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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Hostile Tory land - Thatcher in the 1980s

Ach ‘s e sealladh leòinte is gann

Tha an seo aig ceann thall an linn

Talaimh àlainn nan daoine

Fhathast an làmhan duine no dithis.

But it is a wounding and a hollow sight

here as we reach the end of the century

the beautiful soil of the people

still in the hands of the few.

Alba, Runrig

They laid the foundations that we might build thereon.

Inscription on the Land League Cairn at Gartymore, Helmsdale

The shock of Tory Government, following the Scottish and Welsh Assembly referendums debacle, cast a pall over land reform activists like myself. People emigrated rather than face Thatcherism, but others looked to their roots to find hope and the seeds of change for land reform. Tangible reminders of past land struggles and the hopes for revision were being built by scattered communities in the north. History was being used to bolster resistance to the new Tory assault on the very concept of society.

One of these reminders was Skye’s Battle of the Braes plinth, built with voluntary donations and thanks to the persistence of Aviemore County Councillor Sandy Lindsay. In 1980, I joined friends and supporters at the site where the Braes folk had confronted the sheriff and police almost a century before. The Battle of the Braes committee had asked local resident Sorley MacLean, the leading Gaelic poet of the century, to write the inscription. The plinth recalled the Braes folk’s link to the wider Skye revolt, such as the Glendale action, then dubbed The Crofters’ War. The bilingual inscription by Sorley reads:

Faisg air a’charn seo,

air a 19mh latha deug de’n ghiblean 1882,

chriochnaich, an cath a chuir muinntir a’Bhraighe

air sgath tuath na gaidhealtachd.

Near this cairn

on the 19th of April 1882,

ended the Battle fought by the people of Braes

on behalf of the crofters of Gaeldom.

In that same year at Gartymore, local crofters commemorated the foundation of the Highland Land League by locally-born Angus Sutherland. They built a cairn that was suitably inscribed with the biblical text ‘They laid the foundations that we might build thereon.’ Winnie Ewing MEP and Kay Matheson, one of the four students who retrieved the Stone of Destiny in 1950, joined Geoff MacLeod, an Inverness solicitor who was the Crofers Commission chairman, to celebrate that spark of organised resistance in Sutherland against landlord power. Sutherland’s Highland Land League had spread far and wide, built community by community. We were undaunted by the torrential downpour on the day as the celebrations were led off with ‘Mo Mhallachd aig na Caoraich Mhòr’ (‘My Curses on the Big Sheep’) sung in Gaelic by Joseph MacKay. Composed by the Bard of the Clearances, Ewen Robertson, the song dismisses the 1st Duke of Sutherland with the phrase: ‘Gum b’ ann an Iutharn ‘n robh do shàil, ‘S gum b’fheàrr leam Iùdas làmh rium’, translated by Durness journalist Willie Morrison as, ‘Were I with you in Hell to meet, I’d sooner stand wi’ Judas.’ Those present applauded with gusto.

Such acts of remembrance as those at Braes and Gartymore were inspired by the work of Iain Grimble and John Prebble in the ’60s and ’70s to expose the horrors of the Highland Clearances. Grimble’s trilogy on the Clan MacKay lands sheds light on their tragic downfall. These two writers pioneered the present-day popular understanding of these terrible events and perpetuated the memory of poet and writer Donald Macleod for his crucial work as one who had ensured that the views of the victims were recorded for posterity.

