Thursday, November 15, 2012

Death and Disease on Islay, 1891

Scotland's Places includes a copy of the 1891 Medical Officer of Health report for Argyll: 'From 1890 onwards a full-time Medical Officer of Health was appointed in each county in Scotland with a remit to report on the state of health of the county and its various parishes and towns. The annual reports of the Medical Officers give an objective view of the living conditions, diseases and major health issues in different parts of Scotland'.

The Medical Officer of Health for Argyll in this time was Roger McNeil (M'Neill)l, who was based in Oban. His report identifies some of the causes of ill health, as well as providing data on the prevalence of particular diseases. McNeill records that nine houses on Islay were 'Reported or Certified as Injurious to Health, under the Housing of the Working Classes Act'. Houses so reported were typically 'old, thatched houses, dilapidated and out of repair, with leaky roofs, unplastered damp walls, damp mud floors, and in want of proper draingage and ventilation. In many cases cattle and fowls were kept in the dwelling houses; in a few cases pigs'.

He calls for better health facilities on Islay, recommending that 'the Poorhouses in Tobermory, Lochgilphead, and Islay' be 'converted into isolation hospitals' (eventually this came to pass, the current hospital on Islay is on the site of the old Poorhouse in Bowmore).  The hospital facilities in 1891 were very basic:  'Near Bowmore, in Islay, there is another cottage, consisting of a kitchen, nurses room and two rooms for patients... The wards here also are not sufficiently far apart for the isolation of two infectious diseases at the same time. It is not well situated, being closed to the public road; it has no water supply; there is no disinfecting chamber; nor an ambulance for the conveyance of patients to it'.

The 1891 Census recorded that the population of Islay was 8514. In that year there were 162 registered births, and 148 deaths. 19 of the deaths were in children under the age of one year - an infant mortality rate of more than one in nine. There was a severe outbreak of Whooping Cough in April 1891, with 100 cases in Islay in that month, though this doesn't appear to have causes any deaths. 8 deaths were attributed to 'drowning' or 'violence' - Islay was clearly something of a dangerous place...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Tales and Travels of a School Inspector

The 1872 Education Act created a system of state-funded schools in Scotland overseen by local School Boards. Long before Ofsted, school inspectors were sent around the country to check that schools were doing their job properly and that therefore that they were entitled to continue to receive funding . John Wilson, who was born in Dufftown in Banffshire and had been a headteacher in Morayshire, joined the inspectorate in 1882 and continued as an inspector until the 1920s, with his patch covering parts of the Highlands and many of the Islands - including Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Lewis and Orkney, among others. Shortly after his retirement he wrote 'Tales and Travels of a School Inspector' looking back on his long career (republished by Acair in 1998).

His account provides lots of interesting details of the social history of that period. He describes the poverty, including a visit to Lewis where 'children were vomiting water' during an examination as a result of being desperately hungry and gorging on water to try and fill themselves up. He mentions religious controversies, including Free Church ministers in some areas attempting to ban the teaching of singing in schools. And he remarks sadly on the decline of Gaelic - a fact partly explained by the fact that most teaching was in English.

Some children lived too far away to attend school, and the inspector was also required to check that they were being taught properly at home. He describes an occasion on Jura where 'A girl twelve years of age, daughter of a gamekeeper, who lived fully twelve miles from the nearest school' was late to meet him for examination as a result of stormy weather. So as not to miss the boat back to Islay, the inspector put the girl through her maths and other tests in a farmer's cart on the way to the ferry

Travelling around the islands in all seasons was not without its risks and he describes a hair raising journey in a storm from Colonsay to Port Askaig, where on finally getting off his boat at 2:30 am he was harangued by a parent complaining about his child's school!

In a chapter on hospitality he mentiond 'staying for a few nights in Bridgend Hotel in Islay' one winter, where 'The wife of the proprietor of Dunlossit in the north end of the island was entertaining a number of the leading natives'.  Seeing that Wilson was all alone, the inspector was invited to join the party as a result of which he 'spent a most enjoyable evening'.

Also in relation to Islay he talks of the 'exquisite crosses at Kildalton in Islay' and says that  'I never visited the small school of Kintour in this neighbourhood without having another look at it and other crosses within two hundred yards of the public road'.

Wilson was in Islay during the First World War, and recalls one of its great tragedies: 'When I think of Islay I see Port Ellen, where I had occasion to be during the Great War when the Tuscania, with thousands of American soldiers, had just been torpedoed by a German submarine off the south coast with terrible consequences. Two rafts of curious construction lay stranded on the sandy beach in front of the hotel. A series of loops of rope with small globular wooden floats was attached to each side. A soldier clutching one of these could keep himself afloat till rescued/ The bodies washed ashore were collected and buried in a fenced piece of grassy sward about a mile to the west of the village' (this burial ground was at Kilnaughton - see previous post on Tuscania burials).

Portnahaven School in 1915 with teacher Jean Currie on left -
Wilson would almost certainly have visited this school during this period
(photo from Betsy West's Photo Gallery)

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Islay Poorhouse

The Islay Combination Poorhouse was in Bowmore - the 'Combination' referred to the fact that the local Poor Law Board, charged with providing for the destitute, combined the three Islay parishes plus Jura when it was established in 1844. In 1864 the Poor Law magazine for Scotland  noted the approval of 'amended plans for the Islay Combination poorhouse', and the Poorhouse opened the following year.

Peter Higginbotham's The Workhouse site has some further information about it, and notes that 'After 1930, the site became known as Gortanvogie House Poor Law Institution which accommodated 60 immates, including the provision of 10 medical beds'.  Like many old workhouses it ended up being used as a hospital. The old buildings seem to have been demolished in the 1960s, to make way for the new Islay Hospital buildings. The old name is remembered in the Hospital's address - Gortan Vogie road.

