Tag Archives: Faith in a Crisis

Faith in a Crisis: evicted

Norman Macleod was one of the main characters in my book Faith in a Crisis. Now the house he lived in, which was part of his story, is on the market. The lady who lived there  was a friend of my parents and I remember visiting as a child, but the shiver down the spine comes when I think of Norman and Julia descending those stairs, walking through those rooms …. and leaving the house with their ‘young and helpless family’ when they were evicted by the factor in 1843.


Trumisgarry Church

Extract from Faith in a Crisis (Islands Book Trust, 2012):

Norman, by quitting his church at Trumisgarry, was no longer entitled to his house. He wrote to Lord Macdonald, offering to pay the same rent as any other and observing, ‘I trust your Lordship does not really intend to drive me with my young and helpless family out of my present dwelling house.’ The factor, Seumas Ruadh of Balranald, himself an Established Church elder, replied in these terms:

It is not [his Lordship’s] intention either to grant you a site or to give you any lands …. I am sorry for you and your family, you will be much put about, but you have brought it all on yourself. …. Kind compliments to Mrs McLeod.

Within a few years, of course, many of Norman’s congregation would also have been evicted from their homes and land, with fewer resources to survive and far more drastic consequences.

Seumas Ruadh was the father of Jessie of Balranald, whose story I told here. It was recently fictionalised  in the novel The False Men by Mhairead Macleod.

These stories just keep coming back.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog, retweet or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

The False Men by Mhairead MacLeod

Here’s an interesting new book.

the false men

In North Uist last summer we stayed in a lovely cottage which was a converted outbuilding of Balranald House, the former factor’s house. From one window we could see Balranald House, and from another the ruins of Kilmuir Church. It thrust me back into the world I had first explored while writing Faith in a Crisis: the tightly knit network of factor, minister, agent and landlord which so profoundly affected the lives of the Uist people during the crisis years of famine, eviction and emigration in the mid-19th century.

It’s been interesting over the years too to notice that the posts I’ve written about these people and events – Escape from Balranald House and Vallay: ruined houses and a tidal island, for example – consistently receive among the most hits on this website.

The dramatic story of the elopement of Jessie MacDonald of Balranald plays out against the harsh background of famine and eviction, and involves all the key players in that tight network of relationships. ‘The False Men’ by Mhairead MacLeod, published this week, is a novel based on those events.

It feels a bit like stumbling on a novel written about people I know, so close did I get to Finlay Macrae, James MacDonald and the rest over the time I was working on Faith in a Crisis. It will be interesting to see how someone else has interpreted them!

That’s my weekend reading sorted.


© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Faith in a Crisis: Finlay and Norman

If you’ve read Faith in a Crisis, my book about the famine and evictions in 19th-century Uist, this article on the Carmichael Watson Project blog might be of interest. It has some interesting perspectives on both Finlay Macrae and Norman Macleod.



Finlay’s house on Vallay.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Vallay: ruined houses and a tidal island

IMG_2471I spent last week on the beautiful island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Top of the list of things to do this time was walking across the strand to the tidal island of Vallay. When we were on Uist last year the tide times were all wrong, but this year they were perfect, and the weather on the day we crossed was perfect too.

There’s something very special about a tidal island. I remember spending a few days on Lindisfarne when I was researching St Cuthbert, and being so struck by the rhythms of the place – the way the visitors empty out just before the incoming tide spills over the causeway, offering precious breathing space to those who live there and to the landscape itself.

IMG_2462There’s no causeway to Vallay – just a vast expanse of wet sand – and there’s no one living there permanently nowadays either. But that wasn’t always the case, and the ruined houses which stand silhouetted against the skyline are a reminder of those for whom this place was once home.

In 2012 my book Faith in a Crisis was published by the Islands Book Trust. It explores the role of the clergy during the desperate years of famine and clearance on the islands of North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula. It told the story of three men, one of whom was Finlay Macrae, minister of the Church of Scotland on North Uist. From 1825 until his death in 1858 Finlay and his family lived on Vallay.

Faith in a Crisis

Now stop for a moment and think of a minister being dependent on the shifting tides for access to his parishioners. Not exactly convenient! Sources agree that Finlay was very much a farmer first and a minister second, and his sermons were known as ‘the short sermons of the ebb’, as he often had to cut his service short and make a dash for home! The pastoral care of his people must also have often been dictated by the ebb and flow of the sea.

This is the house in which Finlay lived with his wife Isabella – sister of the local factor – and their children. It was said to have been built by James Gillespie Graham in the 1790s.

IMG_2483 IMG_2485

At right angles to Finlay’s house is another ruined house, known as old Vallay House, which is described on the RCAHMS  website as ‘the only surviving example in the Uists of a tacksman’s house with crowstepped gables’.


It was built for Ewan MacDonald and his wife Mary MacLean, and their marriage is commemorated in a weathered lintel EMD & MML 1742.


IMG_2477These two simple, roofless structures are overwhelmed by their neighbour. Vallay House was built around 1902 for Erskine Beveridge, linen magnate, archaeologist and photographer from Dunfermline. Although ruined, his former home still contains haunting echoes of its life as a grand Edwardian mansion.

I crossed to Vallay thinking about Finlay, and found myself becoming increasingly intrigued by Erskine Beveridge. So much so that I think he deserves a separate post. More soon.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.