Archie Gillespie – a crofters’ champion

In February 1990, Archie Gillespie spoke to the NFU branch in Skye. He had been retired for four years as the Gaelic-speaking member of the Scottish Land Court and nobody was better versed in crofting law or, just as important, realities on the ground.

By Brian Wilson
Friday, 29th October 2021, 11:37 am
Updated Friday, 29th October 2021, 2:41 pm
Archie Gillespie pictured in latter years
Archie Gillespie pictured in latter years

“The real threats to the future of crofting” he said, “do not derive from the penalties of remoteness nor the discomfort resulting from the occasionally harsh environment; nor from the challenges posed by the sometimes inhospitable land; but rather from some more sinister elements from outwith, and increasingly nowadays, from some sinister elements within crofting itself”.

He was talking, even then, about the attempts to blur the lines between crofting tenure and marketable land. “The Crofting Acts,” he said, “provide a range of rights and privileges that are quite unmatched in any form of agricultural tenancy in Britain and perhaps in Europe”. Then - in the text of his speech the words were in block capitals: “DON’T TAKE THESE RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES FOR GRANTED”.

It was a warning which carries even greater resonance now than three decades ago and it proved to be Archie Gillespie’s last rallying call on behalf of crofting and crofters. A few days later he died at the age of 68.

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Archie cared passionately about crofting tenure and the society it sustained, in a way few would now even recognise. Critically, he understood that the “rights and privileges” flowed from it being a system of tenure, which had to be defended from those, outwith and within, whose vested interest lay in “normalising” the status of crofting land.

“If changes and amendments are needed,” he told his Skye audience, “you must work hard to see to it that you have a big say in these changes. Otherwise you may find that valuable babies have been thrown out with the bathwater and new ones introduced for which you did not bargain”.

This week is the centenary of Archie Gillespie’s birth. An exhibition reflecting his life’s work is planned by the family for his native Islay and in Ness but it is in Lewis and Harris that ever-present reminders remain. Wherever you see a sward of green land, carved from moor and probably now fading into its previous state, Archie’s name should be associated with it.

In an obituary, Angus MacLeod – then Honorary President of the Scottish Crofters Union - wrote: “Not really a desk man, Archie’s great work for which he will always be remembered was his pioneering work on pasture improvement by surface seeding. The numerous green enclosures on the common grazing everywhere in Lewis are his practical memorials”.

Archie was born in Port Charlotte, Islay, where the family had 12 acres of land and kept two cows.  From his earliest years, he was passionate about working the land. During the war years, he served in the Merchant Navy, sailing in the Arctic Convoys, and then returned to study at the West of Scotland College of Agriculture.

Having gained practical experience on lowland farms, he joined the North of Scotland College of Agriculture as an adviser. A family tribute recalls: “In 1956, Archie was granted three weeks of holiday time – a rare opportunity, and one that was to be a turning point in his life. Instead of going home to Islay, he travelled west to Uist, Barra, Skye, Lewis and Harris. The trip was a revelation to him.

“Archie had never seen crofting like he encountered in the Western islands. He marvelled at people’s fortitude in seeking part of their living from meagre plots of land. In Lewis, he was astonished at the densely populated villages evolved from small crofts. In Uist, he saw them improve their soil with shell sand from the machair.  He was moved by the resolve of the Harris crofters who cultivated scraps of dispersed ground….

“It was in the Western isles that Archie first understood with clarity that the one factor that had kept these families in their native islands was crofting. He never forgot that lesson and he told it over and over”. Archie secured a transfer to Stornoway in 1956. Morale was at a low ebb with a continuing flow of out-migration. The 1955 Crofting Act had been a disappointment with its emphasis on amalgamating crofts which Archie realised was both impossible and undesirable in most circumstances in the Western Isles where the croft was never going to provide the primary source of income.

James Shaw Grant wrote: “The one positive contribution the Act of 1955 made to crofting was that it accepted the Taylor Committee’s recommendation for a scheme for land improvement. It was on this lifeline Archie Gillespie seized. The social, economic and demographic situation was adverse but he launched what could only be described as a crusade.

