An expert guide to land ownership in the Highlands after World War One

02 December 2013
imports_CESC_0-r87wdh97-100000_58704.jpg An expert guide to land ownership in the Highlands after World War One
In the years following World War One, returning servicemen expected to come home to a 'land fit for heroes'. Historian Dr Iain Robertson explores the widespread protests which occured when unemployment and eviction were instead the lot of the returning heroes. ...

'I fear, we should never submit tamely to what our Forefathers did': On returning to ‘a land Fit for Heroes’

On 11 November, 1918 there were no doubt many Highland Scots heartily relieved that they, or their loved ones, had made it through to the end of the war. And whilst there were further tragedies waiting just round the corner for those from the Outer Hebrides and the isles of Lewis and Harris in particular, no doubt many were anticipating returning to a land made ‘fit for heroes’. In this they were largely to be thwarted.


Crofters and cottars returned to the same socio-economic (and cultural) conditions that had pertained prior to 1914 and which had led directly to the mass outbursts of social protest of the 1880s, from which emerged the 1886 Land Act. Flaws within this act ensured both that any ‘truce’ in these wars was short-lived and that land disturbances became a central part of the story of the twentieth century Highlands.

In the first few months after the declaration of war recruitment in the Highlands was extremely successful. Based upon locality and past loyalties, and to a vestigial clan tradition, this emotional entreaty was enhanced by the fact that those doing the recruiting were often drawn from the traditional land-owning families who retained vestigal powers of political and social leadership. In this way, moreover, recruitment and recruiters served to maintain the link between military service and land, and, from this, help sustain the crofting tenantry's belief in their entitlement to land (as found in the notion of duthchas).


War service had a profound impact on the sensibilities of those who served, or their families. It also altered attitudes to the plight of the Highland tenantry within Government, landlords and public opinion more generally and removed much of the residual deference still exhibited shown by the tenantry.

This led to an important ideological hardening as shown by correspondence from the Northton township on Harris:


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‘Our dispositions are... changed somewhat since the war began and, I fear, we should never submit tamely to what our Forefathers did.’

Perhaps most critical as catalyst for what was to follow was the promise of land in return for war service. Something resembling a promise was made to the nation generally, and more clearly made in the Highlands as part of the recruitment drive. Most important is the fact that crofters and cottars believed that promises had been made, with the perceived failure to honour these becoming a key motive in subsequent events.

In 1918 and 1919 the herring fishery - one of the sources of external income upon which crofting depended – was a general failure. The national economic depression of the 1920s removed a further source. Access to land remained scant and crofts remained overcrowded. To give but one example among many. In the early 1920s the croft at 8 Lemreway on Lewis supported at least four families plus one further squatter.


similar conditions had pertained in the township virtually ever since a large number of families had relocated there following mid nineteenth century clearances. Over-crowding and land exhaustion had driven a number of land disturbances in the district before the war and in 1922 generated land seizures at Orinsay and Stimervay. Of the seven male members of 8 Lemreway, four went to Orinsay and one to Stimervay. An alternative response to the immediate post-war conditions was of course emigration.

The land raids at Orinsay and Stimervay were just two of the over 500 separate incidents of protest that we are able to now identify taking place in an intense burst of agitation and disorder in the Highlands between 1918 and 1926. Taking a number of distinct forms, this was a major social movement to secure a future on the land for crofters and cottars and their descendants and unlike much of the earlier Land Wars disturbances, these actions had important positive impacts.

A more sympathetic Department of Agriculture for Scotland resettled people on long-abandoned townships. Most survive today; thereby laying the foundations for the current land buyout movement that is profoundly altering the land-ownership mosaic on the Outer Hebrides in particular.

(Image shows Croft at Cheesebay, North Uist; established in 1923 by the Board of Agriculture in 1923 in response to earlier land seizures)

Dr Iain Robertson is the author of 'Landscapes of Protest in the Scottish Highlands After 1914', published by Ashgate Publishing.