New archives: Erskine Beveridge and North Uist

I came across a small haul of gold yesterday. One of my hawk-eyed PhD students, Ben Garlick, spotted some material in the archives of the Scottish Ornithologists Club belonging to Frederick S. Beveridge – a son of the Fife archaeologist and industrialist Erskine Beveridge.

I am slowly trying to piece together the life and work of this family from various archival fragments and from the ruins of their Hebridean residence on the island of Vallay, off North Uist.

For such a notable family – both wealthy and connected – it is amazing how few traces have survived. All of this makes the collection of bird notes by the young Fred particularly interesting.

Fred was inducted by his father in to the rituals of fieldwork: careful observation, recording, collection and analysis. Where Erskine Beveridge applied these techniques to the vestiges of antiquity, Fred and his brothers – George and David – put them to work in the service of ornithology.

None of them had an easy life. David died of dysentery at Gallipoli. George, forbidden to marry the love of his life, descended into alcoholism and eventually drowned while crossing the ford back to Vallay.

Fred steered the family linen business into liquidation, married unhappily and died on the birthday of his only daughter.

His birding notes in the SOC archive date to the time when the family fortunes were more buoyant; the game was certainly plentiful, at least on this evidence from Vallay.

Fred’s early observations on the birds of North Uist were eventually collected together for a scholarly paper in The Scottish Naturalist, a paragraph of which I quoted in my doctoral thesis:

The inhabitants of North Uist, when you know them, are a most agreeable people who have helped me in every possible way by observing new arrivals or rarities. I find but one fault of any magnitude, and that is a great passion for collecting birds’ eggs during the nesting season. During the early summer their women folk scour the foreshore in veritable hosts – they seem countless; […] they wander further and further afield, to return at dusk laden, not with cockles but with hundreds of wild birds’ eggs. No wonder that this trait does not appeal to one, but rather kindles in the onlooker the same spirit as that shown by our bovine friend at the sight of the proverbial red rag.

The local context to Fred’s complaint – though he might have felt it inappropriate for the pages of The Scottish Naturalist – was that land was in short supply and such eggs were a basic part of human nutrition. Within two years, impoverished islanders would threaten a land raid on the Beveridge estate.

Amongst the papers in the SOC, I found a letter from Fred to his father enclosing offprints of this article. It seems as if Erskine Beveridge might have been thinking about updating his own monograph North Uist: its archaeology and topography, with notes about the early history of the Outer Hebrides. Perhaps Fred’s paper could have been included in this as an addendum? In any case, Fred asks that should his bird article be reproduced then the above paragraph should be omitted – ‘more of a safety valve than anything else’. Interesting.

Also included in Fred’s notes are some curious little doodles and sketches. Take this one from 4th September 1915. Is this a sketch of his father? If it is a self-portrait, that is an impressive beard for a 19 year-old.

Or how about this sketch entitled “If” with the line ‘some dreams of a far-off land’?

The profile of hills looks like Eaval from Grimsay. The boat is called the Plover. Does anyone know any more detail about this vessel?

At Dun Torcuill, North Uist

This is one of the most distinctive ancient monuments in Scotland: Dun Torcuill, a fine Hebridean broch or, if you want to be picky, a ‘galleried dun’.


And this is the path to Dun Torcuill.

When I say path, there really isn’t one. There are, instead, a series of formidable obstacles.

In one sense that is the point of a Dun: built on water, it was to be accessible only by a narrow and sometimes submerged causeway. It was never welcoming to strangers.

But these ditches and deer fences are not part of the original fortification. Rather, visitors are just not really expected here. You can tell that from the broken Historic Scotland sign which I moved to reveal a benighted patch of chlorotic grass.

Dun Torcuill does not feature in the ordinary tourist itinerary and you will be hard pressed to find it on a postcard. This is perhaps a good thing in that the site, a scheduled ancient monument, still exists in a state of primitive grandeur.

The partly collapsed broch is now covered in lichens giving it a peculiar bearded appearance, though this is plainly not new.

It was more lightly encrusted when the antiquarian Erskine Beveridge (1851-1920) visited in the early twentieth century. This is his photo of the site.

