Back in the Day Feature - Crofters’ cruel harvest of ‘poverty and despair’

Given the land they were forced to work, the Hebridean crofter continuously struggled against adversity.
Given the land they were forced to work, the Hebridean crofter continuously struggled against adversity.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a crofter’s life was often one of hardship. It was a constant struggle to provide for a family on poor land while that had been worked for generations was given over to the better-off or claimed for sporting pursuits. Our sister paper, The Southern Reporter, ran a challenging feature in 1906, penned by a government surveyor, angered by the treatment meted out in Barra and South Uist by the estate owners and the inaction by rulers past and present.

The dawn of the 20th century was to herald in an era of dramatic change, dominated by two world wars, an East-West divide based on mutual destruction and technological advancements beyond imagination.

Linked and contributing to all of these was the growing restlessness of the ordinary man and woman, recognising shackles, injustices and an exploitation that had endured for generations.

The 1800s saw incredible wealth generated as the Industrial Revolution stoked the furnace of the largest empire the world had ever seen. Slavery and drugs were acceptable paths to profit and wealth delivered power, usuall;y with little social responsbility.

The challenge to the order of empires would come with the outbreak of the Great War; the challenge to the social order would be epitomised by the Russian Revolution, and the call “workers of the world unite” sent a shudder through the establishment.

The discontent was growing across the world and the Western Isles in that period was a microcosm of that need for change in an environment of injustice.

The memories of the Clearances were still bitter. Families were just forced from their homes, many deserted them because of the unbearable hardship they faced.

COMMUNITY CRUSHED INTO DESPERATION

The crofting community that remained was crushed into desperation through greed and self-indulgence when the sport of gun and rod was more important than people’s livelihood, and even their lives.

Of course there was a “protest movement” but change was slow in coming and public support was had to engage in a time of no mass media and a press tightly controlled by the privileged.

However, the local press, anchored in distinct communities, had, in most cases, a different agenda and opened up its newspaper columns to all views.

The crofter agitation of the late 1800s had revealed families living in conditions that were seen as worse than those endured by slaves.

Many believed the Crofters’ Act and the likes of Congested District Boards, clan societies etc had ended the grievances and transformed the Highlands and Islands.

It had not, and it was this that led to an anonymous government surveyor penning a knowledgeable, thought-provoking and challenging article in 1907 on his experiences in Barra and South Uist.

This appeared, perhaps surprisingly, in the Southern Reporter, a well-regarded weekly newspaper in the Scottish Borders.

Its contents would to some have seem seditious, though they were also prophetic.

And the writer began with a dismissal of the perceived potency of the laws to help the crofting community.

“The subsequent appointing of a Deer Forests Commission to schedule land suitable for new holdings and extend existing ones was an admission on the part of the Government then in office that the Acts were only intended as palliative to relieve the distress and misery prevailing in these districts caused through the policy adopted by the management of Highland estates in clearing people off the land and laying vast tracts of territory under sheep and deer.

“Yet, after several years of patient waiting, no action has been taken to put the recommendations of the Deer Forests Commission into effect.

MEN ON THE VERGE OF STARVATION

“Is it little wonder we find men on the verge of starvation in revolt, and threatening to take forcible possession of the land lying practically waste at their doors?

“The islands of Barra and South Uist bulk largely in the public mind at the present time on account of the action of a few of the crofters of these islands taking the right upon themselves to peg out certain patches of land with the view of cultivating the same for the raising of crops of potatoes etc for their sustenance.”

The articles goes on to outline his duties when he was sent to the islands in the early 1880s, pitching his tent in Castle Bay and setting about his work.

As an outsider he obviously attracted interest but because he could speak Gaelic he soon found himself favoured in the community and, as such, heard many a grievance.

The first place dealt with was Vatersay which was seen as having good soil for root crops and a copious water supply.

Contrary to previous official reports, the surveyor saw no reason why a water system could not be installed if land was given to the crofters, dismissing the argument that it would run out in the dry season as there was an abundant flow.

Mingulay, Berneray and Pabbay were all viewed as relatively inhospitable with scant vegetation and poor soil lying atop the gneiss rock. He noted in Pabbay the dunes were used as the burial ground with remains frequent exposed after storms.

Barra, though, was a much more fertile premise with “plenty of material for the novelist, artist, historian and archaeologist”.

Offering descriptions opf Kishmil, Dun Machleoid and the remains of other forts, along with the sites of pre-Reformation churches, battles and ancient standing stones, he added: “But my attention was chiefly occupied with the land.

“I found that the crofters were crushed off the fertile parts, and located on the swamps and rocky headlands of this island.

POPULATION HUDDLED ON LESS THAN A THIRD OF THE ISLAND

“The population was huddled on less than one third of the area of the island.”

The remainder of the land, and the most fertile parts, were under the control of a farmer, priest and minister.

