The Staffin Trust has secured funding from Creative Scotland to investigate creating a permanent memorial to recognise the crofters’ uprising in Staffin in the 1870s in the face of landlord oppression which, coupled with similar protests elsewhere in the west Highlands, eventually led to a historic law offering more protection for crofters. The Trust’s directors and development officer are working with the Skye and Lochalsh arts organisation ATLAS to develop an attractive and eye-catching memorial which would serve as a fitting tribute.
No location for the Staffin Crofters’ Memorial has yet been decided. The final decision will be taken in full consultation with the Staffin community.
SINE GILLESPIE, a Staffin Trust director, provides some historical context to the project and sets out the aspirations…
“During recent decades, the period known in Gaelic as ‘Srì an Fhearainn’ has been well documented by historians. Everybody knows that it was the crofters’ actions which led to the Napier Commission of Enquiry into the Conditions of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands. The year of 1886 slips effortlessly off the Sgitheanach’s tongue, because we know fine well the significance of the Scotland (Crofters) Act and how it brought relief and security to thousands of families in the crofting counties of Scotland.
In his centenary book on shinty Skye Camanachd – A Century Remembered Martin MacDonald wrote that “Skye was at the cockpit of the land agitation for six years”. Island crofters began to take a stand against the oppressive landlord regime during the 1870s. The principal agitators lived on estates in Cille Mhoire (Kilmuir), Gleann Dail (Glendale), Port Rìgh (Portree) and A’ Bhràighe (Braes of Trotternish). Glendale falls within the ancestral lands of MacLeod, while the remainder of the districts are in the traditional MacDonald lands. By the time of the 1870s, tracts of land had been sold by Macleod of Macleod and MacDonald of Sleat to alleviate debt.
At the time of the agitation, Major/Captain Fraser of Culbokie was landlord of the Kilmuir estate which then had 55 townships. For clarity, his estate might be identified today as the land north of Glenhinnisdale on the west of the Trotternish peninsula. On the east , the Kilmuir estate bordered the Scorrybreac estate south of An leth-allt [Lealt]. Key episodes in the Skye Uprising took place over a number of years, principally from 1877 to 1887, on Fraser’s estate.
Significant events happened in the Staffin district – in Bhaltos (Valtos), Ealaiseadar (Ellishadder), An Gàrradh fhada (Garafad), Steinnseal (Stenscholl), Loch Mealt and at Cuith-raing (The Quairaing). Outwith Staffin everyone alive at the time on every township of the Kilmuir Estate was involved and affected by the Uprising.
Glendale, Braes and Kilmuir made the headlines as agitators on a frequent basis. It is notable that the communities of Glendale and Kilmuir have erected modest cairns to commemorate the role of their great-grandfathers in the crofters’ Land Wars.
However, in Staffin, we have failed to create a lasting memorial to our own crofting ancestors more than a century on. We know fine well that it was Norman Stewart (Tormod Choinnich) from Bhaltos who was the first Skye crofter who blatantly refused to pay the imposed increase of his croft rent. This happened in 1877 and he was to play such a pivotal role in the agitation – being jailed on at least two occasions – that he earned the nickname ‘Parnell’. Hundreds of local crofters rallied to the cause but a number can be specifically named and are easily identifiable through their descendants today. One example is Archibald MacDonald’s grandson. The grandfather was local secretary of the Highand Land Law Reform Association branch in the 1880s, and his grandson, Iain MacDonald – or as he is known, ‘The Herd’, is a well-known Staffin crofter.
Evidence was taken by the Napier Commission at the Schoolhouse in Steinnseal, Staffin on 11th May 1883. The man who translated, where required, from Gaelic was William Mackenzie – then schoolmaster at Bhaltos.
Staffin is very active as a crofting community in 2017. This aspect of our identity remains strong. Certainly, on the one hand, we owe a debt to our forefathers who fought to restore our hereditary rights and privileges in this place. At the same time, a meaningful sculpture has the power to celebrate the fact that we’re still at it – rooted to this soil! The feeling is a powerful one, that we can restore our dignity through creating a meaningful, inspiring monument to communicate not only the steps that our fathers took to retain their world but how Staffin people today still reflect their values and integrity.
We already live in a dynamic landscape. Not only that, but a monument would sit well within the philosophy of Ceumannan, Skye’s Ecomuseum. It is in the people, through stewardship of their land, that we find the ‘knot in the basalt’, where place-names, proverbs, prayers and patronymics are folded together with ruins and rigs, stories and songs, geology and geography. An iconic thought-provoking monument for Staffin would of course bring cultural and economic benefits. It would educate and inspire, drawing visitors from all over the world. Most of all, it would deepen our pride in our identity. And that is the most important factor of all.”