Friday, 14 September 2018


Donald E. Meek


The crofting township of Caolas, on the eastern edge of Tiree beside Gunna Sound, can be described as an arc of crofts and croft houses, now supplemented by numerous non-crofting homes, some of them only seasonally occupied, running round from Harbour and Milton in the south, to Mìodar and Urbhaig in the north.  Seen from Croish, on the highest contour on the main road before descending into Caolas, the neat arrangement of crofts and houses is striking, and, in good weather, eye-catching, with Mull, Coll and the northwest mainland of Scotland on the further horizon.   The layout of the township breathes an air of permanence, and it is easy to assume that it was ‘always like that’.  In fact, crofting in Caolas, as formally laid out, began around 1804, and has been in existence for only some two hundred years.  Before 1804, the township was very different, as it was arranged and operated according to the principles of run-rig settlement and cultivation.   This article will attempt to explain how the former arrangement operated, as well as the processes by which the township evolved into one in which the dominant agricultural feature was the croft.

The township of Caolas, Tiree, as viewed from 'Croish', and looking directly eastwards to Gunna and Coll
in the fine summer of 1976. 
The Campbells of Argyll were able to acquire Tiree through debt-purchase from the MacLeans of Duart, when the island was adjudged to the 8th Earl of Argyll in 1659.  As their interest in Tiree is, however, evident from the early seventeenth century, the records preserved in Inveraray relating to the island and its agricultural development are remarkably plentiful.  These form part of ‘The Argyll Papers’.  The Campbells were nothing if not meticulous in assessing the productivity of the island, and in formulating and implementing new policies of land use, mainly with an eye to increasing their own returns, particularly after 1760.   Although few estates can offer such comprehensive and relevant archives, especially with regard to a particular island, these have been relatively little utilised or exploited beyond the foundational studies of Eric Cregeen.  Cregeen’s fine editing of the Argyll Estate Instructions: Mull, Morvern, Tiree, 1771-1805, his splendid overview of ‘The Creation of the Crofting Townships of Tiree’, and his more detailed local assessments of social change at the west end of Tiree are extremely important, but no studies have been made of the processes and stages whereby individual island townships were transformed from run-rig farms to crofting communities.  The east end of Tiree has scarcely been touched in Cregeen’s papers.  This study of Caolas will be the first of its kind for the island, and it is hoped that it will help to redress more than one balance, as well as to encourage further studies of a similar type.

Caolas in the MacLean era: the 1674 rental

The Campbells did not gain an easy or immediate entry to Tiree after 1659.  Protracted resistance was offered by the MacLeans, and it was not until an agreement was reached in Moy in Mull in September 1674 that the Campbells acquired the rents of Tiree.  The rental for the Duart Estate in that year survives, and the ‘Rental for Tirie’ forms part of that (Argyll and Bute Council Archives, FH216-4).  Individual farms and their rentals are listed, and their ‘possessors’ are noted in most, though not all, instances. Lands held in wadset are also noted.  The ‘possessors’ include the MacLean tacksmen up to that point, where farms are held in tack, but in several instances farms are said to be ‘possesst by tenants’.  No such detail is given for Caolas, but it seems likely that it was among the farms ‘possesst by tenants’.  

The rental for ‘Keyles’, paid in money, amounted to £113.6.8, making it only one of four Tiree farms which paid over £100, the others being ‘Hodgh, possesst be Torloisk’ (£133.6.8), ‘Ballewilling, possesst be tenants’ (£118.6.8), and ‘Kennaway’ (£139.13.4).  In addition, ‘Keyles’ paid ‘Of victual 4 bolls’.  By way of comparison, the neighbouring farm of ‘Salim’ paid only £56.0.0, while ‘Kirkapoill, possesst be Lauchlan M’Learliche’ paid only £40.00.  The impression thus given is that Caolas was a productive and prosperous farm by the standards of the time.

Tenurial reorganisation in 1737 and the emergence of the Caolas township

In 1737, the estates held by the 2nd Duke of Argyll were subjected to a thorough and far-reaching reorganisation, masterminded by Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Lord President of the Court of Session, and principal manager of the Duke’s business affairs since 1716, as described by Eric R. Cregeen in his foundationally important paper, ‘The Tacksmen and their Successors: A Study of the Teunurial Reorganisation in Mull, Morvern and Tiree in the Early Eighteenth Century’.   This restructuring, as it would be called today, was aimed at increasing the economic viability of the estate by removing the traditional middlemen of the old social order, namely the ‘great tacksmen’, in favour of less grand and more industrious ‘lesser tacksmen’.    According to Cregeen (p. 51), Forbes of Culloden was able to report in 1737
‘that he had removed these [‘great’] tacksmen and put in their place some hundred tenants, large and small, to hold their farms directly from the Duke under written leases and on modern conditions’.

Prior to 1737, Tiree was (pp. 57-58, 90)

 ‘set in tack to Sir James Campbell of Ardkinglass, who was represented by three important sub-tacksmen, Campbell of Glenmacrie, Campbell of Barnacarry, and Alexander Maclachlan...Whether the tacksman resided or not (and only in Mull was residence customary) he sublet most of his tack-land.  The greater part of it, or even the whole, was rented to a fairly small number of gentlemen who were his kinsmen or friends…The remainder of the tack-lands was sub-let to commoners who had a share in a jointly-held farm…
 ‘Of the thirty-six farms in Tiree (some of which were normally combined), the Lord President had, it seems, successfully set twenty-five in tack in 1737.  His negotiations for the letting of the remaining eleven had proved abortive…and were simply let year by year to small tenants…’

The reorganisation of 1737 was, however, far from successful, as the 1740s brought severe challenges, including high rents and mortality of cattle.  Several ‘new’ tacksmen got into difficulties.  Among these was Hector MacLean of Gott and Vuill, who lost his tack, but his (presumed) relative and successor, Alexander MacLean of Gott and Vuill, seems to have recovered the holding and his predecessor’s status, to the extent that he was able to acquire a small tack in Caolas by 1776. 