Who ended up in the poorhouse?

The 1901 Census provides some details, listing as it does the inhabitants of 'Poorhouse Lane' in Bowmore. The Governor of Poorhouse at the time was Murdoch MacLeod, a  51 year old man orginally from Rosshire. His wife Joan (aged 47) was the Matron and their 11-year-old daughter Ellen was living with them. Islay-born Maggie Johnston (28) and Ann Campbell (aged 25) were also working there as domestic servants.

Amongst the inmates there were a number of elderly paupers - Duncan McPhee (78, born in Kildalton), Hugh Currie (84, b.Kilarrow). Betsy Mclean (80, b.Kilchoman), Christina Mcindeor (80, b.Kilchoman),  Euphemia Johnston (80, b.Kilarrow). The latter was there too in 1891, listed as a former domestic servant.

There were also child paupers, including John McDongall (11, Kilchoman), Charlotte Cameron (13, b.Paisley), Maggie Cameron (9, b.Kilchoman), Neil Cameron (6, b.Kildalton). I guess the last three may have been siblings, perhaps orphans.

Other inmates included Donald Graham (48, b. Kilchoman), Donald Mcarthur (55, b. Kildalton), Maggie McIntyre (19, Kilchoman), Isabella Mcintyre (60, Kilarrow), Ann Kean (53, Kilarrow), Jane McGillvray (36, Glasgow) and Ann Ramsay (61, b. Kilmeny).  30 years earlier, in 1871, Ann Ramsay was living in New Street, Port Ellen (later renamed Lennox Street),  with her parents Donald and Mary and occupation described as Weaver's daughter.

So almost all the inmates in 1901 were Islay born, and had fallen on hard times. This was a time before the benefits system and state pensions. An old person no longer able to work, no savings to live off and no family to support them was effectively destitute. Perhaps some of these old people had no relatives able to help, maybe in some cases staying behind when others emigrated. In the case of the younger inmates we can only guess at what personal hardships and tragedies might lie behind their coming to the poorhouse.

(see also the 1881 Census records - at that time there were 11 inmates aged from 13 to 80, all five women were former domestic servants, the men included a shoe maker, a ship carpenter and a former farmer. The governor then was Archibald McIntyre)

Monday, September 24, 2012

1930s Islay Adverts

The following images are reproduced from the 1936 'Guide to Islay' published by Archibald Sinclair, Celtic Press, Glasgow. The author was L.MacNeill Weir, MP for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire. The book had been revised from a 1924 edition of the guide 'Under the guidance of Dr. A. N. Currie', with new photographs as well as other new and revised content. 

Lauchlin MacNeill Weir (1877-1939) was a Labour MP from 1922 to 1939, with a gap from 1931 to 1935. According to a 1939 obituary he was 'the son of the late Mr Robert Weir of Port Ellen'. Trained as a teacher, he was the first Labour candidate to stand for Argyll in 1919, though he was unsuccessful. 'During his life Mr Weir delighted to visit Islay. He was for long a member of the Glasgow-Islay Association, serving for a time as one of its directors. In 1931 he presided at the annual gathering of the association. He rendered useful service to Islay with his pen in a well-informed guide book, extolling the beauties of the island and inaugurating what was a form of "Come to Islay" movement'. His funeral took place in Port Ellen (Glasgow Herald, 19 August 1939).

I will try and find out some more about Weir, and will return to this book again. But for now here are some of the adverts, which in themselves tell us about life on Islay in the 1930s.

Two hotels in Port Ellen - Quintin's Hotel ('Commercial Gentlemen and Tourists will find every comfort and attention') and The Commercial Temperance Hotel in Port Ellen. I believe that in the same period there was a Temperance Hotel in Port Charlotte (now Temperance House), and the Lochside Hotel in Bowmore was also once a Temperance hotel (no whisky bar in those day):

More Bowmore Hotels - the Seaview Hotel ('Car meets steamer on request... Walter Weir, Proprietor') and the Imperial Hotel ('Mrs Cameron, Proprietrix'). The latter is now the Harbour Inn. Also an advert for James R. & M. Anderson - 'Bakers, Butchers and General Merchants'.
Archibald Cameron, Douglas House, Bowmore - 'Stationer, Printer, Confectioner, Tobacconist':

Bridged Hotel ('long famous for its home comforts'); Malcolm M'Arthur ('car hirer, engineer and haulage contractor') of Bridgend; John A. Bell, Ballygrant butcher:

Alexander Currie & Sons 'established 1850', 'Bread, biscuit and pastry bakers' of Bowmore and Port Ellen:

Machrie Hotel and The Islay Wool Mills near Bridgend (J.T. Christie and sons) - the latter was established in 1863 and is still going strong (see current website)
Also a couple of photographs from the same book - Kilnaughton Bay, photo by Robert MacDonald, Port Charlotte.

Geisgeir Sands, Port Ellen - photo by Archibald Cameron, Bowmore. Not sure how common that name is for that bit of shore by Port Ellen distillery, but Islay Blog has previously featured a 1929 postcard with that name.I know that Geisgeir Golf Club was the name of the golf club in Port Ellen shortly before the First World War and that there is also a Geisgeir on Tiree - sounds like a Norse name, but no idea what it means.

Monday, September 17, 2012

RAF Kilchiaran - a Cold War relic

Subterranea Brittanica is a society of enthusiasts for underground places who like nothing better than to find some forgotten railway tunnel, mine or bunker to poke around in. On Islay a few years ago they investigated the remains of RAF Kilchiaran, a relic of the Cold War with most of its buildings located up on Creag Goirtean Na Feannaige,  north of Kilchiaran Farm.

