Friday, 20 June 2014

Nineteenth-century studies: Tiree and the Land Struggle in 1886


Donald E. Meek


‘The Land Struggle’ or ‘The Land Agitation’ or ‘The Land War’ – this dimension of Highland and Hebridean history, principally in its nineteenth-century form (covering the period from 1870 to 1890), is known by three rather similar names.  At first sight, these labels seem interchangeable, but they are, of course, different in the emphasis conveyed by each of the nouns, ‘struggle’, ‘agitation’ and ‘war’.   If you put all three together, you will have a fair idea of the main components in this land-related protest.   ‘Protest’ it was, but in some places it was more of a struggle against high rents and trying to pay them; in other places, it contained a strong element of agitation, that is, stirring the people to take action; and in other places, such as Braes in Skye, there was a marked element of fighting, when police and soldiers clashed with the women of the area at the celebrated Battle of the Braes in 1882.   It would, however, be safe to say that Braes had its share of ‘struggle’ and ‘agitation’ too.  So it’s a question of emphasis, not only within each label, but also within each area, depending on the land-related issues that were most pressing.  In some areas, the issue was principally high rents, in others it was enclosure or removal of common grazing, and in others again it was lack of land for cottars, with crofters and their rent problems as a secondary matter.  In certain areas, of course, you could have combinations of all of these issues, with numerous local grievances, personal and corporate, thrown in for good measure.


Phases and stages in the land agitation

It is important to distinguish phases and stages too, not least because some of these go well beyond the nineteenth century.  With simplicity and clarity in mind, they can be summarised as follows:

(1)   1870s-1880s: creation of a ‘movement’, the laying out of concerns, propagandising, with some outbursts of action, as in Bernera, Lewis, in 1874.

(2)   1880-1886: strong articulation of protest, in the form of agitation and fighting with fiscal authorities, most notably in Skye, followed by the Napier Commission (1883) and its Report (1884), and then the passing of the Crofters (Holdings) Scotland Act (1886).

(3)   1886-1890: implementation of the Crofters’ Act and its recommendations, notably the creation of a Crofters’ Commission to tackle the question of high rents, and to reduce these as appropriate.  In this period too, there was an opportunity to assess the value of the Crofters’ Act, and to note its shortcomings as well as its strengths.  This was very important in Tiree and Lewis, because of the land-hunger among cottars which the Act did not address.  This was more than evident at the west end of Tiree, as we shall see.  The question of high rents appears to have been more acute at the east end than the west, where the issue was principally, though not solely, lack of land. 

(4)   1890-1900: the question of the deer forests and how to tackle land issues relating to these.  The ‘failures’ of the Congested Districts’ Board, which was tasked with creating new holdings, came under scrutiny.

(5)   1900-1930: continuing demand for land, following the deficiencies of the 1886 Act, and the ‘promise’ of land for soldiers, who had returned from the First World War.  In fact, the Tiree demands appeared before the First World War. The ‘promise’ made to soldiers galvanised sentiment, and took ‘the land question’ in the Highlands well into the twentieth century.   Bodies such as the Department of Agriculture were involved in this phase, when tacks and farms were bought by the Department and broken up to provide holdings.  This process again links Tiree and Lewis, and also parts of the Highland mainland such as Glenelg.

(6)   1930-39: difficulties with the payment of rent and the repayment of loans from the Department of Agriculture.

The land struggle in Tiree belongs to stages (3) and (5), with an element of (6).  This chapter is concerned with events during stage (3).  The active phase of the struggle occurred mainly from 1886 onwards, but the pot of ‘rebellion’, so to speak, had been simmering long before that date, and was on the boil after 1880.


Greenhill Farm, which was at the centre of the Tiree 'rebellion' of 1886, is immediately to the east of Kilkenneth.

Defining terms

The terms for the land agitation are not the only ones that cause trouble.  Some who read this chapter may already be uncertain about the meanings of terms such as ‘farmer’, ‘crofter’ and ‘cottar’, and it may be helpful to define these at this stage, as several will appear regularly in the course of our consideration of Tiree’s ‘rebellion’.

Tacksmen  hold a ‘tack’ or farm on lease from the landlord, the Duke of Argyll, on conditions which stipulate a period and an annual rent.  They are, in effect, large farmers, sometimes holding several hundred acres.

