“Strange Conduct of Lewis Crofters”

Highland News, Monday 13 October, 1884:

The Northern Chronicle publishes the following sensational statement which we trust is somewhat exaggerated:– Mr Wm Mackay, Chamberlain of the Lews, has for some time back been engaged in visiting the different parts of the island for the purpose of collecting rents.  On Monday last week [30 September 1884] he left for Uig, the people of which district were expected, as customary, to come forward and pay their rents on the following day.  The Chamberlain was at Miavaig on Tuesday, to which place a large gathering of crofters and young men marched in a body carrying two banners, on one of which was written “Down with the Landlords” while the other had inscribed on it a Gaelic motto to the effect that the people were stronger than the proprietors.  These banners were conspicuously planted in close proximity to Miavaig House, while the people all clustered together on a hillock within a short distance of the road. 

The crofters were repeatedly asked to come forward to explain the object of their demonstration, but none answered to the call, until Mr Mackay, recognising one of the men, called him by name, when he came forward and handed the Chamberlain a paper containing requests to the effect that they (the crofters) required all the squatters in the Uig district to be removed off their lands and provided with lands elsewhere; also, that statements be furnished accounting for the expenditure of the school rates, taxes, and road assessments collected for a number of years back; and further that the present holdings of the crofters be increased to the same extent as those occupied by their fore-fathers, and to be held at the old rents.  

This document not being signed, the presenter being asked if he would subscribe it, but this he refused to do.  He further stated that the Chairman of their meeting would not append his name to it, although he was assured that if he did so the demands would be considered.  He was then asked to go back to the people and get someone to sign the document, and this he did, but failed to secure a single name.  Thereupon he was asked if he intended to pay rent, and in replay, stated that he intended to follow the same course as his neighbours.  By this time the body of the people had come up to the house, and another man having been recognised, he was asked by name if he intended to pay his rent.  He replied that he had it in his pockets, but on the question being put if he was afraid to pay, the young men, who appeared to be the prime movers in this movement, intervened between him and his questioner, and forced him away.  A third man was interviewed, who admitted that he had no money wherewith to pay, but were he in a position to do so, he would be afraid to come forward. 

The people remained in this attitude until nightfall, although the weather was very stormy and wet, when they dispersed, but returned next day in greater numbers.  This time they carried no banners.  Again the younger men were the chief actors, the crofters being kept at Glenvaltos, about half a mile from Miavaig House, while the ringleaders assembled in close proximity to the house.  Not a single copper of rent was paid. 

Late on Wednesday night, two men from the township of Kneep arrived at Miavaig and proferred their rent.  On being asked if they were afraid, seeing that it would be known that they had come forward with their rent, even though they did so under cover of darkness, they stated they would run the risk.  Mr Mackay strongly advised them to delay for a day or two and then send their rent by Post Office order from Miavaig, as he feared their stock might be made to suffer when it became known that they had paid.  This they at last agreed to, stipulating, however, that receipts were not to be sent to them through the post, as they feared such might become known. 

Intimation had been sent to the island of Bernera by the Chamberlain that, as Thursday was so stormy, the crofters should not run any risk in trying to cross for the purpose of meeting him.  It, however, afterwards transpired that the Bernera people did not intend to pay.  Only one person has come forward in the whole Uig district to pay his rent, and he did so under cover of examining the harness of the carriage horses as the animals were halted for breathing space at a distance from Miavaig. 

On Friday the crofters took violent possession of Pabbay and other Loch Roag islands in their vicinity, placing their stock thereon, but did not remove the stock of the tenant.  The crofters of the Callernish district came forward, and all paid their rents.  The Uig people had sent agitators amongst them, but they were not countenanced.  This agitation, as will appear, is carried on and kept alive almost entirely by the younger members of these communities.  The crofters, it is surmised, would one and all pay their rents as customary were they not influenced and kept in check by very earnest and impetuous and misguided agitators.  It is currently reported that one of the leading agitators is a woman, and that it was she who crossed to Bernera Island and persuaded the people there to decline payment. 

Mr Munro Ferguson MP, when at Uig, was asked by one of the men if they had done wrong or whether they would lose their character on account of their action, in reply to which enquiry he strongly advised them to pay their rents.  Judging from the turn matters are taking, the Lewis only requires a little fanning to raise a flame which will quickly overturn law and order.  The squatter’s house at Borve, erected, completed and occupied in the face of an interdict of the Court, is still entire and occupied by the delinquent, the civil force in this district being apparently incapable of undertaking its demolition.

(An account of Mr Munro Ferguson’s meeting in Uig that week, during which he spoke of the need for secure tenure and more land, appears in the same edition.  He appears to have been warmly received.)