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The Crofter in History
Condition of the Highlands and Islands in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries


Enough has been said to prove that even long before the breaking up of the clan system the Highlanders were far from enjoying that absolute immunity from oppression which has been imagined. On the other hand it is a gross error to represent them as being everywhere under a feudal despotism. If we turn to the records of the sixteenth century we shall find them enjoying, under the more powerful and settled clans, a system of rural economy, regulated by laws and customs which may well excite the admiration of a modern land reformer. In the "Black Book of Taymouth," examples of tenures will be found typical of feudalism. There is a tack obliging the holders "to mak slauchter" upon the Clan Gregor. The lessees undertake, "with the haill companie and forces," to "enter a deidlie feid with the Clan Gregor," and "continew thairin, and in making of slauchter upon them and thair adherents, bayth priuelie and oppenlie." Another binds the lessee to be "ane leill and trew servand to me and my airis at all tymes, baith upon hors and futt as he salbe requirit." The condition of a third is the "yearly payment of a sheaf of arrows." A fourth well illustrates the premium set by feudalism on population. It binds the tenant to keep a sufficient number of sub-tenants, and not to set the lands in schieling. There cannot be the least doubt that so long as such conditions were observed the tacksmen and their sub-tenants were undisturbed in the enjoyment of their holdings.

Not less interesting are the records of the Baron Court printed in the same work. They prove that stricter rules of estate management prevailed than are common at the present day. Nor are these rules always imposed as the arbitrary decrees of the lord of the soil. They read like the laws of a small republic. A common form of the record is—"It is statute and ordainit with aduyis and consent of the heall commins, tennentis," &c. [Sir Walter Scott, in contrasting the Highland clans with the Afghan tribes, says, "At no time do the Highland chiefs appear to have taken counsel with their elders as an authorized and independent body" —an assertion which is here disproved.] Amongst many other enactments we find heather burning forbidden except in the month of March: the maintenance of head-dykes and fold-dykes is enjoined: every householder is required to have a kail-yard: the method of cutting peats is prescribed: every tenant and cottar is ordered to leave his dwelling-house, on removing, precisely as he found it: every person is commanded to plant trees in number proportionate to the extent of his holding: none are to permit crows to build in the trees: the occupiers are warned that their stock must be put outside the head-dykes from the first of May until the eighth of June, and after that they must pass to the schielings, and remain there until a certain day.

It is a curious fact that the practice of resorting to arbitration in the assessment of rent is found in use. One of the tacks has the following proviso: "If the said Nicoll be impeded in labouring the said lands by any enemy's army, the tack shall become void, and he shall be bound to pay only such duty as four honest men, assessors in the country, shall appoint." [The date of this lease is 1651.] This custom appears to have taken strong root in Perthshire. It was a common practice formerly to call in sworn valuers or appraisers, under the name of Birleymen or Byrelawmen. The word is derived from the Gaelic word bir, signifying "short": hence short law or speedy justice. These functionaries existed in each officiary, and were called in to settle disputes between landlord and tenant, or between one tenant and another. [Robertson's Report to the Board of Agriculture on Perthshire.]

But an example of a decree of removal carried out by the officers of the Sheriff Court of Perth is also to be found in this volume. The following relates to the year 1596: "Whilk day in presence of me notar public Alexander Campbell ane of the ordinar mairis of the Shirefdome of Perth past to the grounds of the lands of the Ardcandknokquhane . . . and there finding the door of the dwelling house of Malcolm Galt one of the tenants of the said lands open and patent he entered in the same and finding therein one iron pot, one kettle, one brass pan, one chair, two dishes &c. and also upon the ground of the said lands occupied by the said Malcolm he found 40 sheep and 20 goat 4 horses and 15 cows which the said Alexander Campbell put out of the said Malcolm's house and removed the same together with all the sheep goats horses cows above specified off the march of the said lands as also the said Malcolm his wife and servants out of the said dwelling house."

