369: Calbost, Lewis

The village of Calbost in Pairc, Isle of Lewis, comprises 14 crofts.

Local tradition maintains that some of the Calbost settlers, such as Norman Mackenzie, Tormod Buidhe (1780-1864), came to Calbost towards the end of the 18th century. Both Kenneth Macleod and Norman Mackenzie, who settled at 3 Calbost, were among the first seven crofters to settle at Calbost at the time of the first lotting of the Island about 1818. Before that they were small landholders holding their tenancy from the tacksman Robert Weir under the Clan system of land-tenure known as the Run-Rig system. Under that system the arable land rotated among the tenants usually by ballot or lot, hence the name “lot” for a croft landholding. He must therefore have been under the early runrig system of tenure under Robert Weir, during his early years at Calbost. The first seven crofts were lotted in 1818 and the present boundaries of all 14 crofts not established until 1852.

Calbost benefited from the interest of Angus “Ease” Macleod, native of the village, who recorded its history. The following is his introduction to the village.

The crofting village of Calbost in the Island of Lewis nestles round a fresh-water loch known as Loch-Dubh, which empties itself into the bay of Calbost, Camus Chalboist on the Minch coast of Lewis, about 9 miles by sea south of Stornoway but about 30 miles by road from the town, because the road winds its way round the long arm of sea known as Loch Erisort.

The village is situated within the Pàirc or Park peninsula, which is the name given to that part of the Parish of Lochs situated in the South West corner of the Island, next to Harris. The peninsula is almost cut off from the rest of the island by two long arms of the sea, known as Loch Erisort to the north, and Loch Seaforth to the south, confining the land access to the peninsula to a narrow neck of land, a mile or two wide, between the villages of Balallan and Airidhabhruaich at the heads of these two long sea lochs.

The physical features of the area are a landscape of hills and valleys and numerous fresh-water lochs, as well as a coastline indented with many areas of seas, usually referred to as sea lochs, which, together with the fresh-water lochs in the area, gives the parish its name of Lochs. The peninsula extends to 68,000 acres.

Calbost is one of the last remaining ten villages that survived the ruthless clearances that followed the establishment of a commercial sheep farm, known as the Park sheep farm, which was set up at Valamus, at the southern tip of the peninsula about 1802. The names of the villages at present in the Park peninsula are; Habost, Kershader, Garyvard, Caversta, Cromore, Marvig, Calbost, Gravir, Lemreway and Orinsay. The last two were cleared but restored to crofting tenure later on. All ten villages are situated on the northern area of the peninsula.

Before the establishment of the Park sheep farm, there were over 40 small crofter communities occupying the whole of the Park peninsula from end to end.

In itself there is nothing unique about Calbost. The village is similar in all respects to the other villages of Lewis, except that it declined from a peak population of 2000 persons and a hive of activity at the beginning of the 20th century to complete depopulation at the passing of Donald Macleod, the last native resident in 1995 at the age of 93 years.

Thus, in the short space of a lifetime, a healthy, vigorous village declined and died. Many of the houses in the village are still in good repair and the casual visitor might pass along through the village without realising that it is a ghost township, the houses now only occupied temporarily from time to time by some of the former residents as holiday homes.

The decline of Calbost raises many questions, and most of them are applicable to all the villages in Park and other places in Lewis and elsewhere in the Highlands and Islands. The main reason for the decline of the village was the mismanagement of the land resources of the area as manifested by the agitation for Land Law Reform for most of the 100 years from 1851 to 1951, but more particularly during the land war years of the 1880’s to the 1920’s. The monopoly in land is the root cause of most human injustice and exploitation throughout history.

The numerous events of popular protest and agitation for land law reform by island crofters over long long periods seems to have received little attention compared to some of the other areas in the Highlands. This was due in part to the difficulty of travelling to, and within, the Outer Hebrides in the 19th Century. Press coverage and a written record of the land troubles are slight, except on the few occasions when issues were contested in a court of law.

There is plenty of visual evidence in the form of tumble-down ruins of former happy homes and traces of lazy bed cultivation all over the Park peninsula from where over 30 former crofter townships were forcibly removed in order to make room for the cheviot sheep, Na Caoraich Mhòra, of the Park sheep farm. The details of the families and communities are to a large extent lost, even although oral tradition in the area is still fairly strong. That demonstrates to us the value of recording all that is known about local history for the benefit of posterity.

Angus “Ease” Macleod MBE (1916-2002) collected over his lifetime an enormous archive of material and artefacts relating to Calbost in particular and Pairc, Lewis and the Hebrides in general. Many of the artefacts are now in the keeping of Museum nan Eilean, Stornoway, and tthe Angus Macleod Archive is housed at Ravenspoint, Kershader, Pairc, where visitors are welcome, and many of his documents are now available online.

See in particular Ease’s notes on place names in Calbost; and a variety of other documents on the village held by the archive. Ease also provides a description of the village boundaries.

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Publications from Pairc Historical Society and the Archive are available to order; see our webpage for contact details.

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