5. Population

The earliest enumeration we have of the population of Lewis was that made by Dr. Alexander Webster in 1755. Indeed he was the first to take a census of the people of Scotland. Sir Robert Sibbald had projected an enumeration of this kind so far back; as 1682, but it never was completed. In 1755 the Government, through Lord President Dundas, commissioned Dr. Webster, who was at that time minister of the Tron Church of Edinburgh, to obtain figures as to the population of Scotland. The plan taken by him was to send schedules to every parish minister in Scotland, and from the reports thus obtained he made up the first census of the people of Scotland. According to his figures the population of Lewis in 1755 numbered 6,386. About forty years afterwards (between 1790 and 1797) the clergymen of the island made reports on the population for Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Account, the number at that time being given as 8,311. These figures were meant to give the exact number of the inhabitants, but, knowing the difficulty that must have been experienced in obtaining. exact statistics throughout the island with such materials for enumeration as were then available, there is reason to believe that the above figures are not strictly accurate. The large number of soldiers recruited by Seaforth in the island towards the close of the eighteenth century would seem to indicate that the figures are below the actual number of the population. From 1801 to 1901 we have the official returns prepared under the Government Census, but before dealing with these, reference may be made to an enumeration prepared by the ground officers of the island in 1817 on the instructions of the proprietor. Each ground officer appears to have taken a kind of census in his own district, irrespective of parish boundaries, the details being as follows :—


Taken by
District of Carloway

Stornoway town, Bayhead and Inaclet

Stornoway Parish (landward),
John Murray
District of Uig
Kenneth Stewart
District of Bernera
Farquhar Smith
District of Barvas
William Macgregor
District of Ness
William Macgregor
District of Lochs
William Macgregor



The foregoing enumeration is initialed “ J. A. S. M.” (i.e., James Alexander Stewart Mackenzie).
If these figures were correct at the time, they show an increase of 5,148 during the sixty-two years from 1755 to 1817, while the increase for the twenty years or thereby between 1790 and 1817 is 3,223. This rate of increase has been more than sustained during the last century, as will be presently shown.

Clergymen and others who have written on the population of Lewis account for the increase in various ways, but attribute it in the main to early marriages. The Rev. William MacRae, minister of Barvas, writing in 1833,[ New Statistical Account, Ross and Cromarty, p. 146.] after pointing but that the population had practically doubled in the course of a century, goes on to say—
“ This rapid increase arises from a general inclination to marry young—from the want of any outlet for the superabundant population by emigration or otherwise,—and from the numerous sub-divisions of lots consequent on this accumulation.” At that time the number of persons above fifty years of age in Barvas was 413, of whom about 200 were males. Of these, only one was a bachelor, but there were twelve widowers. There were only fifteen unmarried women in the whole parish above forty-five years of age. [In the year 1871, not an unmarried girl over eighteen was left in Shadder, and everywhere else it was on the same scale.” Lewisiana, p. 16].
The Rev. Hugh Munro, minister of Uig, writing of the inhabitants of that parish in 1792, [Old Statistical Account, vol. xix., p. 284] observes that they marry very young, and that barrenness is scarcely “known.” A later minister of the same parish writing in 1833,[New Statistical Account, Ross and Cromarty, pp. 153-4.] after stating that the inhabitants had of late years improved much “in cleanliness, morals, and religion,” says “the population is on the increase, which may be accounted for by the fact, that the people marry young, are in general much attached to their native island, and not disposed to leave their native country.” A writer in the Old Statistical Account describes the proneness to marry shown by the inhabitants of Stornoway towards the end of the eighteenth century. He says—“ The common people of this island marry very early, and when death separates them, if the surviving party, whether male or female, finds it convenient to engage a second or third time in that state, some of them remain a few weeks, and some only a few days, in widowhood; so that grief for the loss of husband or wife is an affliction little known among the lower class of people here. A woman, in this country, whose husband shot himself accidentally, by an unguarded management of a firelock, settled her contract of marriage, in the way she thought fit, before the body of her late husband was interred, and was married the next day after she performed that last duty to the deceased.” (Vol. xix., pp. 261-2.). This inclination to marry appears to have continued, for, according to the minister of Stornoway, in 1833 the number of bachelors and widowers in the parish above fifty years of age was only 36 out of a total male population of 2,494, while the number of unmarried women above forty—five was only 77 out of a total female population of 2,997. As to the number of the population, he says—“ The extension of arable land or moss brought into culture, and the poverty of the people in the neighbouring parishes, tend to increase the population of Stornoway. Those who cannot emigrate to foreign lands, congregate in Stornoway, for the purpose of getting work.” [New Statistical Account, Ross and Cromarty, p. 127.]

