History Illustrated: The Braes, The League and The Party – The Crofters’ Revolts of the 1880s

This piece is one in a series of illustrated articles on the untold histories of the Scottish left. They are the product of the collective labour of the History Illustrated Working Group within the RSP. Original illustrations are the work of Sophie Rowan.

The Highland Clearances mark a dark and bitterly remembered period of Scottish history – a period of intense and cruel ruling class violence against the people of the Highlands and Islands in the name of “progress”. In this period, communities would be literally torn from their land and homes and a new capitalist order would be imposed on the Highlands and Islands, putting stock in wool and sporting commerce rather than the needs of the communities they had destroyed. The immediate economic and social consequences of the clearances created destitution and poverty for its victims; crammed in small alloted crofts on the coast and overcrowding the last remaining townships. With little land or produce, thousands would struggle to eke out an existence and many thousands more would be forced to emigrate.

This period is often recalled with a feeling of melancholic tragedy; it is a cruel story from the past for us to weep over, a story of helpless people unable to defend themselves. While some of this is true, it does the ordinary people of the Highlands a disservice. These changes were not meekly accepted and nor were their consequences. During the 1880s the people in the Highlands and Islands began to organise themselves in a truly national movement to resist their precarious conditions and demand fairness. They came face to face with the powerful forces of the state and reaction and were to deliver a blow to Landlordism which started the first stage in reversing the conditions created by the Clearances. These stories are often forgotten by the left, but they are our legacy and they are stories that ought to be told.

original illustration by Sophie Rowan: policemen walk towards us, backs turned to a raging fire of eviction notices

“I cannot bear witness to the distress of my people without bearing witness to the oppression and high-handedness of the Landlord.”

Much like the crofters who came to tell their stories to the Napier Commission in 1883 it would be remiss not to give some context to the cruel and arbitrary nature of the rule of the landlords and factors in the Highlands during this period. The Clearances brought about a complete economic transformation in the Highlands, moving the region from a feudal subsistence economy to a rural capitalist one. This transition provided the landed class of the Highlands with moderate profits as they tried to fit into the changing social climate of an industrialising Britain. This transition nevertheless spelled disaster for the communities that previously lived there. Townships and common land were cleared and reorganised into large sheep farms and deer forests, the Tacksman class was abolished and replaced by profit minded factors and shepherds. These new land managers came in a large part from the Scottish Borders and the North of England which had itself seen similar land reorganisation in the preceding centuries. Clearing out the native Gaelic population and replacing them, as The Scotsman described it, “With those of Teutonic stock.” The Highlanders were in turn cleared from the inner straths and glens and pushed out towards small coastal crofts and placed under the authority of the factors who acted as agents of the lairds. The rule of the factors was characterised by cruelty, greed and disregard for their tenants described by I.F. Grigor as “whimsical tyranny at the expense of the tenantry”. The crofters’ access to land was often arbitrarily taken away for the factor’s and landlord’s own use; cleared people were pushed into the remaining townships, leading to overcrowding; the crofters’ land would be divided to these newcomers leaving less land for all. Yet rents were not reduced to reflect the new tenure, the cost of improvements to the estate would be placed on the shoulders of the crofters, who would not benefit from them; when the crofters were able to improve their own land the rent would increase or the crofters would be evicted and the land would be added to that of the factors. This regime which trampled on the rights of the crofters and cottars of the Highlands would face resistance, but it remained local and sporadic throughout most of the 19th century. Truly national resistance would not emerge until the 1880s.

“Though the hill of Benlee was taken from us, not only was there no abatement made in our rents, but the rent was increased to some extent”

The oppressive nature of the factors rule was seen throughout the crofting communities of Scotland, for over one hundred years the rights of the people of the Highlands to the land that they worked and lived on were placed in dramatic decline by this regime. The Crofters and Cottars of the Braes on Skye had faced many of the same injustices as other communities and in the years leading up to their confrontation with landed power. They had been deprived of the land of Ben Lee where they would have grazed their cattle and other local townships had been cleared and some of their residents relocated to the Braes, which led to overcrowding and less land for all. Despite being deprived of Ben Lee and having their own plots sub-divided amongst the new tenants, the rent was increased on the crofters of the Braes. In response, the crofters took it upon themselves to ignore the grazing ban and go on a rent-strike. The Laird went straight to the courts – eviction notices were written up for the offending crofters and their families and were dispatched with a Sheriff’s Officer on the 7th of April to be issued to the crofters. Upon the arrival of the sheriff’s officers, they were confronted by a deputation of 150 crofters who presented the officer with a lump of burning peat and forced him to burn the eviction notices. The officer was then sent packing to Portree to report back to his superiors. This humiliation of the agents of the law would not go unanswered, and soon the Sheriff of Inverness-shire William Ivory obtained a troop of 50 police officers and ordered them to Skye to stamp out this revolt. What followed would become known as the Battle of the Braes.

