On 4 June 1883 the Napier Commission, chaired by Lord Napier, was in Miavaig to take evidence from crofters and others on issues surround land management and tenancy. Among those interviewed was Norman Morrison, crofter and fisherman at Brenish, aged 61, who stated he had two milk cows, three young beasts, between fifteen and twenty sheep, and no horse, on a croft which he shared with his brother, who kept similar stock. The following is slightly abridged.
Have you been fairly elected a delgate by the people of Brenish? Yes
How many people were present when you were elected? All the male population of the town.
Have you any statement to make on behalf of the people? I would say, in the first place, that they are crowded so much together that they have no way of living. Our places were crowded first when the neighbouring township of Mealista was cleared [in 1838]. Six families of that township were thrown in among us; the rest were hounded away to Australia and America, and I think I hear the cry of the children till this day. There were others came from various townships since at different times as these were being cleared, and I instance various examples – one from one place and one from another – and not one was placed in among us in that way, but accommodation was provided for him by subdividing the lots that were in the place. We were deprived of the old rights of the township moorland pasture. The half of the island of Mealista belong in the time of my grandfather to our township and a neighbouring township – we were deprived of that. We got no abatement of rent when we were deprived of that but when Cameron lotted out the township the rent was increased by £30.
As you are sixty-one years of age, can you perhaps remember how many families there were in Brenish before the township was cleared and the people taken to Brenish? Between twelve and sixteen.
How many are there now? Forty-three.
How many of those are crofters paying rent to the proprietor? There are twenty-nine names on the rent roll.
And the rest are cottars? There are some of them who pay from 5s to 10s.
Then the number of the families has increased from sixteen to forty-three. How many of that number do you think have come in from the outside and how many are the natural increase of the place? Seven came from the outside. We also consider we have a grievance with respect to the herd of the march. It is fourteen years since a herd was set apart for ourselves and the neighbouring tacksman, and we are quite willing to pay the half of the wages of that shepherd, but we have always had the idea that the neighbouring tacksman marching with us ought to pay the other half. We are also complaining about the dyke that was build about thirty-four years ago. It was built in the time of the destitution, and the people were paid for the building of it by so much Indian meal. Four shillings or five shillings additional rent was placed upone every one that was on the rent roll at that date for this dyke, and we were under the impression that when the expense of putting up the fence was paid this 4s or 5s would be taken away.
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This article was written by Elly Welch and first appeared in Events. Thanks to Elly for permission to reprint and for the photo of John Macaulay with the Rose. More pictures of the boat (before and during) can be found in the gallery.
Wandering along Valtos harbour a year ago you would hardly have noticed an old relic called Rose. Engulfed in undergrowth, all sun-bleached larch and broken thwarts, she was just another old boat rotting on the shore.
Walk there today and it is a different story. Thanks to Comann Eachdraidh Uig – Uig Historical Society – the pretty ‘double-ender’, one of the few surviving original Western Isles boats, has been restored to something of her former glory. She is unlikely to ply Loch Roag’s tides again but, for now at least, she will be preserved in situ, for posterity.
Rose, a rare example of the dipping lug open-boats once common locally, was built in Uig around ninety years ago. She was gifted to the Comann Eachdraidh last year by Valtos residents who had inherited her, but had no use for her. Previously, she was owned by consortium of local crofters and used for general inshore duties, from shifting sheep to fetching peats and seaweed. Modern boats finally made her redundant around twenty years ago. Since then she has lain where she was last dragged ashore, next to the tumbled walls of an old salthouse and herring store.
This account of the gathering of the sheep into the Gisla fank for the clipping was written by David Henderson and first published in the Scots Magazine in August 1995. These large-scale community gatherings are now, sadly, a thing of the past. There are more pictures in the gallery, and of the fank at Loch Suainebhat here.
In the diffuse crofting culture of the Western Isles, the summer gathering of the sheep from the moors is one of the main highlights of community life. The practice has remained virtually unchanged since the arrival of the sheep in Lewis, and is a ritual I, as an incomer on holiday from Musselburgh, was priviledged to take part in. The gathering made the highlight of my stay.