Crofters  hold a piece of land called a ‘croft’ or (in the Outer Hebrides’ a ‘lot’ on annual rent from a landlord.  The ‘system’ was created by landowners in the early nineteenth century in order to retain a workforce for kelp harvesting and to provide a ‘slimmed-down’ form of landholding, without tacksmen as middlemen between landlord and subtenant.  Crofting tenure, the terms of which have been defined in successive Crofting Acts from 1886, is now regulated by a Crofters’ Commission (established in 1955, and not the same as the commission of 1886, which addressed issues of rent).  Croft land cannot be bought or sold, though, following the Crofting Act of 1976, a crofter can purchase the feudal title to his croft.  Land in crofting tenure has to be ‘decrofted’ before it can be sold.  A croft is not a house, although a crofting tenant usually has a ‘croft house’ on the croft.  It is important to be clear about this, as it is extremely common to see the term ‘croft’ wrongly applied to a cottage.

Cottars have a house site on a croft, but they do not hold any land.  They assist the crofter with seasonal labours, and labouring with the crofter acts, in effect, as a form of rent for the house site.  They have right to potatoes etc. grown on the croft.  Cottars commonly fish for a living or have other work. 

Squatters have no real status within crofting tenure, as their houses are usually on common grazing.  Squatters in the nineteenth century were often little more than refugees, who had been displaced from crofts, with which they were previously associated either as crofters or as cottars.

George John Douglas Campbell, Eighth Duke of Argyll, who was at the centre of the Greenhill dispute. Painting by George Frederic Watts.
My great-grandfather, Hector MacDonald, 'Coll View', Caolas.

Causes of crofters’ and cottars’ dissatisfaction


Various processes were at work to create the conditions for the Tiree ‘rebellion’:

(1)   Fear of the Argyll Estate and its factors (i.e. landlord’s agents).  My great-grandfather, Hector MacDonald, ‘Coll View’, Caolas, kept all of his rent receipts from the time he inherited the ‘Coll View’ croft in 1868.   It belonged previously to his uncle, Hector MacLean.   This in itself tells us that at least one crofter was careful to preserve evidence that he had actually paid the rent, fearing perhaps that he would be asked to make second payments.  This suggests that there was more than a grain, even an ear, of truth in the Tiree saying, ‘Mura b’ e eagal an dà mhàil, bheireadh Tiriodh an dà bhàrr’ (‘If it were not for fear of the two rents, Tiree would yield a double crop’).  The rents were paid in two instalments, due on the quarter-days at Whitsunday and Martinmas.



(2)   Growing arrears of rent.  The rental for my great-grandfather’s croft in 1868 was £5.17s.6d per instalment, i.e. £11.15s for the year.  It remained at that level until 1882, when it became £6.8s.2d from Whitsunday of that year, i.e. £12.16s.4d for the year. By 1886 he was carrying arrears of rent which he attempted to pay, but evidently could not pay – he carried at least a full half-year of arrears.  So 1886, the year in which the ‘rebellion’ in Tiree became articulate and expressed itself, was my great-grandfather’s bad year, quite probably his worst year.



(3)   As a result of the enquiry of the Crofters’ Commission, which he attended in Baugh Baptist chapel, along with his close neighbour and friend, John MacFadyen, my great-grandfather’s rent was reduced to £4.15s per half-year, i.e. £9.10s for the year.  Thus, after the Commission, and from 1887 onwards, the rent for the ‘Coll View’ croft was lower than it had ever been in my great-grandfather’s time.  This suggests that the Commission took the view that the rent was too high for the duration of his tenure from 1868.  However, he got no rebate, and he was instructed by the Commission to pay his arrears, and he did so in four instalments of £2.10s, which amounted to £10.  He had evidently accumulated other arrears along the way.   His arrears were all paid by Whitsunday 1889.


(4)   The problem of high rents was stated and corroborated before the Napier Commission, when it met met in Kirkapol Parish Church, in 1883.  The spokesperson for the crofters at the east end of Tiree was John MacFadyen, Iain mac Nèill, my great-grandfather’s close neighbour.  John MacFadyen complained about his own rent, which was then £14.10s, i.e. he was paying almost £2 more than my great-grandfather.  John MacFadyen felt that half of that sum would have been a fair rental.

