearly a year. What caused his hospital admission is not known (at this stage).

George Mckenzie died in hospital in Edmonton, 500 miles south of Fort Smith, without his details being recorded by the military authorities.