Monday 24 November 2014

Alexander Carmichael and the Island of Scarp - II

In the previous blog we set the scene: the now uninhabited island of Scarp, off the north-west coast of ‘mainland’ Harris, and the anecdotes that Alexander Carmichael recorded there in November 1881. We’re going to continue by looking at what we know about schooling on the island before Carmichael’s visit.
There had been schools in Scarp before. The first on record was opened by the Edinburgh Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools in 1821, shortly after the small existing island population was joined by many more cleared from their townships on the Harris mainland opposite, to make way for a sheep farm. Provision remained patchy for a generation, whether because schoolteachers were unwilling to commit themselves to such an isolated posting – a persistent problem for Scarpaich as long as the island was inhabited – or because the Society’s remit to circulating schools meant that it was not part of its plan anyway to fund a permanent employee in Scarp.
In 1856 the school in Scarp was taken over by the Association for the Religious Improvement of the Remote Highlands and Islands, better known as the Ladies’ Highland Association of the Free Church (LHA), in whose Sgoiltean nan Leddies – the Ladies’ Schools – generations of Highlanders received their institutional education. A contemporary anecdote about the advent of Sgoil nan Leddies is preserved in the Rev. Angus Duncan’s superb ethnographical history Hebridean Island: Memories of Scarp:
So anxious had been the heads of the island’s twenty-four families, that they told a delegate who visited the island that if he got a teacher for them, they would gladly row him not only to Tarbert, where they took him after his visit, but as far as Lochmaddy, forty miles away! That LHA delegate was the Rev Lewis Hay Irving, Free Church minister of Falkirk. A third of the island’s population, including married men – as was customary in the Highlands a hundred years ago – attended this Ladies’ School, the instruction consisting chiefly, if not entirely, of reading and arithmetic. [Duncan, Hebridean Island, 100–1]
The islanders’ strong desire to secure a permanent local teacher also comes through in a report compiled for the LHA on 31 July 1858 by the Rev. Alexander Davidson (1813–92), Free Church Minister of Harris:
The people are too poor to pay regular fees, but they provide Fuel for the Teacher’s use, with milk, fish, eggs, or anything they have. [National Records of Scotland ED18/1494]
Not only this, but the previous year the people of Scarp had built a schoolhouse on their own initiative at the south end of Baile Meadhanach [Duncan, Hebridean Island, 101], constructed with stone walls, floored with a ‘Composition of lime & Sand’, and covered with a thatched roof. The LHA itself donated £2 for the windows. Perhaps rather drily, the minister recorded that its ‘Condition as to Repair and Ventilation’ was ‘Tolerably Comfortable’. About fifty to sixty children attended the classes, instructed by a ‘Mr John McDonald, about 30’. Intriguingly, McDonald is recorded as being ‘formerly a Teacher in Cape Breton, N. America’.
Seven years after the passing of the Education (Scotland) Act in 1872, state education arrived in the Island of Scarp. On 2 June 1879, the new official teacher, another John MacDonald, took up the post. Born in 1848, John MacDonald had already been a teacher for eight years – he was recorded as such in the 1871 census – and had been certified by the Free Church Training College in Glasgow, which he had attended from February 1873 to December 1875. Lately he had spent over two years, between July 1876 and October 1878, teaching in Shieldaig on the other side of the Minch [NRA ED18/1494]. The family background of this John MacDonald is further elucidated by the Rev. Angus Duncan. MacDonald’s father was shepherd at Crabhadail, on the mainland opposite Scarp:
Fear Hùisinis [sheepfarmer Alexander MacRae] had a Highland shepherd living across the Sound at Cravadale, on the far side of Loch na Cleavag. Before the small communities were formed in 1885, his was the only place within six miles of our short ferry in which a stormstayed islander could pass the night. It is, therefore, not surprising that at a certain Communion season, no less than forty of our islanders spent a night in the shepherd’s house beside the loch. That was the age of the ‘shakedown’, when in an emergency all the spare blankets in a house were laid on loose straw on the floor to form beds. So well-known was the custom that the saying, ‘A straw out of each shakedown’ [sop ás gach seid], was applied to anyone who possessed only what he or she could borrow from others.
   There is an interesting sequel to such trips [to the Lowlands] in the case of the Highland shepherd to whom I have just referred. Realising the value of a knowledge of English and a good general education, he resolved to have his family educated, no matter what the cost in personal sacrifice. The result was that two of his sons became schoolmasters, one being an Arts graduate of Glasgow University, while the other members of his family were all well-read and spoke fluent English. [Duncan, Hebridean Island, 78]
John MacDonald’s posting in Scarp provides the background to the anecdote referred to in Alexander Carmichael’s papers and printed in the previous blog. In our next piece we’ll review what we know about the Teampall, the old church in Scarp that was destroyed to supply building materials for John MacDonald’s new home.
Image: Scarp school and schoolhouse (Ian Johnston,

Monday 17 November 2014

Alexander Carmichael and the Island of Scarp - I

Recently we have heard quite a lot about the now uninhabited island of Scarp, An Scarp, four square miles in extent and separated by a narrow but dangerous channel from the mountainous north-west shoulder of ‘mainland’ Harris. 

Firstly, in the Sir Iain Noble Memorial Lecture at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Skye, Dr Hugh Dan MacLennan gave a fascinating talk about his mother’s native island, and the summers he spent there as a boy. Again, in a recent programme on BBC Radio Scotland, Remembering the Men of Scarp, we heard Murdo Maclennan, who also spent boyhood summers on the island, describing how he tends the graves of two relatives there who had lost their lives in the Great War.

This made us wonder if Alexander Carmichael had visited Scarp. A quick check in the files showed that, of course, he had:

Teampull an Scarp/Scarpa
’S na h-Earradh. 16 Nov 1881

Teampull an Scarp was pretty entire till a few years ago, [deleted: at least from 6 to 7 six to seven feet of the walls] were standing till then. A schoolmaster came to the island a man with newfangled notions about things and he made the people pull down the ruined walls of the temple to build a chimney for himself in his school house – his fire before then being on the floor of his single roomed dwelling.

A small crogan [little earthen dish or jar] stood in the litter of the little temple. The crogan was small and white, pure white and beautifully fashioned. Every one admired and no one touched the crogan till one night a woman took home the crogan. But the woman was ill at ease for what she did she could not sleep at night and she could not rest by day and at least she repented her deed returned the crogan to the window of the temple. The crogan was no time there when it disappeared this time for ever – cha’n fhacas a dhath no dhreach riamh riamh tuilleadh – cha’n fhacas a dhuine choir riamh riamh tuilleadh a dha[th] no dhreach.

In Scarp Greenock is called Chrianaig instead of Grianaig.

[CW MS 499 fos.642–4]

During the eighteenth century, like the similar Hebridean islands of Eriskay, Scalpay, and Rona, Scarp was a relatively small, relatively infertile and relatively underpopulated outlier in the wider estate economy. Like these other islands, Scarp’s circumstances changed drastically during the great convulsions of the clearances: in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it became home to a large community of tenant families who had been evicted from the somewhat more fertile ground on the ‘mainland’ opposite. There they would serve as a labour reserve for the huge new sheep farm run by Fear Hùisinis, Alexander MacRae from Kintail, on the lands from which they themselves had been cleared. Even the most cursory glance at the microhistory of North Harris in the Age of Clearance reminds us that issues of colonisation, dispossession, deportation, relocation, and, indeed, diaspora, can be traced not just in the multicultural British Empire overseas, but in a specifically Gaelic milieu within the Scottish Gàidhealtachd itself.

Alexander MacRae (1787–1874) was the second son of Archibald MacRae of Ardintoul (1744–1830) and Janet MacLeod, one of the ten daughters of John MacLeod of Raasay who so impressed Dr Johnson when he stayed with the chief during his tour of the Hebrides in 1773. In Harris tradition, Fear Hùisinis does not enjoy the best of reputations. His father Archibald was apparently invited to the island on the advice of the hated local factor Donald Stewart; the family ties that connected them, and other members of the ‘island gentry’, have been explicated and elucidated in a series of outstanding blog articles by Peter Kerr. 

The clan history, however, describes Alexander MacRae as a ‘good Catholic’, ‘a liberal and large-hearted man’ who ‘[a]s an amateur musician … possessed unusual taste and cultivation, and was an excellent violinist. He had also a keen appreciation of the national music and poetry of the Highlands’. It is perhaps not surprising that among the Tàilich that he brought to Harris were two important informants of Alexander Carmichael, the shepherd and seanchaidh Malcolm MacRae (c. 1806–66) at Abhainn Suidhe, and the dairymaid, singer, and all-round character Mary MacRae (c. 1790–1879) at Caolas Stiatair.