A Chain Home Low Radar Station was first built there in 1941, but was closed at the end of the Second World War. In the mid-1950s new buildings were added and the site was put back into operation as part of the ROTOR programme, a network of radar stations designed to detect Russian planes. It quickly became obsolete and was closed down in 1958, though  BT microwave equipment has been based on the site more recently. The buildings were bricked up by the RAF when they abandoned it, but he Sub. Brit. crew gained access and took some photos of what remained.

Lots more information and photographs of this site at Subterranea Britannica (photos above by Nick Catford sourced from that site).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Kilchiaran Cup Stone

Outside the walls of the ruined chapel at Kilchiaran there is an intriguing stone lying in the ground. It is a fine example of what is known as a cup-marked stone, with a number of circular carvings on its surface. Examples of similar stone carvings are found elsewhere in Scotland, Ireland and northern England, and indeed further afield. Archaelogists find it difficult to even assess how old they are, but most agree they date back to the neolithic period (between 4000 and 6000 years ago).

photo by Neil Gordon-Orr, July 2012
According to RCAHMS: 'A cup marked and perforated slab lies in rough grass 20yds WSW of St Ciaron's Chapel (NR26SW 6) and 20yds N of the road. The slab is of schist 6ft by 3ft with a thickness of 6ins exposed, the rest being buried. Graham noted 22 cups in 1895 but only 18 are now visible, 6 1/2 ins in maximum diameter and 4 ins deep, clearly man-made but some having vertical sides. Two cups have penetrated the slab completely. The local tradition is that church-goers turned a pestel in any cup-mark and wished. The constant turning wore the cups, in some cases right through the stone'. There is a stone in one of the holes to this day, as shown in the picture I took this summer.

Robert C. Graham noted the stone in his 1895 work 'The Carved Stones of Islay': 'There are indications of various ancient buildings near the chapel, and to the west of it there is a curious cupped stone, of which a sketch is given. The holes vary in depth; two, which are shaded, pierce the whole thickness of the stone'. Graham included a sketch of the carvings, not all of which are still clearly visible:

Clearly the stone has been there for many centuries longer than the 14th century chapel, and indeed may have predated the birth of Christianity by a couple of thousand years. That suggests that the Kilchiaran site may have been regarded as special for a very long period of time.

What the carvings represent, if anything, we can probably never know. Were they a way of recording information about the stars or the seasons, or were they just a pattern people made because they liked doing it? 

The folklore suggests that people used stones and similar places for their own purposes long after the intentions of those who made them had vanished into the ancient past. In the case of Kilchiaran it is possible that the original carvings were made thousands of years ago but in more recent times they have been further worn by people turning stones in them and making wishes. 

The folklore was described in an article by Ronald W. B. Morris in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 100 (1967-1968) in his article "The Cup-and-Ring marks and similar sculptures of Scotland: a survey of the Southern Counties Part II." He wrote that at Kilchiaran the 'Cups [were] said to have been enlarged by former 'wishing' rite', and also noted similar customs at Kilchoman: 'At foot of Celtic cross 20yds east of church in cemetery. On slate slab (3ft square 0.25 ft high, forming base of cross) 4 basins up to 7 inch diam. 6inch deep - still used in 'wishing ' or 'fertility' rite by turning a pestle 3 revolutions with the sun and leaving a coin. Full of pennies on 1968 visit'; and also at Kildalton: 'On the flagstone base of the Kildalton Cross 7yds. north of chapel. On flagstones NE corner was a cup mark, similar in size and traditional use to that at Kilchoman - broken off and stolen c.1920'.

Across Scotland and Ireland all kinds of folklore and legends have become attached to cup and ring stones, as Kevin L. Callahan shows in his survery  Ethnographic Analogy and the Folklore of Cup and Ring Rock Art (2000)

More photos of the  Kilchiaran stone at the Modern Antiquarian.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ceann Traigh Ghruinneart

On BBC Alba's Horo Gheallaidh last week I caught this song by Gaelic song quartert Cruinn. Even with my limited Gaelic I thought hey that's a song about Islay! And indeed it is.

'Ceann Traigh Ghruinneart' is a lament for Sir Lachlan MacLean of Duart, who along with hundreds of others was killed in the battle of Gruinart Strand on Islay in 1598. The battle was between Clan Donald and Clan McLean. According to legend, Lachlan was killed by an arrow fired by a dwarf known as Dubh Sith (Black Fairy).

Some of the lyrics of this old pibroch song were recorded by folklorist Calum Iain Maclean  from John MacCormick of Gruinart in Islay in 1953, a full version was later recorded in North Uist in 1976 (see Tobar an Dualchais).

Ceann Traigh Ghruinneart

'S ann aig ceann Tràigh Ghruinneart a dh'fhàg mi'n curaidh
'S ann aig ceann Tràigh Ghruinneart a dh'fhàg mi
Fear a thairrneadh lann 's a bhuaileadh buillean
Aig ceann Tràigh Ghruinneart a dh'fhàg mi

Clò dubh, clò donn, clò mo chrich
Clò dubh, clò donn, clòthlan
Gura daor a reic mi 'n clòthlan dubh
Gura daor a reic mi 'n clòthlan

It was at the head of Gruineart sands I left the hero
It was at the head of Gruineat sands I left
A man who could draw a sword and strike blows
At the head of Gruineart sands I left him

Black cloth, brown cloth, cloth that destroyed me
Black cloth, brown cloth, little batch of black cloth
Dearly did I sell that little batch of black cloth
Dearly did I sell the little batch of cloth

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Orr of Portnahaven (1864-1941)- Gaelic singer and teacher

Neil Orr was a teacher in Portnahaven in the late 19th century, and a significant figure in the Gaelic song movement.

