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Clanship to Crofting

The history of Durness: from clanship to crofting
© Malcolm Bangor-Jones (Loch Croispol Project)


This short essay on the district of Durness concentrates on the period between the mid-18th century and the mid-19th century. It was a period of extraordinary change which saw changes in landownership and land tenure, in peoples’ livelihoods, and in social relationships. This essay is a selective account and should be read in association with the work of Graham Bruce on The Old School House of Croispol and the Clearance settlement of Ceannabeinne.


Historical background


Over the last five hundred years Durness has had a number of identities. The lands of Durness as they occur in old charters included not just Balnakeil but all the territory between the west side of Loch Eriboll and the River Laxford. They did not include Eriboll or Strathmore. On the other hand, the medieval parish of Durness was huge and reached from the border with Assynt to include Tongue. In 1724 it was reduced in size and new parishes of Eddrachillis and Tongue were created. The lands of Durness lay within the province of Strathnaver which reached from Assynt to Caithness. Although Strathnaver came to be associated with the clan Mackay, the lands of Durness belonged to the church (though the Mackays may have been tenants). At the time of the Reformation, Durness passed to the earls of Sutherland, and the Mackays were eventually confirmed as their feudal vassals. The ambitions of the Mackays peaked in 1628 when Sir Donald Mackay was created Lord Reay. The clan had also reached their greatest territorial extent. Thereafter there was to be a long and drawn out decline. George Lord Reay, who succeeded as a minor in 1680, grew up to be a staunch presbyterian and supporter of the Government. His influence, allied to that of the Earl of Sutherland, ensured that Sutherland was largely free of Jacobite influence.


The growing integration of the Mackay gentry into the mainstream culture of Scotland was obvious by the early 18th century. More expensive tastes and ways of living brought about financial pressures. While leading members of the clan were to assist by lending money, the narrow agricultural base, where the main commercial emphasis was on livestock farming, posed severe constraints on estate income. The Mackay gentry had always adopted a commercial attitude towards their estates, for instance, selling their produce by way of contracts entered into with Lowland merchants from places like Inverness, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. From the mid-18th century, these attitudes were to take stronger root.

The Reay estate and agricultural improvement in the eighteenth century


Lord Reay was a leading member and correspondent of the premier agricultural society in Scotland, the Society of Improvers, and was latterly its President. His agricultural experiments included sown grasses, inclosures, water meadows and even a ‘trial’ of wheat. These experiments took place either on the Mains of Tongue, or on the Mains of Balnakeil to which were attached the fine grazings on Faraid Head and the Parph between the Kyle of Durness and Cape Wrath. The inventory of Lord Reay’s farm stocking following his death in 1748 suggest that the experiments had included the introduction of some Black Faced sheep onto the Parph and that, while they may have been few in number initially, the flock had continued to increase. These would have been significantly larger than the native sheep.


Donald Lord Reay possessed the two mains farms until his death in 1761. While initially circumscribed by the family trust, his son George was able to take possession of the estate, including the mains farms in 1764. He entered into a 10- year contract with Charles Gordon of Skelpick for the disposal of the estate produce, including wedders, sheep, hoggs, lambs and wool, and also goat’s and sheep’s cheese. He also had an interest in estate improvements. In 1767, the naturalist James Robertson, noted that, while there were few sheep in the north, 2500 were kept by Lord Reay and they “had succeeded so well, that he intended to bring from the south 5000 more.” Part of the Faraid Head was enclosed “for the purpose of receiving My Lord Rae’s newly weaned lambs”. The inventory of Lord Reay’s moveable effects after his death in 1768 revealed that his stocking included £1000 worth of cattle and over £600 of sheep. Balnakeil, including its sheep flock, was let in 1770 to Colonel Hugh Mackay, the eldest son of John Mackay of Clashneach, and who had prospered in Jamaica. In 1780 the Parph continued to be devoted to sheep, though without the benefit of Balnakeil.


