Life of Angus Macleod - Beatha Aonghais Mhicleòid
"PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW THEIR HISTORY"
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE LIFE OF ANGUS MACLEOD
by Michael Robson
Angus Macleod was born on 25th August 1916 at no.8 Calbost, a coastal township of the Pairc district in the parish of Lochs, Isle of Lewis. Throughout his life and throughout his writings he remained deeply attached to the place of his birth, with which he will be always associated. Scattered around Lewis, and the world, are other natives of the township with fond recollections of a place where there were once about 200 people, where life was usually a struggle but where everyone lived as if all were related as indeed nearly all were. There were outstanding, intelligent folk in Calbost, of whom Angus Macleod was undoubtedly one, but by 1998, as he himself said, 'Calbost is now a ghost village with only one house occupied'. The emptying of that little settlement lay behind his steadfast pursuit of every aspect of its history - crofting work, domestic conditions, fishing, genealogy, implements and furnishings, traditions - and his awareness of wider but relevant issues such as economic circumstances, the need for land reform, and the failure of many mainland authorities to recognise the real nature of crofting in a place like Calbost.
Angus was the champion of a rural way of life. He drew the necessary distinction between a hard existence and a bad one; if there had been no such distinction he would probably have abandoned his devotion to Calbost and Pairc, something that it is impossible to imagine his doing. He knew was money, in the form of a return for work, was desperately needed, but he had no time for plundering exploitation. In the same year as that in which he commented on his 'ghost village' a Scottish historian wrote of the threat to the country from people who 'would cheerfully ruin the planet for profit'. Angus, a kind of nationalist on a small scale, had no time for such an approach to life and said something else revealing in this connection:
'I come back to tell you that crofting is a way of life. You see, you must separate crofting from farming completely in your mind. It's not farming. Now that's why I keep harping on [that point]. Of course, today we're well off. We're a high-class people, you see! You will understand, of course, that I don't mean that in any class-conscious sense. What I mean to say is that, in the islands, we have a very special way of life and, whatever our economic circumstances, we are blessed to live in these islands with the language and culture we have. It's precious, you see.'(1)
The township of Calbost consisted of fourteen crofts and their accompanying grazings. They occupied a shallow valley of rocky knolls and sides leading down to the sea at a small bay. The houses were on each side of the central Loch Dubh. The ground was none too fertile, the rocky outcrops being interspersed with marshy hollows, and there was a boggy area around the loch. No easy living could be made from that kind of land and the people had to fish out in the Minch, thereby adding danger to an already difficult existence.
'The agricultural side of crofting cannot sustain anybody. You need some other work to augment what little you take out of the land. The work that augmented crofting, in Lochs particularly, was the herring fishing. A crofting family need to have a second kind of occupation in addition to producing food from their three or four acres. And I maintain that the authorities never understood that properly. Oh, you look at all the Royal Inquiries, the Royal Commissions and all that, and you will find that they talk about agriculture. They talk about viable crofts. There isn't a viable croft in existence. No such thing! There never will be.'
There is perhaps a touch of exaggeration in these remarks but Angus was remembering the Calbost of his youth.
'The majority of the houses in the village, a lot of them shall I say, were thatched houses when I was born. Up till the time of the first Crofters Act in 1886 people couldn't build a house, that is a big white house, because they were very often evicted.. White houses began to be built when they realised that they had security of tenure after the first Crofters Act, and as far as I can find out our own house probably was - may well have been - the first one, in the early 1890s.'
Angus's parents, both of families long established in Calbost, married in Wick, Caithness.
'The practice at that time was to go to the herring fishing, to the east coast, and very often people like that married there and came home married.. At that time the crofters relied on the fishing and on the agriculture - what they could recover from the croft. So all the crofts were done [i.e. worked]; every blade of grass on the crofts when I was young was cut and every bit of land was used for cultivation - potatoes at that time, barley and oats, with some vegetables.. The result was that we always had a barrel of salt herring, a barrel of salt meat from the sheep, our own sheep, and a pile of potatoes in the barn, and we were never hungry.. We were better off than the folk in the cities. I think there was a lot of deprivation in the cities.'
The youngest of six brothers, Angus went to Planasker school, Marvig, in 1921, received his familiar name 'Ease', apparently derived from his first name, Aonghas, and was taught the usual school subjects, English, arithmetic and the like, but not Gaelic. His education ended when he left school at the age of fourteen. An endlessly active boy with an equally lively mind, he was, surprisingly it might be thought with hindsight, not selected to continue his schooling in Stornoway. As a child in Calbost he had walked in the summer season the two miles to school and back in bare feet to conserve the shoes and enjoyed himself playing a homemade version of shinty and 'running around the shore':
'We made our own entertainment, ran around the hills, went after the bird's nests, rabbits and various things like that. Fished in the lochs and on the shore, ceilidh in the houses, and the whole village was one unit; everybody in the village was just like one family. If they saw you as a child doing something out of order, they just shouted, "I'll be telling your father that if you don't watch." So they were all looking after us.'
