140th Anniversary of the Battle of the Braes

Today marks 140 years since the Battle of the Braes in the Isle of Skye on 19 April 1882.

This confrontation between the local crofters and the police led to the appointment of the Napier Commission and ultimately the introduction of the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886, granting security of tenure to crofters.

The Highland Clearances began in the mid to late 18th century and continued intermittently into the 19th century. Landlords in the Highlands and Islands decided that there was a more profitable venture than accommodating crofters and so began evicting families who had worked the land for centuries to make way for sheep, as they believed they could make more money that way.

140th Anniversary of Battle of the Braes memorial
Braes, Isle of Skye

The ‘Land Wars’ of the late 1800s were instigated by the crofters who wanted the right to their own land officially recognised in the law – a right they had enjoyed under the clan system for centuries. It all came to a head in April of 1882, at what became known as ‘Blàr a’ Chumhaing’, or The Battle of the Braes, near Portree in Skye.

Lord MacDonald decided to raise the rent levied on the people of Braes. With their lease almost up, they agreed to pay the new rate. Despite this, MacDonald refused to renew their lease.

The crofters decided to withhold their rent until the matter was resolved, with some of them continuing to graze their sheep on the land at Ben Lee (see Òran Beinn Lì by Màiri Mhòr nan Òran) where they had been forbidden. MacDonald tried to evict the crofters, involving law enforcement, but the attempt to clear the crofters off their land by the Sheriff’s Officer from Portree was in vain: they forced him to burn the summons papers.

Realising that this was going to be a harder task than expected, the Sheriff called in reinforcements from Glasgow: an additional fifty officers in total. The crofters were not prepared to give up their land without a fight, and so when the officers arrived from Glasgow on 19 April 1882, they were met with sticks and stones hurled at them by around a hundred or so locals. Vastly outnumbered, the police eventually retreated, but not before several people were injured. A handful of crofters were arrested and handed fines, but they garnered support in the media from across the country.

 

Road sign into Braes

The government could no longer avoid the issue: they had to do something to address the plight of the crofters. They called a public inquiry, the Napier Commission, to investigate the living conditions of the crofters and cottars that lived in the Highlands and Islands. Security of tenure for crofters is a lasting legacy of this historic commission, headed up by Francis Napier, 10th Lord Napier.