Sunday, December 31, 2017


Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part G

Alex Gunn continues:

Google Earth image showing the still unproductive land near Newport

Some of the poor people who were evicted were set down on a steep brae-face at Newport to the east of Borgie, and after cultivating a considerable quantity of ground that land was taken from them and cultivated by the laird, and they were sent further up the hill, in a bleak heathery spot, where they had to set in once more and break up the barren ground, and where they are scarcely able to live. The most galling part of this whole thing is that they got no compensation for their improvements.

Unproductive land at Newport
In the rear a steep, impossible to farm brae, between Berriedale and Newport

The neighbouring estate of Dunbeath had a share in evictions as well. From the year 1830 to 1835 there were 65 families evicted from the Dunbeath strath. A number of them settled down on a barren hill face on the coast, where they had to do the best they could by cultivating small patches of ground and eking out a miserable existence by fishing. These 65 families [had once] lived comfortably and happily. I remember once being in the house of one of these tenants and I well remember the air of comfort and fullness which I observed about the house, and I dare say all the others were as comfortable as this family. I believe each of these families would possess from 20 to 30 head of cattle. This fertile strath was put under sheep. Between Berriedale and Dunbeath there were 162 families cut adrift, and good land to the extent of 2500 acres laid waste.

Ruins of a crofting settlement at Dunbeath
Ruins at Dunbeath
My Comments:

Not only did the crofters and their families get sent to impossibly difficult places to try to live off, they still had to pay rent to the landord. 

At the Commission of Inquiry, over and over witnesses spoke of the injustice of the refusal of the proprietors to pay compensation to crofters for improvements made, such as draining a swampy piece of land. The crofters were told if they didn't like the conditions they could leave. Of course many didn't leave because they had no-where to go to and if they did find a patch of poor land they had to start all over again to dig and plant in the desparate struggle to feed their family. So the exploitation continued year after year. 

To be continued..

Thursday, December 28, 2017


Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part F

Alex Gunn continues:

There was a thriving fishing and curing carried on at Auchencraig before the people were evicted. I remember seeing 13 boats fishing at Auchencraig for Leith curers and between coopers and others engaged in the fishing, there were hundreds of pounds circulating in the district every year. There was also a thriving herring fishing carried on at Berriedale, but the laird preferred salmon fishing to herring fishing, and lest the salmon fishing should suffer he put an extinguisher on the herring fishing, thus taking away an industry which was a great advantage in the district.

Ceann Ousdale with the Auchencraig settlement
 having been on the hills in the right foreground
Remains from the old Auchencraig settlement

The late Duke of Portland purchased the estate from the Hornes for £90,000, and banished the sheep, all but a few hundred, converting the whole estate into a huge deer forest and then claimed exemption from poor rates on that account. Some of the witnesses before the Royal Commission stated that a deer forest would give employment to more people than a sheep farm, but my experience is quite different. When the sheep were on the estate, there were as already stated, 12 shepherds, and at the clipping time there would be 20 people employed for three weeks, while two or three people are all that are needed to look after the deer. There are thousands of acres in these straths, of as fine land as is in the country, and were it under cultivation it would supply the market with a very large quantity of farm and dairy products, and provide hundreds of families with comfortable homes.

The Langwell Water valley
A good track goes up the valley for about 10Km on the north side. 
This section on the south side only has deer-tracks through the wood!

My Comments:

A number of witnesses to the Royal Commission spoke out against the Poor Law Act whereby rich landowners were exempt from paying tax on their shooting grounds while small crofters were heavily taxed on various public matters.

The mention of the Leith curers is evidence that the herring business was well established at Auchencraig. The firms of curers moved around the coast of Scotland and played a central role in the herring fisheries, organising and overseeing all the associated activities. They had to ensure there was enough salt delivered on time and arrange for the barrels to be ready. Once the barrels were packed the curer firm would arrange for their export. The curers purchased the fish through a system paying a guaranteed price to the crew of the fishing boat, also having payment agreements with the gutters and packers. It seems unbelievable that such a well-established local industry could to fall prey to the whims of the laird in favour of salmon when the two could have easily existed in the same district.

