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Archival Stories: The Fight for Galson Farm, Part 1

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 will be writing a series of blog posts, named 'Archival Stories'. Here is the third.


In the 1880s, tension was rapidly escalating throughout the Highlands and Islands as crofters, cottars and the landless demanded land they saw as rightfully theirs. While the 1886 Act granted crofters’ security of tenure, townships were still overcrowded and lots small and subdivided. More land was needed. In the Isle of Lewis, men and women took matters into their own hands in Bernera in 1874, Park in 1887 or Aignish in 1888. Memorials to this day celebrate these raiders’ achievements. Less well-known, is the story of the fight for Galson farm. Events in Galson captured national attention and newspapers kept the British public regularly updated. Newspaper coverage should not be taken at face value - journalists were prone to exaggeration and tales of raids attracted lurid comments. Nevertheless, newspaper articles offer us the chance to piece together what happened in Galson in 1887-8.


Raids were a direct, if albeit delayed, consequence of the Clearances that had occurred twenty-years prior. In 1863, Galson was cleared for the last time and the land was turned into a sheep farm. Alongside dispossession, the Galson Clearances made a large number of people destitute and put additional pressure on already struggling neighbouring townships. Land in Galson was reportedly better than in many other townships and one man told the Crofters Commission in 1888 that he ‘would have a bonnetful of bank notes to-day’ had he stayed in Melbost Galson. Another man had been cleared from North Galson to uncultivated land and had had nothing to eat for the first six years but ‘the shellfish on the shore’, after which he was cleared again to Shader when estate officials put his house on fire as he was ‘lying crying at the back of the house’. Men and women from Shader, Borve or Dell not only remembered the Galson Clearances, but felt that Galson farm rightfully belonged to them and should be returned.

Figure 1 Galson Farm's pound today, 'na Puinnd' in Gaelic

In the 1880s, resentment had become exacerbated due to poor relations between the crofters and Galson farm’s latest tenant, James Paul Helm. A sheep farmer from the Lowlands, Helm and his sheep were daily reminders of the Clearances. In the lead up to the raids, crofters claimed they would not be content till ‘every hoof of (Helm’s cheviot) was out of the island’. Helm was a cruel man and regularly resorted to poinding, the legal term for seizing movable property, in this case animals that had strayed on his farm. In 1885, Helm was charged in Stornoway’s Sheriff Court for illegally castrating four tups belonging to three crofters from South Dell for trespassing on his grounds. It was not the first time Helm was accused of wilfully hurting animals. Another crofter claimed Helm had purposefully let his cow eat poison while it was poinded, resulting in its death twelve months later. A year later, a crofter called Kenneth Mackenzie assaulted Helm after the latter poinded several of his horses. One man testified Helm had threatened his wife with a loaded pistol over wandering animals. The list went on. While Helm claimed the crofters’ animals ate his crops and destroyed his land, he had placed gates on the public road rather than fencing off his grounds from the road itself, meaning the gates were frequently left open for animals to stray. Helm was also under fire for sub-renting part of Barvas manse glebe from the minister, Mr Strachan, who was accused of having illegally appropriated the land from the township. In May and June 1887, Barvas tenants prevented Helm ‘in a high-handed way’ from putting his sheep out to the glebe lands. As tension kept building, crofters started to organise meetings and plan a raid.


While the events happening across the Highlands and Islands are often reduced to “land raids”, the raid itself was usually part of a complex and much longer sequence of events leading to eventual land occupation, invasion or encroachment. The Galson Farm Raid is a case in point. These events are not well-known and deserve to be told in full.

Stage One: Threat to Raid

On the 23rd of December 1887, The Scotsman reported that hundreds of men walked over to Galson farm carrying flags and demanded to speak to Helm, who was warned not to keep the farm after the expiry of his lease. The leader then turned around to the crowd and said, ‘Right about turn; quick march’. The presence of the flags and, if true, of the military manoeuvre, made protest a performance to intimidate Helm by displaying the strength of organised collective action. The demonstration further showed that crofters believed their claims were legitimate. The men were not hiding but demanding, in broad daylight and in plain sight, land they saw as rightfully theirs.

