76676: Troubled years – Berneray during the mid 19th century

This account is taken from Alick Morrison’s introduction to Orain Chaluim, with minor amendments:

With the collapse of the kelp industry and the exacerbating effects of the potato blight, the people of Berneray were struggling to subsist on “meat and the juice of limpets,” and such fish as they caught off the rocks. As the arrears of rent continued to mount, the factor of Harris, John Robertson MacDonald, Baillidh Dubh Roghadail, restricted the grazing by seizing two islands – Sursay and Haay. Sursay he kept for himself, and Haay [Tahay] he used for the tenants he had evicted from Pabbay. He also deprived the crofters of Borve and Ruisgarry of the best of their stock, thus making recovery impossible.

In 1848, factor MacDonald ruthlessly solved Berneray’s over-population by evicting 40 crofting families – 20 families to the island of Scalpay, and a further 20 to Direcleit on the east of Harris. These were expected to eke some kind of living from the sea without boats or gear. At the same time, he settled seven of the best crofters on the enlarged experimental crofts, planned by Captain Sitwell at Amhuinn Stà in Borves, West Harris.

In 1841 there had been 90 crofts on Berneray. By 1851 the factor had reduced the number of crofts to 41, enlarging some of the holdings. The population had fallen from 712 to 410. In addition to the 41 crofts, there were 42 cottar families, many of which earned a living at lobster fishing.

According to Rev. Roderick MacDonald, minister of Harris, in the 1851 census:

“The island of Berneray has, strictly speaking, not too large a population, neither are their holdings too small, but it is only of late they got their enlarged holdings, at a time when they were so much reduced that they could neither stock nor cultivate them. Had they been able to start with full stock and good crops laid down, there is little doubt that with the good grazing on the island and the large quantities of seaware drifted on the shores, they would get on very well.”

By 1852 the Treasury in London was offering emigration loans to proprietors, to help them reduce crofter populations. The Countess of Dunmore, as tutor for her son the Earl, a minor, requested a loan of 1,000 for the Harris estates. This decision encouraged Factor MacDonald of Harris to proceed even more ruthlessly. When the inhabitants of Berneray showed themselves disinclined to emigrate in 1854, he evicted the 22 crofters in the fertile area of Borve and deprived them of all their stock. Furthermore, he gave strict orders to the crofters still remaining in Ruisgarry not to give the slightest assistance to the displaced tenants, for he had ordained that the latter should emigrate to Australia. He now let the vacant farm of Borve to a shipping magnate, William MacNeil (Uilleam a’ Chaolais).



Record Type:
Historical Event
Type Of Event:
Land Issues
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