Monday, 27 August 2007

Echoes Of Distant Shotts


A Family Memoir from a Scottish Mining Community


‘The Ulva Families of Shotts’ + ‘Mark McRoberts 1886-1925’

Part family memoir, part historical detective work, this publication is loosely based on the author’s research into his own ancestry. James McAnna discovers long forgotten stories about the former mining town of Shotts, Lanarkshire.

Prior to the erection of Shotts Iron Works in 1802, the local population lived in isolated cottages and hamlets. As the foundry and its associated industry grew, people from far and wide were attracted to the area in search of work. Among their number were families from the small Hebridean island of Ulva (including John Black, ancestor of the author). What started as a genealogical search for the author’s Shotts ancestry, ended with the discovery of long-forgotten ties which once existed between Ulva and Shotts. Read why this tiny island was cleared of most of its population in the 19th century. Find out the island’s connection with the island of Staffa (site of the famous natural phenomenon known as ‘Fingal’s Cave’). Who exactly was Ranald MacDonald of Staffa and what was his connection with Ulva and Shotts?

The rise in Celtic Romanticism (largely created by Sir Walter Scott – a friend of Ranald MacDonald of Staffa and himself a visitor to Ulva) took place while the Highlands (and Ulva) were being cleared of its population and old traditions. Establishment images of Scotland (notably the King’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, and accounts of wealthy tourists going to Staffa) were in stark contrast to the grim realities of life in newly industrialised towns (such as Shotts) at the time.

Part two of the book covers the author’s paternal grandfather’s family. The life and background of Mark McRoberts, a steelworker from a coal-mining family, is reconstructed using all sources of information available. In doing so a family mystery is investigated. Almost Dickensian in theme, it is a tale of the pre-mature deaths of the author’s grandparents and the birth of a soon-to-be orphaned child (the author’s father) destined for an adult life in the coal-mines of Shotts.

Meticulously researched over many years these TRUE STORIES will make you laugh and may even make you cry. This book is essentially a working-class history of Shotts (and indeed Scotland) over the last 200 years, as seen through the lives of his ancestors. Failed revolution, working class conditions, the Industrial Revolution and ‘The Clearances’ are only some of the topics covered in this fascinating book.

Recommended reading for anyone interested in
Scottish history and the nature of Scottish identity.

Extract from  Echoes of Distant Shotts:
 A family memoir from a Scottish mining community
by James McAnna
The following is the introduction to book one - The Ulva Families of Shotts
Copyright James McAnna 2011
Ulva (pronounced Ool-la-va in the old days) lies one quarter of a mile from the larger and perhaps more famous island of Mull. Measuring only five miles by two, Ulva's past, like its dimensions, was overshadowed by its larger neighbour. When Doctor Johnson and his companion James Boswell visited Ulva in 1773, they spent one night in the local chief's home. Johnson was informed that Ulva was "an Island of no great extent, rough and barren, inhabited by the Macquarrys; a clan not powerful nor numerous, but of antiquity, which most families are content to reverence." The chief told the gentlemen that the island had been in his family's possession for nine hundred years.

Traditionally the MacQuarries were descended from Kenneth MacAlpine, the first Scots king to form a kingdom which united the Scots and Picts (he died in A.D. 858). However, written records of the MacQuarries of Ulva do not appear until the fifteenth century, when the chiefs of the clan witness some charters of the Lords of the Isles. During this period the MacQuarries were just one of several clans which followed the Lords of the Isles, the Gaelic dynasty of the MacDonalds in the Highlands and Islands (1). After the demise of the Lordship, the MacQuarries became followers of the MacLeans of Duart, the most powerful clan on Mull. They were to take part in some of the most important events in Scottish history. For example, they fought for the royalist cause during the civil war. Much of the success of their commander, the Marquis of Montrose, during 1644-45 was due to the fighting qualities of clans like the MacLeans and MacQuarries. Their greatest defeat took place at Inverkeithing in 1651 when they were massacred by Cromwell's army.

