The Battle of the Braes

Having spent some time on the Isle of Skye as a tour guide I’ve seen many parts of the island on my visits, from the “places to see before you die” tourist spots to some of the equally beautiful, lesser known places that are off the beaten track. After entering a marathon a couple of years ago, I decided to take the opportunity to do some training on the island in the early morning and run for many miles in the dark with nothing but my torch and the rustling bushes for company. Fear of a troll or goblin jumping from the trees was an immediate concern but went away.

One of these trips took me from Portree down the east coast of Skye towards the Braes, and the old crofting townships of Gedintailor, Balmeanach and Peinchorran. Crofting townships were established at the beginning of the 19th century by the clan chiefs, who were now commercial landowners, dividing arable lands of a pre-existing joint farm into individual holdings. The requirements of an effective arable agriculture were strictly subordinated to landlords’ overarching desire to make money by whatever method came to hand. Landowners, keen to make money from fishing and the kelp industries (harvesting of seaweed for the kelp kilns to make soap or glass) encouraged the proliferation of miniscule holdings as a means to these ends. Crofts were deliberately designed to make it impossible for their occupants to be self-sufficient agriculturalists. The collapse of the kelp industry, potato famine and overcrowding, and the introduction of commercial sheep farming, led to ‘assisted passages’ or forced evictions of these crofters on ships to the New World with tens of thousands of Highlanders being brutally evicted and their homes burnt down –  Fuadaichean nan Gaidheal or The expulsion of the Gael.

The road to the Braes is separated from the main road to Portree by Ben Lee (a ben is a hill or mountain) and I followed a narrow and winding road which was dark but still allowed views across the Sound of Raasay towards the Island of Raasay and Ben Tianavaig behind me. Until 1865, this hill, Ben Lee, on Lord Macdonald’s estate, was leased to a sheep farmer for an annual rent of £128 with the Braes crofters being permitted to graze their sheep on it. However, representatives of Lord Macdonald claimed in 1865 that it lay outside the boundaries of the Braes township and the tenants had ‘no right or claim to it’. They were also not entitled to any reduction of their rent because of it’s loss. To the crofters, this hill for many generations was connected with their township. Arrests were to be made for those refusing to pay these rents although the passing of the Irish Land Act, the contact of the crofters with their Irish counterparts and the conflict raging in the Irish countryside made the crofters draw their own conclusions and decide that they had had enough.

On 7 April 1882, a sheriff-officer left Portree to intimidate the crofters with eviction notices. At Braes the unlucky sheriff-officer was met by a crowd of 150 people and assaulted. Although he was not seriously injured, the summonses were taken from him and burned on the spot. Eviction notices were the universally hated symbol of landlords virtually unrestricted power over the tenants and although this had been done before, this campaign at Braes was well organised and offensive rather than defensive. The Braes crofters posted sentries on the hill and awaited developments.

William Ivory, sheriff of Inverness-shire, a man whose instinct was to crush the crofters’ movement, particularly welcomed this turn of events. An appeal was made to the local authorities in Glasgow, the British Empire’s second city and home of Scotland’s largest constabulary.

Before dawn on 19 April, a day of cold and relentless rain, a detachment of over 50 policemen marched from Portree to the Braes with Ivory ‘at their head’. The force passed through Gedintailor without any resistance until reaching Balmeanach where they were met by about 100 men, women and children. Whilst attempting to make arrests, the Braes folk had gathered in some strength and surrounded, stoned and otherwise assaulted the officers. About a dozen officers were injured. Batons were drawn and the police repeatedly charged the crowd to regain control of the situation with some of the crofters and their wives being injured in the process. In the end the police emerged victorious and a final desperate charge took them through the encircled mass of furious crofters where they escaped towards Portree through a last barrage of mud and stones.

And so passed into history and folklore ‘The Battle of the Braes’, an event that gave unprecedented publicity to crofters’ grievances. Within a few days newspapers such as The Scotsman, Inverness Courier, London Standard and the Freeman’s Journal, in Dublin, were reporting on the despicable conditions which the Hebrideans were living in, helping to sway public opinion in their favour. This was further achieved by yet more agitation and the development of a crofters political organisation, the Highland Land Law Reform Association (HLLRA) but a statement had been made and fair rent and the right to stay on the land that had been unfairly taken from them was on the horizon.

Running back up the road past the more modern houses that dot the landscape, every now and then I would see the bare walls of a ruined croft amongst the trees where people used to live and children used to play. A plaque on a small hill by the road commemorates the ‘battle fought by the people of the Braes on behalf of the crofters of Gaeldom’.

I don’t speak much Gaelic myself but there is a word, Duthchas. Apparently it is impossible to translate this but expresses a belonging to a certain area of land, of being rooted by ancient lineage to a particular place that was communally held by all the people of a clan. Maybe an expression of unity existing between land, people, all living creatures, nature and culture. It was simply accepted as the natural order of things. Evictions by the landowners flew in the face of this. The Braes is a place I hope to get back to sometime.

Martin Shipway can be found on Instagram @pictavian