Hugh Miller stepped off the Betsey to find lands visited by terror and evil (Rum and Eigg)

 

Were the people willing to go?

Some of them
Others were not very willing, they did not like to leave the land of their ancestors

isle-of-eigg

Isle of Eigg

A recent discovery of an anchor believed to have belonged to a floating kirk that sailed around Ardnamurchan from the time of the Disruption  coincided with me reading about a floating manse from the same era.

When the Church of Scotland split in 1843 its breakaway congregations set themselves up as the Free Kirk.  When they tried to build their own churches they were often denied permission by lairds still attached to the Church of Scotland, men who governed the lives of those who lived on their land, and so worship was frequently carried out in the open air in all weathers in places they could not be chased off by landlords. However, Free Kirkers at Loch Sunart found money to have a ship built to sail the Western Isles so providing a watery kirk for the folk in the islands out of reach of controlling lairds. The anchor found is thought to have come from it.

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Towing the iron church into Loch Sunart

I don’t know how many such vessels were used in this way but loathe to let a coincidence pass by I was pressed to retell a little of what struck my ancestor, Hugh Miller, when he voyaged around the Inner Hebrides on a floating manse in 1858 – a journey recorded in his book, The Cruise of the Betsey.

Miller was a journalist, a newspaper editor, an evangelical Christian, a folklorist and an archaeologist. From Cromarty in the Black Isle he travelled around the Sound of Mull – to Rum and Eigg looking for fossils, the bloodstones of Rum included, and discovered more than a pile of old stones.

hugh-miller

Hugh Miller

The evangelical Christian was immensely moved by seeing the impact of the Clearances on these isles. He was, as a Highlander, familiar with the Clearances and, indeed, his own family had been cleared from their glens so he was sensitive to the evidence revealed by the land from some eighteen years earlier when nearly 400 men, women and children, virtually the entire population of Rum, were dragged out of their homes and shipped off to a foreign country leaving behind all they knew and loved.

Ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs of Bosnian Croats and Muslims rightly aroused outrage at the end of the 20th century when people were thrown off their homeland because they were despised for having a different religion and culture from their oppressors. In Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries people were thrown out of their communities, off the land they worked, to make room for sheep and later deer in acts of economic cleansing that involved a wholesale disregard for them as human beings. Both these despicable acts involved the imposition of cruelty by one group upon another and enforced deportation.

As he stepped ashore on Rum (pron. room from the Gaelic now anglicised to sound like the spirit) from the floating manse, the Betsey, Miller noticed patches of green on the island’s hillsides – places once home to people for generations who had been summarily cleared out as if that was of no significance – “cleared off to the backwoods of America” as Miller phrased it. Several homes were razed to the ground in 1826  so the men, women and children dragged from them would not be able to live there anymore while others were left to fall down over time. Miller was struck,too, by the little patches of corn still growing where once farming had followed the seasons and provided food for islanders. He stared at abandoned cottages; homes that once rang out to the sounds of christenings, weddings and New Year celebrations – and the land about them where the peoples’ loved ones were buried.

“…it seems a bad policy,” Miller remarked, despite the chilling argument from economists at the time “that there are more than people enough in Scotland still.”

On population size being a determinant for clearances Miller commented –

“There are, I believe, more than enough in our workhouses, – more than enough on our pauper-rolls, – more than enough huddled up, disreputable , useless, and unhappy, in the miasmatic alleys and typhoid courts of our large towns, but I have yet to learn how arguments for local depopulation are to be drawn from facts such as these.”

Miller mentioned a solitary shepherd’s house standing at one end of the island where the shepherd and his wife lived-

“the sole representatives in the valley of a numerous population, long since expatriated to make way for a few flocks of sheep, but whose ranges of little fields may still be seen green”.

As the party that disembarked from The Betsey searched the hills for Rum’s renowned bloodstones they were spotted by island’s shepherd and soon he and his wife had clambered up, she carrying a “a vast bowl of milk, and he a basket of bread and cheese” out of kindness and hospitality.

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Isle of Rum

It struck Miller that the more remote places were the greater the hospitality – that is certainly true of friendliness among people in Scotland’s small villages where few would walk by another without a nod, smile or a hello.

Miller put it more eloquently –

“[that]…hospitality dwindles and disappears, like fruits in the thick of a wood; but where man is planted sparsely, it blossoms, and matures, like apples on a standard or espalier. It flourishes where the inn and the lodging-house cannot exist, and dies out where they thrive and multiply.”

The 400 souls of Rum were crammed on board ships, Highland Lad and, oh the irony, the Dove of Harmony  to Nova Scotia in Canada to begin their lives from scratch. They left behind their island, one sheep farmer and 8,000 sheep.

“All the aborigines of Rum crossed the Atlantic; and at the close of 1828, the entire population consisted of but the sheep-farmer, and a few shepherds, his servants.”

