John Murdoch, The Highlander
and Crofting

In 1873 John Murdoch published the first issue of The Highlander. It had an overt agenda to be a voice for an oppressed people. He stated:
We this day place in the hands of Highlanders a journal that they may call their own. This we do with the distinct view of stimulating them to develop their own industrial resources and of encouraging them to assert their nationality, and maintaining that position in the country to which their numbers, their traditions and their character entitle them.

John Murdoch, The Highlander, 16th May, 1873
Yet it can be claimed the newspaper was far more than this stated aim (if not ultimately different), and indeed provided an interpretation and analysis of the crofters' plight from an emerging socialist viewpoint, if one that was more practical and grounded than ideological. John Murdoch the man was far more than simply a crofters' publicist. For the publication highlighting crofters' agitations and landlord abuses came well after the clearances (which were the worst abuse) and at a time when generally all parties sought some solution to the crofting problem of inability to avoid chronic poverty through economic downturns.
The first distinct phase of the clearances before the Napoleonic Wars were carried out by landlords to increase their profitability with sheep farming on the land once populated by the rural folk. Today tourism mythicises the croft as a rural idyll, forgetting that putting the rural labouring classes into crofts was rural ghettoisation. Ghettos mean leaving people with inadequate means of support in order to oppress and coerce under control into doing what the powerful want. Crofts were a deliberately inadequate means of subsistence support, and threw the weakened population into other forms of economic life and activity as the landlords desired, releasing labour for such as the kelp industry, fishing and even military recruitment. In the face of their poverty the landlords at this time opposed emigration in order to keep their workers available. However, the crofters did not help themselves with conservative customs, particularly dividing their already inadequate land among all descendents.
However, after the Napoleonic Wars, the clearances had a different character. There was economic depression, and famine, and so emigration as seen as a solution, to get rid of the excess of the population altogether, and this resulted in clearance from 1849 to 1857 especially in the west and The Hebrides. The McNeill Report of 1851 (directed at the policy decisions regarding administering the Poor Law) encouraged large scale economic emigration as a solution to the collapse of the economy and famine. Sheep farming itself was in severe difficulty, and it was replaced in part by deer farming which required even less labour. Emigration was also encouraged by the lack of support among landlords for the new Poor Law from 1845.
All this is a severe and traumatic history. (as well as the ongoing loss of population) and the situation of annual tenure led to unresolved grievances.
The estate factors had awesome powers of eviction, since the small tenants held their crofts only on annual tenure. John Murdoch, the energetic champion of the crofters' cause, found the people of the Gordon estate of South Uist in such 'a state of slavish fear' in the1870's that they dared not complain about their grievances to the factor, Ronald MacDonald, lest he force them from their homes. Similarly, in South Harris, Murdoch also found the small tenants 'paralysed by terror'. As one crofter, Donald MacAskill, admitted at a land reform meeting in Skye a few years later: 'I am ashamed to confess it now that I trembled more before the factor than I did before the Lord of Lords.' (Devine, 1999, 427)
However, John Murdoch's publication The Highlander came out after most clearances had stopped although the inherited injustice of inadequate land was continuing. So although this was its primary concern there is actually more to the publication of The Highlander than simply representing the position of the crofters. So there is the need to look more deeply into the setting and purpose for Murdoch and this publication.