Welbeck Estates, including Langwell and across to the mountains of Morven, Scraben, and Maidens Pap, is approximately 50,000 acres. It is still a sporting estate owned by the Portland family with both deer shooting and Atlantic salmon river fishing being offered to those who can afford it.

Curious deer in the Langwell Estate
Note the two-headed deer on the right!

Note: Auchencraig is also known as Achnacraig and has other variations in spelling.

To be continued...

Herring fishing at Berriedale in 1820 by Willliam Daniell

Friday, November 10, 2017

One Penny Per Hour

Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part E

Alex Gunn continues:

Pay  - two or three years later

'When any work was to do on the estate, we had to attend at once, no matter how pressing our own work might be, and we were paid the handsome sum of 1 shilling per day, of 12 hours, being at the rate of one penny per hour, and after working for it, it was sometimes two and sometimes three years before we got a settlement, and there would be no money got at that time. The head of the family would get a boll of meal if he had as much in the lairds hands as would pay the rent.'

Doing their own work. Leave at once.

Building Roads

'All the males on the estate, on reaching the age of 17, had to pay 3s 6d each for road money. This money was kept off the counting table. Should any of the young men seek more remunerative employment elsewhere, the father was threatened with eviction.'

Proprietor's Protection Society

'When a family was evicted from the estate, they had great difficulty getting a house on the neighbouring estate, as the landlords had a sort of a trades protection society amongst themselves, and the unfortunate man had to stand a process of cross-questioning as to why he had left, and what the laird had against him, and was in some cases kept for weeks in suspense before he got a definite answer.'

Further comments by Alex Gunn:

‘The district [Auchencraig] being depopulated, the fishing was discontinued, and those poor people were obliged to work for their human laird at the rate of 1s per day for full grown men, women and boys from 4d to 6d per day, and out of this pittance to support themselves and families, and pay their rents, for their crofts scarcely yielded anything.’

Ousdale steep land plus Ousdale bridge and old road

‘Badbea comes next in course, the inhabitants of which were employed in reclaiming a wild piece of ground on a hill-side at Ousdale for Mr Horne, where he availed himself of the Government Drainage Act. They were made to toil and travel two miles each way for 1s a day, and Mr Horne was very fortunate in the choice of a man to set over them, as he spared neither bone nor sinew. The heads of families were obliged to take all their family to the work that could work, and if any young man was found spirited enough to go and work where he would be better remunerated for his labour, his parents were marked, and they did not escape punishment. 

But the work at Ousdale was finished, and Mr Horne could find nothing more for them to do, and as a matter of course six families were single out to be set adrift by next Whitsunday, and to find no shelter on the paternal estate of Langwell. This appeared the harder when it is considered that some of them had been in the place for 50 or 60 years, and one family occupied the house possessed by their forebears for four generations, and others reared families of 10 and 11 children under the same roof.’

‘They were promised payment for all the foreign timber in their houses, but one day a couple of men appeared on the scene, leaped on the top of the house, and with shovels and graipe peeled the roofs of the house, leaving nothing but the bare roofs and the bare walls. When the poor people demanded payment as promised, they were told they could take the timber if they chose, but no payment would be made, and there was no redress. These men were the scum of the estate, always ready to perform any dirty work the laird wanted done. This was the year 1845. Before this happened the village of Badbea was surrounded by a five-feet stone wall, a sure indication of the coming storm.’

The additional comments are from Roydhouse unpublished 1975

Friday, November 3, 2017

Alex Gunn continues..

Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part D

Best Pasture Taken

The best half of the hill pasture was taken from the Badbea people, and there was no reduction of rent; but if our cattle happened to pass an imaginary line, dividing the sheep ground from the crofters, they were pounced upon at once by the shepherd, and driven either to Ousdale or Langwell, where a couple of shillings were charged for each beast before they were given up, and I am very much of the opinion that the money never entered the coffers of the landlord.
Remains of a kale yard at Badbea
The last of a kale crop in a kale yard

Sheep in the Kale Yards

The Laird’s sheep came down to our very doors, leaped into our Kale yards, and nibbled up all our cabbages and we dare not drive them out if the shepherd was in sight. As for the shepherd he would pass by, and see his sheep devour the best cabbages, and would not interfere. The gamekeepers and the shepherds would wade through our patches of corn up to the knees rather than go round about 100 yards, when they could get past without doing any damage. We never were allowed to keep a sheep, or a dog, or a gun. The gamekeepers even shot the cats at our very doors, lest they might kill a rabbit. The places of these 97 families were filled with sheep to the number of about 5000, employing 12 shepherds. 

My Comments:

The time Alex Gunn is referring to must have been before the long stone dyke from Auchencraig to Berriedale was built.

To be continued..

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Alex Gunn Begins His Statement

Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part C




A number of statements intended to be read by delegates before the Crofter Commission, but which there was no time to hear, were handed to us, and some of them are given below.



I appear before Her Majesty's Royal Commission to give evidence in reference to the management of the estate of Langwell situated in the Parish of Latheron, and the west end of the county of Caithness, and better known as Berriedale. It stretches from the Ord of Caithness, eastwood along the sea coast about ten miles, and extends landward four or five miles. It is intersected by two rivers, the Berriedale and the Langwell.

These straths were once inhabited by a happy, industrious, and loyal people, but early in the beginning of the present century the mania of eviction seized the landlords, and those fertile straths were stripped of all their inhabitants, and were occupied by sheep in place of human beings. A few of those driven off were allowed to squat on bare hillsides along the sea coast, where they built themselves houses and cultivated small patches of ground, and where they eked out a miserable existence, but the greater number were driven off the estate altogether, to find shelter elsewhere.

Evicted family Outer Hebrides 1895

About 1830 there was another batch evicted from Auchencraig, the Cairn, and other places, and latterly in 1845 the half of the people of Badbea were evicted, so that from first to last there were ninety-seven families evicted, all in good circumstances and not one of them owing a single farthing of rent. An idea may be formed of the comfortable circumstances of these people when it is stated that the 13 families in Auchencraig and the 8 families in Ousdale sent 250 head of cattle to the sheilings in the summer season. 

A costume engraving of Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles, 
depicting Sir John Sinclair who found the battalion in 1794 
and who designed the uniform.

When Sir John Sinclair, who was proprietor before Mr Horne, raised a regiment of Volunteers or Fencibles, as they were then called, 60 men from Berriedale joined the regiment, and they were considered the pick of the regiment. My father who stood nearly six feet was one of them. My father and grandfather served their Queen and country, and the martial spirit is not extinct in the family yet, as one of my sons carries the colours in the Scottish Rifles, and is no disparagement to the family, as he stands 5 feet 9 inches, and weighs 16 stones. 

My father was evicted from Badbea, and also an uncle of mine, who had been bedridden for some years. He removed to the barn at the term, but he was only there a few weeks when two men appeared with graips and spades and 'tirred' the roof of the barn, leaving the sick man with nothing to cover him but the blue vault of heaven. He lay there for five days before he could be moved to Helmsdale - a distance of 8 miles - being the nearest place where he could get shelter.

To be Continued

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part B

Lybster 4 Oct 1883

Lybster in Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, 
Edited by Francis H. Groome (1892-6) 

Present – Commissioners

Lord Napier and Ettrick, K.T., Chairman
Sir Kenneth S. Mackenzie, Bart.
C. Fraser-Mackintosh, Esq. M. P.
Sheriff Nicolson, LL. D.


Rev. James McCulloch, Minister of the Free Church, Latheron.
Census 1881: Age 44. Lived with his wife Anne and six young children and several servants in the Free Church manse in Lybster. Spoke Gaelic. James McCulloch’s comprehensive report and examination was 12 pages long on behalf of the tenants of the estate of Latheronwheel. Mrs Gunn was proprietor. It must have taken many hours of discussion and research to prepare his statement. Among many other issues he spoke about the ‘ravages of game and rabbits’.