Joseph Mackay’s choice of song at Gartymore made a direct link between clearance and resistance. A pillar of resistance for Ewen Robertson was one of two important memorials which were erected in connection with the Strathnaver Clearances at the instigation of Grimble, who had lived in Bettyhill for several years. The second monument is central to the exposure of the true Sutherland story. It contains a plaque set in a stone plinth on the roadside on the B871 on the west bank of the River Naver opposite the forestry plantation which, until recently, obscured the cleared village of Rossal. It reads:

In memory of Donald Macleod Stonemason who witnessed the destruction of Rossal in 1814 and wrote ‘Gloomy Memories’

Highland Heritage

In the ’80s, a group of history-minded SNP Highland activists, including myself, began to spread the message of past struggles. Building on policy ideas forged in the 1970s, we were determined to incite resistance to the Thatcherite climate of UK politics. A successful rally at Croick Church in Strathcarron, Ardgay, where the diamond-shaped, east-facing windowpane is scratched with contemporary comments on the nearby Glen Calvie clearance of May 1845. Those attending, on that sunny afternoon, agreed that there should be support for our mission to recall the local history which few were taught in schools. The location chosen for the rally was connected to the cleared people of Glen Calvie had sheltered at the churchyard in 1845. The Highland Regional Council had previously been urged on by Councillor Sandy Lindsay to improve the parking area there to encourage people to visit the site. The rally set in motion some restoration work to the fabric of the Telford-designed church. Ironically, the refugees from Glen Calvie in 1845 would not enter the building, as they, and their minister Gustavus Aird, had joined the Free Church two years before. 1

In November 1981 Highland Heritage (HH), of which I was a founding member, became a formal organisation to promote an alternative view to the tourist brochure take on castles, tartan and heather. Taking the motto, ‘Keeping the people’s history in the public eye’, we produced a leaflet entitled The Highland Clearances Trail. This listed places to visit where the glens had been stripped of their people over the previous two hundred years and where the crofters fought back. It included some present-day flash points for good measure. We offered it free of charge to the Inverness Tourist Office but we were rebuffed with this comment:

Although the leaflet is not of a party-political nature, it is clearly controversial and inappropriate for distribution from our information centres.

Stuart Lindsay, the then Highland correspondent of The Glasgow Herald, filed a story headlined ‘Highland Tourist Offices Ban Leaflet Explaining Clearances’ and, in an editorial, the paper enquired if the leaflet was ‘unsuitable for tourists.’ 2 The ensuing furore and embarrassing publicity were noted by the HIDB later in 1981. HH, now a charity, was offered a small sum by HIDB to produce a publicity poster for the ‘unsuitable’ leaflet. Subsequently, I compiled five editions of a pamphlet which expanded on The Highland Clearances Trail with additional information on many more sites to visit. It referenced the Croick, Gartymore, Glendale and Braes monuments to the Land League and books to read on those events. Over the next 20 years around ten thousand copies of this pamphlet were sold, many in tourist information offices, book shops and museums. My words were viewed by some as an early advocation for ‘green tourism’ by encouraging visitors to see the locations where these tragic events occurred.

Who owns Scotland? A trigger for opposition debate

Both the Scottish Council of the Labour Party and the SNP at this time were active in campaigns concerning the size of estates and the origins of their owners. This had been prompted by a report published late in the Labour regime from 1974–9 which revealed the rising number of overseas purchasers of Scottish land. Led by Lord Northfield it reasoned that a comprehensive land register was required to kick-start the modernisation of the ancient Register of Sasines created in 1617.

Labour continued to back nationalisation of land, but with the local control of assets to be removed from the big estates. John McEwen, a retired forester from Perthshire, had been a staunch Clause IV Labour member, but he found it shameful that no government agency had provided a comprehensive land register to that date. In 1977, he began to survey the owners of Perthshire estates and soon widened his scope across other areas. Later that year he published his estimate of who owned Scotland following the painstaking study of Dr Millman’s maps of 1969-70 and his own research.3 A second edition with some corrections of his estimated size of estates and ownership came out in 1981. Writing in the new forward, playwright John McGrath noted:

As we go into the eighties with the landowners of Scotland encouraged in their arrogance by their triumphant friends in Westminster, the need for this book becomes, if anything, even greater than when it was first published.