This splendid group photograph of some 'worthies' from Caolas was taken when my Great-uncle Charles, sitting in the middle of the front row, launched a new boat, probably when he was home on leave from seafaring in 1916.  To my uncle's immediate right (left of front row) sits John MacFadyen (Iain mac Neill), who represented Caolas and east-end crofters at the Napier Commission in 1884, and to my uncle's lower left (right of front row) sits his father and my great-grandfather, Hector MacDonald (Eachann Ban).  Other 'worthies' are identified in Chapter 7 of my Autobiography on this BlogSpot.

(5)   Consolidation of large holdings: John MacFadyen also told the commission that tacks in Tiree, i.e. large farms let out on lease to tenants holding directly from the Duke of Argyll, were being consolidated at the expense of crofts and crofters, in Scarinish, Baugh, Balephetrish, Balephuil and Mannal.  Those who lost their crofts were becoming landless, and thus became cottars and even squatters rather than crofters. 

(6)   John MacFadyen’s evidence was corroborated by Donald MacDougall (or MacLucas) from Balephuil.  He was the son of the founding minister of Tiree Baptist Church, Duncan MacDougall.  Donald MacDougall said that the loss of the common grazing on Ben Hynish, and its incorporation into the Hynish tack, had had serious consequences for local crofters, among them loss of land, reduction of stock, and restricting of access to the shore for seaweed.   Congestion, according to Donald MacDonald, Balemartin, was increasing, as landless crofters were now becoming squatters on the remaining common grazings.

As matters became difficult in the 1880s, Tiree crofters were radicalised, and a local branch of the Highland Land Law Reform Association, popularly known as the Land League, was formed in 1883.  My great-grandfather was among its 700 members, and his certificate of membership has survived.  Its president was Neil MacNeill, Vaul.


There, then, is an overview of the main processes which led to the Tiree ‘rebellion’ in 1886.  At its heart was land hunger, first and foremost among landless cottars at the west end of the island, and not the east end.  We must remember that the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act of 1886 did not give the cottars the right to any land, nor did it restore crofting land that had been taken into tacks. 

In this context, cottars were becoming desperate.  As early as 1884, a year after the creation of the local branch of the Land League, they occupied a vacant tack, apparently that at Hynish.  It seems that the Land League wanted to take it over, and had submitted a bid.   There were threats that Marines would be sent to the island, but the cottars left the holding on being given an assurance that the Duke would assign to them the next vacant tack in the island.[1]

This photograph was taken at Kilkenneth, at the west end of Tiree, close to Greenhill Farm, which was on the other side of the road.  In the distance are Beinn Hoidhnis (left) and Beinn Cheann a' Bhara (right).


The Greenhill tack

The next tack that came up for offer was that of Greenhill (Grianal), at the very west end of Tiree.  Its previous tacksman, Lachlan MacLean, had relinquished it in 1885.  The president of the Tiree branch of the Land League, Neil MacNeill, served notice in May 1886 that the League was going to bid for the Greenhill tack.  At this point too, cottars and crofters in Tiree condemned the Bill that was to become the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act. 

Now, the popular idea that crofters and cottars were all good, and landlords and factors all bad, breaks down at this juncture, and the picture becomes opaque and even murky, reflecting badly on all parties.   The MacNeills of Vaul, namely Neil and his brother Lachlan, submitted a bid for the tack in the name, not of the Land League, but of Lachlan MacNeill.  This may well have been a purely legal matter, because MacNeill, as President of the local branch of the Land League, would have been required to assign the title of the lease to a single holder, as leases were not granted to corporate entities.  He chose his brother as the lease-holder. The 8th Duke of Argyll took the view that he had acted kindly in leasing the tack to one of the crofters, and, he had, in fact, turned down a higher offer for the lease. The tack was offered to Lachlan MacNeill for a rental of £80, but the Duke had refused an offer of £96 from Donald Archie MacLean, son of the previous tacksman.   He may have presumed that, following further discussion among members of the Tiree Land League, the tack would be made available for the grazing of cottars’ and crofters’ cattle.   The Duke, in later years, referred to this period in Tiree’s history as ‘The Epoch of the Fools’, and consistently took the view that the community had failed to appreciate his kindness.   It may well be that, in this instance, he did, in fact, exercise ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of Tiree’s landless cottars, but that his plans misfired because of a lack of understanding on their part of the legal niceties of lease-holding.