Stage Two: Petitioning

By early January, The Scotsman further reported that roughly 300 men from Barvas, Shader and Borve set out at daybreak towards Stornoway with a petition. The crowd was comprised of the men claiming Galson farm and the Barvas crofters who had been discussing forcefully occupying Strachan’s glebe. The men first walked over to the factor’s office but found out Helm’s lease was to be renewed for another 19 years. They then headed for Lews Castle and demanded to see Lady Matheson to hand her their petition. Roderick Macleod of Upper Barvas, went in. After fifteen minutes, he came out and addressed the crowd in Gaelic. Unfortunately, only the English rendition remains,

'Men, you need not look for sympathy with your condition in that quarter. Lady Matheson declared that she cannot treat with you as to your condition until your arrears of rent are settled. She says that it is unreasonable on your part to ask for additional crofts when you cannot pay for the land you already till. Mr Helm is able and willing to pay, and you are not. In these circumstances she thinks she is justified in dealing as she pleases with what is her own.'

Another crofter, Donald Macdonald, was elected to go in but swiftly returned with a similar report. Soon after, 50 people from Tong showed up with another petition regarding Coll farm. The use of a petition showed crofters could cause disruption through legal means as well as illegal ones. The Barvas crofters believed the law would show that Strachan had no legal rights to the land and Helm’s sheep no business being there. Pressed by crofters, it transpired Strachan could not find written proof of his right to the land and the Sheriff Court seemingly ruled in the crofters’ favour. However, estate officials’ inaction and Lady Matheson’s uncompromising stance reinforced the crofters’ determination to claim the land without the estate’s permission. Later, Lady Matheson recalled she had told the Galson petitioners ‘to send their children out into the world to do for themselves’, a statement which achieved little more than adding fuel to the fire.

Stage Three: Escalation

Agitation in North Lewis had nearly reached breaking point by the 12th of January. Crofters held meetings in Shader schoolhouse debating what to do next. While a lack of unanimity prevented a raid, crofters had agreed not to hinder destruction. For weeks, men had let their cattle wander on farm grounds and repeatedly broke the farm’s fences on both the Ness and Barvas sides. Every time the fence was replaced, men attacked it again, once or twice throwing it into the sea. When people of Borve were questioned about it, they said the ‘fairies did it, or the dykes fell like the walls of Jericho’. Meanwhile, crofters and cottars in Barvas started occupying the glebe lands used by Helm for his sheep and measured and divided it to create new crofts. With tension running high, half a dozen police officers started watching Galson farm, which soon increased to ten men.

Stage Four: Raid

On the 17th of January, the Morning Post reported that ‘conflicting but alarming, rumours continue to reach Stornoway regarding the intentions of the Barvas crofters and their contemplated raid upon Galson farm’, yet the crofters maintained ‘an ominous silence’. Later that night, between 50 and 80 men depending on reports walked towards Galson farm around 1:30 in the morning, ‘armed with sticks, bludegeons, spades, scythes, pitchforks, and other weapons, and acting of common purpose, pulled down a quantity of the boundary fence of Galson farm and assaulted with the weapons mentioned a body of police’. The fence in question marked the boundary between Galson and Borve near the shepherd’s house. The boundary ran across what was, and still is, the road connecting Barvas and Ness. On the west side of the road, the boundary was made of stone and separated the farm from Borve township. On the east side, the boundary was a turf dyke extending well into the moor. It was on the east side that the crofters made their attack.