The SNP were also active at this time but were in the midst of three years of turmoil. The internal 79 Group was promoting a ‘Scottish Socialist Republic.’ As an active member of the group, I contributed articles to 79 Group News, such as one where I developed the SNP’s 1977 land policy containing a two-tier land commission. I wrote:

Our people need land for basic economic and housing requirements and to serve this, a sort of land-holders contract, containing both rights and duties, is needed. Under such conditions the large accretions which sterilise land today would publicly fit the test at local or national Land Commission hearings. The use to which the land is put, and not the value of the site, should be the criterion for development. 4

Even after SNP internal groups were banned in 1982, the party continued to advocate strong measures of land reform on the lines laid out in 1977 as Tory opposition continued to change Scotland. Following the demise of the 79 Group and suspension of its leaders, a non-party Scottish Socialist Society was formed to draw together left-wing thinkers and activists from across the spectrum. George Kerevan from Labour was one new adherent of this society.

The Dalnavert cooperative

A little remembered, but important, process began in 1982. Highland Regional Cllr Sandy Lindsay and Dr Iain Glen, HH members and former 79 Group members, joined six others to take the bold step of buying some forestry land for sale at Dalnavert on the River Spey near Feshiebridge. Iain and his family had moved north because of his work on mental health at Craig Dunain Hospital near Inverness. They had purchased a historic house at Dalnavert which was associated with Sir John A. MacDonald, the first prime minister of Canada, and the house was surrounded by pine clad slopes and a lush water meadow. Despite the vocal opposing lairds who were opposed to the purchase. Iain’s cooperative of eight partners managed to buy the forestry land and began to build homes to work the land. Their story is still developing and is well told by Euan MacAlpine. This is one of the earliest examples of alternative not-for-profit land ownership. 5

The sale of Knoydart

The fragile community of Knoydart, in its mountainous, West Coast setting, was facing uncertainty in 1982. Major Nigel Chamberlayne-MacDonald, the laird of Knoydart’s 52,000 acres, was proposing to sell his land. While it had been on offer for over a year, it only hit the headlines in November 1982 and the papers revealed that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was an interested party. The MoD were seeking a new training area, indeed an area extensively used by them in World War 2. This revelation galvanised a disparate campaign of resistance into existence. It was started by the majority of Knoydart residents and led by Frederick Rohde of Li on the north of the peninsula, but it soon included the Highland Regional Council (HRC), the HIDB, the Chris Brasher Trust and the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). It also attracted attention from local MP Russell Johnston, as well as the Scottish Council of the Labour Party and the SNP.

Accessible only by sea or a 15-mile hike from the nearest road, the Rough Bounds of Knoydart had previously been in national headlines over the abortive land raid of 1948, the tragic story of the Clearances after the failure of the Jacobite Rising and the subsequent bankruptcy of Alexander Macdonell of Glengarry in 1852. After these events a series of absentee lairds had treated Knoydart as a private shooting and fishing domain. One laird after another failed or tired or died and as the Chamberlayne-Macdonald factor, Sandy Macdonald, told The Glasgow Herald on 6 December 1982:

the problem is that the kind of fortunes which created places like Knoydart no longer exist.

None were able to persuade the MoD off the Knoydart land. But the local people, who were vocally opposed to a military take-over, continued to work with Highland Regional SNP councillors, Sandy Lindsay and Jimmy Munro, and local Lochaber councillor Tom Kirkwood to stymie the MoD’s plans.

