Living history on the Western Isles

Living History on the Western Isles

Cultural heritage has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent decades and nowhere more so than on the Western Isles of Scotland.  Starting in the 1980s there was a movement to reclaim the history of “ordinary people” as seen through their own eyes as a counterweight to official accounts of kings and queens, wars and treaties, politicians and aristocrats, that we learn at school.

This approach has a special resonance on the Outer Hebrides where alternative histories live vividly in people’s memories as on-going traditions.  For example, the Gaelic language, still spoken by many Islanders,  celebrates the landscape and lineages with which it evolved.  Place names are evoked as well as long pedigrees embodied in patronymics.  Hence, a person known simply as  “Donald MacDonald”  in English, in Gaelic calls up family histories involving  a long line of the sons of Donald,  along with their nicknames.  Thus does history infuse everyday communications.

These histories are given voice by the local historical societies known locally as Comunn Eachdraidh.  There are altogether 22 of these associations scattered across the Islands and they involve local people meeting to recall and relive (and reinvent) local history.   In the villages where the Comunn Eachdraidh are established, many villagers are members, as are many people in the diaspora. A number of the Comunn Eachdraidh host a museum and archive in their local community.  Their archives contain records of local people, information about crofts, fishing boats, rolls of honour (which are especially important for communities who lost many sons in both World Wars), cookery books, poems, memoirs and so on.   The museums have a rich collection of artefacts reflecting important aspects of local life and have meaning for the local people in a way that gives them special value. For example, spinning wheels were passed down through the female line and shepherd crooks through the male line.  Being run by volunteers, it means that a small number of the Comunn Eachdraidh have lost momentum over time emerging again when new volunteers get involved.  However, the numbers involved have slowly increased. 

The attachment to place, including crofts and sheilings, is of significance to people for whom the historic injuries dealt by the Clearances are still memorialised.  However, most of the recorded information begins in the late nineteenth century when the crofting records began.  Information is archived through histories of crofts and those who lived in them.   Crofting was - and remains – an important element of local livelihoods and tradition ever since the first Crofting Acts of the nineteenth century made possible this kind of re-population and tenure. The active participation of local community members is important for the sharing,  sorting and storing of information.
Some of the Comunn Eachdraidh have grown in status over the years.  

For example,  in Ness, they have been able to take over the old school and schoolhouse, no longer in use as schools have been centralised in the districts they serve.  Bringing these school buildings into local community ownership provides an opportunity to develop a meeting place and somewhere to exhibit artefacts and store information. A number of these including Ness have gone on to further extensive redevelopment  of the buildings and facilities including opening of a cafĂ© where both locals and visitors can get some light (often homemade) refreshment.  In some communities this was followed by the addition of a small village store, something which can be a great asset in places where a long drive along narrow roads is needed  to access major services.  

The Ravenspoint centre in the village of Kershader has also opened a petrol station to complement the local shop and the community backed Pairc Trust has successfully undertaken a community land buy-out of their estate.  The old school house (usually centrally located in the village) has thus taken over some of the functions of the Ceilidh house of an earlier era.  In the Ravenspoint Centre the community undertakes a number of other functions for example offering Gaelic language courses, a hostel and a thriving publishing enterprise dedicated to local literature, with a quarterly magazine.

Our association with these developments began when the University of Aberdeen were approached in 2010 to help with the digitisation of the archives.  Some Comainn Eachdraidh were mindful that the carefully assembled paper records were fragile and had to be viewed in person.  Much of the information collected was originally in oral form and when those who held the information died, this too would be lost. Therefore, digitisation offered the possibility of recording and preserving some of this precious heritage.

Our main contact on the Islands was Donnie Morrison MBE, chairman of Comunn Eachdraidh na Pairc, and in his day job a development officer employed by Highland and Islands Enterprise and a key player behind the website Hebridean Connections which aimed to consolidate and cross reference the different archives using semantic web technology.   Developing the Hebridean Connections archive and website was important in that it consolidated records from a growing number of Comunn Eachdraidh into one interface and repository. This benefited those who do family history research online and to some extent helped someone arriving on the Islands in search of their ancestors who might have to travel between several Comunn Eachdraidh to find the Donald MacDonald who had married a girl from another village and moved away in years gone by.  People researching their family histories comprised a growing element of the visitors to the Islands, Islands which had lost such large chunks of its population to emigration.  Via the “Hebridean Connections” website, they could start their searches online.  Far from replacing a physical visit, this seemed to encourage them to come in person and this kind of heritage tourism has undoubtedly helped to boost the fragile Island economy.

But not all Comunn Eachdraidh were able to commit to going on the website and some preferred other forms of digitisation - or none at all.   The consequence of digitisation was that their information could be shared with a global community and here the diaspora community were some of the main audience.  The website has enjoyed a lot of activity since its inception with queries from Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, New Zealand and the whole wider world of Scottish diaspora.   This diaspora are now also part of the living history of the Islands. (This perhaps helps to explain the widespread popularity of books of graveyards available in Scottish tourist shops!)

An important element of this enterprise was training the Comunn Eachdraidh members to put their information online.  The project won a funding award from Heritage Lottery Scotland and was managed by Tristan ap Rheinault (a Gaelic speaker of Welsh origin) and his colleague Donna Dorris… They coordinated the challenging task of training all the volunteers while liaising with the University on the development of the Content Management System which sat behind the website. Many Comunn Eachdriadh members and volunteers consisted mainly of older people, who were themselves repositories of local knowledge, but who were in the early stages of their entry into the digital generation.  The project developed a team of people who went round to the various island communities to encourage, support and train them on the digitisation project.

Hebridean Connections is now staffed by a small group of enthusiastic people based in the Heritage Service in Stornoway. Calls are fielded by Tina Maclean and Caroline Brick on a part time basis.  Tristan is working as a private consultant these days but still living on Lewis and Donnie has several volunteer responsibilities including his role as a director of the Muaitheabheal Community Windfarm Trust and the Western Isles Development Trust.  The Hebridean Connections website is now in the process of a further refresh due which will add new facilities to the ever growing archival system.  The living history of the Islands is alive and well in their hands but is best appreciated by meeting and talking with the people who embody it in a landscape which holds so many resonances of times past and present.

Claire Wallace, March 2019


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