ARCHIVAL STORIES: THE FIGHT FOR GALSON FARM, PART II
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 fourth.
The story of the Galson re-settlement is a long and complicated one. The last blog post focused on the land disturbances of the 1880s and ended with a bitter victory for the Galson raiders. While the men won their trial, Galson was still a sheep farm. Not much had changed by the turn of the century. The battle was not over and the tragedy of the First World War only reinforced Leòdhasaich’s determination. In order to understand why men and women resorted to raiding once again in the 1920s, it is necessary to first look back at years of empty promises made by the government and unmovable opposition from succeeding Lewis proprietors that culminated in further acts of resistance.
‘THERE ARE ENOUGH CROFTS ALREADY’: THE MATHESON YEARS
It took no less than twelve years for Galson to finally be re-settled. The 1886 Act had granted security of tenure to crofters but included no provision to create new holdings. Twenty years later, the 1911 Small Landholders Act finally enabled the newly formed Board of Agriculture to create new holdings and enlarge others. Galson was named as one of the locations suitable for settlement as the only farm large enough in the parish of Barvas. The 1911 Act, however, granted the Board no compulsory powers and all schemes ultimately had to be approved by proprietor Duncan Matheson, the great-nephew of James Matheson. Matheson had co-operated with the Board of Agriculture’s predecessor, the Congested District Board, and created some fishermen’s holdings in Battery Park, Mangersta and Aignish in the early 1900s.
Figure 1 ‘Lewis Proposed Land Settlements’, Crown copyright. National Records of Scotland AF83/72
The settlement in Galson, however, never saw the light of day under Matheson's proprietorship. The main reason was that Galson was a valuable sheep farm and Matheson categorically refused to part with it. It was worth £235 in rent, occupied 6,175 acres and about 1,000 lambs were sold by farm tenant Mr John Morrison annually. In comparison, the farms of Gress and Coll, which were also re-settled after the war, were valued at £125 and £80 respectively. Galson was also a valuable sporting estate since the 1870s and Galson Lodge, then known as Millbank Lodge, was built in 1888. The lodge was rented out seasonally to various wealthy gentlemen who paid between £250 and £350 per season for the privilege of hunting grouse.
The Board of Agriculture pressed on with a scheme and sent out his surveyor Neil McLean to inspect the farm and start collecting applications as early as 1912. McLean reported that the relationship between farm tenant John Morrison and the crofters had not much improved since James Paul Helm’s time in the 1880s. He noted that since Morrison had ‘said that the Board would have to give the people land, cargoes of meal, and a cargo of bibles’, he had gathered ‘he had no love for the crofter and I am not sure if they have any love for him he poinds their horses, some say if you take his land he will fight for compensation to the last’. McLean proceeded to tour the farm and produced maps of a new settlement. The Board considered the farm suitable for 57 new holdings, 5 more than the eventual 1923 scheme. Just like today, the Melbost Borve part of the settlement was divided up in long narrow strips as opposed to the rectangular lots around the farm in South Galson. Significantly, this seemed to have been done at the request of the crofters themselves, who knew the land better than anyone and informed McLean land was better in the middle than at either end. The arable was shown in yellow and the pasture in green.
Figure 2 Map of the Galson Settlement, Crown copyright. National Records of Scotland, AF83/770
Figure 3 Map of the Galson Settlement, Crown copyright. National Records of Scotland, AF83/72
Demand for land was high. Between 1911 and 1915 at least 163 applications were lodged out of Barvas parish alone for new holdings, out of 800 for Lewis as a whole. One of such applications is pictured below, from John Smith, 15 Ballantrushal,
I beg respectfully to apply for a small Holding on the farm of Galson presently tenanted by Mr Morrison.
I would take a £5 croft. My stock at present consists of 4 cows, 1 horse, 30 sheep Cart & harness & poultry (…) seeing the township is so congested I w(ould) like to remove to another place as my family are grown up and able to assist (…)
Figure 4, John Smith's Application for holding, Crown copyright. National Records of Scotland, AF83/72
Nevertheless, Matheson argued that to divide the farm would ruin his income and took to the courts to settle the matter. Matheson relied on the ‘consistent campaign of opposition on every conceivable pretext’ by his lawyers, Skene, Edwards and Garson. From 1913 to 1916, Matheson and his lawyers opposed the scheme on the grounds the Board had not supplied them with the appropriate information and lodged several actions of suspensions and interdict, delaying proceedings further. At the Land Court hearing in 1915, Matheson’s chamberlain Charles Orrock manifested his contempt for the crofters as he argued they should get land on the mainland instead and he had heard they could be settled in Dingwall. During cross examination, Orrock was asked whether he agreed ‘that it would be in the interest of the small holders that they would have a piece of land given to them where they could have a dwelling of their own?’, to which he replied ‘There are enough crofts already.’
Ultimately, landlord opposition and the war forced the Board of Agriculture to pause the scheme at least till the war was over. By then, Lewis had another proprietor, no less opposed to Galson’s re-settlement.
‘WHERE NO VISION IS, THE PEOPLE PERISH’: THE LEVERHULME YEARS
William Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme bought the Isle of Lewis for £167,000 in May 1918 and set out to turn the island into his own laboratory for progress and so-called ‘improvement’. Contrary to Matheson, Leverhulme wished to preserve the Lewis population as human capital to fuel his grandiose industrial schemes. While Matheson’s obstruction rested on the financial value of the farm, Leverhulme stated he had ‘no sympathy with deer or grouse; his sympathies were with men and women’. His opposition was couched in ideological terms. He believed that crofting and ‘the extension of the crofting system can only have one end, to bring the fine people of the Islands of Lewis and Harris to the level of St Kilda’. Through many lengthy speeches, Leverhulme sought to convince crofters his vision for the island would bring wealth and prosperity by developing roads, infrastructure, manufactures and fisheries.
Meeting with chairman of the Board of Agriculture Robert Wright in September 1918, Leverhulme made clear he would ‘do all he could’ to oppose the scheme and compared crofts to ‘slum areas’. After the meeting, Wright wisely reported that,
‘(Leverhulme’s) whole life, however, has been industrial, and I question if his experience of three months among the Lewis people has taught him their sentiments or desires. He does not realise that they will never feel satisfied until the farms in Lewis are divided into Holdings and given to them. (…) What the Lewisman wants is a small piece of land for a house site, two cows grazing and potato and corn growing. That is his ideal and it cannot be eradicated (…) I do not think any solution will be final which does not give them the land’
Figure 5, Address by Lord Leverhulme (1919), Courtesy of Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean
While Wright believed more land settlements were inevitable, it would take five more years for Galson Farm to be divided. In 1919, new legislation finally enabled the compulsory purchase of farms by the Board of Agriculture and limited landowners’ compensation claims. Yet, Leverhulme’s stubborn opposition led to further resistance and protest from the crofters. Next week’s post will focus on the 1920s land disturbances and the final chapter of the battle for Galson Farm.
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.
While the majority of Lord Leverhulme’s papers are held in Port Sunlight, Tasglann nan Eilean holds some relevant records including an original copy of Leverhulme’s address in Gaelic. You can make an appointment here.
You can find out more about the land settlement schemes in Lewis and beyond in the following works, which are all available to borrow from Leabhalannan nan Eilean,
Bob Chambers, For Want of land: Hebridean Croft Schemes of the 1920s and ‘30s (2016)
Bob Chambers, Solving the Lewis Land Problem, The Contribution of Fishermen-Cottar Schemes (2017)
Leah Leneman, Fit for Heroes? Land Settlement in Scotland After World War I (1989)
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.