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people of the shore

« People of The Shore » (Muinntir a' Chladaich.) In 1838 the 20th Chief of ClanranaId, Ronald George McDonald, due to mounting personal debt, 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 1400 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 Cheviot sheep and deer. Between 1849 and 1851, showing nothing but contempt for the island's people and culture, he brutally evicted his tenants, almost three-thousand 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, with false promises, to emigrate to Canada. Those left behind were removed to the rugged, inhospitable and least productive terrain on the east coast of the island, where they lived in poverty, destitution and congestion for almost fifty 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 the 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 compared to the Magna Cartaprovided crofters with parcels of land (crofts), security of tenure, the right to arbitration with 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 people'. (Warriors of The Word, Michael Newton)

« Rubha Caolas Luirsaigh » 
Early in 1908 ten families from Lochcarnan established a new crofting settlement at East Gerinish on the southern shore of Loch Shielavaig. My grandfather, Donald McInnes, then nineteen years of age, his brothers Roderick, Ewan, John and Neil, moved from Caltinish at Lochcarnan where they were born, to Rubha Caolas Luirsaigh. (Point of the Straights of Lursaigh.) Their sisters Effie, Mary and Dolina remained at the old family home.
      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 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 Cuillin mountains of 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 first house with rocks brought from the head of Loch Shielavaig (three billion-year-old Lewissian Gneiss, the bedrock of the Hebrides) and 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.
      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, the families led a spartan life embedded in a tradition of common endeavour — the antithesis of consumerism — men and women working the land and sea together, typical of the people and landscape which would later be the subject of Paul Strand and Basil Davidson's classic book Tìr a'Mhurain : Outer Hebrides. 

Angus McInnes on 'Therese', Loch Sheilavaig

      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, but often impossible in winter.
      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. The men were very skilled at small boat work, working their traditional, lapstrake-built boats of larch and oak; at sea, even in relatively sheltered locations, the weather can change suddenly, so it was wise to heed the old Gaelic saying: Tuig thus' an t-eather agus tuigidh an t-eather thu. (Understand the boat and the boat will understand you.) Originally designed in the 1840s with large red-brown sails, from the early 1900s, often equipped with Kelvin engines. Many are still in use today; they are relatively fast, strong, 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.

The Gathering at The Fank 1953 Back row: Donald McInnes, Hugh McInnes. Middle row: 'Spring' the collie, Margaret McInnes, George Johnston, Murdoch McRury, Neil McRury, Donald Beaton (the Postman). Front Row: Francis Fitzpatrick, Mary McRury, 'Donnie' Fitzpatrick, Ronald Johnston, Willie Struthers, Unknown. 

      Gaels are a profoundly oral people, ancestry and kinship are central to who they are. When far from home on meeting a fellow Gael for the first time, it's quite common, once initial pleasantries are exchanged, to ask 'Cò na daoine a tha agad'. ('Who are your people?'.) Genealogy and kinship are important and the names of grandparents, mothers and fathers, family histories and places of birth establish connections each can relate to.

« People of The Shore » portrays the descendants of those dispossessed almost one hundred and fifty years ago by Gordon of Cluny, 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 (and my father) 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.