Island Life 2: midst the stormy billows of the North Sea

“While the attractions of transportation to Australia, &c. operate in some degree as a premium to crime, more especially since the discovery of the gold regions, it is thought that the dreary prospect of passing some joyless years in the midst of the stormy billows of the North Sea would tend much more to deter from crime, and from its sobering effect on the mind, would afford a better chance of reclaiming the guilty from their vicious habits.”                                           Island of Rona, a dependency of the Lews. Burnaby, 1852

It was the Laird – and arguably biggest villain – of Lewis proposing Rona the site of a new Penal Colony, and Captain Burnaby – head of the first Ordnance Survey there – sent to investigate Rona’s potential. Of these key players we have records, albeit patchy and incomplete; but with regards the individuals making up the survey teams stationed there, what remains of their stories? Over the 49 sheets of first edition 6” maps of Lewis the drawing styles change markedly, not all the hill ascents are spattered with Bench Marks, so how much autonomy did individual surveyors have? Most of the OS men (and Burnaby himself) were posted near Stornoway, but according to the 1851 census 20 OS men were residing in the North of the Island, should we presume they were responsible for maps 1-5 of the series?  The Laird was planning major works including: croft clearance, deer parks and new roads:

“Walked over the line of proposed road between Ness and Tolsta, there are nearly 100 men at present … They are paid at the rate of 1/- per yard of finished roadway one half in Destitution Meal and the other half credited to their rents…”                                                    From John Munro Mackenzie: Chamberlain of Lews Diary for 16 August 1851. According to the Chamberlain’s diary he met with Burnaby at least 14 times that year, who gave Burnaby orders: the OS, or the Laird? And how was the decision arrived at to contour every 25ft? On beginning this research I romanticised the longevity of the survey as a simple love-affair with island life. But it appears more likely a result of the Laird’s demands for detailed maps to expedite his proposed structural changes to the island. Building a picture of island life has been greatly aided by the Masonic Lodge on Stornoway whose records date back to 1767. Thanks to them I know which OS men or ‘Sappers & Miners’ joined the Masons whilst on Lewis, others will have joined elsewhere. I had assumed there to be a photo of the surveyors amongst their records, so when we couldn’t find this, I went back to my source who clarified ‘a painting’, not of ‘OS men’, but in honour of an event that took place in 1847. Of the remarkable 84 figures depicted, 5 are OS: Captain Burnaby and Corporal Kielle resplendent in red (I hadn’t noticed their uniforms in the b&w copies I initially saw). Sappers and Miners: Matheson, Stafford & Auckburn fare less well, skulking in the back row minus uniform, though Stafford seems to be sporting a bow tie. According to the census Matheson worked as a Clerk, but of the others: who had taught them surveying? And were they previously stationed in Ireland? Having jumped forward in time with this Summer’s Lewisian foray, I need to begin research in the place where the OS first adopted contour lines… Ireland next stop.

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About karenrann

Karen is a visual artist drawn to working from a sense of place
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