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.  

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Old Brute of a Horse

Gathering Peats

“There was not a horse in all Badbea, but one old nag which belonged to a man of the name of George Sutherland, who occupied the east most lot in the place. The old animal was a regular visitor at our place, picking up a mouthful of sweet grass which grew on a flat in front of the house, which we were in the habit of reserving for our cow. The pony's visits were not welcome on this account. 

Flat ground in front of a house at Badbea.

One day when he put in an appearance I felt inclined to resent his intrusion, and walking up close behind dealt him a cut with a thorn switch. The old brute lifted his heels and dealt me a blow on the left side on the head, which sent me reeling and sprawling, bleeding and groaning. This ugly kick left a mark which I have carried about with me to this day.”

My Comments:

There was such a shortage of pasture on which to graze animals at Badbea that the residents had to do many of the jobs that a horse could have done. This included carrying peats, and bringing fish or seaweed up the steep track at Achencraig.

Accidents of the kind described must have caused much anxiety as there was little to be done to restore health and very little chance of getting a doctor.

George Sutherland doesn’t appear on the earliest Badbea and district census of 1841 so he must have been there prior to that.

In the Farm Horse tax rolls of 1797 - 1798 only 9 men in the Latheron Parish had horses – some having several - Mr William Sinclair Esquire had sixteen and the Rev William Gunn had two.

Source: Alan Roydhouse unpublished 1977. This article was published by Alexander Gunn but the Northern Ensign original is missing. Alan Roydhouse had access to many of Gunn’s articles while he was resident in Helmsdale in the nineteen seventies. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Boys and Guns

Boys will be Boys

Boys the world over have a common denominator - a sense of adventure and inventive imaginations. Whilst the youth of Badbea did not have the scope of those in the populous areas, they did not lack in spirit or adventure.

The rocks swarmed with thousands of sea-fowl in the summer. We could climb the rocks like squirrels. Often do I wonder how so few accidents happened to us. 

Game laws

The game laws were very strictly enforced upon us. Offenders were first subjected to the usual course of law, and if householders, they were driven off the estate at the next term. If not householders but living with their parents, the parents were visited with the sins of the children, turned out of their house and land, and no rest found for the soles of their feet on the estate. My parents were very much against the use of a gun by any of us, lest, in an unguarded moment, we might be tempted to break the law, game being then very plentiful.

Straw in a barn at Laidhay

Lucky Escape

On one occasion we had concealed a gun under some straw in the barn where a younger member of the family found it. He was not the length of being able to use a gun, and not knowing it was loaded, he held it over the lower half of the door and pulled the trigger. The gun went off about the ears of several onlooker children. Luckily all escaped unhurt, but a couple of hens fell victim to the rashness of this child.

Old Rusty Gun Barrel

Our firearms were of a very primitive sort. An old rusty gun barrel that no rational being would pick up from the refuse heap would put us into ecstasies, and in a very short time we would have it cleaned and mounted in a stock of our own handicraft, ready for sport.
We sometimes risked a shot at a hare on the sly. 

Red Davies and the Stuffed Hare

There was a youth of the name David Bruce, 'Red Davies' as he was called in the place. He was a few years our senior, and, we thought, did not treat us with due respect at all times. He was very fond of the gun and thought himself better than any of us. One day we snared a hare, stuffed the skin with grass and laid it down very near to a hare's natural position amongst the heather. A messenger was dispatched to Davie telling him there was a hare on the face of the brae. Davie came in all haste with his gun loaded, and came with the messenger to where we were pretending to watch the movements of the hare. Davie crept along the ground for some distance, took aim, and fired, after which we took to our heels. Davie ran forward and lifted what he supposed was a dead hare, when, lo and behold, it was only a stuffed hare skin! We took good care that he did not forget the exploit for many a long day.

Source: Alan Roydhouse unpublished 1977. This article was published by Alexander Gunn but the Northern Ensign original is missing. Alan Roydhouse had access to many of Gunn’s articles while he was resident in Helmsdale in the nineteen seventies.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Escaped prisoner, Braemore, Dunbeath. Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days

Article XXVII written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 8 February 1883 – Part B

Farm buildings at Braemore 

"Braemore, that quiet and rural township, so secluded and embedded among the hills, was about this time the centre of attraction. An aggravated act of theft had been perpetrated, and caused considerable surprise and commotion among the inhabitants. Placed at a distance of five or six miles from their nearest neighbours and brought up in a state of simplicity and innocence, crime of all kinds was all but unknown."

