Chapter 4: Crofting Life

Chapter 4: Crofting Life

Crofting in 19th century was more than simply a small farm. The croft land belonged to the Landlord, and was rented to the crofter, who was permitted to build his own house and outbuildings on it. This permission gave the crofter less security than one might imagine. They may have been protected from summary eviction without cause but, there was no protection form the process known as ‘rack renting’. This process is innocuously defined in an official ‘Communities and Local Government glossary of commercial property terms’ as ‘the best rent available’ (, but in the 19th century, with neither a concept of ‘fair rent’ nor provision for compensation to the tenants who made improvements at their own expense, it amounted to a licence for landlords to raise rent until the tenant could not pay, and then use non-payment of rent as the ground for eviction. An anecdote from this period goes like this: One crofter met with his Landlord’s Factor to ask for time to pay his increased rent. When this was refused, he turned away, mumbling something in Gaelic under his breath. The Factor called him back, asking what he had said. “I was just having a word with my Maker in my native tongue, asking that you may be long spared to occupy your present position, for I’m afraid that if you go, it will be the Devil himself that will take your place,” he replied. It was not until the Napier Commission Report of 1883 and the Crofters’ Holding Act of 1886, that the injustices of this situation were addressed and the Crofters’ Commission established to ensure a fairer deal for crofters.

Each individual croft had some ‘inbye’ (arable) land. In Ardtun this was close to the croft house, although in other crofting areas it could be in strips, separate from the house and even from each other, a relic of the old run rig system. It was carefully cultivated, producing hay, oats, potatoes and vegetables, which supported the family and the animals - cows, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats and, of course the horse. Along with this was ‘outrun’ land for rough grazing. This was obviously necessary since the animals could not be grazing on the inbye land while the crops were growing. During the winter, cattle were usually fed on or allowed to graze and naturally manure the fields. However, crofts were organised into "townships", each comprising several crofts – eight in the case of Knockan, which was the name of the township as well as one of the crofts. In addition to the arable and outrun land of each croft, the township had a common grazing, administered by a ‘grazing committee’, on which every crofter had the right to keep an allotted number of beasts (known as the “souming”).

Peat for the fire was dug from the moss to the west of the house. The peat is of the basin as distinct from blanket variety. That means that it consists of accumulated vegetation such as heather or small bushes, dead and compressed under its own weight, but un-decayed on account of poor drainage and acidic water. The surface turf is removed to expose the peat below, which is cut into slabs about 3 inches square and eighteen inches long with an implement called locally a ‘toirsgian’, a kind of long handled spade with a right angled blade the exact dimensions of a peat. The turf was thrown on top of last season’s peat cutting and would, in a few millennia, become part of a renewed cycle of peat. The best banks could be as many as four peats deep. The cut peats were left lying on the moor to dry, then up-ended into small stacks before being carted home to the main peat stack beside the house. ‘Going to the peats’ was an annual spring task. Although not compressed by overlying sedimentary rock, once dry, good peat was dark and hard, burning well with an exquisite smell. Burning peat may be romantic but is not particularly ‘green’, being in reality a fossil fuel.

Most crofts also had a boat, supplementing the produce of the land with line-caught pelagic fish such as mackerel, herring, saithe (coley) and lythe (pollack). The most common lure was white gannet feather, which stays bright white in sea water, feathers from other birds such as gulls or hens turning grey. Gannets were apparently caught by attaching a fish to a slab of wood and floating it from a boat on the surface of the sea. The gannets would dive on the bait and be killed by the impact. While the sea was important for transport, subsistence and supplementary livelihood, it was regarded in Knockan with a kind of dread. The knowledge that it had claimed the lives of two of the Graham brothers who lived in the next croft weighed heavily on the Blacks.

Crofting was generally combined with some other occupation (probably originally to provide a labour supply for the landlord’s estate). Even in the 1800s its scale was too small for serious economic viability. This was the critical role of kelping in coastal areas. For the crofting townships surviving after 1840, supplementary occupations included local craft skills such as spinning, weaving, carpentry, small boat-building and wood carving (e.g. shepherd’s crooks). On the next stream east of Knockan there are the remains of a water-powered sawmill. Then there were essential services and their related employment, for example, right on the shore below Knockan was a small general store, which was kept supplied by road and sea. The Black family recalled one particularly high storm tide, which flooded the store. The storekeeper and his family were floating around on an assortment of chests and kegs until the local men guessed they might be in trouble and came to their rescue.

Remains of General Store below Knockan

As well as sharing the common grazing, and sharing their skills, townships shared equipment, which was too expensive for any one crofter to own and co-operated to accomplish tasks, which were beyond the capability of any one family. There was often common ownership of one "township bull", who would usually be kept in a specially secure field, or alternatively, kept by each of the crofters in rotation. You could say that crofting was actually a form of co-operative farming. Sharing permeated crofting life. Visiting each others’ homes in the evening for a ceilidh (which in this context was more conversation than singing), each guest would take some peat for the fire, and when they were leaving, take a smouldering peat home.

Two miles away in Bunessan, a blacksmith plied his trade and grain was processed in the water mill. The crofters would take the grain along with a bag of peat to the mill by horse and cart, and receive it back in the form of oatmeal. Charles MacQuarie, a kind and humane man also with Ulva roots, ran a general store, supplied partly by road, and partly by sea via the pier at the hub of the village, used by numerous local sailing ‘skiffs’. Larger boats anchored in the bay and shuttled their cargo ashore in small boats. In 1846 a new pier was constructed from the local granite allowing vessels as large as the 423 ton SS Dunara Castle to berth, sailing in from Glasgow every Tuesday evening en route for the Outer Hebrides, and back on the Friday. The pier was known as "The Maize Pier", as much of the work was done by local men in return for emergency poor-relief supplies provided during the potato famines.

Bunessan was a vibrant community. An annual ploughing match was held in the field opposite the mill. Bunessan had its own Highland Games, with all the usual events – hammer, 56 pound weight over the bar, tug o’ war, ‘catch as catch can’ wrestling, as well as track events. An agricultural show was held each August with classes for livestock, produce, dogs, and crafts, including baking, butter, knitting etc., followed by the show ceilidh and dance in the village hall – regarded as the best of the year.

Back to Black

John Black passed the croft on to his son—also called John. John II followed in his father’s footsteps as crofter and weaver. He married a local girl, Elizabeth Campbell and, around the end of the 19th Century, turned over the small central room to his loom. At the same time he added a small porch and raised the external walls, squaring off the upper courses to take a new tin roof and create two attic bedrooms and a tiny box-room. The new roof was painted red, allegedly on the Duke of Argyll’s instructions.

In the enlarged cottage John and Elizabeth raised six children, three boys: Johnny, Donald and Hamish, and three girls: Margaret, Lucy and Chris. A table stood in the middle of the living-room floor, and Granny Black, in her nineties was confined to bed in the living room. This scene has been reconstructed from a piece of family lore, which went like this: ‘One of the boys, was asked to peel some potatoes, which he did, leaving them in a bucket at the living room door. Meantime, the horse had been left outside. He smelled the potatoes and tried to insinuate himself into the hallway to get at them. Once in, there was no way of reversing him out. He had to be led into the living room, round the table and then out, with Granny’s encouragement.’

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