The Duke’s understanding of events is, in fact, set out in a letter written to Tiree cottars and crofters shortly after the occupation of Greenhill.  He condemns ‘outrages’ by cottars and crofters, and then states:

‘Again, violence equally oppressive and unjust has been resorted to against another crofter, to whom I have let the little farm of Greenhill.  This farm, having been vacant by the late tenant determining to leave the island, it was duly advertised, and it was open to any of you, individually or collectively, to offer for it.  But only one of you did so, and no other proposal or offer of any kind came from any of you.   I was willing to accept his offer, although at a greatly reduced rent, because it was a promotion to one of your number, who is, I believe, an industrious man.  Accordingly I did accept it.   He bought stock for his farm, and went, in due course, to take possession.  He was met by a rabble of men, crofters and others, who threatened him with violence, and drove him away from the exercise of his legal rights.  Those who committed this violence have not the least pretext in defence of their conduct.  It has been an act of pure violence, of gross injustice, and of defiant lawlessness.

‘It is my clear duty to defend my tenants in the enjoyment of their lawful rights, whether they be defenceless women or individual men, or joint possessors in a township.’[2]

The Duke then claims that he has, in fact, been active in extending the amount of land available to Tiree crofters.  

His letter, however, suggests that the Duke did not understand that crofters and cottars were not the same entity, and that the assigning of a lease to a crofter did not in any way address the landlessness of cottars, because some means of redistribution or common ‘ownership’ (or ‘joint possession’) was required if it was to benefit the wider body.   Was he being disingenuous?  Or did he expect cottars to negotiate with Lachlan MacNeill for some land on ‘his’ (MacNeill’s) tack?  How did he expect cottars and crofters to form a collective legal entity that would take the title and common ownership of the lease?  The concept of a community ‘lease-out’ would have been novel indeed at that time, and would have required the intervention of lawyers acting on behalf of the cottars and crofters.  The manner in which the Greenhill lease was reassigned to Lachlan MacNeill retains an element of mystery to the present day, but it looks as if it may have been the consequence of a great deal of misunderstanding on all sides, that of the cottars of the west end of Tiree, that of the Duke of Argyll, and that of the MacNeills.

Whatever the legal position(s), the roles of the MacNeill brothers were construed by the Tiree cottars and crofters as acts of treachery and deceit by two of their own number – those most trusted at the top of the local branch of the Land League.  Neil MacNeill was removed as President of the branch, and replaced by Donald Sinclair, Barrapol.  On the day that the MacNeills were to take possession, cottars and crofters put their own stock to graze on the tack, and kept it there for the next two months.

It is ironic indeed if a misunderstanding of the law on the part of cottars and crofters with regard to a lease granted to them, and legally held in the name of their President’s brother, may have created Tiree’s infamous and somewhat pointless stand-off with officialdom.  It would seem that the crofters and cottars were in a mood for rebellion in any case, and required only the merest trigger to bring their grievances to a head.  The MacNeills, rightly or wrongly, by accident or by design, provided that trigger.  When crofters and cottars put their cattle to graze on the Greenhill tack, this was seen by the Duke and other authorities as illegal occupation – made all the more difficult because the ‘occupiers’ were determined to keep their cattle on the tack.  If it is the case that the agitators misunderstood the legal niceties, and in effect used the tack as a piece of common grazing, it is equally clear that the authorities were not in a mood to let them have their own way – and certainly not ‘ownership’ – in the longer term.  Illegal occupation or intrusion by an unauthorised group was therefore the official interpretation of what had happened.

Determined action on both sides, with much scope for misunderstanding and little desire to compromise, may well have contributed to the somewhat nasty atmosphere which was created in the island by the ‘rebellion’, with various feuds and grievances of a more personal kind finding a focus in threats of extreme action in the locality itself, including alleged attempts, or at least an expressed willingness, to hang the ground-officer, John MacKinnon.  It was the case then as now that such disturbances attract trouble-makers with all sorts of grievances, real or imagined, in addition to those with a genuine case which deserves a reasoned response.