As well as contributing extra labour to Alexander MacRaes sheep farm, the people of Scarp were expected to scratch a precarious living from the island itself – supplemented for a while by a little summer grazings, and later by a few patches of arable land across the sound. Above all, however, the Scarpaich were expected to turn themselves into fishermen. This they did with aplomb, celebrated for their remarkable seamanship – and oarsmanship – both in the treacherous waters around the island itself, and, for a while, with the long lines out in the open Atlantic.

As with similar islands such as Eriskay, Scalpay, and Rona, initially at least the islanders flourished in spite of the odds. Although the island lacked a deep harbour and safe anchorages, the Scarp fishing industry was able to keep the people alive. But during the century the population increased dramatically: crofts were subdivided to the point that by the time of Alexander Carmichael’s visit in 1881 the island was in danger of becoming severely overcrowded: 213 Scarpaich inhabited three adjacent townships. In the words of their representative to the Napier Commission in 1883, Scarp was ‘more of a pound or a fank than a habitation for them’. As the anecdotes recorded by Alexander Carmichael might suggest, during these years Scarp society was changing dramatically in other respects too.

Images: Scarp, by Nigel Brown:; Caolas na Scarp and North Harris, by Seymore Hicks:

Friday 29 August 2014

The North Uist Seal Hunt - Part 5

In our first blog post at the beginning of the week, we promised two ‘local colour’ newspaper reports about the seals of North Uist. Here is the second one, taken from the Inverness Courier of 27 December 1849: an anecdote relating to Heisgeir or the Monach Islands:

   Tethering a Seal. – Harris. – In these outlandish places, where parks and enclosures are few and far between, it is the well-known custom to bind the fore-legs of almost all domestic animals, in various ways, to prevent them injuring crops, trespassing on neighbouring lands, or travelling to inconvenient distances from the scene of their labours. But we never heard of securing seals in this manner until the other day, when such an occurrence took place in the hyperborean island of Heisker, one of the inhabited isles belonging to, but several miles distant from, North Uist. Some of the inhabitants, in an excursion to one of the islets on which they keep sheep, found a seal on the sea-shore, but being too young to be of any use, they thought of an expedient to secure the parent; they tied the young phoca to a rock attached to a stake fixed a considerable distance above the shore; but the weather turning coarse, they were obliged to put back immediately for home. On visiting the island the next day, they found the tracks of the old one to and from the place where her offspring was held captive. The young cub was brisk and lively, after having evidently received food from his attached, and no doubt much distressed, mother.

Was this a usual stratagem for the islanders of Heisgeir, or a more desperate expedient in an attempt to secure some extra livelihood at a time of severe famine and atrocious weather?

A report in the Elgin Courier the following year, on 29 November 1850, suggests that, although the Hasgeir seal hunt had been once more delayed by bad weather, this time the hunters were better prepared for their expedition:

    Capture of Seals. – A few days since, the weather for some forty-eight hours calmed down, and some dozen North Uist men proceeded in two boats on their yearly visit to Hashgir, in search of seals. They were very successful, for they killed no fewer than fifty-one of all sizes. One seal measured nine feet in length, and six and a-half in girth, and yielded nearly thirty Scotch pints of oil.

The Macdonald estate had been trying to sell North Uist since 1848. Eventually the island found a buyer: Sir John Powlett Orde (1803–78), who had succeeded to the baronetcy of Morpeth on the death of his father, the eccentric naval commander Admiral Sir John Orde (1751–1824). News of the purchase appeared in the Inverness Courier of the 22 February 1855; Sir John took possession the following Whitsunday. As a result of his marriage to Eliza Woollery Campbell (d. 1829), Orde had acquired the Kilmory estate by Lochgilphead in Argyllshire, as well as enjoying Eliza’s share of the profits from the sale of two sugar slave plantations in Jamaica sold to the Leith merchant Sir John Gladstone (1764–1851), father of William Ewart Gladstone, the Prime Minister. For his new country seat Orde had built the rather unattractive Kilmory Castle, today the headquarters of Argyll and Bute Council. By all accounts a remarkably disagreeable character, the baronet’s memory remains notorious in Lochgilphead to the present day.

Orde nevertheless won over his new tenants in North Uist, donating a site for the first Free Church on the island, in Paible, and, according to an Inverness Courier report of 18 September 1856, acting ‘very handsomely to the large tenants here, by giving them new leases of their farms without even advertising them. The smaller occupants also are left as they were without any removals, I believe, unless from one part of the property to another.’ This was a very different way of running the North Uist estate from that of previous administration.