Such was the condition of rural economy in the Central Highlands in the sixteenth century. It is a question how far the description applies to the Western Highlands and Islands. At first sight it is difficult to believe that up to the close of that century, the last half of which is noted for the perpetration of atrocities not perhaps surpassed in the history of any European nation, the western Highlanders and islanders could have devoted themselves much to agriculture. They early acquired habits which must have disinclined them to such pursuits. Not expelled or absorbed by the Norwegian invaders, the Celts of the Western Isles seem to have acquired the habits and manners of their enemies. At one time a Scottish Viking was as formidable as his Norwegian contemporary. [Skene, "Celtic Scotland," vol. iii.] If this character was transitory, other circumstances combined in later times to give the people a distinctive character. If their chief occupation for centuries was not war, they enjoyed at best but an armed peace. At any moment they were liable to be called upon to save their lands from pillage and rapine, or to be summoned to join the array of their chief to plunder and ravage in their turn. How far, then, were their manners modified by feudalism? Mr Skene tells us that the introduction by marriage or royal grant of feudal overlords with apparently feudal holdings was "purely nominal" in the Highlands and Islands. It led to nothing like the Teutonic colonization which characterised the Lowlands, and neither affected the Gaelic population nor the institution of clanship. But he also tells us that the tribal organisation under the Celtic dynasty which ended with Malcolm the Second, gradually disappeared in the East under feudal forms, while in the west and north it passed into the clan system. He shows clearly that the first result of foreign dominion was the breaking up of the tribe into clans. If the primary consequence was such, did the process stop there? Mr Skene fails to show that it did. But there is another question on which his high authority may save us from falling into a popular error. By many the institutions of the Celt are placed in broad contrast to those fostered under feudal laws. Whenever there is found a vestige of ancient custom in the Highlands, if it is desired to abolish it, they brand it as a relic of "feudalism;" as though nothing harsh or oppressive ever came out of Celtic rule. This is not only absurd but positively mischievous. It leads men to associate with one system of law, evils which in reality belong to every barbarous or semi-civilized government. Under the tribal system it is certain that there was at least one broad distinction in society, namely, that between Freemen and Bondmen. Mr Skene thinks that in the law relating to nativi, which is found in the old Scottish Acts of Parliament, the various distinctions and definitions mark those which were recognised under a purely Celtic regime. It is a mistake to suppose that bondage was a special characteristic of feudalism. Yet we find this belief colouring the narrative of one of the most interesting writers on the Western Islanders in the last century—viz., in the description of the North Western Islands by Lane Buchanan, written from 1782 to 1790. He says it was an invariable custom among the tacksmen and lairds to refuse an asylum to any sub-tenant without the recommendation of his master; and he adds, "so inveterate are the remains of feudal slavery in Scotland, that master is, for the most part, the term used for landlord." The fact is, that Buchanan observed a relic of the old Celtic bondage. There is every reason to believe that servitude, and what was known in later times as predial service or manerial bondage, existed in the Hebrides long before feudal tenures came in. There was a class of cultivators exactly corresponding with the "ascripti glebae" of feudal times. Nor is this all. The oldest burdens on land in Scotland were purely of Celtic origin. The cain or can was the survival of the "Bestighi" or food-rent of the Irish and the Gwestva of the Welsh laws. It was paid by every occupier of land to his superior. It ceased as soon as the possessor was feudally invested. We learn, on the same authority, that the conveth was nothing else than the payment or sustenance due from the followers to their leader ; that it was the same as the Irish coigny, and, under the name of cuddicke, long continued to be a burden on land in the Highlands and Islands. Even the obligation of military service had its counterpart in the feacht and sluaged of the Celtic tribe. [Skene's " Celtic Scotland," vol. iii. pp. 231-235.]

But it is doubtful if Mr Skene does not overstep the mark when he fixes the seventeenth century as the period when the supremacy of the feudal law became established. Was it not till then that "the law ignored all Celtic usages inconsistent with its principles, and regarded all persons possessing a feudal title as absolute proprietors of the land, and all occupants of the land who could not show a right derived from the proprietor as simply yearly tenants?" The suspicion that the feudal law stamped its mark on the customs of those regions long before the seventeenth century, is surely pardonable. If the condition of holding lands by military service to the crown was not an innovation, what effect shall we ascribe to the frequent forfeitures which were the powerful and merciless sanctions of the feudal law? Can we contemplate these consequences of the spread of feudalism, and say that the institution was "nominal"? The Mackenzies were employed to quell the insurrection of 1491. It is significant that soon afterwards we find the Lieutenant of the North commanded to proceed against them as oppressors of the King's lieges. The Statute-book leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of such oppression. Again, after the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles, in 1493, Archibald, Earl of Argyll, obtained a lease for years of part of the lands. Is it to be supposed that such a concession was in the interest of the former occupiers? In 1502 the policy of the Government actually aimed at the ejectment of all persons in occupation of the Crown lands and suspected of disaffection. Commissioners were appointed to let the King's lands in Lochaber and Mamore for five years to "true men," and to expel all "broken men." Gregory observes that this was equivalent to an order to expel the whole population. [Gregory, "History of the Western Islands."] Similar directions were given with respect to the forfeited lands of Macleod of Lewis. Though such a policy was not, and, indeed, could not be carried out completely, there can be no question of the ruinous consequences to the lower orders which occasionally followed these penalties of the law.