His parents were John Orr and Ann McDougall, who married in Bowmore on 9.7.1848. They must have moved to the mainland afterwards, because Neil was born in Greenock on 16 November 1864.  However he moved to Islay along with his sister Marion and became the headteacher at Portnahaven school. According to C. Gordon Booth's 'An Islay Notebook', the school was built in 1878 and 'Ten years later the roll was 209 with Neil Orr as head'. The 1896-7 Kilchoman Valuation Roll shows that he was living then at the Public School Dwelling House, Portnahaven. He left the school in 1905, and moved to Edinburgh where he died in 1942.

While at Portnahaven he put a great deal of effort into the Children's Choir, and his contribution was nationally recognised in a songbook entitled 'An lon dubh (The blackbird) : a collection of twenty-eight Gaelic songs, with music, in two-part harmony, intended for use in the schools of the Highlands, but all the songs are suitable for adults' published in around 1905 by J & R Parlane of Paisley, and edited by Malcolm MacFarlane.

The preface states: 'We are indebted to Mr R. D. Jamieson, Glasgow,  for the Harmonies of the greater number of the Songs, and for the use of the remainder to Mr Neil Orr, Schoolmaster,  Portnahaven, Islay, whose Children's Choir have been singing them for several years'.

In 1901, both Orr and the school choir won prizes at the Highland Mod in Glasgow: 'In the Junior Choral Competition the prize fell again to the Rhinns of Islay, and as the competition was exceedingly keen this time, Mr Neil Orr, the indefatigable conductor of the winners, has a right to be proud of his success. The victory was due largely, no doubt, to the perfect pronunciation of the children, who are all native speakers. It was delightful to hear the children prattling the prettiest Gaelic with their peculiar Islay accent, which forms a link beteween the Highlands and Ireland... Mr Neil Orr, who so enthusiastically and admirably trains his Islay choir, was personally successful in several of the solo singing competitions. He deserves congratulations, and, still more, the thanks of the community he interests and influences. We have always contended that the children of our country only want good teaching to bring out this native aptitude for music. Mr Orr proves this to be true, because certainly he has not a large population from which he can pick voices' ('Music at the Highland Mod in Glasgow,  School Music Review, November 1901).

Neil Orr was involved in a local committee collecting details of local place names to inform a national survey of Scottish Place-names. The Report of the Annual Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1894, includes a a report of the Scottish Place-Names committee, 'consisting of Sir C. W. Wilson, FRS (Chairman), Dr J. Burgess (Secretary) and Mr Coutts Trotter'. They seemed to have been informed by local committees across the country, including one on Islay: 'The first lists were for Kilchoman parish, consisting about 970 names, and were undertaken by a local committee, consisting of Rev.J. Barnet, Mr William Campbell, Mr Donald McGilp, Mr John Campbell, Rev. James Macmillan, Mr Neil Orr, Portnahaven; and Mr John Brown'.

Neil Orr also seems to have supported the Land reform movement - 'Neil Orr of Portnahaven' is mentioned in the 1917 book 'Highland Heroes of the Land Reform Movement' by Joseph MacLeod, though I haven't been able to read the book itself (if anybody has access to a copy of that book I would be interested in what it has to say about Orr and indeed any other Islay information). In any event, he would have been well aware of the impact of emigration. I believe his grandfather was Duncan Orr who lived as a farmer at Torra, where Neil's father John was born in 1820. Duncan emigrated to Ontario in Canada, along with other family members.

Update, February 2014:

At the excellent 'Old Islay' group on Facebook, somebody has posted this picture (courtesy of Betsy West) of Neil Orr and the Portnahaven School Choir in 1902. The people in it are listed as:

'The two at the back left: Unknown, Flora Clark; Next Row: Flora MacKinnon, Betsy Anderson, Neil Orr, Conductor & Headmaster, Peggy MacNiven,(Mrs MacGillivray), Barbara Smith, Unknown; Front Row: Bella Ferguson (Mrs Ferguson), Katie MacKay, (Slightly behind front three - Bella Ferguson, Mrs MacIntyre), Margaret Ferguson'.

(This Neil Orr is another namesake of mine, though not a direct ancestor)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

John Murdoch - 'Land and Labour Pioneer'

Sad to hear of the recent death (June 23rd) of Scottish radical historian, James D. Young at the age of 81. Young, who taught history for many years at Stirling University, was the author of books including The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class and a biography of Clydeside socialist John MacLean. It was Young who rediscovered the unpublished manuscript of the autobiography of John Murdoch, the Islay-raised campaigner on behalf of crofters. Here are some excerpts from an article Young wrote in 1969 in the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin (Vol.xix):

John Murdoch: A Land and Labour Pioneer

'In 1925 the unpublished manuscript Autobiography of John Murdoch was deposited in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, by Professor Magnus MacLean. This Autobiography was not entered in the manuscript catalogue, and Scottish historians have been hitherto unaware of its existence. I located it in the Mitchell Library after I had found a scrap of paper in the in the manuscript catalogue referring to a pamphlet by John Murdoch in the small safe.

John Murdoch, who was to play a key role in the Highland land agitations in the 1870s and 1880s, was born on 15 January 1818 at Lynemore, Ardchloch, Nairnshire. He lived to be 86, and his life was filled with many-sided activity, whose significance has not received the attention it deserves...

