Crofting in the Scottish Highlands
A Way of Life In 1886: was solidly embodied in the Croftings Holdings Act of that year and in subsequent Acts promulgated in 1955 and 1976.
A croft was once described as 'a piece of land surrounded by regulations'.
That description embraces humour, fact, frustration, stoicism and an underlying hope and aspiration, to say nothing of the long painful history that was undergone to achieve the status inherent in that offhand comment on what crofting really is.
Briefly, crofting is a form of land use peculiar to certain areas of Scotland, mainly the north-west and western Highlands and the four island groups: Shetland, Orkney, and the Outer and Inner Hebrides. Much of the land involved, some 1-4 million acres, is of poor agricultural quality and thus the holdings, the crofts relied on mainly to provide subsistence living, with extra income derived from other work, such as fishing, weaving, crafts and tourism. In addition to the croft holding, a crofter has access to land called common grazing as a statutory right, subject to the agreement of township governing bodies called grazing committees.
This land is used mainly for such purposes as sheep grazing and peat cutting. In purely agricultural terms the land is of little use; much of it is waterlogged with hogs and marshes, and ground infested with heather and bracken it is also the right of any crofter to resume his allotted share of the common grazing for his own purposes: for instance, to reclaim his share and plough it, seed it with grass and put it to more intensive agricultural uses.
However, having received his share of the common grazing, he has no further access to the larger area of common land a part from its being a form of land use, crofting has social overtones, in that it has kept a residual population in many places in the Highlands and Islands that would otherwise have become depopulated and left to dereliction, the tenacious crofting population has done much to prevent the Highlands from becoming nothing more than a beautiful, deserted wilderness, crofting is essentially a way of life.
That it is little more than this is the result of a history of land use which has a special place in the memory genes of the present generation, who know full well what their forebears had to experience to become members of this unusual class of land users, which is unique in the British Isles. Before 1886 there was no statutory legislation applicable to the crofting situation in Scotland, even the term 'croft' came slowly into being and meant, in Gaelic where the word is emit, a small piece of arable land.
The 'crofter' was recognized as one who held a 'croft' of land. The modern croft and crofter or small tenant seldom appears much before the beginning of the 18th century; crofters were in fact tenants-at-will, under the authority of the tacksmen and wadsetters. (These were men who had leased land from a landlord, then subleased it to tenants,) In practice their tenure of the land was only secure so long as the tenant was industrious and paid his rent in cash, in kind, or in work service; under these terms he was allowed to occupy his house and land without fear of eviction.
Seldom, in fact, did the actual proprietor of the land come into direct contact with his tenants, though this did occur in some areas, where there was a close social bond between the laird, usually a clan chief, and his people.
Before the Croftings Holdings (Scotland) Act of 1886, all the crofts, farms and agricultural holdings in the country came under the ordinary agricultural law of Scotland. Under this law, a crofter was regarded as the tenant of a piece of land owned by a landlord; the tenant's occupation of the land was on a year-to-year basis and at a mutually agreed rent, this was the extent of the crofter's legal recognition, and it made no difference whether he and his forebears had lived in the same place for generations or whether he was a new tenant of a year's standing.
The law recognized the right of a landlord to terminate a crofter's tenancy at the end of any year after issuing 40 days' notice in writing, the landlord could then recover the land, together with any buildings or improvements on it, and was under no legal obligation to offer recompense, financial or otherwise, for those improvements, even though it was the tenant who created them.
The situation was, of course, different when the landlord had actually provided buildings and equipment for use by the tenant for an agreed price and for an agreed term of lease, although this system operated reasonably well in other parts of Scotland, in the 1 870S in the Highlands and Islands the working out of a terrible history was coming to a head, with the Clearances only one of a number of successive factors that brought to public awareness the complete inadequacy and weakness of the law as it pertained to agricultural practice, much of the residual population of the Highlands and Islands had been shifted from their original holdings In the 18th century, a process that started soon after the Forty-five uprising, to make room for the more profitable sheep and, later, deer, the people were forced to cling to marginal lands next to the sea, on inferior soil, with imposed restrictions such as, for example, being forbidden to take even seaweed from the shore lands to use as fertilizer.
The people had absolutely no security of tenure and lived in housing conditions which appalled even those familiar with the urban slums created by the Industrial Revolution, perhaps the most astonishing element in the whole scenario was the forbearance of the people themselves, even in the face of the enforced Clearances that had begun in the1820 with little thought for the future.
The only modern parallel that can be cited is the legion of displaced persons in the Europe of the I940S whose nightmare was orchestrated by forces quite beyond the reaches of pity and humanity, but something had to snap, and snap it did a small number of Highlanders, who had previously emigrated from their native heaths to find work, education and acceptable standards of living in the Scottish Lowlands, became concerned with what was happening in the Highlands.
