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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Lochaber - hoping for the wheel to turn

Updated: May 24, 2020

"Land, sky, and loch spoke of the vanished people and their last enterprise - their first and last, when far Lochaber almost imposed a king on England; pushed on his fortunes, shed its blood for him, and when, beaten and desperate, he fled for life, sheltered him in the greyness of its mists."

RB Cunninghame Graham, The Laroch, 1

Part 1 - Moidart

Back in the 1940s two new Moidart crofters embarked on independent living, Wendy Wood and Margaret Leigh. They were middle-aged women of very different outlooks who had come to Moidart to become crofters of vacant holdings on the Glenuig Estate. Wendy Wood and her husband Mac had arrived in 1939 at Alt Ruadh; Margaret Leigh arrived in the nearby Smirisary township in 1941. Both women wrote books about their ‘back to the land’ lives. 2 Neither mentioned the other directly and their conclusions over the future of Gaelic, crofting and Scotland diverge radically. They lived, for several years, less than a mile apart, yet the only thing they held in common was their determination to show that crofting was a viable way of life.

In the 1940s it seemed that townships like Smirisary, two and a half miles west of Glenuig via a cart track and rough path, were dying. Indeed, the whole lands of Moidart and Knoydart had been emptied of its people over the previous two centuries by brutal clearances following the last Jacobite Rising. The arrival of the great sheep flocks, potato famine and economic decline followed by two World Wars compounded the outflow of people. In the 1940s, young men went away to fight, while the older folk, living a traditional life, knew that the bright lights of Fort William, Glasgow or even Capetown could easily break the chain of generations if no new work was available to attract the younger generation to return to. The crofter’s struggles to keep the land viable during wartime austerity opens our eyes to the pioneering prospects of living on small holdings that commercial farmers viewed as fit only for sheep ranches. Compare this with the breakthrough of repopulation today where new settlers have the major advantages of modern life: better transport, broadband, renewable energy and proper support from government. As we shall see this repopulation has delivered over 500,000 acres, or 2.9% of Scotland into local hands.

A word about the backgrounds of the educated and articulate Wood and Leigh. Born in south-east England in 1892 and brought up in South Africa, Wendy Wood was an artist and writer who took up the cause of Scottish independence in 1927. She led a firebrand life among the few who supported peaceful Scottish self-rule. Her political exploits were extra-parliamentary and included burning Union flags and so on. This was a time when fascism was rising in Germany and Italy, which was always used as a stick to beat militant Scottish patriots. But her crofting sojourn was certainly a far cry from fascist behaviour. In his collected memories of folklore in Moidart, Calum Iain Maclean noted a typical Wendy Wood protest on Loch Shiel:

A launch named Loch Ailort plies daily on the loch, up from Acharacle and down again in the evening. The launch belongs to David McBrayne & Co. and quite recently replaced the old Clanranald, owned by a local concern. Here too the cancer of mammoth companies is eating into the very heart of local endeavour. McBrayne’s new boat rejoiced in the very English name, Rosalind, until some brave spirit, Wendy Wood, if I remember rightly, obliterated the offending name and painted Clanranald on it instead. Messrs. McBrayne & co. very wisely had the boat rechristened Loch Ailort. Local opinion accepted the compromise. 3

Margaret Leigh was born in London in 1894. Her family were academics and she followed the family tradition to Oxford. Her individualist streak sent her off to farm in Cornwall, but then she rode on horseback to Scotland and took up farming single-handedly before World War 2. She took the wee croft at Smirisary with the help of sympathetic local landowner Graham Croall. After that she entered an Inverness convent in the 1950s. With few family ties, she set out to write of her experiences while farming at Fernaig, Wester Ross. In her resulting work, Spade Among the Rushes, her acute observations of crofting life in war time are combined with an acerbic critique of the indigenous people. The chapter addressed The Highland Problem: A Few More Stones on the Cairn, opens with a warning:

If any of my Highland friends have read with pleasure so far, so I advise them to skip this chapter, for it may offend. The few things I have to say need saying and I shall try to disarm criticism by apologising beforehand for any corns I may tread on. 4

Leigh saw the problem of depopulation as moral not economic – a stark indictment of the Celts. She saw the coastal communities in decay and yet she argued:

