SPECIAL CENTENARY: Isle of Skye community marks 100 years since resettlement in 1923

Ploughing at Satran, Pic Minginish Centenary Project

The people of Minginish in Skye came together at the end of last month to mark the centenary of the events which brought their unique community into existence.

Over three days an exhibition recalled the legacy of the early settlers, brought to the peninsula mostly from overcrowded parts of Harris and Lewis, to take possession of crofting tenancies on 68 holdings created in 1923.

Crucial to the formation of this new community was the Land Resettlement Act, passed in 1919 to give the government power to buy land and then divide it up into crofts and smallholdings.

Peggy Wood and Kenna MacKinnon. Pic Willie Urquhart

The crofts at Fernilea, Fiskavaig, Portnalong and Satran were all on land purchased by the Board of Agriculture Scotland from the Macleods of Dunvegan Castle.

The North Talisker estate was previously cleared in the 1800s, but the estate owners, having run up debts, agreed to sell 60,000 acres for just under £57,000.

The first settlers arrived at Whitsun 1923, and 100 years later many of their descendants were there at the Minginish Hall festvities to remember their remarkable legacy.

93-year old Peggy Wood is one of the oldest community members. Her parents Alexander and Annie Shaw arrived from Harris with five children to take up the tenancy of a croft at Fiskavaig.

Two more children were born after they had built their house – the youngest of them being Peggy.

She recalled:  “Everyone knew everyone else – they were all more or less from the same area.

“It was a life where people shared and no one was any better off than anyone else.”

The original settlers received a grant of up to £6 to help with moving costs, and a building loan of £70 to build a small hut to live in, £35 of which would be converted to a grant if they completed it within two years.

Later loans helped with houses that had stone gables and as well as building their homes and cultivating crofts, the people constructed roads, fences and a pier. They worked as fishermen, sailors and weavers to earn money.

Norma MacKenzie has diaries from her grandfather, Norman Graham MacKenzie, which documents the arduous journey his family took from Aird in Lewis to their new home at 11 Fiscavaig.

She said: “They had nothing but hope and they had to build this life ahead of them. It was like one huge family – I still think of the people here as a family.

“My son in now renovating the house my grandfather built. They built the houses themselves – right down to quarrying the rock out of the side of the hill and carrying stones from the beach. They were incredible people.

Mapping out where where the families came from. Pic Willie Urquhart

“I don’t think the story has been given enough importance. When you think of them coming to live in a shed, with no running water and two little children with them. Who could do that now?

Both of Kenna MacKinnon’s parents were born to families which came in 1923 and 1924. She still lives at 18 Fiscavaig where her grandfather Murdo was the original tenant and where her father Neil was raised, alongside eight of his siblings.

She said: “They came to where the Shepherd’s house had been previously. It was very basic. In my father’s family there were nine of them, though one of them, my aunt, stayed behind to care for the grandparents left at Rhenigadale in Harris.

“They were all very close knit. My memory of growing up is of people helping each other.

“They didn’t have great wealth but they shared everything they had. The men would go fishing – they’d share the catch with the neighbours.

“Life has changed in a lot of ways, but there has to be changes in any place. If it hadn’t changed, we’d be going back to only having a few houses again. Instead, we have quite a thriving community today.”

The exhibition included a display of local artefacts. Pic Willie Urquhart

Helping to organise the exhibition and community gatherings was Elizabeth Morrison, granddaughter of Allan MacLeod, who came to 11 Portnalong from Carragrich in Harris and later became the local postmaster and shopkeeper. 

She said: “Someone did say that at first their arrival did cause some friction with the locals, but they were pioneers of their time.

“They created this community and the people that worked and lived here. After the clearances there was nothing here for 100 years.

Reminiscing over old pictures Pic Willie Urquhart

“Events like this help to bring the community back together. The links are still really strong among families, but people who moved into the area have also become very involved. They are interested and want to know more about where they now live.

“That’s important too.” 

More celebratory events are being planned throughout the coming year, including the erection of a memorial cairn as well a series of ceilidhs, to include musicians from all the relevant settler areas of the Hebrides and Skye.

More details are at www.minginishcp.uk

Article, by Keith MacKenzie

Saluting the Minginish pioneers

Portnalong school, 1947 Pic Minginish Centenary Project

Editorial comment

Mourning empty places where once there were people is a tale sadly synonymous with the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, but it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not always the whole story of the place.

Some districts have an altogether different modern history to tell than leaving, longing and loss.

One of them, in north west Skye, celebrates a significant anniversary this year.

The townships of the former North Talisker estate – Fernilea, Fiskavaig, Satran and Portnalong – owe their existence to an interventionist land policy, the roots of which sprung from the aftermath of the first world war and a drive to provide ‘land fit for heroes’.

Just over 100 years ago the peninsula’s hillsides, moors and coasts lay empty of life.

That today there are people, houses, businesses and local gathering places is all a direct legacy of what happened in the spring and summer of 1923.

A dance in Portnalong, date unknown Pic Minginish Centenary Project

From Whitsun (20th May) that year several families, almost all from overcrowded parts of Harris and Lewis, began arriving as part of a planned repopulation project in Minginish – an area that had largely been cleared during the 1800s.

By the time the last families arrived in November 1924, the population numbered about 400 people and within a few short years the newly created school at Portnalong had a roll of over 70 pupils. 

Last weekend locals in that still very distinctive corner of Skye came together to pay tribute to those early pioneers.

The fine exhibition which told their story in words, pictures and objects showed that the immediate task facing them was not easy.

Their first homes were huts they built themselves, financed by government loans.

They needed all their own skills, toil and resourcefulness to make the sea and land as productive as was possible for them and their families.

Yet while they came with very little, their new home offered the chance of a better life than the one they left. It was an opportunity which, once presented to them, they were determined to seize.

From offspring over successive generations from these first immigrants came individuals who would excel in the fields of law, arts, commerce, divinity, education, sport, music, media and much more.

And because the first families made a success of it, there remains a busy, active and thriving community today.

It is estimated that of the 68 holdings originally created about half are still held by descendants of these original crofting tenants. 

That is social history well worthy of celebration, and so too is the legislation which made it possible.

100 years on, could similar interventionist approaches to land be possible, or necessary today?

There is certainly no direct comparison.

Unlike the 1920s no longer are there scores of indigenous, Gaelic-speaking crofting/fishing families looking for another Hebridean island better suited to the crofting/fishing way of life. 

And yet, there are still plenty of people who would like to live in the Highlands and Islands, but find themselves priced out from doing so.

There is also plenty of land, and much of it not used to its full potential.

The idea that it could be secured – either voluntarily or if necessary through the pressure of legislation – in order to create possibilities for homes, jobs and communities surely still holds merit.  

That is true locally, where a shortage of affordable housing is seriously hindering the area’s economic fortunes.

And it is also the case nationally, in a country heavily dependent on immigrants, but struggling to work out what to do with those who arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, and a sense of hope that better days lie ahead.