My uncle Jim and I woke at dawn. The weather looked poor – drizzle and mist hid the view of Loch Roag from the kitchen window. I was sure the gathering would be put off – wet weather meant damp fleeces, difficult clipping and hours of drying for the Blackface wool we were to harvest.
Donald Calum Morrison, our crofting friend from Valtos, arrived at 7am as planned, refusing tea and looking skyward. “It looks awfully dull,” he said, “but no one’s phoned me so the gathering’s still on.”
Soon I was huddled in the back of Donald Calum’s austere van, sharing floorspace with an excited sheepdog who seemed to know what was in store. We rattled and bounced down the single track road, through Miavaig and on to the road south, pulling into passing places from time to time for a competing car, Donald Calum waving to them with the easy grace of one used to the island etiquette. Then we reached Gisla for the start of the walk into Morsgail Forest, a barren moor between Lewis and Harris where the Valtos crofters’ sheep roam their common grazings.
More than a dozen cars were gathered there. A brief discussion took place in the rain. All the crofters were annoyed that the weather had closed in – during the fortnight before, it had been “just like the Sahara,” as one local put it. There were pensive faces, shaking heads, pursed ips and whistling through teeth. “If it doesn’t dry up soon, the wool will be soaked,” said one man.
This unidentified sailor with the Naval Division is believed to be one of those interned in Holland in 1914. The picture was taken at Groningen, and comes to us from 10 Mangersta. Is he one of the Uigeachs listed below who spent the war in “HMS Timbertown”? The following was written by Dave Roberts for Uig News; more information about the 106 known internees from Lewis, and the conditions they experienced, are found at Guido Blokland’s comprehensive website.
On 5 August 1914 the postman delivered buff-coloured envelopes to all the reservists. War had been declared. There was no reluctance to answer the mobilisation call, and those on the Island made their way immediately to Stornoway, thence to Kyle of Lochalsh, and eventually to one of the Channel ports. The most pressing military need at the time was for infantrymen, not for ships’ crews, so the Naval Reservists found themselves issued with a rifle and ten rounds of ammunition. Their training had been as crew for warships, and the handling of big naval guns, not as infantrymen! But on 5 October they were transported to Antwerp in Belgium, via Dunkirk, to attempt to defend the strategic port from the advance of the Kaiser’s Army. The defences were built in the nineteenth century and were no match for the heavy artillery or the devastating fire from the ‘Big Bertha’ mortars. The ill-equipped and inadequately trained Naval Brigades had no chance and held out for less than three days.
They were facing overwhelming odds, and despite orders that they were to defend this strategic deepwater port at all costs, it was obvious that a retreat was necessary. There were also specific orders that on no account should the Naval Division be caught in Antwerp. Eventually the orders came to fall back, and two of the Brigades did so, but for some hours the third remained ignorant of the withdrawal. 3,500 men reached the Burght, crossed the River Scheldt by pontoon bridge and marched to St Niklaas, where they boarded trains and escaped. The other 1,500 men of the First Brigade, consisting of Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood Battalions, finally got their evacuation orders but when they arrived at the river the bridge was no longer in place. Fortunately there were some small boats available for ferrying them across, but valuable time had been lost. They arrived exhausted at St Niklass early on the morning of 9 October.
All the transport had departed and they were forced to continue on foot to St Gillis-Waas. There they discovered that the railway had been blown up, and they were almost completely surrounded by enemy troops. In fact some of the Naval Brigade had already been captured, including John Maclean Ungeshader (Shonnie Gorabhaig), John Buchanan Brenish, John and Angus Maciver Crowlista, and Donald Mackay Valtos. Only three of the Uigeachs who were sent to Antwerp managed to escape that day: they were Kenneth Maciver Geshader, Donald Macritchie Aird and Angus Mackay Valtos. The rest were now facing capture, being wounded or even being killed by the fierce bombardment they were suffering. Commodore Henderson was in charge and the lives of his men depended on him making the right decision. Reluctantly he chose the safest option: rather than become prisoners of war, they would cross the border. Once they were on Dutch soil, and had surrendered their weapons to the Dutch Army, they became internees in the neutral country of Holland.
The Uig contingent were: Malcolm and Murdo Buchanan (cousins) Brenish; Angus Morrison Islivig; Angus Macdonald Geshader; Donald Morrison, John William Macleod, Angus Macaulay, and James Morrison Valtos; Donald Maclennan Cliff; Kenneth Nicolson Crowlista and Norman Macritchie Aird. Out of the twenty Uigeachs who were sent to Antwerp only Kenneth Maciver Geshader, Donald Macritchie Aird, and Angus Mackay Valtos avoided capture or internment.
An article by Mary Beith, first published in the Scotsman in July 1990. Thanks to Mary for the opportunity to republish it.
A group of architects and others at Manchester University who had been devoting a great deal of time and thought to devising the environmentally ideal house of the future were understandably well pleased with the outcome of their researches.
That home would be long, narrow and rectangular, easy to span – thus cutting down on timber – highly insulated and with minimal windows; it would be a single volume house, not a series of separate rooms to ceiling level but divided by two-metre high partitions where the air could circulate freely above; and there would be a centralised heating source.
When one of the group contacted Bruce Walker, a lecture in architecture at the Duncan of Jordanston College and Dundee University, now on secondment to Historic Buildings and Monuments, the latter listened with not a little quiet amusement to the list of specifications for the ultimate in green homes.
“What you have just described,” he told his informant, “is a Western Isles black house – without the peat smoke.”
They have tremendous advantages, says Dr Walker: “Especially in that they were so much easier to heat with 100 per cent energy efficiency from the central fire which could generate the equivalent of 7 kilowatts. Later island houses had gable hearths with only 18 to 20 per cent efficiency with the bulk of the heat going out the chimney and even a modern stove is only 65 per cent efficient.”
Careful experiments with plastic models, incense and lightbulbs have proved not only the energy conservation qualities of the blackhouses but also the ingenious methods of their builders. That very peat smoke had its uses and there were ways of avoiding its disadvantages. The uneven-looking roofs and somewhat ill-fitting doors were not, Dr Walker had found, the results of haphazard and shoddy workmanship but a clever way of setting up convection currents caused by the heat given off by the cattle in the integral byre.
An further extract from the unpublished memoirs of Rev Col AJ Mackenzie, born Kinlochresort in 1887. Here he tells of how the family came to be at Kinlochresort, and also how they left it for the gamekeeper’s house at Uig Lodge. His account of the pleasures of Traigh Uig is here.
My father was a gamekeeper who worked on the Gruinard Estate (Wester Ross). It happened he had made the acquaintance of two brothers named Paget who were impressed with his qualities both as a keeper and an all round estate worker. They had taken the fishing and shooting of Barvas, in the Island of Lewis. Dissatisfied with the amount of sport they obtained and knowing that it was capable of much better showing, they asked my father if he would consider coming to Barvas with a view to trying to improve its fishing and shooting. It did not take long to make the necessary arrangements and one day the little family with all their worldy goods and chattels embarked on the good ship Ondine for Stornoway. In due course they found themselves at Barvas and settled in a modest thatched cottage there being no lodge or keeper’s house available. For five years they lived there. It was here the life long friendship began with James Young who leased the bag net fishing rights in several parts of Lewis including Kinresort.
The Pagets ultimately severed their connection with Barvas but the Lewis Estate retained my father’s services and offered him the position of keeper at Kinresort where there was a house that would more adequately meet the needs of the increasing family. The house, unfortunately, would not be available for a year. In the meantime there was the problem of where to live. This was solved by their old friend James Young who offered them accommodation in a house which he owned in Carloway in connection with his salmon fishing. Taking a few necessary pieces of furniture with them and storing the remainder in one of Young’s store house at Barvas, they proceeded to Carloway where they resided a whole year before they finally settled in at Kinresort. It was during this stay at Carloway, that the disastrous fire occurred in the store house at Barvas in which all their furniture was destroyed. The friendship with James Young continued at Kinresort.
The Education Act of 1872 was now in force and large well equipped schools with highly qualified teachers were available in many districts. One of these was in the vicinity of the extensive fishing and shooting of Uig. The head keeper here had no family and when my father suggested to him that they should together approach the Lewis Estate with a view to exchanging spheres, he readily agreed. The proposal was put to the chief authority who was known by the imposing title of the Chamberlain of the Lews.