The Isle of Harris – History
The Isle of Harris is not a separate island at all but is joined to the Isle of Lewis.
The Western Isles have been inhabited for thousands of years and, at one time, would have been on the main sea route from Scandinavia down the west coast of Scotland to Ireland. There are standing stones in the area dating back 5,000 years – the stone circle at Callanish in Lewis is even older than Stonehenge.
MacLeod’s Stone, on the west coast of Harris, is Neolithic but was later named for the clan chief of the area and it is thought that it might have been a gathering point for the clan.
Christian missionaries arrived about 500 AD, followed by the Vikings in about 800 AD. Some of the Viking raiders chose to settle in the islands, and many of the island place names reflect this influence. In 1266, the islands were ceded to Scotland and came under the control of the Lord of the Isles.
The 1700’s saw more settled times, and clansmen turned to agriculture rather than to war. The main settlements were on the fertile coastal machair down the west coast of Harris and on the outlying islands. Each township had its own lands close by, and summer shielings in the Bays area and in the hills of North Harris. The crofters lived in blackhouses made of turf or stone, burned peat for cooking and heating, kept small black native cows and grew mostly oats on small strips of land known as “lazy beds” which were fertilised by manure and seaweed. There was fishing from some of the sheltered bays on the east coast and on the neighbouring islands.
In the 1800’s many of the tenants were “cleared” off the better crofts on the west side in favour of sheep farmers. Some crofters eked out a living on the rocky east side, but many emigrated to Canada and Australia.
The Napier Commission was set up in the late 1800’s to look at the plight of the crofters and this resulted in the passing of the Crofters Act in 1883 which gave them a measure of protection. Crofting townships were re-settled. The more recent legislation gave tenant crofters the right to buy their individual crofts, and there have also been several Community Buyouts where the old landlords have been obliged to sell their estates to the local communities.
Amhuinnsuidhe Castle was built by the Earl of Dunmore in 1864 as a hunting lodge. His wife was very taken with the tweed woven by two sisters in Harris and sent them to the mainland for training. They became known as the “Paisley sisters” and taught other Harris women how to weave, thus establishing the Harris Tweed industry. She also encouraged the local women to knit socks, and these, along with tweed knickerbockers and jackets, became the uniform of ghillies and gamekeepers across the country. The Hebrides (including St Kilda) became popular with adventurous early tourists in Victorian times, who sailed up the west coast in the old steamers and this provided a ready market for the tweeds woven over the long winter months.
Lord Leverhulme (the “Soap Man”), the founder of Unilever, bought the estates of Harris in 1919 and vowed to improve life for the Islanders by establishing commercial fishing fleets. He established a new town at An t-Ob, now known as Leverburgh, but his great plans came to an end with his sudden death.
The famous Lewis Chessmen were found in the sand dunes at Uig in Lewis in 1831 after a storm washed away sand dunes. They are made from walrus tusk, date from the 12th century and are Norse in origin. Pieces can be seen in the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and in the British Museum in London.
The island of Hirta (St Kilda) belongs to the Parish of Harris. It is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and leased to the Nature Conservancy Council, which manages it as a National Nature Reserve. The Ministry of Defence has a presence in Village Bay.
Inhabitants of St Kilda eked out a meagre existence by collecting seabirds’ eggs from the hazardous cliffs and catching the birds themselves. (Islanders are still permitted to catch gannets or guga in the traditional way.) St Kilda became something of a curiosity to the first tourists in Victorian times, when travel to the remote parts of Scotland became fashionable. A dwindling population, illness and isolation took its toll, and the remaining islanders requested that they should be taken off the island in 1930.
“We, the undersigned the natives of St Kilda, hereby respectfully pray and petition HM Government to assist us all to leave the island this year, and to find homes and occupations for us on the mainland.”
On 29 August 1930, the Harebell took the remaining St Kildans away from the island to a new life on the mainland.
Visits to St Kilda can be arranged from Harris, Uist and Lewis. These are mainly day trips, and special permission must be sought to stay on the island. All who visit are touched by the special atmosphere of the place and humbled at the thought of what life there must have been like.