Thursday 28 August 2014

The North Uist Seal Hunt - Part 4

In the account of the annual Hasgeir seal hunt that appeared in the Inverness Advertiser of 18 December 1849 [IA], the writer describes how carefully the seals were allocated amongst those who had taken part:

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.

Passing over the portion of the boat crew, this gives, rounded to one decimal point where appropriate, Griminis, 75%, Scolpaig, 16.7%, and Cille Pheadair (now incorporated into Baile an Lòin), 8.3%; in graph form:

We have seen how valuable seal oil in particular was to the economy of the local communities in the north-west corner of North Uist who took part in the annual hunt on Hasgeir. In this blog we’ll take a closer look at how the hunters divided up their quarry: the sums after the seal hunt.

Alexander Carmichael was very interested in songs and stories about seals in the culture of North Uist, and recorded at least four separate accounts of how the animals killed in the hunt were divided up. The first item is an ‘original recording’ in field notebook CW107, while the other three, from the long section of transcription notebook CW112 dealing with ‘seal lore’, have been copied and adapted from earlier texts that are apparently no longer extant. Here they are:

Account 1: probably recorded on 24 March 1869 from a Margaret MacLeod, Gearraidh, Taigh a’ Ghearraidh, then later transcribed and expanded into the same transcription notebook on 7 October 1875, at Carmichael’s home in Creag Ghoraidh, Benbecula [CW112/22 fo.93v].

Seals of Haisgeir. They were div[ided] into 2 p[ar]ts half this was given to P[eighinn] m[h]or where Odars heads [sic] are bur[ie]d. The other half div[ide]d into 6 shares 3 of them to P[eighinn] m[h]or 2 to Scolp[aig] & 1 to Killph[eadar]. recently ¼ of these 3 div[isions] lat[e]ly went to Scolp[aig] owing to a par[t] of the farm of Grim[inish] had been added to Scolp[aig] Seal 9 x 6 [?9 foot 6 inches] x 37 p[i]nts oil

Cuilein M[h]icheil [St Michael’s Pup] was a choic[e] young seal prepar[e]d roasted on Mich[a]elmas night [CW107/35 fo.34r]

Griminis (here described as A’ Pheighinn Mhór): 68.8%; Scolpaig: 22.9%; Cille Pheadair: 8.3%.


Cille Pheadair, site of an early church, had been part of the tack of Baile an Lòin – Ballalone in the newspaper report above – since 1814. Remember that the Rev. Norman MacLeod, Free Church minister of North Uist, and possibly the writer of the report, was tenant of Cille Pheadair at the time. This does not mean, of course, that any account of the division of the seals of Hasgeir referring to Cille Pheadair necessarily dates to before 1814: its portion would have kept the traditional reference, particularly among the older generation.

Account 2: an anonymous item in transcription notebook CW112. The final mention of Griminis is clearly an error for Scolpaig.

Bha roin Haisgeir eir an rinn mar seo:– Bha tri rinnean coramach eir a dhianadh dhiu an toiseach. Fhuair sgioba na sgoth rinn, agus Grimeinis rinn eile, agus rinneadh seac[hd] rinnean eir an rinn eile. Chaidh tri dhiu seo a Ghriminnis. Rinneadh a sin coig earanan co[th]ramach eir na ceithir earnan a dh-fhagadh agus thugadh earan dhiu seo do Chill-a-Pheadair agus an ceithir earnan eile agus an cea[th]ramh cuid do Ghriminnis.

The Hasgeir seals were divided as follows:– Firstly, three equal shares were made of them. The boat crew got one share, and [the tacksman of] Griminis another share, and seven [additional] shares were made of the other share. Three of these went to Griminis. Then the four portions were divided out into five equal shares. One of them went to Cille Pheadair, and the four other shares and the quarter part [sic] to Griminis. [CW112/19 fo.92r]

Griminis: 71.4%; Scolpaig: 22.9%; Cille Pheadair: 5.7% (again passing over the boat crew's portion).

Account 3: an account in the same notebook, a transcription of a recording of Neill MacQuien (c. 1794–1877), crofter and tailor, Middlequarter, North Uist.


Odar – Dh'orduich Odar dala leth roin Haisgeir dhan ait anns an robh a cheann a dol agus an leth eile a roinn ann an oc[hd] peighinnean mar seo. Ceithir dhiu seo ari[thi]st dha'n aite Griminnis far an robh a cheann dol tri do Scoilpeag agus aon do Chill a pheadar – cuilein Pheadair. Bha na tri peighinnean aig Scoilpeig eir-son a bhi lasadh an teine eir Beinn-Scolpaig airson comharradh cuain do luc[hd]-buala[dh] na sgeire. Bhiodh cuid dha na roin ann an biodh 60 pint eolain = (30 galls )


Odar – Odar ordered that half of the Hasgeir seals were to go to the place where his head was, and the other half to be divided in eight shares as follows: four again to the place where his head was, Griminis, three to Scolpaig, and one to Cille Pheadair – St Peter’s Pup. The three shares for Scolpaig were for lighting the fire on Beinn Scolpaig as a steering point for the seal hunters. Some of the seals contained 60 pints of eòlan [lamp oil] = 30 gallons.

Note – The late Dr. Macleod [Dr Alexander MacLeod (1788–1854)] – An Dotair Ban – who lived at Baileanloin, N. Uist and two old men worked away for a whole day digging for Odir's head at Griminnish where it is said to have been buried. So circumstantial is the tradition related and so firmly belived in N. Uist regarding this hero's capture and decapaitation and burial.

