Knoydart - the Land Raid that wasn't in vain
Much has been said, written or sung of the land raid by seven Knoydart men who attempted to settle their families there in November 1948. Their return from active service in World War 2 was to a land made unfit for heroes, by a laird with Nazi sympathies. The 1919 Land Settlement Act had failed this community, which had suffered crippling depopulation. In defiance of the law, the Knoydart Seven first tried the old Highland tactic of land raiding but, they soon went down the legal route to try beat their hated landlord, Lord Brocket. Sympathy with their plight cut no ice with the Labour Government, which, unwilling to create ‘unprofitable’ new crofts, backed the big estate. The Knoydart Seven may have failed, but their struggle inspired others to subsequent success. Hamish Henderson’s lyrics kindled support for the seven that still sings out to us today: ‘The lamp we’ve lit in Knoydart will never now go out.’ 1
Deference towards lairds had been somewhat dented by the levelling process of World War 2 and the ‘We’re all in it together’ rallying cry. Service personnel in new education classes had debated the Beveridge Report of 1942, which addressed the five great evils in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. People were questioning the deep divisions of poverty and wealth that were so prevalent before 1939 and a big swing to Labour in the 1945 general election confirmed that popular appetite for change.
The Inverness-shire MP from 1922 to 1950 was Sir Murdoch MacDonald. Sitting as a National Liberal since the 1930s, his majority in 1945 fell to its lowest in 1945. The combined votes of Labour’s Neil Maclean and the Liberal Party’s John MacCormick totalled 57%. Both opposition parties had gained votes that signalled rising expectations from demobbed troops.
Power to the Highlands, a government information film released in 1943, featured a conversation between five men in a railway carriage. One soldier talked of returning home, another aimed for the colonies, a civilian shepherd expressed his satisfaction with the big estates, a sailor decried the forced removal of the Highland people and a man who qualified as an engineer was set to return to the Highlands to help construct the new hydro schemes. (A later scene had American soldiers meet the shepherd and explain how the Tennessee Valley Authority had transformed their depopulated land by hydro power.2 No doubt the servicemen who returned to Knoydart after the war would have engaged in similar discussions, but the reality of working on a remote West Highland estate for its infamous landlord offered nothing in the way of secure prospects or wider horizons.
Pre-war, the multi-millionaire brewer had been a leading light of the Anglo-German fellowship. He had even attended Hitler’s birthday celebrations in 1938. Brocket had remained under government surveillance thereafter but his estate, which had been commandeered to boost sheep production, was still returned to his care after VE Day. Brocket’s preference for exclusive shooting and angling rights resulted in a reduction in jobs on the estate and his unconcealed pro-Nazi sentiments reinforced fears for the future among those who had fought against fascist tyranny.
The talk among seven of the Knoydart ex-service men – Henry MacAskill, Archie MacDonald, Jack MacHardy, Duncan McPhail, Donald and Sandy MacPhee and William Quinn – was of new land holdings and the arrival of a keen new parish priest, Colin Macpherson, who sympathised with their plight, was a great help to their schemes. John Prebble commented that,
Father Colin MacPherson spoke for the raiders, publicly and at the Court of Enquiry. Knoydart has been fortunate in its Catholic priests. Twice in the last century they defended their parishioners, and one went with them into Canadian exile. 3
On the men's behalf MacPherson posted a resettlement plan to the Department of Agriculture in 1946 for over 40 new holdings. In response, civil servants instead proposed 19 new holdings. The estate ignored this interference.4 Frustration began to build and with Father Macpherson’s backing, the landless locals decided to stage a land raid as a well-publicised stunt. The Seven Men each staked 65 acres and cleared the land around Inverie on Tuesday 9 November 1948. They did so, as they put it, ‘for life itself’.5
In the following days, the national press splashed photographs and headlines about the raid across their pages. Brocket was aware of the raiders, but studiously ignored them. He left Knoydart and sought an interim interdict from Edinburgh, which was immediately granted by the ‘obliging’ Lord Strachan in the Court of Session.6 Some Knoydart people also disapproved of the land raid. They were keeping their heads down to keep their jobs.