His father was John Murdoch, and his mother was Mary Macpherson, the daughter of a sea captain: and both families had roots which stretched far back into Scottish history. In 1827 the family moved to the Island of Islay, and John Murdoch lived there until 1838. His ‘agricultural education’ was inaugurated on ‘the little farm which had been selected and conferred on my father’. Moreover, he imbibed the rich folklore, customs and culture of the Highlanders among whom he lived and grew to manhood. In later life he was to become an associate of Michael Davitt, Henry George, Joseph Ashby, Patrick Ford, the editor of the New York Irish World, J. Shaw Maxwell, Keir Hardie, and other land and labour agitators.

Islay in the 1820s and 1830s was geographically remote and culturally alien from industrial society, with its rigid social stratification and class conflict, which had emerged in the Scottish Lowlands and the north of England. Murdoch’s life in Islay was happy, exciting and satisfying: and the social structure and the wholeness of a common culture, shared by all ‘classes’ from the Highland aristocrats down to the small farmers, had a profound influence on his subsequent social and political thought. His experiences there were in the fullness of time, to turn him into a left-wing radical rather than a class-conscious socialist; and his hatred of the squalor and ugliness of industrial society inhibited him from making common cause with the industrial workers before the early 1880s.

In 1838 he went to ‘serve in the shop of Mr William Boyd, a grocer in the High Street, Paisley’. Mr Boyd was ‘an earnest and prominent Radical’. But within six weeks of his arrival in Paisley ‘there was a letter from my father stating that he had been favoured with an appointment for me in the Excise’. He reluctantly decided to accept a job in the Excise service; and he began and completed his training in Edinburgh under ‘an English gentleman who had strong Highland sentiments from his serving some time when a young man in Islay’. Then he worked in Kilsyth, where coal-mining was in its infancy, and in Middletown, Ireland, as an Excise officer. He was already very critical of the drink trade (his only real criticism of Islay was that the island’s prosperity depended on whisky); but he was not above taking the occasional glas of whisky...

In 1845 John Murdoch’s father was killed in a shooting accident, and ‘the factor’ took advantage of the situation to evict his mother and her children from their farm. He was not embittered by this experience. A short time later he returned to ‘a Ride’ in Islay, and he was soon involved with a group of fellow radicals in discussing ‘science, history, poetry, theology and politics’. Before long, however, he was destined for service in Dublin, Shetland and Inverness. While engaged in Dublin as an Excise officer, he was active in an agitation for improvements in the pay and conditions of his fellow officers. In Dublin, too, he contributed articles to such newspapers as the Nation on a wide variety of agricultural topics. He was a practical land improver as well as a political agitator. While working in Inverness in 1873 as an Excise officer, he announced his retirement. Then he became founder and editor of The Highlander.

The Highlander was published in Inverness between 1873 and 1882. It was a very radical paper in which Murdoch ‘advocated the cause of the people, and particularly the right of the Gaelic people to their native soil’. (Glasgow Weekly) Through The Highlander and Murdoch’s personal intervention in disputes between crofters and landlords the way was prepared for the successful speaking tours – and the rise of the Crofters Party – of Henry George and Michael Davitt in the 1880s.

In the 1870s John Murdoch agitated through the columns of the The Highlander for the setting up of a royal commission on the Highlands. In 1883 he gave valuable evidence before the commission, of which Lord Napier was chairman. In 1884 Michael Davitt toured the Scottish coalfields advocating the nationalisation of the land and minerals. John Murdoch simultaneously made his first efforts to win support among the industrial workers for land reform. By this time he was living in the Scottish Lowlands; and there is evidence to suggest that he was still evolving towards the left. When the miners of Lanarkshire founded a Scottish Anti-Royalty and labour League, he tried to get them to affiliate to the Scottish Land Restoration League. In the general election of 1885 he was a parliamentary nominee of the Scottish Land Restoration League; and he stood as a Land and Labour candidate in the Patrick constituency of Glasgow.

During the by-election in Mid-Lanark in April 1888, John Murdoch, who was now seventy years old, campaigned on behalf of Keir Hardie. A few weeks later he took the lead, together with Hardie, in helping to initiate the Scottish Labour Party. This was probably the last major act of his political career, but he toured the southern counties of England with Joseph Ashby in 1891 on behalf of the English Land League. Then he settled down to complete the autobiography he had begun in 1889 and to observe in the Scottish Labour Party the alliance of Scottish land and labour reformers he had striven to create in 1884.

John Murdoch’s political evolution was unusual: in his sixty-sixth year, he moved left, not right. He was an active temperance reformer, a land reformer, a journalist, a champion of the Gaelic language, a collector of Highland folklore, and a foundation member of the Scottish Labour Party'.  
John Murdoch (1818–1903)
Some year's after Young's article, John Murdoch’s autobiography was edited by the historian Dr James Hunter and published in For the People’s Cause, HMSO, Edinburgh, 1986. 

The farm where the Murdoch family lived in the 1830s was Claggan Farm, near Bridgend. We will return to Murdoch and Islay  later at this blog.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Solam: legend of a plague village

In many parts of Islay there are the ruins of villages and homesteads, reminders of a time when the population was higher and more evenly spread across the island.  These buildings were abandoned for various reasons - evictions/clearances, migration, changes in farming and the drift of people towards the larger coastal villages.

