Farming & Clearance
Until they were gradually brought within the national economy, Highland communities were not isolated, as they were almost entirely self-sufficient. Townships existed throughout the Highlands and islands, including now remote glens.
There would have been hundreds of clachans, compact clusters of stone and turf houses and outbuildings with roofs thatched with heather or rushes. The best land close to the clachan, the arable infield, was cropped every year. Further out was the outfield, a mixture of arable, grazing and fallow. Beyond the head dyke stretched the common hill land grazings. Cattle, together with horses and butter, were the main exports. Land was allocated (by tacksmen, the main leaseholders from the proprietor, or other middle man) in unenclosed run-rigs, of constant width but variable length, shared according to a family's function, ability, and needs. Such allocation set the rent due. The system was a communal one, all the townships stock would have grazed the hill, and in winter they would have had free rein across infield and outfield (the numbers of stock-cattle, sheep, goats and horses, were regulated within the holding capacity, grazing and winter arable, of the township, the ‘souming’). Pigs were rarely kept in the Northern Highlands, as households did not produce enough waste for feed. The community grew oats, bere-barley, and latterly potatoes. The joint tenancy run-rig system was not highly efficient, and would have stifled individual experiment and improvement. It was subsistence farming producing little monetary return.
Apart from small farmer tenants, many people were cottars or tradesmen/cottars, holding small marginal pieces of land off a tenant in return for some service payment, sometimes money rent. In addition, there were servants, mainly single people on short contracts, often cottar off-spring. The larger townships or baile were often tight communities in which many were related to their neighbours. They were self-sufficient… building their own houses, making their own tools and utensils with great skill from often poor resources, looking after their sick and injured (people & animals). They were also self-sufficient in their entertainment (story-telling, singing, whisky distilling and drinking); poor in economic terms and mostly illiterate, they had a wealth of history and tradition, poetry and music, and knowledge of nature, which often amazed travellers from the south. Up to 150-200 years ago, many glens in the County, now empty of buildings and human activity (typically 'Highland' for their quality of emptiness), were occupied by some hundreds of people.
The old system worked to the extent that it generally fed the population, and sometimes produced a surplus for sale/export. There were bad years, when lack of food hurt these communities very sorely. Well into the 19thC, Wester Ross in particular was susceptible to crisis years, and meal had to be imported from the east to prevent starvation.
Much of the County, particularly, Wester Ross was a pastoral economy, primarily based on cattle. They had sheep, but these were the native stock, much smaller than the Blackface and Cheviots that were later brought in by commercial farmers, often from the Scottish Borders. Though remote and very difficult to access by land (until the early part of the 19thC most goods were brought in by sea, or on ponies and on the backs of women), the Wester Ross economy was linked closely with markets elsewhere. Dairy products were made during the summer, when the womenfolk and younger children would tend the animals up the hill at their temporary shieling sites. Some of this produce was taken for sale at the larger settlements to the east.
The glens of Western Highlands offered some of the best cattle grazings anywhere and cattle were often herded some distance in the summer (as from Coigach about 30 miles to the Fannichs, a range of hills east of the head of Loch Broom). For centuries, cattle had been sold, a few head at a time from individual small tenants, at fairs and markets at Beauly and beyond. This trade expanded greatly as the demands of the industrialising parts of Scotland and of the British army and navy grew, so that at its peak thousands of cattle from across the Highlands and Islands were moved (walked) by drovers down to the main trysts (markets) at Crieff and Falkirk.
Because of these trade links, rents in the pastoral west of the County were mostly paid in money. In the arable east, in Easter Ross and the Black Isle, rents tended to be paid in grain, and it was the landlord and tacksmen who collected, stored and shipped the grain to ports like Leith, near Edinburgh. Evidence of this trade remains on the east coast in the form of small harbours and girnals (warehouses), such as at Portmahomack and Storehouse of Foulis in Easter Ross. In 1836, farmers on the Black Isle instituted an annual show of their animals at the Cathedral Green in Fortrose; this continues as the Black Isle Show attended by many thousands each year at Muir of Ord’s Show Ground. The Black Isle farmers were not unaware of the problems in Wester Ross and set up a committee “for the purpose of providing assistance for their unfortunate countrymen in money, grain, meal and potatoes.” Indeed, there were close links between these communities as stock from eastern farms were often pastured in western glens during the summer, while, in the winter, cattle and sheep from the west overwintered on the more benign eastern lands ( a practice which continues today). Nonetheless, some Easter Ross farmers did, in face of local opposition, continue to export grain south, when food was short over much of the County.