Of the many photographs in his classic book North Uist, there is only one – here at Dun Torcuill – to feature a family member. This person is ostensibly included for scale but there is a sentiment at work here too. In all likelihood, it is either his only daughter, Mary Beveridge, or else his young second wife Meg Inglis.

I am struck by the fact that not much in this scene has changed since Beveridge took his photo. This is noteworthy because in the same period North Uist has been utterly transformed, not least its economic orientation which has seen ‘heritage’ become an axis of local development.

North Uist is one of the most remarkable prehistoric landscapes in Britain – that’s what attracted Erskine Beveridge in the first place. But the islanders are now competing with their neighbours in Harris and Lewis for the ultimate tourist drawcard: the chance to present the St Kilda story. I don’t blame them. Economically, it makes total sense.

But it is an odd circumstance when local and charismatic prehistoric structures are virtually unknown while the small, largely modern, dwellings of the St Kildans are iconic. It is hard to understand why the story of this one abandoned island has metastasised across the entire Hebridean archipelago.

Yes, I can see that St Kilda is storyable in ways that Dun Torcuill isn’t. But it troubles me that part of our collective interest in St Kilda still draws on discredited Victorian ideas of difference: a kind of freakshow historiography that has made a fetish of thick ankles and prehensile toes.

It is important to remember that there are other Hebridean stories that matter; they are often closer to hand and – perhaps as a consequence – rather more remote.

The founder of the Welfare State visits North Uist, 1919

‘Wasn’t there a famous Beveridge?’ Barbara asked me. ‘I think he was here’.

Barbara Maclean of Sollas, who recently passed away just short of her 92nd birthday, grew up on the intertidal island of Vallay which lies off the north coast of North Uist. Her father was the farm manager for Erskine Beveridge (1851-1920), the linen baron, archaeologist and photographer who built a mansion on the island and which still stands today as an enigmatic ruin.


For fifteen years, I have been slowly scraping away at the story of this house and its inhabitants. When I interviewed Barbara back in 1998, I wondered if what she called ‘the famous Beveridge’ might turn out to be Lord William Beveridge – author of the Beveridge Report, the architect of the British Welfare State and one of the giants of applied social science.

I was doubtful. It took me altogether too long to work out that he was, in fact, a cousin of Erskine Beveridge; and that, yes, he had holidayed there in the summer of 1919 – albeit over 20 years before he wrote his famous report.

Last month, I went down to the archives of the London School of Economics to sift through the papers of William Beveridge and discovered a modest treasure trove of correspondence that provides new insights into the Erskine Beveridge family and their island home.

The story of the then Sir William’s trip to Vallay House is itself fascinating. It was here he penned his inaugural lecture to the LSE whose Directorship he took up later that year.

He wrote to his parents about the unhurried pleasures of travel in the islands. While waiting for the tide to allow him cross the sands to Vallay he stopped in at the Post Office in Malacleit ‘for an hour or two with a very welcome fire and tea and whisky’.

He finally arrived at Vallay in the early hours of the morning ‘where we found cousin Erskine sitting up for us’.

Also surviving from this trip is a holiday snap of the family group. ‘Will’, as he was known to his cousins, is in the middle. Erskine Beveridge, of whom very few photos exist, is in sombre Edwardian fashion. Standing in front of Will is Erskine’s youngest son Charles (wearing a cap) and another adult son, George, wearing plus fours with his regimental Balmoral.

Within in a year, Will would be taking one of the coffin cords at cousin Erskine’s funeral. George, who inherited Vallay, later drowned in the ford.

This is, of course, just a tiny episode in a full life. Although born in India and having lived and died in England, William Beveridge was came from a Fife family that maintained close links with Scotland.

This all seems worth remembering now that William Beveridge’s legacy is being systematically unravelled and with such muted protest.

The family of Erskine Beveridge had sorrows aplenty, to which the crumbling Vallay House still testifies. The present ruin of the Welfare State is a tragedy of an altogether different order.


A narrative essay, The Ruins of Erskine Beveridge, is forthcoming in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.