After the raiders received their notices to desist, supporters arranged a meeting in Mallaig. Incensed by Brocket’s statement to the press that the peninsula was unsuitable for a big community as it rained a lot, they set up a defence fund and appointed Ewen Robertson as secretary/treasurer.7 Soon, offers of help and cash were arriving by post and telegram daily. Large and small sums were promised to fight the interim interdict. On 10 November 1948, George Houston, the organiser of the Scottish Union of Students employment bureau, offered volunteers to help with the spade work at Inverie. 8
Father MacPherson also took the raiders’ message far and wide. In Glasgow, the week following the raid, he chaired the first of several public meetings. (Brocket would thereafter blacken Macpherson’s name in retaliation.) JM Buchanan of Clann Albainn wrote on 7 December 1948 to Ewen Robertson: he enclosed a cheque for £5 and 4 shillings, proceeds from a Glasgow rally of support on 19 November. 9 Clann Albainn was also trying to resettle returning soldiers in new homes. Its impressive letterhead at that date included well-known Scots such as their Honorary President the Countess of Erroll and among their 14 vice-presidents were Neil Gunn and Nigel Tranter.
Lochaber Labour Party, strong in the aluminium smelter town of Fort William, also backed the raiders. As of 22 November 1948, it alerted all branches to support the seven workers of Knoydart. It urged the greater Labour Party and trade unions to do the same, saying, ‘the step they have taken will move forward towards Nationalisation of the Land’.10 On 12 December 1948, an all-party demonstration by the Knoydart Defence Campaign was held in St Andrews (Berkeley) Hall, Glasgow. Oliver Brown, the campaign’s honorary secretary and treasurer, sent cash to the assistance fund. 11
Hamish Henderson was at that rally. He was employed at that time by the Workers Educational Association in Northern Ireland. Hamish, a distinguished former soldier, poet, folklorist and socialist, was inspired on his overnight passage back to Belfast to write the ‘Ballad of the Seven Men of Knoydart’. Henderson set his highly satirical words at Brocket’s expense to the tune of Johnston’s Motor Car. Timothy Neat, Hamish’s biographer, discovered that the song was banned by the BBC. 12 While the song was too nationalistic for the Communists and too socialist for the SNP and Labour, it became a folk song in no time nonetheless. For many of my generation, the version by Hamish Imlach in the 1960s introduced us to the land raid, to ‘show the world that Highlanders have a right to Scottish land’. But, before the end of 1948, the Labour Government set out to quell the popular support for the Knoydart raiders. They engaged a Perthshire farmer, John Cameron, formerly on the Land Court, to conduct an enquiry. This enquiry met in Mallaig in an all-day session on 22 December 1948. 13
The raiders had by then provisionally accepted the interdict and ceased land reclamation. With the help of Father Macpherson, some represented by solicitor John Shaw of Donald Shaw & Co. of Edinburgh,14 they prepared their case to present to Cameron. Meanwhile Brocket engaged an advocate to press the estate view. This was Charles JD Shaw, later to become the distinguished judge, Lord Kilbrandon, famous author of the Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1974. 15 Press coverage from the time suggests that, at the hearing, the management of Knoydart Estate was under searching examination. Bad sheep management was admitted by the estate’s team, but energetic improvements were said to be in hand. A possible solution to the land dispute was proposed by Charles Shaw near the end of the meeting and was reported in the Scottish Daily Express:
I would be happy to see how a compromise could be arrived at between the different interests. I think it should be reached. 16
John Shaw then wrote to Lord Brocket to see what he thought. However, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Arthur Woodburn MP, had other ideas and John Cameron’s enquiry gave him the perfect excuse. He ignored the 1912 Smallholders Act and the 1919 Land Settlement Act – each of which could have been applied to new holdings in Knoydart. Allegedly he sailed round the bay at Inverie in a fishery cruiser, viewed the scene through binoculars and sailed away to veto any new holdings.17 Thus, Cameron reported in late March 1949 that he saw only one sheep farm as the best plan for Knoydart. The idea of new holdings could not be sustained, he said. Outraged, the Knoydart Seven, with the help of Father Macpherson and John Shaw, composed a memorial to Arthur Woodburn and in it refuted the Cameron findings point by point. It is a model document for land settlement, even by 2020 standards, but it was to no avail. 18
