Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

The Western Highlands in the Eighteenth Century
An article from the Scottish Historical Review


IN the muniment room at Dunvegan, the seat of MacLeod of MacLeod in Skye, are preserved a great number of documents which throw much light on the conditions prevailing in the Highlands during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

'One of the first objects of an enquirer who wishes to form a correct idea of the state of a community at a given time, must be to ascertain of how many persons that community then consisted,' says Macaulav.

In the Highlands this is not easy, for no census, was there taken till 1851. In the following estimate I have confined m} attention to Skye, Harris and Glenelg, where the MacLeod estates were situated, but, probably, the. same causes which increased or decreased population were equally at work all over the Highlands.

In early times, as far as I know, there is no evidence of what the population was. The force which a clan could put into the field at any given time gives no clue to the population living on its Chiefs estate, for that was more a question of arms than of men. It is not till 1772 that we find any definite statements. There was a report of that date on Harris, preserved at Dunvegan, which gives its population at 1,993, and in the same year Pendant fixes the population of Glenelg at 700, and that of Skye at from 12,000 to 13.000, but he says that about 1750 it may have been 15,000. This drop is probably accounted for by some emigration which took place about 1769, the first reference I find to emigration in any of the papers.

There are several letters from MacLeod's factor on this subject. He says that Lord MacDonald's tacksmen had formed a sort of company to purchase 100,000 acres of land in South Carolina, and that they proposed to emigrate in a body, taking a certain number of farm servants with them. He fears that the same thing may happen on MacLeod's Estate. Some few of MacLeod's tenants did emigrate, and all Lord MacDonald's went, and he had to import tenants from other parts of Scotland. As these tacksmen took a good many of their farm servants with them, this led to a considerable drop in the population.

Apart from this there is no reason to suppose that in earlier days the population was greater than it was about 1770. It was, I think, probably smaller. During the sixteenth century Clan Feuds had raged with frightful violence, specially towards its close. About 157c the terrible massacre at Eigg had taken place; a little later a large force of Clan Ranald MacDonald's had landed in Skye to exact vengeance for this cruel deed ; they surprised a number of the MacLeod* in Church, and slaughtered the congregation, but were themselves almost entirely destroyed at the *Battle of the destruction of the wall.' About 1597 a feud broke out between the MacDonalds and MacLeods which brought both clans to the verge of ruin. After 1609, when the Statutes of Iona were agreed to by all the great Western Chiefs, there was not much fighting between the clans, but e'er long commenced a series of wars of another kind, though scarcely less devastating. The lives of many Highlanders must have been lost in the campaigns of Montrose; a gallant Highland army was destroyed at Worcester, the MacLeods alone losing nearly 1,000 men. It is difficult to estimate how many Highlanders were slain under Dundee, in the rising of 1715, and during the '45, though the number must have been very great. But :it was not only the ravages of warfare which kept the numbers down. Smallpox was frightfully common; I find many references to it in the papers at Dunvegan, and in one year it swept away the whole population of St. Kilda except three men,—the infection having been brought on a ship which was wrecked there,—and outbreaks of the disease, hardly less destructive, occurred in other places.

For these reasons I am convinced that the estimates which are often formed of a teeming population :n our Glens in ancient days are much exaggerated.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the population increased by leaps and bounds. The Duke of Argyle says in his book Scotland as It Was and Is, that people whose food consists mainly of potatoes are usually very prolific, and, if this is the case, it may account for the great increase in population, both in Ireland and in the Highlands.

From some figures in a Gazetteer of Scotland published in 1845, and from a memorandum in the late MacLeod's hand-writing written about 1846, which was approximately the population on different estates In the Highlands, as well as from the numbers Pennant gives, I have constructed the followowing table:

I cannot account for the figures in Glenelg, but imagine that Pennant put the numbers too low in 1772, and that there was emigration between 1831 and 1845.