Lord Reay was succeeded in 1768 by his mentally incapable younger brother Hugh and the estate was managed by various tutors and factors until the latter’s death in 1797. The tutors took a positive attitude to the development of the estate, but largely left its improvement to the local tacksmen. This, and the limited personal expenditure of Lord Reay, enabled the family to survive financially for a while longer. The tutors regarded the future of the Highlands as a ‘grazing country’ but while they were prepared to allow the tacksmen to remove subtenants and take more of their farms into their own hands, the tutors did take steps to protect the subtenants and ensure that they were not removed from the estate altogether. In general the tacksmen concentrated on the cattle trade but the high prices of sheep in the Napoleonic Wars encouraged them to introduce flocks of their own.


The fisheries and kelp


The Reay estate contained several salmon rivers which were fished by traps or net and coble, including the Grudie. The herring, cod and ling fisheries were important for many coastal communities, not only as a source of food but also of money income, even if the visits of the herrings could be erratic. In the 1720s and 1730s Lord Reay was directly involved in the fisheries and sold herring to Lowland merchants. The herring could attract many herring ‘busses’ or ships from the Clyde and other ports.


Interest in the herring fisheries of the north west Highlands took off in the 1770s with the establishment of a number of fishing stations. In 1775 the tutors of Lord Reay gave a 21-year lease of the salmon fishings to Thomas and James

Arbuthnot, merchants from Peterhead, and their local manager, James Anderson, who had been granted a lease of various coastal farms to enable him to pursue the herring and cod fisheries. Under a new lease of 1787, the merchant partnership built a fishing station at Rispond. The local fishermen were able to sell fish to the merchants and visiting herring busses, and people were also employed in gutting the fish and packing them in barrels.


Another development which was to be of considerable significance was the manufacture of kelp from seaweed. On the Reay estate kelp-making began in the 1730s although it does not seem to have become continuous until the 1750s. In 1754 Donald Forbes, tacksman of Ribigill, became responsible for organising it on behalf of the estate. In 1764 he took over the manufacture himself under a lease which gave him right to the ‘whole ware and Tang…in the Parishes of Edderachillis and Durness…excepting that ware and Tang as will be indispensibly necessary for manuring the Arrable Lands of the respective Inhabitants of the said Shoars’. The tenants of the coastal farms were encouraged to manufacture kelp and Forbes undertook to provide those making kelp with meal. The shores were afterwards let to the merchant partnership based at Rispond. Rising prices for cattle benefited the small tenants as well as the tacksmen. However, increased money income, particularly from fishing and kelp, also enabled them to buy meal. The introduction and rapid uptake of the potato, which could be grown on poor ground, was another factor enabling population growth in the second half of the eighteenth century, particularly in the coastal townships.

The Clearances


When Eric Lord Reay succeeded in 1797 he inherited an extensive estate but one burdened with debt. His desire to maintain the style of living which he felt appropriate to his status was to have enormous consequences for the people of Durness. The Highlands were enjoying an economic boom which not only encouraged him to reorganise much of the estate into sheepfarms but also made it financially advantageous to resettle those cleared to the coast where they were expected earn their livelihood mainly from kelp manufacture and fishing. The Reay estate was cleared in a series of phases commencing in 1801. With the exception of John Dunlop of Moreham who took the farm of Balnakeil – mainly as an inducement to introduce a “new and more improving system of management” – the remainder of the sheepfarms were taken by local tacksmen. Their leases were renegotiated between 1805 and 1809 to take in additional lands at higher rents. In 1815 new leases were entered into for most of the farms. The end result in Durness was the creation of three large sheepfarms: Balnakeil (which included substantial arable lands), Keoldale, tenanted by the Scobies, and Eriboll, tenanted by the Clarkes.

The clearances by Lord Reay in the parish of Durness took place over almost a 30-year period, with some townships not cleared until the mid to late 1820s. The process was prolonged by the fact that numbers of people – especially the aged and infirm – were allowed to remain as subtenants or cottars on the sheepfarms, even into the 1840s. Some, however, were not small tenants. In 1829 there were two cottages on Keoldale sheepfarm: Borley held by John Campbell, a subtenant of Mrs Mackay Scobie and another at Clashneach, inhabited by Mrs Scobie’s mother.