The official enquiry divided Highland opinion. Attempts to get around the interim interdict and negotiate with Brocket continued. Costs were met from the defence fund and donations poured in, such as five shillings from a Mull ‘Wellwisher’ and ten pounds and ten shillings from a ceilidh organised by a Mr Scott Moncrieff on the Isle of Eigg. 19 By mid-1949, the defence fund had accrued three times its expenditure to date. Brocket’s legal team probed the health of that fund to gauge the likelihood of further court challenges ahead of a final hearing on the interdict. Legal discussions dragged on. Debate in the newspapers flared. Could crofting pay? Was Highland land settlement a social issue rather than purely economic one? And so on. These are themes still pursued today for and against community land buyouts. 20
James MacLauchlan from Clann Albainn wrote to Ewen Robertson at Mallaig. He hoped that many more of his members would visit Inverie and he recommended full support of the Knoydart Seven to Ronald Taylor, the organising secretary of Clann Albainn’s National Council. Noticeably, their letterhead was now shorn of aristocratic sponsors probably due to their stance on the land ‘grab’ issue. MacLauchlan also represented new settlers on abandoned crofts at Scoraig in Wester Ross. He confirmed his support for the raiders after a reconnaissance to Knoydart. Furthermore, he promised to lobby John McLeod, the Ross-shire MP, another National Liberal, and ‘make it hot for him’ if McLeod agreed with the Highland panel view that backed John Cameron.21
In July, Father Macpherson reported to John Shaw that the men were still in good heart, but that they knew their case in law was difficult, even if morally justified. Shaw noted the priest’s conversations with former MP Dr Robert McIntyre, chairman of the SNP, and Reverend TM Murchison of Clann Albainn as being ‘rather extreme in their views’ but that the memorial he had sent to Woodburn has shaken the public confidence in the Cameron Report and the precipitate acceptance of it by the Secretary of State. 22
Dr McIntyre’s pamphlet State Subsidies for Private Tyrannies – the Lesson of Knoydart was a thoroughgoing rejection of Tory and Labour ‘centralist reaction in opposition to the development of free communities in Scotland’ and noted in passing ‘the sheer hypocrisy’ of the Communist Party in trying to cash in on the Knoydart affair. 23
Time passed and hopes for secure jobs faded. One raider tried to make his peace with the estate, as Ewen A Cameron tells us in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Brocket was certainly willing to use coercive tactics and did so against one of the raiders late in 1949. Jack MacHardy had been working as a gardener on the estate prior to the raid and in October 1949 sought such employment once again. Brocket demanded, and received, an ‘unqualified apology and undertaking never to repeat such acts as those on November 9 1948’ before granting MacHardy's request. 24
And so, families continued to drift away. In 1951, the interdict was handed down without further pleas and each of the men received papers from the Court of Session plus a bill sharing the expenses of the court and the travel costs of the Oban-based Messenger-at-Arms. The defence fund paid up, but the men had to admit defeat. Knoydart continued to stagnate and Brocket sold the whole property the following year. 25 The Church of Scotland gave up on the house allocated by the estate for a minister (to a dwindling congregation) and Father Macpherson was moved on by his church. Writing from St Michael’s, Eriskay, South Uist in April 1952 he sent a long overdue cheque for accommodation in Mallaig for a Mr Black in December 1949. In the accompanying letter, the priest commented on his own brief visit to Knoydart, there he found that the place seems unchanged. It is still invested with the Brocket miasma – or do I imagine that to be so! I feel sorry for the poor folk. Give me a place open to the fresh air, where people stand independent and unafraid. 26
Commemorating the land raid after 40 years
Following 1948, estate jobs were few, visitors and climbers were discouraged as before, shooting deer continued and life on the peninsula decayed under successive short-term owners. My own involvement, years after learning Henderson’s stirring ‘Ballad of the Seven Men of Knoydart’, began as the SNP spokesperson on land reform in opposition to a possible purchase of Knoydart in 1983 by the MoD. 27 But it was the grim determination of one man, Archie MacDougall, which linked the 1948 raid with the hope of future land reform.
