After enjoying a bit of a summer break from posting we are back. This week we venture a little to the north of our usual historical stomping grounds – just over the border into Caithness. Valerie Amin recently graduated from the University of the Highlands and Islands with a BA (Hons) in Scottish History. A native of Caithness, she is particularly interested in the land issues and politics of the nineteenth-century Highlands. The following blog post is adapted from her undergraduate dissertation ‘Caithness and the Highland Land Wars, 1881-1886.’
The county of Caithness is not normally associated with the Highland land agitation of the early 1880s. However Clyth estate, in the south east of the county, was the scene of a rent strike that brought crofting conditions to national attention in November 1882.
The estate, in Latheron parish, had seven miles of sea coast and extended three miles inland, and was populated mainly by crofter fishermen and their families. There was a significant Sutherland element. In 1802 or 1803, several crofting families from Tongue settled at Clyth and became fishermen. In 1805, following evictions from Strathnaver, more families joined them and, in 1819, after the Kildonan clearances, large numbers of those evicted found refuge at Clyth.
By 1882, Clyth estate was said to be the most severely rack-rented in Caithness. It had been bought in 1863 by Adam Sharp, a merchant from Moray. The tenants claimed rents had risen by over 50 per cent during Sharp’s ownership.
It was against a background of severe agricultural depression and the land agitation in the western Highlands and Islands that Clyth crofters took action to challenge their landlord over the punitive rents. With their annual rent due on the 27th November 1882, the tenants met in Clyth Schoolhouse and agreed that a deputation would go to see Mr Sharp on rent day, to ask that all the crofts on the estate be revalued before they would pay.
Rent day was stormy, with sleet and snow showers. By noon, over two hundred tenants had gathered outside Bruan Lodge, where Mr Sharp waited. He welcomed the deputation into the parlour, where William Grant of Ulbster laid out the tenants’ grievances.
After listening Sharp retorted ‘If you have resolved to pay no rent, you cannot expect a much better valuation than that.’ The Clyth tenants’ plight had had considerable coverage in the local press, but Sharp described their complaints as ‘mere fiction’ to evoke sympathy amongst outsiders. He dug his heels in, saying ‘I wish you distinctly to understand that anything that may be done will not be in consequence of agitation carried on by you … the proceedings you have adopted have had quite an opposite effect upon me.’
At that, the deputation left the Lodge to relate Sharp’s response to the expectant crowd outside. There was considerable anger on hearing the reaction to their request. Andrew Matheson urged the crowd to ‘resist injustice and tyranny as long as the breath was in their bodies.’ He added ‘If the peace is broken, it will be the landlord’s fault and not ours. We are not able to pay our rents if we have no money.’ It was unanimously decided that no tenant would pay rent that day.The Clyth rent strike had a high profile across the country, widely reported in newspapers from London to Dublin to Edinburgh. The case was even brought to the attention of the Prime Minister and used to press for an inquiry into crofters’ conditions.
Meanwhile, the Clyth tenants were split on whether they could continue to withhold rent from the landlord. At a ‘stormy meeting’ the unlawfulness of their position was made clear by George Sutherland, a solicitor involved with the wider Caithness movement for land reform. It was argued that the people of Braes in Skye were benefiting from paying no rent, but Sutherland made clear ‘the people of Braes being isolated, are in a different position from the tenants on the estate of Clyth.’ The leaders of the agitation were accused of ‘having brought them to battle only to draw back,’ but George Cormack, the tenants’ main spokesman, managed to calm the meeting by stressing that as their main aim was to change the land laws, ‘It would not do to be placed in a position which would enable anyone to ask: “How can you speak of the law when ye have already broken it?”’ It was agreed that each tenant would pay what they were able, and the Clyth rent strike ended peacefully.
It was not the end of the crofters’ fight however. The agitation entered a new phase: a determined drive to elect a land reformer as the county’s M.P.
More on that next month.
John O’ Groat Journal
Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Inquiry into the Conditions of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Volume III (1883).