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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Crofting clashes recalled and renewed 1882-1972

…I don’t like the spirit. It’s too dangerous in these unsettled times. Once [you] let the masses get into their heads that landed property is a thing to play tricks with, you take the pin out of the whole system… Mr Claybody to Sir Archie Roylance in John Macnab by John Buchan (first published 1924) – from the 2007 edition as introduced by Andrew Greig, p101

In Scotland few of us own the land we live on and only the air is free to breathe.

We can trace centuries of land injustices that have led to numerous clashes often contested in the fields, streets, communities and in the Scottish courts. The roots of these injustices were embedded in laws largely made by, with and for the landowning elite. The conditions attached to land holdings have been subject to legal amendment when governments of various hues have, invariably, added new layers of complexity to the laws of our land.

My political awakening coincided with the rise of the SNP and my enthusiastic support for independence. This took practical form in campaigning for crofting rights and wider land reform following my journey to Glendale in NW Skye in September 1970 where I joined the Federation of Student Nationalists’ Crofting Scheme.

I believed in, as the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) claimed to promote, resettlement of the country and a new sustainable life for many more people in that part of Scotland. Hill walking expeditions from the 1960s and family visits e.g. to the MacInnes tenanted land at Dalfaber by Aviemore which, as a side note, came under threat when Seafield Estates sought to sell his good grazing land to build a timeshare resort. It gave me a belief that secure local tenure of basic natural resources was the key to repopulation. While in that pre-devolution era, Scottish Independence was just a dream. I believed then as I do now that it would be needed to tackle the most glaring problems of devastated landscapes and concentrated land ownership.

Arran became the destination of many of our family holidays thanks to my uncle and aunt moving there. In 1967 Arran was in the grip of a population crisis. The local Council of Social Service commissioning an academic critique in the hopes of finding solutions.1 But this simply opened debate on the island’s economic options for tourism, afforestation, sport shooting and so on. Given Arran’s projected depopulation I was surprised that the island had not been included in the HIDB remit. This was because its responsibilities had been restricted to assisting the crofting counties as designated in 1886 i.e. Argyll, Inverness, Ross, Sutherland, Caithness Orkney and Shetland, in its founding legislation. This pricked my interest. Why was Arran with many of the same issues excluded from the list of crofting counties? I discovered that the great landowners’ whose influence on their compliant MPs during the 1880s had also excluded upland, Aberdeenshire, Banff, Nairn and Perthshire. HIDB inherited that blinkered outlook in 1965.

When hill walking in my later teens I used to remark on the ruins of houses that were sinking into the heather as we passed along many glens. Why were they abandoned and empty? This question spurred me to a more discerning search in Highland history of which school history books had given little clue beyond the Jacobite uprisings and the disaster at Culloden. Studying Modern History at Dundee University from 1968 to 1972 brought me in contact with the effects of the 1886 Crofting Act and with fellow students who were interested in Highland regeneration. I read about late 19th century British politics which opened my eyes to the land struggles in Ireland as they affected the balance of power at Westminster. Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt took different stances then. The former aimed for an Irish Parliament led by landlords, shorn of much of their estates, while the latter wanted all landlords removed from the island. That tension played out until the Irish Free State set up its Land Commission to distribute land.

Academic historians such as Margaret Adam, Rosalind Mitchison, Phillip Gaskell, and TC Smout 2 were challenged in the 1960s in a string of febrile debates about Highland estate ‘improvements’ as they described these upheavals we know as the Clearances. A new perspective was offered on the events of the past 200 years through the rise of social history which promoted long-hidden evidence ‘beyond the factor’s window’. The works of John Prebble, Ian Grimble, Iain Fraser Grigor, James Hunter, and Willie Orr and others gave voice to the crofters and cottars and delved into police records, poetry, and song.3 In particular the racy journalistic work of John Prebble, a radical Englishman whose boyhood had been spent on the Canadian prairies, fired up our indignation. Culloden in 1961, The Highland Clearances, 1963, and Glencoe 1965 were an antidote to the academics’ blinkered denial that these events were quintessential to the Highlands of today. Also the scholarly publication in the Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1969 and 1970 of Millman’s maps of the marches, or boundaries, of Highland estate in 1969 and 1970 4 may have been aimed at recreational policy development but showed critics of concentrated land ownership patterns that there were huge constraints for change.

