Harris, pp.745-747.

[Gazetteer of Scotland Contents]

   HARRIS,1 a district of the outer Hebrides, comprehending the southern part of Lewis, and the small islands which surround it, of which BERNERA, CALLIGRAY, ENSAY, PABBAY, TARANSAY, SCALPAY, and SCARP, [see these articles,] only are inhabited; besides a vast number of pasture and kelp-isles, holms, and high rocks, which are also distinguished by particular names. 

   The northern part of the mainland of Harris is separated from Lewis by an isthmus of about 6 miles across, formed by the approximation of the two harbours of Loch-Resort on the west coast, and Loch-Seaforth on the east. The whole length, from the isthmus to the southern end of Harris, where the Sound of Harris separates it from North Uist, may be estimated at 25 or 26 miles. Its breadth is extremely various, in consequence of its being deeply intersected by several arms of the sea, but it generally extends from 6 to 8 miles. Harris is again naturally divided into two districts by two arms of the sea, called East and West Loch-Tarbert, which approach so near each other as to leave an isthmus of not more than a quarter of a mile in breadth.2 The northern district, between Tarbert and Lewis, is termed the Forest, though without a tree or shrub.3 It is also sometimes called Na Beannibh, that is ‘the Mountains.’ Its surface is exceedingly mountainous, rising in CLISHEIM [which see] to nearly 3,000 feet above the sea. These mountains are in general bare and rocky; but the valleys contain tolerable pasturage; and some coarse grass is found growing in the interstices of the mountains. The largest stream empties itself into Loch-Resort. Along the eastern and western shores there are a number of creeks or inlets of the sea – most of them commodious harbours – at each of which a colony of tenants contrive, by a wonderful exertion of industry, to raise crops from a soil of the most forbidding aspect; but in the whole of this tract there is not a piece of good arable land of the extent of 4 acres. There are several lakes in the valleys, at various altitudes, but none exceeding 2 miles in length. On the east coast is the low swampy island of Scalpay; and on the west, the high and rocky island of Scarp. 

   The surface of the ground south of Tarbert is much of the same appearance as the northern district; but the mountains are not so elevated. The highest are Ronaval, Bencapoal, and Benloskentir, which have an altitude of nearly 2,000 feet. “The aspect of this region, as seen from the Minch, is singularly uninviting, almost the whole surface appearing to consist of bare white rock. Indeed, a more perfect picture of sterility can scarcely be imagined. Viewed from the west, however, this district has a very different appearance, – the shores being in general sandy, and the hills for the most part covered with a green vegetation. Along the east coast – which is everywhere rocky and low – there are numerous inlets and creeks, here denominated bays, that word being supposed to correspond to the Gaelic baigh, which latter, however, appears to be nothing else than a corruption of the Danish voe. Many of these afford good harbours. Many small islands lie along this coast. The southern shore partakes in a great measure of the nature of the eastern, being rocky and low; but toward the west side it exhibits a few sandy beaches, and ends in a tremendous precipice, with a high neck of land running out from it, in which there are two fine caves. On the west coast there are, besides several sandy beaches, two great sands – or fords, as they are here called – namely, the sand of Northtown and that of Loskentir. They consist of nearly level expanses, each extending upwards of a mile from the sea. At their mouth there is a long bar formed by the surf and winds, broken only in one place, close to the adjacent rocky land, where a channel is formed which admits the waters of the sea at each tide. These, at spring-tides, cover the whole sands. The rest of the coast is rocky, but low, excepting toward Tarbert, where there are tremendous cliffs. This division is intersected by two great valleys, one passing from the sand of Loskentir to the east coast, the other from the farm of Borg. The bottom of a great portion of the latter is occupied by a lake about 3 miles long, the largest in the district. There are thus formed three natural subdivisions; that to the south of the lake mentioned consists of six mountains, including the peninsular one of Ben Capval, which are separated by broadish valleys. The vegetation here is tolerable, excepting on Ronaval, which is rocky and bare, and exhibits on its eastern side a fine excavation, resembling the crater of a volcano. It is chiefly heathy, however, excepting along the west side, where the pasturage is rich and varied. The middle division, from Loch-Langavat4 to the northern valley, is marked by a ridge of very rugged mountains, running in the general direction of the range, and situated nearer the western side. Along the west coast of this subdivision, there is some good pasture, but on the eastern side, the only soil being peat, and even that existing only in patches among the rocks, the vegetation is extremely coarse and scanty. From one of the summits of the ridge mentioned, I have counted upwards of eighty small lakes on its eastern side. The northern subdivision consists of Benloskentir, which gradually lowers to the eastward. The lakes in the low grounds on its eastern part are also extremely numerous. The water of all these lakes is brown. There are no harbours on the west coast of this southern division of the mainland of Harris, and it is even very difficult for boats to land on the beaches, owing to the high surf. It possesses no sylvan vegetation, excepting a few bushes in ruts and on islets in the lakes. The principal island is Taransay, on the west coast, the greater part of which is rocky, although it contains good pasture. This division has no general name applied to it in the country, but its western part is called the Machar, i.e. ‘the Sandy district;’ and its eastern, Na Baigh, ‘the Bays,’ or more correctly ‘the Voes.’ ” [‘Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal,’ No. VII., pp. 142, 143.] 