Those who survived the shocking conditions and overcrowding on-board during often rough passages across the Atlantic had to find whatever way they could to house, feed and clothe themselves and families in unfamiliar territory while back in their homeland the sheep experiment to make money for the laird failed when the price of mutton plummeted. Rum was sold off – another piece of property, like the people who once lived there. At his time of writing Miller believed the new owner was an Englishman looking for an opportunity to make money by turning the island into a deer forest – a sporting estate to amuse wealthy gunmen from the mainland.

map-rum
Rum had been populated by human beings since the 8th millennium BC. It is surely understandable that succeeding generations of the island’s inhabitants regarded the island as theirs but others held a different perspective so the folk of Rum lost out to speculators investing in “wool and mutton” and then deer. Islanders were pawns in a bigger game that turned a once thriving island into a desert. Rum would be sold several times over in the search for  profit.

The island’s streams that once provided food for its people were found by Miller to be full of fish with no-one to take them. Rum’s former fishers not possessing fishing nets used to bunch heath roots together which they arranged in mounds across burns, securing them in place with boulders then one or two involved would walk downstream beating the water  and driving trout towards the dam where they would get caught up in the heather roots. The bigger fish were scooped out for food while the immature ones were returned to the burns.

eigg-looking-to-rum

Isle of Eigg

The Betsey called in at the island of Eigg whose people were also evicted and shipped abroad and here Miller and his associates came upon the site of notorious mass murder that took place from an earlier time – remnants of civilisation: straw beds, human bones, household objects, the handle of a child’s wooden porringer (a bowl with a handle) with a hole through it to hang it to a wall, strands of grey hair.

One winter, possibly during the 16th century, members of the clan Macleod from Skye sailed to Eigg and having offended the native people, the Macdonalds,  the raiders were strapped to boats and pushed out into the sea. Following their rescue they plotted vengeance on the people of Eigg and returned to the island, well-armed, and so terrified the people they ran away and hid in a large narrow cave. The Macleods searched the island but not finding anyone they contented themselves with ransacking the islanders’ houses and were about to leave with their booty when one of them spotted a figure on the beach. They renewed their hunt and as this was in the winter-time a light fall of snow exposed the lookout’s footprints. The footsteps led to the mouth of the cave. Because the cave’s entrance was very narrow the Skye men were unable to enter it safely so they gathered heather and ferns and packed them into and around the entrance and set fire to them so that in time those hiding – the entire population of Eigg – elderly to babies were smothered to death by the smoke.

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Narrow-entranced cave where the population of Eigg took shelter and died

Sir Walter Scott raised money to provide Christian burials for these sad remains when he found out about the massacre.

Miller did discover samples of the bloodstones he was after on Rum – the hard stone once used to shape into tools and weapons by the island’s early settlers. The populations of Rum and Eigg survived centuries of hardship, Viking invasion, occupation by Scots but coarse, selfish, inhuman lairds finally destroyed civilisation on the islands.

Evidence to a government select committee on enforced emigration in 1827 recorded this question:

Were the people willing to go?
Answer:
Some of them
Others were not very willing, they did not like to leave the land of their ancestors

A witness to the deportation of the people of Rum recalled hearing plaintive echoing cries from aboard Atlantic-bound ships as their human cargo watched their homeland disappear from view forever.

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Preaching to a breakaway Free Kirk congregation at the seaside

Rum was sold to Nature Conservancy in 1957 as a nature reserve, now under the control of Scottish Natural Heritage.

2 Comments to “Hugh Miller stepped off the Betsey to find lands visited by terror and evil (Rum and Eigg)”

  1. Fascinating. I didn’t know about ship churches, but it makes sense. I stay in a former United Free church which was built on land given to the people of the parish by a local estate. Initially it was a timber and oiled canvas construction, but later as money became available that was replaced by a whinstone building with a manse alongside, complete with stable for the minister’s horse. The structure was plain, the main church with two small rooms at either side of the door – one presumably for the elders, the other (with a small fire) for the minister. In winter, services must have seemed endless in a building with no heating and narrow, uncomfortable pews. When the United Free churches amalgamated with the Church of Scotland in 1928 the building became redundant (there was already a C of S church in the village as well as an older church) and was used for agricultural purposes until we restored it in the late 1980s.

    • If you don’t mind, fascinating, is my response to your comment. The congregation of your church were fortunate it would seem to have a sympathetic landowner. From the little I’ve read on the Disruption the earl break-away congregations were hounded from pillar-to-post when attempting to establish a place for joint worship – using the middle of roads on occasions. The watery manses and churches must be very unusual in ecclesiastical histories and deserve to be better known. Quite a number of former churches around here have been converted to homes or businesses but one Free Kirk nearby was demolished altogether – and I don’t know the reason for that although I suppose it was just as you say the amalgamation of the UF with CoS and no-one wanted the building or its upkeep.

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