But there is one deserted village that has a more intriguing story attached to it. In the hills north of Ardbeg, on the Callumkill Estate, lie the remains of Solam (sometimes spelt Solum or Solaum in official records). It is widely believed that it was abandoned as a result of an outbreak of the plague. The story is summarised on a plaque placed nearby: ‘Solam – in the glen about 500m to the southwest of this building lie the remains of a small crofting community that was wiped out by the plague in the 18th century. Local tradition has it that shipwrecked sailors may have brought the disease; in return for the kindness shown to them by the people of this small community, one left behind a mother-of-pearl necklace, which is thought to have harboured the germs that killed them all. The sick villagers were isolated, and neighbours brought food daily, leaving it a safe distance from the village. When the food was no longer eaten, the village was burned. Outlines of one or two buildings can be traced in the grassy slopes on the north side of the glen. Directly opposite, below a steep rock face, lies the village water supply, St Michael’s Well’.

photo by Becky Williamson at Geograph

I’ll come back to the Well at this site another time, but what of the ‘Plague Village’? The only written source I am aware of is the booklet 'Tales of Islay: fact and folklore' by Peggy Earl (Argyll Reproductions, 1980): 'In the late 18th century, high up in the hills in the Kildalton area of islay, was to be found a small community called Solum. It was here a plague broke out. A foreign ship of some kind had gone on the rocks near Ardbeg, and the women showed a great deal of kindness to the shipwrecked sailors and helped them all they could. Wishing to show their appreciation the mariners gave the women small presents. One lady was given a necklace of Mother-of-Pearl which evidently harboured the germs that caused the plague. Solum was burned to kill the germs, but after some time was rebuilt and the plague broke out again, but this time was kept in check".

Interestingly Earl makes no mention of Solum being wiped out, nor does she state that she believes that the story is factually correct. Her aim in that booklet is to record some of the stories people in Islay have told about the past, and versions of that story do seem to have been in circulation independently of her booklet. Over at Old Islay, Duncan MacNeill mentions 'It was Willie Campbell the then head maltman in Lagavulin who told me this story in the late sixties'.

But is this story true? Let’s consider a few issues.

Are the ruins of Solam we see now the leftovers of a place abandoned in the 18th century and not lived in since?

No. Official records show that families were living at Solam throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and indeed it may have been finally abandoned only a hundred years ago or so. 

For instance the Parochial Registers of Baptisms for Argyll for 1723-1762 and 1789-1819 both include children from Solam:

Father’s name            Children’s names (year of baptism)
Gilbert McArthour        Alexander (1725)
Donald Johnston Isobell (1725)
John McNabb Archibald (1725),  Patrick (1729), Alexander (1731)
William Calbreath Katherine (1733)
Donald Campbell Mary (1734), Charles (1736), Ann (1738)
Dougald McIntagart Jannet (1792)
Alex MacIntagart Cathrine (1803)
John MacFadean Mary (1807), Dun (1808), Finlay (1811), Nancy (1813)
Coll MacDougall           John (1810)

It is possible that there might have been a bit of a gap in occupation at Solam in the mid-19th century - there doesn't seem to have been anybody recorded there in the 1841 and 1851 Census, but there were people there again by the 1860s.

The last family I have found living there was the McKinnons. Lachlan and Jessie McKinnon had both come to Islay from the Argyll mainland, from Kilmore and Morvern respectively. The death register records the sad loss of their children John (aged 3) and Lachlan junior (aged 7) in Solam in the Winter of 1874/75. Both children died from Scarlatina (Scarlet Fever), a reminder of the precariousness of life before penicillin and the National Health Service, but sadly not that unusual at that time. Over that Winter at least ten children died from the disease on Islay.

In any event the scarlet fever was not the plague, and did not lead to the abandonment of Solam. At the time of the 1881 Census, Lachlan and Jessie McKinnon were still there, with their surviving and new children Jessie (aged 12), Peter (8), Maggie (6) and Archibald (4). Twenty years later in the 1901 Census Lachlan, now 60 and listed as a Shepherd, was still in Solam now seemingly now with just his wife. Were they the last people to live in Solam?

photo by Becky Williamson at Geograph
Was there an outbreak of plague in Islay in the 18th century?

Almost certainly not. The last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Scotland was in the 1640s. There were epidemics of other diseases that caused many deaths in Scotland before and after that, including smallpox epidemics (1823-31) and a typhus fever epidemic (1836-40) [George C. Kohn, 2010, Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present], but as we have already seen there is no evidence of Solam being wiped out in that period. 

Does that mean the story is simply untrue?

It appears not to be true that the village was wiped out as late as the 18th century, nor is it true that the ruins have been empty since that time (though Peggy Earl doesn't say they were, some visitors to the site seem to think so and the plaque implies it).

But that doesn't mean there's nothing in the story.  Islay was no doubt devastated by plagues at various times in its history. It is possible that the legend as it has been passed down relates to something similar that happened in that area at an earlier time beyond the historical record. Perhaps there was an outbreak of the plague or some other infectious disease at Solam which led to the community isolating themselves, perhaps too it was believed to have been caused by contact with a visiting ship.

As the story was handed down, various elements might have been added to the story. Peggy Earl’s version includes elements that are reminiscent of fairy tales – the stranger on the shore, the gift that becomes a curse... There are also elements in versions of this story that recall similar stories from other places. For instance the story of the food being left on a stone outside the plague village is also told about Eyam in Derbyshire in the 17th century (though that story seems to be true - so who knows about Solam?). 

Or it could all just be a good story that was going around and somehow got attached to Solam at some point. There is something uncanny about being amongst remote lonely ruins which once teemed with life. It's almost easier to believe that some terrible catastrophe has occurred than to accept that the place has faded away through the slow grinding of economic and social change.

I guess we'll never really know...

