Orinsay – a survival story against all the odds

Most crofting villages have back-stories of struggle against adversity and triumphs over powerful forces. They recall hard times and the tenacity required to keep people in places that would otherwise be deserted.

By Brian Wilson
Friday, 1st July 2022, 8:18 pm
Retired teacher Iain Nicolson chairs the village association and runs the school bus.
Retired teacher Iain Nicolson chairs the village association and runs the school bus.

With equal regularity, the prospect looms of a very different future. As the generations expire and the property market supercedes the security of crofting tenure, connections with the past grow more tenuous but no less worthy of respect.

All that is epitomised by Orinsay – 14 crofts at the end of the road in the Pairc district of Lewis, formed by struggle, marked by tragedy but still a Gaelic, crofting community with strong links to events of a century ago. Next weekend, a hundred people with Orinsay connections will gather to mark that centenary.

On a glorious morning, with magnificent views out to the Shiant Islands and over to Trotternish, Orinsay seems like an oasis of peaceful living. It might seem implausible that there is so much history behind it. Helpfully, the physical evidence remains; the ruins of pre-clearance dwellings and solid walls built by men who reclaimed their birthright a century ago.

There is continuity too in the names. Macmillan, Kennedy, Nicolson, Macinnes, Montgomery …. They were all there when the 14 crofts were formed and are still there today. Recalling events of a century ago also evokes the history of preceding decades which involved not only the pain of eviction and poverty but also the prison cells of those who resisted.

Victory over Lord Leverhulme in 1922 was the culmination of a much longer struggle for Orinsay and its neighbouring villages. Orinsay was cleared in 1843 in the last days of the Seaforth proprietorship. The census of 1841 records a population of 97 while the Angus Macleod Archive suggests 145. Many evictees were deposited elsewhere in Lochs, mainly 27 families in Crossbost; others ended up in America.

In evidence to the Napier Commission in 1883, Donald Mackenzie of Crossbost recalled: “Our complaint was to be driven away from Loch Shell forty years ago. The fire was drowned on the hearths by the officers of the estate. They were fined £50 sterling for not leaving the villages on the appointed day. The people of the two villages were put to a smaller village than either of the two they were driven from”.

The villages became part of Pairc sheep farm, leased by Matheson to Patrick Sellar, namesake and son of a notorious father. With Sellar’s lease due to expire in 1883 and Land League activity building momentum, a group of crofters and cottars petitioned Lady Matheson. “The undersigned most respectfully solicit that the portions of Park farm, known as Orinsay and Steimreway, on the north side of Loch Shell, which were at one time let to tenants, be set aside to be let to the undersigned in lots or parts ….”.

This plea could scarcely have been couched in more deferential terms. Initially it was ignored for a year and only at the third time of asking drew a dismissive reply from the Estate Chamberlain: “Lady Matheson is too devoted to her Queen and the laws of which Her Gracious Majesty is the representative, to listen for one moment to a petition accompanied by a threat from them (the petitioners) to infringe the laws by which all are governed…”.

Rather than being broken up, Orinsay was leased as a separate farm but remained a focal point for re-settlement demands within the vastness of Pairc. The Pairc Deer Raids of 1887 and the heavy-handed official response attracted national attention to the crofters’ cause and sparked intense activity within the island. However, it did not change the basic fact that people living in poverty and overcrowding had no rights to occupy land that had been taken from them.

Eventually, in 1891, this led to a celebrated land raid on Orinsay farm and imprisonment of 15 men. An account of the trial at Stornoway Sheriff Court quoted the musings of Sheriff Jameson: “He had endeavoured to discover some circumstance in their (the raiders’) favour but could find none. It might be that evil counsellors had been to blame for leading them astray but they were not obliged to follow such advice and had to be prepared to bear the consequences of it. The submission that they were entitled to these lands because their ancestors lived on them was absurd …”.

The men were taken to Inverness and “marched handcuffed in pairs from the station to gaol in Inverness Castle, attracting a lot of popular attention along the way”. These men too, drawn from all over Lochs, are worthy of being remembered for their sacrifices.