They considered the massive contribution Highlanders had made to creating the British Empire, they had fought in the Seven Years' War when Britain gained India and Canada for her growing domain, they fought in the American War of Independence, and in the Peninsular and Napoleonic Wars that followed.
They distinguished themselves with Wolfe at Quebec, with Sir John Moore at Corunna and with Wellington at Waterloo. And in the Crimea it was the Highland 93rd Highlanders in particular, the 'Thin Red Line' of history, under the leadership of Sir Colin Campbell, who really saved the day at the Battle of Balaclava.
That record of service was, however, no guarantee of protection from those whom the Government now saw fit to recognize as legal proprietors of the land rather than as feudal superiors and agents, against that background it was inevitable that some counteraction would be organized in an effort to obtain at least minimum rights, among which security of tenure was the most important, the counteraction that manifested itself had two main elements,first, the ordinary people themselves had turned to the new religion of the Free Church of Scotland, formed after the Disruption in 1843, when large numbers left the established Church of Scotland.
In the Free Church men who had been ordinary members of their former congregations, found themselves appointed as elders, going through a process of selection which required a high order of articulateness, so well equipped did they become in this field that when the Napier Commission was set up to investigate the crofting problem in 1883.
The Commissioners recorded their amazement that simple crofters could present their evidence and their case with both eloquence and forthrightness by an accident of religious history the Free Church had given many crofters a training arena in which they could equip themselves with the very tools needed in the forthcoming war of words.
The exiled Highlanders in Scotland's large towns and cities formed the second important element in the battle for crofting rights they aimed as high as they could and focused their attention on Westminster they realized that unless the land issue became politicized, little pressure could be placed on the House of Commons to stir it into action, some became crofter Members of Parliament. Others orchestrated campaigns through the newly formed Land League, which were highly articulate to the extent that they attracted the attention of the national Press.
While all this was progressing, the ordinary Highlanders also played significant roles the first scene was enacted in 1874, when crofters on the island of Bernera, on the west side of Lewis, revolted against the intolerable conditions imposed by the factor of Lewis, acting on behalf of the landlord, Sir James Matheson, whose fortune had been made in the Far East.
The Bernera crofters turned a minor incident, in which the sleeve of a sheriff officer's coat was torn off, into an event which resulted in three of their number being arrested and later acquitted.
Though the 'Bernera Riot' was a small enough affair, it had important repercussions it afforded the radical Press the opportunity to publicize the invidious position of crofters in the Highlands and Islands, and create a sympathetic public opinion which was to be a considerable weapon of advantage a decade later when the cause of the crofting population eventually made its overdue appearance on the floors of both Houses of Parliament.
In the decade from 1874 many astonishing incidents occurred throughout the Highlands this was the time when the wealthy English and Scottish nouveaux rich collaberated with each other in the purchase of Highland estates, to play God over sheep, deer, salmon, grouse and human beings, albeit through the medium of their managers, the estate factors it was the attitudes of these factors that blew into life the smouldering fires of resentment against injustice.
In Skye, to quote but one area, many petty tyrannies were exercised by the factors the common method there of dealing with arrears of rent was to issue a summons for the removal of the defaulting ternant, instead of issuing a simple notice for the recovery of a small debt, even when a crofter was evicted. the incoming tenant was obliged to pay off his predecessor's arrears purchasing the 'goodwill' of the croft was the term used to describe the If a debt was required to be paid off, the crofter's poor goods and chattels were impounded.
There is on record an instance where a baby in a cradle was: priced at sixpence. Thus crofters not only found themselves homeless and landless. but without the domestic tools for basic living many petty restrictions were placed of'crofters in some areas they were not allowed to keep dogs which might put up game and deer, hunted by shooting tenants on the estates of absentee landlords deer were often forced down from the hills to make a dash for safety across the crofter's planted fields with inevitable damage to crops this had to be endured without compensation.
In the island of Barra, the landlord demanded 60 days' labour for every acre of potato ground, leaving little time for the crofters to attend to their own crops in a short growing season by 1882 the simmering pot of crofting troubles was ready for the final boiling and it needed just one incident - perforce it had also to be violent - to make the contents spill over and create a situation where a decision, one way or the other, had to be taken to settle the issues involved.
By a fortuitous coincidence the matter was brought to a head on an estate in Skye owned by Lord MacDonald, one of a decreasing number of traditional clan chief landowners whose forebears had once been able to call on their armed clansmen to fight for the clan lands and honour. Far from being incomers, as were many of the Highland landowners, the Macdonalds had eight centuries of Highland history behind them, with many illustrious names in the family line.
Yet, by the 18th century they commanded little loyalty from the crofters, many of whom bore the same surname, for the old relationships had disappeared: Lord Macdonald was just another landlord anumber of crofters from the Braes area of Skye went to Lord MacDonald's factor, yet another MacDonald, to demand the restoration of the summer grazings which had been taken away from them 20 years previously.
