Monday 25 August 2014

The North Uist Seal Hunt - Part 1

To mark a return to blogging after a rather hectic but enjoyable summer during which we gave talks across the Highlands, from Colonsay to Uist to Mackay Country, we thought that we should try to write a series of blogs, one a day, for the rest of the week, based on a single subject. Yes, we’ve written about seal hunting in the Hebrides here a few times already, but we think that it’s such a fascinating topic that there might just be room for one more shot at it. We’ll put the ‘Teine Mór’ on hold for another week, but will return to it yet…
With the near total collapse of the once hugely profitable kelp industry, by the mid-1840s most estates on the west coast of the Highlands were already in parlous financial straits. The potato famine that ravaged the country in the second half of that decade threatened to push many into outright bankruptcy. In June 1847 the Macdonald of Sleat estate, consisting of Sleat and Trotternish in Skye, and the island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, placed an advertisement in the Caledonian Mercury to see if there were any additional claims on these lands, with a view to selling ‘certain parts and portions thereof’. In summer the following year a public roup was advertised, firstly in the Inverness Courier of 25 July, then widely throughout the country. The districts of Trotternish and North Uist (the latter ‘at the very low sum of £61,000 sterling, without putting any value on the game, fishings, or kelp’) were to be sold to the highest bidder at an auction on 8 November 1848. Not a single offer was received. North Uist was the only island in the Outer Hebrides that still remained in the hands of its ancestral owners.
In a desperate attempt to make the island attractive to potential buyers, the Macdonald estate made preparations to evict tenants from the fertile machair ground in the north and convert the crofting townships into more profitable sheep grazings. The clearances carried out from mid-July 1849, accompanied by resistance, riots, and arrests, made lurid headlines throughout Britain. Journalists and correspondents argued the case in newspaper reports and pamphlets. As a result of the notorious Sollas Evictions, North Uist was in the news.
This is the background to a couple of ‘local colour’ items concerning seals and seal hunting that appeared in the Inverness press a few months afer the riots. Over the next few days, we’ll reprint them and add a few comments. Here’s the first one, as printed in the Inverness Advertiser of 18 December 1849. We’ve divided it into paragraphs for legibility:
    Seal Capturing in the North. – Every autumn parties from the western shores of North Uist make one or two trips to the rocks of Hashgir, for the purpose of securing seals, which are in the constant habit of frequenting these rocks in great numbers. The two groups of rocks lie nearly parallel, at a distance of a few miles from each other, and form rather imposing objects, viewed from the mainland of Uist. They rise precipitously to the height of some two hundred feet out of the Atlantic, and are irregular and rugged: but they are accessible to the sportsman at several places, especially the more northerly group, which may be about half a mile in length, and about a quarter of a mile in breadth at one extremity. On this area there is a species of soft foggy soil, which in summer, grows tufts of herbage and wild flowering plants; and there thousands of eider ducks lay their eggs and hatch their callow brood. Among the crags all kind of sea-fowl congregate in the season, for the same purpose. Although distant nearly sixteen miles from the mainland of Uist, parties often visit Hashgir for eggs and birds, and return with much plunder.
Hashgir can only be visited in calm weather, for the same seas which beat the shores of St Kilda, distant due west about forty miles, lash the rocks of Hashgir, and sweep through two tunnelled caverns with a fearful noise, when the wind is from the west. A few years ago, some hapless adventurers were detained by stress of weather for three days, to their no small discomfort, and causing the most painful anxiety to their friends on shore.
There is more than one tradition connected with Hashgir, and most thoroughly believed in of course, and handed down from sire to son in all respect. One of these is that Odder was a giant, and was very famous in the very remote era in which he flourished for mighty deeds of valour and prowess which we in these pigmy days cannot contemplate but with utter astonishment and veriest wonder. Well, Odder had been at Hashgir, perchance regaling himself with its eggs and birds, and he became desirous to reach the mainland of Uist. There were no Britannia bridges in those days; but he speedily effected his purpose, for with one bound of his gigantic frame he leapt the short distance of some sixteen miles, and found his feet safely planted on the rocky shores on the farm of Gremnish, now one of the holdings of the Rev. Mr Macrae. The indentations of his iron shod heels are yet pointed out by the Celts, old and young, to all lovers of the marvellous, who may be in search of aught that is antique and curious in North Uist. These foot-prints have now, by the chafing of the billows, assumed the form of two open caves known by the name even now of ‘Odder’s caves.’
Fabulous all this may be, but the consequences are no fable, for benefits have, ever since the days of Odder, accrued to the tenant of Gremnish. The giant’s head, if not all his bones, found a resting place on the shores on which he alighted on his leap from Hashgir; and so it is, and has long been the usage, that the lucky tenant of the farm enjoys privileges and benefits not at all to be despised. He lays claim to, and actually receives a goodly share of all the seals captured on Hashgir. The claim is without the least question yielded to, although no right exists in the person of the lord of the manor or his tenants. There is no reference to a right of seals captured on Hashgir in Lord Macdonald’s titles. The spoil is divided, – one-third to the men and boat; then the tenant of Gremnish takes half of the remainder, the half of the next remainder and also the fifth; after this what are left are divided thus, – the tenant of Scalpeg gets two-thirds, and the tenant of Ballalone one-third. These two farms are contiguous to that of Gremnish, and the laird’s factor who lived on Gremnish, it is said, out of neighbourly feeling, gave these small moities to supply his friends with lamp-oil in the long winter nights.
Had dependence been placed on a supply this year, great would have been the disappointment, for the only party which went a seal hunting were unfortunate. The boisterous weather prevented a visit to Hashgir at the proper season, and until a day last week, when the sun shone with a brightness, not very common in these latitudes in December, and when the sea was only moved by a gentle ripple. Mr Macdonald of Scalpeg headed the party. There were multitudes of seals, but most of them effected their escape; and the party captured only some dozen of well sized cubs. Mr Macdonald had dexterously knocked down two very large old seals, but they had revived, and rolled over into the sea. No accident of any consequence occurred to the adventurers in their scramble unshod over the rugged rocks.

Next time round we’ll investigate the background to the article: what was the Inverness Advertiser anyway, and what was it doing printing articles about North Uist?

Inverness Advertiser, 18 December 1849, 5.

Caisteal Odair, Odar's Castle, Griminis, North Uist: Gordon Hatton at

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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). [©]