Fishing in its various branches is an important industry in Lewis. Agriculture, including in that term both the cultivation of land and the grazing of stock, is, however, the industry which occupies most of the Lewisman’s time. A large portion of the spring, summer, and autumn is occupied in the cultivation and cropping of the land, while in winter, when the fishing fails, there are few outlets in the island for the energies of the people.
In the past the male population have been largely employed in net-making during winter. This was a tedious occupation, a single net (if the meshes were small) being all or almost all that one man could make in the course of a winter. Cotton nets manufactured in the south have long ago superseded the old hemp nets, and net-making in Lewis has ceased to be a home industry.
Lord Seaforth, towards the end of the 18th century, introduced flax into Lewis It was grown there for years, and the women were taught to spin it. The project, however, was not successful, and was abandoned many years ago. Similar efforts have been made in other parts of the Highlands, but they have all failed.
Another industry introduced into Lewis was straw-plaiting, and Lord Seaforth brought two teachers to instruct the people in that art. This endeavour also proved a failure. It may be remarked, however, that straw and bent plaiting are still carried on in North Uist. Most of the horse-collars used there are made of bent cut on the western machairs. Doormats are also made from the same material, and sold in some of the country shops. Almost every dwelling—house had formerly a high straight-backed arm-chair the upholstering of which was entirely of straw or bent. It was usually reserved for the head of the house and was known by the name of Somzag.
In former times whisky-making was a thriving industry in Lewis, a large proportion of the grain raised being distilled. Martin, writing of the Western Islands, towards the end of the 17th century, describes a liquor distilled from oats as “ Treas-Tarruing,” i.e., treble-distilled. It was believed to be a specific for most of the ailments that affected the inhabitants. In the course of the 18th century the trade in Lewis made whisky was considerable, and certain districts were more noted for the quality of the product than others. Whisky then passed as an article of exchange in the island, and the Factor received a considerable part of the rents in that commodity in lieu of money.
Distillation was at that time a general occupation wherever grain could be produced. Hopes were entertained that it would be stopped through the enforcement of the Excise laws, but notwithstanding the vigilance of the Excise officers illicit distillation continued. Lord Seaforth ultimately established two distilleries in Lewis and these became formidable opponents of the old smugglers. The latter, however, struggled on for a time, for they were encouraged by the country people, who held a deep-rooted belief that the whisky distilled in the old Tighean Dubha (or Black Houses, as the smuggling bothies were called) was a purer and better spirit than distillery-made whisky, which they regarded as adulterated.
The Lewis distilleries were discontinued more than a generation ago, and smuggling has been for a length of time unknown to the island. [With reference to the suppression of smuggling in the Hebrides, the Inverness Courier of 14th November 1827 has the following:—“Owing to the vigilance of Captain Oliver, of the Revenue cutter Prince of Wales,and the new Excise officers on shore, smuggling is now so completely put down in the Long Island that there is actually not a drop of illicit whisky to be got from the Butt of Lewis to Barra Head, and there is probably at this moment a larger supply of legal whisky on its way from Greenock, for the supply of Stornoway alone, than was ever imported into the whole Hebrides before.]
Formerly there were few, if any, tradesmen in the country parts of Lewis. Every man was his own shoemaker, and frequently his own tailor. The brogues or shoes were made of hide tanned at home with the root of tormentil. The mainland peasant tanned the hides with oak—bark, but there being no trees in Lewis a native product was used for the purpose of tanning. Tailors were a despised class, and there were not many of them among the inhabitants—hence the necessity for tailoring being a species of home industry.
[The common Gaelic name for the tormentil (Potentilla Tormentilla) is Barr-braonan-nan—con (the dog’s briar bud). On account of the use to which the roots are applied it is called cairt lair, i.e., “ ground bark” in the island of Lewis and other parts of the Hebrides. The following note on the tormentil from Lightfoot’s Flora Scotica (Vol. I., p. 272) is not without interest :—
“The roots consist of thick tubercles, an inch or more in diameter, replete with a red juice, of astringent quality. They are used in most of the Western isles, and in the Orknies, for tanning of
leather, in which intention they are proved by some late experiments to be superior even to the oak-bark. They are first of all boiled in water, and the leather afterwards steeped in the cold liquor. In the Islands of Tiree and Col, the inhabitants have destroyed so much ground by digging them up, that they have lately been prohibited the use of them.”
