Get your free website from Spanglefish

The Eigg MacPhersons

In 1827 and after a period of over 400 years. the ownership of Eigg changed. Reginald Macdonald, 20th captain of Clanranald was in debt and forced to sell. This signalled the beginning of a new type of landowner which lasted until the community buy-out of the island 150 years later. Rather than regarding their estates as a source of fighting men and latterly of income, as traditionally the Clanranalds had done, these new owners saw them as remote homes which they would visit for pleasure.

Dr Hugh MacPherson 

The first of these new purchasers was Dr Hugh Macpherson whose family owned the island until 1896. Famine, clearances and emigration all happened duting his tenure, but the fact is that his purchase of Eigg in 1827 did save the Cleadale crofters from being cleared to Canada by the Clanranald Trustees during the wholesale clearance of the Clanranald estates aorund that time. The Canna crofters were not so lucky. 

From his obituary in the Inverness Courier - Thursday 23 March 1854, we learn that " Dr Hugh Macpherson was born in 1767, in Sutherlandshire, at Kintradwell, in the parish of Golspie, of which his father was minister. His mother, Miss Gordon, was a daughter of the House of Caroll, one of the leading families among the old gentry of that county. On the death of his father, in his early childhood, he went to reside at Sleat, in the Isle of Skye, with his near relative, Dr Martin Macpherson, the representative of family which had been long settled there, and which, from the times of the Reformation, had furnished to the church a series of clergymen distinguished for their worth, their rare erudition, and for the interest they took in all that affected the welfare of the Highlands. It was Dr Martin's brother, Sir John Macpherson, sometime Governor-General of India, who evinced the warm regard he entertained for his northern alma mater by founding the valuable bursaries bearing his name.

Dr Hugh Macpherson graduated in arts at King's College ; and after studying medicine in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, and Paris, which he visited before the French Revolution, took his degree of M.D. at Edinburgh, then in the height of its celebrity as a school of medicine. In 1797, Dr Macpherson was transferred to the chair of Greek Literature. While he held the Professorship of Oriental Languages, he practiced medicine in Aberdeen; but soon after his appointment as Professor of Greek, he discontinued lucrative and increasing practice, that he might devote his undivided energies to the duties of that important charge."

Ending his carreer as Vice Principal of King's College, Dr MacPherson married twice,  his second wife Christina MacLeod's father being the Revd Roderick MacLeod of Talisker, Principal of King's College.

With 2 children from his first marriage, Dr Hugh went on to father a further 13 children. Only 3 were closely associated with Eigg, Norman, Sheriff of Roxburghshire and ex-Professor of Scots Law at Edinburgh, who inherited the island on his father's death in 1854, Isabella, his eldest child by Christina, who remained unmarried and lived on the island, and Christina who visited regularly with her husband Michael Packenham Edgeworth. 

There is much speculation that the money to buy Eigg might have come from India where his uncle Sir John Macpherson, was said to have made his fortune as Governor-General of India and through his association with the Nawabs of the Carnatic! 

The family certainly cultivated the India connection as no less than 4 of Hugh's sons made their carreer in India: William (1812 - 1893), barrister, moved to India c 1846 and in 1848 was appointed to the Supreme Court of Calcutta.  John (1817 - 1890), MRCS, worked for the East India Company in Bengal, 1839 - 1864, where he rose to the position of Inspector-General of Hospitals. Hugh (1820 - 1902) and Roderick (1824 - 1900) followed John to India, c 1842 - 1843. Even Christina's husband, Michael Pakenham Edgeworth served in the Indian Civil Service. 

Dr MacPherson and the Eigg Clearances

Despite the new owner's interest in the island which he admired from afar during his youth in Sleat, he never set foot on the island, relying on his Edinburgh factor to administor the island on his behalf.  This factor, like many of his kind,  had little time for the Gaelic speaking islanders, many of whom were in arrear of rent.  In 1846, the financial woes of the crofters were compounded when the Highland Potato Famine struck. Dr MacPherson authorized the buying of a limited amount of meal to relieve the islanders, but took little interest in the wellbeing of his tenants. When the impoverished tenant of Laig farm decided to emigrate to America, Stephen Stewart, a lowland sheep famer offered a good price for Laig and the two Grulins, providing that Grulin was cleared of its people.  In 1853, the  fourteen families who  crofted Upper and Lower Grulin were forced to leave Eigg.

