Are you familiar with the 1919 Scottish Land Settlement Act?
If your answer is no, you are not alone. Despite its wide-reaching significance, it is felt to be neither as well-known nor as celebrated as other key pieces of land legislation, such as the 1886 Crofters’ Act and the 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act.
Is this about to change?
Dr Iain Robertson, Reader at the University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for History, is working with colleagues at the Centre for Scotland’s Land Futures and the Historical Geography Research Group to make sure the Act’s existence and current relevance is recognised as it becomes a centenarian.
Here, Iain highlights two of over 400 events of land disturbances that took place in the Highlands and Islands after November 1918 which were to drive the British Government into passing the 1919 Land Settlement Act one hundred years ago.
A celebratory 1919 Land Settlement (Scotland) Act conference will take place between the 26 and 28 September 2019 at Kinloch on the Isle of Lewis.
Cnoc a phoileasmain [i]
Just a short ferry ride from the Isle of Skye is the beautiful small island of Raasay.
When the Raasay raiders were due to be arrested they were always forewarned that the police were on their way. So they would “leave their houses and they went on the hills … There was an uncle of mine … and one of the policeman spotted him and he made after him and … he would say to the police “you needn’t come further you’ll never catch me and even if you did I wouldn’t go on that boat … I would put my foot through it” he says “and sink the Boat. “You would be drowned yourself” says the policeman “Not at all” he says “I was in the Navy I would swim the Channel.”
From that day onwards the hill where the raiders hid was known as a
cnoc a phoileasmain (‘the hillock of the policeman’).
Resettling on North Uist
In March 1920 crofters on North Uist wrote to the Scottish Office threatening to seize land at Balranald, now a stunning Hebridean nature reserve.
They claimed that the land: “adjoins the township and formerly belonged to it. We are convinced that we are acting right when we take possession of the land from which our ancestors were wrongfully driven.”
Since the 1880s successive governments had attempted to solve ‘the Highland land problem’ through a combination of the carrot and stick: gunboats, marines and legislation. This had not worked. Whatever they tried, from the Crofters Act onwards, no government was able to address land hunger amongst the landless.
In 1911, however, the Government passed the Small Landholders Act. For the first time the Board of Agriculture had the ability to compel the creation of smallholding schemes on private estates. Unfortunately, this piece of legislation was flawed and there was not enough money to keep up with the demand for land. The disturbances continued until the intervention of international conflict, the First World War.
War changed much. Both in the Highlands and Islands and beyond. Sympathy for the sacrifices made by Highland families was translated into sympathy for the plight of those who returned home to exactly the same appalling conditions they had left to serve. They were instead expecting to return to a ‘land fit for heroes’.
But war changes people. Ex-soldiers and sailors returned home “no longer content to put up with what our forefathers did.” A new wave of land disturbances erupted almost immediately after November 1918, with the government feeling compelled to respond. The 1919 Land Settlement Act was born – the most important piece of land legislation since 1886.
More money was found and the process of land settlement simplified. Hundreds of new crofts were created, with long-abandoned townships brought back to life and others revived. The Act transformed the Highlands and Islands landscape. In giving folks the opportunity to remain on the land that would have been otherwise impossible, the Act created the conditions out of which the land buyout movement would emerge some eighty years later.
This is the legacy of the Land Settlement Act and why we must celebrate it.
[i] Full details of the Raasay and Balranald land raids can be found in Iain JM Robertson, Landscapes of Protest in the Scottish Highlands After 1914: The later Highland land wars. Routledge, 2016.