With such a history of land-raiding behind it, Orinsay was designated for re-settlement by the Board of Agriculture for Scotland prior to the outbreak of war in 1914. When service men returned to the island in 1918, they found it under the ownership of Lord Leverhulme who was at least as hostile to re-peopling crofting villages as his predecessor, the Mathesons.

Land-raiding in Orinsay and Steimreway resumed, this time mainly by men crowded into nearby Lemreway. In 1920, Lord Leverhulme was granted an interdict to prevent the raiders from trespassing. However, as opposition throughout the island grew, the landlord’s interest became concentrated on farms close to Stornoway. Over the next couple of years, before pulling out altogether, he grudgingly conceded the further outposts of his island empire for break-up into crofts.

One exhibit at the forthcoming event is the map “proposed and signed as relative to the scheme prepared by the Board of Agriculture for the constitution of New Small Holdings on the farm of Orisay on the Lews Estate, in the parish of Lochs and the County of Ross and Cromarty”. Signed by Charles Weatherill, secretary of the Board of Agriculture for Scotland, it drew the boundaries for 14 crofts down to the present day.

However, while victory brought land, it certainly did not bring comfort. There was still no road to Orinsay, nor even a path for children to walk to school in Lemreway. In 1924, the Western Isles MP, Alexander Livingstone, told the House of Commons that a report by the Lewis School Management Committee “after investigating the conditions at the new Board of Agriculture settlement at Orinsay, averred that, by reason of the condition of the moor and the absence of a footpath, it was dangerous for any of the children to attempt to attend school”. It took five years before that footpath existed.

The late 1930s found Malcolm MacMillan MP asking the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he was aware of “the hardships in winter time suffered by the people of Orinsay through having to carry all provisions long distances for lack of a proper road”. It took until 1949 for that demand to be satisfied. Electricity followed in the 1950s but it was1970 before piped water arrived.

One does not have to look far for confirmation that survival against these odds was a triumph that was by no means assured. The neighbouring village of Steimreway, also re-settled in 1922, was again abandoned by the 1940s in face of the same privations that Orinsay overcame.

Fishing was the main source of income and in the 1920s and ‘30s there were nine boats from Orinsay and Lemreway. However, the cruel sea visited upon Orinsay a double tragedy of stunning proportions – two separate accidents within a month of each other in 1945 which, between them, cost the lives of seven men.

It is difficult to comprehend the scale of despair that these losses must have inflicted on a small community on top of everything war had cost the island. For that generation, the sadness lingered on and added to the challenges of the post-war years.

Iain Nicolson, a current resident, shares the story of his surviving aunt, now on Skye, having heard the cries of the men in the second drowning as she made her way to school but without realising their meaning. “Though drawn to Orinsay, because it's where she came from, for her it is always an overwhelmingly sad place to visit”.

One who died was Murdo Kennedy, who had established a bus service from Pairc to Stornoway in 1930 and whose family are noted for its Gaelic singers. One of these was Calum Kennedy, born in 1928 and certainly Orinsay’s most famous son.

Calum’s English language repertoire also ensured that Orinsay will always be the second most sung-about place on Lewis through the immortal line: “Make your way to Stornoway, on the road to Orinsay”.

There are still not too many who make their way as far as Orinsay but it is, like others, slowly changing. About half the crofts are tenanted by descendants of those who first occupied them. There is a year-round resident population of 15 but no children of school age.

Iain Nicolson’s grandfather, Angus, was one of the Orinsay pioneers in 1922. Iain came to live and raise his family there in 1990, his own father having left for the mainland in war-time. Since retiring from teaching in Sir E. Scott School and then the Nicolson Institute, Iain drives the school bus and chairs Orinsay Village Association which has achieved the impressive feat of having its own well-appointed village hall.

How does he see the future? “Every house gets sold,” he says, “so it won’t be empty. Whether there is anyone in future with connections to the place depends on children or grand-children deciding to come back, as I did. Otherwise, it will be retirement homes and Air B&Bs. But it definitely won’t be empty”.

That analysis will ring true in many island communities which are, in every respect, on the edge. Could it have been a different outcome, closer to the traditions of the place? Almost certainly. Can it be now? Probably not. The purpose of next weekend’s event, however, is to celebrate the past and the legacy it bequeathed - to whoever becomes fortunate enough to inhabit a beautiful, living place.