It may be added that Dr. Lightfoot accompanied Thomas Pennant on his second voyage to the to the Hebrides (1772); Lightfoot was an enthusiastic botanist, and the journey resulted in the publication of “Flora Scotica” in 1777.]
The women, when not engaged in the cultivation of the land, were occupied with the spinning and weaving of cloth, &c. Native herbs were used for the dyes, and all the wearing apparel of the inhabitants—male and female—-—as also the bed-clothes, were made at home. Cloth-making is still carried on to a considerable extent, but mainly for home use. Tweeds of the Harris type are woven and sent to market, but not on a large scale. Pottery was also made in the island. Modern earthenware has, however, long ago superseded it, and pottery is now only made in Barvas. The Crogams (as these home—made utensils are called) produced at Barvas are extremely rude and primitive in appearance. They are little used for home purposes, but considerable quantities of them are sold to curio hunters in course of a season.
One other industry of great importance in former times, but no longer carried on in Lewis was the burning of kelp. From the influence this industry exercised on the lives of the common people throughout the Western Islands it deserves more than a passing notice. It never assumed the same proportion in Lewis as it did in Uist and certain other quarters, particularly Orkney, but nevertheless it was a source of wealth to the proprietor and peasantry of Lewis a century ago.
Kelp-making had been for many years an important industry in Ireland. The first kelp-maker in the Hebrides was an Irishman named Roderick Macdonald. He had been brought from Ireland to North Uist in 1735 by Mr. Hugh Macdonald of Baleshare. Kelp-burning was begun there at that early period, and the Irish kelp-burner became known throughout Uist as “ Ruairidh na Luathadh”—Rory of the ashes.
The Orcadians were long before the Hebrideans in beginning to make kelp, for the industry was introduced into Stronsay so far back as 1722 by Mr. Fea of Whitehall in that island. Whenever the people realised the great money value of the new product, kelp-making developed in Orkney with remarkable rapidity, and before long there was an output of about 3,000 tons a year. It has been calculated that for the 71 years from 1722 to 1793 the landlords and others engaged in the Orkney kelp industry received gross sum of £291,976—-—an amount larger than would have been required to buy the whole Orcadian group of islands at the rental of that period. [Old Statistical Account, vol. xv., p. 398.]
The growth of the industry in the Hebrides was at first slow, and kelp-burning was not begun in Tiree till 1746. Two years later Macleod of Berneray in Harris allowed some Irish labourers to make kelp on his shores. So little was the value of kelp realised at that time that he only charged them 2s. per ton manufactured for the permission given. In 1754 Irish kelp-makers were engaged in the Island of Coll; and as late as 1762 an Irish manufacturer made 48 tons on the Island of Jura, and paid £10 for the liberty to cut the ware. As the burning of kelp came to be understood, and the marketable value of the product ascertained, the native population took the matter up, and the Hibernians disappeared from the Hebrides.