While the traditional clan system remained in tact, the people would have felt secure about their homes and their land under the protection of a benevolent chief,. The Napier Commission (1884), in comment on the lack of written evidence on tenancies in years past, observed in their report- "It is difficult to deny that a Macdonald, a Macleod, a Mackenzie, a Mackay, or a Cameron, who gave a son to his landlord eighty years ago to fill up the ranks of a Highland regiment, did morally acquire a tenure in his holding more sacred than the stipulations of a written covenant." However, well before the 1800s, many chiefs had lost the bond with their clan folk, they began to seek out new opportunities for wealth and power, and the old protection and secuirty, built on honour and convention, was weakened; indeed, instances were cited of families being evicted after the recruited husband had left for service. The mass of the rural population became vulnerable to the whim of their chief (proprietor), and of the new proprietors, who followed, especially after the Union of Scotland & England in 1707: land was bought as an investment and a symbol of power and status. The small tenant farmers had no legal answer to a landlord who wished to have them removed.
‘Improver’ landlords sought to enhance the profitability of their estates. This was not an exercise of inclusiveness as far as small tenants were concerned, but one carried out by dictate from above. The rationale of the new crofting townships, which replaced the bailtean of the NW & Islands, was that the crofters would be workers first and farmers second, in order that their labour would be available when required by their landlords. Therefore, the crofts were of a size and quality to support a mere subsistence – purposely they were not to be an improvement on the old farming system.
In coastal areas, such as Wester Ross, crofters were encouraged to take up commercial fishing, and kelping (employment in harvesting and burning seaweed to produce soda-ash, which the landlords sold to southern manufacturers of glass and soap). Ullapool was built in the 1780s/90s on land purchased from Cromartie estate by the British Fishing Society. The aim was to develop a focus for employment and thus to reduce the push towards emigration. The project failed as the herring, a notoriously unpredictable species, deserted the local waters. By 1850, the buildings and infrastructure of Ullapool were deteriorating.
Farm consolidation with its consequent removal of small tenants had occurred elsewhere in Scotland (eg. to produce sheep ranches in the Borders), and much earlier during the Enclosures in England. It has been commented that the Highland clearances were especially sorely felt, and regretted, because they were inimical to the centuries-old belief in the clan's trust in the chief's role as protector and guarantor of their land. The betrayal felt by clan people would have been a severe psychological blow, and this, some historians argue (eg. James Hunter) explains why a real stength of opposition to the will of the proprietors took some long to materialise.
It did not help that in many cases people were moved, sometimes short distances from their long-established townships onto poor on the margins of the moors. There, they moved stones, and slowly raised the fertility of the available soil. For their efforts, they were required to pay increased rent, or, as at Drynie Park on the Black Isle, were moved again to allow amalgamations for larger units after the marginal land had been improved by the crofters. It was not unknown for the same family to be moved three or more times. Thus, it was a common complaint against the system that the crofter had no incentive to carry out improvement on their land.
In the beautiful strath of the Peffrey, between Strathpeffer and Dingwall, tenants were moved by Cromartie estate from the level strath bottom onto the moor edge. Later, in the 1840s, the estate (its base at Castle Leod was close by), using favourable government loans, drained land on the southern slopes of Knockfarrell, above Loch Ussie, intending the land to be let as a large farm. However, the market was weak and the only viable interest was from tenants, who had been forcibly removed by the Balfour landlord from Strathconon, and had made money from labouring on railways in the south. They took on the land in crofts of 6-20 acres (Gower township), and proved to be successful farmers.
There were hundreds of clearances throughout the Highlands. However, the record is poor about the reaction of the common people to these removals. Often histories state that they acquiesced, or at least, offered no resistance. It may not be surprising that people, not used to having any effective rights (and certainly no vote) in the face of action by all-powerful landed interests, may have acted in that way. However, the historical record is often partial. Rarely were the feelings, hopes, or despairs of the affected tenants made known from their own mouths. Another important point made by some (eg. David Paton: 'The Clergy and the Clearances', 2006) was that their religion required obedience to the law; this was emphasised by some ministers who were nonetheless sympathetic with the plight of crofters facing eviction.
Two events in the County are examples of instances of resistance that crofters did display.
