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The Crofter in History
Buchanan's Account of the Western Hebrides, 1782

When Dr Walker wrote, sheep farming had not advanced beyond Dumbartonshire. Colonel Stewart deplored its extension over the whole country. Before we pass on to that time, one other description of some of the Western Islands should be noticed. We refer to the work of John Buchanan, a minister of the Church of Scotland, who resided on the islands of Lewis and Harris from 1782 to 1791. It would not be easy to find anything in the whole range of literature bearing on the social condition of the Scottish people, if we except perhaps Orkney and Shetland, to compare with this curious tract. It brings vividly before our eyes the evils of a system which Dr Walker laboured to amend. The accuracy of this writer has never been questioned; and yet he depicts on the one hand an exercise of arbitrary power, and on the other a depth of human suffering, degradation and misery which are almost incredible. But it would be an injustice to ascribe this condition of things to the direct action of the proprietors. Buchanan expressly mentions several who were doing their best to improve it. Lord Macdonald, instead of dismissing the actual cultivators of the land, had taken them under his own immediate protection, and "settled them in dozens in the room of one overgrown landbroker or tacksman." Another proprietor laid "plans of rural economy before his tenants, and by his own example led them, as it were, by the hand, to execute them for their own benefit." The proprietor of Harris laid out money in piers and harbours, improved the houses, made roads, and endeavoured to introduce a woollen manufactory. Mackenzie of Seaforth made every tenant hold directly from himself. But though such examples were to be found, others lived at a distance, and permitted a class of middlemen to farm the rents. Many of these did not represent the old class of tacksmen, but were introduced into the country during the last half of the century, and succeeded to all the privileges of their predecessors without possessing any of their good qualities. The efforts of some of the best proprietors were rendered nugatory by combinations of this class. Macleod of Harris, "after a generous struggle for years to bring about a regular plan of improvement among them, found himself fighting against the stream, for the tacksmen counteracted his well-intended schemes, as they understood that the more they co-operated with him the sooner their own weight in the scale would be lessened."

Buchanan divides the population into lairds, tacksmen, sub-tenants, and scallags. This last class is thus described—"The scallag, whether male or female, is a poor being, who for mere subsistence becomes a predial slave to another, whether a sub-tenant, a tacksman, or a laird. The scallag builds his own hut, with sods and boughs of trees; and if he is sent from one part of the country to another he moves off his sticks, and by means of these forms a new hut in another place. He is, however, in most places, encouraged by the possession of the walls of a hut, which he covers in the best way he can with his old sticks, stubble, and fern. Five days in the week he works for his master, the sixth is allowed to himself for the cultivation of some scrap of land, on the edge of some moss or moor, on which he raises a little kail, or coleworts, barley, and potatoes. These articles, boiled up together in one mash, and often without salt, are his only food, except in those seasons and days when he can catch some fish, which he is also obliged not unfrequently to eat without bread or salt. The only bread he tastes is a cake made of the flour of barley. He is allowed coarse shoes, with tartan hose, and a coarse coat, with a blanket or two for clothing. [As to the condition of the people in the past this writer gives contradictory testimony: in one passage he says—"Formerly they were a free, animated, and bold people, commanding respect from their undaunted courage, and repelling injuries from whatever quarter they came, both by words and actions. . . . Formerly a Highlander would have drawn his dirk against even a laird if he had subjected him to the indignity of a blow." But in another passage he speaks of sub-tenants being treated "with all the freedom and caprice of a Scottish baron before the Jurisdiction Act," and in a third he says old residenters claimed "a kind of prescriptive right of oppression."] These people still wore the Highland garb—except when at work; the men a short coat of homemade tartan, a philibeg of breacan or fine Stirling plaid, and short hose. Their underclothing was made of coarse wool: their shoes, brogues made of cow or horse leather, sometimes of seal skin, tanned with the roots of tormentil. At ceremonies they put on "large forest coats."

