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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

XI. The Highlands

XI. The Highlands

Texte intégral

1The forces of economic improvement which appeared in the Highlands at the end of the eighteenth century dramatically transformed the social structure of the region. Slow deterioration quickened into crisis in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Cattle prices fell sharply, kelp prices dropped from £ 20 a ton in 1808 to £3 at the end of the 1820s (kelp represented a fundamental activity for the Highland economy) and the local fishing industry went into decline. What made things worse for the Highland peasantry was that landlords started realising that their lands could raise huge profits thanks to new economic activities such as sheep farming. The introduction of sheep farming was incompatible with peasant husbandry: sheep farmers, who were mostly wealthy Lowland tenants, needed the lands where the Highlanders took their beasts in June, which obliged the peasants to move out to the periphery of fertile areas. The failure of the potato crop in 1846 caused further misery in the Highlands, all the more so since the potato was the staple food of most of the population. Two-thirds of the food supply were lost. Famine was prevented thanks to the action of the Central Board of Management of the Fund for the Relief of the Destitute Inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands, a structure that was created in January 1847 with the help of the government. But relief was given only in return for labour and stringent destitution tests were implemented. Self-reliance had to be encouraged at all costs to prevent the destitute Highlanders from lapsing into indolence. Vitriolic attacks were published in the press against the idle Highlanders who took advantage of the benevolence of their Lowland neighbours:

  • 1 The Fifeshire Journal, 11 February 1847.

The great cause of the destitution is not the failure of the potato crop of last year but the intense and abominable idleness of the inhabitants […] Indolence is as characteristic of the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands at this hour as it was in the most lawless days in their history.1

2In the early 1850s the authorities showed more and more reluctance to grant relief to the Highlanders. Emigration came to be considered as the panacea for solving the Highland problem. Different schemes were adopted to help landowners finance the transatlantic crossings of their destitute tenants. The population of some of the parishes diminished considerably: the population from Knoydart fell from 600 to 70 between 1847 and 1853, the population from the Ulva estate in Mull from 500 to 150 between 1847 and 1851.

3The economic situation improved slowly after the 1850s. Between the 1850s and the 1870s cattle prices rose regularly. The expansion in sea transport facilitated both cattle and sheep exports. Seasonal employment opportunities expanded vastly: more and more Highlanders were able to find work in the Lowlands, some of them spending months away from home. Yet life for the majority of the inhabitants of the region did not improve significantly. People still lived in constant fear of eviction and did not dare oppose the estate factors. Yet the Highland peasantry managed to mount a successful challenge to landlordism in the 1880s.

4The agitation that took place in parts of the Highlands between 1882 and 1888 is known as the ‘Crofters’ War’. In 1882 on Lord MacDonald’s estate at Braes near Portree, on the isle of Skye, crofters asked to be handed back some of the land that had been taken over by the landlord’s sheep. The situation soon got out of control and the landlord had to ask for the help of the sheriff and the Glasgow constabulary. The struggle between the crofters and the policemen became known as the Battle of the Braes.

5In February 1883 the government set up a Commission to ‘inquire into the condition of crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland’. The commission, with Francis Napier, 10th Lord Napier, as its chairman, began its work in Braes and travelled all over the Highlands and Islands (including the Orkney and the Shetland islands), collecting 775 testimonies from crofters, landlords and all those who could give evidence of the living conditions of the Highland population. The final report was published in 1884 and led to the 1886 Crofters’ Holding Act which gave crofters absolute security of tenure, fixed rents, the right to inherit and the right to compensation for improvements. This legislation did not really convince the local peasantry: sheep farms and deer forests were raided in different parts of the Highlands and the military had to intervene in Skye in late 1886 and in Lewis the following year. Crofters, however, soon realised that the Act had positive aspects. In the words of Adam Collier:

  • 2 A. Collier, The Crofting Problem, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953, p. 98.

This Act placed the crofter in a unique position by conferring on him most of the advantages of ownership – security and power of bequest – without its drawbacks. It went far to remove the ill-feeling which in some places existed between landlord or factor and tenant […] and created a sense of independence in the crofter.2

6A Crofters’ Commission was set up in 1887 to administer the Act in the crofting counties and a Congested Districts Board was set up in 1897. The Board’s missions were to promote agriculture, develop the fishing industry and home industries such as spinning and weaving, to improve roads and bridges and to provide land for crofters and cottars.

Notes

1 The Fifeshire Journal, 11 February 1847.

2 A. Collier, The Crofting Problem, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953, p. 98.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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