Passing over the cause or causes of increase, the growth of the population as shown by the census returns is remarkable. The following are the figures during last century:

1801: 9,168
1811: 10,092
1821: 12,231
1841: 17,037
1851: 19,711
1861: 21,056
1871: 23,483
1881: 25,487
1891: 27,590
1901: 28,949

This table shows that during the nineteenth century the population has more than trebled, viz. —from 9,168 in 1801 to 28,949 in 1901, or an increase of 19,781.

The population of the county of Ross and Cromarty, including Lewis, at the beginning of last century was 56,318. It increased steadily till 1851, when a total of 82,707 was reached. Since then it has decreased, the figures shown by the last census, 76,421, or an increase in 1901 from 1801 of only 20,103. Of this increase, as has been shown, 19,781 belong to Lewis, and accordingly the total increase attaching to the mainland of Ross and Cromarty at the end of a hundred years is only 322. Further, as will be seen from the table on next page, the net increase in the seven crofting counties of Argyll, Inverness, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland, Caithness, Orkney and Shetland, including towns like Inverness, Dingwall, Oban, Wick, Thurso, Kirkwall, Lerwick, and the watering-places on the Clyde, such as Dunoon and other summer resorts, has only been 49,743 at the close of 100 years. Of that number 19,781 belong to Lewis, leaving only an increase of 29,962 for the whole remaining territory, both mainland and insular, from the Mull of Cantyre in the south of Argyll to Unst in the north of Shetland.

Another point to be noted in connection with the population is the number of families. The last census states the number of families in Lewis at 5,709, giving an average of slightly over five persons per family, and thus above the old average of five. The mainland of the county of Ross and Cromarty according to the same census had a population of 47,472 individuals and numbered 11,898 families, or rather less than four persons per family. The main explanation of this is that the strong and able-bodied flock to the centres of industry in the South, leaving comparatively few but the aged and very young at home. The following table shows the average number of persons in each family in the mainland of Ross and Cromarty [left column] and in Lewis [right column] respectively during the last thirty years.

1871: 4.232 – 5.358
1881: 4.166 – 5.320
1891: 4,073 – 5.238
1901: 3.983 – 5.086

Even in Lewis it will be seen that the number of persons per family is steadily decreasing. This, we may believe, is due to the fact that the youth of both sexes, as in other parts of the country, now seek employment in the South in larger numbers than formerly. It may be truly said that the schoolmaster is the great Highland depopulator and evictor of modern times, for even in Lewis the increase in the population during the last decade has been only 4.925 per cent, compared with 8.251 during the decade from 1881 to 1891.

