Genealogy centre sets off on a new journey

Maybe it’s appropriate that plans to turn the Seallam! Centre in south Harris into a much bigger and better resourced place of research are based around an existing building that is integral to the history of the village in which it sits.

By Brian Wilson
Tuesday, 19th April 2022, 3:03 pm
An artist's impression of now the new centre will look.
An artist's impression of now the new centre will look.

Genealogy, after all, is about continuity; about who we are and where we came from. There is an insatiable world-wide appetite for such information and any society with such a vast diaspora as the Outer Hebrides is bound to be on the receiving end of requests which stem from that curiosity.

By a few quirks of fate, Northton now finds itself as the genealogical capital of the Hebrides with bold plans to consolidate that status for future generations.

In some places, genealogy is big business. There are no such ambitions in south Harris but there is a clear awareness that the presence of Bill and the late Chris Lawson over the past two decades has created a base which now cries out to be built on – to the economic and cultural benefit of the whole community for many years to come.

Sign up to our daily Stornoway Gazette Today newsletter

That is the background to the community share offer which has just been launched by Northton Heritage Trust in an effort to advance the ambitious plans to expand Seallam! – and to secure the “Lawson Legacy” for these future generations.

As Rebecca Hutton, chair of Northton Heritage Trust, explains in her introduction to the offer: “The community share offer will enable the ‘community’ both locally and those living further afield to buy a stake in the ownership of this much-loved community asset. You will not get rich from these shares financially but you will hold an important stake in ensuring the future of the project”.

Shares are £25 each and the minimum investment for residents of Harris the other islands is one share. There is also potential interest among the many people around the world who have benefited from Seallam’s services and for them the minimum investment, for any individual or business outside the Outer Hebrides, is 12 shares (£300) up to a maximum of 400. The overall aim is to raise £100,000.

The explanatory brochure which had just arrived from the printers when I visited last weekend explains that Northton Heritage Trust is already community owned and has traded successfully for 20 years. It has provided exhibitions, talks and events for locals and visitors alike while Bill Lawson, as “resident genealogist”, allowed access to his vast database of family and village histories throughout the Western Isles.

On the business prospects for the new centre, the brochure points out that the current catering offer comprises “a flask of hot water and a donation system to make your own”. A café makes sense since “the food and drink market in south Harris is seriously under-provided for”. The planned accommodation for “Gaelic centred student research and study” will also be a source of revenue. Before the pandemic, Seallam was attracting between 8-10,000 visitors annually, so the potential is clear.

Bill will become a tenant of the Trust and continue to live within the old schoolhouse. It is a pragmatic arrangement that works well for everyone and maintains his integral role while the centre transitions to its future development.

Now 84, Bill first came to Harris more than 60 years ago as “a youngster with a rucksack who liked staying in inaccessible places, meeting the most inaccessible people”.

In the evenings, there was not a lot to talk about but their family stories and Bill became intrigued by the intellectual challenge of joining the dots. He quickly learned that the key to knowledge lay in “the difference between hearing and listening”. Bill was a listener at a time when “nobody was really listening”.

In 1981, the concept of the Integrated Development Programme for the Western Isles emerged and Bill, then a law lecturer in Paisley, applied for the job of running it. He thinks he would have ended up in the islands one way or another but the IDP made it possible then.

His background was not in economic development. Instead, it was another way of doing what he had become adept at over 20-odd years – visiting people’s houses and listening to their stories. What was needed in each place to make a difference? And then the conversation moved on to family history.

Job done with the IDP, Bill’s genealogical interest gradually became his means of livelihood. Northton School had closed in 1983 and lain empty for several years before Bill alighted upon it as a potential base. “It had two important characteristics – it was empty and it was dry, which was important for archive material but wasn’t that common in Harris”.

Gradually, the Northton operation expanded as family history requests came in from around the world. However, the transformational event in Bill’s life was meeting his wife-to-be, Chris MacLeod, who was chair of the Comunn Eachdraidh in Point. They married in 1998 and formed a great partnership until Chris died five years ago.

“Chris was the business person and the media person,” says Bill. “She enjoyed, and was very good at, both”. The old school became their home as the business expanded around them. When Seallam! was built close by, they gifted all the archive material to the Northton Heritage Trust with Bill as “consultant genealogist”.

The current development takes that chain of events into a new era. Phase One of a £3.6 m project will see an extension to the current Seallam! Phase Two will include the café, bookshop and entertainment space with new interactive state of the art Harris and St Kilda exhibitions, the latter as part of Slighe Hiort (St Kilda Trail).

Bill says: “The school has been here since 1907 so it would have been a shame to knock it down. Apart from being more expensive to put up a new building, this one will probably last longer. It is structurally very, very solid”.

Northton was resettled by the Congested Districts Board as a crofting village in 1902, broken up into 41 crofts. For the first five years, the children went to school in Scarista before Northton School opened with a roll of 87 children. The occupants of the new crofts were predominantly young couples and there were few households without children.

The original structure was built by a Glasgow company, Speirs and Company, which did a lot of work in the Highlands and Islands at that time – schools, churches, church halls. Bill says: “I think they specialised in relief churches and I know of the same types of school as this one at Onich, East Gerinish and Maaruig”.

Stephen Mackinnon, business manager for the Trust, says: “An old school in Harris coming into community ownership is not a small thing in itself. The normal assumption would be for it to be sold as a private house and taken out of community use.

“Instead, the share offer has given people the opportunity to buy into Seallam! and be part of it. There has been a good start with a long way to go. Part of the money is to top up the Scottish Land Fund grant to buy the house and the land Seallam sits on. It will also help with the digitising work and provide working capital to take us to Phase Two – delivery of the new build”.

Not only have the former school and house been acquired but also a piece of land in between which was once used for outdoor teaching when the school flourished and the weather permitted. This is where accommodation for up to 12 people will be built to house visiting researchers – an element of the project that will account for £1 million.

Bill says that there used to be a steady flow of researchers from universities, not just in genealogy but also, for example, “Sheffield University used to come every year for archaeology”. This all petered out as accommodation in Harris became too expensive for universities or students to afford and, more recently, almost impossible to find at any price.

Creating a dedicated accommodation unit will address that problem. The living room of Bill’s current house (the former school) will be re-designed for research purposes and, he says: “If I’m handy, I can be wheeled out as an exhibit if necessary”.

The housing shortage has become a problem not just for visiting researchers but for Seallam! Itself. Stephen says that last year they had funding from HIE to employ a marketing graduate. “She was all lined up to come but couldn’t find a place to stay so the whole thing fell through. This is one of our major limitations. We can’t plan for things that involve extra staff.

“This isn’t just a problem for Seallam. The lack of housing is really holding back development in south Harris. There has been no new housing for rent built here since the 1960s or ‘70s. You can’t create new jobs without housing for people to stay in and the housing market in Harris makes that impossible”.

Bill Lawson sees hope in the fact that this kind of inertia is now being contested by younger people with local roots who see what is happening around them. “There was always pessimism,” he says. “What’s the point in trying …? Now we have a group of relative youngsters who are prepared to fight to get things done. That is a tremendous difference”.

Rebecca Hutton sums up the Trust’s immediate part in that movement: "This is a vital first step in securing the future of Seallam and ensuring that the Lawson Legacy will remain accessible to all. With the current plans to expand, it is an exciting time and we hope that through the share offer, the community can get behind the plans and be excited by what the future holds.

“It’s amazing to think that Co Leis Thu? all started in the schoolhouse almost 40 years ago and now the community has taken ownership with plans to secure its future. We’ve come full circle as we start on another journey”.

Further information can be found at​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​