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:

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). [©]