In the following table will be found the population of each of the seven crofting counties in 1801, the highest limit to which it reached, and the population in 1901;

Population 1801
Highest population and year
Population 1901
Difference over 100 years
100,973 (1831)
97,799 (1841)
Ross & Cromarty
82,707 (1851)
25,793 (1851)
41,111 (1861)
32,395 (1861)
31,670 (1861)

Thus Argyll, notwithstanding the growth of Oban, and of the numerous towns and villages on the Clyde and Kyles of Bute, shows a decrease of 7,612 at the close of 100 years, and a decrease of 27,308 as compared with 1831, when the population reached its highest limit. The County of Sutherland also shows a decrease of 1,567 at the end of the century, and of 4,243 as compared with 1851, when its highest limit was reached. The remaining five counties show a gross increase at the end of the century of 58,922, but deducting therefrom the decrease in Argyll and Sutherland we have a net increase in the seven crofting counties of 49,743. Inverness—shire reached its highest limit in 1841, Ross and Cromarty in 1851, Caithness, Orkney, and Shetland in 1861, and the total population in these years exceeded the population of 1901 by 28,337. Before closing our remarks on the population of Lewis a few observations on the question of language may be made. The first Census giving the number of the Gaelic population was that of 1881. In that year the total population of the island was 25,487, of whom 23,747 are described as “persons speaking Gaelic,” leaving only 1,740 (including those in the Burgh of Stornoway) not acquainted with that language. The Census of 1891 gives the following figures :—

Total population of Lewis: 27,590
Persons speaking Gaelic only: 14,015
Persons speaking Gaelic and English: 11,254
TOTAL: 25,269

leaving 2,321 persons presumably unacquainted‘ with Gaelic, including those in the Burgh of Stornoway.

The figures in the Census of 1901 appear thus :—
Total population of Lewis: 28,949
Persons speaking Gaelic only: 9,929
Persons speaking Gaelic and English: 15,989
TOTAL 25,918

leaving 3,031 persons presumably unacquainted with Gaelic.

It will be observed that while the total number who spoke Gaelic only was 14,015 in 1891, it had fallen to 9,929 in 1901. This is easily accounted for by the fact that the old people who spoke Gaelic only are gradually dying out, while their successors in Lewis speak both Gaelic and English. The figures for 1891 and 1901 afford ample proof of this, for while the number who spoke Gaelic and English in the former year was 11,254, it stood at 15,989 in the latter, or an increase of 4,735 during the decade. In this connection the statement may be repeated that the increase of population for the whole island during the same period was only 1,359. Of the total of 3,031 returned as unacquainted with Gaelic, 968 are in the Burgh of Stornoway, leaving 2,063 non—Gaelic-speaking persons in the country district thus :—Barvas, 600; Lochs, 423; Stornoway (landward), 678; and Uig, 362.

These figures as they stand do not correctly represent the actual state of matters as regards the question of language in Lewis, but they are easily explained. The Census Act of 1890 provided that the schedules should, among other details, set forth whether the person named was “blind, or deaf and dumb, or imbecile or lunatic, and whether any such person speaks Gaelic only, or both ‘Gaelic and English.” Here, there is no reference to age, and the infant children of Gaelic—speaking parents were entered in the Census of 1891 as Gaelic—speaking. The Census Act of 1900 introduced the matter of age in the following clause :—
“ The schedules under this Act shall include particulars showing whether any person who abode in any house on the night of the census day (being three years of age or upwards) speaks English only, or Gaelic only, both English and Gaelic.”

To this clause effect has been given, and the children under three years of age, of Gaelic—speaking parents, in Lewis (whether speaking Gaelic only, or both Gaelic and English), are returned as English speakers, or in any case as not speaking Gaelic. According to the Census of 1891, the proportion of children under three years of age to the whole population is about 7½ per cent., and it is assumed that the proportion in 1901 will be found to be substantially the same, when the particulars are published. Leaving out of account the Burgh of Stornoway, where there is a considerable population not acquainted with Gaelic, there are 23,069 persons in the country districts who speak Gaelic only, or Gaelic, and English. On the basis of 7½ per cent, there are among all these 1,730 persons under three years of age, now classed as English, but nearly all of Whom will speak Gaelic and English. This number only leaves 333 persons in all the country districts of Lewis not acquainted with Gaelic.

Appendix A to this Report (pages 2 and 3) gives the population of each Parish of Lewis from 1755 to 1901, with such other details as were available.

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