The date when kelp-burning was begun in Lewis is not exactly known, but the industry spread rapidly through the Western Islands generally towards the end of the 18th century. Between 1764 and 1772 about 2,000 tons of kelp were annually made in the Western Islands and in certain parts of the mainland including Morven, Ardnamurchan, and Arisaig. Of this quantity about 50 tons a year were produced in Lewis. The Islands of North Uist and South Uist were, however, the great centres of the industry, for in each of them the output at the period stated was about 800 tons per annum. Barra at this time made about 60 tons ; and the expectations of great wealth in store from the development of the industry were such that stones were gathered from the hillside, or wherever else they could be found, and placed on the sandy shore so that in course of time they might produce a crop of sea—ware for kelp. In this island at a later date one of the Macneill proprietors established works for extracting out of kelp certain products used in glass-making. They are still referred to as “ a’ ghlasaree.” So rapid was the growth of the industry in Lewis, that in Lochs, as the minister of that parish states in the Old Statistical Account, there were between 45 and 50 tons of kelp manufactured annually. The minister of Uig says there were about 140 tons a year made in his parish, principally near Loch Roag. It was “ superior in quality to any other kelp in the Highlands of Scotland,” and in proof of this assertion he added that it always realised the highest price in the markets of the south. A large number of the people of Uig were then employed in the manufacture at home, while many went to Harris, and others to Uist for the same purpose. The minister of Stornoway does not state what quantity was annually made there, but he says kelp-making was the principal manufacture of the parish, and that everyone who was able to carry a creel, or fill it, was employed at the work for about three months of the year. It does not appear to have attained any importance in Barvas. The price of kelp varied according to the quantity of barilla (its great competitor) which found its way into the British market. In 1730 Orkney kelp only realised £1 5s. per ton, but towards the end of the 18th century it was as high as £8. The American war interfered with the importation of barilla, and on some occasions the price of kelp was as high as £22 per ton. The prices began to decline about 1810, and successive reductions of duties on salt, barilla, &c., since 1822, resulted in its being of little value in the market. As a consequence kelp-making declined, and in districts where the people depended on the industry great distress prevailed. In 1827 a Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament was appointed to enquire into the question of emigration from the United Kingdom. Among the witnesses examined was Mr. Alexander Hunter, W.S., Edinburgh. He appears to have had an intimate acquaintance with some of the Western Islands; and he gave evidence with regard to over-population, the decline of the kelp industry, and the necessity for emigration. In 1826 he superintended the emigration of 300 souls from the Island of Rum to Cape Breton. As his evidence has an important bearing on the condition of the Western Islands generally at that period, an excerpt from it is given in Appendix L., page 36.
Subsequently, in 1841, a Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament conducted inquiries as to emigration from Scotland. Prior to that date great distress prevailed in certain parts of the Western Islands, the failure of the kelp industry being one of the causes to which it was attributed. Emigration was at the time advocated as the best means for dealing with the problem before the country.
One of the witnesses examined was Mr. Alexander Macdonald, who is described as an agent for the sale of kelp. He stated he was a native of the “Highlands in Ross-shire" and that he sold large quantities of kelp as a merchant in London. In each of the years 1808, 1809, and 1810 he got about 1,500 tons from the estates of Lord Macdonald (North Uist and Skye), and a like quantity from the estates of Clanranald (South Uist and Moidart, &c.). These quantities represented a net sum of £14,000 a year to each of these proprietors, exclusive of the cost of manufacture, transportation from the Highlands to England, and commission and other charges. The Island of Lewis contributed well to the kelp made at that time, but not to the same extent as Uist. Lord Seaforth made from 800 to 900 tons. Mr. Macdonald does not state the value of this output, but at the rate in Uist it would amount to about £8,000 per annum.
Harris is described as a great kelp country, the output being from 500 to 600 tons; while that of Barra was 250 tons a year. In the course of the ten years during which he dealt in kelp, Mr. Macdonald said he paid a gross sum of £240,000 to the proprietors concerned. A common price at that time was £18 per ton. A sum of £4 went to pay the workers, freight, &c., and the balance of £14 was the profit of the kelp owner. While the industry flourished the people lived in comparative comfort and paid their rents regularly. So much was this the case that at one rent collection the factor for Lord Seaforth brought £11,000 with the exception of £14 (which rather than not have the sum complete he added out of his own pocket) from the Island of Lewis. In 1841 kelp was practically valueless in the market, and Mr. Macdonald stated he would not give £2 per ton for it. At the period referred to by Mr. Macdonald, the Scottish coasts produced about 20,000 tons of kelp, realising nearly £400,000 annually, which went mainly to the Western Islands and to Orkney.