Tiree rentals from the 1740s give us our first glimpse of ‘Kelis’ as part of the new order.  The rental of 1743 (Argyll & Bute Council Archives, Lochgilphead, FH 208) provides the following list of joint tenants in the township:

Malcolm McArthur
John McArthur
Donald McDonald & his mother
Hugh McArthur
John Roy McKinnon
Donald McKinnon
Widow McDonald
Neill McPhaden
John McDonald
Finlay McLean
Dougald McDonald
Lachlan McDonald
Malcolm McDonald jun
Neill McLean
Angus Lamont
Neill McDonald
Donald McPhaden
Donald Morrison
Donald McLean
Donald Lamont
The joint-tenancy farm of Caolas appears to have survived the turbulence of the 1740s.  Twenty-five years later, in 1768-69, its physical outlines, main divisions, and run-rig fields were recorded on a very fine map of Tiree produced by James Turnbull.
Run-rig farming
Run-rig, as a system of agriculture and a form of land tenure, was used throughout Scotland in the eighteenth century and earlier, and was also known in other countries under slightly different names.  It consisted of farming units which were divided into ‘infield’ (or ‘inbye’) and ‘outfield’ (or ‘outbye’). 
The infields were cultivated by means of rigs, raised strips (or beds – ‘lazy beds’, or feannagan in Gaelic), which would be turned by foot-plough like the famous cas-chrom (‘crooked leg’) of the Highlands and Islands, and possibly later by wooden ploughs drawn by humans or draft animals.  On each side of a rig were ‘runs’, or drains which removed excess water from the rigs.  In some contexts, the system is called ‘rig and furrow’.  The soil from the drain was laid on the rig, thus supplementing the height (and depth) of the rig.

In favourable sunlight, often in the evening, it is still fairly easy to identify the residual outlines of rigs and their runs, lying in parallel with one another.  On a map like James Turnbull’s splendid depiction of Tiree in 1768, the rigs are shown as parallel-line hatchings, set within distinctive fields.  The groups of rigs in different fields are commonly set in different directions from one another, quite probably depending on the nature of the field and the desired direction of water flow.  Some are aligned east-west, while others run north-south, and to and from other points of the compass.

The outfields consisted of pasture land, meadows and moss, with some sand-blow, on the outer edges of the infields, providing different types of grazing for cattle, though the distinction between outfield and infield was doubtless often blurred.  The outfields and grazings were not divided into rigs, though each tenant would be given an appropriate share of the grazing depending on his ‘souming’ (feeding for a particular number of cattle and other animals).  In Caolas, the outfields generally lay between the infields and the shore.  Again, these fields are clearly visible on Turnbull’s map (below) by means of darker shading, and also some ‘dotting’ or blocking to indicate rough terrain.  A significant proportion of the outbye has survived as the common grazing or sliabh of Caolas, in the Milton area below Dùn Mòr.

To ensure that each tenant was given a fair share of the different kinds of land in the rigs, a third of the rigs would be reassigned by lot to tenants every year, or all of the rigs every three years (a system known as ‘periodic run-rig’).  Although this might seem to be a sensible way to operate, it meant that there was little incentive for a tenant to develop his rigs, as they would be reassigned regularly.   The rigs themselves were inefficient, partly because of the runs, which occupied a considerable proportion of land which might otherwise be used for crop production.  Lack of fences also meant that animals were prone to wander on to cultivated strips, unless the herds (of which there were usually several in the township) were particularly vigiliant.  It was such inherent inefficiency, and accompanying low returns, which caused the Argyll Estates to consider other, more productive, forms of land tenure after 1760.   The Estate Factors in Tiree were generally very disparaging of the ‘promiscuous’ run-rig system and its abuses, especially sub-division. 

Caolas on James Turnbull's map

'Kelis' in James Turnbull's map 1768-9

James Turnbull’s map of 1768, which was itself part of a survey of the island’s productivity prior to possible tenurial reorganisation, provides not only an overview of the orientation of the Caolas rigs, but also a fine picture of the tenancies (farms).  Essentially, two tenancies (farms) occupied what would probably have been a single ‘tack’ prior to earlier estate reforms which removed the ‘great tacksmen’ within the pyramidical social structure.  What Turnbull calls ‘Kelis, three-quarters of it’, was a common (or joint) tenancy farm, in which tenants each held rigs by agreement with the Factor, with 154 Scots acres of infield, and 102 Scots acres of outfield.  This tenants’ farm lay directly north of the boundary of Àird Deas (i.e. the southern boundary of what is now the ‘Coll View’ holding) and extended as far as Urbhaig in the north and Salum and Ruaig in the west.  The tenants lived in the ‘baile’ (farmtoun or ‘toun’ or township) on the portion of the ‘Coll View’ holding directly below the ‘Croish’ croft, on the west side of the Milton road.  The main road into Caolas forms (roughly) the northern boundary of the ‘baile’. 

The tenants chose a splendid location for their township, which is clearly drawn on Turnbull’s map.  It was on a southward-facing slope, enjoying good sunshine and excellent natural drainage.  It drained southwards into the ‘Loch Fada’ (‘Long Loch’), which began roughly on the southern boundary of the ‘Coll View’ croft (with ‘Sea View’), and followed the route of the Milton road as far as the cattle-grid.  The tail of the ‘Loch Fada’ can still be seen as a boggy marsh to the immediate south-east of the cattle-grid.

Bright evening sunlight, shining over Croish, illumines the field, now part
 of the 'Coll View' holding, where the former township of Caolas once stood.
The other tenancy noted by Turnbull was ‘Kelis, one quarter’ (referred to in the 1776 list of Tiree inhabitants as the ‘South Quarter of Kelis’, or occasionally as the ‘East Quarter’ in other maps), with 55 acres of infield, and 38 acres of outfield.  This was, in effect, Àird Deas, with its own ‘baile’ which Turnbull calls ‘Kelis Mains’, perhaps indicating a higher status in earlier days, and possibly reflecting the more traditional nature of this farm.  It was a single-tenant farm, or a ‘tack’, then held by Alexander MacLean of Gott and Vuill (an area, ‘Bhaoill’, to the north of Loch a’ Riadhain, not to be confused with Vaul).  According to Eric Cregeen (‘Creation of the Crofting Townships’), MacLean, who resided on his Gott tack, was probably among those closest in style to the patriarchal tacksman of the old regime, though by now of significantly lower status than their predecessors. Sub-tenants (called ‘hynds’, i.e. farm labourers, in the 1776 list) on MacLean’s farm would have made their own arrangements with the tacksman with regard to payment in terms of rigs or shares of the crops.  The farm of Ruaig, by contrast, just over the western boundary of Caolas, was held in tack by Colin Campbell of Calve and Archibald Campbell of Treshnish, non-resident tacksmen of the Campbell ascendancy.  Ruaig was operated by sub-tenants, or ‘mailers’, as they were usually known.   Such single-tenant farms did not need to reassign rigs regularly (a system known as ‘fixed run-rig’ or ‘proprietorial run-rig’).

