Postcard: Researching school books as a source for extreme weather in the Outer Hebrides during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

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Outer Hebrides
Photograph of a road sign in the Outer Hebrides. Source: Museum nan Eilean, Stornoway.

Dr. Neil Macdonald is a Senior Lecturer and Dr. James P. Bowen is a Postdoctoral Research Associate atthe University of Liverpool’s Department of Geography and Planning. They areboth currently working on ‘Spaces of experience and horizons of expectation: the implications of extreme weather events, past, present and future.’ This Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project which uses archival sources from local, regional and national collections along with oral history approaches, investigates the timing, frequency and impacts of historical and contemporary extreme weather events in various case study regions across the United Kingdom. 

This three year project which started in December 2013 is funded as part of the ‘Care for the Future: thinking forward through the past’ programme, and examines extreme weather events in the United Kingdom such as droughts, floods, storm events and unusually high or low temperatures since 1700. It takes an interdisciplinary approach, seeking to provide insight into how and why such events became inscribed into the memory of a community or an individual in the form of oral history, ideology, custom, behaviour, narrative, artefact, technological and physical adaption, including changes to the working landscape and built environment. The project involves eight researchers based at the Universities of Nottingham, Glasgow, Aberystwyth and Liverpool. 

A set of case study regions in the United Kingdom have been identified for investigation by the project. Based on previous research, future predictions and the Department for Environment Farming and Rural Affairs’ 2012 Climate Change Risk Assessment, these areas are currently recognised to be vulnerable to the effects of climate change and extreme weather events. They are the north, west and south coasts of Wales, the East Anglian coast, and northwest Scotland which have been identified as being at risk of flooding and storm events. The Midlands and Central England region is vulnerable to flooding, water scarcity and drought. The South West of England is projected to suffer most acutely from storm events and flooding as well as heat waves. In addition to instrumental meteorological data, a wide range of historical source materials are being consulted. 

In February 2015 Neil and James, along with Dr. Simon Naylor (School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow), another member of the project team, visited Tasglann nan Eilean Siar – the Hebridean Archives located at Stornoway in northwest Scotland to scope surviving source material. Neil explained: “We found that by far the most useful source were school log books which began around 1872 following The Education (Scotland) Act of 1872. They frequently record extreme weather events as well as providing insight into the everyday lives of the isolated island communities. In many respects it is the mid- to late-nineteenth century when extreme weather had the greatest effect on everyday life in the Outer Hebrides.” Recently Neil, James and Simon returned to the Outer Hebrides to consider in more detail the extent to which the lives of islanders were affected by extreme weather events, for instance with regard to economic activities, such as, crofting and fishing, and also transport.” 

As James outlined: “The aim of the latest visit was to adopt a two tier approach to ensure greater geographical coverage (pre-1930), whilst also focusing on a small number of schools in order to cover a wider chronological span. We viewed and photographed a large number of school log books held at Castlebay Community Library, Isle of Barra; Lionacleit Community Library, Isle of Benbecula; Tarbet Community Library, Isle of Harris; and Stornoway Library, Isle of Lewis. The log books for Mingulay and St Kilda schools, two islands that were evacuated in 1912 and 1930 respectively have been digitized with assistance from the National Records of Scotland. Some schools which remain open retain their log books. Whilst in Stornoway we also took the opportunity to meet with Dr. Edward Graham, a meteorologist based at the Lews Castle, Stornoway campus of the University of the Highlands and Island (UHI).” 

“School log books are a fascinating source for extreme weather. As well as recording school attendance and the educational activities undertaken, the teacher often gave a daily summary of the weather in the log book remarking for example ‘weather good’, ‘weather warmer and fairer’, ‘weather very fine’ - those were good days! However, these starkly contrast with the description of boisterous, cold, snowy conditions and snowstorms, stormy, wet and windy weather which was far more typical. Indeed an impression emerges from reading the log books that typically everyday winter weather was essentially extreme weather. There are also detailed descriptions of the impact of extreme weather, for example when the slates were blown off the school roof at Barvas (10 March 1882), a parish on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. Reference is also made to doors being snowed up and roads being in a very bad state. In some instances it is possible to determine the duration of extreme weather events, such as the entry for 24 January 1889 which recorded that ‘attendance has fallen this week owing to heavy snowfall which continued more or less for the last five days… the want of shoes and clothing is the prominent excuse.’ 

