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Article published March 20, 1998

Genealogy & Heritage in The Outer Hebrides of Scotland
By Bill Lawson, Coleisthu Genealogist, Isle of Harris, Scotland

When Rick Roberts asked me to contribute a series of articles to his Global Gazette, my greatest problem was where to start. Global Genealogy Genealogy & History Shoppe stock our publications - thirty-one different titles - to date, and several more currently on the word processor! - but these books are an attempt to make public parts of a much greater research project on which my wife Chris and I have been engaged for many years, which is nothing less than the tabulation of all of the families of the Western Isles over the last two hundred years and their descendants overseas.

This is a huge task, but in our research facility at Co Leis Thu? we have amassed a great amount of material on this subject, and the process of computerisation of the archive is well under way. So perhaps the best approach for these articles is to describe the work we are doing, first of all in general terms, and then in later articles, concentrate on applying this research to different emigration areas and to our different publications.

The Western Isles of Scotland Over the last three centuries many thousands of people emigrated from the Western Isles or Hebrides of Scotland, and a large part of our work at Co Leis Thu? involves trying to trace the earlier history of these emigrants, and making the attempt to link them to families presently in the Hebrides. The terms Hebrides and Western Isles are used in many senses, but for our business they refer to the Outer Hebrides - the Isles of Lewis, Harris, North and South Uist and Benbecula, and Barra. The Isle of Skye was not originally within our area, but recent demand has encouraged us to spread our interests to this island also.

One of the greatest drawbacks in trying to trace the history of families in the Western Isles is the lack of good records in the Hebrides in the main emigration periods. Civil Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages commences here, as on mainland Scotland, in 1855, though the quality of many of the early records leaves much to be desired.

In most areas of Scotland, the period before 1855 is well supplied by the records of Baptisms and Marriages kept by local ministers in the Old Parochial Registers. In the Western Isles, however, many of these are late in starting, and poor in their coverage. Many of the ministers of the time were also the tenants of large farms, and their early registers are largely confined to families of their own social standing. In the larger parishes, outlying areas might be visited only infrequently, and records are accordingly sporadic.

On the Isle of Lewis, the Registers for the Parishes of Barvas and Stornoway begin in about 1800, while those for the Parishes of Lochs and Uig do not commence until the mid 1820s. On the Isle of Harris, registration begins in 1823, but its coverage is so poor that we have published an Index of Marriages for the period, comprising about 150 marriages from the register, and another 600 which were never registered. On North Uist, the Old Parochial Register covers only the western past of the island, and records for the other areas, if they ever existed, have not been preserved. Benbecula, South Uist and Barra are predominantly Roman Catholic Islands, and the Parochial Registers there are accordingly very slight, though there are registers kept by the Roman Catholic priests which are excellent in their detail.

In the relative absence of primary records, it used to be said that families in the Western Isles could only be traced as far back as the Parochial Registers - to the early 1800, but this is not wholly correct. Hebrideans, in common with most Celtic peoples, set great store on relationships, and just because this family knowledge was not written down, it does not follow that no records were kept. Oral tradition, which was very strong in the Islands, preserved the knowledge of relationships and patronymics, and as recently as 30 or 40 years ago, it was a poor person who did not know his or her sloinneadh (or patronymic) for at least five generations, and a knowledge of seven generations was not at all uncommon.

This brings us to one of the major difficulties of ancestor-tracing in the Hebrides - the language problem. Formal records here were kept in English by English-speakers for a population who were wholly Gaelic-speaking. It is not surprising then that many of the records are inaccurate, due perhaps to misunderstandings between the registrars and informants, but due also, it has to be said, to their frequent lack of interest in the affairs of local people. Oral tradition on patronymics, on the other hand, grew within the Gaelic community and is very much more likely to be accurate. Oral tradition, however, suffers from not being easily accessible to researchers outwith the Islands, and can disappear very easily if not recorded.

In our resource centre in Northton on the Isle of Harris, Chris and I have made a conscious attempt to record oral tradition on family history from all of the Western Isles, and to collate it with the written records, so creating an amalgam which we hope will produce as accurate a history of the local families as is now possible. What we have done is to create a data-base for every family which we can trace in the islands in the last two hundred years, bringing the families up to date where possible, and also utilising old estate documents etc. to extend the history further back. At present this extends to about eight thousand separate families in the Western Isles proper, and many thousands more on the Isle of Skye, and in the major emigration areas in Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and many other parts of the world.

Because we have achieved a virtual saturation coverage of all families in this period, when we are faced with the problem of an emigrant family, we can search our own records for a family of similar names disappearing from our data-base at the correct time. With families who emigrated since the 1820s, we can claim about a 90% success rate; failure in this period is usually the result of poor records of the family in the emigrant area. In the case of areas such as the west coast of Harris we have also the problem that the whole community was forced to emigrate, leaving no-one behind to maintain the oral tradition.

For the period prior to 1820, we would still expect to be able to trace a good proportion of families, but here there is not only a dearth of useful records, on both sides of the Atlantic, but also the problem of name-change, when persons using Gaelic patronymics (the fashion for surnames had not spread much beyond the ruling families at that time) found themselves being given English-style surnames, which were very often those of the major land-owners, and nothing to do with the person's own family name!

You will see from this how important a knowledge of the Gaelic language is to successful genealogical research here in the Western Isles - Chris is a native Gaelic speaker, and I have learned the language - so it seemed appropriate that we should name our business Co Leis Thu? , which is Gaelic for Who do you belong to? Gaelic frequently looks unpronounceable, due to an idiosyncratic use of the English alphabet, so you may like to know that Co Leis Thu? is pronounced fairly close to "Coal Issue" - if this suggests fuel for further interest in our work, then the atrocious pun may be allowable!

By Bill Lawson, Coleisthu Genealogist, Isle of Harris, Scotland

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