“He then returned to Portree and reported to his superiors and as a result it was decided that the crofters were in revolt”

By all accounts, it was a dreich morning on the 19th of April when a cadre of Glasgow policemen made out towards the Braes from Portree. Followed by Sheriff Ivory in a coach, the police were able to arrest five of the Braes crofters on the grounds of deforcement. However, their early successes were soon reversed as the crofters laid an ambush on the road to Portree at Gedintailor. The crofters had placed themselves at a narrow part of the road with the sea on one side and the steep slopes of Ben Lee on the other. From there the men, women and children were able to push the police into an isolated position and badly outnumbered them. The crofters began to hurl missiles at the police which panicked Sheriff Ivory and he ordered the police forces to draw their batons and charge the crowd. Repeated police charges were repulsed by the crofters and the skirmishes turned into a pitched battle. While the crofters attempted to liberate their arrested peers, the police were indiscriminate with their batons. In particular, the Braes story highlights very strongly the central role women played in physically resisting the landed power of the Highlands at the time. Kate Macpherson, the granddaughter of Braes crofters, recounted her father’s stories of the battle:

“They [The police] were manhandling my grandfather, and of course my grandmother went to his rescue. She was a very tall, strapping, strong young woman, and three policemen she knocked out, and she was batoned, and what he remembered being so afraid of was his mother lying on the ground with blood pouring over her face.” 

Another account speaks of Marion MacMillan, a resident of the Braes:

“We were told the policeman made for her, she was a very strong woman and they made for her, she put one of them on his back…. There were two women staying there at the time, and when the police came and the battle started, they came out with buckets of ash and they threw the ashes to blind the police.”

Despite the resistance of the crofters, the police were ultimately able to break through and made a disorderly retreat to Portree with their captives.  There had been similar violent confrontations between crofters, landlords and the police in the preceding decades, but they had for the most part remained local news, whereas the Braes was to reach national prominence as newspaper reporters flocked to Skye informing the growing newspaper-consuming public of what had happened there.

Is Treasa Tuath na Tighearna – The People are Mightier than the Laird

In the over one hundred years of clearance leading up to the 1880s, the process had created a ragged Highland diaspora all over Britain and the world. Large areas of Scotland’s new industrial cities were made up of the victims of the clearances and their descendants. This diaspora maintained a distinct sympathy for the Highlands and by the 1870s was constituting itself in various Highland and Gaelic societies. The crofters also found sympathy from the growing press. 

In particular, papers such as John Murdoch’s Inverness based newspaper The Highlander were very important in spreading news and rhetoric about crofting rights. Murdoch was an Islay man and had travelled throughout Britain and Ireland as an exciseman. It was during his time in Ireland that he was exposed to the debates around land, nationalism and the revival of Gaelic that were happening there. Murdoch came to the conclusion that these issues were just as relevant to the Highlands and Islands and set up his paper in 1873 to champion the cause of the crofters. The Highlander and papers like it provided a vital service in drawing regional and national attention to the cause of Land Reform as well as giving a platform for co-operation between the more established and more radical Irish land movement and the one forming in the Highlands. Indeed, the actions of the Irish Land League in the 1870s had secured greater rights for Irish smallholders and legislation was beginning to be debated by 1881.  In this environment it is easy to see why the Braes came to national prominence and also why the unrest began to spread across Skye and the West Highlands, putting ever greater pressure on the government for reform. While direct action was taking place in the Highlands, much of the political direction came from the Highland diaspora in the Lowland cities in the form of the Highland Land Law Reform Association which would later be known as the Highland Land League.

The League was modelled after its Irish precursor and took some of its ideological influence from the growing socialist movements in Scotland’s industrial towns. While it had been mainly made up of urban highlanders in earlier years, by 1883 and 1884 it was attracting large numbers of the Highland crofting population with branches springing up all over the Highlands and Islands. The League provided a space for crofters to gather and discuss the political solutions to their troubles and a place to organise practical support for communities taking direct action against their landlords. Furthermore, the League and its influential political backers amongst the Liberals acted as a pressure group on the supposedly sympathetic Liberal government of Gladstone. Gladstone’s government in turn hoped to head off this problem with a royal commission led by Lord Napier. Meeting with communities across the Highlands and Islands in 1883 to 1884, the commission sought to find a solution to the troubles that were occurring. Time after time, as the crofters were asked for the remedies to their grievance, the answer came again and again: the land should be taken back from the lairds and given to the crofters. Inevitably, the commission’s final recommendations would fall well short of the political ambitions of the crofters and the Land League.

“We must not rest until every inch of productive land in the Highlands is placed at the disposal of those who are able and willing to till it.”