Map based on a tracing (1863) of Turnbull by James Fergusson,
with several mistranscriptions of place-names,
and the 'South Quarter' noted as the 'East Quarter'
Although tenants of various kinds usually lived in the ‘baile’, it is by no means unlikely that other little hamlets existed on the outer edges of the farms.  These would be occupied by cottars, who sometimes worked on the farms, and received shares of crops, but were occasionally weavers or boatmen, though few such occupations are noted in the 1776 list.  Cottars continued as a class into the new era of crofting, as did other aspects of the runrig system, in spite of its general unpopularity in the eyes of the Duke and his Factors. 

Townships, work and people

The township of the farm known as the ‘three-quarters of Caolas’ appears to have been a very substantial settlement.  On his 1768 map, Turnbull, whose eye for agricultural detail was remarkable, depicts a township of some 40 buildings, with four further buildings to the west near Croish.  The buildings of the main settlement would have consisted of thatched dwelling-houses and barns, as described by Eric Cregeen with reference to the standard pattern in Tiree (‘The Creation of the Crofting Townships’):

‘The townships consisted in 1768 of typically between ten and twenty families, living in close proximity in a group of thatched houses.  Their walls were composed of boulders outside and inside, with a packing of sand or earth between, and doors and windows were deeply recessed.  Bent grass (muran) from the machair was used to thatch the poorer houses, and straw for the tenants’.  At this date it is certain the floor would be of clay and that the hearth was in the centre of the living room and had no chimney.  The tenants’ houses would be somewhat bigger than those of the cottars, and would be distinguished by having barns nearby for threshing the corn and keeping implements, and stackyards, flimsily enclosed against straying animals, with stacks of barley and oats.  Barley was pulled, not cut by the sickle, and large mounds of earth gathered in the stackyards where the barley had been.  As cattle were kept out-of-doors, there would be no byre, but plenty of geese, ducks and hens would be around and in the houses.’

Close-up of the township of 'Kelis' in Turnbull's map
The list of its inhabitants in 1776 enumerates 16 tenant families in the main township of Caolas, together with 7 cottar families, who would usually undertake work for the tenants, and it is thus among the larger townships described by Cregeen.  If we assume that each tenant had a house and barn, that would account for 32 buildings, and, if we assume that each cottar family had a house and no barn, that would add another 7 buildings to the township. We thus reach an estimate of 39 buildings –  which brings us close to the 40 or so apparently depicted on the Turnbull map.

By contrast, ‘Caolas Mains’, the centre of the ‘South Quarter of Caolas’, was a fairly small settlement of only ten houses, according to Turnbull’s depiction.  The ‘Quarter’ was, of course, a tack, set in 1776 to MacLean of Gott, and it would require only a community of farm-workers to maintain it.  The 1776 list of the inhabitants of Caolas records three families of ‘hynds’ in the ‘South Quarter’ – those of Donald McKinnon (with his wife, Mary McLean, and five children, plus Mar(i)on McPhaden), Alexander McKinnon (with his wife, Effie McDonald, and possibly a son and grandson), and Dugall McPhaden (with his wife, Flory McNiell, and three children).  It also notes a sole cottar, Kathrine McDonald.  The distinction between a ‘hynd’ and a ‘cottar’ is not always clear-cut, but it may imply that the ‘cottar’ had a looser relationship to the farm than the ‘hynd’, who was committed to the maintenance of the farm.  Again, the evidence given by Turnbull is broadly consistent with that of the 1776 list.   A reasonable estimate for ‘Caolas Mains’ on the basis of the list might include four or five dwelling-houses, plus one for the tacksman (if he was actually resident there at any time, given that he had other farms in Tiree), and perhaps three or four barns for implements and the threshing of corn.

Close-up of the township of 'Kelis Mains' in Turnbull's map

In his general description of Tiree townships (above), Eric Cregeen offers a neat picture of the agricultural concerns of the tenants of the main Caolas township.  The Argyll Estate Instructions (AEI, for short) provide further insights into their labours.  In 1785-86 (AEI, p. 6), it is reported by Donald Campbell, Factor, that ‘the tenants of Salum & Kelis have built 40 roods of stone dyke; the tenants of Kelis & Archd Campbell Ardess [the ‘South Quarter’ of Caolas] have built 40 roods of dyke faced with stone…’  The dykes in question would have been the march dykes between the farms, and their building (and repair) may have been incorporated in the tenants’ agreements as ‘servitudes’.  In the later crofting era, the building of such dykes was known in Gaelic as ‘mòrlannachd’, or ‘service of labour’ to the estate (the Gaelic word coming from English ‘bordland’, the land that supplied food for the lord’s ‘bord’ or ‘table’).  ‘Archd Campbell Ardess’ seems to have been Archibald Campbell of Fracadale, one of the Estate’s bigger tacksmen in Tiree, who evidently had an interest in Àird Deas in those years, though it is not yet clear why or how this interest developed.

Aird Deas and Mullach nan Geall, looking east from Dun Mor.
'Kelis Mains' would have been on the slope below the white house.

