ARCHIVAL STORIES: THE BATTLE FOR GALSON FARM, PART III
Juliette Desportes is a third-year PhD student undertaking a three-month internship with Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn, researching the history of Galson Estate and the lead-up to the 1923 re-settlement of the townships.
In her time with us, Juliette was writing a series of blog posts, named 'Archival Stories'. This is the final post.
After the war, conditions in Lewis had deteriorated, townships were overcrowded, housing conditions catastrophic and unemployment high. Lewis’ latest proprietor, Lord Leverhulme, had set up development schemes such as road building to “modernise” the island and provide employment. As we saw in the last blog post, Leverhulme was fiercely opposed to land settlement schemes. While the 1919 Land Act enabled the Board of Agriculture to compulsorily create new holdings, the Galson settlement scheme appeared indefinitely paused. Leverhulme’s stubborn resistance led to a series of land raids throughout the island, first in Tong then followed by Gress and Coll. While raids in Coll and Gress have been relatively well-documented, we know remarkably little about what happened in Galson. Though many unknowns remain, what follows attempts to shed light on acts of protest in 1920s Galson.
‘WHAT WE HAVE, WE’LL KEEP’
In early May 1919, Galson was raided by fifty ex-servicemen from Shader and Borve. Efforts were made to permanently occupy the grounds and a Board official reported the men would not be able to plant much that year due to the shortage of seeds. It was noted men in Dell and Ness had not participated in the raid due to their belief the Board of Agriculture was to get them the land shortly. It is hard to know how long the servicemen were occupying the grounds, but by early January 1920, newspapers such as the Aberdeen Press and Journal and Dundee Courier related Galson had been seized, perhaps referring to these events or a fresh raid. In response to raids in Galson and elsewhere, Lord Leverhulme held meetings with crofters throughout the island to promote his vision for the future. At a meeting in June 1919, Donald Murray from Shader read a long statement reproduced in the Scotsman on behalf of local families wishing to be settled in Galson,
'Our desire is to get small holdings on the farm, and nothing of which we are aware is to turn us away from that desire. We mean to do everything in our power to attain that (…) While we were engaged in our country’s battles, promises without number were made that the land question was to be speedily settled, that no sooner were we to come back victorious than the land from which our forefathers were evicted would be placed in our possession; that a grateful country would not for a moment tolerate the disgraceful system which the best land in the country was monopolised by a fortunate few… While we were fighting nothing seemed too good for us, but now that the enemy has been overcome, through our help, these promises seem to take much time in being fulfilled. In fact a great many people have dropped their promises like a hot potato. They leave them now severaly (sic) alone. We demanded the land as our right. We have fought to protect it. The Act of Parliament provides for its allocation. It has been promised to us, and all we claim is the fulfilment of these promises… The farm of Galson did not contribute more than those eligible in one family to the defence of the country in its hour of need, while the same extent of land in the district which we represent gave hundreds of soldiers and sailors.'
In many ways, the arguments put forward by Donald Murray echoed those used in the 1880s. Murray spoke of Galson as the land of his ‘forefathers’ and that to have the land was a ‘right’, displaying a sense of legitimacy anchored in the rhetoric surrounding the land struggles. Since the land settlement was first announced in 1911, neighbouring families had applied to the Board of Agriculture for holdings in Galson looking to history as a justification. Some families asked the Board of Agriculture for land in Melbost Borve in recognition of the fact their parents and grandparents had been cleared from the village a few decades prior. Angus Smith from 43 Borve applied for his grandfather’s croft who had been ‘ousted to give place to the farm’, in effect arguing land settlements should operate as a form of redistributive justice.
Figure 1 Angus Smith's application of holding, Crown copyright. National Records of Scotland, AF83/774
After the war, however, two things had changed. Firstly, while in the 1880s and prior men and women had little legal recourse, 1920s Lewis land agitators benefitted from legislation which legitimised their claims. Coll and Gress raiders spoke of the 1919 Land Act as their magna-carta and Murray’s speech directly referred to the ‘Act of Parliament’. Secondly, the war had made the public more sympathetic than ever before to the plight of crofters, cottars and landless in the Highlands and Islands and ex-servicemen status gave claims for land unprecedented weight. As revealed in Murray’s speech, servicemen truly felt like they had been promised the land in exchange for service and repeatedly referred to said promise in their applications for holdings.
By November 1920, Leverhulme had paused all development works and made the end of raids a condition for their resumption. Throughout December, meetings across all parishes, including Barvas, passed resolutions to take part in no illegal land seizure. In an effort to appease matters, the Board of Agriculture agreed not to take create new land settlements as long as Leverhulme’s schemes were in operation. It looks like crofters kept their promise as no further reports of land raids in Galson appeared for a few months. However, by 1921 some applicants had waited ten years for any indication Galson farm would be broken up, an untenable position for families who had little to no land in the first place. By June, it was brought to the attention of the Board of Agriculture that ‘acts of malicious mischief’ had taken place at Galson farm. Men from Borve had destroyed part of march-dyke separating Galson and Borve. The destruction was an act of retaliation against Galson sheep farmer John Morrison, who regularly poinded the crofters’ horses, a bone of contention for the past thirty-years or more. Lewis Chamberlain wrote to the Board of Agriculture that ‘There has been considerable trespassing by the crofters’ horses of these townships on the farm of Galson (…) The action now taken by the suspected Borve and Mid Borve young men, is more or less a protest against the preventing of their horses from trespassing. As their action is a malicious one, I have reported the matter to the Police authorities, but so far they have not been able to trace the defaulters'.
