By long and solid tradition in Uig, the spot where the Uig Chessmen were found in 1831 is held to be the Bealach Ban, a hollow in the dunes in Ardroil. In November of last year, a paper by Dr David Caldwell et al in Mediæval Archaeology proposed that, on the evidence of the Ordnance Survey Place Names book compiled by contractors from local information in the 1850s, the findspot may have been a few miles away at Mealista. Anna Mackinnon, Ardroil, wrote an initial response countering that suggestion and gives more evidence from the Place Names book here. This piece appeared earlier this month in the Uig News; thanks to Anna and the Uig News for the opportunity to republish it. Meanwhile Dr Caldwell will be speaking in Uig about the Chessmen on Thursday 4 March. Further detail will follow.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been delving into the book of place names collected by the very first Ordnance Survey of the 1850s to find out for myself what’s actually there and to work out how much import can be given to the entry that states that the Chessmen were found in Mealista, in the ruins of Taigh nan Cailleachan Dubha. The Place Names book is easily accessible, on microfiche in the Stornoway Library.
I have to say that it’s an example of meticulous paperwork, a colossal amount of painstaking effort must have gone into its compilation but to the 21st century eye, it looks fussy and overdone. It’s handwritten and ruled out in column after column: place name; its correct spelling; any other known variation of the spelling; the location; the English “significance” i.e. translation of the name; the names of the person or persons who were the authorities for the information and of the Ordnance Survey Clerks who wrote it all down and, finally, a column for comments.
We used to be advised as students not to use it as a reliable source as the information was only as good as the knowledge of the informant and also, because its accuracy could have been compromised in translation. There’s a long time since I last looked at it and this time round, I found its main impact, apart from its painstaking “clerkery,” was the sheer volume of place names in the parish of Uig. Going through the pages nearer home, I felt as if I was meeting old friends as place names jumped out at me from the screen, names I used to hear in daily conversation, which are now rarely, if ever, aired.
I was also intrigued by the names of the local informants of the 1850s. I would really like to go back to it and list them all down to see how many can be identified with the help of the census returns. I found my great, great grandfather, Murdo Macleod, Gisla, (Murchadh Ghioslaigh) and his neighbour and brother-in-law, John Macdonald, (Iain Laghach) reeling off names. That pinpoints the collecting of place names to before 1853 and the Gisla clearance, after which all the Laghach family but two ended up in Quebec.
From memory, I was sure that the Chessmen were noted in the pages relating to the Ardroil area although the name Ardroil wasn’t in use in its present form as early as the 1850s. The farm was known initially by variations of Eadar Dha Fhadhail, such as Ederol. The entry about Chessmen is there, under the place name “Bealach Ban.” It reads, “A glen on the south side of Camus Uig, it is composed of sand. A few years back a number of carved Ivory images of horses, sheep and other animals were found in this glen. Signifies white glen or pass.”
The authorities for the information are named as John Mackay, Donald Murray and, from the Ordnance Survey, John Morrison. There was nobody indigenous left in Ardroil to impart the place names, they had all been forcibly removed over ten years before the survey and are to be found, household by household, in census returns in Swainbost in Ness, including the widow and family of Malcolm Macleod, the finder of the Chessmen. I haven’t been able to identify Donald Murray, not a surname ever found much in Uig, although there was a Murray family in Crowlista in 1851, Kenneth, not Donald, Murray from Borve, married to Catherine Macdonald, nighean Mhurchaidh Bhain. The most likely explanation is that Donald Murray may have been a Gaelic teacher, possibly in Crowlista, which had a school long before the 1850s. I can make more of the John Mackay: he could have been Iain Macaoidh, ancestor of the Crowlista Mackays, who would have been in his late seventies at that time. But again, we can’t be sure as the name John Mackay comes up in the Survey, in other villages, as the Ordnance Survey clerk.
