Yes, absolutely. Sorry, I’m using crofters as a catch all word but there’s crofters, who you could probably define by an individual paying more than £2 a year in rent, and cottars, who pay no rent to the estate and they essentially squat on land that are crofts already, or they squat on what is common pasture for the crofting township as a whole so often these would be the children of crofters who ... they haven’t been able to get a slice of their parents’ croft and they have to set up by themselves. So they pay no rent to the estate. In some ... They vary across the estate. So, for example, the highest concentration of cottars you find in Assynt, the parish of Assynt, and generally the west coast. And, because they don’t pay any rent, it’s quite hard to tell you a concrete number but if you think of roughly 20% of the population would be cottars on the west coast there, which is a very high proportion. It’s like a fifth of the population is paying no rent. The estate management just tear their hair out over cottars right up till after World War One, essentially. They’re not meant to exist because, if they were following the rules and the estate enforced their rules, they should not be subdividing land or taking common land but after the Clearances the estate is so damaged by the public vilification they receive that they won’t undertake large scale evictions again so they allow the cottars to build up in numbers and it seems to be a kind of unstoppable population increase. Even after the famine, for example, the local factor organised for a huge proportion, about one quarter, of the population of Assynt to emigrate, to kind of escape the destitution. But despite that, numbers were back up and increasing right up into the 1860s so ... yes, cottars are seen as a kind of succubus? Like a leech, if you like, on the prosperity of crofters and the estate as a whole. The estate also, interestingly, is concerned about cottars. Because they don’t pay a rent, they can’t then be taxed for things like poor relief or the education funds as well, even though they are the section of the population most likely to need those services. So, because they don’t pay rent, they don’t pay any local taxes and so this annoys the factors a great deal. And when we get to the 1880s and there’s kind of land reform agitation and disturbances in Sutherland, it’s usually the cottars at the forefront of that movement as well. So from the estate’s perspective cottars are a kind of disaster, essentially, but also the ultimate proof that the Clearances failed, I would argue.

  • Annie Tindley
Thursday 13th May 2010