While I was in Tiree recently, two items were uncovered that probably had a close connection with a riot that once took place in a time of agitation and rebellion throughout much of the north of Scotland – one that had its effect not only on that island but also in more distant locations such as Orkney, Caithness and even Shetland.
When the members of one household were hard at work restoring one of Tiree’s remaining blackhouses, they discovered two sharp and deadly blades wedged below the roof. One resembled a modern bayonet, the same shape and size as the one doddery old Corporal Jones used to brandish in Dad’s Army, running around and calling out “They don’t like it up ‘em …” as he did so. The other looked a more dangerous and threatening weapon – a short and deadly sword in its rusting scabbard. It, too, apparently was fixed to an end of a rifle, used for such close-contact sports as cutting and disembowelling your nearest enemy.
For items hidden for well over 100 years, they were – if you can pardon the pun – in surprisingly good nick. A little gold leaf still clung to one scabbard; an inscription could be made out on the other. Some turfs of peat lining the roof-edge had performed their customary magic, preserving the weapons from decay. One of Tiree’s residents had done a little preliminary detective work on the find before contacting the experts on the mainland. They were French, he declared, possibly belonging to one of the island’s former soldiers who had taken them home as souvenirs from one of the British Empire’s perennial clashes in the mid and early nineteenth century. This could have been at a time when the two nations were at bayonets drawn – such as the Napoleonic War – or, perhaps, when their bayonets were sheathed, a moment like the Crimean War when the countries stood side by side against Russia’s ambitions in that area.
And when were they hidden …? Clearly that’s difficult to say for certain, but it is possible to make a reasonable guess. They were probably concealed way back in 1886, when the Times of London reported that “there is war in Tiree”, going on to echo some of the reports we have read over 100 years later in the national newspapers in its descriptions of how the entire community was in “a state of utter and undisguised lawlessness”. The islanders even forced the police to flee the island, blockading them for a time beforehand in a local inn where they hooted and jeered at the men in dark uniforms, brandishing sticks and challenging them to fight. They did this partly in protest against their landlord and the inequities of the land system, including the insecure tenancies and poverty that prevailed at that time.
One can imagine how the readership of the Times reacted to all of this. The 19th century version of David Starkey would have spluttered that “the problem with all these Scottish islanders is that they have become like the insurrectionary and insolent Irish”. Old Etonian politicians probably laid aside their long cherished ambitions to “hug a Hebridean” and decided they wanted to hang a few instead. The Victorian version of Kelvin Mackenzie might even have blown his “red top”, screamed about the country’s moral decline and called out for plastic bullets and water cannon to be employed on the heathen, heathery hordes.
There is little doubt that the language of that newspaper encouraged this reaction. It blamed incoming agitators for the problem. It announced that “obviously strong measures must be adopted … if respect for the law is to be restored”, declaring that the islanders will “be surprised by how much suffering they have brought upon themselves”. The last sentence of one article even declared what form that “suffering” might take place – not plastic bullets and water cannon but a gunboat with a force of marines “sufficient to suppress the present disturbance”.
One can imagine how the ordinary people of Tiree reacted in the summer of 1886 when they saw that troopship, the Assistance with its 200 marines on board coming close to its shores. They shuddered and shook, fearing the prison sentences the authorities might inflict on them for their actions. Some, particularly the soldiers who had served in the nation’s foreign wars, hid the weapons they had taken home as souvenirs. A rifle might have been buried in a potato pit. Two bayonet-swords could have been hidden in a roof of a blackhouse, concealed in a row of turf, just in case one of the marines might decide that they were intended to be employed on the neck of a landlord or his factor.
In the October of that year, the David Starkeys and David Camerons of that age received all the satisfaction they were due. Eight Tiree crofters were convicted of “mobbing and rioting and deforcing an officer of the law while in execution of his duty”. Before sentencing them, the judge warned that they were extremely fortunate in not being transported to the colonies. And then the kind of sentences that might even have placed a smile on the lips of a Daily Mail reader were handed out. Five were sentenced to six months imprisonment; three held in jail for four months.
This was not, however, the end of the matter. During that year, the Crofters’ Holding Act was passed, addressing some of the concerns that both these crofters and their counterparts in Skye, Lewis and other islands were protesting against. Despite this, land raids continued throughout the early years of the 20th century, not even ending when the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act was passed in December 1919. However, after the 1920s, they slowly came to a close, finishing only when the politicians decided they had to understand a little more, condemn a little less, addressing the injustices that exist within society and not fulminating when their symptoms were shown. In the last few weeks, we have seen far too much of the opposite reaction, the cries of moral outrage almost as loud and destructive as the riots that preceded them…
D S Murray