The Report of this Select Committee together with the Minutes of Evidence was published as a Blue Book by order of the House of Commons on 26th March, 1841. The Appendix (pp. 212-8) thereto contains a letter from Mr. Robert Graham, dated Edinburgh, 6th May 1837, addressed to Mr. Fox Maule, and communicated by Lord John Russell’s directions to the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury. The following extract from that letter, dealing with the growth of population concurrently with the increase of kelp and the poverty that followed the failure of that industry, is rest to-day:—
“The grand cause of this evil, and in which a variety of minor causes have concentrated their results, is, that the population of this part of the country has been allowed to increase in a much greater ratio than the means of subsistence which it affords; that the districts in question are totally incapable of maintaining in comfortable circumstances anything like the present population, must be evident, I think, to any man who has an opportunity of observing them, and who is capable of reflecting and judging on the subject; I may say it is the universal opinion of every one I have conversed with in that country. This discrepance arises from a variety of circumstances over which the Government have now not much control ; and in as far as it has arisen from acts of the Legislature, it is almost inevitably the result of attending to the interests of the many, though affecting the interests of the few.
(1.) The population has unduly grown up, as a consequence of the peace, which has stopped the regular draft of soldiers and sailors from this country, and has sent back many of its former inhabitants, who were lured away by the love of glory and other motives, but who have all a feeling to die a natural death at home. It was indirectly increased during the war, and an encouragement was given to the natural and reckless tendency of the people to early marriages, by a provision of the militia laws, which entitled a man exemption in consideration of the number of his children. Some of the benevolent and charitable funds, too, chiefly connected with the army, most inconsiderately withhold their benefits, but upon the qualification of a sufficient number of children.
(2.) The kelp manufacture was, during the war, so profitable to the landlords, that they encouraged the people to remain on their estates, being well aware that the quantity manufactured depended upon the number of people engaged; and that, however high the rents became, they would still be paid, though in the meantime the proper cultivation of the lands might be neglected. The thoughts of all parties were turned to the cultivation of sea-ware, rather than the cultivation of the lands ; and the very prosperity which, for a long time, attended the kelp trade, rendered the proprietors and people both thoughtless of other things, till they unexpectedly found themselves in the condition that the one is unable to help the other. Since 1822, the kelp manufacture has been unprofitable to the landlords. By various changes of the law, too hastily applied, perhaps, to be quite consistent with the truest policy, first, by taking the duty off barilla, and then by repealing that upon salt, successive shocks were suddenly given to the situation of the kelp proprietors. The price of kelp bounded downwards, and the fall of price did not tell so rapidly upon the condition of the people as might have been expected, because considerable quantities were continued to be made long after it had ceased to afford a fair immediate profit, though the employment enabled the labourer to pay his rent. That rent, however, came generally to be paid in work, or in the draft of fish, and not in money. The circulating medium of exchange has become greatly diminished in the country ; and in many cases the society is gradually going backwards into a state of barter. The effects of this cause of the present distress may be instanced by the produce of one estate, where from 1,200 to 1,500 tons of kelp were annually manufactured ; £10 per ton was a moderate price during the war. A very small proportion of the produce then required would now meet the natural demands of the district; and the gross price now will not average £2 or £3, more than one half of which must be taken in the shape of work for rent” (p. 213).
The kelp industry in Lewis has suffered a serious decline since the period spoken to by Mr. Macdonald, for in 1825 the quantity produced in the parishes of Barvas, Lochs, and Uig (and these were the principal kelp—producing districts) was 460 tons yearly. Its value, after deducting working expenses, was £2,066 ; a sum which at ten years’ purchase was calculated to add £20,660 to the capital value of these three parishes.
Notwithstanding the fall in the value of kelp, it continued to be manufactured in Lewis, but the returns were not considered worth the labour involved. The price in 1833 averaged from £1 10s. to £3 3s. per ton. However, the Parish of Uig even at the low rates then current produced about 100 tons per annum.