In 1772, Joseph Banks (later Sir Joseph Banks), of Botany Bay fame had 'discovered' the neighbouring island of Staffa, while on his way to Iceland. Staffa was part of the MacQuarrie estate and was occasionally inhabited by Ulva people who looked after sheep and cattle there. When Staffa was brought to the attention of the English speaking world, it became a popular tourist attraction due to its unique appearance - Fingal's Cave, for example, would become world famous. Banks was the first of many to wax lyrical about the natural phenomenon of Staffa:-

"Compared to this, what are the cathedrals or palaces built by man? Mere models or playthings, imitations as diminutive as works will always be when compared with those of nature. .. . Nature is here found in her Passion, and here it has been for ages undiscovered. "

The Ulva people had long been aware of it. When reproached by Dr. Johnson for their insensibility to the wonders of Staffa, he noted that "they had indeed considered it little, because they had always seen it. . . ." Perhaps Staffa invoked little curiosity because Ulva itself had similar rock formations to those which formed Staffa. We now know that both islands had been formed from the same lava flows which took place 60 million years ago. Dr. John McCulloch, a geologist writing in the early part of the nineteenth century gave the following description of Ulva:-

"The ranges are often as regular as those of Staffa, although on a much less scale, and pass gradually from that regularity of form into the most shapeless masses. In many places they afford elegant and picturesque compositions, which, although passed every day by the crowds who visit Staffa, appear to have been unnoticed. If either their numbers, extent, or picturesque appearance be considered, they are more deserving of admiration than even those of the Giant's Causeway, and had they been the only basaltic columns on this coast, they might have acquired the fame they merit. But Ulva is eclipsed by the superior lustre of Staffa, and while the mass of mankind is prepared to follow the individual who first led the way, its beauties will probably be still consigned to neglect."
Ulva was conveniently located for travellers on their way to Staffa and the holy island of Iona. Many of the early tourists wrote journals during their travels. Some of these give an insight into life in the area.The Honourable Mrs. Murray of Kensington examined a humble cottage when she was in Ulva in 1802:-

“When I entered the hut I was obliged to stoop for fear of striking my head against the lintel. The floor was the moor bared by the spade and a few stones were heaped upon one another, around the base of the forked birch sticks stuck in the ground to support the branches and heath clods forming the roof. The fabric was divided into two apartments, one for the kitchen, the other for a bedroom, each being in size about six or eight feet square. The kitchen had no aperture but the door, the bedroom had a very small window of about a foot square cut in the heath clod roof, which on all sides sloped down to the rough stone wall. In the middle of the kitchen were a few loose stones, put one against another to form a fire place on which lay embers of peat. The smoke had no way of escaping but the door.”Similarly, John Leyden, travelling in 1800, gave a brief description of the living conditions in the area:-"The huts of the peasants in Mull are most deplorable. Some of the doors are hardly four feet high, and the houses themselves, composed of earthen sod in many instances, are scarcely twelve. There is often no other outlet of smoke but at the door, the consequence of which is that the women are more squalid and dirty than the men, and their features more disagreeable. . ."

Frenchman Fauja de Saint Fond travelling in 1784 was also less than flattering with his comments:-

“The women here are in general, small, ugly, and ill-made – the natural consequence of toil, bad food, the want of good clothing, and the inclemency of the climate. I saw two or three who were not so bad–looking, and whose figure was even rather comely, but these belonged to families in a more comfortable condition. The sun being almost hidden under clouds, or enveloped in mists, the complexion of the women would be very pale, were it not discoloured by the peat-smoke, amidst which they pass their lives in huts without chimneys.”

Due to the heavy mist, Leyden, unlike a German gentleman he met, decided not to proceed to Staffa. On the 24th of July he

"sailed to the island of Ulva, to take up our bagpiper, and soon beheld the white clouds of vapour rolling away in confusion. . . . We saw the rocks of Ulva rising above each other in successive ranges of dark-coloured basalt. "
The most famous member of the MacQuarrie clan was General Lachlan Macquarie who later became the first Governor of New South Wales (Incidentally, General Lachlan Macquarie should not be confused with Lachlan MacQuarrie, last chief of the MacQuarries. Notice the difference in spelling). He had been born somewhere on the Ulva estate on 31st January, 1761. He was to become one of the founding fathers of Australia, where every schoolchild knows his name. Curiously, Macquarie's life is not well known in his native country. His mausoleum at Gruline on Mull is regularly visited by Australians.

Unfortunately, Lachlan MacQuarrie, the last chief of the MacQuarries had to sell the island in 1777 in order to pay debts. It was to be several years before a MacQuarrie was to gain possession of the island again.

One owner during the intervening years was an Edinburgh advocate named Ranald MacDonald of Staffa. The most dramatic event in his professional career was his involvement in the execution of two leaders during the ‘Radical War’ of 1820. Ranald MacDonald, or Staffa, as he was often known, was an enthusiast of the kelping industry. Consequently, most Ulva families spent much of their time gathering seaweed, which was eventually burned, the ashes of which were exported and used in the manufacture of glass. In 1824 the island produced 100 tons of kelp. With the market price being £6 per ton, this gave an annual income to the proprietor of £600. The annual rent paid by the Ulva crofters totalled £1142, a significant sum in those days.

Nevertheless, many landlords in the area were burdened with large loans which they had raised to buy their properties. Their finances relied heavily on the high price of kelp and on the ability of the local people to pay their rent. For many it was a recipe for disaster. Apart from kelping, some Ulva families supplemented their incomes by rowing visitors to and from Staffa and Iona. One popular route entailed the wealthy tourist staying overnight in Aros, Mull. They then made their way overland to Torloisk, which lay opposite Ulva, on the shores of Loch Tuath. From there, Ulva men would row the visitors to Staffa and then onto Iona (the other route went via Ulva Ferry).

In 1825, Charles Macquarie, brother of the Governor, finally managed to buy Ulva and the adjacent land which formed the old MacQuarrie estate. Ulva was to remain in his possession until his death in March 1835. He was buried in the ancient MacQuarrie burying ground Kilvickewen, Ulva. A document drawn up by Charles Macquarie and his solicitors described his estate to potential buyers (2):-

The island of Ulva is six miles long and about three to two miles broad, separated from the main land by a narrow channel about 200 yards, which cattle swim across without the trouble or expense of boats.

The Soil of Ulva is known to be superior, producing the best crop; the grazing rich and wholesome for cattle the arable might be increased at least a third more, by cultivating waste land with the assistance of shell sand, which the shores all round the Island furnish, and considered equal if not superior to lime; so much so, that there is now large quantaties of it sold yearly.

Ulva possesses advantages which an estate of the same extent cannot enjoy on the main land, where it would have to keep up marches with several other Proprietors, disputes about boundaries, trespass of neighbouring cattle, and destruction to game by poachers; of all which Ulva is independent.
The lands in the Proprietor’s own hands have undergone considerable improvements within these few years, by draining, subdividing with substantial stone dykes, and planting. The old planting is now become valuable for country purposes, and affording shelter and excellent wintering for cattle, and the late planting most thriving, and the whole extent under wood is about 150 Acres.

The Mansion House is in good order, fit for the accommodation of a large and genteel family. The Park or Lawn about it has been lately enlarged, and a broad belt of planting round it, which adds to the beauty and shelter of the place. The House commands a delightful view from all the windows, and from the Hill immediately above the House, of the celebrated Islands of Staffa, Iona, and numerous other Islands. There is a complete set of Offices, with accommodation for Out-Servants. An excellent Garden, well stocked with Fruit Trees, about two Scotch Acres, and in every respect in good order.