A group of student journalists led by Brian Wilson, then editor of Annasach, the Dundee University student newspaper, aspired to challenge the docile local papers on the West Coast. Brian, later to become a Labour MP and minister, took up the mantle of Bob Cuddihy whose Islander newspaper was published on Arran in 1967. Brian wanted to expand it across Argyll, for which he fund-raised by running concerts with the Corries and Marmalade, as well as my own student folk band Avizandum, on one occasion, in Dunoon. He was to complete his post graduate journalism course at Cardiff and set up the West Highland Free Press based at Kyleakin in Skye in 1972 with the slogan, An Tir, An Cànan, ‘S na Daoine. (The Land, The Language and The People)

One September day in 1970 I drove from Brechin to NW Skye. As noted above, I was travelling to meet fellow students in the Skye Crofting Scheme. In that summer recess between my second and third year at Dundee University, I learned first-hand of Scotland’s land history and current land uses from industrial Lanarkshire to the Mearns, thence to Skye and Islay. In these days before internships and international development experiences, summer work for students could be varied but often boring. Not for me that year. My first temporary work was in Dalzeil steel works, during their summer maintenance period. Behind piles of steel tubes, I read A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The themes were riveting. Hard graft on small farms and the trauma of the Great War transported the main characters into town life but with that long attachment to nature. Considering my next work slot, grouse beating in the Mearns, Gibbon was a kind of primer to the feudal world of the grouse moor; in my case, on The Wirren, a 2,000-foot lump of hill overlooking Strathmore. Know your place was the lesson for student grouse beaters. After three weeks of energetic walking over heather-clad hillsides the car drive to Skye was epic as I passed through Tayside, Laggan, Spean Bridge, Invergarry, Glen Shiel, Kyle. It was my first visit to the Misty Isle, via the Kyleakin ferry, since a family holiday there in 1956.

I found my friends from the Federation of Student Nationalists (FSN) bothying in the mothballed Colbost school room. The FSN Skye Crofting Scheme was then in its third year as an active collaboration with local crofters. As a kind of summer school, it introduced us to practical agriculture in historic Glendale. We would do some harvesting work or clear out a drain and a crofter’s wife would feed us. In the evening we could sing Scots songs in the Dunvegan hotels till 10pm, closing time, or if stovies were served, dance till 11pm.

Two months before my arrival, on 25th July 1970 a memorial to the Glendale Martyrs had been unveiled. On the local stone plinth its plaque read:

To commemorate the achievements of THE GLENDALE LAND LEAGUERS 1882-1886

Locus where 600 crofters challenged the government forces

Imprisoned John MacPherson Glendale Martyr Rev. D. MacCallum, Donald Macleod John Morrison

The cairn sits to this day beside the B884 as the road climbs to the pass leading from Colbost to Fasach in the glen. It recalls the Glendale men who struck the first blow against landlord tyranny in what The Scotsman dubbed ‘The Crofters’ War’. The subsequent Royal Commission led by Lord Napier reported to Gladstone’s Liberal government in 1883. This full story was researched by James Hunter for his PhD and published in 1976 reviewing these critical events, where, for the first time, ordinary Highlanders were heard often in their native Gaelic and received a sympathetic hearing from a faraway London government.

