The dire accommodation situation in London may seem a long way from the situation in Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, 150 years ago. Not so, explains Matt Bruce, whose wife's grandfather took part in the Pairc Deer Raid of 1886. He writes in response to our request in summer for more information on the brilliant pieces of public art in Lewis, cultural monuments to the political and economic struggles of local communities.
We have a very good story to tell about how artworks were made on Lewis out of the long struggle to get the land owned, worked or controlled by the people who live on it – a struggle closely linked to crofting as well as basic human rights. Back in the mid nineteenth century, at the height of the Victorian empire, whole communities had been and were still uprooted from the land they worked at the whim of the landlord. Working people had no rights to live on the land they worked to feed themselves – they were always dictated to.
In 1988 a Lewis man called Angus “Ease” Macleod MBE, a crofter and Harris Tweed dealer who had also led the formation of the Scottish Crofters Union, wanted to create something physical to tell the story of land raids and the fight to allow people to control the land they worked. ‘Ease’ was largely self-taught and had always been interested in recording the details of crofting life. He organised a meeting which resulted in the charitable organisation Cuimhneachain nan Gaisgeach (Remembering the Heroes) being formed. Its steering committee and later management committee were formed from island people – some crofters, a retired head teacher and also people with artistic and organisational skills. More details are available at http://www.angusmacleodarchive.org.uk/
The group started off knowing that there was a story to tell and that a lot of Scottish people did not know a lot of the history of their own communities. That was because oral traditions of telling stories and histories was dying out and there was very little written down about the story of these working folk. The struggle against the ‘establishment’ to help them make a better living for themselves from the land was being forgotten. People had been thrown off the land they worked with no notice, if the landowner decided that raising sheep for money or deer for hunting was more important. During the period 1860 to the 1920s there were lots of changes taking place across Europe and the story of the thousands of people affected on Lewis did not feature in any written history. Most Scots would have thought that the only Scottish crofting actions took place on Skye at the ‘Battle of the Brae’s’.
CnG started off with the idea of erecting basic stone cairns to mark a series of events including the Bernera Riot of 1974, the Pairc deer raid of 1886, the Aignish Riot of 1887, the Lewis farm raids after the First World War and other direct actions taken by people who were moved by anger at the treatment of working people. Lewis was a well populated large island and many folk were well educated, while the landlords were often living well away from the land, but the story of working people arguing for a better way of life had not been commemorated physically, anywhere.
We secured funding for a feasibility study on an interpretive centre for crofting life from the HIDB, and also instigated a book to combine the existing but little known writings about the Lewis land struggle with additional commentary and interpretation. The book that resulted is still available from Acair publishing – The Lewis Land Struggle: Na Gaisgich, by Joni Buchanan, ISBN 0 86152 166 8.
The voluntary committee met regularly and ‘Ease’ held us together enough to raise funds from a variety of sources. We were organised enough to know that building a cairn is more than piling a few hundred stones on top of each other. Getting the support from the local community, getting a plot of land, agreement from the landowner, planning permission and then getting someone to maintain the monument after it is built… all takes perseverance. As does telling the story of what had happened. The design of a monument which tells the story to the casual passerby is another challenge which we have been lucky enough to meet.
Roddy Murray, one of the members of the CnG committee and the Director of An Lanntair, the Stornoway based arts centre, suggested that an artist be brought in to help design the cairns and he suggested Will Maclean who had done some lovely work in Scotland. Initially this was for a carved stone or emblem within a pile of stones but Will soon changed that into each cairn becoming a structure which told the story of the event which had happened at that site.
Will was happy to be involved and did a lovely job, even when we had knockbacks. We were also very lucky to get the support of John Norgrove, a Lewis based engineer to help with getting the technical paperwork done for a builder, and Jim Crawford, a Lewis based craftsman in stone who did the months of building work at each site for very little recompense.
We ended up with three monuments being built and hope that they will tell the story and make people think about what changes our landscape and how human values have changed. A hundred and fifty years ago people were being thrown off the land they worked because the landowners changed their mind….but is it so different today? Maybe there is a resonance with current events in London where tenants are being evicted from their settled way of life to allow the very rich to make more money?
The Pairc Deer Raid. Located at the road into the Eisken Estate in South Lochs, it commemorates the incursion in 1886 by groups of local Lewis men whose families had been evicted from South Lochs to make way for ‘sport’ for the landlord. Encouraged by a local schoolteacher, three groups of men went into the estate and shot some deer, and then had what we now call a barbeque before returning. They took a journalist with them who told the story afterwards when 12 of the men were taken to trial in Edinburgh for rioting and then found innocent – a result which shocked the establishment. The cairn has 3 entrances to mark the 3 ways that men entered the estate and stones from the houses of the men taken to court form the top row of the monument which has a viewing platform inside it.
The Aignish Riot of 1887. The land at Aignish on Point to the east of Lewis was run as a farm by the landlord and was the best land around, while the local population had to exist on poor land. The tenant farmer was not popular or good at managing his animals and after the legal case against the Pairc raiders was thrown out tempers were high. A demonstration was planned but the authorities were determined to stop any rebellion. An angry group protesting was met with a heavy response by the police, marines and army. Twelve local men were arrested and jailed after the Riot act was read out in gaelic. It took twenty years for the farm to be turned into crofts which are there now.
The monument, built less than 100 metres from the event, is like a traditional cairn which has been ripped apart with jagged faces to show the tension and anger which was felt.
The Gress Farm Raids. After the First World War, Gress was a farm and the landlord was Lord Leverhulme. He owned Lewis and was trying to turn it into his vision of a productive place with a progressive landlord. Lewis men however had a different view and a seasonal approach to work. The idea of working a 40 hour week in Stornoway for 50 weeks a year and having a small patch of land for a house did not chime with working the land, fishing and weaving the tweeds. A meeting was held between the landlord and the crofters on the site of the monument. Both sides of the story were told there in 1919, the men returning to a ‘land fit for heroes’ but not finding it.
Leverhume’s ideas are represented by the central column, built differently and mechanically, with a gap between him and the crofters gathered in a resilient windswept shape around him. The gap is also a reference to the failed ideas of the landlord, the gulf between promises and the reality. The earthworks around the monument are a reference to the war trenches the men had returned from. The land became crofts shortly afterwards by “raiding” the land and then using it as croft land – which is worked to this day. Leverhulme retreated to Harris, gifting part of Lewis to the local people.
The monuments CnG built form just part of the story about changing how land is used in Scotland, and outwith the north west of Scotland the whole story of crofting is still not understood by many even in Scotland. Crofting is a long term use of the land to help a community life there; it is not a way to make a quick or even slow buck but the continuing interest in crofting as a way of life resonates within thousands of Scottish families.
The monuments have been recognised by winning the Civic Trust award in 1996, the Scottish Environmental Regeneration Award in 1997 and we were nominated for a Europa Nostra award. The ideas of the project live on with “An Suileachan“ in Riof in Uig on the west coast of Lewis being built in 2014 (winning the Saltire society award for Art in Architecture 2015 and recently shortlisted for the Marsh Award for excellence in public Sculpture.
CnG as a committee is now sleeping but we have laid down something to show respect for the work of the people who did the real work – the largely forgotten crofters from a hundred and more years ago.
The photos are copyright James Smith Photography 1997 and thanks for his permission in copying them.
Matt Bruce is an architect who moved to Lewis in 1987 and worked in both public and private sectors and then on housing development in the islands' council. He is now retired but active in a number of community organisations.