Grulin before the Clearances 

Grulin after the Clearances

Dr MacPherson's death in 1854 did not put a stop to the clearances: Brae was cleared in 1858. By that time the island had passed on to Norman, his one remaining son in Scotland. 

Norman and Isabella MacPherson

Isabella, the oldest of Dr MacPherson's children by Christina Macleod, lived on Eigg most of the time, with her brother Norman and her sister Christina and husband and daughter visiting extensively in the summer. The family adapted a pair of cottages in Galmisdale into a family home which they called the Crows' nest.  They also started on an extensive tree planting scheme to encourage game like woodcock. There was little in the way of grouse shooting on the island despite this being advertised in the 1827 sale prospectus, and shooting was a great Victorian pastime.

Eigg's first lodge: NEAD NA FEANNAIG or the Crows' nest. 

Norman also had much interest in the island past and as a member of the Society of Antiqueries, carried out several excavations on Eigg burial mounds which destroyed much of the evidence sought to be uncovered. However, the finds were presented to the Society of Antiqueries, including the magnificent Viking swordhilt found whilst leveling a mound at Kildonnan, which now is part of the National Museum of Scotland's collections.   

Michael Packenham Edgeworth 

Like the Macphersons, the Edgeworths were a well-to-do family with academic interests. Michael Packenham Edgeworth  was born in Ireland on the family estate in 1812 where his father was concerned with land reclamation and agricultural improvement. He was also a renowned inventor, and when in England he was part of the group of scientists around Erasmus Darwin, Joshua Wedgewood, Humphrey Davy and Mathew Boulton.  Michael inherited his father’s scientific spirit of enquiry and studied oriental languages and botany at Edinburgh before joining the East India Company in 1831.He travelled widely in north India indulging his interest in plant life and collecting botanical specimens. He kept a copious diary running to 8,000 pages, published in 1907 under the title India in the Age of Empire.

In 1846 he married Christine Macpherson, presumably meeting her on one of his periods of leave back in Britain, perhaps through Indian links that her father had kept up.


Michael finally retired from his Indian post in 1859, although he may already have been spending much of his time in Britain as he, Christine and their daughter Harriet  began visiting Isabella on Eigg regularly for long summer breaks in 1857, the date of the earliest of the Edgeworth Eigg diaries.

Like his father he was well respected in botanical circles corresponding with eminent scientists such as Charles Darwin, William Hooker at Kew Gardens and the prominent botanist and antiquarian, John Lubbock. He published 13 papers on botany as well as a detailed and meticulously illustrated book on pollen in 1877. As well as his diaries, his sketches made on his holidays on Eigg survive and copies of these are in the Eigg Archive and show an aspect of his artistic skill different from his scientific illustrations. He was also interested in the early development of photography and what a pity that no photographs he took on Eigg survive!

The Edgeworth diaries are now in the Bodliean Library, Oxford where microfilms of the originals (e1475/4-10) can be consulted. They cover his visits to Eigg in 1857, 1858, 1862, 1863, 1877 and 1881. He died on Eigg in 1881.

The Eigg MPE Diaries

These diaries reflect both his farming background and botanical interests as well as giving an insight into the sort of lifestyle of the Victorian gentry holiday-making in the Highlands and Islands. They contain descriptions of family picnics, visits to the caves, the top lochs and the Sgurr, and dinners (nearly always including wild strawberries and Laig cream) with visiting friends.


 a rare drawing showing the Macpherson and Edgeworth ladies

The family’s main social contacts on the island were with the Church of Scotland ministers and the tenants of the two largest farms at Laig and Kildonnan. Church was attended regularly firstly in the school and later, from 1862, in the newly-built Church of Scotland. Services were long (often over three hours) because they were taken, firstly in Gaelic and then English. The fact that many islanders supported either the Free or Roman Catholic church is noted in passing. The manse and the Church of Scotland were a separate world. The manse is described as ‘an oasis’ with a garden full of fine apples. On one visit Michael took advantage of the minister’s library to check some of his plant identifications in ‘Hooker’s Flora’.

The diaries show that Michael had inherited an interest in improved farming  and land reclamation from his father. He described the good crops of oats which were being grown on the drained moss on the Glebe. He had several conversations with Stephen Stewart, the progressive sheep farmer from the Borders who took over Laig in 1850 on the departure of the last of the Clanranald tacksmen and whose first action on arrival on Eigg had been to clear Grulin for sheep.  Michael noted good crops of turnips, barley and potatoes at Laig although the kale had been blown out of the ground!  In the summer of 1858 he describes talking ‘farming at Laig and the Indian style of farming’. The low land there was ‘admirably farmed’ and in August 1857 he saw the barley being harvested. He took an interest in the rounding up of sheep, the shearing and washing at Grulin for the sales at Falkirk. In 1881 new byres were being built at Laig for the new farmer Mr Cameron. Excellent crops were also growing at Kildonnan and in 1863 he went to see the ‘great wall’ being built down to Struidh.  In 1863 he walked with the Kildonnan tenant Mr Mclean down to Brae to see new fanks being built at Brae where he planned to dam the stream to make a sheep wash.

His interest in natural history is clear. He lists the plants that he has seen. Butterfly orchids, harebells and primroses were all flowering in June 1858, while he saw starry saxifrage on the Sgurr and crimson hawk moths at Grulin in 1863. He identified eleven species of fern and tried planting a variety at St Donnan’s well, but none survived.

A telling glimpse in the world of the Eigg Gentry 

The most revealing thing about the diaries is what is not there. We learn very little about crofters. Only the school was regularly visited, especially for the ‘examination’ where the pupil’s ability to translate from Gaelic was tested. The children learnt English, but never heard it spoken at home where the only language was Gaelic. The gentry therefore were separated from the majority of the population by language. Isabella was unusual amongst this new class of owners who replaced the traditional highland lairds in that she lived much of her time on the island, creating the first lodge and its shelter of trees.  

The Crow's nest

She distributed small charitable gifts, such as a packet of tea ‘for a poor woman’ but when she did visit the crofting side of the island ‘to visit the poor there’ she had to take an interpreter. The family called on ‘a pauper in Cleadale’ where they found a pig asleep in front of the fire with a cat asleep on its back. The horrors of the potato famine and its aftermath did not spoil their holiday, nor the bitterness created by the clearance of Grulin. The diaries do mention the fact that in 1857 ‘further Grulin now completely uninhabited’, but that is all. Nothing in the diaries add anything to our understanding of the conditions of life  amongst the majority of the people in the difficult years of the 1850s when the population was at its highest and emigration was often the only escape from poverty.

Landing place, Galmisdale: could the woman in black be Isabella?

The impression created is of an ideal holiday destination where the Victorian social divisions were accepted by a contented and grateful population. Little acts of kindness by the owners cemented this paternalistic arrangement. The value of the diaries lies in the insight it gives of life of the owners of Eigg at a time when the Highlands and Islands were becoming a fashionable destination for those with the time and money to enjoy the area while taking little responsibility for its welfare.

We are grateful to Ian Campbell for the information on Dr MacPherson's family and to Susanna Wade Martins for the article on MPE's diaries. The notes on MPE have been written using Noel Banks’ (author of Six Inner Hebrides, 1977) notes made from the original diaries in the Bodlean Library, which is currently closed because of Corvid-19 restrictions. These notes as well as his other material collected when writing his book covering his conversations with Eigg families in the 1970s are all catalogued and will be available to consult in the Eigg Archive when Covid restrictions are lifted.

sitemap | cookie policy | privacy policy | accessibility statement