Crofting: traditional British land tenure enshrined in law after battles of the 1880s

BBC2 The World About Us: The Corncrake and the Croft (1977)

“The land under sheep and deer is my property and I can do with it what I like.” –  Lady Matheson

Crofters – A 1944 film showing life on Scottish crofts in wartime



“Treasa tuath na tighearna.” (The people are mightier than a lord)
Highland Land League slogan

The Crofters’ Wars

The common people of the Highlands and Islands had been cleared from large areas of their ancestral lands. The Highland Clearances had crammed the surviving remnants  into crammed crofting townships on very small areas of land where they were very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by their landlords. Many lacked even crofts of their own and became cottars and squatters on the crofts of other people. Landlords turned most of the land over to use as sheep farms and deer forests. The creation of sheep farms, often comprising large tracts of empty, uncultivated and often fertile land, which hemmed in the congested townships on their boundaries, created social tensions, which unavoidably led to revolt among the disadvantaged. The farms established on Tiree in the 1840s and 1850s, having been forcibly cleared of their original occupants were but a few of the farms designated by crofters as suitable for resettlement by themselves.  In addition, in the 1880s, the Highlands and Islands were ravaged by a decade of severe, occasionally chronic, agricultural depression. As wool prices collapsed, sheep farmers‘ profits and landlords‘ rentals fell back sharply from the heights they had reached in the balmy years of the 1860s and early 1870s. The poor harvests of 1881-1882 plunged the crofting population to a level reminiscent of the potato famine. Then on 1st October 1882 after prolonged rain in August and September came a severe southerly gale that destroyed the unharvested grain. In addition, the storm damaged or destroyed some 1,200 fishing boats, their nets and fishing gear

A mass movement for the reform of land laws erupted in the 1880s. Links formed by radical crofters in the Highlands and industrial workers in the Lowlands worried the authorities: and the crofters leaders who attended conferences organised by the Labour movement in Edinburgh were followed and hounded by police officers. It has been argued that the the Crofters movement of the 19th century was a catalyst for the formation of various working-class organisations in Scotland and it has also been suggested that the influences were the other way, both describe the organic links between the struggles for land and workers rights.

The association between land reform and those movements claiming to be socialist  had always been more marked in Scotland. Before the emergence of Keir Hardie the principal workers organisation in Scotland, which was for a time affiliated with William Morris’s Socialist League, called itself the ‘Land and Labour League’. Far from wishing to be a carbon copy of the Social Democratic Federation, the Scots were keen to establish their own separate national identity. This was why they named  their organisation the Scottish Land and Labour League. In Scotland the Scottish Land and Labour League severed its connection with the SDF to join the break-away Socialist League.

“I was then a member of the Scottish Land and Labour League, in Edinburgh, Scotland. It must have been in the very early Eighties I guess in 1883. The Scottish Land and Labour League was the first body in Scotland to take up the “New” Socialism, that is to say, it was the first to study Marx. Das Kapital had not yet been translated into English; we studied it from the French translation. We had affiliated ourselves with the Socialist League in London.” describesThomas H Bell (the anarchist, not the later Communist Party Tom Bell)

John Mahon was a former engineer from Edinburgh and member of the Scottish Land and Labour League, who joined the SDF, served on its executive, and was to go on to be the first secretary of the Socialist League. Nevertheless the alliance between the “socialists” and the group interested primarily in the land question did not endure. They became involved in the same sort of conflict  the Socialist League as with the SDF.

In the early 20th century the land agitation had become a vital force uniting farmer and crofter, miner and smallholder, and Highlander and Lowlander. To understand why the land question was of even greater importance in Scotland than in England, we must direct attention to the strength of feudal legislation in Scotland. An old Act of 1621 was still in force, for instance, which penalised farmers, miners, crofters since no-one could kill game unless he owned a ploughgate of land (about 100 acres). Moreover, even a farmer could be convicted of being “unlawfully on his own farm at night for the purpose of killing game.” The 19th century Trespass Act and the various Game Laws that legitimised the rights of landowners to restrict the movement of citizens wishing to gain access to uncultivated moorland and mountain in Scotland created a powerful sense of public grievance. In addition to restricting many traditional rights that the rural population had enjoyed they created a great deal of resentment amongst the growing urban membership of amenity groups and recreational clubs. Climbing and hill walking clubs were particularly active in campaigning to have the concept of freedom to roam enshrined in law. In the 1880s and 90s members of these clubs in conjunction with key figures from the Land League spearheaded a public and parliamentary campaign to have the Trespass and Game Laws altered. The campaign for freedom to roam was unsuccessful but during the following decades the number of people going to the hills increased as did the membership of walking and mountaineering clubs. The tension between hill goers and sporting estates during the grouse and deer stalking seasons was a constant reminder of unfinished business.

