Hens of 1908

The Congested Districts Board took an interest in poultry farming in the crofting parishes and in 1908 a Commission proceeded around Scotland taking evidence from many involved in the trade. On 22 July of that year they were in Uig, interviewing Mr & Mrs Duncan Maclean of Gisla Farm.

The Congested Districts Board was formed in 1897 to ease by means of grants and schemes the poverty identified in the remoter parishes of Scotland. From about 1906 the Board sought to improve the conditions of (and income from) poultry keeping in the the crofting parishes, and introduced distribution centres in target districts. The Uig centre was at Gisla Farm, where Duncan Maclean (brother of Big Bear) and his wife Marion (nee Shaw) were enthusiastic poultry breeders. They were both about 60 when they were visited by the Poultry Breeding in Scotland Commission.

Minutes of Evidence taken by the Poultry Breeding in Scotland Commission, 1909.

Mr Duncan Maclean and Mrs Maclean, visited and examined [on 22 July 1908].  The evidence obtained was as follows:–

252. Mr Maclean is a farmer, and his wife, who is a native of Cambridgeshire, takes a keen interest in poultry. (a) She has had eighteen years’ experience of it. She started by getting two sittings of eggs from the south – white Leghorns and silver Wyandottes – 8 and 7 hatched out of these sittings respectively. The white Leghorns did not do well afterwards, but the silver Wyandottes did splendidly. Next year she got Andalusians and Anconas. These were a lighter breed and did very well until the winter, when it was too bleak for them. She then tried Buff Orpingtons. At present Mrs Maclean has Orpingtons, Wyandottes, brown Leghorns, etc., but she thinks the Orpingtons are the best. (b) She has supplied the neighbouring lodge [Morsgail] with fowls for the table at 1s. 6d. apiece. The crofters’ fowls only fetch 6d. (c) The lodge also buys her eggs at 1s. a dozen, while the remainder are sent to London at an average of about 1s. 4d. per dozen. She gets 1s. 6d. a dozen for a standing order of 6 dozen per week. These are sent to a lady in London, and are rubbed with butter and wrapped up in paper before being dispatched. (d) They are put in special boxes, for which Mrs Maclean pays the carriage to London, and the lady pays the carriage on the return of the empty box. Mrs Maclean keeps boxes containing 6, 10 and 12 dozen, all fitted with cardboard sections, and the eggs are rolled in paper.

(e) Mrs Maclean has this season supplied 100 sittings of eggs to the Congested Districts Board, at 3s. a sitting, for distribution among the crofters in the neighbourhood. They put the result at 80per cent, and in some cases even higher where proper care had been taken. Mr Maclean delivered every sitting himself, and Mrs Maclean packed and sorted them so that each sitting should contain a portion of summer as well as winter layers. These eggs are not pure breeds; they are first crosses — that is what the Congested District Board wanted. (f) Mrs Maclean says she has lots of potatoes, and these are made into a mash mixed wiht meal, oatmeal, and barley meal for the hens. If a sheep dies it is boiled up for them, and she says that she is never without winter eggs. (g) The greatest number of of eggs is got in March and the least in October. The proportion is about 4 to 1. In the months of March, April and May, about 1000 eggs a month are got from a stock of from 40 to 50 hens. (h) Mrs Maclean says that the climate of Lewis is very much windier than Cambridgeshire, but she thinks that with care even more can be made of the poultry in Lewis, because it is much milder although windier than in her native place. (i) Disease rarely occurs among the fowls, and chickens are never lost in this way. The fowls are kept in outhouses, where they are kept scrupulously clean and free from vermin.

(j) Mrs Maclean would very much like to have movable houses as she has plenty of room for them. She would also like to have an incubator. (k) Mrs Maclean puts the net profit per hen per annum at 4s. 6d. but she thinks that if feed stuff could be obtained in larger quantities – which might be done if people joined together for the purpose – a much higher profit could be obtained (l) Mr and Mrs Maclean distribute pure white Orpingtons, Buff Orpingtons, partridge Wyandottes, Jubilee Orpingtons. These are all winter layers and have been distributed to all the people. They have also sent out Anconas, Andalusians and brown Leghorns. This year Mrs Maclean has tried white and black Leghorns. She has also sent out Faverolles and Indian Game. (m) The eggs weigh, as a rule, from to 17 lbs per long hundred in summer, and 17 lbs in winter. Mr and Mrs Maclean buy eggs themselves at 1s. in winter and they pay 8d. a dozen in summer. The market value of brown eggs is higher than white ones.

(n) They have tried ducks but they have no suitable place to keep them in, and they are so dirty that they do not associate well with the hens.

(o) they are of opinion that it would be a great advantage to the crofters to have a central depot for collecting eggs, where they could be graded and set off to market in large quantities and thus realise better to market in large quantities and thus realise better prices. (p) They are also of opinion that the best way for the Government to improve the Lewis poultry would be to institute experimental farms with a good practical man at the head, who could give lectures and demonstrations to the people. Most of the people understand English quite well, and anyone who could not, could have the information interpreted.

We have one egg-shipping box in our collection (picture above), made of card and dating we think from the 1940s, though as Mrs Maclean was sending larger quantities she was presumably using a sturdier wooden box like the one shown here – or perhaps something like this one with wee hammocks, though that seems unlikely given her description of the process.

The Commission took very detailed evidence from communities across Scotland but the only other West Uig visit was to Macdonald and Macleod in Enaclete, on the same day:

Mr Macdonald and Mr Macleod [Enaclete], visited and examined.  The evidence obtained was as follows:–

253. There were 20 chickens out of two settings at each croft; these were well grown and were true to their kind. The majority of them were crosses hatched from the Congested Districts Board eggs supplied by Mrs Maclean of Gisla. The poultry in this district are very much improved.

The last visit of the day took place on the Commissioners’ road back to Stornoway, when they saw Mrs Maciver in Lochganvich, who was not in receipt of Congested District Board sittings and seems to be showing the effects of that.

Mrs H Maciver [Lochganvich], visited and examined.  The evidence obtained was as follows:–

254. Mrs Maciver keeps about 10 hens. They do not pay very well because the price is poor. (a) She gets 6d. a dozen in summer and 1s. in winter. The chickens are hatched about May. She has never received any of the Congested Districts Board’s eggs. (b) The hens are kept in outhouses with a fire at night in the witner. (c) She gets no eggs in winter till after New Year. (d) The fowls are the old-fashioned breeds. They are two or three years old, but she did not know exactly.

Evidence was also taken in other parts of Lewis, including from Kenneth Maclennan, merchant in Stornoway, who was buying between 297 and 1570 hundred eggs a month for export – and he agreed that quality had improved (the eggs being bigger, and less fishy) and that brown eggs attracted a higher price.