Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Highlanders of Waipu
Chapter III - Feudalism Abolished

After the rebellion was crushed, the government of the day decided to abolish every trace of feudalism. It confiscated the lands of the rebels, and mercilessly slaughtered many chiefs and clansmen engaged in the war. What was termed " Sheepskin Titles" were given to all loyal chiefs and landholders. These men had no right to the lands thus acquired further than royal favour. The land was the common property of the tribe or clan from time immemorial, so that no process of law could dispossess them. The clansmen, however, were helpless. They had no money, they had lost favour, they were rebels, and so had perforce to submit to the loss of their ancestral patrimonies. The loyal chiefs and landlords saw they had acquired unwonted wealth and importance. They had the government and government forces behind them, and so could dictate their own terms to their tenants. The Stewarts found the great chiefs and barons of their day very troublesome men to manage. They nominally owed allegiance to the King, but they exercised the power of life and death at their own sweet wills within their own territories, and settled their own quarrels upon the battlefield without reference to the government. As a rule their quarrels with their neighbours were mostly minor affairs; but the loser frequently made appeals to the King for redress, so that if the King or some influential noble had any bones to pick with the winner this exerciser of the feudal right was frequently punished. It is said that James V found Macdonald of the Isles a troublesome man to manage. James was advised to offer Macdonald a "Sheepskin Title" to his lands as a possible means of curbing this turbulent and powerful chief. He accordingly despatched an invitation to the chief to come and pay his usual homage at Court. Macdonald selected 100 of his best men and proceeded to Edinburgh. Every chief and feudal lord in those days appeared at Court with his tail (followers). They were royally entertained, and at a suitable moment James presented Macdonald with a fine parchment roll. "What is this ?" queried Macdonald. "A Royal Charter," said the King, "which gives you the sole right to all the lands now held by your clan." "What !" cried the indignant chief, "a Macdonald hold his lands by a ‘Sheepskin!’; no, no, Your Majesty; Macdonald will hold his lands by the might of his right hand," and immediately returned to his Keep in the Western Isles. This incident was the very essence of feudalism, but 1745 saw its downfall in the British Isles.


These words are Anglican modifications of the Gaelic words "croit" and "croiter." A croit signified a small area of land sufficient for the clansman to cultivate—anything up to five or ten acres—while the croiter was the occupier of the croit. The croit was solely arable land; while in addition the people had hundreds or thousands of acres of commonages whereon to pasture any stock they possessed or to cut peat or turf for the purposes of fuel. The croiter built his own house according to his requirements. Sometimes it was a good stone building roofed with turf and thatch, and sometimes it was a plain turf cabin. These lands and homes descended by right in the family while any member of it lived. They could not be dispossessed, and they could not sell it. This was a tribal law or custom from time immemorial. Their rights were the rights of conquest, and hence they saw no sense in the so-called Sheepskin titles. The owners at some stage in the life of the community rendered military or other service, and this gave their descendants a perpetual right to the croit and its appurtenances. After 1745 all land in the Highlands was held by the odious Sheepskin. The Crofters were compelled to pay a yearly rent for their crofts, and were merely tenants at will, so could be evicted at a moment’s notice; while they were completely dispossessed of all commonages. The people had little or no money, and the crofts were not large enough to carry stock whereby payment could be made. There were no public works and no towns or cities in their neighbourhood, hence no means of earning money. In this dilemma a terrible wail went up from a helpless people; but no one offered succour, so they were permitted to die or enter into slavery in other spheres and lands. Many of the new landlords were strangers who had no sympathies with the people and, indeed, were glad of the opportunity to be rid of them. In some instances the landlords and the governments combined and offered free passages to all who chose to go to America. In other instances the people were permitted to build new villages along useless areas of land on the coast and find a living as fishermen. Many of them removed into the towns in the south of Scotland to find a living as beggars or labourers. Few of them were tradesmen, and as few adapted for the constant toil of the general labourer. Most of them were not English speakers, so that their lot on being driven out of their ancestral homes was indeed desperate. At length the great Pitt heard their groans. England at this time had troubles to contend with in Ireland, Canada, and the Continent. Soldiers were in demand, and Pitt saw in this an opportunity of gaining the goodwill of numbers of the struggling and discontented clansmen. He sent Duchesses and other ladies of standing into the Highlands, and by means of a kiss and a yellow Geordie (sovereign) they induced thousands of the clansmen to accept the King’s shilling. These men formed their own territorial regiments, were officered by the scions of their own clans, and greatly distinguished themselves in Ireland, Canada, and the Continent. Many of those sent to Ireland remained there, and their descendants form a considerable part of the Scottish settlement in the North of Ireland. The whirligig of time is a strange thing. In the fifth century (Dalreadic rebellion) numbers of the Irish clans were forced to migrate into Caledonia. Now, about 1800, numbers of the descendants of these migrants returned to Ireland. What strange tricks does not Father Time play with the sons of men!


About this time Cheviot sheep were being introduced into the depopulated parts of the Highlands. Sheep of a poor quality were common to the country for centuries, so also were goats, and in many districts the latter were the principal source of the animal food among the inhabitants. Owing to the demand for wool and the rise of the woollen industries and capitalism, wool growing became a profitable industry. In those circumstances goats were abolished, and the heavy-fleeced Cheviot took their place everywhere. Sheep required extensive areas of open country to roam over, and what better use could the hills and crofts of Scotland be put to than the growing of wool? Many of the landlords thought that sheep would pay them much better than crofters, and so Cheviot sheep were gradually introduced. The poverty-stricken clansmen now ekeing out an existence upon a ledge of rock at the seaside were sorely tempted to relieve their hunger from amongst these new-corners. There was also something of the old Roman lex taliones (retaliation) in the matter, for had not they and their owners driven the people from their ancestral homes? The clansmen never acknowledged nor saw any moral guilt in the part they took in the rebellion. They were merely following the custom of ages. The chiefs asked them to follow, and it was not for them (as clansmen) to question the decision of their chiefs. Whatever guilt might be attached to the actions of the chiefs, the clansmen acknowledged none. There were no police in the country districts, so that "slaodadh " (dragging), or seizing of a sheep, was considered no theft. Gradually, however, men were appointed as watchers, the "slaodhers" (marauders) were caught, and on conviction were sent to Australia to raise new flocks. The caora-glas" (grey sheep) became an object of hatred, so that shepherds and sheep-owners were ridiculed as "boddich nan buth" (old men of the shops) or, in other words, industries and capitalism, indicating that shops and money were now to replace men. It is curious how time brings its revenge. To-day the sons and daughters of these sheep-lifters are amongst the best and most enterprising sheep-farmers in the world. The conduct of the lairds and the results to the people may be likened to Samson’s riddle to the Philistines: " Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." How strange are the ways of Providence, and how we misread the signs of the times! These Alpine people make the best of settlers in all new lands, as they love the solitude and communing with Nature; while the turmoil of towns and industries have little charm for them.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus