Monday, 24 May 2010

Napier Commission's visit to St Kilda

On August 29th this year, it will be 80 years ago since the people of St Kilda left their native isle, never to return (to live there). They had requested to be removed as life there had become untenable. It is perhaps noteworthy to read the submissions to the Napier Commission, which visited St Kilda in June 1883. The replies by the three people who were called to give evidence have been transcribed into separate postings on the blog. Read the entries first, then return here, I ask.

In order to get an idea of the attitude of the "have's" versus the "have-nots" of the day, I copy a few lines from a submission from the factor for St Kilda, in effect the landowner's manager of the islands. John T. Mackenzie was not a bad man, as he did not pressurise any people if they could not pay the rent. Others in his position  would have their tenants evicted in case of default.
[...] the " land question" to a great extent is in the hands of educated people, who know the danger of breaking the law, and who are responsible for their own actions. The crofter grievance is the " land question " in another form, but in the hands of a class who, fancying they have some hardships, know not what to do, but who are under the guidance and advice of irresponsible and, I am afraid in many cases, of thoughtless leaders, eager to gain notoriety through the simplicity and credulity of their followers

If you feel anger when seeing condescension and arrogance at such a breathtaking degree, stop for a minute and reflect upon the era we're talking about. In the Great Britain of 1883, there was a gaping divide between classes in society. St Kilda people were regarded as "noble savages", who could not look after themselves, and needed the benevolent hand of an educated and munificent landowner to guide their ignorant ways. Looking at this from a 21st century perspective, it is in fact the landowners who contributed in no mean proportion to the plight of their tenants - as the Napier Commission was finding out in 1883. Not all lairds were bad and evil, and neither were all their agents.

I can tell you that I have found the attitude, stated in the blockquote from John T. Mackenzie above, echoed to this day in certain quarters of those studying the social history of the Highlands and Islands. I am still angry at the Scottish First Minister who hailed the achievements of the emigrant Highlanders overseas, without making reference to the fact that many of them were kicked out under the most excruciating circumstances. Achievements that certainly deserve to be acknowledged - but why were they not allowed to make them at home.

I'll get off my high horse now.


  1. Not quite sure why you are so angry with the First Minister, Arnish. I think that there are two separate (albeit related) issues here. One is the treatment of the victims of the clearances and the other is the successes of Scottish emigrants in North America and elsewhere.
    I'm a member of the SNP and I can tell you that every member, including the First Minister, is angry at how our people (including the ancestors of many of us) were driven off the land, frequently on the orders of absentee landlords.
    That doesn't make it wrong for Alex Salmond to applaud the achievements of Scottish emigrants and I'm sure that he would wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that they should have been allowed to make these achievements in Scotland. However in many cases this was impossible. My own great grandfather chose to emigrate to Argentina and he installed the water pipeline system in Buenos Aires and got very rich. If he had stayed on Lewis he would have remained a crofter with a tiny patch of land.

  2. Malkie,
    My anger at the First Minister is related to the fact that he did not mention the way people were cleared from Strath Kildonan (the area in which the statue stands) on the day of the unveiling of the statue. The Clearances were the very reason why people were forced to emigrate. I take my hat off to those that managed to achieve great things in their new homelands. Not all were able to.

    I am happy to accept that anyone in Scotland, irrespective of political hue, shares your and my revulsion at the Clearances.