Military intervention and arrests

The various goings-on and the Duke’s determination to ‘defend his tenants’ set in motion a chain of events leading to serious military and fiscal intervention.  Sheriff George MacNicol came from Edinburgh on 21 July to serve notices of interdict on the ‘rebels’.  He and over 30 policemen from Glasgow went to Balephuil, where they were met by an angry ‘mob’.  To cut a long story short, a warship Assistance and a support-vessel Ajax arrived in Tiree on a glorious evening on 30 July 1886 – an event long remembered by my own elderly relatives in ‘Coll View’.  They were followed to the old harbour in Scarinish by the steamship Nigel.  The vessels carried Royal Marines and policemen (from Oban and Inverness).
The Agamemnon-class turret-ship, HMS Ajax.

Notices of interdict began to be served the next day, and six ‘ringleaders’ were arrested, all of them from the west end of Tiree: Colin Henderson, Hector MacDonald and Alexander MacLean from Balemartine; Donald Sinclair, the new president of the Land League; and Donald MacKinnon and Lachlan Brown from Balevullin.  They were taken to Inveraray Jail, but were bailed out by Lachlan Macquarie, merchant in Balemartine.  In September, another five were arrested: John Sinclair, John MacFadyen and Gilchrist MacDonald from Balemartine, and George Campbell and Alexander MacArthur in Balinoe. 

The steamship Nigel arrives at Hotwells, Bristol, with the Suspension Bridge in the background.

Of these, some were released, and the following stood trial in Edinburgh: MacLean, Henderson, Hector MacDonald, John Sinclair, and George Campbell, all of whom got six months in prison, and John MacFadyen and Gilchrist MacDonald, and Donald MacKinnon, who got four months.

The so-called ‘military occupation’ of Tiree had its lighter side, and has been remembered as much for the Marines’ participation in crofting activities and in sports (especially tug-o’-war with the islanders!) as for the arrests. Memories of Marines’ official activities also remained fresh for many years. My elderly relatives remembered in the 1960s how groups of Marines patrolled the township of Caolas, and ate their lunch beside the well called ‘Tobar Bean Iain’ (‘The Well of John’s Wife’, ‘John’ being the aforementioned John MacFadyen) on the road to Milton.  About 1976, when I conducted some local research into the agitation, I spoke to a remarkable centenarian in Lower Vaul, Mrs MacLean. When I asked her to describe the Marines, whom she remembered vividly, she replied, ‘They were just like the soldiers you see on television, except that they wore red jackets!’  They had obviously been on patrol in Vaul too!

Rev. Donald MacCallum and ongoing issues

The matter of rent continued to trouble Tiree crofters in 1887, and this was one of the questions that had to be tackled by the Rev. Donald MacCallum when he arrived in the island as minister of the Heylipol church late in that year.  MacCallum, who was well known for his support of crofters and cottars Arisaig and Glendale, Skye, later moved to Lochs, Lewis. In Tiree, MacCallum found himself in the midst of a community which believed that it was in some important respects worse off, rather than better off, as a result of the passing of the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act of 1886.  Apparently, a crofter who gave land to a cottar was at risk of being turned out.  In this context, MacCallum provided robust leadership, outlining developments in ‘long and interesting address[es]’, and explaining ‘the advanced position the Land League now holds’.


MacCallum’s ability to advise crofters and especially cottars on how they should proceed in their case against high rents and lack of land is more than evident in the reports of Tiree Land League meetings in The Oban Times. The business before a meeting held in Moss Schoolhouse on 9 April 1888, for example, represents the concerns of the time:
‘Rev. Mr MacCallum, who presided, stated that the business before the meeting was 1) to consider the memorial prepared by the Committee to be sent to the Secretary for Scotland; and 2) to consider what should be done in regard to the answer that was said to have been given by the Duke of Argyll, through the factor, to the cottars, who sent him a petition for land.’

The memorial, as explained to the meeting by the secretary of the local Land League branch, was about the following matters: 1) methods adopted by the Commissioners in fixing fair rents, which were deemed insufficient; 2) the apportioning of rent when certain crofters’ crops were still in the ground, which had caused ‘a tax to be put on the superior industry of the crofters concerned’; 3) ‘that in several instances crofts which had been reclaimed from nature by the present holders and their predecessors had been charged with rents equivalent to their actual marketable value’; 4) ‘that crofts which were greatly damaged by sand blowing on them were not reduced in rent in accordance with this damage’; 5) ‘that an unreasonable amount of arrears was ordered to be paid, and that they were quite unable to meet the demands made on them’. The challenges facing Tiree fishermen ‘because the island was exposed and had no harbour’ were also discussed.

