• Kenny MacIver
Location:
Stornoway
Date:
Friday 19th February 2010
Reference:
SWI2010/009

Kenny:

Well, the background in terms of Upper Coll, as we call it ... Coll Farm, as it was at that time in that it was a farm and there was absolutely no animosity towards the people who were on the farm at all, but a lot of young men had traveled to Europe and traveled into many parts here and abroad during the First World War to fight for their king and country and, as they saw it, they were promised a land fit for heroes when they went to war. After coming back, and enduring all the things that they had endured, be that on land or at sea, they found themselves in a country that basically was willing to forget about them and had not made any provision for them. And most certainly it was not a land fit for heroes, it was a land of poverty. Lack of money, lack of housing and lack of opportunity to provide homes for their families. And basically, again, after seeing what they had seen, doing what they had done, they really weren’t all that bothered about threats of this or threats of that. After being away for years, some of them, in all of these difficult conditions, they weren’t bothered about vague threats of imprisonment or ... They wanted a land where they could bring up their families and have a way of life. Not an extravagant way of life, just a piece of land where they could build houses and plant potatoes, have a few sheep and a cow or something like that, and be able to go fishing or whatever, and they saw land there that wasn’t available to them and they decided they were having it and they set about having it. In Upper Coll, as I understand it from hearing about it, they actually, in the first year, planted potatoes in the part of the village that we call Bruinish. In other words, they were staking out a claim, as it were, and it was the following year that they actually came to the village and they raided it, if that’s the right word for it, and set out the crofts, the Lotaichean as we call it, that being so because it was done by lot so depending on which lot or which straw you took which croft you got. Basically, that was it. It was quite simple. People came to the village and set up home there, built their houses there, raised family there, led a relatively simple life there.

Simon:

At the time that this was happening you had Lord Leverhulme who had come to the island, become the new proprietor of the island and he was seeking to what he saw as improve the conditions of the community across the island and he felt that, in his opinion anyway, that crofting was an unsustainable way of living and the way to manage it was have a feu system on the land and to have factory based jobs. Why did this not appeal to people?

     

Kenny:

I don’t know if they were aware of it in that sense. All they were aware of was that they had come back to a place where there was nowhere for them to live, no land for them to plant their crops ... (inaudible) ... Because most of the people who came from Upper Coll came from places ... Most of them came from Coll and most of them had family crofts in Coll, but their parents were still living there and other members of the family were there. They wanted to get married and to raise up their own families and they needed land and the crofts were small and they were unable to sustain any kind of a livelihood. So vague promises of jobs and things like that were alright but they didn’t provide the answer to what their need was at the time, which was a piece of land, a place to build a house and a place to raise a family.

Simon:

How long did the whole process take, from when the first claims to land were made and when the actual land was given over?

     

Kenny:

From my recollection, I haven’t studied it, I’m not so sure that there was as it were a process in that sense. I would think that from ... We’re talking about a year because, as far as I understand it, from a time they, basically in the spring, put their potatoes in and the next year came to live in the place. The thing is, you must remember, they didn’t see themselves the way we see them now, and I was raised up in Upper Coll and most of these people were still alive. I never heard them talking about it. It was just part of their lives, something they did. They didn’t think it was any great shakes, they just did what they felt was necessary at the time to provide homes for their families which the government, they felt, had promised them and had reneged upon when they had finished with them at the end of the war. They didn’t see themselves as revolutionaries. They didn’t do it for any particular philosophic views about land tenure or anything like that. I don’t think ... well, you can read all that into it but I don’t think they did, they just did what they felt was right and necessary for them to do at the time.

Simon:

Did they get much support from people? Like Donald Munro? Again, in the accounts, Donald Munro was very sympathetic to them and ...

     

Kenny:

I’ve no idea. I have never heard any of them talking about the deed as it were. The only thing I ever heard was they were talking about the Hunters that were in the Coll Farm and who were nice people and they had nothing against them or whatever. I never heard any of them talking about it. It was only in the last twenty years ago that we became conscious of what they had done and it’s only fifteen years ago that we put up a cairn at the end of our road to acknowledge what they had done and that if they hadn’t done it we wouldn’t have the village that we have now. But they didn’t see themselves as being anything other than simple people providing houses for themselves and a means of livelihood, a meagre livelihood for themselves and their families.

Simon:

So it sounds like, as you said, people just did what they felt was right? And then this other stuff was going on in Stornoway and ...