In December 1982, as convener of the SNP’s Land and Crofting Policy Committee, I sought and gained the support of the SNP’s National Executive Committee to oppose the purchase of Knoydart by the MoD. This offered support to the local communities in their strenuous opposition to the sale of the estate to the MoD. Our statement was:

We urge the Highland Regional Council to oppose and change of land use in Knoydart for military purposes; we call on the Secretary of State for Scotland to bring forward proposals for land settlement to promote the peaceful use of Knoydart with appropriate environmental safeguards. 6

For several months a range of proposals by conservationists and the HIDB were debated and the Secretary of State for Defence, John Nott, was questioned in the House of Commons. The NTS took an interest in buying the land but baulked at the £1.9 million price. The SNP and Labour took the view that a mix of small land developments instead of the MoD would give a nod to wilderness protection that various conservation interests squabbled over. While, the HIDB chairman, Sir Robert Cowan, and MP Russell Johnston supported the MoD approach claiming it would save the Fort William to Mallaig rail line and bring jobs.

However, in January 1983, the MoD announced that there were too many difficulties in the purchase of the land – the new Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, had been forced to abandon the bid amidst debates on austerity and defence cuts. There was delight in Knoydart and beyond. Thereafter the HRC, HIDB, NTS, the Countryside Commission (CC) and Scottish Office looked at the idea of a public agency consortium to run the peninsula. But they concluded, only a couple of months later, that it could not be made to work. The NTS was only willing to buy if HRC and HIDB paid the annual running costs and the CC were the only group prepared to chip in. Chris Brasher, the eminent mountaineer, offered a plan for a conservation trust buyout, but this also fell through. This, however, sowed the seeds of a later purchase by the John Muir Trust of the highest peaks of Knoydart some years later.

Knoydart, and its underlying problems, highlighted the issues caused by the ownership of huge tracts of land as private feudal domains. It also revealed the inability of agencies and local government to gain the necessary traction to effect modern community-based development. This conundrum hung over land ownership till a breakthrough by crofters in Assynt in 1993 which opened the door to community empowerment.

We’ll leave the last word to Sandy Macdonald:

I feel there must be a future for estates like Knoydart. The pity is that it is up for sale now, because the place is nearer breaking even than it ever has been in its history. 7

Debating land reform in the deep freeze Thatcher era

As a member of the 79 Group of SNP radicals it was logistically difficult for me to meet other nationalists in the early ’80s, other than local activists in Easter Ross where I was based. Weekly phone calls in the coldest winter for years, however, offered considerable debate. I, and the SNP, started to develop a more nuanced socialist outlook on land reform than the Labour party’s default land nationalisation. As I discussed Peter Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops with local SNP activist Andrew Currie in my home, I began to see community empowerment as a key concept to land reform.

In March 1985, a conference was held in Glasgow under the banner of the Socialist Society created, in part, by former 79 Group members. A range of papers were delivered under the title The Land for the People. The organisers felt that the issue of land is absolutely central to the possibility of political progress in the future and was acutely aware that, historically and politically, the Scottish people have been disinherited from their own country, and that the impact of this has been huge and catastrophic. 8

A comparison by Irene Evans and Joy Hendry in 1985 of the land policies of Scottish political parties, under the title Land for the People, displayed a wide variance of approaches and ideologies which underpinned some later policy positions. In sum, the Labour and SNP policies were the most worked out, the newly fledged Green Party’s policy was quite distinctive, it declared that

The prerequisite for ecological reforms is… a fundamental change in our system of land tenure.

Founded on the principles of Henry George and his single tax, the modern Green Party and Scottish Green Party founded in 1989 have championed Land Value Tax as the cornerstone of such change ) while the Liberal Democrats’ and Conservative Party’s policies said very little on land reform at all.

So, six years into the Thatcher era and hopes of early change were minimal. But the energy for policy formation of the 1970s had gained momentum and the campaign for a Scottish Assembly morphed into the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The 1990s spurred widespread hopes for the return of a Labour government in London in 1997. One that would seem to meet the ‘settled will of the Scottish people’, in John Smith’s famous words; one that was committed to establishing a Scottish Parliament where land reform could be tackled properly.