But though such considerations might dispose us to believe that the occupiers of the land led a precarious existence, it is a notable fact that such a view is not confirmed by the earliest accounts we possess of the state of the Western Islands. The description of them by Sir Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles, is the earliest record of personal observation. It takes us back to the year 1549. Let us recall some of the historical events of the preceding decade. Nine years before the Dean set his foot on some of these Western Isles, James V., " under the conduct of that excellent pilot, Alexander Lindsay," made his famous voyage, which ended in the annexation of the Lordship of the Isles inalienably to the Crown. He had carried back with him in his galleys many a stubborn chief who only obtained his liberty by giving hostages in security for his good behaviour, and Donald Dubh, the great disturber of the public peace, had been deterred from carrying out his preparations to drive Argyll and Huntly from their acquisitions. The intrigues of Glencairn had resulted in the liberation of the hostages, and six years before, the coast of Argyll had witnessed an invasion of 1800 men. Four years before the Dean's journey, the Lord of the Isles, with the advice and consent of his Barons and Council, had sent two Commissioners to treat with England, and four thousand men, "clothed in habergeons of mail, armed with long swords and bows," had disembarked from a fleet of 180 galleys, and taken the oath to the English King at Carrickfergus. Two years before, numbers of Highlanders and Islanders had returned from the disastrous field of Pinkie.

Let us now glance at the scattered notices of the internal condition of the Islands as disclosed by the Dean of the Isles. The account confirms a conjecture which is derived from certain historical facts, that there was a very considerable population in the Islands. There is reason to believe that this has generally been under-estimated. Nor can any one read this account and come to the conclusion that the Islanders were very far behind their countrymen of the mainland in the art of cultivation. It is clear that in addition to cattle they depended largely on cereal crops. In proof of this a few extracts may be given. To begin with the larger isles, Bute was "very fertyle ground, namelie for aitts." Isla was "fertil, fruitful and full of natural grassing with many grate diere, many woods, faire games of hunting, beside every toune with ane water called Laxay, wher-upon maney salmon are slaine."

Colonsay is "ane fertile ile." Mull is "ane grate rough ile, noch the les it is fertile and fruitful." Skye has "twelve paroche kirkes, manurit and inhabit, fertill land namelie for aitis, excelling aney uther, ground for grassing and pastoures, abounding in store." Barra is "ane fertill and fruitfull ile in cornes." Uist, "ane fertile countrey and maine laiche land." Harris, "very fertill and fruitfull of corne store and fisching, twisse mair of delving in it nor of teilling." Lewis, "faire and weill inhabit at the coste, ane fertile fruitfull countrey, for the most part all beire ... in this ile ther are maney schiep, for it is verey guid for the same for they lay furth ever one mures and glenis, and enter nevir in a house, and ther wool is but anes in the ziere pluckit aff them in some fauldes. In this countrey is peit moss land at the sea cost and the place quhar he winnes his peitts this zeir thir he sawis his corne the next zeire, after that he guidds it well with sea ware."

Of the smaller isles, Berneray Beg is "weill inhabit and manurit and will give maire nor twa hundred bows of beire with delving only." Berneray Moir is "inhabit and manurit fertill and fruitfull with maney pastures and meikell store." Tarandsay is "ane rough ile with certain tounes weil inhabit and manurit; but all this fertill is delved with spaides excepting sa meikell as ane horse pleuch will teill and zet they have maist abundance of beir, meikel of corn, store, and fishing." [By the last census this island is now occupied by twelve families.] Many other examples might be given. Out of one hundred and ninety-seven islands and island-rocks north of the Mull of Kintyre enumerated by the Dean, at least one hundred may be put down, either by his express statement or by inference from his description, to have been inhabited in the middle of the sixteenth century. Nowhere does the Dean lead us to infer that scarcity prevailed amongst these people. Nor, beyond some notices of the haunts of thieves and rebels, is there any hint that their condition was one of insecurity. An interval of upwards of thirty years elapses before we have another detailed description of the Western Isles. Between 1577 and 1595 a report was drawn up for the information of Government. [Skene's "Celtic Scotland," App. iii., where the document is printed in extenso.] It supplements in many important particulars the account of Sir Donald Munro. We obtain from it an approximate estimate of the population at the close of the sixteenth century. It appears that the number of men which twenty-eight of the most considerable islands, [Of these, Skye furnished 1780; Lewis and Harris, 840; Uist, 600; Barra, 200; Mull, 900; Islay, 800; Tiree and Coll, 440; Jura, 100; Colonsay and Oronsay, 100.] north of the Mull of Kintyre, could raise, amounted to 6540, or, roughly speaking, to 6000, "quhairof the 3d pairt extending to 2000 men aucht and sould be cled with attounes and haberchounis, and knapshal bannetts, as thair lawis beir." According to the common calculation, we should infer from these figures that the population of these islands alone, at this period, was not far short of 40,000. But it is possible that even this estimate is below the mark, since the fighting strength is not represented as a general conscription of all the inhabitants capable of bearing arms. The writer states that "in raising or furth bringing of thair men ony time of yeir to quhat sumevir cuntrie or weiris, na labourers of the ground are permittit to steir furth of the cuntrie quhatevir thair maister have ado, except only gentlemen quhilk labouris not that the labour belonging to the teiling of the ground and wynning of thair corns may not be left undone." Thus it seems that even in the turbulence of those times, except in cases of extreme emergency, nothing was permitted to interfere with agricultural operations on which the very existence of the entire community depended.