The rise between 1801 and 1S31 took place in spite of the fact that in 1811 a great many tacksmen emigrated, taking some of their farm labourers with them. But there was no serious emigration till after the potato famine, when it became necessary that more than half the people should seek a livelihood in other lands. This emigration accounts for the great drop between 1845 and 1911.

What can be ascertained concerning the people themselves and the conditions under which they lived is of even greater interest than their numbers.

It s a remarkable fact that in the Western Highlands were were no small lairds, no class corresponding to the class of yeomen, which was then so numerous in England. The whole of the country was divided amongst a very few great families. The Earl of Sutherland owned nearly one million acres of land; the Earl of Argyle, the different branches of the MacKenzies, the MacDonalds of Slaitt and Clan Ranald, the MacLeans, the MacLeods all owned vast tracts of land. The estates of less powerful chiefs such as the MacKinnons and MacNeils covered large areas.

Up to 1745 these great chiefs still possessed their heritable jurisdictions, and practically governed the people on their estates. I find several instances which shew that this was the case, in letters from Sir Alexander MacDonald. In 1743 he writes that a man from the MacLeod Country had come over into his country in order to court a girl, that a quarrel had arisen between the MacLeod and a MacDonald rival, and that the former had cut off the ears of the latter. Sir Alexander asks MacLeod to punish the delinquent. In another dated March 1744 Sir Alexander tells how there has been 'a small invasion from Knoydart,' how three cows had been carried off, and describes the steps he is taking to punish the guilty parties. These would now be matters for the police; they were then attended to by the chiefs. And they also dealt with far more serious cases, and even possessed the power of indicting the penalty of death. There is a hill near Dunvegan which is called the 'Hill of the gallows,' for here in old days criminals were hanged. A tradition says that the last occasion on which this power was exercised was in 1728. In that year a murderer escaped to the MacDonald country, was there arrested, brought back, and hanged on the hill of the gallows at Dunvegan.

To us, living in the twentieth century, it seems almost inconceivable that our forefathers not only possessed but exercised such powers less than two hundred years ago, but it is the undoubted fact that they did. Not only did the Highland chiefs possess them, but all the great landowners in Scotland. In 1747 the Heritable Jurisdictions Act was passed. In the Scots Magazine for that year the provisions of the Act are given. All these jurisdictions were taken away. There was a provision that those who held them should receive compensation, and there is in the same volume a long list of those who applied for compensation, and of the sums claimed which amounted to over £580,000.

I find none of the West Highland landlords in the list except the Duke of Argyle who claimed £25,000, MacKintosh who claimed £5,000, and MacNeil of Colonsay who claimed £1,200. I do not know the reason for this.

The Administration of Justice was put into the hands of Sheriff substitutes, who were then appointed all over Scotland. What we should call local Government was exercised by the Justices of the Peace. From some minutes of a meeting held at Sconser in 1788, we get some idea of what matters they dealt with, and the methods they employed. Attendance at the meetings was compulsory, and absentees were fined; they were the Highway authority for Skye; they made provisions for the hiring of servants, and fixed the wages which were to be paid—no one was allowed to pay more than the amount fixed. They made rules about such things as the maintenance of March dykes, the pounding of strayed sheep and cattle, the certificates of beggars, the liability of people keeping dangerous beasts for any damage, the use of properly stamped weights and measures. There are provisions that no man shall be intoxicated at a funeral, or attend without an invitation, and that no one shall leave Skye during harvest time without the leave of two Justices of the Peace. This leave the Justices are not to give until after they have tried to get the applicant work in the island.

In theory the changes made by the Act of 1747 were very great. In practice they were probably small. The same people, who had previously acted under the authority of the chief, were now Justices of the Peace acting under the authority of the king, and they probably carried out their duties in much the same way as before.

