Uist and Barra
“As for the emigrants, even now and knowing the hardships and tragedies to which they were exposed, it is not possible to judge where advantage may have lain between an island where one family could lose ten of eleven children in childhood, or in risking all and paying the price”. (Angus MacMillan)
The Uists are the central group of islands in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. North Uist and South Uist are linked by causeways running via Benbecula and Grimsay, and the entire group is sometimes known as the Uists. The Minches and the Uists are a popular destination for the more adventurous or experienced of the yachting fraternity from around the British Isles. From south to north, the inhabited islands in the Uist group are Èirisgeigh (Eriskay), Uibhist a Deas (South Uist), Beinn nam Faoghla (Benbecula), Eilean Fhlodaigh (Flodda), Griomasaigh (Grimsay), Uibhist a Tuath (North Uist), Am Baile Sear (Baleshare) and Beàrnaraigh (Berneray).
Over several centuries, the Uists and especially Benbecula, have been the centre of the alginate industry which harvested seaweed. The king of the seaweeds is kelp which has been put to many uses, including the production of explosives from potash and acetone. Nowadays, alginates are to be found in the production of emulsifiers, toothpaste and icecream.
The Uists have produced many gifted musicians and bards but perhaps pride of place can go to Domhnall Ruadh Choruna of North Uist if only for his most poignant of songs, ‘An Eala Bhan’, written while he lay wounded fearing for his life at the Battle of the Somme:
Gur duilich leam mar tha mi ‘s mo chridhe an sàs aig bròn
Bhon an uair a dh’fhàg mi beanntan àrd a’ cheò,
Gleanntanan a’ mhànrain, nan loch, nam bàgh ‘s nan sròm,
‘S an eala bhàn tha tàmh ann gach là air am bheil mi an tòir.
A Mhagaidh na bi tùrsach, a rùin, ged gheibhinn bàs
Cò am fear am measg an t-sluaigh a mhaireas buan gu bràth?
Chan eil sinn uile ach air chuairt mar dhìthein buaile fàs,
Bheir siantanan na bliadhna sìos ‘s nach tog a’ ghrian an-àird.
While one might quibble with the descriptive accuracy of the Uists’ ‘beanntan ard a’ cheo’ nor do they have any glens there is no denying the beauty and poignancy of sentiment in these words as a whole. They have a particular resonance for me as I often heard them sung while at my father’s knee.
MacDonalds of Uist
The MacDonalds of South Uist and Benbecula are of the house of Clanranald and are a different breed to the MacDonalds ‘of North Uist’ who really belong to Skye, being of the house of Sleat. The most famous of the Uist MacDonalds was Flora MacDonald and a faithful account of her life by Angus Macmillan (ISBN 978-1-905807-15-4), with all proceeds going to the Benbecula Historical Society, can be purchased from this site. Other booklets available from the same author are ‘Clanranald and Benbecula (ISBN 978-1-90587-) and ‘Benbecula Donors in Carmina Gadelica’ (ISBN 978-1-905807-01-13).
From this book, the numerous contradictions to be found in the popular accounts of Flora MacDonald’s life are exposed. She is said to have been born at Milton on South Uist (?), where her father was a tenant farmer (?), and there is a monument to her there today. She completed her schooling in Edinburgh and was visiting her brother in South Uist in 1746 when she was asked to assist Bonnie Prince Charlie, on the run after the defeat of the Jacobite Uprising at the Battle of Culloden. He was to be disguised in a frock as “Betty Burke” an Irish maidservant. She thought the scheme “fantastical” but was persuaded to go ahead, perhaps by the Prince. They sailed from Benbecula on 27 June 1746 to Skye. They hid overnight in a cottage and then travelled, over the next few days, overland to Portree, at one point avoiding some redcoat government troops. When he left to travel to the island of Raasay and a ship to take him back to France, the Prince gave Flora a locket with his portrait, saying “I hope, madam, that we may meet in St James’s yet” but she never saw him again. Flora was arrested and imprisoned in Dunstaffnage Castle and then spent some time in the Tower of London but was released in 1747 under a general amnesty.
Contradictions in popular accounts of the Clanranalds are also exposed in Angus’s booklet on Clanranalds and Benbecula. During the whole of the 15th century MacDonalds of Clanranald had been engaged in feuds regarding the lands of Uist. This was first with Siol Gorraidh (race of Godfrey), eldest brother of Ranald the founder of the tribe, and afterwards with the MacDonalds of Sleat in Skye. It was not till 1506 that the Clanranalds succeeded in acquiring a legal title to the disputed lands when John of Sleat, having no issue, made over all his estates to Clanranald. This may have been a favour in return for the defeat and expulsion by Ranald Bane, eldest son of the chief of Clanranald, of the treacherous and murderous Gilleasbuig Dubh, a natural brother of John, who had endeavoured to seize the lands of John of Sleat. Popular misconceptions about the Clanranalds pervade the internet and elsewhere. Some of these have been exposed by Angus MacMillan and others include:
- Reginald George MacDonald was the 18th chief and he proceeded to squeeze the people of his great estate for higher and higher rents. Whatever he bled from them, he threw around Regency London, swanking in the fashionable world on the back of the Hebridean clansmen who had sworn their support to his family for so long. Their misery was of no interest to him and between 1828 and 1837 he sold them and their lands to the Gordons, the vicious landlords of the Highland Clearances. Clanranald managed to squander his entire fortune and the line died out in 1944. Untrue, probably slanderous, and the line has not died out.