Lewis is described as "very profitable and fertile alswell of corns as all kind of bestiall wild fowl and fishes and speciallie of beir sua that thair will grow commonlie 20 18 or at the leist 16 bolls beir yeirlie eftir ilk bolls sawing." Harris, "fertile, commodious and profitable in all sorts." The former paid yearly "18 score chalders of victuall, 58 score of ky, 32 score of wedderis and ane great quantitie of fisches, pultrie, and quhy, &c, plaiding by thair cuidichies,"  ["In the rentals of South and North Kintyre for 1505, we find besides 'firma,' or rent, each township is charged with a certain amount of meal, cheese, oats, and a mert or cow, 'pro le cuddecht.'" —Skene's "Celtic Scotland," vol. iii. p. 233.] that is, feisting thair master quhen he pleases to cum in the countrie, ilk ane thair nicht or twa nichtis about according to thair land and labouring;" the latter paid "3 bolls malt and 3 bolls meill for ilk day in the yeir, 40 mairtis and eight score wedderis, by customs, pultrie, meill, with oist silver." Each merkland in Uist paid "20 bolls victuall, by all uther customes, maills and oist silver quhairof thair is na certane rentall."

As to the customs, they are described as "splendit and payit at the Landlordis cumming to the Ile to his Cudicht."

The district of Trotterness in Skye paid "ilk merk land thairof twa bollis meill, twa bollis malt, four mairtis, 16 wedderis, 16 dozen of pultrie, twa merks by the auld maillis and utheris dewteis accustomat." The district of Slate was "occupiet for the maist pairt be gentlemen, thairfore it payis but the auld deuteis, that is, of victuall, butter, cheis, wyne, aill and aquavite, samekle as thair may be able to spend being ane nicht (albeit he were 600 men in companie) on ilk merk land." Eg was "verie fertile and commodious baith for all kind of bestiall and corns, speciallie aittis, for eftir everie boll of aittis sawing in the same ony yeir will grow 10 or 12 bollis agane."

The rent of Mull was, for each merkland, "5 bollis beir, 8 bollis meill, 20 stanes of cheese, 4 stanes of butter, 4 mairtis, 8 wedderis, twa merk of silver, and twa dozen of pultrie, by Cuddiche, quhanevir thair master cummis to thame." The fertile island of Lismore had "na set rental of dewtie, because it ts everie yeir alterit or set." The lands of Tyree, belonging to M'Lean of Duart, were assessed at "sa great of victuall, buttir, cheis, mairtis, wedderis and other customes" that it was "uncertain to the inhabitants thairof quhat thai should pay, but obeyis and payis quhatevir is cravet be thair maister for thair haill deuties." In Islay each merkland, in addition to the rent, was made to "sustein daylie and yeirlie ane gentleman in meit and claith, quhilk dois na labour, but is haldin as ane of thair maisters household men, and man be sustenit and furneisit in all necessaries be the tennent, and he man be reddie to his maisters service and advis."