Marking the Crofting Act centenary

1986, the centennial anniversary of the Crofters’ War, saw several reassessments of its history. Fresh light was thrown onto these seminal events for modern Scottish land politics, least of all the crofters’ part in the foundation of the Scottish Labour Party in 1888 by elements which included Highland land reformers and Home Rulers. From the renewed attention on these events there was an inevitable backlash from the establishment. In an interview with Dr James Hunter in the new Sunday Standard newspaper, 3 May 1981, recently appointed Historiographer Royal for Scotland, Professor Gordon Donaldson, declared:

I am 68 now and until recently I had hardly heard of the Highland Clearances. The thing has been blown up out of all proportion.

Two years later Lord Strathnaver, heir to the Sutherland estates which had shrunk from a million acres in the 1860s to ninety thousand acres today, was attending an international clan gathering in Canada. He told the astonished reporter of the Toronto Globe and Mail on 16 July 1983 that, ‘The Sutherland Clearances did not occur.’ The paper commented that this was like one of Hitler’s generals saying that the Holocaust had not taken place. However, Lord Strathnaver’s mother, the Countess of Sutherland, went some way to admitting the family's guilt when she told the Sunday Post on 9 October 1983 that

the improvements [to the estate] involved the clearance of 5,000 people from their ancestral dwellings in the glens and it was bitterly resented… often there was too much cruelty.

There was also no sympathy for the centenary from the Post Office. The London-based Chairman, Sir Ronald Dearing, refused to issue a commemorative stamp for the 1886 Crofters' Holdings Act, citing Professor Donaldson, as the measure was far too controversial. Ian Barr, then Chairman of the Scottish Postal Board, who had not been consulted by Sir Dearing, belatedly arranged for a series of six commemorative cards.

Despite HH’s three-year campaign, it fell to the philatelically-minded laird of the Summer Isles, Kenneth Frampton, to commission the commemorative stamps. He approached Dingwall designer, Seoris McGillivray, to create the vignettes of crofting life. These were to be sold from Frampton’s island stamp business. The postage stamp campaign had the near unanimous support of Highland MPs, councils, the NFU, the Scottish Crofters Union and various leading Scottish historians. But still the Post Office had failed to recognise the case summed up in Dr James Hunter's words:

In 1886, 1911 and 1919 crofters gained security of tenure, judiciously determined rents, compensation for improvements, more land and a steadily increasing amount of economic and financial assistance. These were tremendous victories. Between 1881, when the land war began in Skye, and the 1920s, when a massive land settlement programme had been virtually completed, the whole trend of early nineteenth century crofting history was reversed. 9

In the centenary year, an ambitious stage presentation, The Crofting Act, was commissioned and produced by Eden Court Theatre in Inverness. Amongst several writers engaged in its production was George Gunn, a Caithness poet and playwright, whose forebears came from Helmsdale and thence from Kildonan. His plot was an imaginary attempt to blow up the Duke of Sutherland’s statue on Ben Bhraggie. But, while a watered-down version of the original script was performed, the director undoubtedly cut back the trenchant message before The Crofting Act went on a successful tour round the north. A highlight of Gunn’s one-act drama is an exchange between two of the would-be demolition squad. One says,

The way I see it is the longer the likes of thon man at the top of thon column up there is allowed to stay there the worse it’ll get, too. There’s those who are erectors an’ there’s those who are the worshippers at the shrines. Well, I want to change all that, to hell with their false gospels! D’ye know what I mean? 10

My research, Crofter Power in Easter Ross, was published by HH in 1986 to coincide with the Crofting Act centenary.11 The work for this had been triggered by a reference to Donald MacRae, the Alness Martyr, in a book review for Willie Orr’s Deer Forests, Landlords and Crofters. MacRae, a Land League organiser in Easter Ross, had been sacked on a trumped-up charge by the Roskeen school board in 1886. He was then head-hunted to teach Balallan children on the Isle of Lewis in 1887. I was able to compare the ensuing reaction of MacRae’s political opponents via two rival local newspapers: the Ross-shire Journal, established by the laird of Novar; and the crofter-supporting Invergordon Times. At a weekend conference held at Balallan in September 2012, to commemorate the Great Deer Raid on Pairc planned and led by MacRae, I took great pleasure in contributing to a history of MacRae’s earlier experiences in Alness.