The demand was rejected out of hand and the crofters retaliated by declaring that they would withhold the payment of their rents until the grazings had been restored to them. Both the demand and its rejection were made in a fairly calm atmosphere.
The violent outcome was furthest from the minds of all concerned. But the matter was not allowed to rest. Lord MacDonald considered that he and his position had been affronted, so he went to law demanding that his tenants should he tried and evicted for criminal intimidation. In its wisdom, the law decided that there was no case to answer; but, true to its traditional form in the Highlands, it advised Lord MacDonald to evict those whom he thought might be the ringleaders among the Braes tenants.
Eviction notices were taken out against a dozen or so men, delivered by a sheriff officer and two assistants before the trio came in sight of the Braes townships they were met by over 100 people who burned the summonses and told the officers to go away, this was the final fuse lit to create the situation which was eventually to gain the crofters their long sought-after rights,it was decided to make a once-for-all example of the Braes crofters and within weeks the Sheriff of Inverness-shire asked the Government for 100 soldiers in its cautious wisdom it sent only one policemen from Glasgow. With them came a battery of Press reporters scenting blood.
Though the Press presence was there to support the cause of the landlord. it unwittingly provided the crofters with the best means of publicity possible, today it is now known as the 'Battle of the Braes', between the police, crofters and their wives all came to a bloody conclusion.
The ring leaders were arrested, tried and found guilty but had their fines paid for by sympathetic supporters when they returned to Braes they witnessed the disputed summer grazing already being taken over by other crofters.
This time the law could only suggest the response usually associated with British colonial administration send a gunboat which duly arrived but instead of the expected detachment of armed marines, there was only a Government representative, a sure sign that matters were coming to a head.
In March 1883 a Royal Warrant was issued to set up a Royal Commission, the Napier Commission, whose remit was to investigate the whole of the crofting problem in the Highlands and Islands it was the end of the beginning.
The Commissioners did their work well and quickly they travelled all over the region, taking written and oral evidence, much of the latter being presented in Gaelic the final Report, based on evidence contained in four hefty volumes of oral evidence, and a fifth, running to over 500 pages of written submissions, came out in favour of the crofters.
Then, in 1886, the Crofters Bill was introduced to the House of Commons and in due course was placed on the Statute Book. Subject to certain conditions of tenancy, the crofter now had security of tenure and could bequeath his croft to a member of his family these were basic rights. In addition, any crofter who renounced his croft was entitled to be paid for any improvements created by him.
Thus ended a period in Highland history which was vividly described by the members of the Napier Commission: From 1882 to 1887 the Highlands and Islands were in a state of unrest - in many places there was open lawlessness. Rents were withheld, lands were seized, and a reign of terror prevailed, to cope with the situation the Police Force was largely augmented and in some cases doubled troopships with Marines cruised about the Hebrides in order to support the Civil Authorities in their endeavour to maintain law and order.
The tension and excitement of those days have passed away, and peace and tranquillity prevail where 25 or 26 years ago the Queen's writ did not run for the last one hundred years, crofting has slowly improved, though in the same period some of the restrictions that continued to bind the crofter have meant that little more than a residual population has been maintained (on land that would otherwise become derelict).
In recent years, however the term 'crofting' has come to include non-agricultural activities, such as catering for tourists, that give the crofter another source of income it has been a long haul for the crofting population of the Highlands and Islands to achieve their present position of relative strength the sad fact of the matter is that the land itself has not been allowed to become a significant element in the Highland economy, to provide the kind of environment which engenders a healthy social structure keen to exercise initiative and enterprise. .
It provides for a unique social structure in its various townships which often require the creation of a communal and self-help basis on which to survive it has also had a significant impact on the maintenance of the linguistic (Gaelic) and cultural values that might otherwise be dispersed and disappear altogether.
The visitor can often sense the world of difference between the picturesque villages of the English countryside and the townships of the Highland scene, which are equally picturesque but perhaps not so photogenic.
Many of the present-day crofting townships are products of the crofters' immediate forebears, men and women who often had to make the very soil from an alchemic mixture of seaweed and crushed stones, having been forced to settle on the most infertile and rocky land possible.
The crofting townships also have an atmosphere of perpetual change, as dwellings, for instance, are revamped from the old vernacular style to ultra-modern design there are no particular features in the township that show a development from feudal bond to freehold: no village square, no village pub to act as a neutral area for local discussion, no visible memorials to the war dead and none of the outward trappings that conventionally indicate a closely knit community.
This is what the visitor will sense and detect, and, armed with even a superficial knowledge of the history that brought these townships into being a way of life quite unique in the British Isles which increase that element of appreciation which makes a visit memorable.