The Moors and Woods abound with Grouse, Black Cock, Plovers and Hares. From the care taken, and no poachers can get at them, the Games is increasing. The sea all around the Island produces White Fish of all kinds; and Salmon is found in many of the bays on the north side of the Island. The Shores furnish every sort of Shell-fish known, particularly Oysters, in the greatest quantity and of the very best quality. The inhabitants consist of about 400 souls, with the benefit of two excellent Schools, and a Government Church within a few minutes walk of the Mansion House. Ulva is well calculated for fishing stations, there being safe Harbours for boats and vessels of all descriptions round the Island.
In 1835, Francis William Clark, a solicitor from Morayshire, bought Ulva. By 1837 the population had grown to 604 people living in sixteen villages, the remains of which can still be seen today. Among the population were “shoemakers, square-wrights, boat-carpenters, tailors, weavers, blacksmiths, dry-stone masons, and two merchants, all more or less engaged in agriculture". (3)

Clark introduced leases for the tenants which gave an allowance for every acre of waste ground brought under cultivation. Pasture land of one tenant was separated from the neighbouring tenant by stone-dykes. Each tenant, according to the extent of his holding, was entitled to allow a certain number of sheep, cows, or horses to graze within the enclosed area. Every tenant had a boat which was used not only for fishing and collecting kelp, but transporting grain, potato and peat from one part of the island to another. Their normal diet was porridge and milk, potato and fish, and occasionally a little mutton or beef. Apart from kelp and dairy produce, the inhabitants sold considerable quantities of potatoes and found a ready market for their barley at the Tobermory distillery.

Mr. Clark lived in a large mansion-house, some 400 yards from the old MacQuarrie residence.There he learned the Gaelic language since most, if not all, of the Ulva people could not understand any English. His garden of two acres was well stocked with every kind of fruit. Towards the Sound of Ulva, was the Ferry, where the Inn, smithy, merchant's shop, and several houses, including the ferryman's, were located.

A potato blight afflicted the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in 1846 which was to have a devastating impact on the crop until 1851. Most Ulva tenants had just managed to survive the blight of 1835-1836. They had no savings left to withstand another natural disaster. The high price of kelp had long gone, and the island was now overpopulated. By 1841 the population was 859. Most of the tenants were heavily in arrears. From 1847 until 1851 a systematic process of eviction was initiated by F.W. Clark which reduced the island's population from 500 to 150 in four years. The Ulva evictions were an extreme example of the ‘Highland Clearances’ which affected many parts of the Highlands and Islands during the nineteenth century, the consequences of which can still be seen to this day.

Incidentally the father of David Livingstone, missionary, explorer, and philanthropist, was born on Ulva. David gives a brief account of his family origins in the introduction of his 'Missionary Travel and Researches in South Africa' which was published in 1857:-

'Our great-grandfather fell at the battle of Culloden, fighting for the old line of kings; and our grandfather was a small farmer in Ulva, where my father was born.’
His grandfather, Neil Livingstone, and his wife, Mary Morrison, with their family, left Ulva at the end of the eighteenth century and settled at Blantyre, Lanarkshire. He took with him a character reference written by the parish minister of Kilninian:-

“The bearer, Neil Livingstone, a married man in Ulva, part of the parish of Kilninian, has always maintained an unblemished moral character, and is known as a man of piety and religion; he has a family of four sons, the youngest of which is three years, and three daughters, the youngest of which is six years of age. As he proposes to offer his services at some of the spinning manufactories, he and his wife, Mary Morison, and their family of children are hereby earnestly recommended for suitable engagement. Given at Ulva, this eighth January 1792 Arch. McArthur, Minister Lauchn Maclean, Elder; R. Stewart, J.P.”
David Livingstone's father, while still a boy, was to become an apprentice to a tailor named David Hunter. The apprenticeship brought Neil in contact with David Hunter's daughter, Agnes, whom he married in 1810. During his last visit back to Scotland, Livingstone wrote in his journal a full-length account of one of his mother's stories. It describes her family's origins in Shotts (see Appendix A). This book contains the result of my research into the Ulva families who settled in Shotts.
Echoes of Distant

A family memoir from
a Scottish mining community


James McAnna
Published 2014



Blurb Edition

ISBN: 978-0-9555219-1-1
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ISBN: 978-0-9555219-2-8