Up to the end of the seventeenth century these powerful chiefs had lived at home. Each dwelt in his castle. Each had in his train a piper, probably many pipers, a harper, a bard, and a fool (who was possibly the cleverest man in his clan), beside many other retainers. They kept open house for their kinsmen, their clans and their friends. To them all disputes and differences were brought, and their decision was final. To quote Macaulay's words, 'Within the four seas and less than six hundred miles of London were many miniature courts, in each of which a petty prince, attended by guards, by armour bearers, by musicians, by an hereditary orator, by an hereditary poet laureate, kept a rude state, dispensed a rude justice, waged wars, and concluded treaties.' Nor, he goes on to say, had ignorance of what can be learned from books and of the rue arts kept them from managing their affairs with much skill and shrewdness. It is probable that, the Highland Councils, men, who would not have been qualified for the duty of parish clerks, sometimes argued questions of peace and war, of tribute and homage, with an ability worthy of Halifax or Carmarthen, and that, at the Highland banquets, rrinstrels who did not know their letters, sometimes poured forth rhapsodies in which a discerning critic might have found passages such as would have reminded him of the tenderness of Otwav or of the vigour of Dryden.

After the passing of the Jurisdictions Act these all-powerful chiefs became no more than the owners of large estates, and, as the result of their loyalty to the Stuarts, some of them lost their estates altogether.

Many Highland properties were confiscated on account of the share their owners had taken in the '45, but most of these were restored to them, or to their descendants, before very many years had elapsed. Clan Ranald recovered his estate about 1776. In his attainder he had been called Donald MacDonald, whereas his real name was Ranald, and his attainder was thus void. General Fraser received a grant of the Lovat. Estates in 1774. Lochiel recovered his in 1784 under the general act of amnesty.

MacLeod who had taken no part in the rising sold Harris in 1779, and also sold large tracts of land in Skye before the end of the century. This land in Skye was sold in comparatively small parcels, so a class of small lairds came into existence there, and remains to the present day.

After the year 1760 many of the chiefs were absentees. Some were in Parliament and forced to go to London every year to attend to their parliamentary duties. Others preferred to live in the south of Scotland.

I do not know what the heads of other clans did, but it is certain that, throughout the whole of the eighteenth century, the MacLeods of Dunvegan were only occasionally at home.

This was bad for the country. There are many letters at Dunvegan in which the writers trace the evils from which the people were suffering to the absence of the chiefs from home, and it was disastrous in its results to the chiefs themselves, and brought about the ruin of many Highland families.

In the south rents had already risen to a high level, but the value of land in the Highlands, owing to their remoteness and to many other causes, was very low, and when a great Highland landlord went to Edinburgh or London, and lived with men of his own social position who possessed much larger incomes than himself, he was bound to get into financial difficulties. He too often tried to mend matters by screwing up his rents, and his people felt much aggrieved to find that the chief, to whom they were so devoted, had become an oppressor, whose one thought seemed to be how much he could get out of his people to spend on his own selfish gratification.

Many letters in the muniment room at Dunvegan prove how strong this feeling was, more so perhaps amongst the tacksmen than amongst the humbler classes. Yet it is wonderful how warm, in spite of all this, the feeling, even of the tacksmen, was towards their chief. This is well illustrated by a document dated September 16th, 1777. In that year the financial condition of the MacLeod family was well nigh desperate, and the tenants of the estate came forward and signed the document from which I give extracts:

'We, the undersigned tacksmen, tenants and possessors on the estate of Norman MacLeod of MacLeod, Esq, wishing to shew our attachment to the family, and our desire to contribute, as far as our ability will admit, towards the support of their interest, and preservation of their estate, do hereby, in the hope that it may enable MacLeod and his Trustees to re-establish his affairs, and preserve the ancient possessions of the family, bind ourselves and successors for the space of three years to pay an additional rent of one shilling and sixpence in the pound to the rent now payable, on condition that, as our principal motive for becoming under this voluntary burden is our attachment to the present MacLeod, to the standing of the family, and our desire of their estate being preserved entire, that we shall be freeded therefrom if we should have the misfortune to lose him by death, or if any part of the estate should be sold within the above-mentioned period.' Here follow the names of thirty-six tenants.

Such an instance of the affection which the tenants on an estate felt for their landlord shews how strong clan feeling then was.