From this period, until the time of Martin, whose curious, but in many respects defective account, appeared in 1703, no traveller of note appears to have set foot in the Isles. The exception referred to is William Sacheverell, governor of the Isle of Man, who visited Iona in 1688. His description of the islanders of Mull will be noticed hereafter. But enough is known of the history of the Isles during the last half of the sixteenth and the following century to enable us to gauge with tolerable accuracy the condition of the islanders. Reference has been made to the general history of this time. We may look in vain through this long record of internecine strife for one ray of light to herald the dawn of civilisation. Whatever else the feudal law may have done, here it inspired no chivalrous sentiment. The most solemn obligations are set aside. Faith is ruthlessly broken: the most sacred trust violated. Avarice and revenge are the motives which alternate in impelling men to the commission of the most hideous atrocities. Scarcely a year passes but the attention of Government is directed to quell disturbances, demanding the levy of the armed forces of half the kingdom. In 1586, the feud between the Macleans and the Macdonalds involved not less than ten of the principal clans in a sanguinary conflict. In 1587, the Macdonalds invaded Mull and Tyree, putting to death all who fell into their hands, as well as the domestic animals of every description. The Macleans retaliated on the inhabitants of Canna and Muck. In 1596, Torquil Dubh, of Lewis, ravaged Cogeache and Lochbroom, sparing neither man, woman, nor child. At the same time a section of the Campbells were in feud with the Stewarts of Appin, on account of the barbarous murder of a chief of the former. Well might the historian of James VI. say that the Islanders were "of nature verie prowd, suspicious, avaricious, fule of decept and evill invention, each aganis his nychtbour be whatsoever he may circumvin him." This was the state of things which called for the exercise of all the State craft of James VI. One of the first acts of his government was to make every chief responsible for the conduct of his vassals. Next, all landholders were required to produce their title deeds on pain of forfeiture. Mr Gregory has found fault with the measures of James, as being designed to replenish an empty exchequer. But the first duty of the Government was clearly to enforce the rights of the Crown. There is no question that the rents of the Crown lands were hopelessly in arrear. In the result, Lewis and Harris, along with Dunvegan and Glenelg, were forfeited. It is not necessary to dwell on the well-known attempt to plant a colony of Lowlanders in Lewis and Trotterness. The scheme failed in consequence of the opposition of three powerful chiefs. The length to which James was prepared to go in "planting" the Isles must be measured by his compact with Huntly a few years after, by which that nobleman undertook "the extirpation of the barbarous people of the Isles within a year," in reward for which he was to have a feu of the North Isles, excepting Skye and Lewis. Not less instructive is the grant by royal charter of the lands of Kintyre, the ancient inheritance of the Clan Donald, to the Earl of Argyle.

The principal object of the King being now to diminish the power and influence of the chiefs, a Commission was appointed to superintend the government of the Isles, and in 1609 the Bishop of the Isles was entrusted with the mission which resulted in the famous Statutes of Iona. In these enactments, to which the assent of all the most considerable chiefs of the Isles was obtained, indirectly much light is thrown on the condition of the people at this period. The picture is anything but attractive. These statutes show that the people were labouring under oppression arising from a variety of causes. Not least amongst these was the swarm of idle persons which the tenantry had been compelled to support. Precisely the same grievance in the Lowlands, let it be observed, had engaged the notice of the Parliaments of the preceding reigns. Here a statute enacted that no man should be suffered to reside within the Isles who had not a sufficient revenue of his own, or who at least did not follow some trade by which he might live. All persons, not natives, living at free quarters upon the poor inhabitants, were to be tried by the Judge Ordinary as thieves and oppressors. Equally notable is the injunction that every chief was to support his household from his own means, and not by a tax upon his tenantry. The people are represented as demoralised to the last degree by drink. Their love of strong wine and aquavitae is assigned as the chief cause of their poverty and barbarity. But another cause, which may long be traced in operation, was the utter absence of education, and the want of schools and regular clergy. It was ordained that churches should be repaired, and regular stipends paid to the clergy of the reformed religion. With a view to remedy these evils, every gentleman or yeoman possessed of sixty cattle was required to send his eldest son or eldest daughter to school in the Lowlands. [Gregory, " History of the Western Isles."]

At this period we have evidence that the natives were jealous of their laws and customs. When an attempt was made by Sir Ronald Macdonald to introduce Irish laws and customs into Isla, the resistance of the people caused the Privy Council to interfere. Gregory considers this resistance as an indication of the greater progress made by the feudal system in Scotland. Irregularity in payment of the rents and services due to the Crown and the superior lords was probably the cause of much disturbance. Thus, in 1612, we find Campbell of Barbreck appointed by the Earl of Argyle Commissioner for Ardnamurchan, with power to fix and collect the rents, and punish by expulsion or otherwise the refractory tenants. Until the year 1617 the calpe, [The taking from children or executors of the "best aucht," whether mare, horse, or cow. Skene, vol. iii. p. 368.] which was an acknowledgment of vassalage, was rigorously enforced. Early in the century the chiefs of Mull were required by the Privy Council to cultivate their home farms, and to let the remainder of their lands to tenants for a certain fixed rent in lieu of all exactions. They were further required to abstain from oppressing the country people in voyaging through the Isles.


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