     

Kenny:

It might’ve been going on in Stornoway but, from my understanding from the village itself, I’m not sure that people were aware of it. I think one or two people were involved in writing letters but the rest basically were active participants rather than that. From what I understand, there’s a Gault, a Mr. Campbell, who actually became the tenant of the old farm house, number two Upper Coll, he was one of those who wrote letters. Again, I don’t think he was given any special place because of that and he probably did that because he was maybe more literate at that time than the others were. Because, you must remember, at the time many of them went away for the war. They would’ve had very little experience of working outside the Gaelic culture. And maybe when they went away was the first time they’d ever been exposed to English, apart from school.

Simon:

Were people aware of other ...? Because around the same time you had Balranald down in North Uist and the other areas. Was anyone aware of that or are these just ...?

     

Kenny:

I wouldn’t have thought so. I wouldn’t have thought so. They would’ve been aware of what was happening in Gress, which is just along the road. It was a similar thing that was happening in Gress as was happening in Coll and it was around the same time. I know there was a big meeting down at the Gress River and that kind of thing but, really, I never heard anything about any big meetings in Coll or Upper Coll. Seems to have been much more peaceful, or peaceable, that it doesn’t seem to have any ... It seems to happen much more seamlessly. I’ve seen a recreation done of what happened at the Gress River with Leverhulme telling them what he was going to do and all the rest of it, but they weren’t in the least bit interested. All they wanted was land for their families.

Simon:

Sounds like Gress was maybe more of an issue because it’s ... Gress was bigger than Coll.

     

Kenny:

Well ... no, not really. I’m just trying to think of it in terms of geography at the moment. Maybe it’s a bit more widespread right enough. Maybe Upper Coll, which is what we call it, or Nether Coll as it was called at one time, it’s maybe more compact. So I think that just the geography is slightly different. You have the Coll River and Coll and Upper Coll in the same way as you had the Gress River between the Back common grazings and the Gress common grazings ... So there was certain meetings definitely I’ve heard of at Gress but I’ve never heard of ones of the same kind in Coll at all.

Simon:

How many of the families that settled in the new crofts at Coll are still there today?

     

Kenny:

Well, if you’d asked me that twenty years ago I would’ve said nearly every one. There’s been a lot of changes in the last twenty years. The generation that came to Upper Coll as youngsters, they nearly all remained there and it’s only in the last few years the last of them ... it was only last year the last of them died. So when we held our big day to mark the erection or the unveiling of the cairn at the end of the road about fifteen years ago, there was quite a lot of them still left. And their families were still left. What has happened in the last twenty years? Some of these people have died and people have come in who don’t belong to the place at all. People have built second houses on crofts, and sometimes what happens is that the first house, which is the old family house, when the original parents dies, because the younger person has built a new house on the croft and retains the croft, the house that’s on the feu is sold and very often it’ll just be someone from outside who’s bought these houses. So we now have quite a lot of people who have come to the village. And, of course arguably, you could say that there’s somebody from outwith the village in every house because everybody from the village who got married and stayed, married somebody from outside the village and there’s an influence from elsewhere in nearly every house in the village. But a significant number of people who are descendants of those who came to Coll in the early 1920s still live there. I still live on the croft that my grandfather got at that time.

Simon:

And to what extent is crofting still active in the area?

     

Kenny:

Crofting as it was then is basically non-existent. The crofting community, however, is much more than just your ability to turn a piece of ground with a spade. At that time everybody planted. Even in my young days of course, everybody planted potatoes, vegetables ... Everyone had at least one cow, a sheep ... Everybody cut peats and a lot of that was done on a communal basis. Very few people cut peats now. Very few people plant potatoes apart from a small patch because ... The day you were planting potatoes, people would go from one house to the next to the next just on a street basis. So a lot of these things have gone. Plus, also, at that time a lot of people were weavers, apart from people that were too old to work. There was a loom nearly in every house and one or two people were in the tweed mills in Stornoway, and there was one or two people that were merchant seamen, so that was the employment in the place. Crofting, in a sense, as a mainstay, has never existed in our village. It was always a supporting of whatever the income was. It wasn’t then, however, the muggy economy it is now. There’s people actually did use their cows for milk, did use their hens for eggs, did use their hay for the cattle and the sheep and the corn as well to enhance both what they were able to earn weaving tweed or whatever, and also it was a way of life. It was very suitable for what was going on at the time in the sense that if you were a Harris Tweed weaver for example, if it was a good day you could start in the morning doing some tweed. You could go out and turn the hay, you could come back in and weave tweed, you could go back out in the evening and ... so it as very compatible with the kind of lifestyle that we had at the time. Now you haven’t got a single Harris Tweed loom in the whole village, but there are twice as many houses because nearly every croft has at least two houses on it. Half of these are out of crofting tenure because they’re on feus. So crofting as it was doesn’t exist anymore and yet there are people who have cattle, who have sheep, maintain the land, and, in many ways, many of us would say the crofting system was the glue that keeps the whole thing together. Although in the last few years we have seen ourselves moving more and more towards, basically, what’s a market economy in terms of housing and homes and crofts where tenancies are being sold for large figures. And many would say that actually crofting, because of that, is in very real danger of buying and selling itself out of existence.

