An alternative view of Islay's history

Catriona Bell questions some of the assumptions made in the 'Story of the last three hundred years' in issue 36_10 of the Ileach Community Newspaper. History, as you'll know, is written by the powerful, however we are fortunate to have a few insights into 19th century Islay history which came from the people. For example, Duncan MacIndeor in evidence to the Deer Commission, and quoted in several books about Islay, most recently 'Peat Smoke and Spirit' by Andrew Jefford and David Caldwell's 'Islay the Land of the Lordship', stated that he was always able to pay the rent for his holding at Airidh Guaridh, near the north end of the Glen.

Giving evidence he said, 'Mr Webster, the under factor at the time, had put out a lot of small farmers and had taken the land into his own hands. He wanted my farm as well at this time, promising another if I would give it up quietly. I refused to do so, and he noticed me out of the farm. Nevertheless I had paid my rent, I protested against such unjust actions. He compelled me to leave.' We have another view of Webster from John Murdoch who returned to the island as an exciseman in 1845. He wrote 'The laird was now away. And Webster was more master in the island than ever... and he drove things pretty much as he chose. The case as between himself and the laird was remarkable in that the master went bankrupt – while the servant had nearly all the best lands in his hands. Continue reading.....'I remember Sandy Campbell and myself making up one day that he had farms which had been held by 37 substantial farmers in former times.' Duncan Macindeor found a job as a roadman, and remained on Islay where four generations of his descendants still live to-day. The poet William Livingstone, also born and raised in the Glen, departed to lowland Scotland but on a return visit wrote: 'Tha an Glean na fhiadhair uaine Aig luchd-fuath gun tuath, gun bhàrr Mar a fhuair 's a chunnaic mise' translated by Donald Meek as 'the Glen has become a green wilderness owned by men of hatred without tenants or crops just as I found I saw'. Islay may not have had 'brutal landlords' but before we accept that 'the vast majority left of their own freewill', should we not consider the testimonies of these Glen folk on the role of an empire building factor in making people landless who had no Land Court to turn to for justice, no NFUS, or Scottish Tenants' Association for support and no Ileach to give them a voice?

This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

Tag: history clearances

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