14652: Bernera Riot

For centuries the Bernera Crofters had the grazing and their summer sheilings on the moor at Beann a Chuailean, stretching from the Uig road to the shores of Loch Langabhat and Coirgerod.

In 1872, after sporting estates had been established at Morsgail and Scaliscro, this land was taken from the Bernera crofters, and they were offered the moor between Earshader and the sea. This was not as extensive an area and although the crofters were not satisfied they agreed to accept the offer, as indeed they could do little else in those days. They also had to agree to build a dyke (turf wall) at their own expense between Scaliscro and the new grazings. The crofters signed or put their mark on papers to this effect read out to them by the Ground Officer, James Macrae. This stated that the Bernera men would have the right to the new ground at Earshader as long as they paid their rents and behaved in a lawful manner.

After only eighteen months, the Ground Officer returned to Bernera to inform the crofters that they were to lose the new moor, and be given Hacklete farm in Bernera instead. The crofters were angry with this, as Hacklete although fertile was a much smaller area and would not support their grazing needs. They had fulfilled their part of the bargain, paying their rents and building the boundary dykes. They were then warned that refusal would mean eviction. Macrae left without their agreement.

On 4 March 1874, three men arrived by boat in Kirkibost. They were James Macrae, Colin Maclennan, a Sheriff Officer, and Excise man Peter Bain. They carried with them 57 notices of eviction. These were delivered in Breaclete, Bosta and most of Tobson. As they made their way to Hacklete farm, where they were to spend the night, they realised that they were being followed by a group of young people who apparently threw clods of earth and small stones at them.

On reaching the farmhouse Colin Maclennan turned to the pursuers and said, "If I had my gun with me there would be mothers mourning in Bernera tonight."

The next morning they returned to Tobson to deliver the last of the summons, and repeated this threat. While returning to their boat they were surrounded by a group of men, in angry mood, demanding an explanation. A scuffle broke out and the Officer’s oilskin was torn.

Shortly after this Angus Macdonald, one of the Bernera men involved in the fracas, was in Stornoway on business. He was recognised and police were called to arrest him. He was a strong fellow and his resistance attracted a large crowd. Fearing general disorder the Riot Act was read, and Angus was taken off to prison.

Word of these happenings reached Bernera and the decision was made to march to Stornoway. Men from Uig with piper Iain Maclennan joined them. News of the marchers reached Stornoway ahead of them and Angus was diplomatically released in an effort to head them off. Angus met them on the way and, turning back, joined the march to Stornoway. They continued to the Castle hoping to meet with Sir James Matheson, the proprietor of Lewis. They were determined to put their grievances to him in person. This was achieved and Sir James professed ignorance of what was being done in his name and promised to look into the whole affair. The men returned home with high hopes of justice.

A few weeks later three Bernera men; Angus Macdonald, Norman Macaulay (both of Tobson) and Iain Macleod of Breaclete received summonses to appear in court to be charged with assault of Colin Maclennan, the Sheriff Officer. The case was heard on July 17th 1874.

The defence lawyer was Charles Innes of Inverness. Due to his brilliant defence and adroit questioning a not guilty verdict was brought in. The trial lasted until 10.00pm.

Donald Munro, the Chamberlain of Lewis at the time and the instigator of the above dealings with the Bernera crofters, was heartily disliked and feared throughout the whole island for his many tyrannical acts. This trial proved to be his downfall. He lost his many offices and died a pauper. Stories are still told of his many acts of petty tyranny, and his ignominious end is considered to be part of the justice secured at the trial.

Bernera Historical Society

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Historical Event
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Land Issues
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