7th December 2013: Dolina MacLennan on the legacy of the land-leaguers on Lewis


In the late nineteenth century Lewis was owned by the Matheson family who had made their money from opium and slavery. They permitted a small proportion of their deer forest to be occupied by crofters, but the soil was poor and the rents high, and Dolina's grandfather and father joined the Hudson Bay Company seeking a better life.

At the Pairc Estate in 1881 the lease held by Patrick Sellar, son of the infamous agent of the Sutherland Clearances, was expiring and 32 crofters petitioned for more land. Eventually a response came from Lady Matheson dismissing their claim on grounds that to do anything else would be to infringe the laws of Her Majesty's Government. On 27 November 1887 led by children and pipers the people of Pairc confronted Jessie Thorneycroft Platt, wife of the new lessee with her gamekeepers, resisting all attempts at negotiation with the words "my lady, we have no English". A taskforce with three gunboats was despatched with 20 Ross-shire police, 80 military men and 5 officers from Maryhill Barracks. After three days Sheriff Fraser addressed the raiders, and of the many then arrested 6 were brought to trial, in farcical proceedings that were raised by radicals in the Commons, with thousands of pounds raised as far away as New Zealand and culminated in them being found not guilty and carried shoulder-high down the High Street of Edinburgh.

On 31 December 1918 the railhead at Kyle was awash with soldiers returning from the Great War and anxious to be home in Lewis for New Year. Two vessels awaited them, the Sheila and the Iolaire, and many were disappointed that they could not get onto the Iolaire, which was the first to leave with 200 on board. On the approach to Stornoway she struck the Beasts of Holm rock with the loss of 181 passengers and 20 crew. Relatives who had expected to be celebrating with their loved ones came the next day to collect the bodies, and the Lewis community never recovered. In 1923 the Metagama removed nearly 300 young men who had only to undergo a medical examination and receive a copy of the Bible in order to be indentured to farms by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Councillors were entertained to lunch as they boarded, but all fell silent as they sailed while fires burned on the hills.  The  conditions that they found were sometimes so harsh that some ran away, reduced to being travellers on the roads of Canada after being promised so much.

Nowadays there is little left of crofting because it provides insufficient livelihood to make ends meet. Crofts are being increasingly sold to incomers who rave about the view, and one such couple having admired in such terms the crofthouse were taken by the elderly crofter to inspect the cludgie. They noted the lack of a lock on the door, whereupon his response was "It's been like that for 50 years, and we've never yet lost a bucket of s****!"