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The Crofter in History
Origin of the Modern Crofter


In the seventeenth century the term "crofter" was unknown. In old tacks and leases of that period the word "croft" is of common occurrence. In the Breadalbane papers, for example, there is a "tack" which was given by Sir John Campbell of Glenurchy to his "weil belouit" servant John M'Conoquhy V'Gregour, in the year 1530. It purports "to haue set and for malis and service . . . the four markland of Kincrakin . . . with the croft of Polgreyich and the croft that Ewin M'Ewin was wount to haue," &c. In England the word is frequently used in Latin charters of the twelfth century. It is, in fact, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "field," and survives in many local names both in England and Scotland. Dr Walker, as we have seen, refers to the division of farm land into infield or croft land and outfield. One of the earliest notices of a crofter class is to be found in Sir John Sinclair's "General View of the Central Highland." The passage is remarkable, as proving that at the end of the eighteenth century the crofters were not only hardly recognised but were at the very bottom of the social scale in the rural economy of the Central Highlands. Sir John Sinclair says, "The sub-divisions or real holdings of the present tenant do not contain on a par more than 5 acres of infield, 4 acres of outfield, 2˝ acres of meadow, 10 acres of pasture, 2˝ of woody waste with 75 acres of muir : and of course the holdings of many of the smaller tenants are still more narrowly circumscribed: yet even these sub-divisions are diminished by a still lower order of occupiers (if such they may be deemed) under the name of acre men or crofters. This extraordinary class of cultivators appear to have been quartered upon the tenants after the farms were split down into their smallest size: the crofters being a species of sub-tenants on the farms to which they are respectively attached. Besides one or two 'cow holdings' and the pasturage of three or four sheep, they have a few acres of infield land (but no outfield or muir), which the tenant is obliged to cultivate, and they, in return, perform to him certain services, as the works of harvest and the cutting of peats: the tenants fetching home the crofters' share." Here, then, we have a description which, with the exception of what relates to the reciprocal services, would be applicable to the modern cottar where he is not an unlicensed squatter; and it is evident that the crofter of the present time owes his conspicuous, and in many respects unfortunate, position to the fact that a numerous class of occupiers who cultivated what would now be considered fair-sized crofts, have entirely disappeared, as well as the tenants and tacksmen who were still higher in the scale. The sheep farmer represents none of these classes. The crofter remains as the solitary survivor, and may be said to be an example, sufficiently rare, of the survival of the unfittest. It is not surprising that he has had to struggle for existence against the forces which were strong enough to remove those above him, and on whom, to use Sir John Sinclair's term, he was "quartered." The only wonder is that in so many cases he should have survived the loss of his mainstay and support.

But it is impossible to give one general description which would apply equally well either to the origin or the condition of the crofter. There was another class of crofter, which was not part of the old system, but which represents the first vigorous attempt to remedy the abuses of the old system, and to put a stop to practices which were alike ruinous to the individual and to the community. The old system of rural economy in the Highlands could only continue so long as causes checking population were in existence. Of these causes, the first was war; the second, pestilence; the third, famine. Every one of these causes ceased to operate in the eighteenth century. Peace, inoculation, and the introduction of the potato, which long flourished without showing a symptom of disease, combined to illustrate the doctrines of Malthus. The feudal system, by setting a premium on population, had given rise to a system of subdivision which it was not possible to continue. Sir John Sinclair thus describes the effects:—"The farms were divided and subdivided to make room for a greater number of soldiers, and were thus frittered down to the atoms in which they are now found, and the country burdened with a load of tenantry which has hitherto been considered as a bar, even under a change of circumstances, to the prosecution of any rational plan of management." The first and obvious reform was to give every tenant a holding in which he should have an individual interest, and on which he could support himself and family. The evil of the runrig system was, that it was a form of joint occupancy in which the individual interest was in continual danger of being jeopardised by the common interest, and vice versa. ["In case default was made by any worthless fellow, he was left to do as he liked, and the industrious, hardworking, sober man, who had already discharged his own rent, was called upon and obliged to pay a portion of that due by the idle profligate, who escaped."—Loch's Improvements, p. 50.] Every township or societas arandi had its own rules and regulations binding on each member. Besides being restricted in the method of cultivation, no man's interest in what he cultivated was sufficiently enduring to encourage him to improve. It was obvious that a salutary change must be effected by abolishing the system of joint tenancy with respect to arable land, and maintaining it in relation to the pasture, thus creating an incentive to individual exertion while keeping up the community of interest. The next reform, not less imperatively required, was to limit the amount of stock which each tenant was to be allowed to put on the common pasture. The third reform was to utilise the higher pastures by introducing sheep stock within certain limits. It was not disputed that so long as the hills were used for grazing only black cattle a great deal of this pasture was entirely lost. Either the cattle could not reach the higher grounds, or could not remain on them. For a time there was a prospect that such experiments would be given a fair trial. It must be acknowledged that they entailed an immense amount of trouble on the proprietor, and that failure was only too often to be expected from the improvidence of the people. No better example of the difficulties to be contended against is to be found than in the island of Tyree. There, as in many other parts of the Highlands, the growth of the crofter class had been accelerated by the desire, in some cases the obligation, of providing holdings for those who had served in the militia or the line regiments. In 1776 the proprietor abolished runrig, and directed that tenants should hold of the proprietor, under improving leases, crofts of not less extent than "a four mail land." The right to these was settled by public roup. But in a very few years the general prosperity, which was largely due to the profits derived from the kelp trade, resulted in a great increase of population. The consequence was the subdivision of the crofts down to the "atoms" which Sir John Sinclair observed elsewhere. In 1802 there were in the island 319 tenants of crofts, which instead of being four mail lands capable of holding 16 cows with their followers and 80 sheep, were " so small that even under better management they were inadequate to support a family, whilst under the wretched husbandry which actually prevailed, they were still more incapable of doing so. Many of them barely fed two cows, and an extravagant number of horses reduced the grazing of these cows almost to the starvation point." Cottars who had not and could have no land of their own, "but who nevertheless kept cattle and horses for the collection and transport of sea weed . . . impoverished still more the common pasture." In 1803 other farms were subdivided among crofters. The same result followed. In 1822 there were consequently to be found in this island "cases of individual wretchedness and misery that perhaps are not to be found in any part of Scotland." ["Crofts and Farms in the Hebrides," by the Duke of Argyll.] But though the results of subdivision were so ruinous in Tyree, it is worthy of note that elsewhere the feeling of the community has sometimes been sufficient to prevent subdivision altogether. In Sir John M'Neill's Report of 1851, will be found a description of club farms in Loch Carron, held on lease and cultivated in runrig; and one of the causes of the prosperity of these farms is expressly stated to have been the feeling against the practice entertained by the co-tenants. If such a feeling could be fostered in club farms occupied by crofters, one of the greatest difficulties of Highland proprietors would disappear.


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