See also: Armin Grewe has some photos of a walk to Solam

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Deaths in the wild, 1840s

Many have perished in the seas around Islay, but the land has its own dangers, particularly in winter. These two tragedies both occurred in the 1840s:

'On Thursday, the 7th current, when Donald Mathieson, John M'Queen [modern spelling John McQueen], Alexander Currie and John Keith, were crossing the trackless waste which lies between Airdthallay and Kinagary, they lost their way and perished. Their friends and neighbours went out in search of them, but up to the 10th no tarce could be found. On Sabbath, the 10th, the Proaig shepherd discovered the horse, which they had along with them, buried below the snow in a wild and romantic valley called Gleann du'Phroaig, and the remains of the unfortunate men were found on the 12th in the same glen. Alexander Currie and John Keith were found together; but Donald Mathieson and John M'Queen were about a mile from each other. Currie. Keith and M'Queen were unmarried, but Donald Mathieson has left a widow and three young children, and also his aged parents, to lament his loss' (Times 21 January 1841)

[Airdthallay is presumably an alternate spelling of Ardtalla; likewise Kinagary=Kynagarry]

Towards Kynagarry in WInter- recent photo by Mary & Angus Hogg at Geograph
'On Thursday, the 24th [October 1844], being the "fast-day" in the parish of Kilchoman, Mr R. M'Laurin [modern spelling McLaurin, teacher, near Port Charlotte, at the request of Mr M'Nabb [modern spelling McNabb], minister, left the latter place early on that day, for the purpose of leading the music in the parish church in Kilchoman. He arrived at Kilchoman in due time, and precented at both the English and Gaelic services, and left there for a home a little after dark. He had to cross a muir of four or five miles, which lies between the above places, but before he got more than half-way on, he was either seized by a sudden illness or fainted from fatigue, and the place being very lonely he perished before any assistance came. He left a widow and an only child to lament his loss. Mr M'Laurin was for several years precentor in the Gaelic church, Duke Street, Glasgow' (Times 8 November 1844).

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Callumkill estate, near Ardbeg, is up for sale. The starting price is £1,500,000, for  2100 acres, farmhouse, buildings and livestock. There's Victorian terraced houses for sale for not much less than that in parts of London, but sadly it's still a little out of my price range...

I would certainly buy it if I could, as my grandparents lived and worked on the farm for many years and I spent many summer holidays there in the 1960s and 1970s.

The estate agent's brochure (Savills) has a summary of the site's history: 

'Callumkill means Keill (chapel) of St Columba. St Columba was an Irish saint who left Ireland in AD 563 and settled in Iona. Abbots of Iona held supremacy over all the Columban monasteries in Ireland and Scotland. The chapel of Callumkill is gone now, but the main house is built on its ruin and uses some of the stones, an example of which is the sandstone around the kitchen fireplace. There is no formal record, but the house is believed to have been completed before 1851.

The earliest record of Callumkill is in a Crown Charter dated 23rd February 1760, granting Daniel Campbell of Shawfield the lands and Barony of Islay. In November 1855, James Morrison of Basildon Park, Berkshire, and Islay, sold Kildalton (including Callumkill) to John Ramsey. The Ramseys sold Callumkill to Henry Allan, the manager of Lagavulin distillery, in 1924. Dr John Cecil Macgown purchased Callumkill in 1952 when he and his wife Marjorie responded to a small advertisement in The Times for a Scottish sporting estate. They visited Islay, walked up to the top of Callumkill’s first ridge, took one look at the view over the fields, ridges and hills and out to the sea beyond, and knew they had found a very special place. They both lived out the rest of their lives there; at 110 years old, Marjorie lived to be the oldest woman in Scotland. The estate passed to her grandson, the current owner, in 2008'.

Given the farm's name, it seems clear that there was a church dedicated to St Columba in the area, although an RCAHMS note from 1978 states 'There is a strong local tradition of a chapel at Callumkill, but the owner, Dr McGowan, has no knowledge of its likely site'. Nevertheless it certainly possible that  it was on or near the site of the house or nearby farm buildings, and that old stone was recycled in the building.. 

I also recall that there was (and presumably still is) some kind of partially underground chamber in the lawn of the main house, though whether that was a storage place linked to the building of the house in the mid-19th century or an earlier structure I am not sure - could it be that mound in the front right of the picture (anybody know?)

My grandparents Neil Orr (my namesake, 1906-1980) and Janet Orr (born Janet MacTaggart, 1906-1990 ) lived at Callumkill in a corrugated-iron clad wooden building which I think was demolished after they moved to Port Ellen on retirement in the late 1970s. I went by there a couple of weeks ago and could see no trace of it - it was near to where a fairly new cattle shed now stands, in between what is now described in the brochure as the 'shepherd's cottage' (where Robert Shaw and family lived at that time) and the older farm buildings.   

That's me with my granny outside the house, some point in the 1960s:

And that's Neil Orr senior and junior at Callumkill in the same period:

Photos of Callumkill from Savills brochure, except for the two family photos above.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

An Islay Song from 1850

'Poems and songs, satirical and descriptive, bearing on the political, moral, and religious character of man in this country, at the present day' was written by Alexander M'Gilvray (or McGilvray as it would be spelt now) and published in 1850. The title page describes the author as 'Alexander M'Gilvray, Paisley', with the book printed by William Gilchrist of Glasgow 'for the author' (i.e. the collection appears to have been self-published).

M'Gilvray (1800-1871) was born in Paisley and made his adult living there as a baker. One of the poems in his collection though is described as 'written while the author was residing in Islay in 1822' - indeed within he mentions being 'located on the Rinns of Islay'. That poem, 'Epistle to W.C.', includes the lines 'Die when I will, I'll ne'er repent, the days in Islay I have spent'.

Maybe it was around this time that he wrote his song 'Islay' (tune 'Haughs of Cromdale'). Where are the 'fields of Elistore' he mentions? I assume this is Ellister farm, near Portnahaven.


Now I must leave the peaceful shore,
The pleasant fields of Elistore,
Nor dare to hope I'll ever more
Behold the hills of Islay.