Although MacCallum was particularly well known for his orations, he was no demagogue in his Tiree days, making ‘inflammatory’ public speeches round the island. Rather, he put his analytical and memorial-writing skills at the service of the island’s crofters and cottars. His commitment to their needs was evidently quite outstanding, and it was deeply appreciated. When MacCallum left Tiree in 1889, crofters erected a fine cairn in appreciation of his efforts. This was a truly remarkable tribute to his contribution to their lives during his very short occupancy of the Heylipol charge. It sprang spontaneously, immediately and directly from the crofters’ and cottars’ experience of MacCallum’s leadership. It was thus uniquely eloquent in its own time, and remains so to the present day.[3]

Nevertheless, MacCallum did not lack detractors in Tiree, and, according to Donald MacKinnon, Hough, the cairn was sometimes referred to as ‘Tùr Mhic Caluim, tùr an amadain, air mullach cnoc nan plaosdairean’  (‘MacCallum’s tower, the tower of the fool, on top of the hill of the idiots’).[4]

This saying reflects what this chapter seeks in part to demonstrate, namely the conflicted nature of the ‘rebellion’ in Tiree, and the divisions that existed within the crofting community itself. Even so, MacCallum’s contribution cannot be gainsaid. It provided what had evidently been in very short supply at the height of the agitation, and what may even have precipitated military intervention, namely a clear-headed ability to disentangle the threads, to understand the arguments, and to provide guidance and leadership in matters of procedure.

Ducal perspectives

MacCallum’s most eloquent detractors, however, were within the Duke of Argyll’s family, and included his daughter, Lady Frances Balfour, who, smarting from MacCallum’s earlier attacks on ducal estate policy, wrote her own assessment of the Tiree ‘rebellion’ and MacCallum’s role in her memoir of her sister, Lady Victoria:
‘Then arose, what the Duke alludes to with trenchant severity as “The Epoch of the Fools,” when mercenary agitators went to and fro preaching a gospel which had for its motto, “Blessed is he who removes his neighbour’s landmark.”

 ‘Long ago, the agitation in Tiree has died the death it deserves. A melancholy cairn, erected to himself by the chief agitator, alone marks the days of the Land League and its folly. But such “epochs” make history, and no country is the same where, even for a season, lawlessness and disorder have obtained the upper hand.

‘There were, doubtless, faults on both sides. The Celtic temperament is peculiarly susceptible to personal influence, and it is insensitive to a fault when honest pride is wounded.

‘The Duke could never forget the misrepresentation and injustice which his life’s work had received. It would have been better had he gone among the people of his own race, and met the lies of the paid agitator with the words of ringing truth, as he alone knew how to utter them. The work was less efficiently done by what his daughter called the “middlemen” and the arrival of the soldiers. Their chief occupation was assisting the islanders with their harvest, while the officers were the pioneers who laid out the first of the golf courses, destined to be famous in the annals of first-class golf. It would be useless to revive the story of the agitation. It has been repeated in other islands, even though the Crofter Act has changed many of the conditions. It will be repeated again, as long as any man ignored economic laws, and the change which has passed over the conditions of rural life.’[5]

Lady Balfour’s naïve farrago of sour misrepresentation contains at least one sentence of perceptive understanding – ‘It will be repeated again….’   The ‘rebellion’ was indeed ‘repeated again’ before and after the First World War, though piece-meal and on a smaller scale, but with greater success.  This resulted in the breaking up of the tacks at Baugh, Hynish, Heylipol and Greenhill, which was divided into thirteen new holdings and four enlargements in 1912.  Following an occupation of land by crofters in 1918, the Balephetrish tack owned by Tom Barr was divided into crofts in 1922.

Donald MacCallum's cairn was restored in 1986 as part of Tiree's commemoration of the Centenary of the Crofters' Holdings (Scotland) Act of 1886.


What exactly did Tiree’s ‘rebellion’ of 1886 achieve for crofters and especially cottars?   The answer, in a nutshell, is quite simply, ‘Not much’.

The ‘rebellion’ is best regarded as a confused and bungled attempt to assign the title of a tack to a crofter and cottars on the one hand, and to bring the matter of land-hungry cottars to public and political attention on the other. It may have achieved the latter, but not in the best way, and certainly not in a way that immediately benefited those who needed land in Tiree. It could also be regarded, in a medical metaphor, as a boil which had been suppurating for some years, before bursting in 1886, and spreading its poison to other parts of the ‘body’.   It took time to deal with that poison and its causes.

