History is in the eye of the Beholder

When Carl Reavey published his 'Islay Population in the last 300 years' in the Ileach of 14th March, he started an interesting exchange of opinions. Catriona Bell followed two weeks later with her contribution of events/clearances on Islay in the 19th century, and presented an alternative view. And two weeks later Eleanor McNab joins Catriona Bell and questions some of the assumptions made by Carl. It shows that history, by no means exact science, is so very fascinating. Since there are so many angles from which you can approach certain events there will always be great stories and views of Islay's rich history. That's the reason why I also want to share the third article with you. And who knows, perhaps there will be a fourth and a fifth, let's hope so!

Eleanor McNab suggests the evidence of John Murdoch casts further doubt on the conventional view of the ‘benevolent landowner’

I would like to join Catriona Bell in questioning some of the assumptions made in the 'Story of the last three hundred years' as featured in your issue of 14th March. I too turn to the writings of John Murdoch in my efforts to understand the recent history of our island from the perspective of the people. Writing in 1889, at the age of 71, John Murdoch recalled that in his boyhood there were 1100 tenant farmers on Islay. He considered that the majority lived in a 'rough sort of way' with cattle going in the same door as themselves but he also considered that they lived comfortably, paid their rents regularly and could have found a year’s rent in advance from their accounts at the Bank in Inveraray. He also states that significant numbers of them were creditors of the Laird at the time of his sequestration in the 1840s. Continue reading......The story of the clearance from Kilchiaran has always struck a chord with me. According to Murdoch, in the early 19th Century the lands now known as Kilchiaran were farmed by 6 tenants and 19 sub-tenants or cottars. Life was not easy but a standard considerably higher than subsistence is described by him. These folk were cleared against their will – some emigrating and some moving to the villages. In their place a farmer from Fife was brought in to improve the land and provide an example of good husbandry and land management. The house and wonderful steading which we see today were built for him at the Laird’s expense. In the event, that farmer was unable to make a living for himself and his household on lands which had previously supported 25 families and he left the island within four years.

There is absolutely no doubt that life in 19th Century Islay was difficult and mortality rates high. However, the image of a majority of tenants “facing arrears in their pitiful rents to landlords” as quoted in the article of 14 March must be seen in the light of Murdoch’s evidence above. Some might dispute his account but there is no disputing the facts as stated in the Laird’s own records. The Black Book of 1828 is a record of the tenants of Islay. This states that there were 870 tenants at that time of whom only 17 are listed as being in arrears. 14 tenants are listed as wood-stealers - all of these were resident on the Oa and the wood 'stolen' had been washed up on the coast. A further five tenants were black-listed for having 'opposed the removing from Kilchiaran'.

This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

Tag: history clearances

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