The Latheron Free Church was built in 1843 and seated 800 people.
It is now restored to a private dwelling. It is on the A9.

George Sinclair, Crofter, Latheron (age 55).
Lived in Latheron but was representing crofters from the nearby Forse estate, where he was born.

Forse standing stone with Forse House and farm in the background

James Millar, Achow, Swiney (age 44).
Census 1881: Was unmarried and living on a 30 acre property with his elderly father and unmarried sister. They all spoke Gaelic. 


James Innes Stewart, Fish-Curer, Lybster (age 59).
Census 1881: Lived in the main street of Lybster with his wife and three daughters, two of whom had been born in Canada 20 years back. James spoke about Poor Law Act whereby rich landowners were exempt from paying tax on their shooting grounds while small crofters were heavily taxed on public matters, and the harbour developments that the Duke of Portland was doing.
Lybster Harbour and bridge

Lybster harbour at its fishing peak

John Mowat, Bank Agent and Factor, Lybster (age 40).
Census 1881: Lived in Lybster with his wife and four young children plus servants. Was the factor for Latheronwheel. He was very defensive about McCulloch’s presentation and claimed that tenants didn’t have leases because they never asked for them - but McCulloch had said the standard reply to tenants who asked for anything was “if you are not satisfied then go”. Mowat claimed on one hand there were problems with rabbits then said there were no rabbits on Latheronwheel. 

The wide main street of Lybster

John McDonald Nimmo, Law Agent in Wick, and Factor for Mr Sutherland of Forse (age 59).
Was very evasive about the reasons for evictions at Stempster.

Bridge into Wick

Donald McKay. Crofter, Bulldoo, Caithness (age 46).
Representing 27 crofters in Achremie and Bulldoo on the estate of Sir R. C. Sinclair. He spoke about issues where crofters made improvements but were not reimbursed for them and the rents were raised. There were also statements read about Reay issues prepared by crofters there.

James Waters, Farmer, Bower, Caithness (age 65).
Census 1881: James Waters was unmarried. He was a farmer of 60 acres arable employing 1 man and 2 women servants. He was representing the crofters of Dunnet, Bower and Olrig. He was speaking as his family had suffered great hardship from ‘factorial cruelty.’ He spoke strongly about the clearing out of good tenants who were reduced to poor crofters and paupers while the arable farms became very large. 

George Cormack, Crofter and Fisherman, Bruan (age 39).
Census 1881: George lived in Bruan with his wife Margaret and their four young children and one general servant. He had about 15 acres of land and also had a boat. He tried to pay his rent from fishing if possible. He spoke strongly against what he called rack-renting or the confiscation of improvements and the struggle to survive.
The Haven, Bruan

Alexander Sutherland, Crofter and Mason, Roster of Clyth (age 37).
Census 1881: Lived with his wife Annie, young son and elderly mother. He was a mason employing 11 men. He spoke representing Roster on the Clyth estate. He gave a comprehensive history of the way rents had been increased and the hardship that had resulted. He spoke about the attitude from factors (mentioning Mr Horne of old) that the crofters were a ‘lazy ne’er-do-weel lot’.


Statement by Magnus Sinclair, Lingland.
Census 1881: Was unmarried (age 29) living with his elderly mother, brother and sisters. “I think Mr Sharp has used the screw to greater effect in rack-renting the Newlands district than any other part of the estate.” He gave examples of increased rents and severe cruelty from Mr Sharp and Ground officers.  

Adam Sharp, Proprietor of Clyth (age 66).
Census 1871: He was aged 54 living in Green Street, Rothes, Morayshire in a large house with12 rooms. He was married to Isabella and had a young daughter and 2 servants. He was a bank agent and land proprietor of 12,000 acres. On examination Adam Sharp was very evasive. He had owned the Clyth estate for 20 years but said he didn’t know answers because he didn’t live in Caithness, had no factor and anyway he wasn’t a rich man! 