Problems relating to rent had to be tackled after the ‘rebellion’, and almost thirty years were to pass before tacks were broken up to provide more crofts.    The ‘rebels without a croft’ had to wait until the early twentieth century to gain land. We may wonder if the bungled nature of the ‘rebellion’ might, in fact, have retarded, rather than facilitated, the process of allocation of land to cottars.  The real cause of the delay, however, was one of the points amply demonstrated by the Greenhill dispute, namely the lack of a proper government scheme, with appropriate legislation and legal advisory services, which could divide a tack, divide it into holdings, and assign these holdings to cottars.

The ‘rebellion’ and its causes are an eloquent indication of the unhappiness and dissatisfaction caused at the time by the passing of the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act in 1886, although it is now commonly, and often naïvely, regarded as the cornerstone of modern crofting legislation and the beginning of a new era.  It is more than clear from the Tiree 'rebellion' that it failed to make any provision for those who most obviously needed its assistance, namely the landless cottars. In short, the 'land issue', as distinct from protection and rights for crofters, had not been tackled in any meaningful way in 1886.

In Tiree, as in other parts of the Highlands and Islands, the 1886 Act was therefore the cause of further unrest, rather than a first and final cure for all the land-related troubles of the so-called ‘crofting counties’.


The Secret Island, the volume of papers from the conference at which the above paper was delivered, contains a most important additional contribution by Dr Bob Chambers, 'Land Settlement on Tiree', pp. 253-282, which provides a detailed account of the breaking of the Tiree tacks in the early twentieth century.  It also reinforces strongly the argument at the heart of my paper with regard to the lack of appropriate means to meet the just demands of cottars when they were driven to 'desperate measures' in 1886.  I have made minor revisions to the published version of my talk in the light of Dr Chambers' invaluable research.



Balfour, Lady Frances, Ne Obliviscaris: Lady Victoria Campbell: A Memoir, Hodder and Stoughton, London, [c.1912].

Meek, Dòmhnall, ‘Aimhreit an Fhearainn an Tiriodh, 1886’, ann an D. MacAmhlaigh (deas.), Oighreachd agus Gabhaltas, Roinn an Fhoghlaim Cheiltich, Oilthigh Obar-dheadhan, Obar-dheadhan [1980], 23-31.

Meek, Donald E., ‘Preaching the Land Gospel: The Rev. Donald MacCallum (1849-1929) in Skye, Tiree and Lochs, Lewis’, in Ewen Cameron (ed.), Recovering from the Clearances: Land Struggle, Resettlement, and Community Ownership in the Hebrides’, The Islands Book Trust, Ravenspoint, Lewis, 2013, 77-106.

[1] In addition to family papers, this chapter draws on the evidence presented in Meek, ‘Aimhreit an Fhearainn an Tiriodh, 1886’.  My main aim in this chapter is to reflect again, with a fresh mind, on that evidence.

[2] Balfour, Ne Obliviscaris, 165.

[3] This section draws directly on Meek ‘Preaching the Land Gospel’, which looks at MacCallum’s changing roles in his different parishes.

[4] I owe this saying to Dr John Holliday, Tiree, who notes: ‘I'm assuming plaosdair is a Tiree dialect form of plaosgair (Dwelly), which makes it likely this saying was coined by a Tiree Gaelic speaker. Interestingly, the Tùr is built on a Neolithic cairn, probably connected to the three-stone circle complex at Hough.’

[5] Balfour, Ne Obliviscaris , 160-61.


1 comment:

  1. Read with fascination this account of crofter and cottar issues on Tiree in the 1880s. My husband's great great grandfather was Neil McNeill (var. spellings), the President of the Land League on Tiree, who assigned the lease holding to his brother, Lachlan. We only quite recently discovered that Neil McNeill was hubby's gg grandfather as his only son (as far as we know) was born illegitimately to Julia McNeill of Tiree in August 1863. The son's name was Lachlan McNeill and he was born in Glasgow, albeit the birth was also registered on Tiree several months later. Thank you for your synopsis of the uprising on Tiree and the involvement of the McNeill brothers.
    Catherine Morrin