Taking the place of the small lairds and of yeomen in England were the gentlemen tacksmen on the estate. These were all cadets of the chief's family, more or less nearly related to him. Out of the thirty-six who signed the document above given, nineteen were MacLeods, and five others were MacCaskills or MacSweyns, which were both minor septs of the clan. To them was entrusted the government of the people in their own districts.

The author of a report which was rendered to the British fishery Society about this state of affairs at Stein towards the end of the eighteenth century says that the tacksmen had been 'most tyrannical and cruel in dealing with their people.' This may have been true in isolated cases, but I do not believe that I was generally true. When in 1772 and 1811 some of the tacksmen proposed to emigrate and take the people with them, it seems incredible that people who had been so cruelly treated should be willing to accompany their tyrants when they went away. They certainly were willing to do so, and, in a good many cases, they actually did so.

In 1708 these gentlemen tacksmen paid rents for their farms varying from 200 to 400 marks a year.

Besides these gentlemen tacksmen were a number of men holding smaller farms, which paid from 80 to 180 marks a year; in a few cases they paid as little as 40 marks. Roughly speaking the mark would probably be worth as much as a pound sterling is at the present time.

The whole estate was let to tacksmen, and the masses of the people lived under the tacksmen and were their servants. Pennant says that the tenant of a farm which paid £50 in rent would have twenty farm servants employed on the land. He draws a pitiable description of the condition of these poor people, but, as he happened to visit Skye in a very bad year, I think the picture he draws must be coloured in unduly sombre hues, and this probably is the case with his whole description of the Island of Skye.

I do not find in any of the old rentals any trace of crofters' holding under the laird until 1754, when a few were given holdings. Some of the holdings were no doubt small, but the tenants all ranked as tacksmen, not as crofters. In the rental of 1683 there were 179 tenants on the Skye Estate and 59 in Harris. We know that the population of Harris a hundred years later was just under 2,000. Had the land been in the hands of the people, we should find 400 tenants instead of 59. We may put the population of the Skye Estates at 6,000, and, had the land been in the hands of the people, the tenants would have numbered something over 1,000 instead of 179.

But, though the humbler classes were not holders of land under the laird, though the standard of comfort was very low, and though the wages then paid for labour strike us as ludicrously insufficient, I believe that they were not badly off, and not discontented with their lot.

Much of the land was under cultivation, dairying operations were carried on on a large scale, and the kelp industry was beginning to be a source of revenue to the landowners, and to give employment to the humbler classes. Early in the eighteenth century it had been discovered that the seaweed which grew on the rocks, and to a still greater extent the floating ware cast up by the sea, were rich in alkalis and iodine. To extract these the weed was burnt, and sent south (generally to Liverpool), to be further treated and refined. As early as 1722 kelp was being made in the Orkneys, and the industry began in 1735 in North Uist and in 1748 in Harris. Here the results were very soon seen m the increased revenue derived from the Island. In 1744 Harris was worth £356. in 1754 it had risen to £544 and in 1769 to £806. In Glenelg, where there was no kelp, values rose at the same time, but not to the same extent. The value of Glenelg in 1744 was £373, in 1754 £407 and in 1769 £679.

The kelp industry rapidly spread to the other outer islands, and to Skye where, however, there was less floating seaweed, and consequently the industry was never so important.

It not only benefited the landlords, but it gave employment to the people. The cost of making the kelp was something like £3 0s. 0d. a ton and all of this went in wages to the people.

Early in the century wages were very low. A gardener and a gamekeeper each received about £5 a year, a master mason received about £10 a year, a blacksmith's labourer received 1s. a week, a farm labourer may have been paid even less, but the cost of living was extremely low. The board, lodging and attendance of Lady Grange in 1745 only cost £2 10s. 0d. a year, a wedder cost one shilling and eightpence, 2 cow seventeen to eighteen shilligs, butter a penny a pound, cheese a halfpenny, meal sevenpence a stone, Probably the people were allowed by the tacksmen to cultivate a piece of land, and, though they earned very little in money, they were given some meal, and some wool from which they could spin and weave their clothes. They had peat for the cutting, they could catch fish in the sea. I am under the impression that a good deal of mutton was consumed, and I think that they got a share of the Mairts which were salted for use in the winter, and of the milk which was produced by the cows. I am inclined to think that they owned cows which were allowed to graze with the tacksman's herds.

