From its title, authors and publisher, you would not suppose this to be a ground-breaking or radical book. Its title was Report of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Inquiry into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Its authors were six pillars of Victorian society (all male: three baronets, an MP, a university professor and a county-sheriff), four of whom were landowners; its chairman was Lord Napier, a time-served and high-ranking administrator of the British Empire. And the report was published in 1884 on behalf of the British Government in Westminster. All quite respectable. And yet …
The ‘Crofters War’ of the 1880s is a term describing the determined protests and land-raids by the rural poor of the western islands of Scotland, who had begun to organise themselves after decades of unbelievable deprivation, exploitation, enforced migration and legalised land-theft at the hands of the land-owning class. Typical of these protests was the ‘Battle of Braes’ on the east coast of Skye, where in April 1882, crofters let their sheep graze on land that had previously been stolen from their community by their landlords. In response, a detachment of fifty burly Glasgow policemen, sent to quell the disobedience, was beaten back by the protestors and their families. Gratifyingly, those few men who were eventually arrested at Braes found plenty of popular support as they were marched to prison through the streets of Inverness, where ‘the crowd increased to several hundred, and lustily booed the policemen’ (The Scotsman newspaper, 21/04/1882, p.3).
The events at Braes were swiftly followed, at the start of 1883, by turmoil in Glendale on Skye’s west coast – once again, direct action by crofters protesting against the privatisation of grazing land was met with police action. The stand-off lasted three weeks, with the police being continually hunted down and harassed; the situation was eventually resolved by the arrival of Her Majesty’s gunboat Jackal. Under threat, ‘four contumacious crofters’ (The Scotsman newspaper, 10/02/1883, p.6) were persuaded to surrender and stand trial in Edinburgh (a better class of booing crowds there, as it turned out). In a laudable act of defiance, the accused men elected to make their own way to the capital, rather than aboard the Jackal.
The Skye uprising was a hard one to quell – even at the end of 1884, 29 policemen, 250 marines and a handy assortment of naval gunboats were obliged to make their way to Portree and Dunvegan to establish a military occupation of the north of the island lasting six months. And events were still rumbling on as late as October 1886, when – yet again – the gunboat Jackal with marines on board had to be dispatched as a precaution during the serving of eviction notices. On the Duke of Argyll’s island of Tiree in July 1886, 75 ‘ejectments’ were to be enforced: the process did not go smoothly, with the result that a large detachment of 250 marines and 50 policemen had to be sent out from Oban to serve the eviction orders – only to be met and beaten back by a decidedly hostile reception.
Such events, playing out against the continuing background of the campaign for Irish independence, forced Gladstone’s government into taking unusually precipitate action. Although they were wide of the mark, pro-government newspapers warned darkly of Irish agitation amongst the Scottish islanders. One of Napier’s commissioners even put together a pamphlet (reprinted by The Scotsman newspaper, 22/04/1882, p.10) in which he wrote that ‘I am very sorrowful today. [. . .] Skyemen are imitating the Irish, and making themselves objects of derision and of dread. [. . .] Nothing will come of it but trouble and shame.’ Witnesses at the Napier inquiry were frequently prompted to provide evidence of Irish troublemakers; it was a fairly fruitless ploy, since the crofters were manifestly capable of causing trouble all by themselves, and they also had their own home-grown ‘Highland Land Law Reform Association’ – aka the ‘Highland Land League’ – formed in early 1883 on the model of the Irish Land League, which campaigned vigorously for land-reform in Scotland. (‘French communism’ – of the 1871 Paris variety – was also cited as a likely influence on the misguided crofters.) But it was clear, to Westminster at least, that the fiery spark of Irish revolution could so easily catch light in the heathered hills of Scotland. And so the ‘Napier Commission’ was to be found touring the wilds of the Highlands and Islands in early 1883, tasked with investigating the crofters’ complaints and making suggestions for defusing the situation.
And they performed their duty with extraordinary zeal.
The ‘Napier Report’ which they produced a year later ran to five volumes, containing 4,000 pages of text. The first four volumes – almost 3,400 pages – comprised verbatim questions and answers from 704 witnesses who turned up at the Commission’s seventy public sessions. So far, so very verbose and Victorian. The crucial point, however, is that 460 of the witnesses (65%) came from the lower rural classes – primarily crofters who leased their tiny bits of land, and cottars who had no land of any sort, as well as fishermen and other craftsmen. Indeed, in Skye and the Outer Hebrides, these witnesses accounted for 76% of the total. Of the 46,750 question-and-answer pairs recorded, just over half were posed to and answered by the lower class representatives. Of 1.35 million words recorded as statements by witnesses in the transcripts, 40% were words spoken by these people. The remaining witnesses were a rather dry mixture of landowners or their agents (16% of witnesses, 31% of words uttered); and professional people (19% of witnesses, 29% of words) – church ministers for the most part. As one might expect, given the period, only five of the 704 witnesses were women.
