Portrait of John Murdoch

John Murdoch – journalist, patriot and land-reform radical by Les Wilson

The "Our Land" festival, held the length and breadth of Scotland throughout August, was widely celebrated on Islay where several lively events were staged that attracted wide public interest. A brain drain from the island of young people, and a housing shortage, mean that the issue of land ownership is of interest to Islay people but Islay also has an important land reform heritage in the person of radical journalist and agitator for crofters’ rights, John Murdoch.

Murdoch was not a man to mince his words: The people are kept poor, the land waste; and from the community generally is withheld the wealth which this land and their labour are capable of yielding.

John Murdoch was born in 1818 near Nairn – but came to Islay in 1827 'to the little farm which had been selected and conferred on my father. I feel myself as if I were an Islay man', he would tell the Napier Commission – the inquiry set up to examine the grievances of crofters following riots on Skye in 1882.

Murdoch’s father came to Islay as gamekeeper to Walter Frederick Campbell who, at 18 had inherited the entire island. The Murdochs lived a mile or so from Islay House at Claggan Farm, and John’s boyhood there shaped his cultural and political opinions. He absorbed Gaelic culture, and was a friend to the laird’s son, John Francis Campbell, who became a world renowned folklorist. But while Murdoch personally liked the Campbells, he witnessed first-hand on Islay the poverty and powerlessness of landless cottars and poor tenant farmers.

In 1829, Campbell evicted six farmers and 19 cottar families from Kilchiaran to make way for a Fife farmer who introduced Lowland techniques completely unsuited to Islay’s climate. Years later Murdoch returned to once thriving Kilchiaran.

In some places we found the ruins of the humble husbandman’s cottage; in others there remained nothing to tell where a human habitation had been but the nettle ... we f ind the land in a state of wild unproductiveness while the people who ought to be cultivating it are wanderers in strange lands.

Young Murdoch became an Excise man and, while serving in Lancashire, began writing about land issues in the Bolton Free Press.

In 1845 Murdoch’s father died, and shortly afterwards his mother was evicted from Claggan by William Webster, the factor. Murdoch returned to Islay, taking up a local post with the Excise. Continue reading...

We got back to Islay in the Autumn of 1845 – and after knocking about, took up our abode in Bowmore. John MacLachlan was settled in Claggan and we could not get back there. Had we done so it is not improbable that I should have stuck to the farm and left the excise.

During this time Murdoch witnessed the sequestration of Walter Frederick Campbell’s bankrupt estate, and the estate fall into the hands of absentee trustees.

The laird was now away. The trustees were in Edinburgh. And Webster was more master in the island than ever. He drove things pretty well 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 the island in his hands. He had got himself planted in the best house in the island when he came at first. And now that things were getting into a state of dissolution he was taking farms in every direction – until I remember old Sandy Campbell and myself making up one day that he had farms which had been held by 37 substantial farmers in former times.

Murdoch proposed that Islay estate be broken up into 3000 properties to be sold to Islay’s inhabitants.

As proprietors they would be in a position far superior to that which they occupied as tenants, even supposing the land to be no more productive than before, when they had to support a costly aristocratic establishment, wasting their strength, employing their skill and pinching themselves to enrich factors, to polish his flunkies, to trim his ornamental attendants, so supply many of them with the means of besotting themselves and become nuisances and burdens to society; and what went to feed the dogs, game, horses and a thousand other expensive rifles, can be applied to their own comfort, refinement and gratification, and to bringing ip and educating of their own families. Murdoch's radical plan was ignored. Islay was sold off to the highest bidder.

Murdoch remained convinced that there would never be prosperity in the Highlands until landlordism was overthrown in favour of more equitable distribution of land and security of tenure.

The landlord if born at all among his people, is carefully removed from the reach of their Celtic influences and educated so as to have a language and a mode of thinking quite foreign to the sphere in which he is destined to act the most important parts in the serious drama of life. One consequence is that not one landlord in a hundred is capable of communicating directly with the great bulk of his people. There is thus an impenetrable barrier raised between him and them.

After serving in Dublin and throughout Scotland, Murdoch retired from the Excise and, in 1873, launched his radical newspaper, The Highlander. It mission was to promote Gaelic and fight for the rights of Highlanders to their native soil. The Highlander campaigned for a Royal Commission to examine the plight of the impoverished Highlands. When the Napier Commission was finally set up in 1883 Murdoch testified before it.

Murdoch was a tireless speaker and agitator. In 1884 he chaired the meeting that founded the Highland Land Restoration League. In 1885 he stood as a ‘Land and Labour’ candidate in Glasgow’s Partick, and in 1888 campaigned for Keir Hardie. Months later, when Hardie and Robert Cunninghame Graham launched the Scottish Labour Party, the seventy-year-old Murdoch was there. Murdoch’s zeal for reforming the Highlands applied to the industrial lowlands as well.

All true men, then, to the front! Just remember that the system of iniquity and lies which I have traced in the isles is rampant all over the country, and the duty of being up and at it is irresistible.

In 1889, Murdoch began penning his autobiography – which, sadly, lay unpublished until 1983. That year, to commemorate the Centenary of the Crofters’ Act, Dr. Jim Hunter published For the People’s Cause – an anthology of Murdoch’s writing. It was a publication all the more welcome for being long overdue.

Murdoch remained active and astute into old age, although failing eyesight put an end to his writing. He and his wife had moved to Saltcoats, where he died at the age of 85 in 1903. John Murdoch was a brilliant, passionate and caring man. Ileachs should be proud that he considered himself an Islay man.

published with kind permission of the Ileach newspaper

Tag: history john murdoch land reform