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.”
A letter from the Rev Alexander Macleod (formerly Established Church minister in Uig, who had taken his congregation to the Free Church in 1843 and left Uig shortly thereafter for Lochalsh) to Lady Hood, his previous patron. See also a letter from 1824.
19th March 1844
My very dear and much respected friend, I had the pleasure of receiving your friendly letter in Nov. I was sorry to hear that you have been since Easter unwell but happy to learn that you have got better. What ever may have […] in connection with circumstances to make me delay writing you earlier you may rest assured that I always am and ever will be the same to you and yours in principle, affection and respect. Having been called here by the unanimous wish of the congregation of the Free Church of South and East and of Lochalsh in […ing] the [….] in Kintail and Glensheil. I thought it my duty to accept of that call and I was settled as pastor over that congregation on the 4th of Jan last.
My problem […] of life and in connection with other circumstances which I yet expect to state to you face to face. I considered it a kind Providence to be relieved from the labourous and difficult in so many respects as the parish of Uig. There was indeed a probability of my remaining with them did the parishioners on the Uig side of Loch Roag agree to have the Free Church at Breasklete according to the proprietor’s wish and also according to mine. But the population on the Uig side would never agree to this. I for several years back got so sick of that ferry that I felt every wish to have the Free Church on the Callanish or Breasklete side of Loch Roag. There is a site for the new church pointed out on the Uig side by Mr Knox since I left the parish but in a place considered inconvenient for the population & I have not as yet heard whether the people accepted of that place or not. A site would no doubt be more convenient for them at Riff or on some part of the farm that Mr Macaulay claimed but I understand that Mr Knox would not venture to give a site then for fear of more annoyance from Macaulay.
Considering all circumstances I do hope that your mind will be much relieved by selling the Lewes and it is a matter of very great consolation to me that you will have a suitable competency all you life and as I [….] will have also at command what may enlarge your property in any other part of the country where you may choose to buy land.
A further entry from the 1851 Diary of John Munro Mackenzie, enumerating his difficulties in getting the emigrants away. They sailed first for Troon, and thence for Quebec. It seems the Marquis of Stafford that took them to Canada was a steamer, unless the reference here refers to another boat that transfered them to Troon first (although when she first arrived in Loch Roag, Mackenzie records being on board the Marquis.)
Tuesday 20 May
Arrived at the Port of Ness at 3am having had rather a disagreeable passage from Loch Roag, there being a heavy swell, which brought on Sea Sickness among the women & children and the appearance in the morning of the decks and fore hold were anything but agreeable.
Landed at Port immediately on arrival and walked about for some tiem before any of the Emigrants appeared — Had considerable difficulty in getting the fishermen to get their boats to put the Emigrants on board the Steamer, but after losing much time & using entreaty & force by turns got the Emigrants will their luggage all in boats, but observed the first boat sent to the Steamer returning with her cargo without getting it on board — On proceeding on board the Steamer found that the Uig people had rebelled against allowing any of the Ness people on board saying that there were quite enough on board — that there being fever and smallpox at Ness they would not allow a man on board at this place — I remonstrated with them but to no effect, and the Ness men having taken fright returned to the Shore.