On the Lewis-Harris Boundary

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From West Over Sea (1953) by DDC Pochin Mould.

Near the sheep fank on the flank of Benisval there is, so they tell me, a stone commemorating the visit of Lord Campbell, Lord Chief Justice in the 1850s. When I splashed through the Kinloch Resort river, I crossed from Harris into Lewis, and it was Lord Campbell’s boundary that I went over.

There was a long dispute concerning the boundary line between Harris and Lewis in this part of the country. Along Loch Seaforth there was no dispute, but here, in the featureless moors, the problem was more difficult.

It all began long ago, when a Macleod of Lewis married Kintail’s daughter. After a year, he grew tired of her and sent her away, and took a Macleod of Harris’ daughter to wife. For her dowry she brought a strip of land upon the borders of Harris in the Kinloch Resort district.

As time went by, this piece of land became a subject for dispute. People from Valtos in Lewis would go to make ready their shielings for the summer season and come back to find the Harris people had destroyed their work. If the Harris men worked on what they claimed was theirs, the Valtos people destroyed it all again.

Eventually Seaforth took te case to the courts. Much interesting evidence of old methods of marking the boundary between the two districts was cited. One way was to bury charred peats on the march line. Another, also used in England, was that of beating the bounds. A Harris witness told how his father, who had died twenty years previously at the age of 80, had been whipped on the boundary line by Donald Macaulay of Brenish and Donald Campbell of Scalpay, both of whom gave him five shillings afterwards to salve his wounded feelings.

The case dragged on. Seaforth sold the Lewis to Sir James Matheson and it was he, after the case had reached the House of Lords, who got Lord Campbell to the actual ground. Up Benisval went the Lord Chief Justice and from the top determined on the boundary line, taking the shortest route from the head of Loch Resort up the Kinloch Resort river and across to Aline on Loch Seaforth.

After his visit it was decided to erect a stone to commemorate the event. A very strong Valtos man got the job of carrying the stone over the hills from Uig. For the work he said he would need two days, and drew two days pay for it. Then he heaved the stone on his back and walked rapidly over the hills to Benisval in one day.

I saw a cairn on the flank of Benisval, a little below the top, and made for it [NB 096 185]. From it a line of little cairns and stones set on edge led across the moors and between the lochs. I began to follow them, for they took the direction which I had planned to follow. All the way they lead through the peat, which yielded like butter, and over the rocky knolls. Once or twice I saw a vague footprint in the soft ground, but for the most part it was too wet to take any permanent impression, and there was no trace of a path. The stones led to the postman’s house at Ardbheag – he makes the journey several times a week and brings back, among other things, food supplies ordered by mail from Glasgow. It was the postman who erected the cairns.

Some depositions from the 1805 enquiry are here.  Hebridean Connections gives detail about how those perceived to be on the wrong side of the line were warned off:

‘Throwing off the divot’ was a ritual performed, normally by the forester or sub-forester, as a warning to the occupant of the sheiling to leave and remove his cattle to their own pasture. The forester would take a divot or ‘turf’ from the roof of the sheiling and throw it to the ground. It was done in a non-aggressive fashion and one instance is recorded when the person involved (a Harris man) who … “after having done so, he ate and drank with the Lewis people in the shealling”….

If, after a few years, the common warning was ignored the Chamberlain would sometimes order the sheiling be demolished, the roof timbers broken up and thrown over the boundary. The added threat that the leg of the occupant’s best cow be cut off and attached to a roof timber before it was thrown was normally enough incentive to vacate the premises.  Another common method of dealing with cattle that strayed across the boundary was to cut one ear off before driving it back to its own pasture.