Caithness and the Crofters’ War: The case of Clyth Estate, part 2

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 19th century Highlands.  The following continues the story from August’s post and is adapted from her undergraduate dissertation ‘Caithness and the Highland Land Wars, 1881-1886.’

The rent strike on Clyth estate ensured that Caithness was included in the Napier Commission’s inquiry into crofters’ conditions. The Commission came to Lybster Free Church on October 4th 1883. The hearing was full to capacity, with spectators taking a ‘lively interest’ in proceedings. Adam Sharp, landlord of Clyth estate, struggled to make himself heard over the laughter and hisses that greeted his testimony. Indeed Lord Napier was forced to end the hearing following Sharp’s appearance, saying the Commission could not continue ‘amidst a riotous assemblage.’ Unsurprisingly, Sharp refuted his tenant’s allegations that he charged unreasonably high rents.

Magnus Sinclair from Clyth, in his statement to the Commission, summed up very simply what Caithness crofters sought: ‘What we want is our holdings valued by competent local judges, compensation for improvements, and that the land of our country be given to its people to live on at a fair rent.’

JN25114B043_Cliffs near Bruan[14701542]

Part of the coastline at Clyth ©Johnston Collection. Used with the kind permission of the Wick Society.

At this stage however, crofters did not yet have the vote. The House of Lords had voted down a bill that would have enfranchised working class men in rural areas. The crofters knew that the only way to achieve these aims was through land reform legislation, and so they resolved to elect a land reformer as the county’s M.P. Caithness crofters took the lead in organising a demonstration to demand voting rights. The demonstration took the form of a protest march through the streets of Wick, the county’s largest town, on the 30th August 1884. Two thousand men, representing the various trades of the county, took part, cheered on by ten thousand spectators. The John o’ Groat Journal reported that ‘Seldom, if ever, in this part of the country has there been such a unanimous burst of enthusiasm in connection with any political event.’ The largest group to march was that of the crofters, led by the ‘men of Clyth,’ who ‘turned out to a man.’ They carried banners with the slogans ‘Clyth Forever’; ‘The Clyth Men are Enemies to Tyrants’; ‘The Lords should Emigrate to the North Pole, as the People can do Without Them’ and ‘Clyth Soil for Clyth People.’ Among the marchers were all the leading figures in the land question agitation. That night, the Groat reported that ‘a gibbet was erected and an effigy, intended, we are informed, to represent the owner of an estate a few miles to the south of Wick, was executed, and the body thereafter consigned to the flames.’ No prizes for guessing the ‘victim’ was Mr Sharp of Clyth!

Gavin Brown Clark photograph

Gavin Brown Clark (1846-1930) by Sir Benjamin Stone, 1898. © National Portrait Gallery

By the year’s end, the Third Reform Act passed into law, establishing uniform voting rights throughout the country, and enfranchising many crofters and farm servants. The 1885 general election was fought in Caithness on a single issue: the land question. Major Clarence Sinclair, son of the incumbent M.P Sir Tollemache Sinclair, who was the second largest landowner in Caithness, stood for the Liberal Party against Dr Gavin Brown Clark for the Crofters Party. At a meeting in Lybster, Sinclair was told ‘All crofters know that new seed will bring a better return. We have had the House of Ulbster for many years. We need a change.’

On election day in December, crofters battled determinedly through howling winds and drifting snow to get to the polls. Many roads in the county were blocked, but the crofters were not about to give up the chance to have their voices heard. Turnout was high, and Clark beat Sinclair comfortably by 2,110 votes to 1,218, a majority of 892.

The Crofters Holdings Act (Scotland) became law in June 1886 but, condemned as ‘incomplete and unsatisfactory,’ the crofters’ fight was destined to continue. Dr Clark told his constituents the Act was ‘but an instalment of their rights- ten shillings in the pound,’ and they would ‘go on demanding till they got the other ten shillings.’


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).

Northern Ensign

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s