As we approach the 130th anniversary of The Battle of the Braes – one of the most significant events in the history of Highland resistance to the landowning class – George Gunn revisits the continued obscenity of land ownership in Scotland. This is the second of George’s monthly Bella columns.
THE BATTLE OF THE BRAES IS FAR FROM OVER
by George Gunn
On a rainy April morning in 1882 a rather sea-sick column of fifty City of Glasgow police constables made their way from Portree to the crofting district of Braes on the north-eastern seaboard of Skye. Along with them there were about a dozen or so police constables from across Inverness-shire, some sheriff’s officers, a handful of press men and at their rear, in a coach, rocked Sheriff Ivory from the Highland capital, whose idea this punitive expedition was.
The immediate issue was the non-payment by the crofters of Braes of rents for their holdings to the landlord, Lord MacDonald of Sleat. To this end they had informed the factor, the solicitor Alexander MacDonald, in his office in Portree at Candlemass – the beginning of February, when rents were traditionally paid – and had sent five representatives from Braes to petition the factor for the restoration of their common grazing rights to the slopes of nearby Ben Lee of which they had been deprived of since the 1860’s. This petition was rejected as a similar one had been the preceding November. Having made their grievances known and taken their stand the men of Braes went home.
In the eyes of the property owning class in the Highlands at that time the people of Braes had committed “a most heinous crime”. Indeed Lord MacDonald demanded that the perpetrators be immediately arrested, tried, convicted and gaoled for “criminal intimidation”. Neither Lord MacDonald nor his factor was overly concerned with the trivial legal requirement concerning proof of innocence or guilt. This procedural oversight was shared by the judicial authorities. Instead of arresting the entire population of Peinchorran, Balmeanach and Gedintailor – the three principal crofting townships of Braes – it was thought that some counter-intimidation by Lord MacDonald upon the crofters would be productive in quelling this “insubordination” and, because it would be within the law, it would not be criminal. The action of the crofters, it was considered, being the direct opposite.
So it was that early in April 1882 a dozen names were picked at random from the tenants register for Braes and warrants were issued for their eviction. To enforce these warrants sheriff officer Martin and two assistants set off from Portree to Braes. Now here is where this sorry episode enters the realm of the Italian absurdist Dario Fo. Martin, as well as being the sheriff officer for the district was also the deputy factor of the estate. Alexander MacDonald, the state factor, was also the deputy sheriff officer and captain of the local militia, secretary to or member of every school board, clerk of the peace for Skye, a bank agent, a member of the parochial board, clerk to the road trustees, a collector of the poor rates and a landowner in his own right. If ever Skye had a Mister Big in 1882 Alexander MacDonald was it. But soon comedy was to turn to tragedy.
“Is Treasa Tuath na Tighearna”, or in English “The People are mightier than a Lord” was the unofficial slogan of the Highland Land Law Reform Association formed in 1883 and of the Highland Land League which came after it, and the truth of it was proven by the crofters of Skye that April day. Instead of meekly bowing down to the will of the factor, as the people of Kildonan and Strathnaver in Sutherland had done in the first decades of the 19th century, the crofters of Brae smartly intercepted Martin and his two assistants and made them burn the eviction warrants there and then and sent them back to Portree “to think again”.
“Deforcement” such as this – the physical removal of a warrant from a sheriff officer – was a criminal offence. The Law and the Landed Interest – the same thing in the Highlands in the 19th century – saw an opportunity to stamp out what the described as “the Irish disease”. They were well to be on their guard. The tactic of the rent strike was a major weapon in the Irish peasants’ war against the landlords there. Many of the men from Braes had gone to the herring fishing off Ireland in previous years, basing themselves in Kinsale which was a centre of anti-landlord agitation. They had also seen the successful use of the rent strike the previous year in Glendale and Kilmuir where such direct action had secured land concessions from the landowners in those western districts.
For at the root of the problem for the crofters of Braes, as it was throughout the Highlands and Islands, was the shortage of land available for cultivation when there was plenty of good land being wasted under sheep farms and deer forests. Having been cleared from the good ground of the inner straths some decades earlier the remainder of the native people who had not yet emigrated were crowded onto coastal patches, sometimes four or five families on land that could hardly support one. In 1880 and 1881 two successive wet springs brought blight to the potatoes and consecutive late Autumn storms ruined the oats and corn in the rigs. In short, the people were starving. To make matters even more precarious the herring fishing for these two years had failed – the shoals had deserted their habitual grounds – and the income from these fishings vanished as a result. The denial to the common grazings on Ben Lee, the hill behind Braes, by Lord MacDonald proved to be the last straw.