"The ‘black bothy’ was a well know institution, no doubt, but that was considered but a venial sin, and vice of any kind was very rare. Besides the people were very comfortable, and want was unknown among them, so that there was no excuse for anyone to commit a breach of the eighth commandment. The party guilty of this found crime was the head of a family and had also a bit of a farm. He was apprehended, and tried before the High Court of Justiciary in Inverness where he was sentenced to a term of penal servitude."

"On the return journey to Wick – the mode of conveyance being a spring cart – and while passing Forse, the prisoner asked permission to get down from the machine for a second or two, which wish was complied with. The prisoner, thereupon, leaped over a dyke which ran along the roadside, having the handcuffs on all the while. The officers in charge stood still with the machine, waiting for the return of their prisoner, but after waiting for some time they considered he was rather long in making his appearance, and on looking over the dyke, to their dismay there was no man there. Their prisoner had made his escape. The disappointed officers scoured the country in all directions, but no tidings of the runaway could be found." 

"Latterly it was mooted that he had returned to his home and family. The criminal authorities made a raid on the dwelling at midnight, but the prisoner managed to escape from among their fingers, and the police had to return empty-handed. Several attempts were made from time to time to get hold of him, but he always managed to make good his escape. Latterly he took up his abode in a subterranean cave in Ben Nagoviag, half way between Braemore and Berriedale, making occasional stealthy visit to his wife and family, and he was frequently seen by the neighbours. The police did not care to attack him in his mountain fastness, as it was alleged that he was well armed, and the entrance to his mountain home being very narrow and contracted, that he would be in a position to defy anyone who should attempt to intrude. He managed to keep out of the reach of the authorities till the time of his sentence (five years) had expired, after which he returned to his family but shortly afterwards left the place."

(To be Continued)

My Comments

An interesting story. I have not found any records of this incident from the Court at Inverness nor in any newspaper archives.

Without a record it is impossible to know what the crime was but I did find a report of a cattle theft deal that happened between an unnamed Braemore local and some drovers. I suppose a similar incident would be a possibility and it would carry the likelihood of a sentence of penal servitude – five years imprisonment with hard labour.

The spring cart with the prisoner and officers was heading for Wick. Wick has had a jail for centuries. The first town hall and Burgh jail were erected in 1750 in Tolbooth lane. That building was superseded by another town hall and prison in1828. Apparently a row of old stairs from the prison below Bridge Street was somehow connected to a spiral staircase that led to the courthouse. 

The escaped prisoner who eventually took up residence in a cave was probably a lot more comfortable there than living in a prison cell underneath the court house. Considering the vigilance with which the police usually hunted down ‘black bothies’ (illicit whisky distilleries) and jailed the owners it seems that they were not that determined to find this particular offender.

Scaraben near Braemore is a long ridge with three tops. This view looks up the rough terrain that forms the northern slopes of Scaraben's western top. There are probably good places to hide in the hills here.
Braemore has been a place of habitation and residence for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Standing Stone, Braemore, looking toward Maiden Pap and Morven 

The place Alexander Gunn refers to as Ben Nagoviag I wonder if it is an alternative spelling for Bienn Nan Coireag a hilly area between Braemore and Berriedale. If I am correct there is a Trig station there.

Prisoner’s Leap

The Braemore prisoner was not the first prisoner in this district to leap to freedom. In the Dunbeath Strath near to Braemore is a gorge known as the Prisoner's Leap. The rock on the north side is 100 feet high and on the south side 70 feet high. The distance between is 35 feet. The tradition is that in the sixteenth century a powerfully strong man from Braemore, Ian McMormack Gunn was imprisoned in Forse Castle by his enemies, the Keiths. Fear of retribution from other clans prevented the revered McCormack being hanged.  Instead, the Keiths set him an impossible task, sure to end in his death, saying they would let him go if he jumped the gorge. Of course the strong man confounded all and jumped the gorge. Various versions of the story have the gorge being wider and higher at the time of the feat while others suggest the opposite must be nearer the truth.
Source: Tales from Braemore, Robert Gunn