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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