Land and Freedom - the Vatersay Raiders

100 years after their desperate land grab, the Vatersay Raiders have been immortalised, writes Jim Gilchrist

ON 2 JUNE 1908, an unlikely-looking group of ten men, garbed in the faded navy blue of fishermen, emerged from Edinburgh's Waverley station to gaze about them at the unaccustomed grandeur. Few, if any, of them had ever ridden on a train before, but as they made their way to lodgings in the High Street, they prompted cheers from those members of the public who realised who they were and the significance of their appearance in the capital.

For these were the Vatersay Raiders: cottars and fishermen existing at a barely subsistence level, who had been living in overcrowded conditions on Barra and Mingulay, and whose primitive holdings didn't even merit the description of croft. They had had the temerity to build huts and plant potatoes on the neighbouring little island of Vatersay, whence many of their forebears had been evicted a generation or more beforehand. In doing so, following years of vain appeals to their landlord, Lady Gordon of Cathcart, to allow them to croft there, they had broken interdicts served upon them, and had come to Edinburgh to face trial.

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They were by no means the first "land raiders" in the Highlands and Islands, driven to act by iniquitous landlordism, and they would not be the last. But, as a new book published today recounts, the trial and ensuing events of the summer of 1908 became a cause clbre, which had considerable ramifications at a time when land reform figured high on the agenda at Westminster. The case of the Vatersay Raiders caused such a furore across Scotland that the government eventually bought the island for crofting – though not before the ten raiders had served most of the two-month prison sentences they were given for breach of interdict and contempt of court.

Vatersay is a mere 3.5 miles in area, perched on the outermost Atlantic fringe of Europe. Yet according to one commentator, James Cameron, it became "the theatre upon which was fought one of the keenest conflicts in the struggle for land reform in the Hebrides".

"In themselves these raids were not significant," says Ben Buxton, author of The Vatersay Raiders, published today. "But they got a lot more publicity than other land raids, at a time when land reform was on the political agenda."

A Dorset-based ranger, former archaeology teacher and author of an award-winning previous book, Mingulay: An Island and Its People, Buxton is aware of seeming an unlikely candidate to document Hebridean history. He first visited Vatersay in his teens, and became fascinated by the Hebrides. "I'm very aware that I'm an outsider. But when I put out feelers about whether anyone was doing anything to mark the anniversary and discovered they weren't, I felt it was very important to take it on.

A hundred years ago, such was the fame of the raiders that a crowd of 300 supporters was waiting to greet them at Princes Street Station, only to be disappointed, as the men carried on to Waverley. "Other land raiders had been taken to court, of course,," says Buxton, "but because this case was heard in Edinburgh and highlighted so many issues being discussed at the time, it got a lot more publicity. That inspired others elsewhere and there was a whole spate of land raiding."

The Crofters' Act had been passed back in 1886, but made no provision for the cottars who, without any smallholdings of their own, were at the bottom of the heap. Sporadic raids had been made on Vatersay since the 1880s, without any permanent settlement.

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These men were acting out of desperation. When John Wilson, Sheriff of Inverness-shire visited the newly established raiders on Vatersay in May 1907 – dispatched at the request of the Secretary for Scotland, in an attempt to persuade the men to leave – one of them, Neil MacPhee from Mingulay, told him that both his parents had died of typhoid on Mingulay in 1894, and that, he had "grown sick of waiting and would prefer imprisonment rather than go back to Mingulay to starve or be driven to the United States".

Sheriff Wilson, for his part, had found the raiders to be "respectable men, and except in their views as to their right to get land and to take it if need be … intelligent and reasonable … courteous and kindly". His apparent sympathy, however, did not go down well with Lady Cathcart.

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Vatersay was a microcosm of what was happening across the Highlands and Islands, as clan chiefs became hostages not only to changing fortunes, but also to the increasingly expensive lifestyles they often embraced in Edinburgh and London. It was their tenants who bore the brunt of these financial difficulties.

