'Having and Holding' - The Highland Land War of the 1880s

Ian Bradley examines the driving forces behind the crofters' attacks on the deer forests of Skye and Lewis.

Early on the morning of November 22nd, 1887, the sound of a hunting horn summoned nearly 1,000 of the inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis from their beds to a pre-arranged rendezvous at the edge of a large deer park on the southern tip of the island. Over the next three days they camped illegally in the park and shot more than 200 of the 600 deer there. Seven weeks later, on January 9th, 1888, a similar number of men from the north of the island marched on a sheep farm in the Eye peninsula near Stornaway. Those animals which they did not succeed in driving into the sea they crippled by breaking their legs with clubs. Policemen and marines who arrived on the scene were pelted with stones and the raiders were only dispersed after being confronted at bayonet point by a detachment of the Royal Scots Regiment.

These two incidents, the Park deer raid and the battle at Aignish Farm, marked the culmination of the Highland land war that raged through most of the 1880s. The crofters' war, as it is also sometimes known, was fought with a bitter ferocity and led the Government to send gunboats into the normally placid waters off the West of Scotland and station detachments of policemen and troops on the Hebridean islands. At the height of the troubles on Lewis, on January 11th, 1888, The Times correspondent in Stornaway predicted a general uprising throughout the Highlands in the event of those on trial for their part in the Park deer raid being let off lightly by the courts. Yet within a few months the land raids by the crofters and cottars of the Western Isles had greatly diminished and their uncharacteristic outburst of Celtic anger had largely subsided.

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