Friday, 8 April 2011

A tale of four islands - Berneray

The island of Berneray (referred to as Bernera) is the southernmost of the four islands. It has the Barra Head Lighthouse sitting on top of a 600 ft high cliff on the west of the island.

It is worth bearing in mind that there are two other islands called Berneray (or Bernera) in the Outer Hebrides. Great Bernera lies off the west coast of Lewis. The third Berneray is just north of North Uist, and is now linked to the latter island by causeway. During the 19th century (and well into the 20th), it was linked to Harris in an administrative sense.

Berneray (Barra) had the following numbers of population from 1851 until 1901

1851 - 44
1861 - 33
1871 - 38
1881 - 57
1891 - 30
1901 - 17

These included the lighthouse keepers, their families and attendants.
We find the following names across the decades:

James Oswald (47), born at St Manonie, Fife, occasional lightkeeper
Joseph Thomson (34), born at New Hills, Aberdeen, with his wife Ann and 4 young children, light keeper
John Morrison (47), born at Portree, Skye, with his wife Mary and 3 children; principal lightkeeper

Principal lighthouse keeper: James Pithie (44), born at Arbroath, with his wife Elizabeth and son James (7), born at Ronaldsay - North Ronaldsay in Orkney has a lighthouse as well.
Apertant lightkeeper: Joseph Agnew (33), born at Honeykirk, Wigtownshire, with his wife Sarah and three children;
Assistant lightkeeper: James Oswald (56) of Fife

Principal lighthouse keeper: Robert Grierson (41), of Leith, with wife Mary and daughter Mary
Asisstant keeper Malcolm Greig (30) of Lerwick, with wife Annie and three children
Assistant keeper James Oswald (66) of Fife, with wife Christina

Principal lightkeeper Lachlan Campbell (48) of Tobermory, with wife Marion and 6 children. They were born in Harris, North Uist, Graemsay [Orkney?] and Islay, all locations with a lighthouse.
Assistant lighthouse keeper William Irvine (27) of Cairnryan, Wigtownshire, with wife Isabella and three children, all born at Dunnet Head in Caithness.
2nd assistant lighthouse keeper George Rugg (25), of Castletown, Caithness, with his mother Isabella (from Sanday, listed as a former bonnet maker.

Principal lighthouse keeper Donald Sutherland (47) of Dunnet, Caithness, with his wife Margaret and daughters Isabella and Jessie.
Assistant lighthouse keeper Charles Mcfadyen (37) of Islay with his sister Catherine
Assistant lighthouse keeper John Muir (36) of Orkney with his wife Ann Jane.

Principal lighthouse keeper John Hughson (46) of Whalsay, Shetland with his wife and son
Assistant lighthouse keeper Archibald Macmillan of Southend [Kintyre] (30) and his sister Catherine
Assistant lighthouse keeper John Maccuish (25) of North Uist, also with his sister, Johanna.

It is noticeable that many of the locations mentioned in association with the lighthouse keepers on Berneray have a link with a Scottish lighthouse.

Apart from lighthouse keepers and their families, we also find a number of crofters and fishermen on Berneray during the 19th century.

In total, seven families lived in Berneray at the time of the census. Four of those were crofters, fishermen and labourers of various descriptions. These families were headed up by fisherman Neil Mcneil (33) and his wife Catherine; Catherine Mcintyre (43), crofter's wife; Duncan Sinclair (45), crofter of 3 acres and John Mcneil (48), ditto.

Apart from the lighthouse keepers, we find Donald Macintyre (42) with his wife Catherine (51, who we saw in 1851); Duncan Sinclair (56), with 6 children and John Mcneil (55) with his wife Ann (50) and three children. Noticeable is Allan Mcdonald, who is listed as a Ladies Association Teacher.

Apart from the lighthouse keepers, we find Donald Macintyre (73) and his wife Catherine; Duncan Sinclair (65) and his wife Mary (56), together with their 6 adult children; and John Mcneil (71) with his wife Ann (66) and son Allen.

 Apart from the lighthouse keepers, we find Mary Sinclair as crofter of 6 acres. Donald Campbell (36) is a fisherman as well; he is noted his wife Mary (35) and with four children. Marion Mcniel (29) is living with her three small children, marked as a crofter wife of 7 acres, of which 3 arable. A number of households are quoted full of fishermen, marked as lodgers.

Apart from the lighthouse keepers, we find Donald Campbell (40), his wife Mary and eight children. Hector Campbell (65) is a crofter living with his wife Isabella (55) and son Michael. The remaining people listed on Berneray were associated with the fishing.

Apart from the lighthouse keepers, we find Isabella Campbell living with her son Michael. We also see Peter Sinclair and Donald Campbell (54) as crofters, the latter with his wife Mary and 4 children.

It is worth noting that there is a dedicated cemetery on Berneray for the lighthouse keepers and their families; one grave is for a visiting lighthouse inspector. 


  1. I've just catalogued a story mentioning Duncan Sinclair. It stated that he lived for a year on Geàrum Mòr (I'm assuming that's where is meant by Githearum and not Geàrum Beag). Alexander Carmichael writes (probably quoting from Roderick MacNeil or Ruaraidh an Rùma) 'There was a sort of machinery for drawing up a boat. Lime was used in building the house where this machinery is. On the top of the island are the remains of an old fort. Was this the place where lived St Clair? Githearam was also called Eilean nan Each.' Indeed, the admiralty chart shows it as Horse Island.
    Sinclair only crops up as an aside. MacNeil, who I suspect is the informant, is telling Carmichael about Captain Caroline Scott and his soldier and how for a long time after they had been on the islands punishing people and destroying cattle and crops, people would head for the hills when they saw 'a strange sail'. He states that three or four years before [c.1863] the people of Berneray fled on seeing a strange ship 'all but for one man Duncan Sinclair from Appin'. [Ref. CW114/72 folios 83-84]
    Thanks for posting the census information - it was very helpful.

  2. The Western Isles Archaeology Service has a record on Gearum Mor, giving a detailed description on some of the features there. It does not speculate on the presence of St Clair.