An earlier version of this article was published in the Oxford Left Review in Hilary 2014 under the headline Whose Land is it Anyway? — Radical Land Reform in Gaelic Scotland. The magazine ended up themed around Intersectionality so I’m still pretty bewildered they chose to publish my 2500 word rant about Western Isles politics alongside brilliant articles on topics like BDSM and Nelson Mandela’s socialism. I’m not a lawyer, historian or Gaelic scholar, so please accept my apologies for any mistakes – enjoy at your peril!
It was in my last year of primary school I realized I was a socialist and a radical. We were learning about the Highland Clearances – Fuadach nan Gàidheal, the Expulsion of the Gaels – which saw tens of thousands of people forcibly transported overseas or evicted to the overcrowded, rocky coast in the name of economic progress. And then the bombshell: the estate owners, the landed classes who had tried to empty half of Scotland, were still here, hunting, fishing, and landlording it over the natives in the 21st century. But not for much longer. It was 2005, and the island I grew up on – Eriskay – was bought, alongside neighbouring South Uist and Benbecula, for £4.5 million, not by another syndicate of deerstalking families, but by people of the islands themselves, to be held under community ownership.
It was the culmination of over a century of struggle, of which most of Britain – reared on tourist-friendly tales of the wild ‘heilans’ – is completely unaware. After the Clearances of the 19th century, crofters in the Highlands and Islands – inspired by the Land League in Ireland – began to campaign for rights of tenure. The Highland Land League had as its slogan “Is treasa tuath na tighearna” (The people are mightier than a lord), and with its newspaper An Gàidheal (The Highlander), inspired and organized radical action such as rent strikes and land raids. In 1882, after having been denied access to what they saw as their rightful common-grazing land on Ben Lee, the crofters of the township of Braes on Skye, with their wives and children, fought the police who had been dispatched to extract rent from them. The ‘Battle of the Braes’, as the newspapers dubbed it, inspired similar acts of resistance in Skye and Lewis. In response, in 1883, the Napier Commission took evidence from crofters all over Gaeldom of landlords’ abuses during the Clearances and after, and public opinion began to turn in favour of the crofters. In 1885, the Highland Land League returned four MPs, becoming Britain’s first ever working class MPs, and the ruling Liberal government was moved to pass the Crofter’s Act of 1886, which guarantees security of tenure and inheritance to crofters.