Simon:

So that land was taken over by the Stornoway Trust originally?

     

Kenny:

Yes.

     

Simon:

So all the families would have been tenants of the Trust?

     

Kenny:

Yes. Well, the Stornoway Trust became the landlord. They would all have been tenants of the Stornoway Trust. I’ve always found it ironic because I was a member of the Stornoway Trust for twenty years, I was the chairman of the Stornoway Trust for six years and I always found it a little bit amusing that the grandson of one of the raiders, who some would say were partly responsible for the lack of success of Lord Leverhulme’s ventures on these islands, was now actually chair of the landlord which is the Stornoway Trust. All the people on Lewis were offered the land basically for nothing, and only the people of the parish of Stornoway accepted it, and it’s somewhat ironic now that it takes a great deal of government money to enable that land to get back into public ownership after about eighty years of if being in private hands and people got it for very, very little at the time. Yes, the Stornoway Trust were the landlord and the difference between the Stornoway Trust and ... for so many years it was unique, was that the landlord was who you wanted the landlord to be. You elected the landlord.

Simon:

So it’s a bit different from, I’m thinking like in the north of Skye where you also have department land, it’s a little bit different from that because the Trust is separate from ...

     

Kenny:

Oh it’s completely different. The Trust is a ...

     

Simon:

It’s not the board of ...?

     

Kenny:

No, no, no. Stornoway Trust is a completely ... a community-owned landlord. The people elect the trustees and one has to say that people don’t rush to the ballot boxes in the same way they do for a general election, but, at the same time, people do have the choice. People have a right to vote and people do stand ... Usually if there are items of controversy on the go you’ll have far more standing for the Stornoway Trust, and other times you have difficulty getting enough people to be on the Trust. But the Trust was the marker for all the community landlords and things. It was the example of others to see how it actually works in operation, what the difficulties are in maintaining the land if you’re the landlord in a place where there isn’t much money coming in from the land and all the rest. No, the Stornoway Trust is the forerunner of all the community landlords.

Simon:

So the community buy-outs that are happening now are very much ...

     

Kenny:

The new community landlords would do well to look at what has worked and what hasn’t worked for the Stornoway Trust. Not all things have been successful but it’s only by trying things out and finding out that you know that. It would do all the new community trusts no harm in liaising with the Stornoway Trust to find out what has and hasn’t worked for them over the years.

Simon:

And does the existence of the Trust make a difference to how the community’s evolved over time or ...?

     

Kenny:

Well ...

     

Simon:

Did it give a cohesion to it?

     

Kenny:

You would like to think that it has and certainly around the town of Stornoway itself it’s had a huge influence in terms of the way land’s been used and all the rest of it. But outside Stornoway in the crofting communities, I suppose it depends on what your mindset is. Because if your landlord’s doing what you want to do, you think it’s great, but if the landlord, doesn’t matter if it’s a private or a community landlord, doesn’t agree with what you want to do, it’s terrible. So I guess it depends on whether you agree with what the policies that are being pursued by the landlord are. The only difference in the case of the Stornoway Trust is that if you didn’t like them you could put yourself up for election to see if you could do better.

Simon:

And you mentioned about land being sold off and the kind of speculation on land that’s affecting many ...

     

Kenny:

It’s my view that we are in some ways our own worst enemies. We want the best of both worlds. We want all the rights that go with crofting but at the same time when we see the chance to make a fast buck we’re not averse to it. That trend we’ve seen more and more, even in the last five years. I mean, I was told even yesterday of a croft on a certain part of the island. The person got it for nothing just a few years ago and are trying now to sell it for £28,000 and all they’re basically selling is a tenancy that previously people fought for, got the right to have to pass on to others and now people have made it a marketable commodity. I’m not quite so sure why, because at one time they’ll have had attractive house grants and loans and that kind of thing. That kind of thing doesn’t exist to the same extent nowadays. But you do see people who come from a part of the economy where there’s much more money. You know, we’re talking about the cities. And what they can get for a small flat in the city can buy them a nice tenancy and build them a big house on a croft here, but at the same time it’s actually destroying the whole system that was created in the first place. Within a very short space of time, if we carry on doing this we’ll see crofting going out of existence just because of that.

