On the night of 5th April 1897 – census night – Donald McGregor, his wife Elizabeth and seven of their children were recorded as staying at Galson Farm. Donald McGregor had been the Headmaster of Lional School until his dismissal the previous summer – a decision he had fought hard through the Courts, and a battle he had lost, finally, that spring. The family, left homeless, as a consequence, and Mr Helm of Galson Farm had taken them in.
Donald and Elizabeth were my great grandparents and one of the children, Robina, was my grandmother. But who was Mr Helm and why did he house them when disaster struck?
The records of the School Board for Barvas, and the Court Proceedings tell some of this tale.
When the McGregors came to Lewis from Kirkcudbright in 1880, Donald (originally from Perthshire and Gaelic speaking) had been appointed as Headmaster at Bragar School. Mr Helm, also from Dumfriesshire/Kircudbright, came to Lewis around the same time. He had succeeded his uncle, Dundas Helm, as tenant of Galson Farm by the time of the 1881 census.
Farms in Lewis were few in number. By around 1900, there were only eight farms in the parish of Barvas (which provided a rental income to the Matheson Estate of c. £500 a year) while there were about a thousand crofts between the Butt of Lewis and Callanish (which provided a rental income of c. £3000.) Like most farmers, the Helms were recruited from the mainland to bring in knowledge and experience of large-scale sheep farming. The 1881 census shows that Galson Farm had 5,000 acres of land, of which just 80 were arable.
In 1883 James Paul Helm married Margaret Fowlie who was from Manor Farm in Stornoway, and he became someone of some substance in the community. As well as running such a large farm, he was a member of the School Board of Barvas (and later a JP) The School Boards were relatively new bodies established by an act of Parliament in 1872 to oversee the public schools which had succeeded the earlier church schools. The Barvas Board covered all the schools in the Parish of Barvas and its members were elected every three years – Mr Helm was elected (with a consistently high vote!) fro early in the 80’s right through until he finally left the island in 1908.
The Board was in endless difficulty – there were constant financial pressures, poor school building and maintenance, and huge challenges in the schools themselves. Low pupil attendance, epidemics, hardship and language difficulties all contributed. And the Board’s membership appears to have been riven with continual and deep-seated internal strife and infighting. Into this came Mr McGregor as a Headmaster, and Mr Helm as an elected member.
Records suggest that Donald McGregor was an effective, but frustrated, teacher. And 1884 he was the subject of a complaint which seems to have related to ‘intemperance.’ The evidence was not strong and he seems to have been warned – and all seemed t settle down. However, over the next six years, he himself became a kind of battleground for Board with one or two of the Boards persistently trying to have him removed, while others equally determinedly fought to stop that happening. Mr Helm never wavered in his support for Donald throughout. It is not clear what factors lay behind the warring within the Board, for which Donald seems to have become a kind of lightning rod. [Nor was the warring confined to Board members. There were petitions and protests, for and against him form parents and parishioners too].
In 1885 there was a ‘job swap’ between Bragar and Loinal with Mr Young of Lional (also the subject of complaints and petitions) moving south and Donald McGregor transferring to Lional School. Trouble continued. Still, Mr Helm and others continued their support for Mr McGregor, even trying to find compromises to allow a fairer settlement for him in the phase (when the Board did dismiss and move to evict, and when Donald sued them all the way to the Court of Session in 1891). And then, when all was lost for the McGregors, he seems to have taken the family in at Galson Farm, providing temporary accommodation (and work for the eldest McGregor daughter, Isabella, as a servant).
Throughout it all, the factionalism within the School Board and the many problems of teachers and children, hunger, disease and bad weather was not all that the communities of Barvas and Lewis had to contend with: the land struggle was also at its height. Mr Helm, between meetings of the Board also experienced the Battle of Galson Farm.
What became of them all?
Donald McGregor, unemployed and, family lore suggests, now an alcoholic, left the island and his family forever and died, a pauper, in Edinburgh in 1901. He’d had a life of great achievement and upward mobility, the child of an agricultural labourer who became a qualified and highly literate, educated and successful teacher, but a life that ended in tragedy.
Elisabeth McGregor moved into Stornoway where she ran a grocer’s store in Cromwell Street and brought up her children, all of whom were successful and spirited people. One daughter went back to teach in Lional School, the scene of such family disaster, leaving it in 1908 to marry Angus Murray from Swainebost, also a schoolmaster. There are still descendants of other children living in Stornoway.
And I, Donald and Elizabeth’s great grand-daughter, have returned to visit Galson Farm which sheltered them so long ago. While it is well known as the scene of a ‘battle’, it was also (for my family) a sanctuary, and it is fitting that it is now so famous for its hospitality.
What of James Paul Helm? He left Galson Farm and Lewis in 1908left homeless, probably on the expiry of the lease, to farm near Edinburgh. He died in Bonnyrigg in 1929, not far from a daughter. He and Margaret had retired there and had lived in Viewbank Road. They called their house ”Galson”.