Tag Archives: Vallay

Escape from Balranald House


Balranald House

We’ve just returned from another wonderful holiday in North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. This time the cottage we were staying in was a beautiful conversion of outbuildings once belonging to Balranald House. From one of the windows we could see Balranald House, built in 1832, which was the home of James Macdonald (also known as Seumas Ruadh), factor to Lord Macdonald.


I ‘got to know’ the Macdonalds of Balranald in my research for Faith in a Crisis: famine, eviction and the church in North and South Uist (Islands Book Trust, 2012). James Macdonald was part of a close network of power and influence which profoundly affected the lives of those trying to survive on the land in Uist. His brother John lived in Rodel House on Harris and was factor to the Earl of Dunmore; his sister Isabella was married to Finlay Macrae, minister of the Established Church in North Uist who lived on Vallay (see earlier post).  I could see the ruins of Finlay’s church at Kilmuir through another window of the cottage.

In 1850, the Macdonalds of Balranald were at the heart of a romantic drama which was reported in newspapers throughout Scotland. Twenty-one year old Jessie was in love with Donald Macdonald of Monkstadt, Skye, but her father Seumas Ruadh wanted her to marry Patrick Cooper. He was an Aberdeenshire man who was trustee for the heavily indebted Macdonald estates and the main instigator of the recent Sollas evictions. A marriage to Seumas’s daughter would have further strengthened important ties.

In February 1850 Cooper proposed to Jessie. In desperation she wrote to her lover, and the two decided to elope. With the help of Donald’s servant they fled from Balranald House by night, Jessie by all accounts in high spirits all the way to Lochmaddy. But it was a stormy night, and while making for Skye they were swept off course to Harris. By this time the alarm had been raised, and they were discovered by Jessie’s uncle, John of Rodel. Jessie was taken to Rodel House where she was held captive, her aunt sleeping in the bedroom with her to prevent another escape.

Donald meantime returned to Skye, where he gathered some friends and sailed to Harris to rescue Jessie by night. Newspaper accounts state that ‘Mr Macdonald (Rodil) came out of his house in his shirt and drawers, swearing at them as if he was mad.’ Somehow, in the ensuing confusion, Jessie and Donald managed to make their escape. They fled to Edinburgh where they were later married, but Seumas Ruadh and John of Rodel, together with Patrick Cooper, were not likely to accept such defiance. Donald Macdonald was charged with breaking into Rodel House and with assault, but he was cleared – to cheers from the public gallery. The young lovers had excited public sympathy.

Jessie and Donald were married on 22 April in St Cuthbert’s parish, Edinburgh. Church of Scotland marriages required banns to be proclaimed on three separate occasions in the home parish of both bride and groom. In what may have been an attempt by Finlay to lend some belated respectability to the affair, an intriguing entry in the Kilmuir marriage register reads:

Donald MacDonald Tacksman of Baleloch to Jessie Cathrine MacDonald daughter of James Thomas MacDonald Esquire Tacksman of Balranald 31st March 1850.’

It’s interesting to notice that the very next entry in the Kilmuir register records the marriage of another Balranald daughter, Elizabeth, to a Skye minister, also in April 1850. This entry states that the banns were ‘proclaimed in the Parish Church in North Uist in the regular and normal manner’ – a statement that is not made with regard to Jessie’s marriage. No doubt Elizabeth’s wedding was a much happier occasion for the family!

Jessie and Donald eventually emigrated to Australia, but their dramatic story illustrates just how closely factor, minister and land agent were bound together at this critical time in Uist’s history, a theme which I explore in more detail in the rest of the book.

[adapted from Flora Johnston, Faith in a Crisis: famine, eviction and the church in North and South Uist, Islands Book Trust 2012]


© 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 (part 2)


The overgrown ruins of the tacksman’s house and Finlay’s home are modest when compared with the gloomy Edwardian mansion which lies close by. Erskine Beveridge built his imposing summer home where he could enjoy spectacular views across the strand to the island of North Uist, and north towards the hills of Harris. But it was much more that simply the scenery which attracted this Fife-based businessman to Vallay.


Erskine Beveridge inherited and expanded his father’s damask linen business in Dunfermline, and made his fortune in the process. He was a keen amateur archaeologist and was very interested in the new art and science of photography. Erskine travelled widely, in Scotland, Europe, America and Canada, but in North Uist he found the ideal location to pursue these two interests of archaeology and photography. He first visited the island in 1897, and bought the island of Vallay in 1901. He then set about building a suitable house for his family – no easy task on a tidal island!


In 1911 Erskine Beveridge published North Uist: Its Archaeology and Topography, the result of his investigations on the island. Today this can be obtained in a reprint. More evidence of his time in North Uist can be found in a book recently published by RCAHMS, Wanderings with a Camera in Scotland. This wonderful book is an invaluable record of the landscape, people and architecture of Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The North Uist photos in the collection include pictures of Beveridge’s own excavations in progresss, as well as a mixture of crofting townships and archaeological sites.


Erskine Beveridge died in 1920, and left the house to his son. But his son was tragically drowned crossing the strand in 1944, and Vallay House was soon abandoned. As each winter passes, its exposed position on the edge of the Atlantic must be taking its toll. Much of the roof and many of the floors have collapsed, and the building would be dangerous to enter. Still, there’s enough to be seen through the windows – rich red wall colouring, tiled fireplaces, even a tap – to conjur up an image of Erskine Beveridge, perhaps sitting by that fireside reading over his notes of the day, living his own island dream.

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There’s much more to see on Vallay – ruined farm buildings, beautiful beaches, archaeological sites. There wasn’t nearly enough time to see it all before the tide would be rolling in again. Which just means I’ll have to go back ….


© 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.

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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.