Crofting, Kelp, & Clearances

“Until after the middle of the last century, the land appears to have been occupied exclusively by tacksmen, generally kinsmen or dependents of the proprietor, with sub-tenants, who held of the tacksmen, and by joint-tenants, who held farms in common, each having a stated share. About the time referred to, many of the farms held by tacksmen seem to have been taken directly from the proprietor by joint-tenants. They grazed their stock upon the pasture in common, and cultivated the arable land in alternate ridges, or ” rigs,” distributed annually, and called ” run-rig.” By this arrangement, each got a portion of the better and the worse land; but no one had two contiguous ridges, or the same ridge for two successive years, unless by accident. Since the commencement of the present century, the arable land has, in most cases, been divided into separate portions, of which one was assigned to each of the joint-tenants or crofters, the grazing, as formerly, remaining in common.”
Ref: Report to the Board of Supervision by Sir John McNeill, GCB,  on the Western Highlands & Islands, 1851. page viii. (Further quotes are from this Report)

This system, which is known as ‘Ridge & Furrow’ in ‘South Britain’ (or England, as it is more usually named), received its first legal assault in the 1695 General Enclosure Act (Scotland) but, as the above article from ‘British Archaeology’ informs us, the eradication of this equitable system of agriculture took place at varying speed and over a considerable period of time in different parts of the British Isles.

What is interesting is that Sir John then goes on to explain that when crofting was introduced as the replacement for run-rig, it allowed for the sub-division of crofts, a situation that had been impossible when the arable land was held in common and the cultivation strips were rotated annually amongst the whole populace.

This new possibility to sub-divide what had been intended to be sufficient land to support one crofting family coincided with the kelp-fuelled population explosion. In the boom years of kelp-manufacture this was not an issue, indeed it was necessary for the workforce to expand to keep-up production with the ever-increasing demand, but the new mouths could only be fed because of the wages earned from this somewhat early branch of industrial-scale chemistry. As an aside, Sodium Carbonate (or Soda Ash or Washing Soda) was used in glass-making and the manufacture of Soap and it was a man who made his first fortune from selling soap, Lord Leverhulme, who would become the owner of Lewis & Harris within 70 years of Sir John’s report.

Crofting also allowed the architects of the Clearances to sub-divide crofts to ‘create space’ for those whom they were displacing from elsewhere thereby diminishing the livelihoods of two families for each Cleared family as described by the Sheriff-Substitute, Charles Shaw:

“The conversion of crofters’ farms into grazings in Harris, many years ago, before the estate came into the Dunmore family, without providing for the people removed from these farms in any other way than by giving them portions of the land occupied by other crofters— the same system followed recently in South Uist and Barra, with the addition of locating the ejected tenants on barren moss crofts—has also affected the circumstances of the people.”

When boom turned to bust, and it was inevitable that it would as the price of kelp had been artificially inflated by the effect of the Napoleonic Wars to an unsustainable £30 a ton in 1815 compared to only £1 a ton before the wars began, then suddenly there were hungry mouths to feed but neither enough land to grow sufficient food nor the wages being earned to purchase it.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the third and final blow came in the form of the Potato Famines of 1846-51, these being exacerbated by the twin factors of people forced to attempt to grow food on land that could only be cultivated as ‘feannagan’ (a system requiring vast quantities of kelp as fertilizer) and the repeated planting of the crop on the same meagre patches of land.

Of course, there was one other factor at work during this time and that was the development of sheep-farming as a commercial venture, again something that the removal of Run-Rig made possible. Proprietors looking for the best return on their investment had wallowed in wealth during the years of the kelp-bubble but when it burst they were left with a populace living in poverty and no obvious alternate employment. Sheep-runs were the answer for the Farmer class that was connected to the Factors of Harris either by marriage or occupation, or both.

To add insult to injury, when those Cleared away from the fertile soil to make way for sheep were unable to grow sufficient produce to pay their rents, the blame was passed to them for being unable to do so! There was the attempt to re-settle the Borves on the West coast of Harris and John Robson Macdonald gives his side of that story in great detail. What is significant in that account is that he places the blame upon the failure of the 1848 project as due to the fact that the crofters had insufficient capital to be able to develop the land they were renting. He neglects to mention that the re-settlement was undertaken against his wishes (and those of his accomplices farming that area), that it took place during some of the worst years for crop failure all over the isles, and that there is no evidence that any consideration was given to providing a system whereby capital could be made available to the crofters. What Macdonald does do, however, is turn the failed project to his advantage by using it as proof that giving the crofters land is not going to solve the problem of their destitution.