For children every house had an open door, and there were no fences between crofts to hinder expeditions. They made their own toys, mostly boats, which were sometimes of paper.
'I could show you how we made the boats and put a sail of a piece of paper on it and put a ballast in it, and the rudder you kept fairly straight and you let it off into the loch and right out into the loch.'
In this way children's free time was constant learning and practice, as was helping with croft work of all kinds:
'I remember the bigger boys and my father, the bigger boys particularly, bigger brothers particularly using the scythe, cutting the hay, and I was on the job as well you see, picking out the ferns from the scythed hay, round the stones that the scythe couldn't get near enough to it - you had to pull it round the stones and recover every bit of it. Oh yes, you were put on something. And then you see, the peats; you were taken away along with the peats and in the cutting of it you - I was the cook and bottle washer you see, had to start a fire, wasn't old enough to use the peat iron. And then you could lift the peats and stack them and things like that as a child. There were all sorts of things you could do both on the croft and in the peats.'
The age of going to the shieling was already past at Calbost when Angus was a child, but he took out the cow to the moor and fetched her in for milking or feeding, and filled the evenings after school as well as holiday times and days off with such necessary tasks as well as with entertainment.
'I went to school without a word of English in 1921.. And I was there till 1930, and these were hard times, the 20s.. Depression here, depression everywhere in the world.. Leverhulme was there, although I didn't know it. Leverhulme was there.. There was a lot of land raiding, so I would be hearing that, although I can't recall too much about it, and Leverhulme left in 1923 while I was still very young. I remember people going to work on roads and things like that, at that time.'
Angus's father was a fisherman and weaver as well as a crofter. His mother had learned to weave as a girl, and she taught her husband. They had a big wooden loom in the living room: 'I was listening to the crackle of the big wooden loom since the day I was born'. The loom was moved outside to a shed in 1924, and about 1930 the family acquired a Hattersley loom, and they had both going at the same time. The old one was used mostly for making blankets. Having a loom in the house and then in a shed, two of them, was also an opportunity for learning from example and developing an interest.
The year after he left school Angus became cook first on a large motor fishing boat and then on a herring drifter with a crew of nine working out of Stornoway. During these two years he also learned to weave on the loom in his house. Then at the age of 18 he joined the Royal Naval Reserve. He briefly described this period of his life:
'We went to the herring fishing when we left school and that was not an easy life for a young boy just out of school; sea-sickness and hard work, and very little money - £8.50 for the whole summer season. However, we as boys, whose duties were cook and coiler of the thick tarry spring-rope, on a fixed seasonal wage, very often had more money at the end of the season than the grown-up men who were shareholders. I cannot understand how these heads of families managed to provide for their families during these depression years of the 1920s and early 1930s.
'After a few years at the fishing we, all the young men of Lewis and the other islands joined the Royal Naval Reserve. That took us out of the island for a bi-annual training session of a few weeks at one or other of the large Naval bases on the English Channel, such as Portsmouth, Chatham, Devonport, etc. At the end of these training sessions we found it convenient to step off the train on the way home at one or other of the Merchant Shipping seaports, such as London etc. After a session of Naval training at Portsmouth in the mid-1930s when I was about 20 years of age, I stepped off the train at London, on my way home, in the hope of securing a berth as an able-seaman on a Merchant ship. To my surprise I got a berth on a Banana Ship bound for Jamaica in the West Indies, the following day.'
Angus entered the merchant service in 1936 but in 1938 he came home, ready for call-up at a moment when the Second World War seemed about to begin. However he and those others with him who had gathered in Stornoway were dismissed before any left the assembly point, and he was able to head for work in a Glasgow shipyard where he stayed for some months until the war actually did break out.
The restless decade of the 1930s when life seemed to be divided into two-year compartments came to an end at this point with the start of a series of misfortunes only partly to do with international disputes:
'While I was waiting for my call-up I took ill and was sent to Knightswood Hospital, Glasgow, suffering from tuberculosis in the right lung. After five months I was moved to Ochil-Hills Hospital, Kinross-shire, and later on to Robroyston Hospital, Glasgow, where I underwent a major operation, and subsequently I came back home in 1941, very much an invalid.. My income at that time was 3s.6d a week from the Insurance.'
