For a period of around 100 years from the mid-18th century onward, the Scottish Highlands changed dramatically.
The Highland Clearances in the wake of the ’45 Jacobite Rebellion prompted vast cultural changes throughout the region. With a rising population toward the end of the 18th century, this (traditionally) sparsely populated area was booming.
Although a rising population may have signalled progress for the region, for landlords, it posed new challenges. For centuries, Highlanders had survived by crofting, eking out a living on a stretch of land which they leased from landowners.
Livestock farming was a far more lucrative proposition for landowners than crofting, however, and many embarked on a campaign of evictions, ousting crofters from their land and replacing them with sheep.
These unrelenting, often violent evictions forced many to seek work in the country’s growing cities such as Dundee, Edinburgh or Glasgow. Others risks the perilous journey across the Atlantic to seek refuge in a new world ripe with opportunity.
Some chose to stay however and contend with economic and social hardship as the land around them was gradually depopulated. Homes left derelict while the last vestiges of traditional Highland life clung on desperately.
By the latter half of the 19th century, after several decades of depopulation and replacement, some Highlanders decided they’d reached their limit.
On the Isle of Skye in 1882, the crofters of Braes near Portree were denied grazing rights by their landlord, Lord MacDonald. In response, the locals refused to pay their rent until the issue had been resolved and set loose livestock on forbidden land.
The confrontation and not only marks what many believe to be the end of the Highland Clearances, but stands as an example of the inhumane treatment many Highland Scots were forced to endure.
The Battle of the Braes
Lord MacDonald sought help from the law to evict the stubborn crofters, and in April 1882 the locals woke to the sight of a sheriff officer. Charged with issuing eviction notices, the sheriff was met with an angry reaction and forced to burn the notices.
Following this initial confrontation, reinforcements were requested from Glasgow. 50 police officers travelled to Skye with the intention of evicting the crofters, who once again stood their ground.
Arriving at Braes, the police were faced down by a mob of around 100 men, woman and children from the local community, many of whom were armed with an array of primitive weapons. Wielding clubs, sticks and stones, the Battle of the Braes erupted and the crofters clashed with the police.
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Several people were injured in the Battle of the Braes while others were arrested and subsequently fined for their involvement. Despite the outcome, the crofters still stood firm in their refusals and military intervention was considered.
The Battle of the Braes sparked similar unrest elsewhere in Skye, with locals in Glendale incensed at the treatment of other islanders.
Notably, the incident prompted a public outcry. Sympathetic press coverage of the dispute galvanised widespread support for the crofters. Sensing the mood, the government refused to authorise military intervention and a commission was launched to examine the plight of the crofters.
The Napier Commission, chaired by Lord Francis Napier, ultimately led to the introduction of new legislation aimed at improving security for crofters via the Crofters Act of 1886.
The Act was modelled largely on the Irish Land Acts of 1870 and 1881 and granted crofters security of tenure.
Today, the Battle of the Braes is a celebrated event in both the history of Skye and broader Scottish history. A monument commemorates the efforts of the crofters while a popular folk song also celebrates the event.