Small tenant population


Some of those cleared are known to have emigrated to Canada. However, most of the small tenants were resettled on the estate, though some moved outwith their parish, for instance, to the Kinlochbervie area. Kelp manufacture became a very importance source of income for the small tenants and a good deal of the wet and cold work was undertaken by women. Lord Reay took personal control of manufacturing in 1801. Although he granted 40-year lease of the shores to James Anderson junior in Rispond, in 1806 Lord Reay took a half-share in the enterprise and became bound to “take the tenants of the coastal farms where kelp can be properly manufactured, bound to give immediate assistance in such manufacture when required so to do, upon their receiving such wages per ton as shall be payable at the time by Lord Macdonald”. Some of the small tenants actually became subtenants to Anderson: at Sangobeg, Ceannabeinne, Portchamil and Island Hoan (and later Lerin). As elsewhere, the townships became swollen with cleared households. The subtenants of Sangobeg later complained of the “the great injustice we received from the late Mr Anderson by having added 4 or 5 additional families to the Towns at the Same time deprived us of a very Considerable part of our Ground, as shown by the old boundary land marks”. Kelp manufacture had disappeared by 1830. Local fishing remained of importance and many of the small tenants and their sons took a share in larger boats and went every year to the Caithness herring fishery. There was employment for women in gutting and packing and young people also went every year to Caithness for agricultural work. Seasonal migration further afield was also undertaken.


Acquisition by the Sutherland family


The financial difficulties of Lord Reay increased markedly with the onset of the economic depression after the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815. Livestock prices fell and the sheepfarmers had problems paying their rents. At the same time the price of kelp collapsed. A new factor, John Horsburgh, was appointed in 1825 tasked with bringing about a more efficient management of the estate. It was not enough and the estate was sold to the Marquis of Stafford in 1829. The Sutherland estate managers found the Reay estate possessed by an over-rented and impoverished small tenantry. Part of their response was to invest in the construction of roads. Prior to this Durness was only served by rough tracks or by boat. In the early 19th century Sutherland had been opened up through the building of Parliamentary roads up the east coast and to Tongue. After 1829 a road was built from Skiag Bridge in Assynt northwards to Durness and round the coast. The work of the county road surveyor, Peter Lawson, is recorded on the plaque at the water trough between Gualin and Carbreck although the date of 1883 should be 1833. Ferries and inns were provided by the Sutherland estate. The provision of roads enabled the Dukes of Sutherland to visit parts of the estate which had rarely seen a landlord for many years. Tours of the estate were regularly undertaken, usually starting at Lochinver and progressing round by Scourie, Durness and Tongue. The Duke stayed at the Durine or Durness Inn, kept by Mrs Isabella Ross. Lunch en route to Tongue House would be taken with Alexander Clarke, the sheepfarmer at Eriboll. The Duke inspected works and met with tenants. However, his party also enjoyed other activities. In 1845 there was a visit to Smoo Cave and local men were employed: “Clearing the Road down to Smoo and putting Sepping Stons in the Burn” and “Six men with two Boats went in to the Cove of Smoo with the Marques of Stafford”. A man was paid to go “to Achumore to warn the Ferryman to be in Readiness to Receive Such as Intended Going to the Cape”. As in every year, payment was made to “three men Employed Day & Night in Keeping Drunken and Disorderly Beggars &c from Entering the Inn or taking anything out of the Inn”. The management of Durness had remained under the factor at Tongue until the appointment of a separate factor at Scourie in 1832. The Scourie district of the Sutherland estate included Assynt, Eddrachillis, and Durness, excepting Eriboll sheepfarm which remained under the Tongue management.

