Episodes from the islands’ past

By Fred Silver

When Acair, the Stornoway publishers, brought out their book William MacGillivray, A Hebridean Naturalist’s Journal 1817-18, edited by Dr Robert Ralph, in 1996, it was revolutionary. 

Why?  After all, it was already more than 175 years old by then.  Yet it was one of several recently published works to show how, despite the Islands being, as the saying goes, ‘full of history’ so much of it had been forgotten.

Two centuries after the young man who was to become a pioneer ornithologist of great international significance wrote this journal about a year in south Harris, Acair have republished it in a new edition, with an introduction by the newly established writer James Macdonald Lockhart whose own life and work, including the book Raptor, have been inspired by the Hebrides and by William MacGillivray.

James Macdonald Lockhart’s great-grandfather, Seton Gordon, was a renowned ornithologist, who studied and photographed golden eagles in the Highlands. But Raptor flies in another direction – toward William MacGillivray. James Macdonald Lockhart discovered the overlooked ornithological legend during long days of research in Oxford’s Alexander Library of Ornithology.  “There was something about his voice I really warmed to.  I felt kinship with him.”  At the beginning of Raptor, readers encounter MacGillivray in 1819, aged 23, resembling the poet John Clare: complaining he has “no peace of mind” and about to embark on a walk from Aberdeen to London.

Read more: Episodes from the islands’ past

Boat lore and seagoing terms

By Fred Silver

Acair has a whole range of published books with a few copies still available – and one is the extraordinary softback volume `Muir is Tir` by George MacLeod.

Published in 2005, it contains more than 100 pages of Gaelic terms and bilingual descriptive notes along with drawings centred on traditional Lewis-based fishing in the late 19th/early 20th century.

The late George Macleod of Great Bernera, Lewis, brings together nautical terms, weather forecasts, sea and fishing lore and all matters relating to shipping along Island shores which are illustrated with delightfully intricate black-and-white drawings by the author himself. Featuring both Gaelic and English, the book creates a great archive of old Gaelic terms for fishing boats.

The late Rev Donald Macaulay, also of Great Bernera and a one-time convener of the Western Isles council, tells in the introduction how George Macleod came from a fishing family, being born in the 1890s, when fishing from the West Side of Lewis was already passed its height as trawlers were plundering the stocks that even generations of Islands long-line fishermen had failed to undermine.

Even if Gaelic is not your interest, the pages will give insights into the minds of fishermen in those days…for instance, a page of ways to refer to boats from ‘’bata easgaidh” – an active, lively, fast boat - to “Droch bhata” – a bad (or unsafe) boat.
Muir is Tir, George Macleod, £12

Ship wreck exposed on Lewis beach

Recently exposed on Cliff Beach in Uig, Isle of Lewis, are some of the remains of the Esra, a three –masted wooden barque, which was wrecked on November 3, 1898.  Built in 1874 in Norway, the Esra lost her rudder off the Butt of Lewis, and headed down the coast for shelter from a storm, and it is thought she was grounded on purpose at Camas na Clibhe. 

She was on passage from Norway to Belfast with a cargo of timber.  Local man Malcolm Smith swam out with a rope and 10 crew and one passenger were brought ashore - they were housed by families in Uig until they could return to Norway.  The ship’s bell, bible and a couple of other items were gifted to local people and are now lent to Uig museum. The cargo of timber was used in Baille na Cille church and in local houses. The mast was used in the sheep fank at Cliff.

The last time the wreck was so exposed was 1960 when some wood was taken away and carved into ashtrays.

Rare moths, ancient remains…all part of the Uig story

 

By Eric John MacDonald 

Mary Sherwood Campbell - author of the sadly forgotten classic ‘Flora of Uig’ - made her first visit to the Hebrides in the summer of 1939.

She wrote later:“ I had been told that the finest scenery in the Outer Hebrides was in Western Lewis.  Even so, I was surprised by its wild magnificence.  Rocky hills giving an illusion of much greater height than their actual maximum of 1855 feet; coastal cliffs more rugged and precipitous than those of Cornwall or Land’s End; sandy bays fringing a sea of Mediterranean colour flanked by dunes and flower carpeted machair.  Beyond them, tiny villages, some with cottages of the old thatched type interspersed with strips of cultivation and ample peat stacks.  And all around one sees evidence of ancient settlements and long vanished cultures.”

If you stand in the middle of Uig Sands - the Traigh Mhòr - today the scene she so vividly described 70 years ago is barely changed.  The thatched houses are gone but the hills, the flower carpeted machair and the rugged cliffs remain.  Within 15 minutes you can visit an Iron Age fort (Dun Borranish), a couple of Bronze Age cairns, the site of a probable Neolithic chambered tomb and the ruins of an early Christian chapel.  On one side of the bay is the spot where the Viking Age chess pieces were found; on the other the 18th century manse Baile na Cille and its ancient cemetery.  Nearby is all that remains of the old village of Erista, cleared of its inhabitants in the 1840’s.

Read more: Rare moths, ancient remains…all part of the Uig story

How a sack of woollen socks started local business story 


Hebridean Crofter Weavers, now known as D MacGillivray & Co Ltd, or simply “MacGillivrays” came into being as a home-based business at Muir of Aird, Benbecula, in 1941. 

At the time founder Donald MacGillivray regularly visited most of the shops in the Outer Hebrides as a commercial traveller (sales rep).  

In 1941 he arrived home from his rounds with a large canvas sack of hand knitted Harris wool socks. His wife Effie asked what he planned to do with them, “sell them, of course” was the reply.  

A small wooden hut was duly erected against the south end of Donald and Effie’s home and from this point a new company was born, which to this day has grown and diversified to meet the regularly changing market trends. 

Read more: How a sack of woollen socks started local business story