Archie’s father and grandfather had both been shepherds on the Knoydart estate. However, his father had left to find work at Monzie near Blair Atholl and this was where Archie was born in 1927. On his mother’s death, he was sent to Knoydart to stay with an aunt where he remained till 1952 as an estate gardener, when not in active service as a soldier. 28 In November 1948 Archie was away with the army, but a land claim was staked for him by his neighbour Henry MacAskill. Archie withdrew the claim, fearing army discipline, but attended the Cameron enquiry nevertheless. With the failure of the men’s pleas and Brocket’s vengeful treatment of them, Archie, like the majority of the others, left Knoydart in 1952. His life as a professional gardener ended in Inverness, where he retired.
For the 40th anniversary of the land raid, Iain MacDonald of BBC Radio Highland interviewed Archie who recalled the events and appealed for a permanent memorial to be made to their struggle. I heard the interview and contacted Archie. After that, in February 1989, we set about forming the Land Raid Commemoration Committee. This included myself, then a District councillor in Ross and Cromarty, and Michael Foxley, Regional councillor for Ardnamurchan, Mallaig and the Small Isles, whose wife was related to one of the raiders. 29 We were also backed by Archie himself and Councillors Peter Peacock, Sandy Lindsay and Dr Iain Glen, all land campaigners.
It took us two years to find a site at Inverie for the proposed cairn. Correspondence with the estate owner, Phillip Rhodes, was stonewalled. Even with help from environmentalist Chris Brasher we got nowhere. Then Foxley thought to ask the local hall committee, who agreed a site just off the tarred road which passes close by. 30 Generous donations, such as one from Father Colin Macpherson, latterly the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, 31 allowed us to engage Duncan Matheson from Kintail who had built the bicentennial cairn in Mossman, New South Wales, Australia. He designed and built the land raid memorial and topped it out with a broken quern stone, a symbol of a broken community. The Land Raid Commemoration Committee agreed the wording of the metal plaque he built into it.
A considerable crowd gathered at Inverie on 14 September 1991 for the unveiling. We were piped there by Iain ‘The Whaler’ Macdonald of Glenuig and fiddler Farquhar Macrae while Archie MacDougall unveiled the cairn. Later in the pub, however, we were met with a muted reaction. Most of the 50 residents of the peninsula were recent arrivals. The publican at The Old Forge told the press that the inscription on the cairn was ‘a political statement and not what the Seven Men of Knoydart was about’. 32 Oh, how things would change in just four years.
Incidentally, Knoydart wasn’t the last land raid. North Uist men sought to extend their Balmartin crofts after a raid on Balelone farm in November 1952 and negotiations with their laird allowed it to succeed.33 But Knoydart was still unfinished business by the mid-1990s. By then, the Knoydart commemoration committee wanted to add the names of the raiders and their associates to the cairn. It was agreed that the VE Day anniversary of 1995 was an appropriate date to do so. A second plaque was made and, under the watchful eye of Duncan Matheson, I was to attach it to the cairn. Duncan had been unable to attend the unveiling in 1991 due to a cancelled CalMac sailing from Armadale to Mallaig, so we were pleased to congratulate his cairn-building skills in 1995 as Archie MacDougall screwed in the final nail. 34
At that time the estate was changing hands yet again. Reg Brealey, the new owner, had an obscure jute company called Titaghur, which very soon left estate workers unpaid. So Knoydart was sold once again, this time to Stephen Hinchliffe and Christopher Harrison, who formed Knoydart Peninsula Ltd (KPL). This regime was also short-lived. Residents passed a motion of no confidence in the pair during Hinchliffe’s sole visit to Inverie in May 1998. Liquidation of KPL followed in November when Hinchliffe was barred from directorships due to irregular financial dealings. 35