The creation of crofts


It is usually said that in the Highlands and Islands the creation of crofts (small individual holdings) was associated with the clearances. It is contended that those evicted when their townships were cleared were resettled in crofts where it was intended that they would become a labour force to manufacture kelp or fish. The crofts would be too small to allow the tenants to support themselves entirely from the produce of their holdings. This did not happen on the Reay estate: instead the small tenants continued to hold their land according to the runrig system of intermixed strips. The adoption of a more improvement-minded approach – initially from 1825 and then by the Sutherland estate management after 1829 – saw the rearrangement of townships into crofts. The runrig system was condemned as stifling agricultural improvement: crofts would not only stimulate improvement but also encourage more industrious habits amongst the people. The townships of Durine, Balvolich and Sangomore holding of the landlord were finally made into crofts in 1833. The tenants had to surrender their houses if they fell on an other tenant’s croft and promised to build new houses on their crofts or lots. The tenants of Sangmore signed an undertaking to the factor: “Considering that as you are now about To Relote this township and therby that many of the Houses will fall to be upon lots not to be possessed by the Occupiers of the said houses We the undersyned hearby Agree and ingage that if under the new arrangement any of our houses fall to be on one or other of our neighbour Lots we shall remove therfrom at or before the time of martinmas nixt and we farther Ingage to commence our new houses Immediately on Such Cites [sites] as you may point out”. The crofts were laid out by a land surveyor and then valued by local valuators. There was some dissatisfaction as to the way the re-organisation was carried out. In 1837 a majority of the tenants in Durine complained that the men who had been elected by the crofters for “valuing or equaliseing the rent” of their crofts had taken the “best lots and had got them without running the chanse of the Rest and some got them by force.” The ground officer confirmed that the men had not done “as well as they might have done in putting rent on Improved Ground”. In Balnavolich, for instance, the croft of William Morrison was “rather dear” and that of Widow George MacLeod was “very dear and rocky and Cannot be improved”. The building of new houses was a financial burden for many of the tenants. In 1835 the crofters of Durine petitioned the estate commissioner, James Loch, “That since the distribution of their lands into Lots, your Petitioners have been preparing Materials for building their new houses: That they have no Sufficient Carriage for the Conveyance of Stones, Lime &c &c: That a Cart and Harness has been, by their noble Proprietor, placed at the disposal of their neighbours in the Township of Saingo-more; And that there are Six & twenty of your Petitioner – heads of Families, to whom such another present would prove invaluable.” A cart was granted. A road was also made through the Durine to ‘Geo Brat’ where the crofters normally got their drift seaweed for manuring their arable land. The difficulties of the 1830s were reflected in the rising level of rent arrears. A very poor potato harvest in 1837 exacerbated conditions. All the crofters or small tenants on the Sutherland estate were forgiven their arrears when the second Duke of Sutherland succeeded to the estate on death of his mother the Duchess-Countess in 1839. The appointment in 1845 of a new factor for the Scourie district, Evander McIver, brought greater efforts to collect rents. McIver also strictly enforced the estate rule whereby tenants were not allowed to take in married lodgers, including sons and daughters, except in special circumstances. Those who broke the rule were summoned to remove.


Laid of Loch Eriboll


Patrick Sellar, one of several who advised on how the Reay estate should be developed by the Sutherland management, recommended “Lotting out the West side of Loch Eribol…That which is situated below the county Road should be divided into Lotts of different Sizes, in the hope that ultimately it may, by the help of Lime fish offal, be, nearly, entirely brought into Cultivation and some day put into Rotation.” Such a new settlement would help to reduce the overcrowding by taking landless households from Durine and also help accommodate a number of subtenants to be evicted from Eriboll sheepfarm. Laid appears to have been first settled in 1833, though it may not have been established in formal terms until two years later when 18 tenants were entered on the rent roll. Each was to be only charged a shilling’s rent for the first 7 years. In August 1834 they had petitioned for better places rather than the “barren & uncultivated heath on the side of Loch Erriboll, which, on their present distressed circumstances, and without any Capital, they are utterly unable to bring into a state of Cultivation, with the additional expence of erecting new houses thereon”. The following year they asked for possession of Island Chory “to provide sustenance for our families, which for several years the present Lots cannot produce, not after all our exertions above 3 or 4 months in the year and from the nature of the Soil being almost all pure moss on a Rocky or chingly bed it is not capable of being made good Land.” Loch admitted that the crofts were poor, but claimed that “by industry and exertion they will be made better.”


The Anderson Clearances


Anderson at Rispond was also faced with rising arrears of rent from his subtenants and decided to clear the townships in favour of sheep. This process began in 1839 when the inhabitants of Porthamil, Port Sian and other townships were summoned to remove. The six subtenants of Porthamil (Donald Mackay, Alexander Munro, Neil Gunn, James Campbell, Donald Mackay and John Mackay) petitioned the Duke of Sutherland for assistance in September 1840. Campbell had already refused the offer of a croft in Eddrachillis and the Duke was unable to offer further land. The clearances and, in particular, the riot of 1841 are the subject of the booklet by Graham Bruce.


