Past & Present

The Way of Life in Scarp

Angus Duncan, son of the schoolmaster, wrote in wonderful detail his reminiscences of life in Scarp in his childhood, growing up at the end of the 19th Century. He wrote his manuscripts in the 1940s and 50s, making insightful references to how times had changed in Scarp in the intervening period. Much of what is written here about Scarp is taken from those accounts, edited by his son, also named Angus, in a book entitled Hebridean Island: Memories of Scarp, published in 1995. Place-names of Scarp by John Maclennan, a native of Scarp, edited by Calum J. Mackay and published in 2001, has been another valuable source of information. Excerpts from the recollections of Coinneach Lachie (Kenneth Maclennan) from Scarp, now living in Gòbhaig and of Aonghas Dhòmhnaill a' Phuist (Angus Maclean) from Hùisinis, now living in Milngavie, are also included. Their full accounts are to be found elsewhere on the website, in the Island Stories section.

One of the most prominent challenges which faced the people of Scarp was the lack of a sheltered harbour. This made it necessary to launch and recover boats each time they were required, and limited the size of craft which could be used. Fishing for lobster in winter in an open sail-powered boat, only eighteen feet in length, was a hazardous affair. The boats had a crew of four, fishing with creels they made themselves from wood and twine. The lobsters were sent to Billingsgate market, packed in straw in wooden boxes.

Tormod Dhòmhnaill Sheumais (Norman Macdonald) from Scarp gave evidence to the Napier Commission* in Tarbert in 1883. He described the tough conditions endured whilst lobster fishing. In the absence of a jetty, fishermen had to wade up to the waist when launching the boats each morning, and remain in that soaked condition all day, through the coldest of winter weather.

Scarp Crew 1930s Katie Maclennan.jpgScarp Crew 1930s   Courtesy of Katie Maclennan

In the 1800s long line fishing with bigger boats, in deeper water, for cod, hake, ling and skate, was carried out from Scarp (both by locals and fishermen from the East Coast mainland). Locals then sold dried, salted fish through Stornoway. The boats used were too heavy to be hauled ashore and had to be sold each winter.

By the end of that century, the few bigger boats on the island were used to ferry seaweed, to bring home peats from the isle of Fladdaigh and mainland Harris, for the 17 mile trip to Tarbert for provisions, and to dispatch lobsters bound for Billingsgate. Before a missionary settled in Scarp, in 1891, the islanders also went to church in Tarbert by boat on Sundays.

The winter was devoted to lobster fishing, the spring to preparing and planting the ground. Then the men went away to work at the herring fishing for the summer, on the East Coast mainland boats, returning in autumn to harvest the crops.

Coinneach Lachie, who lived in Scarp until 1967 recalls:

‘All the men who were old enough to earn were fishing for lobsters. I remember four boats being at the lobster fishing. The fishing was good but they only got 1/3d for a dozen lobsters. At first the lobsters were sent to market at Billingsgate – they were transported by bus from Hùisinis to Tarbert, then on the Lochmor to Kyle and hence by train to Billingsgate. Some of them died before they arrived there. Later on, Calum at Caolas na Sgeirean had two retaining ponds and he used to buy them. Aonghas Mor Iain a Songhais also had one on Stocanais Island, but they didn’t pay as much as you could get for them in Billingsgate. However, it was easier to sell them in Harris.They frequently couldn’t get out to sea because of heavy seas. Although the channel was narrow it could be pretty difficult with strong currents and rough seas in high winds.’

Collecting peats on Fladdaigh, 1937Robert M. Adam.jpgCollecting peats on Fladdaigh, 1937 Source:Robert M. Adam

The milling of grain in the watermills of Abhainn na Muilne (The Mill Stream) carried on up until the mid-1800s, and along with it the use of the island’s corn kiln for drying the grain. By Angus Duncan’s youth in the 1890s, oatmeal was purchased from the resident merchant or directly from Tarbert. When supplies of oatmeal ran out, particularly when sustained periods of bad weather prevented travel to Tarbert, barley grain was carefully dried in an iron pot placed over hot cinders and the hand quern was used to grind the seed to meal. Two women would stand either side of the quern mounted on a table, the upper millstone was turned with a wooden handle, passing from one woman to the other, and the grain was fed through the hole in the middle.

Hand Quern Museum nan Eilean Collections.jpgHand Quern       Source: Museum nan Eilean

A very particular challenge was faced by crofters throughout the Outer Hebrides in growing crops from the 1740s until the 1820s, as a result of the value of seaweed at that time for the extraction of soda and potash for use in the manufacture of glass and soap. The island of Fladdaigh at the north end of Caolas an Scarp (the Sound of Scarp) was used as a base for cutting, drying and burning seaweed to produce kelp ash between about 1748 and 1822. During this time the landlord forbade the people of Scarp from cutting or gathering seaweed for use on their crops.

Aside from the years of kelp ash production, seaweed was used to improve the ground and was applied to land used for all crops. Boat trips would be made to the sheltered sea-lochs several miles away where the favoured seaweed was plentiful; knotted wrack was harvested from the rocks at low tide with sickles. Seaweed thrown up on the shore in storms was also recovered for use on the fields.

Seaweed is highly beneficial for plant growth as it provides mineral nutrients, trace metals and plant growth stimulants, all in a form which is easily taken up by the roots of plants. In the case of the light machair soil, the jelly-like carbohydrates in the seaweed, the alginates, bind with the soil minerals, greatly improving the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil; very important factors in preventing soil erosion, allowing seedlings to establish and enabling plants to thrive.

Knotted Wrack J Cumming.jpgKnotted wrack      (Photo: Joan Cumming)

Cow manure was also used to fertilise the hungrier crops, the potatoes and bere barley, and carried from the byres to the fields in creels. If a potato crop was slow in growth, soot laden thatch would be taken from the roof and applied to the field. The soot from the peat fires was rich in potash, which provided the potassium needed for healthy growth in the plants and a good yield of potatoes.

Angus Duncan wrote of the observations of a visiting agriculturalist, upon visiting Scarp in 1930, who commented on the amazing extent of the cultivation from shore to foothills. The visitor also observed that more barley was grown for animal feed in Scarp at that time than anywhere else in the Outer Hebrides. Large walled enclosures, the iodhlann or the cornyard, was where the stacks of oats, barley and hay were stored over winter. There were stone enclosures to house the cattle too – Coinneach Lachie:

‘…they were built to put the animals into at night to stop them from eating the crops. They were let out in the morning and somebody would herd them all day. Domhnall Sheann Dhòmhnaill used to do this and he might be given a couple of hogs as payment.’

The milking cows were kept on the island all year, but in the summer, the stirks (young cattle) and the bull had to swim across the sound to summer pasture. The stock were roped around the horns, and in Angus Duncan’s time, they were driven into the water at the narrowest point of the sound at Tràigh nan Capull (Mare Beach). In the boat would be the two rowers and two men standing in the stern holding the ropes on three or four animals. If an animal grew fatigued it would turn on its side and give up, and its head then had to be held clear of the water as it was pulled along.

In Coinneach Lachie’s time, the stock were taken across to Hùisinis:

‘On the day of the cattle sale we had to swim the animals to Hùisinis tied to the boats with ropes…The stirks used to summer in Cravadale and we only had to drive them through Stìomar to Hùisinis…It was very difficult to make them go into the sea in the first instance – this was the women’s job. The bull was easier to deal with – they were stronger and good swimmers. If sheep and rams had to be ferried they were put inside the boats. It was very hard work rowing at these times.’

At one time, all the stock were taken to summer pasture and a woman from each household would go to the shielings for July and August with the milking cows, preparing the stores of butter and cheese. The nearest shieling was at the head of Loch Crabhadail at A’Bhuaile Dhubh (The Black Shieling). The bedding, milk churns, cheese vats, basins, food, cooking utensils, tools and materials for repairing the huts all had to be transported.

Loch Crabhadail Chris Murray.jpgThe feannagan and small freshwater loch by the sheilings at A’Bhuaile Dhubh, by Loch Crabhadail  (Photo: Chris Murray)

By Joan Cumming, 2014

Next Section