In August 1787, the Factor reports (AEI, p. 12) that he ‘gave [i.e. granted] an order to John MacArthur and Donald MacDonald &ca, tenants in Kelis, for 21 couples with rubs and kabbers, 6 car-poles and 4 ploughs.’  This indicates considerable activity in the main township.  Houses are evidently being reroofed with couples, ‘rubs’, i.e. ribs to go across the couples to carry the sloping roof, and ‘kabbers’, from Gaelic ‘cabar’, meaning, among other things, a large piece of wood, but in this case roof-timber(s). In addition, ‘car-poles’, used as ‘skids’ for horse-drawn ‘cars’ which sat on top, are required, and, this, together with the request for ploughs, suggests that agricultural activity is likewise considerable, as if there has been some new surge of initiative or enterprise.  This evidently continued, as, on 24 June 1789, the Duke supplied from his woods in Lochsunart to John McLean, John McDonald, and Charles McPhaden in ‘Kelis’ no less than 8 car-poles, 20 couples, 20 pantrees (synonymous with ‘rubs’), 400 kebbers (sic), and 3 ploughs (AEI, p. 17).

The picture of relative, and increasing, prosperity thus given is borne out by the average value of items sold by the tenants of Caolas in the two years before November 1794 (AEI, p. 37).  These in summary are:

30 tons of kelp at £3.15 per ton…..£112.10.0

24 bolls barley at 17/- per boll……£  20.08.0

20 head of cattle at £1.10……….....£  26.00.0


The rent for the farm (presumably the ‘three-quarters’ of Caolas) was £66.  The lease of the tack (presumably that of the ‘South Quarter’) was due to expire in 1800.

The ‘Gross Sales’ from Caolas for 1792-94 exceeded those of all other farms in Tiree, including that owned by the Factor.  Most of the revenue came from the sale of kelp, which was substantially higher for Caolas than for any of the other island farms, and would be of growing significance to the entire island of Tiree in the years ahead.  We should note, therefore, that there was already (before the arrival of crofting) something of a kelping ‘boom’ for the Caolas tenants, and that they were also doing relatively well with their sales of cattle.  They must have faced the new century with some degree of optimism. 

In the next section, we will consider the proposals that had been mooted for improving the productivity of Caolas in the preceding twenty years, and their bearing on the creation of crofting.

Auditing the township: Caolas in 1776

The succession of John, the 5th Duke of Argyll, in 1770 ushered in a new era of evaluation and assessment for the estate as a whole.  In Tiree, Duke John’s more obviously interventionist and broadly constructive policy of reform is evident in the creation of the village of Scarinish in 1773, incorporating a granary and a church.  Such projects increased the island’s links with the mainland, with the importing of Easdale slates, for example, by Tiree boatmen.  Attempts were made to establish a fishing community at Scarinish over the next decade, and the village grew rapidly, with a combination of villagers who held small plots of land, cottars and fishermen.  By 1791 a pier had been built there.  The development of kelping also played a significant part in initiating transport by sea to and from the island, mainly for the conveyance of kelp.

In tenurial matters, reform was also very much on the agenda.  In particular, a strategy sometimes called ‘the four mail-land policy’ was introduced.  A ‘mail-land’ was a unit for rent (màl, in Gaelic, corresponding to ‘mail’), offering, as Cregeen observes, three ‘soums’, that is, sufficient pasture for three cows or horses or their equivalent in sheep.  The island, Cregeen deduces, was probably divided formerly into ‘twenty large farms, each composed of 48 mail-lands or one “tirling” [from Gaelic ‘tìr-unga’, ‘ounce-land’] (‘Creation of Crofting Townships’).  Caolas, in total and at an earlier stage, would thus have been a farm of 48 mail-lands.  The creation of the tack of the ‘South Quarter of Caolas’ would have meant that the land available to the common tenants of the remaining three quarters would have been 36 mail-lands.  The general policy introduced by Duke John and his advisers was that no tenant should have less than four mail-lands in his holding, though this proved difficult to achieve in practice.

With reorganisation in mind, the island was ‘audited’ to enumerate those tenants with the requisite amount of stock to occupy four mail-lands.  This was the reason for compiling the list of the inhabitants of Tiree in 1776, and also a further list of the inhabitants of the Argyll Estate in 1779 (which we will consider in the next section).  Notes added to the names of tenants and their families indicated how much stock they had, and the number of mail-lands which they should be given.  Sometimes further, equally fascinating, comments are offered on their suitability as individuals and their service in the army, usually in Fencible Regiments, though no such comments are made in the case of Caolas tenants.

Eleven tenants of Caolas who had stock, and who were therefore worthy of consideration as tenants within the proposed reorganistion, appear on the 1776 list, with enumeration of their family members (not given here):


John McLean Senr. – ‘can occupy 4 maile land, he has 5 cows & 4 horses’

John McLean – ‘can occupy 4 maile land, he has 5 cows & 5 horses’

Donald McDonald – ‘can occupy 3 maile land, he has 4 cows & 4 horses’

Donald McPhaden – ‘can occupy 4 maile land, he has 5 cows & 5 horses’

John McArthur – ‘can occupy 4 maile land, he has 6 cows & 5 horses’

Donald McDonald – ‘can occupy 3 maile land, [he has] 4 cows & 3 horses’

James McDonald – ‘can occupy 4 maile land, he has 4 cows & 5 horses’

John McKinnon – ‘can occupy 2 maile land, he has 2 cows & 3 horses’

John McCannell – ‘can occupy 3 maile land, he has 4 cows & 3 horses’

Duncan McCannell – a ‘Do.’

John McKinnon – ‘can occupy 3 maile land’


Five tenants were listed as ‘having no stock’:


John McDonald [the present writer’s great-great-great grandfather]

Neil McLean

John McPhaile

Donald McDonald

Charles McDonald


The proposed allocation of land to the stock-holding tenants thus comes to 37 mail-lands, only one mail-land more than the 36 available within the ‘three quarters of Caolas’.  As can be seen from the list, some adjustments below the four mail-land average were required, in order to fit all stock-holders into the available land.  When, and if, the proposed reorganisaction was put into effect, this meant that the tenants without stock faced the prospect of having little or no land in Caolas. 

