Monday, 24 May 2010

Napier Commission's visit to St Kilda

On August 29th this year, it will be 80 years ago since the people of St Kilda left their native isle, never to return (to live there). They had requested to be removed as life there had become untenable. It is perhaps noteworthy to read the submissions to the Napier Commission, which visited St Kilda in June 1883. The replies by the three people who were called to give evidence have been transcribed into separate postings on the blog. Read the entries first, then return here, I ask.

In order to get an idea of the attitude of the "have's" versus the "have-nots" of the day, I copy a few lines from a submission from the factor for St Kilda, in effect the landowner's manager of the islands. John T. Mackenzie was not a bad man, as he did not pressurise any people if they could not pay the rent. Others in his position  would have their tenants evicted in case of default.
[...] the " land question" to a great extent is in the hands of educated people, who know the danger of breaking the law, and who are responsible for their own actions. The crofter grievance is the " land question " in another form, but in the hands of a class who, fancying they have some hardships, know not what to do, but who are under the guidance and advice of irresponsible and, I am afraid in many cases, of thoughtless leaders, eager to gain notoriety through the simplicity and credulity of their followers

If you feel anger when seeing condescension and arrogance at such a breathtaking degree, stop for a minute and reflect upon the era we're talking about. In the Great Britain of 1883, there was a gaping divide between classes in society. St Kilda people were regarded as "noble savages", who could not look after themselves, and needed the benevolent hand of an educated and munificent landowner to guide their ignorant ways. Looking at this from a 21st century perspective, it is in fact the landowners who contributed in no mean proportion to the plight of their tenants - as the Napier Commission was finding out in 1883. Not all lairds were bad and evil, and neither were all their agents.

I can tell you that I have found the attitude, stated in the blockquote from John T. Mackenzie above, echoed to this day in certain quarters of those studying the social history of the Highlands and Islands. I am still angry at the Scottish First Minister who hailed the achievements of the emigrant Highlanders overseas, without making reference to the fact that many of them were kicked out under the most excruciating circumstances. Achievements that certainly deserve to be acknowledged - but why were they not allowed to make them at home.

I'll get off my high horse now.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Sunday drinking

The Stornoway Golf Club is applying for a license to serve alcohol on and off the premises on Sundays. Hebrides News reports that four objections have been lodged, mainly on religious and social grounds. I actually agree with these arguments, which center on the assertion that providing carry-outs contribute towards anti-social behaviour. The low point of the week in my radio listening is Isles FM on Monday morning, listing all the misdeeds of the weekends, perpetrated mainly under the influence of alcohol between Friday and Sunday.

I wish to make it clear that I am not opposed to the consumption of alcohol as such - I am not averse to a glass of beer, wine or spirits at times myself. However, I feel a degree of double-standards in the issue of the Golf Club license creeping in, hence this post.

Either there is Sunday opening in all licensed premises in Stornoway - or all licensed premises are shut on Sunday. If the Golf Club is denied its license, then all licenses for the serving of alcoholic drink on Sunday should be revoked from all the licensed premises in the town.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Canadian connection

Out of the 1300 Lewismen who lost their lives in the First World War, one in ten served in a Canadian regiment. This proportion applies in fact to the entire contingent of 6,200 Lewismen who served in WW1. I have extracted their names from the Faces from the Lewis War Memorial website and transcribed whatever further information I could glean from Library & Archives Canada. The result is a new tribute site, entitled Lewismen in Canadian service.

A note on the above poster, which is so pertinent in this context. The names given on the Union Jack are in fact battlefields on the Western Front, which claimed many lives. The inference at the time was of course which other famous battlefields would be a source for glory for the Canadians. Ninety-five years on, it reads more like "which other fields of slaughter will be added to the list, how many thousands more will die?" I can understand that the number of volunteers dropped off after 1915 / 1916, and that the military draft was introduced in 1917. Neither am I surprised that I found at least two men who absconded and were subsequently arrested. One disappeared altogether and was written off the strength of the force.

Monday, 3 May 2010

From Brunigil to Stiomrabhagh

I spent the afternoon mapping the villages of Pairc, which were cleared in 1821. Using an old map and modern satellite imagery, I could locate Brunigil, Stromos, Airigh Dhomhnuill Chaim, Rias, Scaladale Beag and Mor, Gilvicphaic, Ceannmore, Bagh Ciarach and Bagh Reimsabhaigh, Bunchorcabhig, Glenclaidh, Smosivig, Caolas an Eilean, Valamus and Valamus Beag, Ceann Chrionaig, Brollum, Hamascro, Mol Truisg, Molhagearraidh, Ailtenish, Buhanish, Gearraidh Righsaidh, Ceann Tigh Shealag, Gearraidh Reastail and Stiomrabhagh.

These foreign sounding names once meant home to small groups of people, scattered on the periphery of an area of mountainous moorland, whose highest peak, Beinn Mor, crests 1,700 feet. You can access the map on this link to find out which village each marker represents. Looking at the linked map, you can switch over to satellite view and zoom right into the marker. It will show a ruined house, homestead or even farmhouse. Kinloch Shell (Ceann Tigh Shealag) used to host an inn where the men from the district would come to drink. The ribbed appearance of the land is an indication of the runrig (or lazybed) system of agriculture. A lazybed is a ridge of ground generally used for growing potatoes and sometimes also for raising corn, the seed being laid on the surface and covered with earth dug out of trenches along both sides.

It is nearly 190 years ago since those villages were cleared, and its occupants packed off elsewhere. Not necessarily overseas, but certainly to elsewhere. To date, the evidence of their toil remains visible, even from as far away as outer space. The Eishken Estate, on which these tiny hamlets lie, is now the domain of the toffs, the shooting and fishing fraternity. In a few years, the hills will be desecrated by 33 wind turbines, each standing a third of the height of Beinn Mor, with attendant electricity transmission infrastructure.

Trying to read up on the history of the district pre-1821 yields practically nothing. It is heavily focused on the trials and tribulations of the Clan Mackenzie and the Earl of Seaforth. Nothing on the people who lived off the land. In a way, a distant echo came back from those days in the year 2005. The fifty folk living on the shores of Loch Seaforth objected to the Eishken Windfarm. But they were drowned out by the roar of big business.

I close with an image by BBC Islandblogger Molinginish showing Reimsabhagh.