   “The climate of Harris,” says the writer of the article just quoted, “may be said in a general sense, to be extremely varied; for a great part cold and boisterous, with a very large quantity of rain, and but little snow, considering its high latitude. Spring commences about the 20th of March, when the first shoots of grass make their appearance, and the Draba verna begins to unfold its small white blossoms. It is not until the end of May that the pasture-grounds have fairly exchanged the grey and sad livery of winter for the green and lively hue of summer. From the beginning of July to the end of August may be considered as the summer season, when the sandy pasture-grounds of the west coast and islands are decorated with the most diversified hues. The end of October terminates the autumnal season. The rest is winter. During the whole spring season easterly winds prevail; at first interrupted by blasts from other quarters, accompanied with sleet or rain, but, as the season advances, becoming more steady, and accompanied with dry weather, occasioning much sand-drift. The first part of summer is sometimes fine, but not unfrequently wet, with southerly and westerly winds. There is seldom any thunder at this season; nor does the summer temperature scarcely ever rise so high as to be oppressive. Frequently the wet weather continues with intervals till September, from which period to the middle of October the weather is generally fine. As the winter advances the westerly gales become more boisterous and continued, and, in this season, there is frequently a good deal of thunder. The lakes seldom freeze in winter; and, although the hills are often tipped with snow, it is seldom that a general covering takes place. After continued westerly and northerly gales, enormous billows roll in from the Atlantic, dashing upon the rocky shores with astonishing violence; I have seen the spray driven over rocks a hundred feet in height, to a great distance inland.” On the mainland of Harris there are many monuments of Druidism, and several religious edifices erected about the time of the introduction of Christianity. The churches, together with the smaller chapels, all seem to have depended immediately on the monastery at Rowadill, dedicated to St. Clement; which, though its foundation be attributed to David I., is generally supposed to be of more ancient date. The different branches of the family of Macleod of Macleod, and of Harris, are proprietors of the island. The mountains contain no minerals of great value, except some iron and copper-ore; granite and freestone abound in every part, potstone, serpentine, and asbestos occur here and there; but the predominating rock is gneiss, which has undergone little decomposition. “In general,” says the writer already quoted, “the natives are of small stature; those individuals who are considered by them as exceeding the ordinary size, and accordingly designated by the epithet Mor, or ‘Big,’ seldom exceeding 5 feet 10 inches in height. Scarcely any attain the height of 6 feet; and many of the males are not higher than 5 feet 3 or 4 inches. They are in general robust, seldom, however, in any degree corpulent, and as seldom exhibiting the attenuated and pithless frame so common in large, and especially in manufacturing towns. The women are proportionally shorter, and more robust, than the men. There is nothing very peculiar in the Harrisian physiognomy; the cheek-bones are rather prominent, and the nose is invariably short; the space between it and the chin being disproportionately long. The complexion is of all tints. Many individuals are as dark as mulattoes, while others are nearly as fair as Danes. In so far as I have been able to observe, the dark race is superior to the fair in stature and strength. It is scarcely possible to conceive a constitution more callous to all sorts of vicissitudes and hardships, than that of the Hebridians in general. A native of Harris thinks nothing of labouring in a cold and boisterous spring-day with his spade, up to the ankles in water, and drenched with rain and sleet. Nor is there to be found a race more patient under privation. A small quantity of coarse oatmeal and cold water will suffice to support him under fatigues that would knock up a pampered Englishman or Lowlander. In respect to intellect, they are acute, accurate observers of natural phenomena, quick of apprehension, and fluent in speech. In their moral character, they are at least much superior to the population of most of the lowland parishes.” Martin, in his account of the Western isles, says, he knew severals in Harris of 90 years of age. The Lady Macleod, he adds, who passed the most of her time here, lived to 103, had then a comely head of hair and good teeth, and enjoyed a perfect understanding till the week she died. Her son Sir Norman Macleod died at 96; and his grandson Donald Macleod, Esq., of Bernera, died at 91. Four persons, calling themselves upwards of 90, died during the incumbency of the late minister; and an old gentlewoman born and brought up in this parish, said by her relations to be 102, was alive in the isle of Skye, at the time when the Old Statistical Account was drawn up. – Population of Harris and its islands, in 1801, 2,996; in 1821, 3,909; in 1831, 3,900. The population has been kept down by emigration to Cape-Breton and Canada; but it is thought that at least 2,000 of the present population would require to be withdrawn in order to enable the remainder to earn a moderate subsistence. There were in the whole island, in 1840, about 440 families of crofters, holding small farms directly from Lord Dunmore, of whom not above 50 could be regarded as in comfortable circumstances; while 400 families held no land directly from the proprietor, and were in a state of still greater destitution. [See ‘Report of Select Committee on Emigration,’ 1841.] Houses, in 1831, 759. Value of assessed property, in 1815, £7,658. 

