How the Airdens crofters fought for fairer rents

In 1893 the Airdens crofters waged their own land war. They withheld their rents and on several occasions forcibly prevented sheriff officers from serving legal papers.

This picture was taken at the foot of a croft known as Leslie’s croft, just after they had been released from Dornoch Jail. Back row (left to right): John Calder, John Matheson, William Calder, Robbie Calder, and Walter Chisholm. Front (left to right): Neil Calder, Mrs Ross, Massie Mackay, and George Munro. Notice the long horns used to summon the men when the Sheriff’s men were spotted coming up the glen. / © TAIN MUSEUM

Prosecutions followed riotous proceedings and four crofters – subsequently known as the Airdens Martyrs – served short prison sentences. The term ‘martyr’ was applied throughout the UK during the 19th century for those -usually just a few individuals- who suffered imprisonment for a cause.

In 1883, the estate which belonged to the Gilchrists of Ospisdale, was placed in the hands of a trustee, Duncan Cameron, a banker from Tain (an action which suggests that the estate finances were not in a good place). As a trustee, Cameron was duty-bound to take a narrow and keen approach to the management of the estate. Unusually for crofters, the Airdens tenants enjoyed long leases. They had been given 19-year leases in 1859 and these had been renewed in 1880. But while they thus had a form of security which was very rare for crofters, as leaseholders they could not enjoy the benefits of the 1886 Crofters Act, particularly the fixing of fair rents. This frustrating position was made worse when crofters on neighbouring estates had their rents and part of their arrears cancelled by the Crofters Commission.

Withholding of rents

From 1887 some of the crofters began to withhold their rents and in 1892 some refused to pay any rent at all. Cameron obtained decrees against several crofters and on 17 May the following year a sheriff officer from Tain was sent to serve the charges. He met with a “warm reception” and retreated back to Bonar where he had to endure the hostility both of the villagers and of the workmen on the new bridge who happened to be at their dinner-hour.

However, what had been thought to be a bit of fun became more serious when on 20 June he made a second attempt, accompanied by three policemen. News of his arrival in Bonar was “speedily sent across the hills to Airdens, so that by the time [sheriff officer] Kerr approached the township the people were already astir and busily preparing for action. By the time he reached within a few hundred yards of the first house at which he had to serve a writ, a force of about forty young men and women had collected near the house, and awaited his arrival. They dared him to pass or serve a paper; and he ultimately, without endeavouring to force his way through the crowd, had to declare himself deforced.” Six people were later charged with “deforcement, and having formed part of a riotous mob”. They were convicted, given short sentences and bound over to keep the peace for six months.

The crofters, fearing another attempt, continued to keep a watch. “Each hill top and rising ground…day by day is occupied by a watchman, and on the slightest indication of the approach of strangers these watchers sound their horns, which are heard by every crofter in the district. This is the signal for a general assembly of the men and women…If it be a stranger [they] return to their homes again, but not before they have cross-examined the intruder thoroughly.” Even the Deer Forest Commission, which was investigating where land might be made available for crofters in the Highlands, was accosted.

Macdonald’s assault

Two more attempts were made to serve the charges on 19 and 26 September by Duncan Macdonald, a messenger from Tain. Having been deforced the first time, Macdonald arranged for police protection when he made the second attempt. He took the train to Invershin accompanied by a lawyer from Tain. On arrival they met Inspector Bridgeford from Dornoch and two constables. The party proceeded by Balblair woods to Airdens. About half way there they heard the blowing of horns and shouting. When they got out of the woods, a large crowd rushed towards them. The two parties met at a dyke which separated Donald Leslie’s croft from the common pasture. Two young men were ahead of the rest. Neil Calder shouted “What the Devil are you doing here?” He jumped across, seized Macdonald and hit him in the eye. Inspector Bridgeford tried to intervene but others were coming as fast as they could. Macdonald was seized and pushed down the hill towards Bonar Bridge by “the howling mob, who showered upon him any missiles that came handy, some of them not being of the cleanest description. Although the presence of the police constables, who kept between the crowd and their victim, seemed to break their impetuous rush considerably, the unfortunate sheriff officer got many hard blows, but to all appearance the constables received little injury.” Many of the people had their faces blackened or wore paper masks.

trial & sentences

Four of the crofters were charged with deforcement, mobbing and rioting, and assault. The trial of Neil Calder aged 28, Murdo Ross aged 20, William Calder aged 18, and the widow of George Ross, took place before the sheriff in Dornoch. The crofters were represented by Kenneth Macdonald the lawyer and town clerk of Inverness who had assisted the Skibo crofters. Macdonald argued that the tenantry felt hard pressed and shut out of the provisions of Crofters Act: rents on neighbouring estates had “come tumbling down” and the accused were “poor misguided people”. The charge of deforcement was dropped but the sheriff noted that it was not a first offence and found Neil Calder, Murdo Ross and Widow Ross guilty of mobbing and rioting and assault. The two men were sentenced to six weeks imprisonment and the woman to four weeks. William Calder was found guilty of mobbing and rioting alone and sentenced to 21 days imprisonment.

All served their term in Inverness prison and received a celebratory welcome on their release. When Neil Calder and Murdo Ross arrived back at Ardgay station by the afternoon mail train “A large and enthusiastic crowd of both sexes and all ages marched in procession by Bonar Bridge, and escorted the “martyrs” home to Airdens. The procession was headed by a pipe band, and numerous banners, bearing appropriate mottoes and devices, were carried. A new feature of the procession were effigies of Mr Cameron, trustee …and Sheriff Johnstone, carried aloft in front of the procession… [which] proceeded to the summit of a conspicuous hill to the north of the township, where huge bonfires were lit, and the effigies consigned to the flames and reduced to ashes, amid the hootings and exclamations of the crowd.”

by Malcolm Bangor-Jones

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