Heritage Blogs

Life in Bosta, Great Bernera, The Hebrides


The winding single track road to Bòstadh takes you as far west as you can get in Great Bernera. The white shell sand beach draws families with young children, partying teenagers and those reflecting on life and relationships, while on a pilgrimage to the last resting place of their relatives and forefathers.

From the beach, a casual glance up the glen will locate the sheep dipper in what was formerly one of the stone walled family homes. A closer look will see other ruins of the village of Bòstadh march up the sides of the sheltered valley It is all there, field systems, stack yards, animal keeps, drinking wells, the silent signature of generations of families who finally left in 1878 and whose descendants are scattered far and wide.

In 2009 the Bòstadh Archaeological Group recorded some of the landmarks around the deserted village. The volunteers were participating in Scotland’s Rural Past project, comparing the ruins of the homes left in Bòstadh, with the upgraded homes built by the those Bòstadh families, who settled in the neighbouring village of Kirkibost.

Fisherman Norman MacDonald from 24 Kirkibost is descended from one of those families and he explains about the transient lives some of his forefathers lived at the whim of local land owners.“My great great great grandfather Tormod Mòr, Norman MacDonald lived first of all in Kinlochroag, then set up home and was moved on, from: Barraglom, Haclete, Little Bernera and Doune Carloway, till he settled briefly in Crulivig.While he was at the fishing, the fire on his hearth in Crulivig was extinguished and his wife and daughter evicted by the factor. The Macdonald family were then allocated a house in Bòstadh, possibly, due to the family ‘workforce’ of five sons. Their stone wall construction skills honed on the boundary walls at Doune Carloway, would be a handy construction team for the factor.This workforce duly spend time repairing and rebuilding the stout boundary walls, bordering the best arable land in the area which belonged to Linshader farm”.The oral tradition of the MacDonald family relates how the last house built in Bòstadh, was for one of the brothers, and it was built and roofed within a week.

Some of the housing ruins in the valley must relate to a time over 200 years ago when, the families living on the coast were paying their rent by working the kelp. Kelp a sea weed was gathered, then processed by burning, to manufacture an alkali which formed an ingredient used in the making of soap and glass and other items. At the Mòl on the headland at Bòstadh, the 2009 survey found examples of the rectangular stone lined troughs or kilns which were used to burn the kelp. There are also narrow piers of stone visible just behind the Mòl which may have been ‘beds’ used to dry the kelp.

Calum MacAulay from Kirkibost a part time builder, part time fisherman and keen survey volunteer, as his forefathers lived in Bòstadh, Calum observed “When the seaweed comes ashore here at the Mòl, it still comes in on the tide in huge heaps. The weed may have been spread on the stone structures, as the south facing location and the wind, would speed up the drying process before the seaweed was put into the kiln”.Around Bòstadh village, the families would have spread the seaweed on the very scarce areas of fertile land, earning precious soil to grow crops.

The archaeology of the buildings in the former village indicate where they processed the barley crop into meal. There are the stack yard walls where the harvested crop was kept until it was to be dried.In the byre section of a dwelling house there is a winnowing hole in the wall, the through draft assisted to separate the seed from the chaff. In another building there is a drying kiln, where the seed was dried above the bowl of the peat fired kiln and the fire flue can still be traced in the stonework.On the stream running through the former village are the remains of three mills, in use at different times. The lades, or water channels can still be traced in the rough ground. At the mill the barley seed was ground into meal.

Bòstadh family traditions relate the men had “one foot on land and the other at sea” , This is till true of the few fishermen left in this area. Today there is no rich harvest in the waters around Great Bernera, forcing the seamen to find alternative employment but with one eye on the sea at all times.

In days gone by, seamanship and the craft of boatbuilding was passed on from generation to generation. Scodaidh John MacAulay, born in Bòstadh in 1855, was the last prolific boat builder in Great Bernera. Tales abound of his boats, reputed to be sturdy vessels, designed for rough seas, having returned to port when others foundered, following a couple of the fishing fleet tragedies, around Lewis and Harris.Scodaidh regularly sailed round the Butt of Lewis to Stornoway to collect stores such as wood, slate, oatmeal and flour delivering products to the local merchants.

One of the Kirkibost merchants was Niall Alasdair, Neil Maclennan said to have been the last child born in Bòstadh, before the families left in 1878.Niall although born lame, worked hard and prospered and in 1905, is likely to have helped fund three fishing boats An Gallan, Pabbaigh and The Mabel Scot. Niall had his own curing station at Kirkibost and it is recorded that he had a stockpile of tweeds produced locally, in a large shed during the economic crisis at the time of the 1st World War.

In 1925 Niall became the proud owner of the first car in Kirkibost, a three wheeler Morgan, which was offloaded from a boat at An Ruadha Ghlas. Shortly afterwards Niall introduced the first wireless into the area, a phenomena known to the local villagers as ‘Bodach Nèill’.

The village of Bostadh though now deserted, has many related tales of hardship and achievement on land and at sea.

Copyright Magaidh Smith


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