Angus's father had died suddenly in 1940 while working on his croft and his mother, already unwell when he reached home, died in 1942. Two of his brothers were already in America, one of them sending back a little money to help out; a third had died in 1937, and another was ill in Stornoway Sanatorium, yet one more victim of tuberculosis, that scourge of Lewis and other islands before and during the war. The fifth brother, Murdo, obtained compassionate leave from the Navy and came home to look after everything. Angus himself survived but only with difficulty:
'I did not feel very well but one could not live on 3s.6d [17½p] a week and so I used my savings of £26 to buy wool and dye and have it spun at Stornoway, to make a tweed. Later on I worked as a buying agent for a London firm, buying Harris Tweed and Harris knitwear for them, and in 1945 I moved to lodgings at Stornoway.'
The 1940s were also years of major changes in Angus's personal life. In June 1946 he married Anne Macinnes of Gravir, and they lived for a while in Kenneth Street, Stornoway, until they became tenants of 'part of the house on No.19 Marybank' while building their own home, Park House, Marybank, nearby. Their only child, Ishbel, was born in June 1947 when they were still at No.19. One of the great unhappinesses of the Macleods' life was the loss of their daughter in January 1963 when she was only fifteen, an event which overshadowed the 1960s and, less evidently but still deeply, all their remaining years. Nevertheless, still feeling the loss, they adopted two children in 1964 and brought them up as their own.
Working life and public life thereafter dominated Angus's busy existence. The day-to-day job in the 60s was in Harris Tweed, with accommodation at the back of the house at Marybank to which spinners and weavers brought in the products of their labour and where the Macleod family ran its business. Angus had many memories of his experience in the world of tweed manufacture:
'I used the money from America to buy wool and I took the wool to the freshwater loch nearby where there was a communal boiler, and washed it and dyed it with crotal. Though I wasn't feeling very strong, I went and scraped the crotal off the rock. I had to do that personally; nobody else to do it for me because my parents were dead by that time. I knew how to dye the wool for I had often watched my parents doing it.. After that was done, I took the dyed wool over to S.A.Newall's Mill in Stornoway and before you could blink.. I was a Harris Tweed manufacturer!
'The Stornoway Mill spinners were reluctant to sell Harris yarn to small producers, and I had to resort to buying mainland spun yarn; and at the same time I became a commission agent for a London buying house called Marshall Ingram, Princes Street, London, buying Harris Tweed and Harris knitwear for them from the crofters and small producers. I don't know how I got in touch with Marshall Ingram.. [but] I became their buying agent for Harris Tweed. And that was money for old rope there. A commission it was called. Well, I had to use initiative like that to survive. It came out of dire necessity.'
The Stornoway spinners disapproved of Angus Macleod's activities but wartime meant a seller's market for all producers. By 1949 peace had opened up world-wide competition and the crofters could not withstand this change, so that from that year on manufacture was largely in the hands of four Stornoway mill spinners 'and about a dozen of the largest small producers, of whom I was one'. Thereafter production of tweed increased, reaching its peak in 1966. 'From then on the production of Harris Tweed dropped, largely because of unreasonable competition among the manufacturers of the cloth.' Small producers and nearly all 'the spinner manufacturers' were put out of business towards the end of the 1960s, and when he became seriously ill again with pancreas failure in 1969 Angus also withdrew from tweed production.
For twenty years or so tweed had been the foundation of Angus's working life. In addition to the everyday demands of business he had, inevitably it now seems, applied himself to the historical aspects of the subject and in his retirement was able to write about the story of Harris Tweed and draw on the papers he had collected or drafted himself. His knowledge derived in part also from his childhood in Calbost when looms were in his living room, and he learned about the earlier versions called beart bheag, the little loom, and the later beart mhòr or great loom with its flying shuttle replacing the old hand thrown shuttle made of a sheep's shin bone. He understood that the first beart mhòr in Lewis was possessed by a man of his own neighbourhood, James Mackenzie of Gravir, at the end of the nineteenth century. Involved in argument over the role of 'small producers' and over the use of the Orb mark, his principles and original thinking are apparent, whether in a letter to the Stornoway Gazette or in his own notes, as was pointed out by Janet Hunter in her history of the Harris Tweed industry:
'Angus Macleod spent a lifetime in the industry as an independent producer and was never afraid to voice his beliefs or sign his name to them in the letters page of the Stornoway Gazette. What he says [about independent producers] is contrary to the accepted wisdom of his day, some would say even contrary to the verdict of history; nonetheless, there is a body of opinion which will say that he is right and the received wisdom is wrong.'(2)
When he recovered, as in spite of the odds he did, Angus had to find some other way of earning a living. He had previously established a grocery shop or general store at Marybank but that had closed about 1965. On the decline of the tweed industry he and his wife started a tourist business, with three caravans, one in Calbost and two in Stornoway, and a house to let in Calbost. In their Marybank home they offered bed and breakfast from about 1973. On the whole this tourist enterprise was successful and kept things going well until retirement in 1982. Indeed the Calbost house is still available for let.