They had no luxuries and few comforts, but they had the necessaries of life. In bad years, such as 1717 or 1772, they suffered terribly, and were reduced to pickin up shell fish on the shores, and mixing blood drawn from living cattle with their  oatmeal bannocks. But even then the laird was not unmindful of their sufferings. I find many references to his chartering ships to bring food to the country when the crops had failed at home. There was no poor law in Scotland until 1845, but I find in the estate accounts regular entries of 'pensions' being paid to poor persons who would otherwise have been destitute and I believe that on most estates the duty of looking after the poor was thoroughly realised. I find also that many payments were made to doctors and nurses, from which it would seem that the medical needs of the people were not lost sight of.

As time went on the cost of living rose but wages rose also. About 1775, the smith's labourer received 4s. 6d. a week, a farm labourer 4s. a week, if living in the house £2 a year and four pairs of shoes, a skilled carpenter £16 18s 0d. a year. The wages of common women servants living in the house were 8s. a year and two pairs of shoes, of dairy women 15s. a year and three pairs of shoes. The shoes were valued at 2s. 6d. a pair. These later wages were fixed by a meeting of the Magistrates held in 1788.

In 1696 and 1708 education acts had been passed, and from the very beginning of the eighteenth century I find in the accounts payments to schoolmasters. The estate contributed about a year towards the salary of each master, and every tacksman was bound under the conditions of his lease to make a certain payment for the same purpose. There were, I think, about six or seven schools on the Skye Estate, two in Harris, and certainly one in Glenelg. It would be interesting to know what language was being taught in these schools. Gaelic was undoubtedly the language of the people. In the report on Harris so often referred to, it is expressly stated that, out of the 1,993 inhabitants, only one hundred could speak English. The tacksmen no doubt spoke both Gaelic and English. I have no means of knowing whether the chiefs spoke Gaelic. They were certainly educated in the south, Sir A. MacDonald says in a letter written in 1744 that his son, Jamie is getting more Galiick at Kingsbourn than tongue can tell. I suppose that up to 1747 the kilt was universally worn. It was then forbidden by law.

Turning to matters of religion I imagine that in early days the people followed their chiefs in these as in other matters. On the estates of Lord Lovat and Clan Ranald, the people are still Roman Catholic because their chiefs did not accept the Reformation. I incline to think that, during the first half of the seventeenth century, the Skye chiefs were Episcopalians, and that Ian Breac the sixteenth Chief of MacLeod, who succeeded ;n 1664, became a Presbyterian. At all events from the late seventeenth century onward the people on the ancient MacLeod Estates have been Presbyterians. From what Pennant and Boswell say of the clergy I gather that they were able and cultivated men. Certainly the Mr. McQueen mentioned by Boswell was.

In early days and during the whole of the eighteenth century much of the land was under cultivation. The climate and soil of the Western Isles are not really suitable for agricultural operations, but it was probably very difficult to import grain at that time. In some of the letters I find references which shew that this was the case. One letter describes the great difficulty of getting a ship to carry the corn, another says how badly the grain in a ship had been injured by salt water, a third relates the capture of a vessel laden with meal for use in Skye, by a French privateer.

Thus it was absolutely necessary to grow what corn was required at home. On much land now under heather are lazybeds, which shew that this land was once cultivated, but, on the other hand, some of the land now cultivated was then probably undrained marshland, lying as it does at a low level generally close to the sea, or on the banks of rivers. I gather from the quantity of meal which was paid as rent in lieu of money that Waternish and Minginhh were the granaries of Skye.