The reorganisation, however, did not proceed, as the Factor had considerable difficulty in finding enough tenants throughout the island with sufficient stock to occupy four mail-lands, and the matter was left in abeyance until the decade before crofts were allocated in the early 1800s.  Nevertheless, the four mail-land proposal was to some extent a foreshadowing of the Caolas crofting community which would emerge thirty years later, and it indicated that problems lay ahead.  In the crofting reallocation, the descendants of the stockless John MacDonald, the present writer’s great-great-great grandfather, for example, were given no more than a small patch of land on the southern edge of the ‘South Quarter of Caolas’, with serious consequences when the 1846 potato famine arrived.   The MacLeans at the top of the list of stock-holders, by contrast, received the best land in Caolas, right at the centre of the new crofting community, on both sides of the present-day main road into the township.

Tenant mobility in 1779 and the family of John MacLean, Poet

The 1779 list of inhabitants of Tiree and its farms forms part of a wider census of the Argyll Estate in that year.  It is not as detailed as that of 1776, and does not note the stock-holding status of tenants.  It does, however, differentiate between ‘tenants’ and ‘cottars’, and to that extent it provides a fascinating glimpse of the gains and losses of status among some of those on the Caolas farms within the three years since the previous list was made.  It also records several new families of tenants.

In the ‘South Quarter of Caolas’, held in tack at that time by MacLean of Gott, three families previously classified as ‘hynds’ are listed as ‘tenants’, namely those of Donald MacKinnon, Dugall/Donald MacPhaden, and Alexander MacKinnon.  On other similar tacks, like Ruaig, for example, it was possible for sub-tenants to hold significant numbers of stock on their own behalf.  Presumably it was also possible for these tenants to achieve an ‘elevation’ in their status, or at least an acknowledgement that they were, in fact, the equivalent of tenants in all but name.  When crofting arrived in 1804, tenants in Àird Deas, the ‘South Quarter’, are noted among those who chalked out their crofts.  Likewise, the family of Neil MacDonald, listed as a cottar and ‘boatman’ in 1776, has been elevated to tenant status by 1779.  On the other hand, the family of Charles MacDonald, noted as having no stock in 1776, is classified as ‘cottars’.  As suggested earlier, tenants with no stock were in potential danger of ‘demotion’ when new tenurial arrangements were made.

Among the new tenants who seem to have ‘arrived’ since 1776 is Charles MacPhaden, son of Donald MacPhaden, who was listed as holding sufficient stock for four mail-lands in 1776, and continues as a tenant in 1779.  This indicates that room could be made for younger family members, though it might have been through sub-division of existing holdings.  A tenant who is apparently wholly new to the Caolas ‘three quarters’ is listed too, namely Malcolm MacUalraig (‘MacUolrie’ in the available transcription), with his wife Katharine, a grown-up son and daughter, and a younger child.  Families by the name of MacUalraig were usually found at the west end of the island, and Malcolm is likely to be an ‘incomer’.

Another apparently new tenant family noted in 1779 is that of Allan MacLean (‘McLean’ in the transcription), married to Margaret MacPhaden, with their sons, Donald (10), John (5) and Charles (1).  John is none other than ‘Iain mac Ailein’, later to become well known as ‘Bàrd Thighearna Cholla’ (‘Poet to the Laird of Coll’), and, from 1819, living in Nova Scotia.  Allan MacLean is listed immediately after the family of John MacLean, one of the principal stockholders in Caolas in the 1776 list, and a direct ancestor of the present writer’s great-great-grandmother, Annabel MacLean.  It is possible that kinship among the MacLeans is responsible for the arrival of the poet’s family.   His father Allan was born at Hough, at the west end of Tiree, and worked in Coll as a distiller before returning to Tiree, and settling in Caolas. 

If we can trust the ages ascribed in the 1779 list (and that is dubious), this means that John MacLean, poet, was evidently born outwith Caolas (possibly in Coll), and that his first home in Caolas, Tiree, was in the old township, already discussed, and not at Urbhaig in the north of Caolas.  It would seem likely that it was after the creation of crofts in 1804 that the poet’s family moved to ‘Cnoc Mhic Dhùghaill’ (‘MacDougall’s Hill’) in the Urbhaig area, with which they were later correctly associated, quite probably as cottars.  The young poet therefore experienced several changes of home, and lived through what was a time of major tenural reorganisation. 

Population growth too was more than evident, in Caolas as elsewhere in Tiree at this time, with the Caolas population rising from 100 in 1768 to 196 in 1792.  In such circumstances, further tenurial change was inevitable, and the community was to experience some very far-reaching reconfiguration with the creation of crofts from 1804.   Traditional society, relatively well maintained until about 1800, was about to face considerable upheaval in the nineteenth century.

The creation of the Caolas crofts

Between 1792 and 1803, Duke John tried ‘with great pertinacity’ (‘Creation of Crofting Townships’) to implement his plan to reorganise land tenure in Tiree, in accordance with his earlier idea to assign four mail-lands to tenants who could provide sufficient stock.  As Cregeen notes,  ‘The duke’s revived interest in improvement owed something to his urgent need of revenue and his awareness that the rents on his estate had fallen behind those of other Highland proprietors and were not keeping pace with the rising prices of grain and cattle.’  He was also aware of the value of kelp in increasing rentals, but, initially, he was disinclined to rely heavily on its potential. 

The Duke’s Chamberlain in Tiree, Donald Campbell, was suitably instructed.  His proposals were, however, far from easy to implement, and met with considerable opposition from numerous tenants at the west end of the island, who did not want holdings of four mail-lands, which they considered too large.  Others were also unwilling to relinquish run-rig tenure.  At the same time, the growing population of the island created something of a crisis, and the need for smaller units became overwhelmingly obvious.  The Passenger Vessels Act of 1803 added further pressure by making it difficult to promote emigration.  Tensions increased markedly at the west end of the island, when Donald Campbell, who was generally liked by the Tiree tenants, was succeeded by Malcolm McLaurin(e), who was heartily disliked by many tenants, and severely rebuked by the Duke (AEI, p. 95).  MacLaurin wanted to achieve the same status as his predecessor, apparently by setting his sights on several tacks, including Balephuil, to accommodate his own stock.

Although tenurial reorganisation had been planned for thirty years or more, crofting thus came into existence in Tiree as a response to social and economic emergency, and in the midst of robust debate and disagreement.  By 1803, Duke John was compelled to abandon his commitment to the allocation of four mail-land holdings, and to accept that smaller divisions of land were essential.  MacLaurin was instructed to implement this new policy, and a surveyor, George Langlands, came to the island. Tensions did not diminish, nevertheless.  Some potential crofting tenants now regarded ther ‘lots’ as too small, rather than too large, and at the west end of the island friction was particularly marked.