Following retirement there was then more time for the voluntary work, both public and private, that was the almost natural outcome of Angus's many interests and strongly felt convictions. These were born of experience, of religious faith, of a motivating sense of social responsibility, and of knowledge of history derived from reading and from tradition. Having been brought up in a Free Church of Scotland family and attending the Free Church initially at Gravir and then in Stornoway as a regular worshipper throughout his life it is not surprising that, as is evident from the catalogue, books on religion and other religious material such as recordings of psalm-singing form a significant part of the archive.
In addition to the church Angus gave a great deal of his time to several organisations long before he retired, often as a founder member, among them the Western Isles Tourist Organisation (precursor of the present Tourist Board), the Lewis Council of Social Service (now Voluntary Action Lewis), and the Lewis Crofters Ltd. or Lewis and Harris Crofters Union. Rather later came Comann Eachdraidh na Pairc, the Scottish Crofters Union, and the Commemoration of the Land Heroes project. Never content to rest, once he had started one thing he began on another.
Angus spoke of his voluntary activities almost as fervently as he did of Calbost. One topic was crofting:
'Early in the 1960s small regional Crofters' Unions were set up throughout the Highlands and islands. There was at that time a strongly felt need for a united crofters voice to be heard in the land, but unfortunately the promoters of the Crofters' Union movement.. felt that it was not possible to unite the whole seven crofting counties..
'The result was that far from speaking with one voice, there was naturally a variety of sometimes contradictory voices coming from the crofting community; and the government and other authorities were in a dilemma as to who they would listen to.'
Most of these small unions disbanded before 1970, but it happened that in Lewis, Angus increased his participation in the crofting world. Attending an AGM of the Lewis and Harris Crofters Union in the late 1960s he found himself brought into the leadership of the organisation:
'There was a very good attendance at the meeting, but there was no chairman. When the so-called chairman was called to take the chair he protested that he was not the chairman. His appointment.. was done in his absence the last year and without his permission, and he was not prepared to accept the office. Charles Macleod, Shawbost, who was a prominent activist in the movement, proposed names of various people who were present for the chairmanship, but each and every one declined the honour. Eventually I was spotted in a corner, and I also declined on the grounds that I was not familiar with the work, but that I would join the committee if required. As I was the only person that did not decline outright, I was projected protestingly into the chair; and I enjoyed my three year term as chairman..'
Since it is the right of people proposed for office to refuse the invitation, perhaps, in his corner, Angus had hoped or even expected to be picked as chairman on this occasion; certainly the office gave him the opportunity to pursue his wish to see a united, well-organised crofters' union, able to deal with government and with all other relevant authorities. His first step was to try to revive the old federation of crofters' unions as an interim stage towards founding the single Scottish Crofters Union of his dreams. Failing to find office-bearers Angus himself became chairman, secretary and treasurer, and the old federation records were passed to him by Hugh Matheson of Assynt.
Receiving support from the Highlands and Islands Development Board and working ceaselessly to achieve his goal, Angus saw the establishment of the Scottish Crofters Union in 1986. None too well again, he declined the office of the Union's first chairman but agreed to become Honorary President.
'I was not alone in the setting up of the Scottish Crofters Union. I was only one of many people throughout the Highlands and islands that helped to bring about the Union. In the end the movement attracted many capable people from all the islands and every corner of the Highlands. And I think it was a very good thing to unite the whole of the crofting world, and give it one voice.'
Two other Angus Macleod enterprises must be mentioned here - his museum collection and Cuimhneachain nan Gaisgeach. Each of them was the outcome of his profound determination to do what he could to preserve and ensure the preservation of the Lewis scene and crofting way of life.
The first stemmed from a combination of sources - Calbost, crofting and fishing, Pairc history and communities, families, and if necessary other parts of the island. Many of Angus's own compositions are closely linked to the physical objects that he gathered together in his father's house in Calbost:
'Well, you know I'm very interested in local history and in those artefacts that were used by our forebears.. I've got a croft, so I said to myself, "This is the very thing I want to do - to start collecting everything that people were throwing out and all the things that I myself would have been throwing out if I had not cared for preserving evidence of our history."