The crops grown were beare, the Hordeum vulgaris which is still grown in the Long Island, oats, a little rye, some flax from which a coarse linen was woven, and some linseed. The Harris report mentions that the home-grown seed was very bad, and says the shipwreck of an American vessel on the coast, which was laden with linseed, had enormously improved the crops. Clan Ranald introduced the potato in South Uist in 1743. At first the people would not look at it; 'You made us plant these worthless things,' they said, 'but Holy Virgin, will you make us eat them.' But these 'worthless things' were destined to become the staff of life' in the Highlands. I find no reference to the potato in any of the eighteenth century letters at Dunvegan. Considering that from the point of view of the masses of the people its introduction was probably the most important event of the century, this omission is remarkable.

The methods of cultivation approved in the eighteenth century were somewhat primitive. The plough in use is thus described in an account of Harris dated 1772. ' Its whole length is but four feet seven inches, it s drawn by four horses abreast, it has one handle by which it is directed. The mould board is fastened with two leather thongs, and the soke and coulter are bound together at the point by a ring of iron '

'Another instrument is also used called a ristle. It is only two feet long and is drawn by one horse. It has no soke, but has a sharp crooked coulter which is drawn through the soil near ten inches deep. The use of it is to be drawn before the plough in order to cut the long twisted roots of a number of plants with which the sandy soil of Harris is infested, which are powerful enough to abstract the progress of so weak a plough as that which is commonly used.' Much of the cultivation was done with the 'caschrom,' the old kind of spade then in use.

Between 1732 and 1735 I find that mills were constructed at seven places on the Estate, and in all subsequent rentals, receipts from these mills appear. In the conditions of leases of 1769 there is a clause under which tenants were bound to grind their corn at the laird's mill, and if, for any reason, they chose to grind corn in their own querns, they were bound to pay their multure all the same. These new mills were probably worked by water power.

Before 1730 I assume that the corn was ground by hand-mills or querns. Pennant says it was a very laborious process and that it took two women four hours to grind a bushel of corn. He also describes a method of burning the corn which was called the 'graddan,' which takes the place of thrashing. ' This is performed in two ways, first by cutting off the ears and drying them in a kiln, then setting fire to them on a floor and picking out the grain, by this operation rendered as black as coal. The second method is more expeditious but very wasteful, as it destroys both thatch and manure. In this the whole sheaf is burnt without cutting off the heads.'

There were some sheep in the country. Probably the breed was similar to that now in St. Kilda, and it may be doubted if a sheep weighed more than 25 lbs. The price of a sheep remained during the first quarter of the century one shilling and eightpence, later it rose to two shillings and threepence, at which price mutton is little more than a penny a pound.

Plaid tartan and cloth are frequently referred to but the word wool is never used; probably neither sheep nor wool were exported in any quantities.

In 1772, however, some coarse woollen yarn and blanketing were exported from Harris. I should think that plenty of cloth was produced in the country to supply the local needs of the people by hand spinning and hand weaving. Pennant gives an account of the 'laughagh,' or 'walking the cloth.' Twelve or fourteen women sit down on each side of a long board, ribbed lengthways, putting the cloth upon it. First they work it backwards and forwards with their hands and they then use their feet, singing all the time with such fury that you might imagine a troop of female demoniacs to have been assembled. This did the fulling of the cloth, a process which cleanses it from oil and grease.

There were more horses in the country than now. A little earlier we hear of droves of semi-wild horses wandering about the country, and the method of cultivation above described involved the use of a good many horses. These were probably rather ponies than horses, of a strong and serviceable breed.

The main wealth of the country lay in black cattle, of which there were large numbers. One result of this was that when a murrain occured amongst the cattie, as happened in 1717 and 1772, the results were disastrous. There are a number of letters in the latter year which give an appalling description of the state of affairs. Every year a large drove was sent south for sale at Falkirk and other markets. The landlord received the money and settled with his tenants, deducting the rent due and charges for sending the drove.