“With the zeal of a revivalist preacher he went from township to township, advising, exhorting, cajoling crofters to take advantage of the grants while they were there. If he came on a village where his message was falling on stony ground, he didn’t waste time. He went back to those in other villages who would listen and quietly ringed the backsliders with large improvement schemes carried out by their neighbours”.

In 1958, Archie married Norma Montgomery from Newmarket, Stornoway, and they set up home in Holm where Archie acquired the tenancy of a croft and played his full part in all township activities. It was this closeness to the practicalities of crofting as a part-time form of subsistence agriculture that made him so unusual among crofting’s administrators.

The reseeding schemes represented the outcome with which his time in Lewis remains associated and, to a previous generation, made him a household name. However, he worked equally effectively to make Lewis the first part of the Crofting Counties to introduce an Artificial Insemination scheme. He encouraged an interest in tree-growing on Lewis and Harris for the first time and some crofters took advantage of grants to create shelter belts.

James Shaw Grant described the reasons for his success: “He began at the grass roots: meeting the crofters in small groups in all parts of the island to discuss the pros and cons. He was well-equipped for this approach as a Gaelic speaker who had also served in the Merchant Navy. He spoke the Lewisman’s language in more ways than one”.

When Archie chaired the Glasgow Lewis and Harris Gathering in 64, the programme notes summed up the esteem in which he was held: “An agricultural revolution has taken place in Lewis where up to 10,000 acres of useless moorland (eventually 13,000) have been won over to green pasture….

“A young man, a Gaelic speaker, came from the Isle of Islay. He did not quite start it all but brimful of enthusiasm, with the sympathy and tact and understanding of the Gael, he saw the possibilities of the small beginnings in land development and proceeded to infuse his own enthusiasm into almost every township in Lewis and Harris. He worked fast and hard and, paradoxically, let the grass grow under his feet”.

The writer continued: “I remember five or so years ago a bitterly cold night in the ‘ceartach’ in Upper Shader. Most of the village crofters were gathered around a blazing peat fire. Outside there were flurries of sleet and the roads were undulating with snow. We were dubious of any man venturing on the road from Stornoway on a night like yon. But Archie Gillespie did come, spreading his gospel of development”.

In 1967, Archie was appointed to the Crofters Commission and five years later he joined the Scottish Land Court. Never was a member of any court, by his instincts, more suited to ensuring that the interests of the weak and the poor would be treated with fairness and respect.

At the time of his death, I wrote: “There was no such thing as a minor case. Each and every one involved points of principle; precedence; possible encroachments on hard-won crofting rights. The presence of Archie Gillespie at a Land Court hearing was, in crofters’ eyes, the guarantee of empathy and justice.”

His commitment to the crofters’ cause was not universally shared within the Scottish Land Court at that time, and the internal battles he had to fight took their toll because he cared so much about the principles at stake. As the years went by, he saw the Land Court’s historic reputation as the best friend of crofters coming under threat from unsympathetic appointments to its membership.

It became his mission to defend the Court’s historic role and took on the challenge of the layman becoming more expert in the law than the lawyers who surrounded him. His last big fight was to ensure the commitment to having a Gaelic speaker on the Court was maintained when it came to appointing his successor.

Ironically, in the same week that Archie died, the incoming chairman of the Crofters Commission, Hugh MacLean, recognised that the Commission’s support for owner-occupation which was the driving force behind the 1976 Crofting Reform Act had been a mistake and that “we are not in favour of that now”. By then, however, the genie was out of the bottle and has continued to play havoc, for exactly the reasons Archie Gillespie warned against.

In his short retirement years, he became a mentor to the fledgling Scottish Crofters Union and a much sought-after adviser on all matters relating to crofting. He underwent heart by-pass surgery but was not good at taking it easy and the intense level of commitment which characterised his life was sustained until the end.

While committed to crofting as the glue that held communities together, Archie was no romantic and argued with equal passion for industry to provide the livelihoods which crofting could supplement but never replace. On the centenary of a man who did so much good, the best memorial might be a serious, informed debate about whether and how the crofting system he loved can be salvaged from the forces he warned against.