The Crofters Struggle
The Glendale Uprising
Following the clearances in the second half of the nineteenth century, the tide of fortunes at last began to turn for crofters. Inspired by the land struggle in Ireland and the writings of political dissidents such as John Murdoch, crofters at last began to organise and assert themselves; those on the Isle of Skye playing a key role in the events that followed.
In 1877 the Kilmuir estate in Northern Trotternish doubled the rental charged to its crofting tenants. The factor collected the new rents with some difficulty, with many crofters at first offering partial payment. After being threatened with eviction, and the refusal to supply them with seed, they paid in full, but attitudes were beginning to harden. Three years later, tenants on the east side of the estate around Staffin began to withhold the increased portion of their rents. They were led by Norman Stewart, a Valtos crofter and fisherman. Stewart had served a week in prison for taking heather and rushes from the moor to re-thatch his house, something which still rankled. He began agitating for reform and took the nickname ‘Parnell’ after the Irish Nationalist leader. In 1877 he had refused to pay the increase initially but eventually had relented. In 1880 there was some confusion over the valuation of his croft, and Stewart was again refusing to pay in full and was soon joined in this by other crofters.
In 1881 the landlord Captain Fraser tried to sway local opinion by sending out packets of tea and sugar to the poorest crofters of Uig, Staffin, Kilmuir and Culnacnoc. Two weeks later he arranged for the factor to issue eviction warnings on the agitators especially ‘Stewart at Valtos’.
On Easter Monday in Glasgow a public meeting was addressed by the president of the Irish Land League, Parnell himself. The meeting passed a motion in support of the tenants threatened with eviction in Valtos, pledging support ‘whatever form the struggle might take’. Further public meetings soon passed similar motions; the crofters now had many in Glasgow on their side. Soon, Captain Fraser held a meeting with the tenants and both sides accepted a reduction in rents; the crofters had their first taste of what militant action could achieve.
Soon a more serious dispute was breaking out in the Braes south of Portree. A terrible storm on 21 November had sank 250 Skye fishing boats and increased the general agitation for the reduction of rents. A group of young Braes crofters had recently returned from a fishing trip to Kinsale in Ireland where they had learned of the Irish land struggles. Back in the Braes, they persuaded their fellow crofters to sign a petition for the return to common ownership of the grazings on Ben Lee which had been seized for sheep-farming by Lord MacDonald during the Clearances; until this was granted, they would refuse to pay rents. On December 8 the rents became due, but no Braes crofter arrived at the Factor’s office in Portree.
On April 7 1882 the sheriff’s officer Angus Martin headed to the Braes to serve summonses for eviction of the ringleaders. As he approached with his retinue, two boys appeared in the distance and ran off, only to reappear carrying flags, whilst further boys ran ahead to warn the other crofters. Soon a crowd had gathered, and when Martin and his men reached Gedintailear they were surrounded by an angry mob. The summonses were snatched away and burnt in front of Martin, who retreated back to Portree.
The summonses were dropped, but warrants were issued for the arrest of those obstructing Martin and burning the orders. Martin wrote to William Ivory, sheriff of Inverness, saying that one hundred soldiers needed to be stationed in Portree to keep order. On 19 April, forty policemen arrived from Glasgow and together with Sheriff Ivory marched to the Braes.
Monument to the Battle of the Braes
They arrived at 6am and soon had arrested the five ringleaders. The alarm was raised however, and 300 Braes men descended on the police as they took their prisoners back to Portree. They launched a volley of stones, whilst the Police fought back with truncheons. Women both dealt and received blows, with seven of them being seriously injured by the police. By means of a final charge the police managed to break through and escape with their prisoners. The newspapers dubbed it ‘The Battle of the Braes’; today, the spot is marked by a memorial reading ‘Near this cairn on 19 April 1882 ended the battle fought by the people of Braes on behalf of the crofters of Gaeldom’.
The trial of the Braes men was held on May 11, without the usual jury, and they were found guilty and imprisoned. Soon, however, sympathy for the men was growing in the cities; newspapers were outraged and several MPs in the House of Commons demanded an inquiry.
Unrest spread almost immediately to Glendale in Duirinish. The crofters there, led by John MacPherson, were demanding the return of the common grazings of Waterstein. By May several crofters began grazing their cattle on the land, and court orders issued for their removal were ignored. In November one of the estate shepherds tried to removal the cattle, but he was assaulted by their owners. By Christmas, warrants were issued for the arrest for twenty Glendale men involved in the assault, and on 16 January 1883 four policemen were dispatched to new stations around the area. A large crowd had assembled to meet them, and the police were beaten and driven back to Portree. By 20 January, even the regular constables stationed at Dunvegan had fled their posts.
Incredibly, an official government emissary was then sent to Skye – aboard a navy gunboat – to negotiate with the Glendale men. It was agreed by the government that a Royal Commission would be set up to investigate the crofters’ grievances, and in return a token five crofters agreed to stand trial. They became known as the Glendale martyrs, MacPherson among them, and are commemorated by a memorial in the village today.
On 8 May 1883, Lord Napier began taking evidence from crofters around Skye and the Highlands, and his commission recommended mild reforms. Meanwhile the Highland Land League (slogan The People are mightier than a Lord)was growing in membership and attracting support from fledgling socialist groups across Scotland; by now there were rent strikes across the Highlands and Islands. In 1885 the League announced its intention to stand candidates for parliament in every Highland and Islands constituency; they won four seats, becoming the first working-class MPs.
Prime Minister William Gladstone relented to pressure and passed the Crofters Act in 1886. This was much more radical than the Napier recommendations, and at last gave every crofter security of tenure. Not only would they be immune from eviction, but they would be able to hand their croft to their heirs.
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