“Barra came under the sway of the Reformation, and is a Protestant island,” he wrote.

“It struck me that the people of Barra had very little to thank the Reformation for, if the robbery of their land and placing a minister in their midst, with a glebe almost equal in area to the land possessed by the entire population was the only result.

“The people at Castle Bay, Bravig and Borve had to resort to gathering thin soil on the rocks together, and made what is known as a ‘lazy bed’.

“As I’d had no experience of land such as comprised these crofts, and this being a new form of agriculture to me, the classification of the land became very difficult, in fact, it baffled description.”

“Surely wherever such conditions exist, the estate management cannot be held blameless for allowing this to take place.

“I do not think the proprietor is to blame. I always found the crofters blamed the factor for the estate. The then proprioetor, John Gordon of Cluny, being an invalid, took little or no interest in his Hebridean possessions.”

With a critical detour to those who reported to the Crofters’ Commission, some placing more value “on Highland cattle than on Highland men”, the surveyor then reported on South Uist.

Outlining the landscape, he focused on the size and spread of the machair. This he saw as fertile and arable. Concerns that had been raised over drifting sand were dismissed and a problem that was easily solved.

“The dangers of sand drifting is the latest bogey trotted out by the estate management and certain press organs against giving the land to the crofters,” he wrote.

“The sooner the Government gets possession of the land the better, as, if as alleged by these parties, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of acres are practically useless on account of this mismanagement by estate officialism.

“There is just as much danger that the sandy links at Dornoch, St Andrews and Leven, will prove a danger to valuable land in their vicinity as there is in South Uist but, in the former places, rent collecting is not the only function of the factor and ground officer.”

SEIZING THE BEST LAND

The surveyor was highly critical of one ground officer who implemented a policy of seizing the best land from the crofters along the west coast and forcing them on to water-logged land at the head of Lochs Eynort and Boisdale and other swampy low lying terrain.

“A poorer class of land than that in the vicinity of Loch Boisdale it would be impossible to conceive and what with the bad drainage, and the land lying chiefly under water during the winter months, the raising of crops is almost impossible.”

“I am far from thinking the Hebridean an ideal husbandman, but to say that the Barra and South Uist crofters are not adapted to the cultivation of the soil is scarely right.


“Considering the material they have to deal with, I think they have done extremely well.

I may here mention that the proprietor’s first visit to the islands occurred when I was in the place and, from the remarks and the incidents, both seen and heard, I came to the conclusion that the management was destested by the crofting population.”

Highlighting his experience elsewhere in the Highlands and Islands, the surveyor is adamant that investment in simple drainage would dramatically improve the land, and the fishing.

He added: “My object in writing the foregoing is to show the miserable quality of the land at present in the occupation of the corfters of Barra and South Uist and to show that any complexity which has arisen in connection with the land question in these islands has arisen through the persistent eviction of the crofters in the past by the estate management and placing them on the sterile headlands and the swamps while the best land and three fourths of the area is held by seven or eight large farmers.”

The article stresses the aspiration families had to get back to the land from which their forebears had been evicted. With a national cry of ‘Back to the land’, there was a need to come to the aid of Barra and South Uist. He called for a reorganisation of the governing bodies and grant system, as well as a review of land mangement.

“The result, I have no doubt, would be a fair return for the outlay, a happy, loyal and contented people, who would, in the future, as in the past, come to their country’s aid in its time of need.

“We pride ourselves on being a Christian, civilised nation. Yet the Greek peasant in an island, conquered and administered by the Turks for 300 years, lived under better conditions 20 years ago than the British peasant does in this year of 1906.”

COMPARES THE FORTUNES OF THE GREEKS AND ISLANDERS

He recounts two tales. The first of when he was forced to seek shelter at a shepherd’s house at Loch Eynort. While treated with every hospitality, he was aware of the generosity of sharing what meagre provisions the family had. He then compared this to a similar experience on a Greek island under Turkish control. When, again, the hospitality was warm but the food plentiful.

Defending the Hebridean as a God-fearing, hard-working and long-suffering subject of British rule, he praises those who had dared to highlight the plight of the crofting communities.

“It must be noticed that the Scottish press is shamefully silent,” he said.

“The thanks of the country, as well as its sympathy, should go out to these men who are drawing attention to the social and economic questions involved in connection with the depopulation of our Highland glens, and the turning into waste land, for the purpose of rearing herds of red deer and other animals as objects of sport on millions of acres suitable for remunerative occupation as pastoral and agricultural land, formerly occupied by a noble and brave race, whose characteristics are, through years of grinding poverty and despair, being entirely obliterated or defaced on account of the apathy and remissness of our rulers in the past.

“We now find the Highlander, not in his native home, but congregating in the vicinity of our city slums, doing homage to some nobody who, when the material interest of his race and country is at stake, is found on the side inimical to the Highlander’s aspirations, namely his restoration to the land.”