Scotland did not have the explosive combination of Michael Davitt’s organisational and inspirational skills, and Parnell’s power of command, and genius for leadership that turned the Land League into a highly effective weapon of agitation. For decades the Scottish crofter had no effective power, except occasional physical resistance, to stop evictions from their homes to make way for sheep, and deer.
Michael Davitt was aged four when his family were evicted from their home at Straide, Co Mayo, in 1850. They emigrated to Liverpool, eventually settling in Lancashire, where he worked as a boy in the local cotton mill. He was brought up in the closed world of a poor Irish immigrant community, which held strong nationalist feelings, and a hatred of landlordism. I am sure the Davitts met Scottish emigrants with similar feelings.
The young Michael Davitt lost an arm in a spinning machine, and was thrown out of work, without compensation, for carelessness. Fortunately, his exceptional bright spirit prompted a local benefactor, John Deane, to send him to a Wesleyan school where he received a good education. Disgusted at the treatment of poor tenant farmers evicted from their homes and livelihood, for inability to pay rent, he developed the idea of the Land League.* He urged all tenant farmers to stick together, to boycott landlords who evicted them, and land-grabbers who took their farms; and to fight in parliament for the right for Irishmen to own the land they farmed. It was a sensational and a revolutionary statement. And it was remarkably successful. It won enormous benefits for Irish farmers compared to their contemporaries in England, Scotland or Wales.
Directly influenced by Davitt’s ideas, a distinct political force emerged in the Scottish highlands and islands. It had a popular slogan: Is treasa tuath na tighearna, ‘The people are mightier than a lord’.
Initially the Highland Land League had some success. It won security of tenure for some of the remaining crofters; and helped the destitute by providing public work schemes, such as building roads, railways and harbours. But promises were not kept by government, and the Scottish Highland Land League eventually merged into the Labour Party, where it struggles to exert its voice even today.**
But long before the Highland Land League, landlords evicted its crofter farmers with impunity. There was a particular clearance at Ross in Strathcarron that did excite, for a time, the London newspapers for its cruelty and death. But the only people punished by law were the ones who resisted the eviction.
This time it was the women of Ross, who were out working in the fields when word came that the agent was coming to evict them. The women were incensed. Their landlord, Alexander Munro, had promised there would be no evictions. They rushed to the road and stopped the agent. They searched his pockets, and tore up the eviction notice.
A few days later two agents turned with the same message. But they too were stopped by the women, and sent packing. Then on March 31 1854 a large force of men turned up with cudgels, accompanied by policemen. The women blocked the road and refused to let them pass. This time the men attacked. They battered the women to the ground, and continued to beat them until many were senseless. Two women died. The rest were dragged off to gaol, their homes burned, and their men and children scattered.
A landlord church
As in Ireland the potato crop failed for successive years from 1845. This prompted further evictions, and landlords felt even more justified in burning cottages to stop the spread of cholera.
‘At one point the desperate people turned to the Church of Scotland for help, but it was the church of the landlords. It told the highlanders that the evictions were God’s will, and a chance for sinners to repent. Many highlanders broke away from the church to find one that could speak to them, and satisfy their needs for spiritual comfort at a time of great crisis.
This eventually became the Free Church of Scotland. But landlords attempted to interfere, and forbade any of their tenants from building Free Churches, or giving shelter or aid to its ministers.’***
Rather than face emigration, a large number of men joined the royal army. Ironically, to develop esprit de corps, the army allowed them to wear Scottish emblems such as tartan and kilts, which were once banned. A number of famous Scottish regiments were formed, including the Black Watch, the Cameronian Scottish Rifles, the Cameroon Highlanders, and many more. These regiments cultivated a reputation for bravery in combat, and were often given a romantic treatment in books and tradition. As the 19th century wore on, and the glens emptied, the numbers joining the army grew less and less. Nevertheless in Britain’s Colonial and Napoleonic wars, the Crimea, and then after a period of virtually no recruitment, the Scotts rallied in their thousands to join the defence forces in the First and Second World Wars, Scottish regiments distinguished themselves. Army commanders wanted Scottish soldiers in their ranks. At Waterloo, the charge of the Royal Scots Greys is, again, the stuff of legend.
Culloden and its genocidal follow-up may have emasculated the Scots for 150 years; but the fighting aspect of their character found expression in the British army, and in armies across the world including Russia, Poland and Canada. At one army parade before the battle of Waterloo, the Scottish regiments smartly arrived at the parade-ground, with a great show of shrilling pipes, beating drums, and colourful uniforms, flags and banners. The solders looked proud and fierce. An officer quietly remarked to Wellington that this was the stuff to frighten the enemy. Wellington replied: ‘I don’t know what they will do to the enemy, but they sure scare the hell out of me.’
NOTES: * The Irish National Land League grew out of the founding meeting of the Mayo Tenants Defence Association in Castlebar October 26 1878. Its demand that ‘The land of Ireland for the people of Ireland’, reported in The Connacht Telegraph November 2, was the spark that led to profound change for Ireland’s tenant farmers.
**It was not until the late 1920s when the government begin to establish new crofts, mainly in the Hebrides, the area where Gaelic best survives to the present time.
*** The Tragic Highland Clearances, by Robert M Gunn.
Next week: A look at Pat Finnegan’s new book on the Land League in east Galway: Loughrea - That Den of infamy’.
A great patriotic poem
Breathes there the man with
soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps
he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
Some poems learned at school are not forgotten. I often think of these lines as the plane skims over the green fields approaching Shannon, or the first glimpse of Ireland from the ferry. It was written by Walter Scott (1771-1832 ) and is a great Scottish patriotic poem. But its sentiments are true for us all.
The poem concludes that if there is such a person, no matter how important he is, or how wealthy he is, he is still a ‘wretch’, who shall ‘forfit fair renown’ through his lack of love for his country. If such a person were to die, he shall die ‘doubly’ as the final lines make clear:
And doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.’