In the eighteenth century the farm houses and farm buildings all belonged to the tenants. Macaulay gives an appalling description of the house of a Highland gentleman, and indeed of the Highland gentleman himself. This picture is probably painted in too dark colours, but the fact that, in the conditions of 1769, a rule is inserted that all new houses should be of stone and lime and no turf, implies that the old houses left much to be desired. It was not unnatural that it should be so. For centuries the raid of a hostile clan might reduce all the houses in the country to ashes, and it had been worth no man's while to build a house which could not be restored by the labour of a few days; and long after this danger had passed, men thought that what had been good enough for their fathers was good enough for them.

But not all the houses of the tacksmen were as bad as this. Johnson visited Talasker, the home of one of those on the MacLeod Estate, and writes thus, ' We spent two days at Talisker very happily, both by the pleasantness of the place, and the elegance of our reception.' He would not have written thus had he been entertained in a hovel. At Ullimsh also, on a tacksman's house still standing, is an inscription saying it was built in 1770. The humbler classes no doubt lived in black huts, some of which may still be seen in the Highlands.

There were roads in the country, some of which can still be traced. I doubt whether there were any bridges, and whether the roads were much more than tracks across the moors. Every able-bodied man was bound to give six days' labour every year on the roads. At the meeting of Magistrates in 1788 already referred to, each gentleman tacksman was to furnish a list of all such within his bounds, but it was provided that in future labour should be commuted for two shillings and sixpence a head, and that tacksmen should pay twopence in the pound on their rent in lieu of their personal attendance. A committee was appointed to obtain the services of a contractor to carry out the work on the roads. This was probably the first germ of the system of rates in the Highlands. Poor rates, school rates, County Assessments were all unknown. Local Government was certainly cheap in those days, and I believe that it was also effective.

Communication with the outside world was very slow and very difficult. In the early years of the century there was no post office in Skye, neither were there any mails. There was an official at Dunvegan called 'MacLeod's post.' It was hię duty to take 'expresses' to any place to which he was sent. He received a regular wage of fifteen shillings a year, and fifteen shillings for a journey to Edinburgh. This seems very little, but it was equivalent to £9 in our own days. As early as 1742 I find MacLeod writing that he will write again by the next post, from which I assume that a mail was then being sent to the Western Isles. But the only post office in Skye was at Dunvegan, and people who lived in all parts of the Island had to send there for their letters. The authorities would not allow a bag to be dropped by the postman at Sconser, and in 1753 Lady Margaret MacDonald wrote several letters to MacLeod bitterly complaining of this, and asking that a post office should be opened either at Portree or Sconser.

The outer islands were served by a packet which sailed from Dunvegan once a fortnight. Stornoway had a fortnightly packet sailing from Poolewe.

There are among the papers at Dunvegan a great many-papers relating to election business.

Until 1832 the County Franchise in Scotland was confined to freeholders who held land worth £400 Scots money under the old valuation of 1690. Sometime early in the eighteenth century a plan was devised by means of which the owners of large properties were enabled to multiply the votes on their estates. The owner gave to any person on whom he could rely, a charter for life of land valued under the valuation of 1690 at £400 Scots money, and that person gave the original owner a charter of the land at a peppercorn rent.

The former then became 'the subject superior ' of the land and as such was entitled to vote. The original owner still enjoyed the profits of the land, but held it not as before of the Crown, but of the 'subject superior' whom he had himself created. This last person holding of the Crown was by Scottish law a baron, so the process was referred to as 'making Barons,' or as 'creating superiorities.'

In 1690 the MacLeod Estate was valued at £8,874, which, judiciously split up, would give twenty-two votes. In 1782 there were only ninety-eight voters on the roll for Invernesshire. So that MacLeod then commanded nearly a quarter of the votes in the whole county.

But this system had many disadvantages. It involved much expense, it became necessary for an heir to obtain seisin from each of the subject superiors on succeeding, instead of obtaining one seisin for the whole from the Crown, and, in one instance at all events, a new baron, having obtained his charter, refused to reconvey the land.