Rothes Morayshire above, and a large house in Green Street, Rothes

James Purves, Tenant farmer, Barrogill Mains, Caithness (age 56).
Census 1881: He was married to Isabella and was living with 7 children and 3 servants in a cottage. James was a farmer of 300 acres. James was not examined as the meeting was Adjourned.
Near Barrogill Mains

Monday, October 2, 2017

Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part A

Braes Protest

In 1881 crofters from Braes on the Island of Skye banded together and protested angrily against forced rent increases, loss of pasture rights, lack of security of tenure on land and the forced eviction of crofters, some of whom had been on the same land for generations, to make way for large scale sheep or deer farms. Troops and a gunboat were called in to curb the angry demonstrations.  They landed at Glendale’s Meanish Pier and assisted police to make arrests.
Meanish Pier and Slipway by Gordon Hatton

Napier Commission

The agitation continued and as a response to the demonstrations, in 1883 William Gladstone’s Liberal Government appointed the Napier Commission, with Francis Napier, 10th Lord Napier, as its chairman, and five other members. Known officially as the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands, this was a royal commission and public inquiry into the condition of crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.  

Francis Napier 10th Lord Napier

  • Note: The terms crofter and cottar were not well defined but in general a crofter was a person who occupied a smallholding. A cottar was a tenant who worked on the croft/farm and lived in the farm cottage.

Braes Hall
The Braes village hall at Upper Ollach where the Napier Commission sat to begin their investigation into crofters' grievances following the "Battle of Braes" in 1882.

The Commission began its work in Braes on the Island of Skye and travelled the length and breadth of the Highlands and Islands (including Orkney and Shetland). 

Crofters, landlords, factors, church ministers and others who were familiar with the plight of the indigenous population gave evidence. The factors and landlords often tried to discredit the evidence of the crofters and ministers.


Napier was reluctant to include Caithness which he regarded as not inhabited by the Celtic race and not having a history of Gaelic-speaking landlords or clan chieftans. But in the 1880s many Caithness croft tenants were still Gaelic speaking. In the end Caithness was included and the Commission sat in Lybster on 4 October 1883. In Lybster there was also some discussion of the local fishermen’s rights. 

The Report

The Report of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Inquiry Into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, was hastily published in 1884. Most groups who had been involved were not happy with the report. 

The Crofters' Holding Act 1886

But in1886 the Crofters’ Holding Act was passed. This established the Crofters’ Commission to guarantee fair rents, security of tenure and some compensation for land improvements. The legislation did not solve all the problems over land rights, with disputes continuing for decades, but the report did have an important influence on how the land reform movement in the Highlands developed.
The Napier report is now a valuable piece of documentary evidence from the Highlands and Islands in1883, presenting facts and information on the population, and the political, historical and social climate of the time. 

West Highland College Research

Research on the Napier Commission was carried out in 2001 by Lochaber College, now West Highland College UHI. Records of the examination of witnesses and the final report are available in PDF form on their website. They make extraordinary reading. 

Volume III has the Caithness transcripts.

Mr Alex. Gunn

Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea who was such a prolific writer on Clearance issues, prepared a statement for the Commission. I can imagine him waiting with a group of other men for his turn to be examined. Unfortunately the Commission had only allowed one day at Lybster and they ran out of time and adjourned the examination and went on to Helmsdale. What a huge disappointment for those who had spent much time preparing their evidence. 

I would have relished reading an examination of Alexander Gunn who was so knowledgeable and had been publicly writing for years about the terrible treatment of Badbea crofters. 

A few weeks later the Northern Ensign published a number of statements intended to be read before the Crofting Commission but which there had been no time to hear. I have a copy of Alex Gunn’s statement and will blog it over the next few weeks.

But first I will give a brief review of the Lybster witnesses. Part B to follow.