By March 1999, on the eve of the first Scottish Parliament elections, a partnership called the Knoydart Foundation was set up, similar the one struck up on Eigg. The residents were joined by Sir Cameron Mackintosh, impresario and neighbouring landowner, the Chris Brasher Trust, the John Muir Trust and the Highland Council who bought the remaining 17,000 acres. I, and many others, attended Liberation Day, celebrated on 26 March 1999. At it, the Foundation pledged to ensure the next generation inheriting the estate would see it in better shape than it had been when freed from a string of private lairds. 36
Knoydart in retrospect
Looking back over 70 years since the Knoydart land raid, it can seem like decades of frustration were only relieved in 1999. Estate workers – be they gamekeepers, shepherds, gardeners or domestic staff – wanted real security for their families on their own holdings. But long after 1948 acceptance of existing landownership conventions were still ingrained in the minds of law makers. The idea of crofters and estate workers owning their own land was a pipe dream for most of the 20th century. Only the people of Stornoway, who were gifted their parish in 1923 by Lord Leverhulme, or the few hundred small holders in Glendale, whose land was bought by the Congested Districts Board in 1905, were exceptions. 37
Certainly, the Small Landholders (Scotland) Act of 1911 and the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act of 1919 offered new ways to secure places for families on their native turf. But after World War 1, crofting became seen as a loser’s game and emigration rocketed, enabled by the 1922 Empire Settlement Act which saw the government spend huge sums shifting folk to the colonies rather than setting them up with holdings at home. 38
After the deep Depression of the 1930s and the struggle to beat Hitler, new expectations were fostered among returning servicemen and women in the mid-1940s. Many voted for a Labour Government and demanded Scottish home rule from that party. But instead they got the NHS and other nationalised utilities. Central control was the norm and the depopulation in north-west Scotland remained a mere afterthought to the establishment. True, Tom Johnston’s hydro schemes did offer construction jobs in the Highlands, but officials seemed keener on tourism for the north than small farming.
The Knoydart saga in 1948 threw a shaft of light on to the continuing assertion of the peoples’ right to their land made by Highland Scots. Dr Robert McIntyre of the SNP summed up the problem. The Labour Government was quite prepared to uphold the rights of personal property of Lord Brocket in the power it gives him over the people in Knoydart… [But] at the same time the government prevent the people of Knoydart from acquiring rights to private property of a very limited kind in crofts and houses. It is this limited property which would give the freedom and stability required to develop a healthy community and which cannot be used to exploit others. 39
Such views had been called ‘extreme’ by John Shaw, the raiders’ solicitor. But it can be seen that throughout the 20th century the people of Knoydart had little choice but to leave the peninsula to find work.
From 1965 to 1979, the HIDB, founded by Labour, struggled with the crofting problem, the Gaidhealtachd and the Islands. Its compulsory purchase powers were no greater than a county council’s and land settlement was finally binned by Thatcher’s government in 1979. 40
Yet debate over land reform continued in that Thatcher era as an antidote to her destruction of so many industries and communities. In 1980, Billy Kay edited the BBC Scotland radio series Odyssey: Voices from Scotland’s Recent Past, which revived the Knoydart story. And thanks to the research of Iain Fraser Grigor, we heard the voices of the dispossessed. 41 The ’80s were a time of memorials and commemorations – Glendale, the Braes, Gartymore, Strathnaver and so on. After Archie MacDougall’s interview in 1988, why not Knoydart too?
In the ’90s folk memory and politics intertwined. The cement had hardly dried on the land raid cairn at Inverie when the news of popular resistance on Eigg and then Assynt opened a new chapter of demands by crofters and communities. The Tory Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth had prodded HIE into funding the Assynt buyout in 1993. And the prospects of a Labour government elected in 1997 gave real hope to communities like Eigg and Knoydart – hopes which were realised before the end of the decade.
