Chapter 7: Deja Vue all over again

Chapter 7: Deja Vue all over again

But not for long. After Lucy’s death in 1955 Chris and Margaret, who had inherited the tenancy from her brother Hamish, decided to try out Knockan for holidays. For Donald and his family, it felt like history was repeating itself. A neighbouring crofter called Neil Beaton offered them a virtually derelict croft house further round Ardtun, known as “Salachran”,. It was better than a barn in Ardachy, but not much.

However, the sisters’ dream of returning home had omitted the harsh reality of life without modern conveniences, like running water, electric power or telephone. Holidays there stopped. Johnny, however, was a practical man, and very popular in Mull. He had helped Donald and Grace repair Knockan and may well have had thoughts about its future. However, in 1957, he undertook a winter journey to Bunessan for a friend’s funeral. It was beastly weather and island funerals are outdoor affairs. By the time he got back, he was in the grip of what was then called ‘galloping pneumonia’, a particularly nasty type of bacterial infection called "galloping" because it rapidly enters the blood stream and spreads to other organs. Considerate to the end, Johnny did not linger, but was back in Bunessan within a few days for his own funeral. With him died the possibility that the sisters would ever return to Knockan and the cottage was abandoned once more, since Donald and Grace had their hands full with Salachran, and no right to interfere with Knockan. The saga was beginning to look like Sisyphus, who was condemned by the Greek Gods to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again every time it neared the top.

As far as anyone knows, poor Sisyphus is still rolling his boulder, but for Knockan the tide began to turn with three unexpected events. The first was that Margaret assigned Knockan to Donald only days before her death in 1975. The second came when Neil Beaton assigned Salachran croft to him as well, a quirk of fate that made him both cottar tenant of Knockan and crofter tenant of Salachran. The third came in 1976, when the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act gave crofters and cottars the legal right to buy and ’decroft’ the land on which their house stood at its purely agricultural valuation, legally recognising the building on the site as already the property of the crofter. ‘Decrofting’ allowed someone to own croft land without being held to be landlord of a vacant croft and being obliged to rent it to a tenant who would then have the right of purchase. The Salachran house was purchased and decrofted and the land, which had been well worked by a series of sub-tenants, was assigned to a local family.

Knockan was more complicated. Cottar tenants had the same right of purchase as Crofter tenants under the 1976 Act, however, there was an element of doubt. Had Knockan ceased to be a cottar tenancy when the tenant ceased to be resident? The possibility was that the site could be sold on the open market, which would certainly have priced it out of reach of the Black family. The counter-argument was that there was documentary evidence of the cottar status of Knockan with continuous payment of rent but no documentary evidence of its termination. A further dilemma for the Duke may have been that the land was his, but the house on it was not. How could he sell the land without the house?

Undoubtedly a legal wrangle could have followed, however Peter Fairweather, the Duke of Argyll’s Inveraray-based Factor decided that, in recognition of ‘the long family connection with Knockan’, Donald Black could purchase, at a modest cost, the site of the cottage his grandfather had built with his own hands over a century earlier. Signing off the process, Peter Fairweather wrote, “I can well understand your affection for this area, long may you and your family continue to enjoy your cottage.” It was a fair and humane outcome to a 140 year-long landlord/tenant relationship. On Donald’s death in 1979, Salachran passed to his daughter Margaret, and Knockan to his son Donald Jr.

Although Knockan remains in the Black family name, it is not their permanent home. Does this make them part of a privileged band of absentee second home-owners depriving rural communities like Bunessan of affordable housing? It seems a reasonable question now, but the simple answer is that restoring and maintaining a derelict former croft house was like restoring and maintaining a listed building without the generous grants. It was never a route to affordable housing. Without the labours of love by the descendants of the first John Black, both Knockan and Salachran would have joined the ranks of abandoned dwellings - sad, silent memorials to crofting families long gone.

There is another consideration. A key industry in most crofting areas is tourism, an important sector of which is self-catering. By definition not owner-occupied, a self-catering unit like Knockan supports shops, services and attractions most of the year, but that is only the start. Caretaking, building maintenance, garden maintenance, replacement equipment, non-domestic rates etc. all recycle money in the local economy. Living and working in Bunessan is good, but so is helping others to do so.

Why do people with no Mull connection come to a place like Knockan? Leave aside that it is now extremely comfortable. Leave aside also Iona, Staffa, scenery, sea eagles, golden eagles, puffins, otters, seals, to start an endless list. There is something else. This round-cornered croft cottage, built originally by refugee crofter/weaver John Black during the Highland Clearances, still displays some of its original timbers, mollusc tunnels betraying their origins as driftwood from the shore. A sense of peace, place, history, heritage and wholeness is woven into its fabric. Iona has been described as a ‘thin place where heaven and earth are not far apart’. Many have thought that describes Knockan too.

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

 Donald C Black