From Patagonia to Crobeg

WHEN Charles Menendez MacLeod (Charlie Barley) bought the Crobeag Farm, including Eilean Chaluim Cille, in 1957, he was in essence returning to the land of his forefathers. It was in Garyvard, a short distance across Loch Erisort from St. Colms’ Isle that his great, great, great-grandfather, Torquil MacLeod, and his wife, Ann Matheson, lived in the late 17th and early 18th Century. Their son, Donald, moved over the Loch to Keose on his marriage to Ann MacDonald thereby establishing the family’s association with the croft at 5 Keose that was to remain their home until Charles’ father, Murdo, moved to Ropework Cottage, Stornoway, after his marriage to Chrissie MacKenzie. Chrissie was a descendant of Charles MacKenzie (1776-1845), of Leurbost, who had moved to 7 Keose around 1819. On the paternal side, his family had links to the Martins of Ensay, Harris, and the MacDonalds of Ranish.
Charlie’s father had left Keose to go and work on the sheep farming stations of Patagonia in South America. Bruce Chatwin’s book, In Patagonia, describes the setting up of the sheep farms in 1877 when Henry Reynard, an English trader in Punta Arenas, ferried a flock from the Falkland Islands and set it to graze on Elizabeth Island in the Straits of Magellan. It multiplied prodigiously and other merchants took the hint. The leading entrepreneurs were a ruthless Asturian, Jose Menendez, and his amiable Jewish son-in-law, Moritz Braun. The two were rivals at first, but later combined to assemble an empire of estancias, coal mines, freezers, department stores, merchant ships and a salvage department that was reputedly closer to piracy than salvage. Menendez died in 1918, leaving a proportion of his millions to King Alphonso XIII of Spain and was buried at Punta Arenas. The Braun and Menendez families continued to dominate the territory through their Company, La Anonima. They imported stud flocks from New Zealand, shepherds and their dogs from the Western Isles and farm managers from the British Army who stamped the smartness of the parade ground over the entire operation and turned the Province of Santa Cruz into a Spanish speaking outpost of the British Empire.
Murdo MacLeod spent several years in Patagonia in the employment of a family named Menendez. They were kindly and generous sheep farmers and Murdo enjoyed his time working with them so much so that when his son, Charles, was born in 1915, he was given the second name Menendez in tribute to Murdo’s affection for the family.
Charlie’s mother, Chrissie MacKenzie, was the daughter of Charles MacKenzie (born1853) and Kirsty MacKay whose forebears lived at 4 Achmore. On the maternal side, she was related to the MacAulays of Uig.
Charlie MacLeod worked on farms as a young man and returned home to start up business as a wholesale and retail butcher in Stornoway in 1947 on the site where the shop still stands. In 1958 he purchased the Crobeag Farm, including St. Colm’s Isle, from Roderick MacLeod (Ruaraidh Mor), a native of Balallan. The stock and equipment included in the sale lists a new boat valued at £50, 78 ewes, 72 sheep and 78 lambs on the Island and 67 ewes, 48 lambs, 2 rams and 4 bullocks in Crobeag. Charlie decided to invest money in regenerating the land and building up the stockholding on both sides of the Loch, In the early ‘sixties, a coaster was chartered to bring a cargo of lime up from Glasgow and that policy of expansion and regeneration remains a driving force within the company.
Curing the Second World War, Mabel MacCallum, a native of Macduff, Banffshire, came to work as a nurse at the Lewis Hospital, Stornoway. She met and married Charles MacLeod shortly afterwards and in time they had two sons, Iain and Charles.
In the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, Charlie worked hard at building up the quality of stock on St. Colm’s Isle, engaging local labour and became a well-known and highly respected figure in the community. His affection for St. Colm’s Isle and its early association with the establishment of the Christian Church touched him deeply and he was always conscious of the legacy passed into his keeping, enshrined in the old burial ground and crumbling walls of the ancient monastery. On a high point overlooking the ‘Caolas’ that separates St. Colm’s Isle from Crobeag, an area of consecrated ground was set aside with the consent of the Scottish Office and when Charlie died in 1967, at the early age of fifty-two, his remains were laid to rest there.
His widow, Mabel, and their two sons took over control of the business he had set up. The boys were sent off to agricultural colleges and returned to play leading roles in the development of the firm, Iain specialising in the retail and wholesale butchery side, while Charles Junior concentrated on managing the farm. During the Integrated Development Programme in the 1980s, further investment was made in improvement and expansion creating a first class farming environment living in complete harmony with the surrounding crofting community and delivering a high quality product for sale over the company’s counters.
Mabel died in August 1988 and was buried beside her husband on the hill above the Sound, close to the causeway where the tidal surge sweeps in from Loch Erisort, cutting off the Island of St. Columba from its link with mainland Crobeag twice every twenty-four hours.