The Knoydart Foundation set up in 1999 has proved a success. It has increased the resident population by 60 per cent by renewing the estate hydro scheme to power the off-grid peninsula and building houses, a bunkhouse and workshops for new enterprises. Angela Williams, their development manager, told Jim Hunter in 2012 that achieving financial sustainability was one of our basic aims. Given all the outgoings we have on wages, maintenance and much else, it’s not been easy to get there. But we’ve managed it – and this matters. After all, community ownership can only work long-term if a community owned estate can be made to break even, or, better still, can get into profit. 42
Angela also told Common Space in May 2016:
We have succeeded in projects and understanding where you’re coming from is important to understanding why change is happening. 43
And, concerning the Knoydart land raiders cairn built in 1991, she said:
It’s just a very small monument, [near] the village hall. Yes, that’s even further back in the past – but you could argue that what we’ve achieved has its roots there. Even though the population has changed, that is a daily reminder that what they did wasn't in vain. 44
The plaque’s inscription in Gaelic and English reads:
In 1948 near this cairn the Seven Men of Knoydart staked claims to secure a place to live and work.
For over a century Highlanders had been forced to use land raids to gain a foothold where their forebears lived. Their struggle should inspire each new generation of Scots to gain such rights by just laws.
History will judge harshly the oppressive laws that have led to the virtual extinction of a unique culture from this beautiful place.
Note: I am indebted to Sandra Henderson, nee Robertson, Fort William for access to many local records of the 1948 land raid. Their details allow us great empathy for that era.
1. Hamish Henderson, Ballad of the Men of Knoydart
2. UK Government information film used in part of the Channel 4 film Edgeland, 1986
3. John Prebble, John Prebble’s Scotland (Secker & Warburg, 1984)
4. Colin MacPherson croft plan mentioned in the Scottish Daily Express
5. Scottish Daily Mail, November 1948
6. IF Grigor emphasised ‘obliging’ in his chapter on Knoydart in Odyssey, Voices from Scotland’s Recent Past (Polygon and BBC Scotland 1980)
7. Knoydart Defence Fund started 10 November 1948 - letter in Henderson file. HF
8. Letter G Houston, SUOS 10 November 1948 HF
9. Letter Clann Albainn 7 December 1948
10. Letter H MacGregor to E Robertson 22 November 1948 HF
11. Letter O Brown to E Robertson rec. 12 January 1949 HF
12. T Neat Hamish Henderson, A Biography (Polygon 2007)
13. D Rixon, Knoydart: A History (Birlinn 1999)
14. Letter Donald Shaw, solicitor, Edinburgh to E Robertson 26 November 48
15. Charles JD Shaw QC for Lord Brocket,
16. CJD Shaw quoted Scottish Daily Express 23 December 48
17. IF Grigor, Odyssey
18. Undated 1949 Memorial re Knoydart Estate by Alexander McPhee and others HF
19. Income listing receipts Mull Wellwisher 20 December 1948; Eigg Ceilidh 22 January 1949 etc. HF
20. The Scotsman 1949 HF and Rixon
21. Letter J McLauchlan to E Robertson 14 April 49 HF
22. Letter 3 July 1949 and reply 6 July 1949 HF
23. Letter Dr R D McIntyre State Subsidies for Private Tyrannies – the Lesson of Knoydart a pamphlet published 1949, a copy of which I was given by Doc Mac in 1993 along with his support for the Assynt Crofters.
24. Ewen A Cameron, Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography (NA Scot., CS275/1952/4)
25. Letter E Robertson to D Shaw 21 September 49 HF. Court of Session writ for expenses to A McPhee and others 1951 HF
26. Letter C Macpherson to E Robertson 4 Apr 1952 HF
27. Letters Dec 1982 and Feb 1983 in the author’s files. (see Chapter 2)
28. Archie MacDougall, Knoydart – the last Scottish land raid. (Lyndhurst Publications 1993 and Scots Magazine May 1983)
29. Press Notice 1991 in the author’s collection.
30. Letter M Foxley to R Gibson 5 Mar 1991
31. Letter C MacPherson to R Gibson with donation
32. P&J 16 September 1991; P&J 11 September 1991
33. MacDougall, Knoydart and J Hunter, The Claim of Crofting
34. MacDougall, Knoydart
35. P&J 5 November 1998
36. J Hunter, 2012 From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops. The Islands Book Trust 2012
38. J Hunter, 2012
39. RD McIntyre pamphlet
40. J Grassie, Highland Experiment (Aberdeen Uni Press 1983)
41. IF Grigor, Odyssey
42. J Hunter, 2012
44. Ibid 26 May 2016