Clearly weather hampered attendance; hence periods of stormy conditions, snow, high winds, heavy rainfall and droughts were frequently remarked upon. Also, recorded were wider aspects of community life such as agricultural activities, for instance spring work, the summer pasturing of livestock, harvest work and the lifting of potatoes; the loss of fishermen, boats and ships; outbreaks of diseases like cholera, measles, scarlatina, small pox and typhus; the poor state of living conditions and the lack of adequate shoes and clothing for school children. One interesting entry in the school log book for Barvas which will appeal to geographers is that of 24 July 1895 which recorded: ‘Closed school today at nine o’clock, as the children are to be entertained by the men of the Ordnance Survey who are at present encamped in Barvas.’” 

The impacts of extreme weather: historical and contemporary

Historical research highlights the clear parallels with the present and the potential for informing future mitigation and resilience strategies. The research team observed that: “Despite the passage of time extreme weather continues to be a real threat to those that inhabit the Outer Hebrides. In 2005 a family of five who had recently moved to South Uist was tragically killed whilst attempting to escape from their flooded home when their car was swept into the sea from a low-lying causeway which linked Benbecula to South Uist. Flood risk management planning by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and the Scottish Government, and projects like ‘The Sea as our Neighbour: Sustainable Adaption to Climate Change in Coastal Communities and Habitats on Europe’s Northern Periphery’ (Coast Adapt) have since explored coastline adaption and how to mitigate the risks of extreme weather and improve resilience. Nevertheless, the majority of the contemporary impacts of extreme weather closely correspond with past events, especially those affecting the traditional industries of crofting and fishing which are the backbone of the islands economies and are most vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather. The former relies on access to the machair (Gaelic word meaning fertile low lying grassy plain) which carpets the western coastline and is a rich habitat for flowers and wildlife but is extremely vulnerable to coastal flooding and inundation. Similarly, storms, gales and hurricanes disrupted fishing and frequently resulted in the tragic loss of life as fisherman braved the heavy seas of the North Atlantic. Such disasters had a terrible impact on the close-knit, isolated Hebridean communities. Today fishing and aquaculture (which began in the 1970s and is concentrated on salmon and shell fish farming) remain vulnerable to damage to slipways, fish farms and the influence of changing environmental conditions on fish stocks. 

Further effects of extreme weather include disruption to the construction industry and utility supplies; a lack of drinking water which can be detrimental to health; a greater sense of isolation due to road closure, damage to harbours, jetties and strategic infrastructure such as airport runways or port link spans;  difficulties in being able to transport people off the islands for healthcare due to the disruption to lifeline air and ferry services during periods of extreme weather; damage to radio and telephone masts and power lines and the interruption of mobile phone coverage and internet connection; the vulnerability of houses and buildings to flooding and high winds; and the devastating impact on tourism businesses and events. 

Having returned from our second research visit we are now developing ideas for publications and considering how the evidence from school log books can be indexed to other sources materials, specifically local and regional newspapers and long instrumental records which for Stornoway start in January 1857. By exploring past extreme weather events the project places recent events within an historical context, investigating not only the timing, frequency and impacts, but also the processes by which certain events enter the cultural memory of a community, region and nation.” 

Further information

If you have any information which might be of interest to the project team email James The findings of research will be posted on the project website and published in a variety of formats. Conferences and public engagement events will be organised along with project partners which includes English Heritage, the International Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth initiative (ACRE based at the Met Office Hadley Centre) and the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers.                                                                                                                                                 

For more information visit the project website and blog at the following addresses: and The project email address is:, Twitter feed @Weather_Extreme and Facebook link:

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