'It occurred to me that, seeing I now had a suitable place [his father's house] to accommodate objects relating to the history of our people, I should make a start by going to Harris to see if I could recover my father's wooden loom, which was in place in the kitchen when I was growing up but was subsequently sold to someone in Harris while I was working in Glasgow.
'After searching throughout a good part of Harris I failed to locate my father's loom, but I did come across someone who was willing to sell a similar wooden loom to me. As I had a large trailer at the back of my car I bought that loom, and that was the first artefact in the Calbost collection. That was in 1965, and thereafter I applied myself to collecting many things that people were throwing out, particularly if they were moving house. Unfortunately a lot of artefacts were already thrown away, and if I or anyone else had been collecting some 20 years earlier it would have been easy to acquire a good collection. However, it was not altogether too late in the 1960s, and I was able to gather a good collection of many hundreds of artefacts, which we eventually donated to the Stornoway Museum for display because it relates to the history of our community.'
Benches, chairs, dresser, crockery, ornaments, box bed, kitchen vessels and utensils, tools, spinning wheel, implements - all were assembled and to nearly every item there was a story attached as to its source and use. Visitors came to Calbost to see the objects and, if possible, to hear Angus talking about this collection and how he had assembled it. The museum collection is still held separately under the ownership of the Calbost Trust.
As yet another way of remembering the past and physically preserving it Angus then turned his attention to memorials, not specifically of Calbost and not, more generally, of world war losses, but of stages in history of a different kind. Reflecting on the story of ordinary Lewis people, and in particular those of South Lochs, he knew from tradition and from printed records that over the later years of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, even within his own lifetime, the struggle for securing a firm foothold on the land had been a leading preoccupation of the crofters and was linked historically to the equally important but earlier episode of voluntary or involuntary settlement clearance. Out along the coast and among the hills of Pairc were the signs of those former inhabitants, the ruined, roofless, crumbling houses and shielings of pre-clearance life. Even after the Crofters' Act of 1886 gave security of tenure to crofters, many families desperately needed more land, and their grievances led to the land raids of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when some crofters attempted to seize land against the wishes of the landowners. To Angus the modern fate of Calbost, a more gradual but still sad loss of population, was a stark reminder of clearance and the struggle to survive. In the remains of family dwellings Angus saw the evidence of injustice and deprivation and their effect upon that 'precious' way of life that he valued so much.
Among those crofters who fought for a hold on the land in their ancestral home were some who sacrificed much for their cause and displayed great bravery in the face of oppressive forces ranged against them. Their actions were often recorded in the newspapers of the time and in government documents, as well as in the memories of their sons and daughters and succeeding generations, and their heroism, thought Angus, deserved some striking commemoration. A miscellaneous band of like-minded people supported him.
'We set up a committee representative, as far as possible, of the whole island, and as we were not sure what form or design the memorials should take, we debated the issue thoroughly, and we agreed that our organisation should be called "Cuimhneachain nan Gaisgeach" (Memorials for the Heroes).
'Then we realised that we had the benefit of two trained artists as members of our committee. They both advocated strongly that we should commission a suitable artist with a thorough knowledge of the history of the Highlands and Islands, in order to prepare suitable designs for the four main historical events of the Lewis Land Struggle: Bernera, Lewis 1886; Pairc Deer Raid of 1887; The Aignish Riot of 1888; and the Coll, Gress, etc., uprisings of the early 1920s. This proposal was readily agreed to, and the name of Professor Will Maclean of Abertay University, who is sometimes known as the "Artist of the Highland Clearances," was put forward and unanimously agreed to.'
A sympathetic builder was found in Jim Crawford of Gearraidh na h-Aibhne, and so the remarkable commemorative 'cairns' were achieved and stand today not only as memorials of the land struggle heroes but as monuments too to the imagination and skills of the designer, the builder, and to the heroism of the man who had the idea for them in the first place.
With all his keen awareness of the social problems that still face the townships of South Lochs, and of the importance of their history as having a lesson for Lewis as a whole, Angus Macleod was not moved by political prejudice. The lifelong attachment to his native Calbost and his abundant writing about it were never the results of a parochial or narrow-minded outlook. His ability to detect potential historical significance and to see local issues in a wider context is evident in the record of his many activities, especially perhaps in his 'museum' collection and in his determination to achieve a Scottish Crofters Union. But Calbost was the centre of his relationship to Lewis and as he himself said: 'I feel that Calbost speaks to us all, not only in Lewis, but in the whole Highlands and islands.'
(1) All quotes are from Angus Macleod's own writings unless otherwise specified.
(2) Janet Hunter: The Islanders and the Orb-The History of the Harris Tweed Industry 1835-1995, Stornoway 2001, page 162