Simon:

Would the Trust consider it its role to intervene in that or try to dissuade people from doing that?

     

Kenny:

The Trust would ... I’m not on the Trust anymore but the Trust, as I said, would prefer that not to happen but the Trust doesn’t have any control over it because the people have had various rights given to them because of crofting legislation. Many would feel that most governments would prefer for there not to be any crofting special treatment because it costs them a lot of money while, at the same time, many others would say that the most economic way that ever there has been evolved to provide housing has been the Crofting Grant Loan scheme where people are building their own houses with a bit of help, meaning they don’t have to be looking for social housing or, as they would say in the old days, council housing sort of thing. It’s a far cheaper way and also it enables people to stay in communities that otherwise they wouldn’t stay in so there is a danger that the way we’re going we’re going to do ourselves out of all these opportunities.

Simon:

So you feel then that the ongoing tenancy system under trust ownership is a much better model than a private owner?

     

Kenny:

If we’re going to go down the private ownership and the rest of it, it’s not crofting anymore. It wasn’t based on a monetary exchange value being put on it. It was to do with people staying in the communities, living in the communities, passing it on to the next generation and money not exchanging hands, whereas now more and more it’s becoming a matter of money exchanging hands and become part of the market economy rather than being the social glue that for generations it was.

Simon:

The cynic might say that crofting’s reached its end anyway and we shouldn’t continue it. What would you respond to that?

     

Kenny:

Unfortunately, I would have to concede that we ourselves have been an acquiescent part of that because if we’re the last ones we seem to be prepared to accept the financial benefits that come with that, without looking ahead to see what’s going to be left for the next generation, for our children. What will we be passing on to our children? At least if you have a croft you’re passing on a croft and they can do their own thing. Without that they’re the same as everyone else, everyone else in the country. No benefits, no incentive to stay. Why would anybody want to stay in a place where there are so few job opportunities, where the pay is less than it is in other parts of the country? So the drain that we’ve had over centuries will continue, will get worse, and the social glue, in my view, that was crofting will have gone but along with it will have gone the people who kept these communities together.

Simon:

I get the impression that even when the farming element of crofting diminishes, this social glue that it creates is very important. Do you feel that can be revived or that can have a continuity?

     

Kenny:

Oh yes, because the funny thing is that it’s, in many ways, a generational thing. When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware that Upper Coll was any different to any other village. I never heard anything about land raids. We weren’t taught anything about it in school; I never heard anything about it from my parents or grandparents. It was just the place we lived. Until we put up the cairn at the end of the road and we had people asking: “Why’s that there for?” I’m sure that my children didn’t have a clue that our village was different to any other village and they certainly didn’t associate the old people in the village with people who might’ve been called heroes to others, in the same way I hadn’t. But now I get an inkling that some of the younger people see that there is something of a value in this system that we have and that they want maybe to do something about it. So, maybe we’re at the end of one cycle and at the beginning of another cycle, where a new generation is coming to the forefront. Not in huge numbers but nevertheless coming to the forefront. They see that living here in this kind of system has something to offer that most other systems and other opportunities around the country don’t have to offer, and that being the case, we can actually see the communities remain the way they are as communities for young people to raise their families, not for old people to be retiring to. For young people to be contributing towards and increasing the general value of it in terms of culture and all the rest of it ... If that doesn’t happen there is a danger that our villages will be full of old people with nobody coming to follow them. I don’t know if that makes any sense but …

Simon:

Do you see any signs of younger people coming in?

     

Kenny:

Not coming in, but some of the young people ... Some of the young people in our village are very interested in the crofting system but they cannot work here because there aren’t employment opportunities for them here, but they work on things like the oil rigs, merchant navy ... they’re engineers. They leave the island, they come back, they’re away again ... So many generations gone past where people were away to sea for a long time, we’re back into that situation in some ways. So it’s a new way and yet it’s a continuation of an old way. I think we’re at a kind of a crossroads at the present time and in many ways we’re no different to those who came to my village ... What is it, nearly ninety years ago now? They didn’t think of themselves as doing anything revolutionary, they just did what they felt was necessary for them to do. The next few years will decide whether the system that we have that is crofts, community landlords, whether that will work or whether it will be the same as every other part of the country, having to stand up on our own two feet in very unequal situations.