The following year, Orde’s son, Captain John William Powlett Orde (1827–97), apparently took part in the Hasgeir seal hunt himself. A column in the Inverness Courier of 29 October 1857 describes how:

Captain Orde has been shooting here for the last fortnight. He is considered an excellent sportsman, and a very condescending and amiable young man. The other day, he ventured with a boat and crew into ‘Hasskir,’ a range of wild steep rocks, lying about fifteen miles to the west of this island, in the direction of St Kilda, and fetched thence no less than forty seals. It is rumoured that Captain Orde, and not his father, is the real proprietor of this estate; we, however, naturally look to Sir John himself as our head. Be that as it may, one thing is certain, that people are fully as well satisfied under the new rule as they ever were under the ancient line of the Macdonalds.

A captain in the 42nd Highlanders, the Black Watch, Orde would have been a good shot, probably armed with a new Enfield rifle. The Hasgeir seal hunt had become a field sport.

Orde would take his mother’s surname by Royal Licence on 16 January 1880, becoming Sir John Campbell-Orde, Bart.

We thought that we’d end the blog with poetry concerning some of the characters that we’ve met already this week. Here are some verses from Cuideachadh Mhaighstir Ùisdean by the Rev. John Norman MacDonald (1830–68), Church of Scotland minister of Harris, third son of Roderick MacDonald of Cunambuintag in Benbecula. The brief biography in the Fasti [vol. vii, 190] praises his ‘outstanding ability and culture … [H]e devoted much of his spare time, both in his student days and afterwards, in collecting the floating traditions and poetry of his native Uist.’ In the third volume of Clan Donald [389] he is described as ‘[a] scholarly man of wide and varied culture, [who] left a large number of valuable MSS., dealing principally with the history, lore, and poetry of the Outer Islands.’ Both of these accounts will derive from his nephew, the Rev. Angus MacDonald of Killearnan (1858–1932). We have met the Rev. John Norman MacDonald as a bard before, writing in the name of his fellow minister the Rev. John Alexander MacRae (1832–96) of North Uist, fourth son of the Rev. Finlay MacRae.

Cuideachadh Mhaighstir Ùisdean, printed on pp. 143–7 of the MacDonald Collection of Gaelic Poetry (Inverness, 1911) edited by the Rev. Angus MacDonald of Killearnan and the Rev. Archibald MacDonald of Kiltarlity, is the comical answer to ‘verses perilously bordering on the satirical’ [MacDonald Collection, xxvii] composed by the Rev. Hugh MacDonald of Bernera (1822–88). The latter was himself a native of Benbecula, son of John MacDonald of Torlum, and grandson of Domhnall Bàn MacDonald, brother of the Ùisdean Bàn of Cille Pheadair, South Uist, whose fascinating testimony regarding Ossian is printed in the Appendix of the Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of 1805.

According to the Cuideachadh, the marvellous poetry composed by the Rev. Hugh has not only put the entire countryside under enchantment, but has wakened the ferocious heroes of old. The land is now in danger. Among those his poetry has aroused is Odar’s head, rising out of its resting place in Griminis:

Ach ’s ann a bha ’n ùprait, ’s am fuathas,
Os cionn nan stuadhan glas, éitidh,
An Griminis ’nuair a luaisgeadh,
An cnoc uaine nuas o’n dh’ éirich;
Claigionn Odair làn de spuaicean,
Le mhalaidhean gruamach, ’s le fhéusaig ;
Falt air dhroch c[h]ìreadh mu chluasan,
Bu chulaidh uamhais gu léir e.

There was uproar and terror
Above the dreadful grey billows
In Griminis when the green hill
Was shaken, out of which arose
The skull of Odar, covered with blisters,
With his gloomy brows and beard,
Hair unkempt about his ears,
A truly terrible sight indeed.

Bha dhà shùil mar ghrian ag éiridh,
O chuan éitidh mhaduinn gheamhraidh,
Bu gleodha [?recte gheodha] 'nan uaigh a bheul,
Le ceathach bréun a tighinn le srann as;
Bha ’n duslach a measg a dhéudaich,
Ri! bu déistinneach an samhl’ e,
Chlisg an eunlaith anns na spéuran,
’S theich gach creutair as na dheannruith.

His two eyes were like the sun rising
From an awful sea on a winter morning,
His mouth was [?a creek of caves]
With stinking smoke coming out with a snort.
Lord! what a loathsome sight!
The birds in the skies took fright,
And every creature made off in haste.

'Nuair a chrath e ’n ùir as fhiaclan,
A chiabhagan liath, ’s as fhéusaig,
Leig e sgairt as, chrith an iarmailt,
Chrith an cuan an iar, ’s na sleibhtean;
‘Cà’ ’eil mo chorp? grad thoir a nios e,
Mur deach a riasladh as a cheile,
Ged dh’ ithinn, ’s ged dh’ òlainn gu siorruidh,
Cha riaraich sud trian de m’ éislein.’

When he shook the earth out of his teeth,
His grey sideburns, and his beard,
He roared, the skies shook,
The ocean shook, and the hillsides;
‘Where’s my body? Give it back immediately
Unless it was mangled asunder,
Although I should eat and drink forever,
That won’t appease a third of my sorrow.’

Ge tréun an saighdeir tha Bhàlaidh,
’S anns na blàir ge neothar thaingeil,
Theich e, ’s bu mhòr an càs leinn,
Nach b’ fhearr e na coilleach Frangach;
Spàrr e cheann fo chòta mhàthar,
’S chluinnt’ a ràn cho fad is Langais;
’S ged a bha batraidh ceart lamh ris,
Cha d’ fhuiling e tàir’ no ainneart.

Strong though the soldier in Bhàlaigh was,
Resourceful in battle,
He fled – and we were in great distress
That he was no better than a Turkey cock;
He thrust his head under his mother’s coat,
And his wail was heard as far away as Langais;
And although a full artillery battery were beside him
He wouldn’t suffer contempt or violence.

Bha Fear Scolpaig air a léireadh,
Ghabh e ’n ratreuta na dheannaibh,
Cha tugadh e sùil na dhéigh,
Ged dh’ eighte dha Breatunn fo bhannaibh;
Mar a ni ostrich ’na h-eiginn,
A ceann a chur fo ghéig a falach,
Shàth e cheann ’s an fheamainn-chéirein,
’S dh’ fhàg e fheamainn féin ri gealaich.

The tacksman of Scolpaig was distressed
He made a hasty retreat,
He wouldn’t look behind him,
Even though all Britain were to be promised to him;
As an ostrich in distress
Will hide away its head under a branch,
So he thrust his head in the rock seaweed,
And he left his own seaweed [?exposed – probably indecent!] to the moon

Dh’ amhairc an claigionn mu ’n cuairt dha,
’S mhothaich e ’s an uair da choluinn,
Chaidh e fo thrioblaid, ’s fo thuairgneadh,
’S thuirt e, ‘Leam a nuas!’ gu corrail;
’S e m’ aiteas bhi air do ghuaillean,
Ach mo thruaighe! chaidh mo ghonadh,
Tha do mheud air fàs cho suarach,
’S nach lion do chruachain mo bhonaid.

The skull looked about
And noticed his body,
He grew troubled and disturbed
And said fretfully, ‘Jump up!
I’d be glad to be on your shoulders,
But dear me! I’m sorely hurt,
You’ve grown so insignificant
That your hips won’t even fill my bonnet.’

Chlisg Fear Scolpaig, leum e suas,
Le sùrdagan luath thug e ’n tràigh air
Le sùil ri dol as o thuasaid,
Fo chlaidhimh cruaidh Sheumais Bhàlaidh;
Dh’ fhòghnadh sud, an ceann ’s na cluasan,
A bh’ air a ghuaillean mar tha leis,
Bu bheag a thoirt dheth na fuamhairean,
A fhuair dhiubh còrr is a b’ fheairrd iad.

The tacksman of Scolpaig started and jumped up,
With speedy leaps he made for the beach
Intending to escape from the quarrel
Under the protection of the hard sword of James of Bhàlaigh;
It would be enough, to keep the head and the ears
That were on his shoulders already,
It wouldn’t be good for it to be taken off by the giants
Who had got more of them than was good for them [?anyway].

The meaning of the last two lines isn’t entirely clear.

Seumas Bhàlaigh, the soldier with his sword, is Major James MacRae (1834–73), whom we’ve met earlier reciting to Alexander Carmichael the story of Odar, his leap, and his head. The tacksman of Scolpaig, whose massive frame is nevertheless still too small for Odar’s head, is Carmichael’s good friend John MacDonald (1824–88), factor of North Uist.

Image: seals at Heisgeir (Stuart Keasley).

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]