No more I'll climb thy mountains high,
To view the meeting sea and sky —
The stately vessels gliding by.
On every side of Islay.

On sunny shores, beyond the wave,
Let merchants seek the gold they crave;
Give me a walk, at dusky eve.
Along the shores of Islay.

How sweet to rove o'er hill and plain,
When low the sun hangs o'er the main;
O when he wakes, and spreads again,
His golden beams o'er Islay!

By simple Nature's power impress'd.
Here friendship glows in every breast;
The houseless, wandering, stranger-guest,
Has bless'd the Isle of Islay

From strife of noisy towns secure,
Here mortals spend their days obscure;
And long may harmony endure
Throughout the Isle of Islay.

Unknown to crime, unknown to shame,
May ne'er ambition blast thy name.
Nor cursed lust for wealth and fame,
Corrupt the sons of Islay.

Here all the bliss of life they share,
In innocence, and free from care;
With hearts as light and pure as air,
Upon the hills of Islay.

Here Liberty her throne maintains:
O'er thy delightful hills and plains
No domineering tyrant reigns
—A heaven on earth is Islay!

Though ne'er to tread thy shores again,
My heart with thee shall still remain;
Where'er I wander, I'll retain
My dearest wish for Islay.

Anybody want to have a go at singing it?!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Weavers Cottage, Bowmore, 1772

From the British Library site, a series of pictures descrbed as a 'weaver's cottage near Bowmore on the Island of Islay', drawn by 'John Frederick Miller after a sketch taken on August 4th 1772'. Miller accompanied Sir Joseph Banks on his tour of the Hebrides in 1772, including a stay in Islay from 1 to 7 August.

Front view

Rear view
Rear view detail


Similar images appear in Thomas Pennant's book 'A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772' (published in 1774). The draughtsman Moses Griffith accompanied Pennant on this voyage, including a stay in Islay in July 1772. He made some drawings himself, but also made copies for the book of drawings belonging to Sir Joseph Banks - including presumably these ones by Miller.

From Thomas Pennant,
'A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772'

Monday, August 6, 2012

Wreck of the Witton, 1879

Islay is sadly associated historically with many shipwrecks, some of them very well documented. Here's one I haven't come across before:

'Intelligence has been received in Glasgow that during the storm  on the night on the 7th, the German schooner Witton was wrecked off the Mull of Oa, in the island of Islay. The master, Captain Bottleman, his wife, and the cook were drowned. The remainder of the the crew, four in number, succeeded in reaching the land' (Times, 13 January 1879).

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Tuscania Burials

The SS Tuscania was a Glasgow-built Cunard ocean liner that was pressed into service as a troop carrier in World War One. On 5 February 1918 the ship was transporting more than 2,000 American troops across the Atlantic, heading for Le Havre, when it was torpedoed off Islay by a German U-Boat. The boat sank about 5 miles to the west of Giol in the Mull of Oa, with the loss of 210 lives. Many survivors made it to Islay by lifeboat, where they were taken care of by local people. Others were taken to Mull or Ireland.

At least 126 bodies were washed ashore on the island, where they were buried at Kilnaughton, Killeyan, Kinnabus and elsewhere on the Oa, as well as at Port Charlotte. Most of the bodies were disinterred two years later, and either repatriated to the USA or moved to the American Military Cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. If you've ever wondered why the Kilnaughton Military Cemetery (pictured below) seems so empty, there's your reason. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission: 'The cemetery was made in 1918 to bury the dead of the S.S. Tuscania, and 4 Commonwealth crewmen from that vessel are now buried here and 1 American soldier. 84 American graves, mainly of the 20th Engineers, who were passengers on the S.S. Tuscania, have now been removed. There is 1 unidentified burial, lost in the S.S. Tuscania, here. There are a further 5 Commonwealth burials of the 1939-1945 war here'.

The Tuscania dead are remembered today by the American Red Cross monument on the Mull of Oa, along with those who died in the sinking of the Otranto later the same year.

Picture by Mavis Gulliver
  Steve Schwartz has developed Tuscania: an American History, a whole site dedicated to the Tuscania with lots of documents, photographs and details, such as list of passengers. The following three photos in this post have been sourced from that site (along with the one above), and I recommend it if you want to know more about this tragedy and its context.

The following two pictures were published in Current History: A Monthly Magazine of theNew York Times, May 1918:
'County volunteers of Islay firing a volley at the funeral of Tuscania victims at Kilnaughton, to the accompaniment of bagpipe lament'
'Graves of American soldiers who perished in the sinking of the Tuscania, at Port Charlotte, Island of Islay, Scotland'

See also this article from the Ileach

Friday, August 3, 2012

In sickness fare to Islay

In 1912 (June 22), the British Medical Journal published a letter entitled 'Medical Men In The Hebrides' by J. A. Goodchild reflecting on his time as a doctor in Iona at the turn of the 20th century. In it he mentions 'an old Gaelic saying' that refers to Islay as the first port of call for the Hebridean sick:

'The Mull doctors, one of whom has a fine Gothic tomb stone in the Reilic Oran at lona, were long looked on as the first in Scotland. These were the Beatons, who succeeded each other from time immemorial, and were occasionally summoned to Edinburgh to attend royalties. A daughter of one of them was amongst the four Maries of the old song. The old herb garden in which they grew their simples still keeps its name in the south-east of Mull, and it looks as if the only other medical attendant formerly available in the Hebrides was in Islay, if one may trust an old Gaelic saying : "In sickness fare to Islay, if Islay fails try Mull, if Mull says, 'I canna,' the de'il has ye''.

Not sure what period this saying dates from, as for the Beatons they practiced medicine in the Western Isles from the Middle Ages down to the 18th century.