Prosperity and Overcrowding in Uig, 1850s-1890s

From Uig, A Hebridean Parish, by HA Moisley and the Geographical Field Group, 1960.

The crofting population of Uig started the second half of the nineteenth century with far less land than had been occupied by their forebears fifty years before, and, although famine, clearance and emigration had slightly reduced the population between 1841 and 1861 (from 3828 to 3630) thereafter it again increased, reaching 4600 in 1891.  Rising agricultural prices after 1850 favoured farmers and crofters alike but, whilst the farmers prospered, the crofters merely multiplied, thus in effect reducing the land available to each family.

In 14 townships recorded in the 1850 sketchbook the 273 holdings at that date had become 402 by about 1890, to which should be added a considerable number of cottars and squatters, many of them keeping stock and some sharing the rent of the crofts on which they had built their cottages.  Detailed comparison of the rentals for the two dates shows that the increase had come about in two ways: firstly, it appears that, from time to time, where a new rent ledge was being made up, the factor would record separately cottars who actually shared the rent of the croft and, secondly, he would recognise and enter some of the squatters who had obtained rent-free (and illegal) holdings by enclosing and reclaiming from the common.  The latter were added to the souming of the townships according to the rent put upon them. In Brenish, for instance, the total rental rose from £82, for 38 tenants in 1850, to £104, for 52 tenants in 1890.

The recognition of squatters, usually at £1 to £2 per annum, led to the small increases in the total rental.  For the rest, the increasing numbers were caused by subdivision.  Only in a few cases does the proprietor seem to have actively encourage land reclamation by crofters.  On 17 April 1850, four of the family which had been cleared out of Reef were allowed to settle on the Callanish common near the Breasclete boundary.  Their rent was fixed at 15/- per acre for five years, thereafter increasing 1/- per annum until it reached 29/- per acre.  Forty years later these crofts had been subdivided, and two others added, and rent reached £13.19/-.  Again, when Brenish was lotted in the spring of 1850, ten new lots were marked out and the rental is annotated “there are ten young men starting… these lots as soon as the season commences.”  This appears to have been too optimistic; few, if any, of the new lost were ever broken in.

The farms, by contrast, prospered and the proprietor was able to share that prosperity by increasing the rents [of the farms]:  Mealista from £90 in the 1840s to £130 in the 1870s, Ardroil from £100 to £255 (latterly including Carnish), Timsgarry from £78 to £108 and Linshader £250 to £425.  It is worth noting that the rental charged for the newly cleared farm of Carnish [before being added to Ardroil] was £55, being £20 less than had been paid by the crofters.  Thus is cannot be said that the latter were evicted purely in order to obtain more rent.  The proprietor must have been taking a long-term view, looking for land improvement rather than immediate gain.  By the 1870s the farm rentals had increased by 55%, those of the croftng townships by only 15%.  And the latter often remained unpaid.

Thus, while the farmers prospered, the tenants became crowded in their townships which were correspondingly less and less able to support their increased numbers.  The crofts became so reduced that in an average year the produce of the land might keep a crofter and his family for only six months; for the rest he had to find other means of support.  Fortunately, after the hungry years of the 1840s, fishing provided just this.

Starting in 1851, an annual migration began, first to Caithness and later to the whole east coast of Scotland and Englad.  By the 1880s, not only were most of the able-bodied young men following the herring as hired men on east-coast boats, but many of the women-folk, who had learned gutting, packing and kippering from English girls brought to Stornoway for the purposes, were also earning.  This was summer work, and fitted well between seed-time and harvest.  In the winter, small local open boats worked longlines for white fish which were dried and slated for local curers are they still are today [1960] on the Norwegian coast.

Between the 1850s and 1880s there was a ‘condition of plenty’ in Lewis ‘which would not have been credited by those who judged of the condition of the people by the external aspect or sanitary arrangement of their dwellings.”¹  It was this ‘condition of plenty’ which encouraged the people to stay at home, to subdivide their crofts, and to live on the proceeds of paid labour rather than on the produce of the croft.  The process of subdivision ceased only when economic conditions became less favourable and emigrations began to exceed natural increase.

¹Report on the Condition of the Cottar Population in the Lewis, 1888.