As Angus Stewart, a crofter from Peinchorran, so eloquently told the Napier Commission in Braes Kirk on the 8th of May 1883 “What we suffer from is poverty. We are huddled together and the best part of the land is devoted to deer forests and big farms. If we had plenty of land there would be no poverty in the Highlands, for there is a sufficiency of land and we are willing to work it.” Angus Stewart was the very first witness to the very first meeting of the Napier Commission and the good Lords might as well have wrapped it up there and then for in the four months of their evidence taking from Argyll of Shetland they would hear the exact same story again an again but not with such concision and authority.
Such reasonable requests were brushed aside by the likes of Lord MacDonald of Sleat and Sheriff Ivory in Inverness. Instead 50 Glasgow policemen were dispatched to arrest five “hostages”. The arrests were not disputed nor was the entrance of the small army of officers, officials and press into the Braes district. It was on their return that the conflict erupted. To their dismay Glasgow’s finest saw the entire population of Braes in a line, blocking their return route to Portree. As a lot of the men were off at the herring fishing, this then being the 19th of April and the beginning of the season, the resistance was led in greater part by the women of Braes. The police drew their batons and rushed the raggedy line only to be met by a hail of rocks and stones. The result was a lot of broken heads and blood on the heather but, fortunately, no deaths. The police returned subdued but with their prisoners to Portree only to be met by the collective hisses of the inhabitants.
So “The Battle of the Braes” entered into folklore and into the public domain chiefly by the honest eye witness account of David Gow, a reporter for the Dundee Courier. Even The Scotsman, which “hated the crofters even more than Satan”, took up the cause. It was reported that the august London Times even sent their war correspondent to Skye. The result of all this was not what Sheriff Ivory or Lord MacDonald, who throughout all of this was sunning himself in Nice, wanted. Indeed the very founds of Victorian landlordism and the divine rights of property were shaken, even rocking. That they did not fall, tragically, is an outcome we are still trying to come to terms with today.
But one thing is certain: without the “Battle of the Braes” and the bravery shown by ordinary people in such places as Kilmuir and Glendale to resist the problem of the landlord – for make no mistake, the problems of the Highlands are not crofting “problems” but those incurred by landownership itself – there would be few indigenous people left on Skye today or anywhere in the Highlands and Islands. Such defiance led directly to the Napier Commission of 1883 and to the Crofters Holding Act of 1886 which gave the crofters security of tenure and put, it is argued, an “official” end to the Highland Clearances.
Eviction and clearance went on, of course, as did resistance but after Braes in 1882, the pendulum of progress was swinging towards the cause of the crofters and their desire for land to live and work. This desire is till the mantra of Highland crofters in the 21st century and that it is not been understood, or only superficially, by successive Scottish governments has to be deplored. It is ironic to think that the HLLRA could in the 1880’s claim to be “the first mass political party in Britain” as historian Dr James Hunter rightly claims on its behalf. In the general election of 1886 the “Crofters Party” sent four MP’s to Westminster. Today Argyll, Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty and Caithness are represented in London by Liberal Democrats who sit too easily on the Tory benches. That Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has consistently returned a life peer and a huge landowner, the Viscount Lord Thurso, highlights the current political malaise and of how easily we forget.
Nothing will significantly change in the Highlands and Islands and in Scotland generally until the “problem”, the obscenity, of landownership is tackled once and for all. One tenth of one percent of the Highland population own two thirds of the Highlands. Seventeen people, or companies, own seventy percent of Caithness. Thirty eight people own two thirds of Sutherland. Seventy six people own eighty percent of Ross-shire. Lord Thurso owns around 48,000 acres directly and double that indirectly. He is an MP.
It is a common misconception that all meaningful social and political change in Scotland must emanate from the Central Belt. My contention is that the opposite is the case. The Labour party in the south west of Scotland has presided over a century and more of poverty for the majority. The Tories of all hues in the east and in the Borders have ensured that nothing changes. These are the pornographic political bookends of Scotland. In the Highlands, whether it be the issue of landownership, or in energy provision and the ownership of the means of production; in housing, in education, cultural provision and the freeing up of creativity and the imagination, it is to the Highlands and Islands that the rest of Scotland should look for solutions for they are being actively applied, enacted and debated here as in nowhere else in Scotland.
A bourgeois government in Holyrood who pander to the landed interest, to big business and the financial establishment may well look, for appearances sake, to the north of Scotland but the blinkers it has put over its eyes will not allow it to see the radical alternatives on offer here. Who owns the land is the beginning of a true political consciousness for all the people of Scotland. For the Highlands and Islands it is a matter of life and death. That is why we must be passionate. That is why we must defend the future. A century after “The Battle of The Braes” a police force were baton charging striking miners in a similar fashion. How often has this got to be repeated?
©George Gunn 2012