Now to Mealista, which I had never looked at before and which I found, via the parish of Lochs, which is interposed with upper Uig in the Microfiche reels, and after skimming through Islivig and Breanish, both with interesting information, given by the easily recognized names of long term residents, John Macaulay, Islivig, Donald Macleod, Breanish and Malcolm Mackay, schoolmaster in Breanish. The two entries I found among the Mealista names with additional information other than the actual place name were very relevant to what I was looking for, Teampull Mhealastadh and Tigh nan Cailleachan Dubha, information for both given by Christopher Macrae and Alan Ross, with OS clerk, John Mackay this time.
The Teampull Mhealastadh entry reads: “On the seashore in Mealastadh village. This is an old graveyard in the village of Mealasta, at present there are only a few interred in it, as the inhabitants have left this village. There has never been a church or any kind of meeting house in or about this place as far as can be ascertained.” This is nothing short of shoddy information with two place names mixed up. Cladh Mhealastadh is the old graveyard on the sea shore, the teampull, chapel, is quite separate and at a distance from it, and, as for ascertaining whether there ever was a church about the place, there is no room for doubt on that score with the Mealista chapel, down to its very length and breadth, recorded in the Report of Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland corroborating the oral tradition of the parish.
Translation has weakened the strength of the original Gaelic, “dh’fhalbh na daoine as a’ bhaile,” to the bland English, “the inhabitants have left this village.” Leave it they had, over ten years before, under duress, so that when the Ordnance Survey came round, there were only strangers there. Christopher Macrae came from Kintail, and he had lived in Harris as recently as 1846, we know from census information that he had come to Mealista in 1848 , to the farm which was then a part of the large sheep farm of Hushinish. As for Alan Ross, his is a very well-known name in Lewis history. He was from Lochs, a Gaelic teacher, catechist and later Inspector of Poor for the parish of Lochs, with his home in Keose. He’s not listed as working with the Survey, nor was he the teacher in Breanish, so we can only speculate on what he was doing in Mealista at the time. We’ll never know but we can be sure that neither informant had much local knowledge, other than hearsay. Mealista “exiles” living down the road in Breanish would surely have known more but none of them were informants and then again, we have to remember that the OS were collecting place names, not recording history, although it would have been more useful to us now if some of the effort and space taken up by their elaborate columns had been used to do so.
The entry for Tigh nan Cailleachan Dubha from the same source reads: “A nunnery which was occupied by the order of the Black Nuns, and concerning which no information can be obtained, beyond a number of chessmen having been found in its ruins about 70 years ago which were in good preservation. They were sold to a society of antiquaries in Edinburgh and brought a good price. Nothing remains of it but the site.” Don’t both Mealista entries, with their insistence on no further information, have a casual “don’t bother us” air about them? The Bealach Ban entry, although inaccurate in the detail, clearly ties the find spot of the Chessmen to the obscure hollow in Ardroil machair and also, what dyed in the wool Uigeach, either in 1850 or nowadays, would leave sheep out of things?
The evidence for Mealista, in this Mealista v. Ardroil case, is the Place Name book entries and Captain Ryrie’s remark, both from strangers to Uig, who can have had only brief contact here. On the other hand, there’s contemporary evidence for the Bealach Ban: the minister in the vicinity at the actual time of the find, writing his report for the Statistical Account within four years; Donald Morrison, An Cubair Ban, from the Loch Resort area and living in Stornoway, who died in the 1840s and who produced the first written account of the oral tradition of Uig; the known facts concerning Malcolm Macleod, the finder; plus the rich oral Gaelic tradition handed down to us over generations. Doesn’t the case for Mealista close itself with that essentially Scottish verdict: Not Proven.
As for the Place Name book, my verdict on that is the same finishing as it was at the start: it’s not a reliable source for local history, but is a valuable treasury of Gaelic place names. What looking through it has done, is to leave me with a re-awakened sense of the devastating impact clearance had on Uig. These two fertile villages, with their evidence of early civilisation, and many more, were emptied of their people and left with no one but strangers to speak for them.