The women wore the guilechan, or small plaid, fastened with a brooch, about the shoulders. The wives had linen mutches or caps fastened with ribbons. Their other garments were made of tartan. The dwellings—it would be a misnomer to call them houses—were commonly destitute of furniture. The walls were six feet thick, packed with moss or earth in the middle, and faced with rough stones. [The crofters' houses in Tyree are thus made, and give, with modern improvements, great warmth.] On these were placed beams and spars bound together by heather ropes, to which in turn side rafters were fastened by rows of ropes placed close together. On this the thatch was laid and kept in place by ropes weighted with stones. Holes in the thatch served for windows. The fire-place was in the centre. Drift timber or large stones served for seats. The door, except at meals, was always open. Beds were unknown, each person rolling himself in a blanket and lying on the floor. The cattle, dogs, and poultry, "must have the common benefit of the fire, and particularly the young and tenderest are admitted next to it. This filthy stye is never cleaned but once a year, when they place the dung on the fields as manure for barley crops. Thus, from the necessity of laying litter below these cattle to keep them dry, the dung naturally increases in height almost mid-wall high, so that the men sit low about the fire, while the cattle look down from above upon the company. . . . No argument can prevail on them to turn out the dung on a dunghill daily, as they have got the idea impressed on their minds that the air carries off the strength if much exposed." They had two meals a day. The first consisted of potatoes and fish. One huge dish, or rather trough, three or four feet long by one and a half broad, served for the whole company. The second meal consisted of brochan or fish. Those who could afford it had boiled mutton with bread and potatoes. When at the shielings they fed on milk, butter, cheese, and fish. Their whisky was made from oats. Smugglers supplied them with rum, brandy, and gin. Their fishing gear consisted of a pock-net bound round a hoop and fastened to a pole eight feet in length. This was sunk beneath the surface, while bits of chewed shell-fish were flung on the water. In this manner they caught a large number of "cuddies." Their corn was graddan'd and ground in braahs or querns made of a hard stone. They dried the barley in small kilns, cutting off the heads and laying them on the "ribs." When dried they were thrashed and winnowed. Their flails consisted of a hand staff and short thick "supple," either of wood or sea tangle, bound by a six-inch thong. This implement was used by the women. The barley crops were plucked by the root: the oats and hay were cut with a sickle. In ploughing they used the old Scotch plough, drawn by four feeble horses yoked abreast, and the restle or a simpler plough called the cromman-gadd. They had two kinds of spades, the cas chrom and cas direach. The latter was employed in cutting turf or trenching. The farm labourers were paid from ten to forty shillings a year. The women received five shillings a year. The out-door labours consisted in carrying sea-weed on creels slung over the back. "One must be a hard-hearted taskmaster that will not pity a poor woman with her petticoats tucked up to her knees and a heavy load of dung or wet sea tangle on her back, mounting those rugged declivities and steep hills, to the distance of a complete mile from the sea before they lay the burdens on the ground. . . . Their being obliged to use the tangle where the sea casts it on the shore, and the grounds nearest the sea being exhausted, is the reason why they must mount very high up the faces of those horrid mountains where very little earth is to be found among the craggy rocks; and they are therefore obliged to collect earth into small spots by way of ridges. Those little collections are called seannags, and the furrows between their ridges are generally six feet wide, while the strip of a ridge is often less in breadth, . . . this renders the whole back settlements of Harris almost impassable, as a man meets constantly with seannags and wide furrows to reap over. . . . Figure out to yourself one of those ridges covered over with thick sea ware, and a man cutting the sward of the furrow with a spade, and a woman up to the knees in that quagmire before him lifting up every turf he cuts and covering the ware with them all over the ridges."

Some were employed with sickles cutting the ware off the rocks for kelp, or collecting what was thrown up on the shore; others burnt it in the kilns made for the purpose. "This," says Buchanan, "is the hardest labour which the people have throughout the year, and at the time they are worst fed; because their own potatoes or little grain are by this time mostly consumed. The oatmeal ... is very sparingly dealt among the people, that, if possible, they may not eat more of it than the price given them for making each tun of kelp can afford: and thus, instead of paying part of their rents with their summer labour, they may sink deeper into their master's debt. . . . The nature of their work requires their attendance by night and by day, frequently in some of the remote little isles, where even the slender assistance of their poor families cannot reach them with periwinkles or any kind of shell fish. Such poor men as these can hardly afford to keep a milch cow: some of them have two ewes, bound together by a rope called caiggean chaorich, to give a little milk for the poor starved children at home; but of this luxury the father of the family cannot then partake; and they are frequently obliged to kill these milch ewes for their food when their families are at the point of starving." Others, again, were employed in cutting and preparing peats. For this operation five people were required. One cut, a second placed the peat on the brink of the ditch, a third spread it on the field, a forth pared and cleaned the moss, a fifth rested.

As to tenure, Buchanan says, though the tacksmen enjoyed their leases on liberal terms, their exactions were most severe on the sub-tenants. The latter held from year to year, and lest they should forget their dependent condition, they are every year, at a certain term, with the most regular formality, warned to quit their tenements, and go out of the bounds of the leasehold estate. The sub-tenant who failed became a scallag. Nor was it necessary, in order to supply the place of a scallag, to be at any expense, for the frequent failure of sub-tenants afforded but too many recruits to the wretched order. This wretched class were forbidden to change their masters, and no tacksman would take one who came without a character.

The barbarous insecurity of property is illustrated by the position of beggars, who were "much respected among the commonality." This arose from the fact that when a man became too frail to look after his sheep he was robbed of them by even his near relations.

Such was the state of the inhabitants of the Hebrides in the eighteenth century.

It remains to notice the changes which were rapidly introduced on the extension of sheep farming from the southern counties to the Western and Northern Highlands.

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