In 1792, people from the around the River Oykell, in response to heavy-handed actions by the local sheep rancher, drove 10,000 sheep south for many miles until stopped by troops at Boath, just north of Alness.
In 1852, not long after the area had suffered in the Potato Famine (the worst ravages of which were less severe than in Ireland, as those who could help, eg. landlords, did not abandon the tenantry), Cromartie estate sought to remove tenants from Badenscallie in Coigach (Wester Ross) to Badentarbat about 3 miles to the west to create a new sheep farm. Eighteen tenants, who would lose their croft lands, refused to co-operate. Police accompanied the estate's agent and sheriff officer to serve judicial papers on the 'stay putters'. Men and women had been waiting for them all night. The party was attacked and humiliated and the papers burnt. A second attempt was spurned by overwhelming opposition. A third attempt ended in summonses being seized and burnt, and the boat that had brought them dragged onto the shore. The final attempt in the following year ended with the sheriff officer being relieved of the summonses and his clothing. It is usually reported that it was women who were at the forefront of the resistance….the Establishment's contention was that they were men dressed as women. The resettlement scheme was halted.
The Coigach Uprising was a rare example of common folk succeeding in resisting the landlords' desires. It also affected future policy of the proprietor and their agents to be more careful in their dealings with their tenants. This approach was reinforced by the connection, through marriage, of Cromartie with the Sutherland empire (the Duke of Sutherland was one of the wealthiest landowners in Britain); the Sutherland management were still smarting from the public outrage caused by the cruel Kildonan, Sutherland, clearances conducted by their predecessors in 1814).
The landed interests held all the cards. Crofters were hemmed in by obligations and restrictions in their day-to-day affairs. W. Anderson Smith ('Lewisiana', 1875) tells of an old man in Ness, Isle of Lewis, who summed up his position that "he could not keep ten commandments for a mansion in the sky, much less fifty-four for a blackhouse in the Lews.." However, times were changing and an outside world started to throw some light on the plight of their countrymen. Slowly but steadily the omnipotence of private property and capital started to unhinge in the second half of the 19thC, when the Courts began to examine and challenge the injustice in the balance of power.
Finally, through more concerted actions and resistance, the crofters persuaded the government to act. In 1883, the Napier Commission into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars heard evidence throughout the Highlands and Islands from crofters and landlords. For the first time, the direct voice of crofters and cottars was being heard by legislators. Here’s the evidence of a cottar, John Mathieson of Achnahannait, Isle of Skye, which illustrates the pressure on the land throughout the Highlands:-
“I want to say that it is the want of land, and the dearness of it that is leaving the people poor. My own great-grandfather was tenant in Achnahannait, and had the fourth part of it to himself. My grandfather succeeded him, and had a fifth part of Achnahannait. My father succeeded my grandfather, and had an eighth part of the land, and in his lifetime he came to be reduced to a sixteenth of the land. My father had six sons, of whom I am the eldest, and none of them would get a sod from Lord MacDonald”.
The agitation in the crofting counties that had preceded the Commission, continued with added vigour after it had reported, and despite considerable efforts of the landed interests to avoid legislation, the Crofters' Holding Act of 1886 gave security of tenure to crofters and a system for arbitration of rents, together with compensation for improvements carried out by tenants. Gladstone had recognised that, though no absolute legal right was had by the small farmers, they had a moral right to possession that should not be usurped at proprietors' whim. However, failing to endorse one of the Commission’s key recommendations, the Act did not give to crofters a right to more land. This failure meant that there was a fight to be fought. John MacRae, a Lochcarron Land League leader, asserted :
"This Bill the government shows to us,what is it?
There is in it no word of all this......
No word of a patch to plant a crop, no word
Of the right to a place where a poor man's cows might graze.
We wiil not submit to it, for it has no word of what we need:
A share of the good low-lying land, to produce food
For our children - and their children." (As an Fhearann, p.41)
The issue of the lack of land, compared to the huge acreages held by a few individuals, has been a matter of debate throughout the Highlands for decades. In 1991, just to the north of the County, in Assynt, Sutherland, crofters on the North Lochinver Estate, funded by donations great and small, and from across the world, bought over 21000 acres of land, with a view to its economic development and environmental enhancement. Since then, many thousands of acres throughout the Highlands and the Isles have been transferred using Land Reform legislation, including one of over 90000 acres in South Uist.