The time devoted to kelp—making after the industry had ceased to be remunerative was considered highly disadvantageous to the interests of the people, and detrimental both to fishing and agriculture. On this point the Rev. John Cameron, minister of Stornoway, writes as follows in the New Statistical Account in 1833 :—
The toil in cutting, drying, burning the ware, and watching the pot night and day, till the ware is converted to boiling lava, is terrible, and would require extraordinary wages. This process, if not injurious to health, is ruinous to the eyes. How this manufacture affects their morals, farther experience will disclose. I add the following remarks upon the kelping system. It is true that proprietors of land and kelp shores got a good round sum for kelp, when the price was high,—nearly £20 clear profit per ton; but they know from experience, that this commodity is very fluctuating in price, especially since barilla has been substituted for kelp. The price of kelp is not now worth the trouble of manufacturing it.” (Ross and Cromarty, p. 134).
Although the price was as low as indicated in 1833, it rose again owing to the manufacture of iodine from kelp. Other modes of obtaining iodine have since been found, and the kelp industry is again at a low ebb. For many years it has ceased to be carried on in Lewis, and it has met with the same fate on the mainland and all the islands of the Hebrides excepting Uist and Tiree. It is now of little account in Uist, and is about to be discontinued in Tiree. In Orkney, however, it is still an important industry, and an idea of its value may be gathered from the Assessment Roll of the County. The landlords there are assessed annually on one-half of the clear profits in respect of kelp received by them in the preceding year. In 1900-1 the Orkney proprietors were assessed on kelp shores to the value of £1,267 17s. 5d., and in 1901-2 to the value of £1,715 10s. These figures mean that in 1899-1900 the proprietors there received a sum of £2,535 14s. 10d., and in 1900-1 a sum of £3,431. The exact amount received by the tenants, or kelp—Workers, in Orkney cannot be definitely ascertained, but it is estimated to have amounted to about £3,500 in the former year and £4,500 in the latter. In certain of the islands the kelp proceeds are frequently sufficient to pay a crofter’s rent. The total kelp produce of the United Kingdom in recent years is about 7,000 tons per annum, the price being about £4. Of this quantity a large proportion is produced in Ireland. But there are two other sources from which the island of Lewis derives considerable benefit—viz., the Militia, and the Royal Naval Reserve. Most young able—bodied Lewis-men serve in either of these branches of the service, and in that way not only earn money during a season of the year otherwise unproductive, but undergo a course of valuable physical training.
For many years Lewis has been the principal recruiting ground of the Ross-shire Militia (the 3rd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders), and a special steamer is usually required to convey them from the island to the mainland when undergoing their annual course of training at Fort-George. At the latter place, which is the Depot of the Line battalions of the Seaforths, they come into contact with many veterans, from whom they learn much of the martial achievements of Ross—shire regiments of former days; and the military ardour so characteristic of the old Highlanders is thus in no small degree roused in their breasts.
On the commencement of the Boer War the Ross-shire Militia was called out for home service. The Battalion, however, volunteered for active service in South Africa; but the War Office authorities sent them to Egypt, where they did duty for about a year. During their sojourn there they were accompanied by a Gaelic Chaplain from the Free Church of Scotland.
In support of the statement above made that the Island has been for a length of time the principal recruiting field of the Ross-shire Militia, we have the authority of its Colonel, Sir Hector Munro, Bart., of Foulis, for saying that of the present total strength of the battalion 802 men are from Lewis. Of these, 572 have been in the ranks of the regiment for some time, while 230 are recruits of this year. The latter number shows that there is no decline in martial and patriotic spirit among Lewismen.
Since the establishment of a Royal Naval Reserve Station at Stornoway a large proportion of the young men of the island join that service rather than the Militia. They undergo their annual course of training at whatever season of the year is most suitable for them, and form a very fine body of men. In the present year 2,500 men have undergone their annual course of training at Stornoway. Of these, 2,300 are from Lewis, and the remaining 200 from Harris and Uist.