Following repeated attacks on the fences and the ensuing costly repairs, police were keeping watch nearby when they saw a mass of men advancing towards them in the darkness. Most of the accounts of the night’s events were crafted by the police, and it is likely reports of the crofters’ violence were exaggerated. Indeed, at the trial, the raiders’ lawyers reported the police ‘gave the rioters as good as they gave’. The raiders reportedly threw peat, turf and stones at the police. Confrontation became violent and one constable was hit with a stone, another with a weapon. Another said that when he crossed the fence he was struck with a cudgel on the jawbone on the left cheek and knocked down by a blow on his helmet with a spade. As he was falling down, he got a crack ‘with some instrument’ on the left arm and on one of his knees. Overpowering the police, one crofter reportedly shouted that ‘not one of them would be left alive in Galson that night’. One man in the crowd cried to give the police thirty minutes to retire to which another replied, ‘No, not five minutes’. The police were forced to retreat to the farm, and the men disappeared into the night.

Figure 2 The Scotsman, 6th March 1888

Stage Five: Trial

The next morning, Malcom Smith and Malcom Saunders from Lower Borve and Malcom Maciver and John Nicolson from Fivepenny Borve were arrested and taken to Ness by close to 100 policemen, where they were cheered on by local people. On the 23rd of January, the men were liberated on bail thanks to Murdo Macleod, president of the Land League in Stornoway and taken to The Crown for celebrations. On the 5th March, the men were on trial in Edinburgh High Court.

The crofters were defended by Mr Corrie Thompson, who was able to prove that the constables could not have identified the men in the middle of the night. One witness claimed he knew Saunders and could recognise him that night since he had seen him cutting peats on the 15th, to which Corrie Thomson replied, ‘Well, you do not drive peats on Sunday in the Lews’, causing hilarity in the courtroom. The defence could also count on a number of witnesses who claimed the men had spent the night with their sweethearts. When doctor Roderick Ross took the stand to confirm spending the night out chatting or sleeping with one’s betrothed was a common courting custom in Lewis but that no cases of illegitimacy had yet been reported, more laughing ensued. The men were found not guilty and released, a resounding victory of the crofters.


Immediately following the trial, tensions continued to run high in North Lewis and other arrests were made. In Lower Barvas, protest grew surrounding a river let for salmon fishing. Neighbouring crofters smashed the fishing tenant’s windows and told him he had no business being there. Though an interdict (a court order to stop someone from breaching someone else's rights) was taken, a course was cleared through the sand to divert the river. Four men were arrested and tried at Stornoway Sheriff Court, where they all claimed they did not know they were forbidden from doing so. Asked whether he knew what an interdict meant, Murdo Macdonald testified ‘he did not know what an interdict meant, and if he had got a paper he would have gone to the river all the same’. The men were fined 20 shillings each. One arrest was also made over the occupation of the Helm’s grazing ground on the Barvas glebe land. Donald Macdonald, blacksmith, Gaelic orator and ‘poet to boot’, was accused of knocking the fences around the glebe ground to let his cattle graze.

During the Galson trial, Helm’s sheep nets were cut into fragments and thrown into the sea and hundreds of yards of the turf dyke between Borve and Galson were levelled with the ground. In April, more rough stone dyke was destroyed. While the Crofters’ Commission reduced the rent of most of the townships surrounding Galson in December 1888, crofters were not satisfied. Newspapers were still recording that men were destroying fences in 1889 and in 1893, a crowd of thirty crofters walked over to Helm’s farm to break the poind. Four of them were convicted of breach of the peace.

Arrests and the lack of results put an end to raids eventually, but the crofters’ fundamental belief that the ‘lands belonged to themselves’ remained unchanged. What local men and women wanted was the land. It took another forty years for them to get it. The next blog post will focus on the 1920s Galson land raids leading to the eventual re-settlement of the township in 1924.


All the information collated here comes from 19th century newspapers. Newspapers are a great source to look into a particular event and many have been digitized. The British Newspaper Archive (BNA) holds 29 Scottish titles, including the Glasgow Herald, the Elgin Courier and The Scots Magazine. The database can be searched for free but a paid account is required to read articles in full,

The BNA can also be accessed for free at the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh. For a fee, some of the copies can be viewed via the NLS’ website,

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.


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