Fishing, which might alleviate the suffering in some ways, was never going to support a population that had perhaps doubled within as little as two generations, especially as those moved to ‘fishing crofts’ were not always in possession of boats etc and only some of those who lacked them were provided with the means to fish by the relief committee Even if the dreams of Captain Macleod and the desires of John Lanne Buchanan been realised, it would merely have meant that Tarbert would have temporarily shared in some of the wealth that went to Stornoway before the fishing fell into decline. The solution was simple. Move them off the better land, make their miserable existence even less unbearable and then portray yourself as a philanthropist by offering to offload them across the Atlantic at, in part, your own expense.

I doubt it was quite as calculated as that at first, but it seems significant that John Robson Macdonald in his evidence to McNeill clearly states that it was in 1847, the year after the first widespread failure of the potato crop, that the Countess of Dunmore offered to export some of her son’s excess population to North America and this was repeated the following year with the suggestion that a dozen families might like to emigrate to ‘there be settled on the property of the Honourable Charles Murray, uncle of the proprietor of Harris.’

Nice – the brother-in-law needs labour and you are happy to supply it for him!

Unsurprisingly, neither offer was met with any takers from the non-English speaking, half-starved, close-knit, Cleared and castigated islanders who had by then turned their backs on the Established Church of Scotland and fully-embraced the five-year-old Free Church.

If it is thought that I am being a little uncharitable regarding these gestures and the motivation that lay behind them, I would ask you to take into consideration the attitude of the widowed Countess’s late husband to his people, to the testimony given to the Napier Commission in 1883, to the profligate behaviour of Alexander Norman Macleod who had wasted the wealth that the kelp brought to the isle, to the similarly excessive activities of the 7th Earl of Dunmore that led to the 26 year-old having to sell the North Harris Estate in 1867, and to the lack of evidence that the early development of ‘Harris Tweed’ by the Countess was anything but a nice marketing tale spun much later by the Duchess of Sutherland, and that if any woman should be credited with the early promotion of the industry it should be ‘Mrs Thomas’, whom I have identified as Frances Bousfield Thomas, the wife of Lieutenant FWL Thomas RN.

It was Fanny Thomas who endowed the hospital at Manish, in the settlement where the Countess eventually, after protracted prevarication, allowed the first Free Church to be built, it was she who had depots in London as well as Leith and it was she who took-in the children of destitute (Free Church) Ministers and other families in order to enable them to benefit from the experience and, most intriguingly of all, it was she whose obituary appeared in a magazine of the ‘Quaker’ (Society of Friends) movement.

The Countess certainly did provide some early assistance as described in the letter from the Parochial Board of Harris:

“In the spring of 1847, Lady Dunmore, from her private funds, supplied seed oats, and a considerable quantity of seed potatoes, to the tenants. Some have repaid their advances, but a greater number have not. Her Ladyship also provided materials for employing females in woollen manufactures, partly knitting and partly spinning. For these two purposes she expended above £1800. Nearly £1200 have also been expended on boats, fishing-gear, and the erection of a pier at West Tarbert, for the encouragement of the fishery.”
It is not entirely clear if the sum of £1800 refers solely to the knitting and spinning manufactures, or if it includes the seed oats and seed potatoes too, but the Board includes this total expenditure of £3000 some four years previously merely as evidence that “…the parish of Harris cannot be made self-sustaining, unless a portion of the people remove elsewhere.” They were using McNeill’s enquiry as a means of promoting emigration and supplying supporting evidence to suggest that it was merely a last resort rather than the inevitable consequence of the (man-made) factors that I have described.
I do not doubt that many of those who did emigrate and then thrived on the North American continent, in Australia, and in many other places too, felt that they had made the best choice in the circumstances. I am also aware that many readers are descendants of those same people and that the hunger of their ancestors has been replaced by a hunger to know as much as possible about the land they left.
And ‘land’ is the key for under the run-rig system one would have been reminded each year, in the allotting of the strips, that no man ‘owns’ the land, that it is the land supports us, that by sharing in communal activities we communicate & develop a sense of community, & that as soon as one person’s motivation is deemed superior to another’s & greed becomes the guiding principle, we sour the land, encourage disease and pestilence and are forced to turn our backs on the land to face the sea, and towards those other lands that lie far across the ocean…

2 thoughts on “Crofting, Kelp, & Clearances

  1. Thank you for posting this resumé on one of the contributing factors behind the 19th century clearances. I would like to point out that there is a school of thought which makes out that people actually wanted to go elsewhere, belittling the terrible cruelty of some of the clearances. Two years ago, a talk was held in Stornoway on the subject by Dr Lucille Campey.

  2. Thanks – This newspaper article is worth reading: quote, from Dr Tony Parker, lends support to the 'Kelp factor' but I can certainly point to clearances pre-1815 such as those of Taransay & Horgabost that were far from being 'of choice'!:-"From 1770 to 1815, the people’s clearances were one of choice, they were not forced off their land. That did not come until later really, after the Napoleonic wars."

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