about : people of the shore
« The People of The Shore » In 1838 the Chief of ClanranaId, George McDonald, sold his Estates on South Uist to Colonel John Gordon of Cluny, a heartless, hard-headed businessman from Aberdeenshire, the owner of six plantations and slaves on Tobago in the West Indies. Cluny was not a Gael and would never live on South Uist; a Scot from a completely different language, culture and tradition. In an effort to increase profits from the Estates he introduced ‘modern’ practices and ‘improvements’ — replacing people with sheep. Between 1849 and 1851, showing nothing but contempt for the island's people and culture, he brutally evicted his tenants, almost 3,000 people, from their homes and smallholdings where they had lived and worked, like their forefathers, for generations; many of them were bound hand-and-foot like cattle and forced to emigrate to Canada. Those left behind were removed to the inhospitable and least productive terrain on the east coast of the island, where they lived in poverty, destitution and congestion for almost 50 years.
Known as the « Clearances » this would be called ethnic cleansing today and was typical of absentee landlords throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the middle years of the 19th century. Cluny and his heir and daughter-in-law, Lady Gordon Cathcart, were amongst the most cold-blooded, but their own clan chiefs were often no better: '...men trampled under the hooves of sheep / and driven by deer to / the ends of the earth — to men whose loyalty / was so great it accepted their own betrayal / by their own chiefs'. A Man in Assynt, Norman MacCaig.
The ‘improvements’ proved unsuccessful and in 1886 The Crofters Holding Act eventually returned much of the Estates to the people Cluny and his daughter-in-law so savagely dispossessed. The Act, often referred to as the « Magna Carta of Gaeldom » provided crofters with parcels of land (crofts), security of tenure, the right to arbitration in relation to rent increases and the right to bequeath their tenancies to family or dependents. Two expressions in Gaelic, òraichean daona (human rights) and dùthchasachd (hereditary right) are implicit tenets of the Crofters Holding Act, the idea that people belong to the land, not the land to the people.
« Rubha Caolas Luirsaigh — The Point »
Early in 1908 ten families from Loch Carnan established a new crofting settlement at East Gerinish on the southern shore of Loch Shielavaig. My grandfather, Donald McInnes, then 19 years-old, his brothers Roderick, Ewan, John and Neil, moved from Caltinish at Loch Carnan where they were born, to Rubha Caolas Luirsaigh, a peninsula of East Gerinish on the shore of Loch Shielavaig. Their sisters Effie, Mary and Dolina remained at the old family home.
Rubha Caolas Luirsaigh, known locally as The Point, was only a few miles from Caltinish as the crow flies but remote and uninhabited, situated between the heads of two sea lochs, Loch Shielavaig and Loch Skipport. Not long afterwards, the Beaton family joined them. The Campbell, Johnstone, Struthers, MacLean, MacLeod, MacRury and the McEachan families settled at the less remote part of East Gerinish, all part of the initiative which had its genesis in the Crofters Holding Act.
A rough terrain of moorland, rock and a patchwork of small freshwater lochans, The Point looks out to the Sea of The Hebrides with the Isle of Skye on the far horizon. The McInnes and Beaton houses were situated on individual croft sites of thirty to forty acres, each with a small area of arable ground suitable for sowing hay and cultivating vegetables. My grandfather and his brothers built their house with rocks brought from the head of Loch Shielavaig — three billion year-old Lewissian Gneiss, the bedrock of the Hebrides — carried them by boat to a natural slipway near the site of the house and hauled them up from the shore. After some years, The Point proved to be too remote for the McInnes and Beaton families, especially in winter, an hour-long trek over hill and moor to the other families, so they eventually joined them at the main settlement.
Most of the crofting settlements on the east coast of South Uist face the sea or sea lochs. There was no electricity or running water and few roads until the 1950s and 60s, journey by small boat was the only practical way to travel. The shore of Loch Shielavaig is fragmented with small tidal bays and inlets which enabled each house to have a natural, sheltered slipway for their boats which were based on an Old Norse / Irish design and often built by the Stewart family at Kallin on the island of Grimsay to the north. Clincker-built since the 1840s using larch and oak, they are fast, strong and stable in open water and manoeuvrable in the shallows of the sea lochs where they can be safely moored in the shelter of the rocky inlets close to home.
Fishing and the gathering of kelp were the mainstays of the community in spring and summer, with shared access to a large area of common grazing for their cattle and small herds of dark Hebridean or Blackface sheep. Close-knit, hardy and self-sufficient, they led a spartan life embedded in a tradition of common endeavour — the antithesis of consumerism — working the land and sea together, typical of the people and the landscape which would later be the subject of Paul Strand and Basil Davidson's book Tìr a'Mhurain : Outer Hebrides.
Gaels are a profoundly oral people, ancestry and kinship is central to who they are. When far from home on first meeting a fellow Gael, it's quite common once initial pleasantries are exchanged, to ask 'Who are your people?' — cò leis thu? in Gaelic. Genealogy is important and the names of grandparents, mothers and fathers, family histories and places of birth establish connections each can relate to.
The People of The Shore portrays the descendants of those dispossessed almost one hundred and fifty years ago, images of family and friends taken by the people of East Gerinish. I owe a debt of gratitude to the McInnes, Beaton, McRury and McLean families for allowing me to use their photographs:
In my heart and in my head are all the questions I never asked
and all the photographs I never took.