Whatever may be the choice and the future of the Highland people, the challenge of the highlands remains, and will never lack a response, though perhaps not from the race that once gave it. The glens will not be empty, but it may not be Gaels who fill them. A pity. But if they go, it will be of their own will. Those who come in their place will be men who can respond to an environment which, though always exacting, is never beyond a reasonable man’s courage and resource. 5

She goes on to remind readers how Icelanders, Faroese and northern Norwegians talked of settlement not evacuation. Yet Leigh takes no account of the estate system that strangled access to most of the available land in Scotland. She states that all sorts of government support cannot win if human will and character fail. She concludes:

To make all things, even the highest, too easy, to hand out bribes and doles, to rob life of individuality, stimulus and adventure is the final vice of democracy, and its viscous snail-trail winds all over the Highlands. 6

I first read this chapter while sitting on a sunny beach in Brittany in the 1980s. I can’t place the exact year, but I remember how it grated on my sense of Moidart and its people. On reflection, I know Leigh’s days were those of depopulation and that there were considerably changed expectations among the young after their demob in 1945; and they weren’t encouraging for crofting, because small communities were even more vulnerable to distant decisions. This was soon emphasised by the abortive outcome of the land raid in nearby Knoydart in November 1948.

This chapter has been largely ignored by analysts of the condition of the West Highlands and indeed Leigh’s conclusions target the perceived loss of self-belief among the Gaels without real cross-examination of the historic context. And this context was what propelled this self-proclaimed individualist, and ‘a convinced regionalist’, to target ‘the extremer type of nationalist’ (perhaps alluding to Wendy Wood) as resettlement of previously Gaelic speakers by non-Gaels was the subject of a lively debate at that time in An Comunn Gàidhealach. 7

Wendy Wood concludes Mac’s Croft on an altogether more engaging note. She describes travelling with her husband to Glenfinnan for the 200th anniversary of the raising of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s standard there, 24 August 1745. Jacobite sympathisers from near and far came to remember and celebrate. Many of these people may have been concerned about the future of their land after the cataclysm of World War 2 and the depletion of the local population. A staunchly Catholic and Jacobite area had much to fear for the future. But Wood took a positive view of renewed life in Moidart in her own inimitable way.

Leigh, for her part, showed some shrewd shafts of insight. She also exhibited the blinkers that put progress down to individual will. And certainly, the experience of faraway governments gave little cause for confidence in those days. Nationalisation of transport led to the MacBrayne takeover on Loch Shiel. And central government concerns for mass food production saw no place for crofting, other than tolerating those still clinging to older ways. During the same period Frank Fraser Darling researched and reported on the crofting way of life in sympathy with nature in his West Highland Survey.8 It was ignored by the Scottish Office for ten years in that crucial post-war period when croft amalgamation was policy.

I first visited Glenuig in the 1980s as a participant of the Glenuig music festival to celebrate the vibrant music scene there. This was a time when people were encouraged to live and repair estate houses, in the days of the Llewellyn family who were related to the Croalls. The Glenuig music festival ran for a decade as a key fundraiser for the local population to build a new community hall. They succeeded. Of the longstanding resident families of Glenuig, I never got to know Ronald Macdonald, ‘The Whaler,’ mentioned by Leigh and Wood. He had skippered the store boat to Loch Ailort before the opening of the new road in 1963. However, his three sons Angus, Alan and Iain, the piping brothers, and daughter Sandra are friends to this day.

Allan wrote the introduction to the 10th Anniversary Glenuig Music Festival programme. It sheds light on the society of this small community and its continuing love of music’s role to this day. He wrote:

“Music has always had an important social function in highland society and although it has received scant attention from past commentators it is feature of our society that has been taken for granted. In this way it is only when the older traditions are in danger of being lost that their true values are realised.

“Although the waulking song and the step dancing traditions were lost before the beginning of this century, piping, fiddling jaw-harping , melodeon playing and other singing and dancing forms survived. Singing was the most encompassing form of entertainment and also provided a release from the more mundane chores. Early this century the men of Smirisary could be heard from the mainland, singing in time with the oars as they rowed their way to Lochailort.