At the 1885 and 1886 General Elections a group of candidates, The Crofters Party, who described themselves as representatives of the crofters contested some of the Highland constituencies of north-west Scotland with almost complete success. The group had varying degrees of links to the Highland Land League which had been established to independently promote the interests of crofters and their specific land rights. The League never seems to have made a clear statement of its ultimate objectives. Although, as will be seen, it made use of Henry George for propagandist purposes, it was not a ‘Single Tax’ organisation. While some of its leaders spoke at times of “the necessity of abolishing landlordism” and “the restoration of the land to the people” – stock phrases of Henry George advocates – they appear to have had peasant proprietorship more in mind.

The discontent of the crofters had mounted to the point of revolt in the early 1880s. Although the days of the notorious Clearances were over, they had no security of tenure, the rents of many of them had been raised several times during the preceding decade, not a few were living in extreme poverty, and evictions seem to have been frequent. Many had recently been moved to less fertile holdings to make way for sheep-grazings or sporting preserves; some were still in the process of losing common grazings to their landlords. While a large proportion did not hold written leases, but were entirely dependent upon the goodwill of their landlords, without even the protection of recognised custom,  many of the written leases that did exist appear to have been merely annual. One of their main grievances was their inability to increase the size of their holdings, most of the plots being quite insufficient for the support of a family. Bitterly resenting being dealt with according to commercial, profit-making considerations – with the growth of luxury in England due to the increase in industrial productivity, the shooting rights of Highland estates rose in value much higher than crofters’ rents – they accused the lairds of abusing a sacred trust in their management of the soil, which they claimed was really the traditional property of the clans. Predictably the problem of landlessness was most acute in areas where the crofting population was at its most dense. In Tiree and the Outer Isles, it was not uncommon, as the Napier Commission noted, to find “crowds of squatters who construct hovels, appropriate land, and possess and pasture stock, but pay no rent, obey no control, and scarcely recognise any allegiance or authority”.

An important source of disaffection, the first notable demonstration – the so-called ‘Battle of the Braes’ – took place in April 1882. It occurred at the foot of Ben Lee, in Skye. In protest, perhaps in part inspired by events in Ireland, the Crofters War began against an attempt by Lord Macdonald, their landlord, to deprive them of some pasturage to which they claimed a right, some of the crofters were refusing to pay their rents – a measure that was becoming widespread at this period. When an attempt had been made on 7th April to serve summons of ejection upon them, they had responded by burning the summonds and mildly assaulting the sheriff-officer’s assistant. Then, on 17th April, a force of fifty Glasgow police, sent to the area to effect the arrests of six ring-leaders, was set upon, when making the arrest,by some hundreds of crofters with sticks and stones. It succeeded in withdrawing the prisoners, no major injuries being suffered by either side. In February, two months previously, a gunboat had been sent to Skye to facilitate the arrest of three crofters in another district, Glendale, for their part in a similar instance of deforcing a sheriff-officer. One of these men, John Macpherson, known thereafter as the ‘Glendale Martyr’, became a leading figure in the movement, an impassioned speaker at Land League meetings throughout the Highlands.

Over the next few years there were numerous such incidents in various parts of the crofting counties. Invariably sympathisers in the towns and cities – Portree being particularly notable in this respect – found bail for imprisoned crofters or otherwise saw to their interests and comfort.  In November 1884 a number of gunboats were sent to Skye and a force of marines made several marches over the island; this action, however, had been taken as the result of some fabricated reports of disturbances sent to the press by a landlord’s official, and no disorder either preceded or followed this action.

The Napier Commission published recommendations in 1884 but  fell a long way short of addressing crofters’ demands, and it stimulated a new wave of protests. The ensuing Act of 1886 applied to croft tenure in an area which is now recognisable as a definition of the Highlands and Islands established the Crofters Commission which had rent-fixing powers. Rents were generally reduced and 50% or more of outstanding arrears were cancelled. The Act failed however to address the issue of severely limited access to land,

