The Clearances on Islay in the 1800s
A question, which is often asked, is the large number of derelict buildings on Islay the result of clearances? The answer is undoubtedly – Yes, in most cases, but the enquirer may possibly be disappointed to hear that there was no burning of houses and no use of soldiers in red coats. They were peaceable, but non the less enforced clearances. We are not concerned with the morality of such actions but there is no doubt that most of the people evicted did not want to leave their home, a home that they or their forebears had built with their own hands and enlarged as the family increased. They were primitive by modern standards and life, just to exist, was a very hard one, but they were home and many of those who lived in these remote parts had probably never been further away than the nearest celebration of Holy Communion.
Whatever the method the reason was the same, the amalgamation of a lot of small holdings into sheep farms, and the result a very different pattern of agriculture. Plots of land were provided where houses could be built near the coast and it was hoped that fishing would become the occupation of former crofters; it was the beginning of the villages. It is known that many families emigrated to Canada during the fifty years from 1818 to 1868 and a great number of them came from the crofts.
The true story emerges from the evidence given to the Royal Commission (Highlands and Islands) 1892, and from many questions asked, a few answers are taken as illustration. In answer to one question, Duncan MacIndeor, a 75 year old roadman from Kilmeny said, ‘I was a farmer at Airidh-Ghuairidh for 23 years. There were many others as well as myself put out or deprived of their parks about this time to make room for Webster (the under factor for whom the house at Dail Farm was built). Four tenants got notice to leave Airidh-Ghuairidh; six or seven got notice to leave Storakaig. At or about that time Rosquern contained four who had to be moved from their holdings. Nosebridge had eight tenants who were also moved; Kynagarry also contained eight tenants; Benveridle also contained seven tenants, and four farmers got notice to quit Kilbranan and three to quit Dranich; in other words no less than 44 or 45 had to leave their holdings to give scoop to Webster and sheep.’
The abandoned (cleared) village of Grasdale on the Oa peninsula
Donald Orr, millwright of Starchmill, aged 67, named twenty families who went from Killinan, his father being one of them, seven from Kyngarry and three from Courlach, and said some of them went to America. Dugald Ferguson Macfayden, a merchant at Port Charlotte and Tayvullin, said there were fifteen crofters in Killinallan besides the large farmer, about 40 years ago (1852). In Gearach seven tenants, in Oalistach eight, in Cam six and at Toronay five.
Gilbert MacArthur a 64-year old fisherman at Port Charlotte said that 63 years ago (1829) the village was built by the people who came from Kilchiaran where there were fourteen families, Lossit thirteen or fourteen and Tormisdale ‘a good number.’ Duncan Campbell MacEwan tells of twenty-eight holdings taken from crofters to make the farm at Raineach Mhor.
Peter Reid, the factor on Kildalton Estate (36), in part of his statement said ‘I don’t suppose it is of any consequence to advert to the question of how people were removed, but I don’t think we can admit that there were any evictions, and I think there is no need, unless it is wished, to call forward witnesses to show that there were no evictions, at least in the ordinary sense of the word.’ In answer to one question he said, ‘I might read extracts to show that the great majority of those who left the Oa peninsula went entirely of their own free will.’ When he was asked, ‘Do you deny that any of them were forcibly evicted?’ he answered ‘I deny that any were forcibly evicted. The two cases that have been mentioned occurred about ten years afterwards and these may have been removed against their will. I deny that there were any evictions; they may have got letters of removal, but I deny that these were any evictions in the sense of evictions’ ‘What you mean by eviction is forcible removal?’ ‘Forcible removal. No doubt there would be pressure brought to bear on these two…’ ‘Do you know the former population of Islay and the population at present day?’ ‘They emigrated. There were about 400 people emigrated in 1863.’
John Campbell, aged 52, a cottar at Giol, said at one time there were nine tenants there who went to America about 32 years since (1860), there were at least six in Grastle and Tockmal. When asked, ‘Were they forcibly evicted, or did they go of their own free will?’ he answered ‘Some left voluntarily owing to the poor markets.’ ‘And were any evicted by force?’ to which the answer was “Yes, on the south side of the parish.”
Abandoned farmhouse at Tockmal on the Oa peninsula
Archibald Campbell, a carter in Port Ellen (60), had quite a story to tell. ‘How did you cease to have land?’ ‘We were forced to stop it.’ ‘Where were you at the time?’ ‘In a place called Lurabus first.’ ‘How many were in Lurabus besides you?’ ‘Four other crofters beside me.’ ‘What became of the others?’ ‘They left.’ ‘Do you know where they went to?’ ‘America.’ He stated that at the time he left, 1859/60, and the holdings were made into one large holding. ‘How land had you a holding there?’ ‘My people were there for generations untold.’ ‘Did you leave or were you removed or evicted?’ ‘We left and went to Ballychatrigan.’ ‘Why did you leave Ballychatrigan?’ ‘We had to leave to make room for sheep, and go to strange places.’ ‘then when you were removed from Ballychatrigan did you go of your own free will?’ ‘We had to go.’ ‘Where did you go to?’ ‘Stremnish.’ ‘And how long were you there?’ ‘Four years.’ ‘Why did you leave Stremnish?’ ‘We were not allowed to stop.’ ‘You were again removed from Stremnish?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Why?’ ‘They wanted the land for sheep.’ ‘And when you were put out of Stremnish where did you go?’ ‘We came to Port Ellen.’
The information on this page about the clearances on Islay was used with kind permission from the Islay Museum and was first written by Gordon Booth, Curator, 1978-1985.