This was possibly the very first time that representatives of the lower rural classes of Britain had been permitted to speak, unedited and at length, to the world at large.
Open up any of these volumes randomly and you can read, direct and unmediated, the words of ordinary people from 140 years ago. (Unless, that is, you have the misfortune to open at a page where a representative of the landowning class is holding forth; screeds and screeds of turgid legal arguments, financial facts and figures, interspersed with such gems as ‘I would give £500 to-day if all the crofters on my place went away. I would keep the paupers. I would not ask the paupers to go away.’ ‘I think the crofters of Skye understand agriculture very badly, and they don’t see the advantage of it.’)
But here we have devastating evidence of near-feudal conditions of rural life in Scotland, expressed simply and without drama:
‘Originally we occupied more fertile crofts, but these we were deprived of, and were sent to other crofts less fertile than any on the estate. Our present crofts are in close proximity to a rapid cataract, which is most dangerous and destructive when in flood, often carrying away considerable portions of our crops. We have been incurring liabilities for a considerable time back. Should our creditors urge payment, we would be left almost pennyless. Our original crofts were turned into a sheep farm beside us. There were forty-two crofters of us in all in the place. We were all removed—some to Australia and some to America and to various other parts. When we were in our first crofts we were comfortable; we feel now quite the reverse.’
Simply and succinctly:
‘The summing of the lots is now only three cows, but the small patches we have now left us would be inadequate either to feed or fodder two cows, and would not keep the smallest family in the township in food for two months of the year. The land having been in perpetual cultivation for hundreds of years, is become so poor and so much reduced that it is incapable of yielding any crop except of the very poorest, and that by constant manuring.’
Simply, and sometimes with sly humour:
‘[The Chairman asks]. —Is that the whole list of clearances you have to mention ? — No; as I said, what the Assyrians left undone the Babylonians finished.’
Simply, and sometimes with great pathos:
‘There was one year we lost everything. Everything was blown over into the sea. The crops were delaying the progress of the vessels in the sea.’
Examples such as these abound: of social injustice, grinding poverty, preventable illness, near-starvation, of clearances, forced eviction and emigration, of the tearing down of cottages, of petty punishment and retribution. Some of the stories should bring tears to your eyes. Read them for yourselves – all five volumes are available online here. It is indeed a radical read.
It is a radical book for another reason, too. As a direct result of the inquiry and the report, a new ‘Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act’ was pushed through Parliament in 1886, improving – albeit slightly – the condition of the crofters, giving them rights to continued tenancy, fixed rents and legal avenues to pursue if faced with unreasonable demands. Building on this precedent, over the following decades more commissions and inquiries were established to manage disputes and relationships between land-owner and land-users. (Despite which, land-ownership in Scotland is even now shamefully inequitable. For more information on this, see the ‘Who Owns Scotland’ website.) Just as importantly, and arising partly from the self-confidence which the crofters had found in public protest and in presenting their cases to Napier, there was also a political sea-change. Almost effortlessly, five out of six ‘Crofters’ Party’ candidates were returned to Parliament as MPs in the election of 1885 (the sixth won his seat at the second attempt in 1886). Their constituencies covered the entire north of Scotland and they took 54% of the total of votes cast. Sadly, the Crofters’ Party MPs gradually disappeared into the ranks of the Liberal Party. But it was no mere accident that John Murdoch, one of the moving spirits behind the Highland Land League, was later invited to preside over the first meeting to prepare for the founding of the Scottish Labour Party in 1888. (Something reciprocal occurred in 1920, when the Scottish republican and internationalist, John Maclean, was to be found touring the Scottish islands in support of land-raids organised by disaffected returning servicemen.)
Let us finish with something else radical: the heartfelt and exemplary words of a Skye crofter. When asked by Lord Napier whether the people of Skye would emigrate if offered finance to do so, he simply turned the suggestion upside down: ‘I would like very well if those who are wallowing in wealth would go away, and go where no crofters would obstruct their wishes in land.’
Andy Drummond is a writer based in Edinburgh. He has published several novels, short stories, translations and the odd biography and history. His last book, A Quite Impossible Proposal (2020), dealt with the forlorn attempts of Scottish communities to have the railway brought to them in the 1890s. He maintains a website at www.andydrummond.net, where all manner of unlikely stories are catalogued. He is currently working on a biography of the 16th century German radical preacher, Thomas Müntzer.