In October 1886 a further force of marines and police went to Skye to enforce the collection of rates: both landlords and crofters had been refusing to make payment, with the result that the schools were on the point of closing, and the banks were declining to meet cheques for the Poor Law Officers. On the landlords’ part this action was, of course, a demonstration in protest against the refusal of the crofters to pay their rents – and it was their default which had precipitated the crises, since their share of the arrears of rates formed by far the largest proportion of the total amount. As soon as the expedition reached the island the landlords gave way; but there were a number of ugly scenes when the authorities distrained the personal effects of crofters who professed themselves unable to pay. At about the same period two hundred and fifty marines and fifty police were sent to Tiree (Argyllshire) when the Duke of Argyll Greenhill farm was occupied by over 300 men who at once proceeded to divide the farm among crofters and cottars from nearby townships. Confronted at Greenhill by a force of men and youths armed with sticks and clubs, the police – outnumbered by about six to one – were obliged to withdraw to the relative security of the inn at Scarinish, their mission unaccomplished. On the morning of 22nd July, Scarinish Inn was surrounded by the men responsible for the seizure of Greenhill. The police contingent, it was demanded, should immediately withdraw from Tiree. They left that afternoon. With the police in full retreat and the Duke of Argyll complaining that Tiree was “under the rule of savagery”, military involvement became inevitable. On 31st July 1886, a detachment of fifty police escorted by five times that number of marines was landed on the island from the naval ships HMS Ajax and HMS Assistance. Eight crofters were promptly arrested and conveyed to the mainland where they were subsequently found guilty of mobbing and rioting as well as of deforcement – five being sentenced to six month‘s imprisonment, the others to four months.

In later years, there were still isolated cases of deforcements. Plus there were still demonstrations – at the ‘Pairc Deer Raid of Lewis’,  in November 1887 the crofters organised a deer-hunt (the venison distributed to the needy.) in protest at their treatment by The Matheson’s, landlords of the Lewis Estate. The authorities panicked and sent a contingent of police and marines to quell what they thought was a full-scale rebellion. Six were arrested and sent to trial in Edinburgh but all were acquitted. Today, most of Pairc is still a sporting estate in private ownership.

And then there was the ‘Aignish Riot’, also in the Lewis, in January 1888, crofters, despite the presence of a force of marines, drove stock from a large farm. It took the bayonets of the marines and the arrival of company of the Royal Scots, however, made them realise there was little more they could do and to keep them at bay. Eleven prisoners, were escorted aboard HMS Jackal, and taken to Edinburgh where they were  found guilty of the crime of mobbing and rioting and sent them to prison for periods ranging from twelve to fifteen months.”

In Glasgow, in 1909, a second Highland Land League was formed as a political party. This organisation was a broadly left-wing group that sought the restoration of deer forests to public ownership, abolition of plural farms and the nationalisation of the land. Also they resolved to defend crofters facing eviction by their landlords and they supported home rule for Scotland. During the First World War politicians made lavish promises about reform which would follow the war, and of course many croftsmen lost their lives in the war itself. After the war the words of politicians did not translate into action, but croftmen returning from the war were in no mood to accept government inaction. Land occupations began again. In January 1918 in Tiree a number of cottars from Cornaigbeg took possession of a 13-acre field on Balephetrish farm and at once proceeded to prepare it for a spring planting of potatoes. The Balephetrish raiders were all old men – two at least being in their seventies – and all had sons on active service. But none of that prevented them from being sentenced to ten days‘ imprisonment as a result of legal proceedings initiated by the Duke of Argyll.

When faced with new land seizures the government responded by giving the Board of Agriculture the money and powers to do something like what had been promised. The Board’s work was assisted by a downturn in the profitability of sheep farming and, by the late 1920s, perhaps 50,000 acres of arable land and 750,000 acres of hill pasture had been given over to establishing new crofts.

In August 1918 the new Land League  affiliated with the Labour Party, with four candidates for the 1918 general election being joint League-Labour. By the 1920s they had fully merged with Labour, under the unfulfilled promise of autonomy for Scotland were Labour to gain power in the forthcoming years. Land League members were then key to the formation of the Scottish National Party in 1934.

The Crofters Act of 1886 was not the remedy. It gave the remaining Highlanders security of tenure but froze the crofters on the marginal land to which they had been driven. In the forty years between 1891 and 1931, on the other hand, in a period in which it was virtually impossible under Scottish law to evict a Highland crofter from his holding but singularly easy to evict a Lowland farm labourer from his cottage, the population of the Highlands & Islands counties fell by 26%, that of the Lowland group by only 16%. The law seems to have done nothing to slow down the drain of men from the Highlands. Some twenty-three Not-for-private-profit organisations own, lease or manage by agreement around 5 percent of the Highlands and Islands’ land area – some 506,725 acres. The state sector (Forestry Commission , Scottish Natural Heritage, Dept. of Agriculture, etc) whose land holdings comprise just over 14 percent (1.4 million acres) while the private estate sector owns some 80 percent (8.1 million acres).

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