At the east end of Tiree, however, tenants adopted a much less confrontational stance, and chalked out their own holdings.  This earned the approval, and even the praise, of Malcolm McLaurin(e), who reported in November 1804 (AEI, p. 94):

‘The factor under this article begs leave to inform your Grace, that the tenants of Colis, Ardess and Salum have chalked out divisions of their farms & would be perfectly satisfied with them if it were agreeable.  The factor view’d them, & was much surprised to observe the correctness & accuracy with which they have done it…The other farms of Ruaig, Vaul & Kirkapole, in that end of the island, mean to follow their example, & the factor could not discourage them till your Grace’s pleasure is known.’

Eric Cregeen comments (‘Creation of Crofting Townships’):

‘These divisions, which the tenants themselves proposed, were approved by the duke.  It is noticeable that McLaurine’s attitude to the tenants of the east end of the island was much more tolerant than to those of the south-west end, with whom he was more closely involved as a neighbour.’

It is doubtful if the physical distance between McLaurin(e) and the east end of Tiree had much, if anything, to do with his ‘attitude’.  What seems much more likely is that he was impressed by constructive co-operation, and by tenants who were evidently prepared to plan their own futures, and to adopt a strategy which they themselves wanted, rather than risk having an alternative (and potentially unhappy) ‘solution’ forced upon them by the Argyll Estate or its Factor or surveyor.

In the same report of November 1804, McLaurin(e) provides further evidence that the tenants of Tiree’s east end were a fairly pragmatic and sensible lot, who knew when it was wise to relinquish traditional practices (AEI, p. 95):

‘The factor has frequently had occasion to observe the bad effects of the small boats kept for the purpose of the ferry betwixt Tyree and Coll, in which neither cows nor horses can be ferryed without throwing them down and tying them on passage, a practice that often produces serious effects, and at times the death of those animals.  The ferryman on the Coll side will not alter the custom that was there when he got the tack, as it would subject him to the expence of keeping a proper large boat, but on the Tyree side there is no such restriction and relief should certainly be derived from this evil, which the factor begs to represent to your Grace.’ 

The Factor’s report for 1804 contains further grounds for believing that the Caolas tenants had a certain independence of mind.   The mills in Tiree had been ‘set for a year to Archd. Haggart, miln-wright and miller’.   Among the measures McLaurin(e) recommended to prevent ‘defalcation’ was ‘destroying an old miln in the farm of Coelis, fitted up many years ago upon the horizontal construction by the tenants, and very hurtful to themselves by the waste of grain, and of little value of itself’ (AEI, p. 90).  In fact, when crofting was established in Caolas, a mill on the ‘horizontal construction’ (with a horizontal paddle-wheel, powered by a lade, turning the mill-stones) was operated in the cottar community of Milton, which derived its name from the mill. 

McLaurin(e) also noted that the tenants of the east end of Tiree were in the habit of going to the Ross of Mull, rather than Coll, for their peats, and wanted them to use the peatlands of Coll, so as not to waste time that might be better devoted to harvesting kelp.  This recommendation, however, was refused by the Duke, who thought that ‘The tenants in the east end of Tyree have probably some good reason for going to Ross in Mull for their peats, in preference to my moss in Coll.  The quality of the peat may be better, and the harbour at Ross is a very fine one.  They must therefore be left to the freedom of their own will as formerly in that matter’ (AEI, pp. 83-84, 88).

Reshaping the township

The logical manner in which the Caolas crofts were laid out is very striking, even in the present day, and reflects very creditably on the former run-rig tenants who undertook the measuring and chalking exercise.  This surely bears witness to a good, constructive spirit among the tenants, as well as to the role of capable leaders, able to take the township into the new era. The processes by which the land was allocated, and how the allocations were agreed, are, however, now lost to us.  Hard decisions had to be made and implemented, with regard to who was given land for a croft, and the kind and quality of land which each crofter received.  Some former township residents received no land at all, and became cottars, while others became crofters with a status not much higher than that of cottars.

Most of the crofts run parallel to the line of the main road into Caolas, and can be seen without difficulty when descending from Croish to Bealach na Gaoithe (‘The Windy Cart-track’), just above the site of the old run-rig township, which occupied the field immediately to the south, known to the present writer’s family as ‘Am Bruthach’ (‘The Brae’).  With this east-west orientation, most of the crofts had their own stretches of shoreline on Gunna Sound.  Those crofts which did not have access to seaware made arrangements to share the shoreline. 

The best land lay on what was roughly the centre-line of the new crofting community, and was occupied by those MacLean families who were recorded in 1776 as having sufficient stock for the proposed four mail-lands.  The descendants of John MacLean (second on the above list), the two brothers John and Hector, held crofts on each side of the main road – John in the ‘Caolis House’ croft, and Hector in what is now the ‘Coll View’ croft, which was formally assigned to the present writer’s family of MacDonalds in 1865.  MacFadyens (MacPhadens), likewise noted as stock-holders in 1776, held the ‘Croish’ croft, and also that to the immediate west of the road to Milton, where the old township was located.  The MacLeans and the MacFadyens were probably the ‘top dogs’ in the new crofting community of Caolas.  To the south of the centre-line of the new community lay crofts held by MacDonalds (‘Sea View’) and MacArthurs (‘Harbour’).  To the north lay further MacDonald and MacLean holdings.  More detailed research is needed to determine all the first allocations precisely, but it seems more than apparent that stock-holding was the key to land tenure within the new dispensation.