From Neill MacCuiein, Middlequarter, crofter and tailor N. Uist  [CW112/27 fo.95v]

Griminis: 75%; Scolpaig: 18.8%; Cille Pheadair: 6.2%.


Account 4: from the same notebook, a transcription of an item recorded from ‘Do’ul Donnullach’ – Donald MacDonald, tailor, Cladach Chirceabost. MacDonald was born around 1791, so his age, given as 75, might suggest the original item was recorded in the mid-1860s.

Roinn nan Ron

Bha dala leth an roin aig Peighinn-mhor Ghriminnis. Bha sin da leth ga dhianadh eir an leth eile. Bha sin leth eile aig Griminnis. Bhathas a sin a dianadh tri peighinnean eir an leth a dh-fhagtadh. Bha da pheighinn diu sin aig Scolpaig agus peighinn aig Cille-pheadair

The Division of the Seals

Half of the seals belonged to the Peighinn Mhór of Griminis. Then the other half was divided in two. One half belonged to Griminis again. Then they made three shares of the remaining half. Two of these shares belonged to Scolpaig, and one to Cille Pheadair. [CW112/42 fo.107v]

Griminis: 75%; Scolpaig: 16.7%; Cille Pheadair: 8.3%.


Only two of the accounts, IA and 2, mention that the crew of the boat were awarded a third of the seals killed as payment for the arduous and even dangerous task they had just undertaken. Perhaps the other reciters took this for granted. On the other hand, the fact that some of the accounts mention the crew’s share, while other, possibly older, accounts don’t refer to it at all, might possibly suggest that the participants in the hunt, and the method of distribution afterwards, may have altered in the early nineteenth century, after the removal of the joint-tenants from Baile an Lòin in 1814, and the removal of the tenants who had previously lived on the Griminis tack, mostly to Taigh a' Ghearraidh and Hosta, twelve years later. Rather than being composed of local tenantry, maybe now the boat crew had to be hired in from other townships, and paid accordingly.

What is clear is that, after the boat crew was paid, the division of the remaining seals among local tacks was calculated according to the number of pennylands – a medieval unit of arable land assessment used across much of the western seaboard. In fact, in this context it looks from Acccounts 3 and 4 (and also from Carmichael’s later essay on ‘Grazing and agrestic customs of the Outer Hebrides’) as if the word peighinn was used interchangeably for ‘pennyland’ and ‘share’. Some pennylands were more important than others: the holder of the Peighinn Mhór or Great Pennyland at Griminis, the reputed burial place of Odar’s head, was given a full half of the seals taken from Hasgeir. According to Accounts 1 and 4, and perhaps IA too, the shares were divided up between Griminis (minus the Peighinn Mhór), and Scolpaig in the ratio 3:2, with the old church site of Cille Pheadair allotted a single sharealthough accounts 2 and 3 suggest that the tacksman of Scolpaig could be awarded three or even four times that single share allotted to Cille Pheadair.

The ratio of 3:2 between Griminis and Scolpaig (excluding the Peighinn Mhór) corresponds to their proportion of historic pennylands: thus in 1617 the lands of North Uist include the ‘4 pennylands of Gremynis’ and the 2 pennylands of Scolpick’ [Cosmo Innes (ed.), Origines Parochiales Scotiae, ii, 1 (Edinburgh, 1854), 374–5]; while in a bond of 1715 we have ‘the 6 penny lands of Griminish and Scalpick’ [NRS GD201/2/7]. The four pennylands of Griminis consist of three ordinary pennylands, and the ‘special case’ of the Peighinn Mhór. Account 1 illustrates how a rearrangement of land between the tacks of Griminis and Scolpaig had resulted in a recalculation of the seal division too: quarter of the 3 divisions previously allotted to Griminis (6.25% of the spoils) was now reallocated to Scolpaig.

Different accounts give different ways of dividing up the seals between the farms, whether by 6 (1, 4, and probably IA, though the aside ‘also the fifth’ is troubling), by 7 (2), or by 8 (3). At first glance this appears incomprehensibly random, until we remember that the catch varied year by year, and the basic unit – a dead seal lying on the shore – was by its nature indivisible (though did seal pups count as fractions?). The mathematics of the seal hunt varied with the number of seals (and seal pups) caught each year, and how best they could be divided. Each seal hunt would require different sums at the end of it. So account 1 implies 48 seals or a multiple thereof; the complex arrangement in 2, with the boat crew’s share included, would appear to imply a full 105 animals; 3 implies 16 or a multiple thereof; 4 implies 12 or a multiple thereof. But note that the catch described in the Inverness Advertiser was a mere 12 seals. The method of division described would not work in 1849.

Seal sharing was not an exact science. In years of hardship, after a dangerous, exhausting, and adrenaline-fuelled escapade, a meagre spoil, and the difficulty of dividing it out fairly, would exacerbate already existing tensions between townships, between tenantry, and between tacksmen. The significance of the allocation (and perhaps the formality of the occasion) is testified by the fact that the details still lodged in the memories of Carmichael's informants, maybe years after they themselves had participated in the hunt. Some social historians are all too willing to make divisions themselves, sweeping generalisations separating traditional societies from modern ones, the latter characterised by reliance on measurements and statistics alien to a ‘pre-modern’, ‘pre-numerate’ world. The North Uist seal hunt serves as a miniature counter-example, reminding us of the fundamental importance of carefully calibrated calculations and assessments even at the level of individual townships in ‘traditional’ Gaelic society.

Image: Griminis, Scolpaig, Cille Pheadair: detail of Sheet 22, Sollas, of OS 'Popular' edition, 1932 [NLS map site].

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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). [©]