The Duke of Sutherland was able to resume possession of Lerin in 1842. However, Anderson continued to fall behind with the payment of his rents. In 1847 he complained of his remaining tenants being a “mill stone of no ordinary nature about my neck, pay no rent, but of necessity without loss of time I must try what Can be made of them”. Two years later he was bankrupt although he was able to transfer his property in trust for the benefit of his family and remained in residence until his death in 1854. In 1850 the premises consisted of dwelling house with wings, detached store house, salt cellar, coopers and curing shed, all valued at £550. The other promises, used by the tenant of the salmon fisheries, comprised a salmon boiling house and cooling house, with meal store above, valued at £1150. The lands of Rispond were taken over by the Messrs Swanson, paying a rent of £137 10s, a significant rise from the rent paid by Anderson of £57 19s. The tenants of Sangobeg became direct tenants of the Duke of Sutherland.


The Potato Famine


Given the extent of crofter’s reliance on the potato, the onset of the potato disease in 1846 was a catastrophe. Destitution conditions lasted for several years. Ensuring a supply of meal was a priority for the estate management. In early 1847 the factor McIver reported that “the quantity required is so large that the ordinary Dealer is afraid to import”. McIver pressed the merchant at Smoo, Murdo Low, to import, but he refused, so he was forced to buy supplies for Durness from Mr Craig of Thurso. The supply of meal continued to be a challenge for several years. Works, paid for by the Duke of Sutherland, were set agoing to employ one person out of each family. At Laid, each tenant was allowed money to improve his croft. Tenants were also employed trenching and draining land, for instance at Lerin, and between Murdo Low’s at Smoo and the Ground Officer’s house. Young people were encouraged and assisted to go south for look for work. In 1847 and 1848 the Duke spent a good deal on arranging four emigrant ships to Canada: most of the emigrants, however, came from Assynt and Eddrachillis. Paupers receiving assistance under the new Poor Law were assisted by the Parochial Board. Those who were not on the poor’s roll but who had no family to support them and were judged unable to work, were given allowances in meal.


Loch Caladail


Relief work was also provided by the drainage of Loch Caladail. Drainage of lochs to form new agricultural land had been undertaken in the north west for several decades. In 1845 a report had been made into the drainage of the loch: it was then 60 acres in extent with an average depth of three feet, and only five feet at its deepest. Although it appeared a simple task to deepen the outlet, the work of draining the loch was not commenced until June 1848. In November 1848, McIver reported that progress had been impeded by a variety of causes, “first by our adhering to Destitution Wages – next by our contracting with a person who could not carry on the work – but principally by the extreme wetness of the Summer and Harvest – which made the Work most difficult and at time the Overseer was afraid we should have to abandon it altogether.” The total length of the cut to the loch was about 400 yards. It varied in depth from 6 to 18 feet deep, averaging 12 feet. The soil was very soft and full of springs. The bottom of the cut was paved with stones and a retaining wall built on either side, varying from two to five feet in height. About 260 yards had been completed, the constant rains had prevented it being completed to the loch before winter. A cut of nearly 100 yards had been made into the loch and most of it had been allowed to drain. The surface had been found to be “principally soft mud  about 20 inches deep – below which there is a stratum of moss six inches deep and below that there is a bed of Marl which appears to be from two to three feet thick – and is supposed to be more than double that thickness in the Centre of the Loch.” The marl was subsequently analysed at Edinburgh and found to be very rich in lime and suitable for using on the land as a substitute for lime.

Work continued on the works until 1850. In 1851 the agricultural advisor and surveyor, John Russell, measured the surrounding lands with the aim of creating a new farm. The cost of enclosures, roads, and buildings, as well as improving and fencing a portion of Keoldale, was estimated at £1982. The project, however, was not proceeded with. Not only was this a considerable sum but the drainage work was posing problems. It had been found necessary for two lines of piles to be driven either side of the cut to hold back the soft earth. There were also apparently problems with springs. Marl, however, was extracted and a new road made.

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