The location of 'Tobhtachan Mhurchaidh'

Those former township tenants who were recorded in 1776 as having no stock fared less well.  The present writer’s ancestors – the family of John MacDonald – moved to a very small holding, shared with others, on the boundary between Àird Deas and Milton, and immediately to the west of Port Bàn, known in family tradition as ‘Tobhtachan Mhurchaidh’ (‘Murdoch’s Ruined Walls’).  It consisted of barely an acre of land, with three houses, presumably thatched, on a north-south axis in the centre, and a fourth to the north on an east-west axis.  Although technically described as ‘crofters’, the MacDonalds were hardly above the status of cottars, and seem to have eked out a precarious existence mainly as fishermen until the time of the potato famine in 1846, when the main family, consisting of Donald MacDonald and his second wife Mary (from Coll) decided to emigrate with six of their children.  Taking advantage of the Marquis of Lorne’s scheme, ‘Donald MacDonald Tenant’, with eight family members, received £8.00 for the passage, and ‘pulled down House’, the demolition probably being a condition of the payment.  He appears as no. 12 on the list of payments made ‘To Emigrants from Tyree to Canada 9 June 1846’ (An Iodhlann, 1998.151.11).

The venture almost ended in disaster.  Donald and Mary contracted a fatal illness on board ship, and died soon after their arrival in Canada.  Mercifully, their children survived, probably because of the kindness of relatives.   It is interesting that the 1846 list of payments notes (no. 3) another Donald MacDonald, a cottar in ‘Ardess’, ‘who lived in Brors House’, and was given £4, the number of his family being three.  Could he have been a relative of ‘Donald MacDonald Tenant’?

The ruins of 'Tobhtachan Mhurchaidh', looking north-west, with 'Coll
View' on the skyline to the right

Before emigrating, Donald and Mary took the decision to leave behind in Caolas two other children, by Donald’s first marriage to Annabel MacLean, daughter of Hector MacLean, one of the main Caolas crofters noted above.  Annabel had died very shortly after the birth of the present writer’s great-grandfather, Hector MacDonald, in 1835.  He and his sister Christina were brought up respectively by MacLean and MacDonald relatives, and may have been ‘fostered out’ before Donald and Mary decided to emigrate.  It was as a result of this arrangement that Hector inherited the holding of Hector MacLean, which became the ‘Coll View’ croft, and remains in the family to the present.

It also appears that those who arrived in the Caolas township in 1779, and might have been seen even thirty years later as ‘late arrivals’, were unable to acquire land in the new township, and became cottars.  This is possibly why the family of John MacLean, Poet to the Laird of Coll, were moved to Urbhaig, on the northern edge of the new township.  John’s older brother, Donald, a cooper to trade, was later able to move to a croft in Balephuil, at the extreme west of Tiree.

The new crofting township of Caolas was fringed with cottars’ houses and settlements, most notably that of Milton on its southern edge.  Milton became largely a community of cottars, who, though mainly fishermen, had a range of practical skills, as millers, boatbuilders, and seamen of note.  Other cottars on the eastern and northern edges of the community round Gunna Sound included blacksmiths, ferrymen (to and from Coll), and tailors.  The Milton cottars lived on the southern limit what became the common grazing of the main ‘Upper Caolas’ township, and what was previously part of the ‘outbye’ of the former run-rig community.

In Àird Deas, the new arrangements, which permitted the emergence of several crofts, seem to have allowed a significant portion of the ‘South Quarter of Caolas’ to remain in tack.  ‘Ardess, part of Kiels’ was reset in tack in 1803 for an annual rent of £45 for nineteen years,  ‘the last being £3 str. under the offer of the tenants’ (AEI, pp. 77-78).  This would imply that it would not have been ‘put under crofts’ until the expiry of the lease in 1822.   It may still have been held by the MacLeans of Gott at this stage, but there were other enthusiastic bidders within the period of the lease; for example, in 1806 Lachlan MacPhaden and other tenants offered £60 annually for the tack, as recorded in the Estate’s Memorial Books.  (My thanks to Flo Straker for this reference.) This may suggest some degree of proprietorial change or uncertainty.  It was from Gott that a new family was introduced to Caolas, namely the MacCallums, who became the tenants of the croft known as ‘Port Bàn’, which was evidently created when the lease of the Àird Deas tack finally expired.   

The impression given of Àird Deas in the available sources in the early 1800s is of a rather untidy area of land, with a large tenant (and his sub-tenants) holding a tack, crofting tenants, cottars, and various other ‘occupiers’, such as the low-status MacDonald ‘crofters’ at ‘Tobhtachan Mhurchaidh’.   The shoreward area between Port Bàn and what is now Milton seems to have afforded temporary shelter to various families – cottars and crofters with little or no stock – who later moved elsewhere within Caolas, migrated to other townships in Tiree, or emigrated about 1846 or later.

Some holders of land in Caolas were also ‘dispossessed’ in this period.  The Instructions for 1803 (AEI, p. 75) include the following enigmatic reference:

‘10th. As the change-keeper at Scarinish [Archibald Campbell – DEM] is to be dispossessd [sic – DEM] of that part which he holds of the farm of Kiels [Kelis], he must get in addition to his present possession at Scarinish the small crofts situated between it & the road to Gott, and the possessors of these crofts to be accommodated with other crofts upon Gott.’

Caolas as shown in the O.S. First edition 1885

Logistics and support

Duke John was well aware that the creation of the Tiree crofts would be a massive logistical exercise, and he did not abandon his tenants to their own devices. In his Instructions to his Chamberlain in October, 1803, he wrote (AEI, p. 73):

‘The scheme of bringing the farms to 4 mail lands each must be given up in so far as not already executed effectually, and different farms must be broke down into small crofts to accommodate the people who are in want of possessions.  Such as were formerly tenants to have from 6 to 10 arable acres, and those who were only cottars and tradesmen to have four arable acres, and both to have what accommodation can be given in the article of summer grass.  As these people will have much to do in the article of building houses & division fences at the beginning, I agree to allow the first year free of rent to such as shall deserve it by building houses, and other exertions in that period.  I must also be at some expence in quarrying stones for these buildings – perhaps my furnishing  tools and powder for blasting may be sufficient – but do not let the work stand for want of further exertion on my part if it should be necessary.’

Incentives in the form of prizes were offered for ploughing with horses, crofters were shown by the factor how to sow ‘turnips, carrots, grass seeds, and planting winter cabbages’, craftsmen of various kinds arrived, and dykers were brought in to demonstrate and facilitate the building of march dykes in a manner more durable than the traditional style.