It may be doubted moreover whether much was really gained. Other owners of land in the county were as busy creating superiorities on their estates as MacLeod was. The Duke of Gordon seems to have been specially busy in this direction, and the record of elections induces me to think that MacLeod was outstripped in the race. Elections were won in 1741 and 1790, but they were lost in 1733 and 1823. Generally, I think, the new barons paid nothing for their rights, but I find that about 1790 £400 was paid for a superiority in Argyleshire, and that between 1818 and 1830 £320 was recovered for superiorities.

The earliest instance of creating barons which I find is in 1733, and the custom continued till the Reform Bill of 1832 was passed.

Though there are very few papers on the subject at Dunvegan, no sketch of the state of affairs in the Highlands during the eighteenth century would be complete without some reference to the Jacobite plots which were incessant, and to the Jacobite risings, which were very frequent during the first half of the century. The Earl of Sutherland and the Duke of Argyle were undoubtedly Whig, but the majority of the western chiefs were enthusiastic Jacobites. Lord Seaforth, Clan Ranald, and Sir Alexander MacDonald of Slaitt were all out in 1715. Sir Alexander MacDonald of Slaitt and MacLeod were certainly concerned in the abduction of Lady Grange, which is generally believed to have been carried out because she was a Government spy whom it was necessary to remove because she had knowledge of Jacobite plots. There is, however, some reason to doubt whether her abduction was a move in the political game at all. It may have been prompted by purely personal motives.

Murray of Broughton and Lord Lovat maintained that MacLeod had entered into the most solemn engagements to join Prince Charles, and that he was a double-dyed traitor because he did not do so, but there is absolutely no proof that he had done so, and I very much doubt whether he had entered into any engagements at all. When the Prince came, fervent Jacobites like the chief and Clan Ranald thought that it was a mad enterprise, and were only won over by the personal charms of Charles Edward himself. The Skye chiefs, whatever their sympathies, held aloof, probably under the influence of the Lord President Forbes, and actually raised their clans to fight on the side of the Government in the inglorious campaign under Lord Loudon in the winter of 1745.

This they had great difficulty in doing, as the sympathies of both clans were certainly Jacobite. Sir Alexander MacDonald in a letter dated September 25th, 1745, says, 'I need not tell you the difficulty of recruiting 100 men; the scarcity of bread forced away several in the spring to the Dutch Service, and the men here are almost as fond of the young gentleman as their wives and daughters are.'

Daring the first half of the century large numbers of men were raised in the Highlands for the army carrying out the policy which had been originally suggested by President Forbes, and adopted by Pitt. Among the papers at Dunvegan are references to recruiting which was going on in 1760 for some unnamed regiment.

In 1775 Norman MacLeod (afterwards General MacLeod) raised a company for the Fraser Highlanders. In 1780 he raised a large number of men for a second battalion of the 42nd, afterwards the 73rd. Some think that he raised the whole battalion. He was certainly its first Lieutenant-Colonel. In 1790 further recruiting was going on, though here again no regiment is mentioned. Roderick C. MacLeod.


Eighteenth Century Highland Landlords and the Poverty Problem
By the same Author

I came across another article by this author which covers issues of poverty and the reasons for it. The article starts...

DURING the latter part of the eighteenth century the inhabitants of many parts of the Highlands and Hebrides were living permanently in a state that bordered upon destitution. They were badly housed, they were poorly fed, and they had a continual struggle to pay their rents.

This state of poverty was not universal; in some areas and on some estates the tenants presented an appearance of comparative prosperity. Where it did exist it had certain limits, for its existence did not prevent a large increase in the population of the Highlands, and that increase was greatest where the poverty was most marked; apparently the food supply was not so short as to affect the birth rate. But, after making these reservations, the fact remains that in the districts in question the general standard of living was below what was regarded, even in the eighteenth century, as a decent level for subsistence. Highland farmers often enjoyed fewer of the comforts of life than the ordinary day labourers in the Lowlands, and the latter were not a class that could be accused of riotous living.

What was the cause of the low Highland standard?

Download this article in pdf format here


Return to Scottish Historical Articles