The Vatersay Raiders were ten Scottish cottars[a]A cottar is a peasant who occupies a cottage and rents a small plot of land. imprisoned in 1908 after illegally setting up homes on the small Hebridean island of Vatersay. All crofters had been cleared from the island by the mid-19th century, leaving only a tenant farmer and his workers, but a group of their descendants and others returned in 1906 and illegally built homes on the island.
The island’s owner took the men to court, resulting in their imprisonment, but subsequent public sympathy persuaded the authorities to purchase the island, and Vatersay Farm was then divided into crofts, allocated by ballot.
The island of Vatersay is the southernmost and westernmost inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Irregularly shaped, it is about 3 miles (4.8 km) from north to south.
Poverty and hardship were the normal way of life for the islanders; since the 1820s and through the 1830s they had been evicted and their livestock seized. On the death of her first husband, Captain John Gordon, Lady Emily Gordon CathcartHeiress known for her stance against Catholicism and her leading role in the Highland Clearances inherited swathes of land on the Scottish mainland as well as some Scottish islands, together with a large fortune. She continued the clearances of crofters and cottars from the islands initiated by her father-in-law, Colonel John GordonDaubed as "The richest commoner in Scotland", Colonel John Gordon owned estates on mainland Scotland and purchased several Scottish islands, who had purchased the Hebridean estates in 1840.
By 1850/1851 almost the entire population of crofters and fisherman had been evicted from Vatersay, most of them ending up on the nearby island of Barra; the only remaining residents were the tenant of Vatersay Farm and his employees.[b]Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) indicates the total population of the island in 1901 was 13; Buxton quotes the March 1901 census as four households comprising 27 occupants. But the crofters never gave up their claims to a life on Vatersay, and continued to bury their dead on the island.
In 1892 Lady Cathcart was petitioned by forty-seven crofters to allow them to continue using land on Vatersay on which they had been allowed to grow potatoes by the then tenant farmer, Donald MacDonald. When she refused, a number of the crofters illegally seized the land, their case strengthened by the findings of the Deer Forest Commission in 1894, which determined that Vatersay was suitable for crofting. Similar seizures occurred almost every year until 1906, when some of the crofters decided to take up residence on the island.
On 27 June 1906 Lady Cathcart’s solicitors wrote to the Under-Secretary at the Scottish office, Reginald MacLeod, complaining that some cottars had taken cattle to Vatersay by boat and installed them on land occupied by the tenant farmer. On 28 July forty raiders in two boats followed, and began making preparations to stay; until then they had returned to their homes on Barra or Mingulay each night.[c]It is sometimes reported that one of the raiders built a dwelling and had a fire lit in its hearth in a single day, entitling him to remain in possession under an ancient law, but as there is no contemporary account of that having happened, the story may be apocryphal. The government declined to intervene, considering it to be a matter for the landowner to resolve.
By October, twenty-two huts had been built on Vatersay, ten by families from Barra and nine by Mingulay families. Lady Cathcart served injunctions on the occupiers in April 1907, requiring them to leave the island. Their refusal, and the government’s reluctance to become involved, resulted in Lady Cathcart initiating legal proceedings against eleven of the raiders, six from Barra and five from Mingulay, all described in court as fishermen: Duncan Campbell, Donald MacIntyre, John Campbell, William Boyd, Roderick MacNeil, John MacDougall, Michael Campbell, Duncan Sinclair, John Sinclair, Hector MacPhee and Neil MacPhee. The charges against Neil MacPhee were dropped before the case went to trial.
Trial, imprisonment and release
The trial was set to take place in Edinburgh on 19 May 1908, but was postponed until 2 June after the raiders wrote to the court saying that they could not afford their fares, which Lady Cathcart then agreed to pay herself. All the accused were found guilty of contempt of court and breaching the terms of the injunction requiring them to leave Vatersay, but not of the original crime of trespass, which under the Trespass Act of 1865 could only be prosecuted by the Crown, and were sentenced to two months imprisonment.
The case attracted much media attention and was debated in both houses of parliament, where the Tory opposition naturally took the side of the landowner. One peer suggested that the invaders had committed a “monstrous action”, and another that the government’s refusal to intervene had been “an attempt to compel a landowner to turn out of his holding a tenant in order to make way for a gang of pirates”.
But public opinion was very much on the side of the raiders, and under increasing pressure the government decided to initiate negotiations with Lady Cathcart on condition that she ordered the release of the men, which she did. The men were released two weeks early – Lady Cathcart once again paying their fares to return to their homes – and it was announced on 18 July 1908 that an agreement to legally establish crofts on Vatersay had been reached.
Purchase and division
By the time the raiders returned to Vatersay there were thirty-three households on the island. In April 1909 the Congested Districts BoardBoard set up to administer the money made available by the British government to improve congested areas of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. announced that it was introducing an application process for those wanting crofts on Vatersay. The original settlers assumed that they would be allowed to stay, and that the process was for new settlers only, but that proved not to be the case, leading to much resentment.
Problems also arose over the amount of compensation to be paid to Lady Cathcart, to cover the difference between what she would have received from her tenant farmer and what she could hope to receive from the crofters, £330 vs. £180 respectively,[d]Equivalent to £142,000 vs. £77,200 as at 2021 using the average earnings measure of inflation. and her ladyship’s insistence that the government should guarantee the rent by making up for any non-payment by the crofters. To resolve the situation the government reluctantly agreed to purchase Vatersay for £6,500.
On 7 April 1909 the Congested Districts Board announced its intention to form 58 or 60 holdings on Vatersay, and invited applications from landless cottars. But the announcement made it clear that none of the existing squatters would be given preferential treatment in the allocation of holdings, which caused much resentment. Eight-two applications were received by the closing date of 1 May 1909, but many of the original raiders’ applications were unsuccessful, resulting in public uproar. The board was nevertheless unmoved, and on 4 September 1909 wrote to the twenty-four unsuccessful applicants asking them to abide by its decision and to confirm their willingness to leave Vatersay.
Legal action began to be taken against those unsuccessful applicants who refused to leave the island, of which there were about ten remaining by the beginning of 1910. But several of them were eventually allocated crofts which their intended tenants either had not cultivated or built a house on, and their eviction proceedings were dropped.
|a||A cottar is a peasant who occupies a cottage and rents a small plot of land.|
|b||Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) indicates the total population of the island in 1901 was 13; Buxton quotes the March 1901 census as four households comprising 27 occupants.|
|c||It is sometimes reported that one of the raiders built a dwelling and had a fire lit in its hearth in a single day, entitling him to remain in possession under an ancient law, but as there is no contemporary account of that having happened, the story may be apocryphal.|
|d||Equivalent to £142,000 vs. £77,200 as at 2021 using the average earnings measure of inflation.|