   The parish of Harris, from the northern to the southern extremity, along the common track of travelling by land, and the course of navigation through the Sound, is at least 48 miles long. Its breadth varies much; near the northern extremity it is 24 miles; from thence to the Sound, it maybe at an average from 6 to 7; and, of the Sound, navigators usually calculate the breadth as well as length at three leagues. Its total extent is about 90,000 acres. It is in the presbytery of Uist, and synod of Glenelg. Patron, the Earl of Dunmore. Stipend £158 6s. 7d.; glebe £12. Bernera has been detached from this parish quoad sacra: see BERNERA. The parish-church was built about 1770; sittings 200. The minister officiates every 3d Sunday at Rodil, and there is a mission-station at Tarbert. A catechist visits the whole parish once in the course of the year. He has an annual salary of £12 paid out of a fund left by Macleod of Bernera. The parish-schoolmaster has a salary of £23 5s. 8d.; and there are three itinerating schools supported by the Gaelic school society; each teacher receiving £25 of salary.

1  “Till of late, this parish has been designed Kilbride, from one of the churches or cells in it so called. It is now denominated, in English, Harris, and, in the vernacular dialect, Na Heradh, that is, ‘the Herries,’ – a name which seems to be Gaelic, though we cannot pretend to trace its origin with precision. A fanciful etymologist might derive it from na hardubh, signifying ‘the Heights;’ this parish being in reality the highest and most mountainous part of the Long-Island, in which it is situated; and another circumstance, which seems to give countenance to this derivation, is, that the highest part of the island of Rum, another of the Hebrides is also called Na Heradh.” – Old Statistical Account

2  This isthmus in many maps is erroneously made the boundary between Harris and Lewis. 

3  “Speaking vaguely,” – says Mr. Macgillivray in an interesting article on ‘the Present State of the Outer Hebrides,’ in the 2d vol. of the Prize Essays of the Highland society, – “speaking vaguely, one might pronounce these islands entirely destitute of wood. In fact, an incurious person might travel from one end of them to the other without seeing a single shrub. But in the ruts of streams, or lucastrine islets, occasionally along the shores of lakes, and in the clefts of rocks, there may be found stunted specimens of several species of trees. The common birch, the broad-leaved elm, the mountain. ash, the hazel, and the aspen, are those commonly met with. Willows of a few species are abundant along some of the rills, but seldom attain a height of three feet. Rubus corylifolius, Rosa tomentosa, Lonicera Periclymenum, and Hedera Helix, are the only shrubs worth mentioning.” 

4  There is a lake of the same name in Lewis. 

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