New book tells ‘neglected’ story of Skye land war

IT IS one of the most isolated estates in Scotland, a place of beauty and serenity.

A meeting of the Skye crofters association

But despite its tranquil surroundings, the small community of Glendale, on the Isle of Skye, was once the centre of a full-scale land war that changed the lives of crofters across Scotland forever.

A new book, by Scottish historian and author Roger Hutchinson, tells the “neglected” story of Glendale, about how a small community of crofters took ownership of the land they worked on, declared themselves an independent state and provoked the prime minister to change the land laws of the day.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Thanks to their efforts, community-owned estates in Scotland were born and generations of crofters given more rights over their rich landowners.

“The importance of the events and high drama of what happened in the area has never been fully explored or examined,” Hutchinson explained.

“Part of the reason is that Glendale is now such a small, peaceful area.

“But a revolution occurred in the early 1880s which directly led to legals bills being passed in London and Glendale becoming the first community-owned estate in Scotland.”

Hutchinson’s book tells the story of a post-Clearances era in which a generation of crofters had been left poor and living in terrible circumstances and land owners considered them nothing more than personal possessions.

These so-called “children of the Clearances” were left with no rights to land that, in some cases, has been in their families for generations.

“In the 1880s a revolutionary virus infected Skye,” Hutchinson explained. “People wanted more land and the freedom never to be evicted on a landowner’s whim.”

Led by crofter John MacPherson, the 2,000-strong community of Glendale effectively took ownership of the land, declared themselves an independent state and refused to pay rent to their landowner.

A messenger-in-arms sent from Edinburgh to serve an interdict to the crowd and a hardy team of police officers were all driven out the area by force.

It was only thanks to the intervention of prime minister William Gladstone – who was personally sympathetic to the crofters’ cause – that a compromise was met, and the Napier Commission was established in 1883 an inquiry into the conditions facing the crofters.

Gladstone’s Crofters Act followed in 1886, for the first time granting security of tenure to crofters. The first Crofters Commission, a land court which ruled on disputes between landlords and crofters, was introduced soon after.

Glendale also became, in 1905, the first community-owned estate in the Highlands after landowner Sir John MacPherson MacLeod died.

“As a result of the stand taken in Glendale, essentially a crofters system was established.

“Right now we live in an age of community ownership of land, it has become a buzz-
word in the Highlands and the role of Glendale in this has not really been recognised,” he added.

Roger Hutchinson’s book Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye is out now from Birlinn, price £12.99.