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Archival Stories - Accounting for the Past, Juliette Desportes

Juliette Desportes is a third-year PhD student undertaking a three-month internship with Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn, researching the history of Galson Estate and the lead-up to the 1923 re-settlement of the townships.

In her time with us, Juliette will be writing a series of blog posts, named 'Archival Stories'. Here is the first.


‘Archival Stories’ delves into known and lesser-known historical records pertaining to the history of Galson Estate. This week focuses on rentals, lists of properties and people kept by estate officials which indicated the amount of rent paid by tenants and were regularly updated by the factor who came to collect their rents. While rentals were compiled by officials often at-odds with the communities they were intended on levying rents from, rentals can be used as a useful tool to research the history of a given place or family. Rentals capture a constantly fluctuating world and the information they contain can tell us much about changing patterns of land use and settlements. Above all, rentals offer the chance to put people back at the heart of their own history. Acknowledging not just what but who was there allows us to picture a landscape full of life, rather than an empty or cleared one.


Figure 1 Rental of the Isle of Lewis, Reproduced with permission of University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, GB 248 GUA 00300

The first known rental for the Isle of Lewis dates back to 1718. Earlier lists of existing tenants must have been kept, but sadly have not (yet) been located. Following the first Jacobite Rising of 1715, the Isle of Lewis was legally forfeited by its owner, Mackenzie of Kintail, Earl of Seaforth. Several copies have survived, including one held by Glasgow University archives (Fig.1). The rental was taken the surveyor general of the Forfeited Estates in the presence of the sheriff substitute of Ross. All tenants were summoned, examined under oath, and had to state the true amount of their rent which was then entered in the rental book. Most of the tenants would not have been able to write, although we know that Evander Morison, tacksman in South Galson, wrote down his own name (albeit probably not in the version pictured here). Gaelic patronyms were rendered phonetically, for example ‘Christian nein Innish’ from Upper Shader, pictured in Fig. 1. The numbers in the left column did not correspond to a specific lot, but simply the order in which tenants appeared in. The rental followed a basic geographical logic by starting with Stornoway and going in a wide circle around the island, although there are exceptions to this. The entries relating to Galson are reproduced here, preserving the original spelling:

Rentall of the Isle of Lewis, 1718 [1]

[1]University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, GB 248 GUA 00300.

In a letter dating February 1721, Zacharias McAulay, chamberlain of the island, explained that the ‘ordinary method of payment of the Lewes rents’ consisted of four branches portrayed in the rental, namely, ‘money, meal, butter and mutton. The three last branches were punctually received in their seasons. As for the money branch, ther was very little of it payed in cash. But in the monthes of October and November, cowes were raised and slaughtered, and the beefe sent to such mercats as the manadger thought fit. Then in January, February etc., Aquavity was received for a considerable part of the money'. [2] South Galson was leased as one tack by several tacksmen and a number of subtenants, though the latter were not listed in the rental. North Galson was held as a joint tenancy between twenty-one families, working the land collectively and grouped together under the entries 175, 176, 193, 194 and 195, most likely representing the different joint-farms within the one township of North Galson.

Figure 2 Entries 175 and 176, Reproduced with permission of University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, GB 248 GUA 00300

A second rental of the island was taken in 1726. Not only was the Crown not receiving rents, as these continued to be paid to the forfeited owner, but the 1718 rental apparently contained some inaccuracies. Rentals were not an infallible source, especially when taken by outsiders. It is striking, although perhaps not surprising, that both the 1718 and 1726 rentals do not mention any arrears (i.e. delays in payment of rent). Tenants would not have reported those to government officials and some tenants conveniently stated they could not remember if they had any. The 1726 rental is very similar for Galson and included many of the same names, although the rental amounts appear much increased. Ewan Morison, Angus Morison, Rorie Mathewson and Alexander Morison were entered as tacksmen of South Galson and all swore under oath they paid £152 rent total. North Galson farm was still under joint tenancy and tenants testified as follow:

Appeared personally the inhabitants of North Galson and parish of Ness as they are listed below (Nos. 152-175), who being deeply sworn and interrogat what rent they used to pay to William, Earle of Seaforth, make oath that they have their present possession of North Galson for the sume of one hundred and fourtie four pounds Scots money, threety two bolls four pecks meall and twelve stones butter, twelve mutton and that they thus depone they yearly pay for their possession of North Galson divided in the respective proportions the following list and no more, which is the rent they pay’d for some years bypast. This is the truth as they shall answer to God. Cannot write, Kenneth Campbell. [3]

There is, of course, much rentals cannot tell us. Nevertheless, rentals can paint a partial picture of what life was like in eighteenth-century Lewis, the variety of food produced and consumed and the number and names of families who resided there. Beyond that, the story of the 1718 rental shows estate or government officials were to a degree dependent on the information tenants would choose to share with them.


