Lewis: Raiders of the lost Park
Ecovillage Network UK
evnuk at gaia.org
Tue Feb 8 20:56:28 GMT 2005
Raiders of the lost Park
by Willie Orr
Sat 15 Jan 2005
ON TUESDAY 22 November 1887, a firm of Edinburgh lawyers received an urgent
telegram from the remote island of Lewis: "Five hundred on Park and more
pouring in from all quarters. Three hundred deer destroyed. Dispatch
soldiers at once."
It was from the Chamberlain of Lady Matheson's estate, where the crofters
and cottars of the townships on the edge of the Pairc, or Park, deer
forest, driven by hunger and frustration, had finally taken the law into
their own hands and marched into the deer sanctuary. This little-known
episode has a particular resonance now, as the descendents of the crofters
who took such desperate measures attempt a "hostile takeover" of the 10,000
hectare south-Lewis estate, under the new Scottish Land Reform legislation.
Back in 1887, the Edinburgh lawyers, horrified by this assault on private
property, passed the request to the Secretary of State. He acted quickly.
The Adjutant General assembled a task force to deal with the outrage, and
the gunboat Ajax, berthed in the Clyde, was ordered to sail to Stornoway.
HMS Seahorse, in Devonport with its company of marines, and HMS Jackal were
also alerted and a military detachment of 89 men and five officers of the
Royal Scots left Maryhill barracks bound for Lewis.
Many times around their peat fires the crofters had discussed a raid on the
deer forest and, three years previously, they had watched the shepherds
gather the 9,000 sheep and drive them to market. Sheep farming, which had
led to so many Clearances, was no longer profitable. Hoping that part of
the vacant land could be used to feed their families, they had tried to
persuade Lady Matheson to lease it to them. She refused and the 42,000
acres were left to the deer and let to a shooting tenant, AJ Platt. The
crofters had been cheated out of their land.
In 1887 their frustration became unbearable. The congested townships
depended on external sources of income and the sale of cattle to pay the
rent. No fewer than 4,000 men and women left Lewis every year for fishing
ports on the east coast. That year, however, the demand for labour in
fishing shrank alarmingly and many of the islanders had to beg their way
back home. In the cattle markets, stirks, which had been fetching £5 in
1883, fell to £1. Rent arrears mounted.
In 1883 the Matheson accounts had shown £9,101 in arrears; by 1886 this had
increased to £21,181. Destitution on the scale of 1846/1847 became a real
possibility. Beside the overcrowded holdings the grass grew, untouched, on
the vast moorland of the Park.
It was by no means a spontaneous or disorderly affair. Platt and the
sheriff were given formal notice and, as they crossed the boundary, the
crofters were accompanied by 19 of the estate keepers, who kept the deer on
the move to minimise the slaughter. How successful they were in this task
is not clear. The crofters, keen to emphasise the damage, maintained that
600 deer were killed or maimed and that 1,500 men participated.
The keepers, probably with their future employment in mind, insisted that
there were never more than 300 men in the forest, with only 40 guns. The
county sheriff reckoned that only six deer had been killed. Only the
crofters knew the truth. On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning their boats
had been carrying carcasses to the villages. On Wednesday evening the
weather deteriorated and they were forced to stop.
The local sheriff met a band of 40 of them in the forest, read the Riot
Act, explained its implications to them in Gaelic and persuaded them to
leave the forest. The raid was over.
The following day - Friday 25 - the local police sergeant visited the
townships and found that the leaders were delighted to accompany him to
Stornoway jail. He was provided with a boat to take the "prisoners" to town
and one offender walked there himself. Military intervention was unnecessary.
Before the trial the crofters sent a deputation to Stornoway Castle to
petition for land from the forest and sheep farms. Lady Matheson refused,
telling them: "These lands are my property and you have nothing to do with
them." They were incensed. Lady Matheson was granted police protection.
In January 1888 the prisoners were tried in Edinburgh and acquitted. In May
they raided the forest again and, watched by the marines from HMS Seahorse,
ate a meal of bread and venison and vowed to "abolish sport and exterminate
game on Lewis".
They did not succeed. Market forces prevailed and, by 1911, 34 per cent of
the land in the Crofting Counties was reserved for sport. Yet the dignity
and determination of the Park raiders stood as a permanent reminder of the
need to shift the balance of the law away from the power of the landowning
elite towards the people who work the land. Now, as the Park crofters
submit their claim to the land once again, under the auspices of the
Executive's flagship Land Reform Act, there is an opportunity to redress
the balance and recognise the justice of the crofters' case.
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