In 1970 we were befriended by Peter MacAskill who had turned his croft house, The Three Chimneys, into a B&B and restaurant in 1969. He was a key source of local history, feeding my early interest with on the spot stories. He was a determined local man who returned from the south to make a go of life in his native place for his own growing family. The students from the FSN went to Colbost school and then to the barn at Hamera Lodge over the next four years. We invited many others to come and learn the history of the crofters’ revolt and sang in the pubs to boot. In 1971 we invited the recently elected SNP MP for the Western Isles to address a public meeting in Dunvegan. Donald Stewart agreed to visit us en route for a by-election campaign in the Stirling and Falkirk Burghs. We were exploring some of the similarities of Skye and his native Lewis and their mutual interest in a healthy economy. The future for crofting was uncertain and the likely effects of entry to the European Common Market loomed.

A year later, on a rainy September evening in 1972 FSN students at the Glendale crofting scheme set off to support a crofter’s protest at Strollamus near Broadford. There a new landlord, Horace Martin, with 2,000 acres of ‘poor’ crofts between Dunan and Luib was embroiled in court cases and confrontation. Our contribution was to include concerts to raise cash for the Strollamus Crofters Defence Fund. I wrote a short account The Promised Land that also spread the story abroad. Published in 1974 by the Strollamus Crofters Defence Committee, the saga drifted on for years. It was a lesson for me on the seemingly intractable complexity of crofting law and community injustices.

In the book’s conclusion I made a bold assertion,

“Much eloquent and sound work to back up the cause of community control has been produced by interested departments in our universities. But intellectual alternatives need sound common- sense determination on the ground. This salvation for crofters is in co-operative action.” 5

Those Skye Crofting Scheme volunteers were a politically committed band. The following summer in 1973, Malcolm Kerr, Graeme Purves, Barbara Hine, Brian Macgriogair and Kenneth Gibb each contributed to a report on the FSN Skye Crofting Scheme ranging over its philosophical base, a review of land use in Glendale, and the Crofting Scheme in action. Believe it or not it was an environmental competition run by Coca Cola. It marked ten years in development of our ‘practical summer school’ run by nationalist students in North West Scotland. Some of the writers went on to play leading parts in land use and land reform over the years as student aspirations became informed and critical contributors in land reform debates.

Political change in Scotland saw the Liberal surge against the Tories in the 1960s. Now urban voters added their protests to feeling for Scotland being left behind while ‘Scotland’s Oil’ was discovered and exploited by multi-national companies with scant regard for local people.The rising SNP vote prompted Tory and Labour politicians to offer some form of devolution of powers to Edinburgh. That was the background to our Student Crofting Scheme’s life. Several Labour MPs had already published land ownership ideas in a pamphlet from the contents of their minority report to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. MPs Jim Sillars, Alex Eadie and Harry Ewing made the case for public ownership which appeared in December 1972. However, under the Tory administration the sanctity of private property prevailed. Sillars thanked other supportive MPs Gavin Strang and Bob Hughes as he expanded on a longstanding Labour position regarding Scottish rural land and Highland estates. He included a formula for compensation which recognised it as a necessary adjunct to nationalisation. 6

In Edinburgh, April 1973, I attended the ‘What Kind of Scotland’ conference organised by Scottish International magazine. It attracted a range of radical opinion makers from across Scotland. One of the highlights was a revolutionary theatre production which fuelled the fervour for land reform. The highly regarded performances of John McGrath’s ceilidh play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil 7 and its subsequent tour of small Highland halls combined the stories that Prebble portrayed with dramatic sketches of the latest threats to Highland life from the discovery of North Sea oil. It neatly galvanised opinion for social justice. Invited by SNP chairman Billy Wolfe, it played to rapturous applause at the SNP Conference at Oban in the spring of 1973. The BBC screened a version soon after as the debate about land reform blossomed. This wide-ranging debate accompanied a popular demand for a Scottish Assembly and the SNP increased its Westminster representation to 11 MPs in October 1974.

