Friday, 4 June 2010
In the 1880s, living conditions for crofters (subsistence farmer, who leases land from an estate owner) were atrocious. They could not expect to stay on their land for any length of time, had handkerchief-sized patches of land to raise crops on, and their livestock was usually starving to death as a result. A lack of milk meant they gave their children tea to drink. A riotous uprising in the Isle of Skye, 50 miles south of Lewis, opened the eyes of the government to the plight of its poorest residents, and Lord Napier of Ettrick was sent up to investigate.
Today saw a few light showers in Stornoway, but it is still reasonably warm. Tomorrow will see a trip out into the countryside in a car (not driven by me, I should hasten to add), and hope to have a picture or two to show.
This summarises what the Clearances were all about – for those who were on the receiving end of them. I quote the Reverend Alexander Davidson, aged 70, at Leverburgh in Harris.
It is most unnatural that man should be chased away to make room for sheep and deer ; that the land should lie uncultivated when men are perishing for lack of food. It is very unnatural that old or young should not be allowed to cast a hook into a standing lake or stream to catch a trout without being pursued by an officer of the law.
The estate factor in North Uist gave a good insight into why the Gaelic language continued on its long, slow decline in the latter years of the 19th century. I quote the relevant parts of his submission to the Napier Commission, sitting at Loch Eport on 30 May 1883.
12793. There was a statement made by some of the people here with respect to teaching the children Gaelic. Has the school board any educational views on that question? Other things being equal, would they consider that an advantage in the education of the children?
—I do not think they would.
12794. The great object is to endeavour to get as much English as possible ?
—As much English as possible.
12795. And the belief of the board is that anything done in the way of teaching the children Gaelic rather stands in the way of teaching English ?
—Well, if the teacher had plenty of time it would not do the children any harm to be taught their native language.
* and *
12854. You said something which I consider very heterodox about Gaelic. You speak Gaelic yourself?
12855. And have done so all your life?
12856. You read it?
12857. And write it ?
—I cannot say I can write it well
12858. You would not wish that you never had Gaelic?
—No, I would not.
12859. Then why is it that you discourage the teaching of it in schools, and therefore prevent Gaelic scholars from having that proper knowledge of the language which could be so easily given ?
—Without an additional staff of teachers, it could not be done. It would take up too much of their time.
12860. It is only a question of expense ?
—It is only a question of expense.
12861. You would not go to the length of saying that Gaelic is of no importance in the Highlands ?
—I believe the importance is getting less every day.
Boreray is a small island in the Sound of Harris (between Harris and North Uist), which was home to 150 people in the 1880s, as testified in this submission to the Napier Commission. Nowadays, only one person lives there – as a crofter. The complaint in 1883 was overcrowding. The below map shows how small the island is.