Figure 2 'Malicious Mischief at Galson Farm', Crown copyright. National Records of Scotland, AF67/331
It appeared protesters had destroyed the exact same part of the fence as in the 1880s. The constable noted this part of the dyke was ‘not of such vital importance as the dyke surrounding the farm’, which was to miss the symbolic appeal of the event. In this case, destruction was not only about causing disruption, but also a way to give resistance further historical resonance by aligning protesters’ claims with those of their forefathers. Eventually Angus Morrison, 41 Borve, and Angus Smith, 43 Borve, were charged for being seen with their horses near the dyke that day. Yet, constables could find no witnesses to testify and deemed the case hopeless, noting the ‘general rule is, if one tells on the other either he or his stock would suffer for it’.
Figure 3 Applications from Donald Murray and Roderick Martin on behalf of a group of ex-servicemen, Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland, AF83/774
Despite these mentions of communal support, people clamouring for land in Galson and elsewhere were not a homogenous group. The war had created solidarities that spread beyond that of the township and ex-servicemen often portrayed their claims as more worthy of attention than that of landless men, crofters and cottars who had not served their country. A group of ex-servicemen led by Roderick Martin, 33 Lower Shader, and Donald Murray, 20 Lower Shader, repeatedly wrote the Board of Agriculture highlighting they had not resorted to raiding and, as law-abiding citizens, should be rewarded, suggesting the servicemen who had raided Galson in spring 1919 were part of a different “faction”. Martin and others separated themselves from other local crofters and argued in a letter to the Board in February 1921 that Galson should ‘form an ex service mens colony where we could live in decent condition’. In a further application in November 1922, the men’s demands became more poignant as they threatened to raid the farm if nothing was done,
'It is now over 11 years since we made the first application for Small Holdings on Galson Farm and we now think that 11 years is quite long enough (…) we cannot live 6 month of the year like a Bear with his fore paw in his mouth. Therefore there is about 60 men of us pledged ourselves that we are going to take forcible possession on Galson Farm and divide it among ourselves. We therefore warn the Board before we take any unlawfull (sic) steps to act at once and break up the said Farm.'
In December, the same wrote to say they will ‘take the law into our hands’ and had planned to raid the farm imminently. This threat to raid made a very big impact on the Board of Agriculture, who took the matters very seriously, and Board official Colin Macdonald was sent to Galson to put the scheme in motion in March 1923. Macdonald was touched by the families he met and wrote no one could listen ‘to violence of service, sacrifice & death, shaking by the hand an old application for Galson who has a letter from His Majesty the King congratulating him on giving six sons to defend this country in the time of dangers (…) without feeling that something must be done’. It took another few months, but thanks to further pressure applied by Donald Murray, Roderick Martin and others, something was finally done. Sixty years after the last inhabitants were cleared from North Galson, the farm was to be resettled.
THE GALSON LAND SETTLEMENT
At the end of June 1923, the scheme was approved and advertised in newspapers. By then, the Board had received hundreds of applications. The Board announced only ex-servicemen who had applied before March 1921 were to be considered. Applicants were put in categories between first and second preference and men who had served in previous conflicts but not in the First World War were also included. Civilian applicants were excluded with the exception of one shepherd who worked on the farm. The Board however preferred married men over single men and received spirited opposition from single ex-servicemen. One indignant former soldier disappointedly wrote he had ‘to stand back now for people that was hiding in funk holes and even the white feather would not get them out’. Demand for land was such it is unlikely the Board of Agriculture could have satisfied everyone, and in the end, second preference married applicants with families were chosen over first preference single men. A ballot was held, and the 52 names of the successful applicants was announced in newspapers. The following list was copied out from a newspaper clipping and some of the addresses do not exactly match the Board of Agriculture’s own records, which suggests it might include a few mistakes.
Families took possession of their lots in the spring of 1924, with first rent payable in May. The final map shows the 52 lots of varying sizes.
Figure 4 Galson Land Settlement, 1923. Courtesy of Frank Rennie.
There is much left to discover and surviving archival records do not hold all the answers. If you or your family members have relevant information or memories about the land settlement that you would like to share, please do not hesitate to get in touch at Juliette.firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW TO ACCESS
Board of Agriculture papers are held in the National Records of Scotland, in Edinburgh. Anyone can visit the archives by making an appointment here.
Newspapers such as the Stornoway Gazette can be accessed in Stornoway library.
Comunn Eachdraidh Nis holds copies of newspaper articles and valuable local and genealogical information such as photographs.
Juliette Desportes is a third-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on the emergence of the so-called ‘improved’ landscape in the Highlands and Islands, characterized by the abolition of runrig farming, the implementation of crofting and production-driven agriculture, and reversely, the ways people resisted these changes by asserting their rights to the land. She is undertaking a three months internship with Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn to research the history of the Galson Estate and the lead-up to the 1923 re-settlement of the townships.