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Dalbeg Grazing Dispute

Dalbeg Grazing Dispute

BETWEEN CARLOWAY AND SHAWBOST on the West Side of the Isle of Lewis, lie Dalmore and Dalbeg, less then a mile apart, with their green meadows and silver sands reaching down to the Atlantic. In the time of the Seaforths they were occupied by crofters but early in the 1850's, after the purchase of Lewis by James (later Sir James) Matheson, both villages were cleared. There was a farm in Dalbeg and it also had the unusual distinction of possessing an inn, one of only three licensed premises outside Stornoway at that time. Five crofters - Malcolm Morrison, John MacIver, Malcolm MacLeod, Kenneth Murray and Malcolm MacKay, along with their families - were removed to provide more land for the innkeeper, Donald MacKenzie. Three years after the Dalbeg clearances, the twenty families in Dalmore were evicted and their lands attached to the Dalbeg farm.

Three of the Dalmore families settled in South Shawbost, some in Carloway, some in Laxay on the other side of the island, while others emigrated to America. The South Shawbost crofters suffered doubly by the clearances of Dalbeg and Dalmore as not only were five more families thrust upon them but the part of their common pasture nearest to Dalbeg was also given to Donald MacKenzie, the farming tenant of Dalbeg and Dalmore, without any reduction of the crofters' rents, although it was estimated that it was the best part of the South Shawbost grazing and could maintain one third of the cattle of the township.

Eventually dykes were built between the Shawbost common grazing and that of Dalbeg by order of the estate officials. This had to be done by the Shawbost people themselves and they were held responsible for maintaining one half of it in good repair while the farmer had to maintain the other half. But as the crofters were, naturally enough, reluctant to do so, the estate officials had added an extra shilling to the rent of each crofter. Before the dykes were built, Donald Mackenzie and his son John, who succeeded him as tenant of the Dalbeg farm, used to sieze the crofters' straying cattle or sheep and impound them, keeping them for two or three days until a fine was paid.

In November 1884, the dyke was broken down by men from Shawbost and despite being repaired was knocked down time and time again. John Sinclair, who had followed John Mackenzie in the tenancy of Dalbeg in 1875, resumed the practice of impounding the cattle and obtained from the Small Debt Court decrees for payment of damages caused by the trespass of the cattle.

On 21st April 1885 Sinclair, accompanied by a strong party of farm servants, rounded up thirty-three head of cattle on the disputed grazing. The Shawbost children in charge of the cattle did their best to prevent them being driven to the Dalbeg farm and as a result found themselves forced into the pound, an enclosure with walls six to eight feet high. They were detained until their parents arrived and broke down the door at nearly twelve o'clock midnight, when the children were "nearly dead with hunger and thirst and fear". The question of the enforced confinement of the Shawbost children in the Dalbeg pound was raised in the House of Commons by Charles Fraser-MacIntosh, M.P. for Inverness Burghs, who was informed that the children had followed the cattle into the pound of their own accord and that Crown Counsel, following a report from Stornoway Procurator-Fiscal, had decided on no further proceedings. Farmer Sinclair, however, sued the children's parents and obtained decrees for trespass and damage to the grazing by the cattle.

Not all of Sinclair's decrees for payment were enforced without opposition. When John Macleod (son of Murdo), South Shawbost, refused to pay the 9s 1Od. for which Sinclair had obtained a decree in the Small Debt Court, a sheriff officer arrived from Stornoway to poind his effects. The sheriff officer, William Ross Macleod, accompanied by his concurrents, Roderick Macleod, Laxdale, and Norman Macleod, estate constable, were given a reception in South Shawbost which they would long remember. When they approached MacLeod's house, they were deluged with "urine or other filthy liquids". MacLeod's wife, Effie, and other women who gathered in support brandished sticks and threatened to use them against the officer, who was compelled to retreat without poinding any goods. MacLeod and his wife, along with a Mrs Ann MacLeod, wife of Kenneth MacLeod, were later charged in the Sheriff Court in Stornoway with deforcement of the sheriff officer and when they failed to appear on 16th October 1885, a warrant was issued for their arrest. It was not until 2nd February 1886, that they were tried. John MacLeod and Mrs Ann MacLeod were each fined 1 or four days' imprisonment, while the charge against Mrs Effie MacLeod was dropped.

On 2nd August 1886, Sinclair's son, Hector, with one of the shepherds, John MacLeod, and a cowherd, Norman Martin, attempted to lead off some of the South Shawbost cattle, which were grazing on Aird Dabeag, well beyond the ground claimed by the Shawbost people as theirs. This time they had to deal not with children but with youths, Murdo Macphail (Murchadh lain Oig), Alexander MacLean (Alasdair Phluic), and John MacLeod (lain an Fhraoich), who were subsequently charged with breach of the peace and disorderly conduct. It was alleged that they had hooted and yelled at Sinclair and his assistants and had thrown clods and stones at the farmer's dogs to prevent them driving off their cattle. During the melèe, the barefooted Shawbost youths were at a disadvantage compared with their opponents with their hob-nailed boots, but they managed to prevent their cattle being impounded. In the Sheriff Court, the youths defended their action by stating that they had been informed by the older men in the village that the Dalbeg grazing had been taken from them thirty years before but that, as there had been no reduction in the crofters' rents, they were therefore still paying for the grazing rights. Their arguments, which were translated by the court interpretor, George Macleod, failed to convince Sherrif Black, who gave then a lecture on the consequences of defying the law and imposed fines of 15 shillings on MacPhail and Maclean, the charge against MacLeod being dismissed.

This was the last case connected with the Dalbeg grazing dispute. In the following year, the ground to the west end of Loch Raoinavat was restored to the South Shawboat crofters, who also had their rents reduced and most of their arrears cancelled. Sinclair, who also lost part of his grazing on the Dalmore side, had his rent reduced from 102 to 90. Thus ended the feud between tenant farmer and crofters, a feud paralleled in many parts of the Highlands and Islands during the "Crofters' War".

West Side Historical Society


Title: Dalbeg Grazing Dispute
Record Type: Stories, Reports and Traditions
Type: Report
Date: 1880
Record Maintained By: HC
Subject Id: 60004