The political failure of the Napier Commission led to a further escalation in direct action across the Highlands, and the period of 1884 to 1886 marked the high point of what became known as the Crofter’s War. In Skye, not just police but the Royal Marines were deployed to dissuade the crofters from acting. However, this did not stop the crofters, and Land League meetings were still regularly held as the police reported the growth in the use of “Irish” tactics. In one instance it was understood that crofters in Kilmuir and Uig were prepared to “force the attendance” of two local landowners and a factor ”for the purpose of demanding some explanation from them”. Actions like these resulted in the threat of gunboats being stationed at Portree. For much of 1884, parts of the Highlands and in particular Skye were in a state outwith central government control that had not existed since the Lordship of the Isles centuries earlier. Due to the failure of Gladstone’s Liberals to properly implement proper land reform, the League announced it would stand its own candidates in all of the Highland constituencies for the upcoming election in December 1885, under the banner of The Crofter’s Party. 

The Crofter’s Party candidates were a peculiar bunch, including long serving Highland liberal Charles-Fraser Mackintosh, Scottish former Irish Home Rule League MP Donald Macfarlane, the coroner in the Jack the Ripper murders Roderick Macdonald, Angus Sutherland of Helmsdale the son of cleared crofters from the Sutherland estate, and a former associate of Karl Marx and member of the International Workingmen’s Association Dr Gavin Clark. This was typical of the broad coalition which found its home in the Land League, pulling support from all parts of society. While led mainly by men afforded middle class and bourgeois lifestyles, the main force behind the success of these candidates were the ordinary men and women of the Highlands. The threat of the League brought out the forces of reaction as Landlords and Factors threatened their tenants with all manner of reprisals should they back the Crofting candidates. In turn, the Landlords’ papers spun stories of outside communist agitators and widespread intimidation of crofters sympathetic to the landlords. While there certainly were communists in the League and the social pressure of being anti-crofter was present, these factors did not exist anywhere near to the extent that the Lairds presented.

In the end, the Crofters Party and Land League endorsed candidates won in 5 out of the 7 constituencies, only losing out in Inverness Burgh and Sutherland – although the Crofters candidate would go on to win in a by-election in Sutherland the next year. The short lived 1885-86 parliament was dominated by the question of Irish Home Rule, but the Crofters were able to push through the 1886 Crofters Holding (Scotland) Act. This provided secure tenancy for crofters, standardised rents, the right to be paid for improvements they had made to the land, the right to pass on their croft to descendents, and also created the first Crofting Commission. Despite these steps, once again action came up short of the political needs of the crofters. Despite Landlord cries of the coming of communism and assaults on the institution of private property, the act did nothing for land redistribution and Cottars who had no land were not included in the Act. Furthermore, while the new Crofting Commission did what it could to defend crofters’ rights, it was chronically underfunded. The subsequent collapse of Gladstone’s Liberals in 1886 ushered in a much more reactionary Tory and Unionist regime who were much more hostile to the crofters’ cause. The new Tory administration saw the Crofters Act as the final say on the matter and began to harshly suppress Crofter’s agitation. This led to splits in the land movement over disagreements about how to proceed, which ultimately caused the dissolution of the Land League and the Crofters Party.

“The enemy have left the spoils and fled before the conquering hosts of land reform. From Mull of Kintyre to the Butt of lewis, the land is before us”

In remembering the history of the Scottish left, many socialists today will go to great lengths to associate with and remember the Battle of George Square and Red Clydeside as the zenith of working class history. That memory often fades as it moves away from the central belt. The left too often forgets the struggles that took place outwith the Central Belt, and in doing so fails to learn the valuable lessons these struggles can teach. In the end the objectives of the Land League remain in many cases unfulfilled. Despite legislation and agitation in the almost 140 years since the 1880s agitations, Scotland still has one of the most unequal distributions of land in the developed world. Still to this day much of the Highlands remain a playground for the rich, and Highlanders still struggle to pay their rents or own their own homes. But the rebellion the ordinary men, women and children of the Highland crofting communities ignited must have seemed unimaginable at the time – for over 100 years the rights of ordinary people of the Highlands and Islands to their own land had been stamped on, but through struggle they were able to reverse that trend and begin to push back against the power of the ruling class and private property. The practice of socialist history is to weave stories about the past, to inform and educate so that we might learn from past struggles and win what our ancestors could not. In the end what the crofters demanded was fairness; the right to forge their own destinies and provide for themselves. It is a fight that still needs to be won. Today, as in the 1880s, our demands and those of the Crofters are, as James Connolly said, “most moderate, only the earth”.

Further Reading:

The Making of the Crofting Community, By James Hunter, Birlinn, 2010

The Last of the Free, A Millenial History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, By James Hunter, Mainstream Publishing Company Ltd, 1999

Highland Resistance, The Radical Tradition in the Scottish North, By Iain Fraser Grigor, Mainstream Publishing Company Ltd, 2000

The Napier Commission, Digitised Volumes, hosted by The University of the Highlands and Islands, https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/research-enterprise/cultural/centre-for-history/research/the-napier-commission/


Tacksman: An intermediate party in a quasi-feudal form of land tenure, who would lease a portion of land from a large laird (who was often a relation) for a long period of time which he would, in turn, parcel up and rent to smallholding crofters and cotters. 

Deforcement: A term in Scots law describing the crime of resisting the orders of an officer of the law or withholding a property to which another party has a legal right. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *