Chapter 1: Before Crofting (pre. 1814)

Chapter 1: Before Crofting

John Black built a croft house but to understand what that means, a short look at Scotland before crofting is necessary—the Scotland of the clans. Tracing clan origins is a multi-national industry, which has got the process down to a fine art. Here’s how simple it is:

The word ‘clan’ is derived for the Gaelic word for ‘children’ so clans are really extended families tracing their origins to a (usually) famous ancestor, who gives the clan its name. For example Clan Donald trace their ancestry to Donald, one of three grandsons of Somerled, 12th Century Lord of the Isles. Somerled’s alleged descendents are rivalled in number only by Genghis Khan, but that’s beside the point. Sometimes the ancestral name is followed by ‘son’, e.g. Donaldson, meaning ‘son of Donald’. At other times it is prefixed by ‘Mac’, e.g MacDonald, which also means ‘son of Donald’. If one is being strictly Gaelic, ‘daughter of Donald’ would be NicDonald—a system obviously not devised with telephone books and other such alphabetical lists of surnames in mind. There are other variations on the name, but they all mean ‘Clan Donald’.

So … key in ‘Black’ to something like the House of Tartan website, and up comes …. there is no clan Black , Blackson or MacBlack. Instead, ‘Black’ appears as a sept of THREE clans, not just one - Maclean, Lamont and MacGregor!!!! A ‘Sept’ is a small clan attached to a larger one, sometimes as a result of marriage, sometimes protection agreements. The same surname may appear as a sept of several clans, depending on who married or needed protection from whom, when and where. This may be welcome news if one is wanting a choice of tartans but less so if one is trying to trace family origins. Which of the three is the right one for the Blacks of Knockan?

MacLean heartland is Mull, so this is a strong claim. Black Magic chocolates were invented by a MacLean, which strengthens it even further.

Lamont country is Argyllshire, although not Mull, and is a maternal surname in the Black lineage, so this is also a feasible connection.

MacGregor country is Perthshire, although they also had a presence in Mull. After James VI outlawed the name MacGregor in 1604 for poaching, murder, and general mayhem, MaGregors took alternative names such as ‘Black’, ‘Green’, ‘Reid’ or White (the colours of their tartan allegedly). The name was not fully restored until 1774. Definitely another feasible connection, if the criminal tendency noted in Chapter 3* is anything to go by.

Unfortunately, this does not exhaust the possibilities.

‘Black’ translates into Gaelic as ‘Dubh’ and there is a clan ‘MacDubh’ – slightly anglicised into ‘MacDuff’, in the North-east of Scotland. If the Knockan Blacks belong to the MacDuff clan, they are a long way from home.

Some believe ‘Black’ to be derived from ‘Blanc’, meaning ‘White’, which both the MacGregors and the Lamonts claim. 

On the other hand, Black could refer to complexion or hair colour, which could be confusingly either dark (if the meaning is ‘dubh’) or fair (if the meaning is ‘blanc’). It might even mean ‘fair’ as in ‘handsome or beautiful’, or be a Blacksmith trade name.  

Like every other theory of ethnic purity, the notion of clans as genetically related to a common ancestor proves to be more myth than reality, although the persistence of the fantasy demonstrates that myth creates its own reality. Like the Loch Ness monster, mystery is an essential part of the myth - a mythtery if you like. If there were no mystery about clan origins, this introduction would be only eight words long.  

 Changing Social Fabric

The clan issue was much more than entitlement to wear tartan. It was a whole social fabric. At the top of the clan tree was the King (or Queen) of Scots. Scots are jealous of their notion, eloquently expressed in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath and allegedly copied in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, that the King (or Queen) rules, not by Divine Right, but only by the consent of the people, hence is not ruler of Scotland. This neat distinction makes Scots fellow-citizens of the monarch, not his/her subjects and still finds an echo in the 2003 ‘Right to Roam’ legislation, piloted through the Scottish Parliament by Dennis Canavan.

Advising and supporting (or sometimes not!) the King were the clan Chiefs and the chieftains of the septs. Then came the tacksmen - major tenants and local administrators of the chief to whom they were frequently related. Next came the ordinary tenants leasing their land from the tacksman, sub-tenants leasing their land from the tenant in the problematical process of sub-division and finally, the landless cottars. Flowing down the chain were land, livelihood and protection, while flowing up the chain were rent, labour, produce and military service when required.

After the 1745 rebellion (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that!), the clan hierarchy lost their right to bear arms, which meant no more private armies. Tartan, bagpipes and the Gaelic language were banned, and the education system was drafted in to support not only the demilitarisation and pacification of the Highlands, but the systematic dismantling of an entire cultural identity. The Tenures Abolition Act of 1746 abolished the right to demand service over and above rent unless specified and quantified in the lease. The effect of this was to replaced the ‘kith and kin’ relationship of the clans with a commercial and contractual one, preparing the way for what followed.

In about 1760 Scotland’s Agrarian Revolution began in earnest. The old way was small-scale, labour-intensive, subsistence farming, increasingly fragmented by inevitable sub-division as population grew. The new way was larger scale, increasingly mechanised, commercial farming. The driving force was partly the reduced labour intensity of the new way, but also the abolition of that other raison d’être for having lots of people tied to you, namely military service to the Clan Chief. By hook or by crook, people had to go. The ‘Lowland Clearances’ were fastest and virtually complete within 50 years, people emigrating or moving to the towns.

In the Highlands and Islands however, cultivable land itself was fragmented into strips or pockets, such as on raised beaches along the coasts or in narrow, glaciated straths. In such an environment, large-scale mechanised farming is not really feasible and the old way gradually metamorphosed into crofting. The population of the Highlands and Islands, swollen by smallpox control and further swollen by the return of men from the Napoleonic Wars after 1815, peaked around the 1831 census. Crofting townships grew up wherever it was possible to eke out a living on the land. The smallest patches were cultivated by the ‘lazybed’ method. Far from lazy and extremely effective, these were rows of raised beds bounded by shallow drains, and fertilized by manure, seaweed and even unwanted fish.

Thus it was on Mull’s small island of Ulva, historic seat of the Clan MacQuarie, immortalised by Thomas Campbell in his poem ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’, that the Old Parish Records tell of crofter Alexander Black, his marriage in 1793 to Christina MacDougall and the baptism of their three children Ann, John and Hector .


Chapter 1: Before Crofting (pre-1814)

Chapter 2: Mull's Triple Whammie (1814 - 1850)

Chapter 3: Ardtun (1850 – 1914)

Chapter 4: Crofting Life

Chapter 5: Educated Non-conformists

Chapter 6: A Second Clearance (1914 onwards)

Chapter 7: Deja Vue all over again


Forgotten Scots