Any remaining crofters had been evicted from Vatersay in 1850 by its then landlord, Colonel John Gordon of Cluny, Aberdeenshire, said to be the richest commoner in Scotland, who had purchased the island as part of the Barra estate a decade before. His predecessor was Roderick MacNeil, a tyrannical landlord in the worst tradition of absentee landowners. By 1840, however, MacNeil was bankrupt; so the islands, and their inhabitants, passed into the hands of Colonel Gordon, whom Buxton describes as "the ultimate absentee landlord", not known to have visited his island properties once during his 18-year ownership and who, in 1840, offered Barra to the government as a penal colony.

Colonel Gordon's son, John, married Emily Eliza Steele Pringle in 1865, and when he died, she remarried, to Sir Reginald Cathcart of Killochan Castle, Ayrshire, styling herself Lady Gordon Cathcart. According to Buxton, "she visited her dominions in the year of her accession, but never again in her 54-year-rule".

She was by no-means the most tyrannical of landlords, the author stresses, but it was her conspicuous absence and wilful ignorance of the conditions endured by her tenants, added to their inheritance of earlier dispossession, that prompted the cottars on Barra and Mingulay to reclaim Vatersay. By the beginning of 1908, there were 31 families living illegally there.

"In Vatersay, they tend to remember the bad things (Lady Cathcart] did, but she did a lot of good things as well. She wasn't really the villain; there were others, like the Scottish Office, who screwed up terribly, but she left the estate to her staff, who were really more villainous than she was. The raiders felt they had a claim on the island, and this was recognised in some of the press and in debates in Parliament."

While acknowledging the predicament of the raiders, the establishment press tended to regard them as being led by political radicals. The Scotsman carried a statement by Lady Cathcart, criticising the "organised campaign of misrepresentation by political agitators … the public are being misled and deceived", while also in this paper, on 14 July 1908, a commentator accused the Scottish Secretary, John Sinclair, of applying double standards, taking no action over the Vatersay situation but warning other raiders on Barra to desist. "Crofters and cottars in every part of the Islands and Highlands have watched the conflict in Vatersay," rumbled The Scotsman. "They have watched how much they dare to do; a fiery cross of licence is passing from district to district."

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Reflecting popular sympathy, however, The Edinburgh Evening News organised a relief fund for the raiders' families, which had reached 174 by the time they were released (by request of Lady Cathcart, who paid their fares home) on 18 July. By this time, having maintained for two years that the government would not buy the island, the Scottish Secretary had come to an agreement with Lady Cathcart over its purchase. The Vatersay raiders had been successful. Their actions had helped fuel the public debate over land reform, but rather than assisting the government, it had subjected it to ridicule over its handling of the case.

Beyond that triumph, however, the settlement of Vatersay did not run smoothly, and there were acrimonious disputes over the allocation of crofts, press reaction to this further blighting Sinclair's efforts to push through the Small Landowners (Scotland) Act, which eventually materialised in 1911. However, an island community had been re-established.

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Buxton would still like to see someone local writing something on these events of a century ago and their legacy. "I've put in as much as I could in terms of oral tradition and stuff, but I'm not a Gaelic speaker."

On Vatersay, connected to Barra by a causeway since 1991, the islanders are taking a fairly laid-back approach to the centenary, says Fiona MacLeod, a descendent of one of the raiders, though not one who went to prison. "There are lists of all the people who came over here," she says. "It's quite fascinating, looking back and seeing your great-grandfather arriving with a pickaxe or whatever …"

Copies of some of the documents are currently on display in Vatersay Hall, and a celebratory ceilidh is planned for Tuesday 22 July. The evening will feature music from The Vatersay Boys, a renowned bandwhose founders, Michael and Andy Campbell, are great-grandsons of two of the imprisoned raiders.

MacLeod regard's Buxton's book as timely. "These people are very important. If it wasn't for them we wouldn't be living here."

• The Vatersay Raiders is published today by Birlinn

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