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On a map, Lewis and Harris appear as one island. To the eye of fancy they resemble a gigantic kite that has fallen into the seas off the western rim of Europe, its streamers strung out to the south as far as Barra head. The whole archipelago is known as the Long Island.
Georgraphically, Lewis and Harris are divided by obstructive mountains and deep sea lochs, while historically they are separated by the consequences of different ownership. For Leod had bestowed Harris on his son Tormod, and it continued to be the properly of the MacLeods of Harris, living in Dunvegan on the neighbouring isle of Skye, for long after the Mackenzies had obtained lewis.
This clan leadership had been a blessing during the golden age of Dunvegan, when Iain Breac was Chief. But it became a curse after Norman MacLeod succeeded in 1706, still a baby. The estate was then burdened by mountains of debt in addition to the claims of all the widows and daughters of their predecessors. Norman was known as the Red Man, after the portrait of him which hangs in Dunvegan. As soon as he was old enough, he embarked on a lifelong career of drinking and gambling until one of his relatives wrote, ‘He has brought and ancient and honourable family from a flourishing condition to the brink of ruin.’
Finally his grandson Norman, the future Chief, persuaded to the old profligate to place his properly in the hands of trustees and live on a fixed allowance. In 1772 the Red Man died, far from Skye, and it was this grandson who welcomed Johnson and Boswell to Dunvegan in the following year, after they had left Raasay. Here, wrote Boswell, ‘Our entertainment was in so elegant a style, and reminded my fellow-traveller so much of England, that he became quite joyous.’ There was evidently no risk that the young ladies would interrupt his majestic conversation with Gaelic songs as they had done in Raasay. The bagpipe was still heard but its art was no longer being taught, and even these visitors could remark that the standard had declined.
Each man made a penetrating observation at Dunvegan. Johnson said: ‘There is no tracing ancient nations but by language, and therefore I’m always sorry when language is lost, because languages are the pedigrees of nations.’ For his part, Boswell wrote in his journal of the benefits that might ensue if ’the lairds were to stay more at home.’
As in Raasay, they described a lifestyle which their hosts could not afford. But in Skye the Chief had been attempting to meet his expenses by rack-renting like the Mackenzie lord of Lewis, and had thereby provoked massive emigration. The new Chief planned to sell Harris, as as a means of paying off at least some of the debts he had inherited.
Here lived the grandson of Sir Norman of Bernera, that favourite of Mary MacLeod the poet, in the in the fertile island in the Sound of Harris that he had received from his father Ruaridh Mòr, the great Chief. But Ruaridh had bestowed Bernera on his younger son only in the form of a lease, not with a charter that would have given this junior branch a permanent title of ownership. However, Sir Norman’s grandson, Donald of Bernera, was approached by the Red man with a request for a loan which enabled him to rectify this. He agreed to advance the money in return for a charter, and the improvident Chief accepted his terms. Captain Alexander later purchased Harris in 1779, along with Bernera and St Kilda.