“There were three different families out of a total of fourteen in Smirisary who had pipes. Fiddlers were more numerous in Glenuig, Roshven and Lochailort. The dances were held in what is now called the boathouse, in Samalaman, and the music was provided by those musicians and anyone who could sing port-a-beul. The people who walked over the hills from Kinloch Moidart or Lochailort to attend and dance all night, walking back in the morning. Sometimes the Lochailort and Roshven revellers would benefit from the ferryboat in the morning.

“In the late 40’s a hall was built in front of Samalaman sands. The Roshven Ceilidh Band in the 60’s, fronted by Farquhar MacRae, was the catalyst for many of the functions, making frequent forays into Glenuig, and playing more modern instruments like the accordion. These dances would occasionally be followed by an early flourish in Ardanachan before heading out of the Glen. The demise of the hall, dispersal of the old community and changing trends suggested an end to it all. However, there are hopes that the wheel of time has come round again, as the blind harper of Dunvegan put it, with a new community spirit the song may come back into our community. The Feis event, originally set up in Barra in 1981 by Angus MacDonald from Glenuig (his brother) has spread around the Gaidhealtachd and has set up locally also. A new community hall in planned. The pipes, flute, whistle, accordion, guitar, jaws-harp and singing is well represented in Glenuig. There is now a positive drive for Gaelic schooling and a brand new Gaelic medium unit has been set up in Acharacle and will be open for its first intake of youngsters in August this year. As one of our Gaelic bards put it: “Thig crioch ait an t’ saoghal, ach mairidh goal’s ceol: the world may come to an end, but love and music will last forever.” 9

Ronald Taylor, who by the time I met him in the 1970s, worked for Inverness-shire County Council as a bridge inspector and clerk of works. He was an active SNP man who also helped me launch my own political campaign in 1974 for which I’m very grateful. But he also provided another insight into Glenuig life at the end of World War 2 as, in 1945 he was taking care of Wood’s croft. He had been in some scrapes with the law over nationalist protests in Lanarkshire in his youth and, due to this, he was sent to live in faraway Smirisary. He recalled that the artist who created the lovely woodcuts of crofting life for Leigh’s book would visit Wood’s croft for a good feed – Leigh applied strict rationing rules in her croft. Rationing for the UK was only lifted in part in 1951. Ronnie was also the organising secretary of Clann Albainn, a pressure group set up with some lordly support at the outset to resettle returning servicemen in the Highlands in the 1940s. In that light, the pre-planned, well-publicised and ultimately unsuccessful Knoydart land raid of November 1948 received Ronnie’s full support.

From the kilt-wearing Ronnie, I learnt the story of Smirisary and Knoydart where an important theme links Leigh, Wood and the Knoydart raiders. Each shared an age-old belief that a secure land holding is the basis for family life. Even more so, if a whole community is determined to take control of their land. The evidence from Moidart showed it to be a far-off hope in the 1950s as crofting populations continued to dwindle due to individual’s choices and adverse government policy which ignored the reality of these out-of-the-way parts of Highland Scotland. While events in the 1980s encompassed unveiling memorials, it also brought some political development for land reform ideas. The underlying expectations for change, which while unlikely during the Thatcher regime, showed the wellsprings of cultural awakening and returning self-confidence which had been so badly dented by the aborted 1979 referendum. The pace would quicken on all fronts in the 1990s.

Smirisary February 1998 The New Hall Glenuig Jim Hunter Band 1992


1. RB Cunninghame Graham, The Laroch, a short story in Progress, Duckworth 1905.

2. Spade Among the Rushes, repub. by Birlinn 2011 and Mac’s Croft, pub. Frederick Muller 1946.

3. Calum Iain MacLean, The Highlands, Ch11, p 39, Club Leabhar, 1975, first pub. 1959.

4. Spade Among the Rushes p177.

5. Ibid p183.

6. Ibid p183.

7. John A Burnett, The Making of the Modern Scottish Highlands 1939-1965, pub. Four Courts Press, 2011, Ch4.

8. Frank Fraser Darling, West Highland Survey, pub. Oxford Uni Press, 1955.

9. 10th Anniversary Glenuig Music Festival programme

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