How were the Duke’s aspirations fulfilled in Caolas?  We have, as yet, no precise details, but it would seem that Caolas was divided into crofts of very different sizes, ranging from about 20 to 30 acres on the best land of ‘Upper Caolas’, to little more than one acre, in the case of ‘Tobhtachan Mhurchaidh’.  Occupying these crofts would have meant, initially, building march dykes, before dismantling each relevant house and barn in the old township, and then carting the stone to the site of the new house, within the boundaries of the new croft.  This must have taken considerably longer than one year, and would have required a high degree of co-operation and understanding between tenants.  There is, so far, no evidence to indicate whether the Caolas tenants received any ‘rent relief’ for their efforts in building their boundary dykes and new houses.

The ‘fermtoun’ itself was razed, leaving a fine green field on a sunward slope (‘Am Bruthach’), with only some residual boulders lying below the ground, to bend or break the ploughshares of later crofters.   The homes of individual crofters lay within the boundaries of their own crofts, separated by a considerable distance from one another, and not huddled together in a communal ‘village’.  

The new houses were built in traditional Tiree style, and seldom of stone and lime, as the Duke had expected.  The present writer’s family – who succeeded to Hector MacLean’s holding –  recollected that, before the building of ‘Coll View’ in 1891, they lived in a felt-roofed cottage (probably originally thatched) behind ‘Coll View’.  The cottage was built with double walls, packed with earth, and, when it was demolished, the rubble was used to infill and reclaim a sloping area of ground which later became a stackyard.  Most croft houses in Caolas would have followed much the same style, with thick walls, thatch, and later felt roofs.  For the MacLeans, who built the cottage, the effort of hauling the stones from the old township would not have been anything like as demanding as it would have been for those whose new crofts lay at some distance from the earlier ‘village’. 

The building of larger stone and lime houses, which are now such an obvious feature of the Caolas township, was in all likelihood not initiated until the 1880s, and quite probably after the passing of the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act in 1886, when crofters received security of tenure.  These were modelled on Lowland farm-houses, and followed a standard design (presumably with some initial guidance from knowledgeable masons?), with two storeys, and three upper-storey storm windows – two at the front, facing Gunna Sound, and one at the back, defying the prevailing winds from the west and south-west.  The process of building such houses continued well beyond the 1880s, with the survival of only a handful of felt-roofed houses.  Excellent examples, still in use, are still preserved in Milton and Port Bàn.   Thatched houses had all but disappeared by the present writer’s time, the last in Caolas being ‘Taigh nan Suacan’ in Milton, technically a squatter’s house on common grazing, and now incorporated into a modern holiday-home.

The transition from a run-rig township to a crofting community transformed the appearance of Caolas, not only in the building of new marches, dykes and houses, but also in matters of land reclamation.   The Loch Fada was drained to allow the construction of an ùtraid (‘out-road’) to the ‘out-run’ or common grazing in Milton.  This required the digging of deep ditches on each side of the road, with a drainage system for the surrounding wetlands, which even now remain susceptible to flooding.   

The tenants of the old run-rig township had become, in effect, ‘mini-tacksmen’, crofters holding their own portions of land, and paying rent directly to the Factor and the Estate.  Today, hardly anyone remembers that it was ever any different.  Even so, traces of the old run-rig ‘system’ remained, and can be seen to the present.  ‘Bealach na Gaoithe’ (‘The Windy Cart-track’) above the old township, and now part of the main road, was almost certainly the main route from that township to the shore known as ‘Am Port Ruadh’ (‘The Red Harbour’).   The common grazing in Milton, where the animals of successive generations of crofters have grazed, was formerly part of the outbye of the run-rig era.  Cottars continued as a distinctive ‘class’ too, often as craftsmen, tradesmen and fishermen, and some gave the crofter (on whose land their cottage stood) several days of labour, in exchange for the right to a share of  potatoes, in a manner rather similar to the pre-crofting arrangement they would have had with a single tenant on a tack.  And, from time to time, the present writer and his father would dig a lazy-bed or two to nurture an early crop of potatoes, with considerable awareness that these feannagan, as they were known in Gaelic, belonged to the era before crofting had been invented.

An aerial view of Caolas, Tiree, as it is today, looking from Milton (south) to Urbhaig (north).  Aird Deas is off the picture
on the middle right.  The Milton road can be seen clearly, with 'Coll View' on the right of its junction with the main
 road.  The field where the old township stood is on the immediate left of that junction.


Bennett, Margaret (ed.), ‘Recollections of an Argyllshire Drover’ and other West Highland Chronicles; Eric R. Cregeen. John Donald Publishers, Edinburgh, 2004.

Cregeen, Eric R., Argyll Estate Instructions: Mull, Morvern, Tiree 1771-1805.  T. and A. Constable for the Scottish History Society, Edinburgh, 1964.

Cregeen, Eric R. (ed.), Inhabitants of the Argyll Estate, 1779.  J. Skinner & Co., Edinbugh, 1963. Available on-line.

Cregeen, Eric R., ‘The Creation of the Crofting Townships in Tiree’.  Typescript in writer’s possession.

Cregeen, Eric R., ‘The Tacksmen and their Successors; A Study of Tenurial Reorganisation in Mull, Morvern and Tiree in the Early Eighteenth Century’, in Bennett (ed.), pp. 50-107.

List of Inhabitants in the Island of Tiry and Amount of their Particular Ages in 1776, transcribed by Keith Dash.  Available on-line.

Memorial Books of the Argyll Estates.  Courtesy of Flo Straker.

Payments made to Emigrants from Tyree to Canada 9 June 1846. An Iodhlann, 1998.151.11.  Available on-line.

1674 Rental of Maclean of Duart Estates in Mull, Coll, Jura, Morvern & Tiree. Argyll & Bute Council Archives, Lochgilphead. FH216-4.  Available on-line.

Tiree Rental of 1743. Argyll & Bute Council Archives, Lochgilphead, FH 208.  Available on-line.
Turnbull, James, Map of Tiree, 1768-69.  Courtesy of An Iodhlann, Tiree.


This overview is part of a work in progress, and will be corrected, updated and expanded as research proceeds, and more information comes to hand.