By Sheila Young
In 1852 and 1853 an astonishing series of events took place on the Coigach Peninsula in the far North-West Highlands of Scotland. Five attempts by the landowner, the Marchioness of Stafford, to remove and relocate tenants from the land in Coigach were resisted. And what’s more, that resistance was led primarily by women. This is the story of what happened.
On 18 March 1852, a small party led by the manager of the Marchioness’s estate, Andrew Scott, went by boat from Ullapool to Coigach where they were met by a large crowd of people, principally women, who seized and searched each of them for the Summons of Removing which were burnt once discovered. Defeated, and undoubtedly humiliated, the manager’s party were forced to withdraw.
A week later, another attempt was made to serve the notices. A larger party made their way by boat from Ullapool, first to Achnahaird and then to Achiltibuie. According to Scott, there were several hundred people amassed along the coast. At both locations, they were unable to serve the summonses, being outnumbered by the ‘mutinous crowds’. The now useless summonses were removed from Scott’s boat and burnt. The boat was then hauled up the hill by the women, and with a man still sitting in it, was left high and dry in front of the inn. Incidentally, we know that the man in the boat was called John Graham and he lived to be 106, so he was clearly not too traumatized by the event. Scott reported the events of the day as ‘a distinguished triumph of brute force over law and order’ with the crofters able to remain in their homes for another year. You may have noticed that while we have the written reports of those attempting to clear the land, the voices of those attempting to hold on to their land are silent. While the Estate considered them mutinous, we think of them as courageous. They are the early heroes of the Highland land struggles.
Scott was determined that the crofters should be cleared to make way for sheep and deer and was supported in these plans by the Marchioness who told him ‘I think the sooner and the more decidedly the Badenscallie people are taught their lesson the better’. The next confrontation occurred in the second week of February 1853. The party landed at Culnacraig whereupon one of the officers was seized by the women; the writs were once again taken from him and burned and according to Scott the officer was then ‘entirely stripped of his clothes and put on board the boat in which he went to Coigach in a state of almost absolute nudity’.
At this point the Estate tried to bring in the militia however a request to the Solicitor General in Edinburgh for a party of soldiers or police from Glasgow to support the local officers was refused, so on 22 March 1853, yet again, a group set off from Ullapool by boat, to deliver the eviction notices. On landing at Culnacraig, the party ‘were met by a great body of people consisting of two or three hundred persons (chiefly women, the men being in the background)’. The crowd paid little heed to the Scott’s address to them as, once he had finished, ‘they rushed upon him and the four policemen by whom he was surrounded and seizing him and then violently deprived him of the writs, which…they immediately destroyed’. Yet again the law had been defied and its officers humiliated at the hands of the crofters who were simply trying to make a stand to protect their homes and land.
News of these eviction attempts was featured in the national Press and the accounts were generally sympathetic to the crofters. The adverse publicity and general unpleasantness surrounding the issue finally persuaded the Marchioness to abandon the proposed removals. For the people of Coigach it was an almost unprecedented victory in Highland history; rarely, if at all, had the authority of a clearing landlord been successfully resisted. Their success helped inspire the crofters in the eastern Highlands in their collective resistance to removal.
Commemorating these Events
The Coigach community has long hoped to commemorate this resistance. We have started fundraising to create a permanent monument to celebrate the bravery of those who resisted. We discovered that only 15% of sculptures in the UK are of named women (and, to put this into perspective, it is said, there are more sculptures of animals in the UK than of named women). We felt it was time to redress the balance. To this end we commissioned internationally acclaimed artists Will MacLean and Marian Leven to design a sculpture to commemorate the events. If you have been to the Isle of Lewis recently you may be familiar with their wonderful sculpture An Suileachan, also built to commemorate land struggles.
Our sculpture will be called Lorg na Còigich – which is Gaelic for ‘the trace or footprint of Coigach’ – symbolizing the traces people have left and those we leave for future generations.
The sculpture itself will be circular. At its centre is to be a large monolith, representing the Coigach community – past and present, and around it will be three smaller monoliths, representing the women whose names we know who actively resisted: Anna Bhan, Mary Macleod, and Katy Macleod Campbell. All were young, unmarried women at the time. We know of two others, Margaret Macleod and Catherine Stewart. These women have descendants still living in Coigach, and who knows, perhaps you are related to one of them? You can find out more about our project and about Coigach in general on our website www.coigach-heritage.org