John Murdoch

Born in 1818, and living at Fincastle and Bonskeid until 7 years old, John Murdoch spent his formative years at Islay. He experienced the range of landlord oppressions and social, economic and agricultural crises along with the clearances there.
As well as this, however, he worked for the Excise in Armagh and Lancashire, so that in Armagh he saw the plight of the Catholics themselves forced into poverty and famine, with their demand for home rule against the British, and in Lancashire he came under the influence of Chartism with its range of political, social and economic demands. He went directly from the Excise work into publishing The Highlander. All the time however, John Murdoch's links with trade unions were growing, and, as seen during his tour of America in 1881, his positions on Home Rule and Land Reform were part of a wider radicalised process of thinking. Thus it was that Murdoch chaired the first meeting of the Scottish Labour Party in May 1888, at which Keir Hardie was present.
In essence, John Murdoch was an agitator. He combined the plight of the crofters with the plight of the Irish and the struggles of the urban working class. He published about the Irish and about urban trade unionism in his newspaper, thus linking all these issues together, as well as raising the visibility of crofters and their plight to the wider world.
There was already a tradition of popular agitation in Scotland, as seen in the Great Disruption of 1843. Like all people of his time, John Murdoch was formed by religious education. But he clearly saw it as an instrument of repression:
The catechism was at that time, as it is now, one of the instruments of education in Scotland; and I remember being kept religiously locked up in one of the big rooms at Bonskeid House so that I could not stay away from learning it. There was some feeling of dislike for the book implanted within me by the confinement. I question if any good came of it.
This of course was written from the developed stance of his later life, whilst no doubt these early experiences started that development. Note that he was "locked up", indeed being "religiously" locked up, that religion was an "instrument" of education, that he had a dislike for the catechism, and questioning the usefulness of the whole experience. The Great Disruption was an internal spat of Sottish Presbyterianism, but it resulted in a loosening of the role of the Church of Scotland in the ordinary affairs of the public (such as education) and gave a huge boost to secular organisation. So ideology became secularised, although in personal terms Murdoch's interpretation of faith was a Christian socialist gospel, of bias to the poor stripped of "kirkianity". Furthermore, religious philanthropy (the basis of Bonskeid going to the YMCA) was seen as inadequate and unable to deliver, as indeed elsewhere it was seen to accept class positions, so the position formed out of radical liberalism moved on towards socialism and secular ideology, whilst based in real experience. This was surely demonstrated by a right wing political agenda of the Scottish churches along with so much individualist philanthropy, a political position which alienated a growing collectivist movement. However, the population from skilled workers upwards retained its religious allegiances, that started with Sunday School and continued on, until the youth culture of the 1960's and their offspring finally rejected this pattern of life. John Murdoch expresses this transition early on, rejecting the Sunday school culture, and, more than this, being an early pioneer in the modernisation of Scotland in terms towareds a new secularised condition. He saw that morality could not be divorced from the basic social and economic conditions of life, and that philanthropy as practised was not enough.
By using publicity he tackled head on the entrenched class position of the landowners, and sought to weaken them in the political changes of the day. He did this by combining the crofters' cause with Irish agitation, using the fact that crofters at sea discovered first hand Irish tactics. In 1881 the Irish Land Act granted fair rents fixed by a land court, fixed tenure with rent paid on time, and free sale of the tenant's interest in the croft. Murdoch combined the two and more:
Indeed, it was suggested by some that he most of the last few issues of his journal more to Irish than to Highland matters.
On top of this Murdoch took an anti-colonial stance, for example seeing a parallel between the Highlanders and the Afghans fighting the British.
That there were political changes brought about for the Highlands is shown in the difference between the McNeill Repport and the Napier Report of 1884. The Napier Report (ahead of which Murdoch provided preparatory advice) sought out the opinions of the crofters themselves and tried to come to a real developmental solution to the crofters problem. Idealistically, it recommended restoring the townships of the crofters with sustainable land and required improvements, but was against giving security of tenure to them on the basis that local inheritance customs would simply lead again to unsustainable agriculture. They would also have arbitration for fair rents. However, the crofters were interested in land acquisition and their own customs, and rejected the recommendation of assisted emigration where land holdings where too small. For its part the government thought Napier was far too ambitious. In the end the 1887 Act, resisted by the crofters' MPs, did give security of tenure, did not redistribute land as the crofters wanted, and did not create a dynamic of improvement. Structurally the crofts remained too small, and were bound to go on this way. So agitation resumed briefly in the form of symbolic or real atempts to acquire more land. Whilst economic recovery helped, there were always going to be problems.
The Conservatives thought that owner occupation would create a property owners class and so the Congested Districts Board from 1897 set out to force specialisation of people into farmers or others (like fishermen) and not have crofters working as jacks of all trades and masters of none. This additional approach to owner occupation had few advantages for the crofters (also going beyond their ideology of stewardship). The Conservatives lost power and the Liberals from 1906 sought to continue what had been established previously. Expectations were not met, however, until after the First World War when large areas of the Highlands were nationalised, although this led to inequalities between state owned and privately owned land.
In an odd sort of way, what began as a form of ghettoising became a maintained way of life. Lord Leverhulme completely failed to make an efficient island out of Lewis by separating farming and other occupations, and even with a benign State landlord, economic depression bit into the local economy and caused more poverty. Even emigration was not possible during the Great Depression and, in any case, many who had gone to the cities returned to further congest the land.
So during and after the Second World War there was a new emphasis on economic development and economic diversity. There was the development of hydro electricity, forest and hydro electric based industries (paper, aluminium) and later still there was the discovery and exploitation of oil and the greater development of tourism. The effect of these may have been beneficial, but crofters became absentees or left altogether, leaving to further inefficiencies in agriculture and their settlements full of the retired, adding to depopulation. From the 1950's there was greater assistance in regional economic development but there remained good and bad landlords. The Crofting Reform Act allowed for purchasing crofts, but again this has been largely ignored. In general crofting has declined in economic importance and new people are moving into crofting areas with idealistic views about lifestyles. The computer age where the new economy can be located anywhere is bound to be a growing influence in remote places of a high value of living if not a high standard of living.
So it can be seen that John Murdoch was part of a movement for change. His was a practical and rooted approach to using and developing existing social movements to the specific crofting problem. He went beyond the conservatism of the crofters. If there was less economic development and harsher depopulation from economic failure than there might have been, it was because the crofters themselves liked their lifestyle and just wanted sufficient land to be able to make do and they did not get it. He no doubt would have gone much further in terms of change, but large areas were nationalised and crofters did gain tenure privileges and the history of change was of their inclusion into legislation.
A good comparison is between John Murdoch and Thomas Chalmers. Murdoch was a socialist and democrat who believed in giving voice to people and used the urban experience and anti-colonial movements (including Ireland) to give voice to the rural population. Chalmers was fearful of the urban masses. Chalmers believed that the existing political economy and its class system was divinely inspired, and that Adam Smith's Invisible hand economy of self interest would benefit all, and so he condemed trade unions and promoted philanthropy as a duty within this social order (Devine, 1999, 371). The difference between Chalmers and Murdoch is that whilst Murdoch also worked for the poor, he trusted the poor, whereas the Scottish churches wanted the middle and upper class to serve to the poor.
John Murdoch's function was not to argue the bigger picture of overpopulation, unsustainability of the crofter lifestyle and traditions, but, as an external sympathiser raising expectations (Devine, 1999, 436), to find parallel social and ideological movements and apply these to the crofters so that they would respond and move ahead themselves. He was a vanguard publisher, adding the vital role of communicator to their actions and giving these and actions done to them focus.

Cooke, A., Donnachie, I., MacSween, A., Whatley, C. A. (ed.s) (1998), Modern Scottish History: 1707 to the Present, Tuckwell Press, in association with the open University in Scotland and the University of Dundee, Volume 2: The Modernisation of Scotland, 1850 to the Present.

Devine, T. M. (1999), The Scottish Nation: 1700 - 2000, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.

'Honouring a Leader of the Land Reform Movement' in West Highland Free Press, Friday 4th March 1994.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful