60657: Rev Donald Maccallum: Rebel Minister and Crofters’ Champion (II)

The following account of Rev Maccallum’s life before arriving in Lewis was written by Angus Macleod, Calbost and Marybank.

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Early on Monday morning MacCallum appeared in court only to be released on bail put up by the Liberal agent in Portree. A report of the incident was sent to the Lord Advocate who decided that no further action was to be taken in the matter, as the charge was not supported in evidence. Another powerful factor was a change of Government at Westminster.

But Donald MacCallum still had accusers to face when be was called to appear before the Skye Presbytery to face a motion of censure. On the day of his appearance in Portree, he must have felt a complete outcast among those who were supposed to be his brothers in Christ. Not one voice was raised in his support and after much discussion on the transgressions of the young dissident he was instructed to go forth and sin no more. Before leaving he sought to speak on his own behalf, and this was grudgingly granted. After a short address as to how he saw the plight of the poor of Skye, he ended by saying, and I quote again from the Rev. Norman MacLean, “I have really said all I want to say. I must conclude, as I think how our Glebes and Manses are protected by law from the rapacity of the landlords, and how we are secured against the wrongs inflicted on others: blessed is the Lord who hath not given us a prey to their teeth”. And at the word “teeth” he turned and bade his inquisitor’s farewell.

He returned to Waternish where he laboured on until the end of 1887, when he moved to Tiree, taking with him his faithful servant, John Walker. Turning to John before their departure he said, “It is over a year since the rebellion in Tiree, but a lot remains to be done, and I will do my part when we get there. In Tiree I shall be ‘Ministeir na Sgire’ (The Parish Minister) for the Church of Scotland holds sway there”.

To understand the reasons for the Tiree insurrection of 1886, it is necessary to go back as far as 1846. This was the year that John Campbell, ‘Am Baillidh Mor’ (the Big Factor), arrived on the Island. This man was a tyrant, completely void of pity or compassion, and his reign engendered such bitterness that the 1886 rebellion became inevitable. It is fair to say that a lot of the deeds perpetrated by Campbell were carried out witiiout his superior’s permission or knowledge.

It will suffice to relate the following incidents (all from oral sources) as examples of his conduct while in charge of the Duke of Argyll’s affairs on the Island.

On his arrival on Tiree he went round all the crofts with a petition in one hand and an eviction order in the other. If any crofter refused to sign the petition, which in fact was an oath of allegiance to the Duke and himself, that crofter was immediately evicted and left homeless.

Another story is told about the eviction of an old blind man from the village of Kilmoluaig. His name was John MacLean and he was known locally as ‘An Dall’ (the blind man). Without thought for either his age or his infirmity, Campbell ordered his eviction. As the day of the eviction approached, MacLean with help from neighbours barricaded himself inside the black house. When the factor’s men arrived to take possession only to find access to the house barred, they proceeded, on Campbell’s instructions, to remove the roof. It is said that this callous deed took place in the dead of winter.

In 1876 a new factor arrived on the Island in the person of Hugh MacDiarmid. But although he was more moderate than his predecessor, it should be understood that he did nothing to endear himself to the Tiresians, and his name is remembered only with distaste. Had he read the signs that were there for any reasonable person to see, the 1886 insurrection might have been avoided.

In 1883 a branch of the Land League was formed and it soon had a membership of over 700 people. But early in 1886 it was discovered that their president, Neil MacNeill, a crofter from Ruaig, had been bought over by the wily MacDiarmid who promised him, in exchange for information regarding the Land League’s plans, the lease of the farm at Greenhill. This was the spark that lit the flame of rebellion, for on the day that MacNeill and his brother Lachlan set out to take possession of the tack they were met and turned back by a party of crofters, who then proceeded to occupy the farm themselves.

MacDiarmid now faced a situation he could no longer control. Feelings against him and his henchmen now ran so high that an attempt was made to waylay his ground-officer. Oral sources say that, had the attempt been successful, the man would have paid with his life. Thirty policemen from Glasgow were drafted in to restore order and prefer charges against the occupiers of the Greenhill Farm. But the determined rebels soon routed them. Having failed miserably in their mission, they left the Island by the first available steamer.

But the Land League knew that this was not an end to the affair. On the 31st of July two hundred and fifty marines were landed at Scarinish. On the following morning with bayonets fixed they arrived at Greenhill, and although the crofters were under orders from their leaders not to resist, it was touch and go that a fight did not ensue.

One week later six of the ringleaders were arrested and lodged in Inveraray Gaol. But they were soon released on bail of 20 each put up by Lachlan MacQuarrie, a local merchant. About a week later, another six were apprehended. The final outcome of the affair was that six were tried in the High Court in Edinburgh and were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment. The trial of the Tiree Martyrs has been immortalised by John MacLean, the Balemartin Bard, in his poem ‘Oran narn Priosanach’ (Poem to the Prisoners). According to the poet, who appeared in court as a witness for the defence, justice was notable by its absence.

Although the Crofters Act was on the Statute Book before Donald MacCallum came to Tiree, much remained to be done to rectify the injustices that had existed over many years. Hugh MacDiarmid was not prepared to forget the indignities that had been inflicted on him. The wee Minister was a constant thorn in his flesh, for he was adviser and spokesman to the crofters in all matters relative to their rights and especially in obtaining fair rents. The factor was more or less powerless to take an action against him, for the Church of Scotland was very powerful in the Island and he himself was a member. Apart from this MacCallum had much influence with the common people and any wrong move might lead to further trouble. So great was his popularity that on his departure in 1889 the crofters erected a cairn in his honour. The cairn which stands on high ground in the village of Kilkenneth bears the inscription ‘Bas no Bhuaidh’ (Death or Victory). The cairn itself is known locally as ‘Tur MhicCaluim’ (MacCallum’s Tower). There is also an adage on the Island that says: ‘Is ann le Dia tha’n talamh air bheil Tur MhicCaluim’ (the ground on which MacCallum’s Tower stands belongs to God).

In 1889 he left for the Parish of Lochs in Lewis and, although the troubles at Park and Aiginish were over before his arrival, he still became actively involved in the crofters’ cause. It is evident that he crossed swords with Mr. Platt, the leaseholder of the Park Estate, for he wrote a poem to ‘Bodach Isginn’, as he preferred to call the gentleman. It is very clear from the poem that he had very little respect for Mr. Platt.

In his book The Literature of the Highlands Dr Nigel MacNeill makes the following reference to the Rev. Donald MacCallum:

The Rev Donald MacCallum, a native from central Argyllshire, now a Parish Minister in Lewis, is the author of a small volume of songs and poems. His works evince a genuine poetic spirit, a quiet meditative mood and thoughtful observation that so many parts of the Highlands are well fitted to produce and nurse. Mr. MacCallum has a perfect command over language and the ‘mechanic exercise’ of verse, but he will probably be more remembered in Highland history as one of the three or four Ministers of the State Church who had the moral courage to stand up for the people in the crofter agitation of the 1880s.

Angus Macleod Archive

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