Cultural Scotland stirred

The 1980s were eventful years in the cultural resistance to Thatcher. Runrig’s songs Alba and Protect and Survive sum up the mood of seeking a Scottish Parliament and non-nuclear policies. While, The Proclaimers sang Letter from America, bemoaning enforced emigration and industrial decline but encouraging defiance and struggle. In the same spirit as these bands many new folk music festivals sprang up across the country. The first Fèis was held in Barra in 1981 and many folk festivals grew up in the 1980s such as Orkney, Shetland and Glenuig.

For my part I joined the new committee of the Highland Traditional Music Festival in Dingwall to help organise our first festival in June 1981. Two years later I took over the reins and led the team till 2002 when it became too expensive to continue on a small scale. We enjoyed inspiring music, some of it very political. Along with Rita Hunter, past organiser of Fèis Rois, I reviewed our taped archives of over 20 years of the Dingwall festival for Eberhard Bort’s celebration of the tradition in 2011. 12 And in 2010, for the same publisher, I explored the Highland’s political songs since Hamish Henderson wrote The Ballad of the Men of Knoydart in 1948. 13

Political temperatures soared as Thatcherism declined into the fiasco over the poll tax. But land issues continued to inspire protest songs. Andy Mitchell wrote Indiana, a tale of returning emigrants to the USA determined to return to live in Scotland. It received wide air plays and sales thanks to Andy Irvine, who heard the song performed by Mitchell in Ullapool, and included it in Patrick Street’s first record. Dougie MacLean’s albums Real Estate in 1988 and Indigenous in 1991 contained explicit examples of uncomprehending incomers and feudal relics. The songs Homeland – Duthaich Mo Chridhe and Rank and Roses stand out especially.

Capercaillie, the rising West Highland Gaelic song and traditional music group, issued their record Delirium in 1991. It included a warning of the new clearances in Waiting for the Wheel to Turn and Four Stone Walls that attacked the lack of housing for local people. Written by the group’s accordion and keyboard player, Donald Shaw, whose work has produced a modern sunburst of Scottish music, it reminded us that feelings for the land still ran deep. Also, in 1991, Derek Dick, aka Fish, formerly lead singer of the pop group Marillion, produced a CD entitled Internal Exile. The title track told of the human cost of industrial destruction and emigration and has eerie resonances with the age of Brexit.

These musicians captured the defiant mood of the Thatcher dog days, and those other successor John Major, when land reform was swept from politics at Westminster – but not from the wishes of many Scots.


1. See photograph at Croick rally.

2. Glasgow Herald, 19.11.81

3. John McEwen – Who Owns Scotland pub E.U.S.P.A. 1977 & Polygon 1981

4. 79 Group News October 1981 p4.


6. SNP press notice dated 15 December 1982 in the author’s possession.

7. GH 6 12 82, Knoydart passions roused at prospect of MoD laird, by Stuart Lindsay.

8. The Land for the People, edited by Irene Evans and Joy Hendry Nov 1985.

9. James Hunter, The Making of the Crofting Community, 1976.

10. Copy of the script, donated by playwright George Gunn, in the author’s possession.

11. Rob Gibson, Crofter Power in Easter Ross, 1986 and revised 2012, pub. Highland Heritage Educational Trust.

12. ‘Tis 60 Years Since – the 1951 Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh and the Scottish Folk Revival, chapter entitled Legacies of the Highland Traditional Music Festival 1981-2002, pub. Grace Note Publications 2011.

13. Borne on the Carrying Stream – the Legacy of Hamish Henderson – chapter entitled, A Headful of Highland Songs: Journeying Hopefully Thanks to Seamas Mor.

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