During that time, I helped form an SNP policy group for land reform, led by party chairman, Billy Wolfe and eloquent Glasgow solicitor and three-times Ross-shire parliamentary candidate, Willie McRae. We were joined by farmers and foresters up and down the country, not forgetting young urban activists who pressed for a radical land policy to tap widespread perceptions of injustice and dispossession. The SNP as a political party has a democratic heart. When our land group presented plans for wider discussion in the party’s National Assembly and on to National Council, we received overwhelming approval. Our policy proposals were based on a successful resolution moved by Willie McRae at the May 1974 Annual Conference held in Elgin. It called for the establishment of a Land Use Commission with local participation and many other guidelines for land policy development. 8

I will explore these themes in subsequent chapters on Moidart, Knoydart and urban land reform. Suffice to say revisioning the rural landscape became a recurrent theme as the devolution debate rolled on. With high hopes of a Scottish Assembly becoming a reality, the SNP adopted a set of detailed policies on land, agriculture, forestry, and crofting by 1977. They pointed the way for Scots to tackle land ownership and use. They were not surpassed in ambition for over 20 years and the actual arrival of the new Scottish Parliament in 1999.

The SNP ideas had certain points of agreement with the Labour position e.g. for a Land Commission to purchase under-achieving estates and set up a two-tier structure for local input and offer to diversify land ownership and use. Between them they eschewed the voluntary approach to encourage better behaviour. Intervention in the capitalist system was deemed a necessity if Scots were to thrive. Labour in government again from 1974 to 1979 tried to address the needs for access to land for development with laudable aims to encourage the community to control land development and restore the increase in land values to local people. Its land commission proposals encompassed in an Act of 1967 was, however, repealed by the incoming Tories in 1970.

A Tory proposal to offer a right to buy for crofters at 15 times the annual rent fell with the Tory Government early in 1974. Labour adapted the proposal and it passed in the 1976 Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act with considerable opposition from leading activists, Brian Wilson and Margaret MacPherson, who would have preferred the all-tenancy condition to continue despite the obvious sale of crofts for rent and other detrimental issues affecting the health of the crofting sector. As it transpired, few crofts were bought outright in the following twenty years because the shortage of capital for croft development loans for tenanted properties could not be won from the banks.

Tom Nairn’s ground-breaking book The Break-up of Britain published in 1977 inspired us. 9 My well-thumbed copy was bought with a book token on leaving Invergordon Academy for promotion. I wrote a short review for the new magazine Crann Tara. Nairn went on to suggest that the SNP should have been out campaigning to make the Assembly a certainty instead of pouring over policy details. He was sympathetic to land reform but saw the constitutional change required as paramount at that time.

Westminster, in the meantime, ground down the devolution process, accepted the notorious 40% rule and deliberately botched the 1979 referendum. Soon a motion of no confidence brought down Labour and ushered in Margaret Thatcher and the certainty of deep cold storage for land reform in the right-wing regime of the 1980s. The advent of the Thatcher era put paid to 1970s’ optimism but it spurred a series of local actions to remember past struggles and envision a better future.

It would be more than a decade later that James Hunter would be tasked by the HIDB to scope out a Scottish Crofters Union to co-ordinate that very work.


1. Storrie and Jackson, Arran 1980-81:2,021?, Arran Council for Social Service, 1967

2. The Sutherland Story: Fact and Fiction, in Sar Gaidheal, Essays in Honour of Ruaridh MacKay, An Comunn Gaidhealach 1986

3. James Hunter – The Making of the Crofting Community, pub John Donald 1976; Iain Fraser Grigor, Mightier than a lord, Acair 1979.

4. Roger Millman – The Marches of Highland Estates & The Landed Properties of Northern Scotland, Scottish Geographical Magazine December 1969 & January 1970

5. Rob Gibson, The Promised Land, Strollamus Crofters Defence Committee 1974.

6. John McGrath - The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, West Highland Publishing Company 1974.

7. SNP Annual Conference 1974 Res. 29.

8. Jim Sillars, Scotland’s land… case for public ownership…Minority Report to Scottish Affairs Select Committee 1972.

9. Tom Nairn, The Breakup of Britain - crisis and neo-nationalism, Verso 1977 and 2nd edition 1981 and my review in Crann-Tara 1st issue Winter 1977

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