Figure 3 Barvas Rental Ledgers, Courtesy Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean (Ref: GD032)

By the nineteenth-century, things had changed quite a bit in Galson. Tasglann nan Eilean holds several heavy volumes of the Barvas rentals which capture the transformation of the landscape in a century’s time (Fig 3.). Farms were no longer held in runrig. Land was now divided into crofts, a system first introduced in Lewis at the end of the eighteenth-century. Each croft possessed an individual holder, identified separately on the rental. While the 1718 rental grouped people together according to their joint-holding, the nineteenth-century rentals numbered possessions into separate lots, signalling the transition from communal to more individualistic patterns of landholding. The tacksman, the central middle figure of Highland society, had by this point entirely disappeared and the farm of South Galson was now held by a principal tenant and his subtenants. New patterns of settlements had also emerged. Alongside South and North Galson, New Galson now featured in the rental books, an area situated on either side of the main road we know today and created to cope with the rise of population, overcrowding of Lewis townships and the tenants’ forceful clearance from their homes by estate officials.

Figure 4 'Emigrated to America', Courtesy Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean (Ref: GD032)

The rentals capture the full effect of the Clearances. The emptying of the landscape was also that of the rental books. By the second volume covering the years 1868 to 1879, North Galson had virtually disappeared from the record. Clearance had started in South Galson as early as 1848, many choosing to re-settle in New Galson. June 1863 marked a turning point in the history of the township, when both North Galson and New Galson were entirely cleared. The majority of tenants emigrated to America on the ship the Elizabeth, which departed from Londonderry on the 1st July 1863 (Fig. 4). Others chose to stay and were removed to neighbouring townships. Tenants were in significant arrears, meaning they struggled to pay their ever-increasing rents, and estate management facilitated their emigration by cancelling arrears and paying for their way. Rentals captured these increases of rents and moments of injustices. Reversely, there is much they left out. When the Crofters’ Commission visited Fivepenny Borve in 1888, tenants complained of sums and fines paid to the ground officer conveniently left out of account books.[4] Rentals were far from an absolute ‘truth’ and at times failed to include the proper name or at least all the names of the tenants residing on a said croft. That was because holdings were often subdivided or sublet, most of the time between family members, meaning the rental would feature only part of a croft’s inhabitants or remained under the wrong name. Arrears were marks of poverty but could also be acts of resistance as tenants knowingly withheld payments from their landlord. What is left on the page should not only be seen as a symbol of the power of estate management, but also as a reminder of the incredible ability of people to continue to live their lives and assert their rights to the land in the face of hardship.


All the information included here can be freely accessed either in person or online.

An original version of the 1718 rental is held at Glasgow University Archives (GB 248 GUA 00300) and another slightly different copy has been printed in Report of the Crofters Commission on the social condition of the people of Lewis in 1901, as compared to twenty years ago (HMSO, Glasgow, 1902), available online.

The 1726 rental has also been published in Highland Papers, ed. J. R. N. MacPhail, Vol 2. (Edinburgh, Scottish History Society, 1916), pp.312-323 and has been made available online by the Scottish Historical Society on the National Library of Scotland’s website.

Tasglann Nan Eilean, located in Lews Castle, holds the original Barvas Rent Ledgers. Visit by appointment only. Manuscript copies are also available at the archives of the Comunn Eachdraidh Nis, visit by appointment only.

For more information on a particular croft or person, Bill Lawson’s Croft History covers much of the genealogy of Lewis and Harris. Vol 13 is dedicated to Borgh Mheadhanach, Am Baile Ard, Mealabost Bhuirgh, Gabhsann bho Dheas and Gabhsann bho Thuath (Bill Lawson Publications, 2007)

Juliette Desportes is a third-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on the emergence of the so-called ‘improved’ landscape in the Highlands and Islands, characterized by the abolition of runrig farming, the implementation of crofting and production-driven agriculture, and reversely, the ways people resisted these changes by asserting their rights to the land. She is undertaking a three months internship with Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn to research the history of the Galson Estate and the lead-up to the 1923 re-settlement of the townships.

[1] University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, GB 248 GUA 00300. [2] Report of the Crofters Commission on the social condition of the people of Lewis in 1901, as compared to twenty years ago (HMSO, Glasgow, 1902). [3] Highland Papers, ed. J. R. N. MacPhail, Vol 2. (Edinburgh, Scottish History Society, 1916), p318. [4]Scotsman, 26th October 1888.


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