- Colin Macdonald, Laird of Boisdale in South Uist, was an ultra-zealous Protestant and in the year 1770 he undertook the conversion of his tenants en masse. To this end he stationed himself at the fork of the road, and tried to drive them all to the Presbyterian church which he himself attended. We even know the colour of the club he used, for this peculiar style of evangelism was ever afterwards referred to as “Credimh a bhata bhui”,—The Religion of the Yellow Staff. Not succeeding in this effort, he turned his attention to the children, and established schools for them, but the parents, finding that the little ones were likely to be turned from the faith of their fathers, would not permit them to attend. Angry at being thus thwarted, the domineering landlord summoned all the tenants to a meeting, where he placed before them a Gaelic document containing a renunciation of their faith, and a promise to have no further dealings with their priests; which they were asked to sign, with the alternative of being driven from their homes. With one voice the people, of course, refused to sign. The aged Bishop Hay, Vicar Apostolic of the Western Highlands sent an account of the situation to Dr. Challoner, Prelate of London, who sent it to Cardinal Castelli, and on the advice of Dr. Grant, the Scottish agent in Rome, the tenants were advised to emigrate at once to some American colony. But through all the years on their little crofts in this rocky isle they had been able to make only a bare living, and the expense of the long journey seemed to them an insuperable obstacle. At this juncture a deliverer arose who took them to Prince Edward Island—”Fear a-Ghlinne”, The Laird of the Glen. Thought to be a grossly inflated account, possibly propaganda.
Colonel Donald MacDonald of Boisdale, second-in-command of the Gordon Highlanders during the Napoleonic campaign. He was responsible for the recruiting of many of the soldiers from the Western Isles that fought at the battle of Egmont-op-Zee in Holland in 1799. The Gordons were heavily engaged and did well amongst the sand-dunes to force the enemy’s withdrawal. The Gordons were then able to occupy Egmond and Alkmaar but in another battle soon after they were badly mauled. About one-fourth of MacDonald’s recruits from the Islands, whose average age was 23 Highlanders, were lost. True, but what were Islanders doing fighting in a Lowland regiment?
- Captain Donald (“Donell Gorm”) M’Donell, of Benbecula, second and natural son of Ranald MacDonell 17th Clanranald. He was listed as one of the paymasters for the Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Army in 1745-46. Donald “Goran” was not well-liked by the Highlander rank-and-file who styled him “a surly cross dog”, a characteristic which no doubt earned him the nickname given him by the soldiers – Donald “Goran” (Donald the Sinister). Donald later fought in North America against the French and he may have been intentionally wounded or “fragged” by his own men at the Siege of Louisbourg on 21 July 1758. Oral tradition in the Highlands of Cape Breton maintains that it was in the Battle of Sillery in 1760 that “the de’il finally got him”. A stronger body of French overpowered and completely butchered his whole party and he himself was found cut and hack’d to pieces “in a most shocking manner.” This was no doubt in retaliation for Macdonell’s ruthless winter raids against the outlying countryside of Quebec where he kept the Quebecois militiamen and French regulars constantly off balance. Wherever he went he was unpopular with his men but there can be no question about his bravery or his leadership qualities. McDonald, not MacDonnell. Also, for more on Hebridean Quebecois, check out Celeste Ray’s book on Transatlantic Scots.
The constant turbulence which prevailed in the West Highlands and the Hebrides finally ended with the crushing of the second Jacobite Rebellion in1746. In 1688 Roderick MacNeil (38th Chief) had received from King James II a charter of all the lands of Barra and its Isles, which were then erected into the Barony of Barra. However, Roderick refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new king, William of Orange, and took part in the Rebellion in favour of James. In the cruel aftermath of 1746, and in the Clearances which followed, vast numbers of clansfolk emigrated to the New Continent.
In 1838 the Chief lost the Estate of Barra through bad investment, and it was bought by Colonel Gordon of Cluny, whose wife Lady Gordon Cathcart, became owner upon his death in 1878. She planted trees in the north of Barra, why is unclear as trees do not fare well in the maritime climate, but they were soon used by the people for firewood. Considerable bad feeling remains to this day from Lewis to Barra Head towards the Gordons and Cathcarts because of their alleged neglect of the welfare of the islanders. During the mid-years of the 19th century a thriving fishing industry developed in Barra.There were no less than forty fish-curing stations in Castlebay, and during the season there was an influx of hundreds of “gutting girls.” It was said that there were so many fishing boats in the bay that “one could walk dryshod from Barra to Vatersay.” However, the 1940’s saw the end of the last efforts of the last curing station in Barra. In the 60’s, with Government help, people began to buy boats and fish again. The 19th century also saw the construction of the important buildings in Barra, the churches and large houses. In 1938 the Clan MacNeil took possession once again of the estate, and the restoration of the Castle was undertaken.
Barra is well known for its strong musical tradition, which has seemed to travel well, in the form of premier Canadian folksinger, Rita MacNeil, who is proud to declare her Barra heritage and Catherine-Anne MacPhee, once of Eoligarry and now working out of Ottawa.