Riof Ocean Cottage Isle of Lewis

The Riof Raiders
Mike Feehan

Peggy MacCormack, a woman who had been born a MacDonald, said, "The clearances came upon us.  There was neither sin nor sorrow in the world for us, but the clearances came upon us, destroying all, turning our gladness into bitterness, our blessings into blasphemy, and our Christianity into mockery.  Oh, dear man, the tears come to my eyes when I think of all we suffered and the sorrows, hardships and oppressions we came through."

One such town to be cleared was Reef (in Gaelic, Riof) in the Uig region of the Isle of Lewis.  Here in 1848-9 186 men, women and children were summarily evicted by their landlord and forced to crowd in amongst their neighbours in the villages of Valtos and Kneep. 

Riof Raiders
The Riof Raiders

These villages had already lost their own grazing rights.  The reason behind the actions taken against the three communities was the land owner, Sir James Matheson, wanted to create a sheep farm which would return him more money than the dispossessed ever could.  The people resisted, but the writing was on the wall and their protests were ignored.  At the next census in 1851, the population of Reef was one shepherd, his wife and five children and a widow with a visitor.

For those who were displaced, the landowner offered assisted passages to the colonies.  Those who took advantage of this were amongst the brightest and the best, who acknowledged that this was the only escape from a life of poverty and starvation.  So it was that whole families put aside a deep sense of love and loyalty to their homeland and with tears, fears and the swirl of the pipes they set out for foreign lands in the hope of finding land they could work to feed themselves.  Those left behind would have to face years of pain and strife as they tried to make a living packed in amongst their former neighbors.  The bottle had been shaken and pressure would build up over the years as the local economy boomed and then busted.  Throughout those times, the demands from these people never changed - they wanted their land back, and eventually, they were willing to risk all and fight for it.

The first actions against the land owners took place in 1884 when the occupants of Valtos and Kneep refused to pay their rents and drove the rent collectors away bearing banners that exclaimed, "The tenant is stronger than the Laird".  A government official, whilst trying to serve an order of interdict, was barred from the village, being chased away with rocks and clods of earth landing in his footsteps.  Allegations were laid that the sheep on Reef Farm had been removed and that some had been mutilated. Warrants were drawn up for the arrest of eight perpetrators and the Provost set out from Stornoway to serve them.  He and his party were ignominiously sent packing and had to take shelter in a local school under the protection of the Laird. 

A gunboat was dispatched which arrived on Christmas Day bearing the said Provost and seventy five marines. The supposed miscreants were rounded up and appeared in court, all to be sentenced to various lengths of time in jail or levied a fine.  However, they appealed their sentences and being successful, went away unharmed, emboldened by their success.

In 1885 there were further disturbances and rent strikes.  The displaced cottars also planted crops and grazed their animals both on Reef Farm and Pabbay Mhor (an offshore island).  The representatives of the estate tried to clear the animals away surreptitiously, arriving by sea in an attempt to hide their actions.  They were not successful, the people captured their boat and dragged it a quarter of a mile inland.  Summonses were issued for the arrest of the miscreants but they were ignored.  In August, officials trying to remove the cottars animals from Reef Farm were set upon by a gang of women brandishing sticks and shouting abuse.  They fled.  Once again warrants were issued and ignored.  But eventually, bowing to the inevitable, both the men and the women appeared in court and were sentenced to varying lengths of time in jail or levied a fine.  This was not the end of the matter, although the situation had calmed somewhat, but then in 1913 the cottars were once more aroused to action.  The disputed land had been scheduled for distribution among them in 1908, but, once again, nothing happened.

This time, with four Mackays, four Morrisons, two Macdonald's and others, a party of 15 men set out for Reef Farm on the 28th of November (1913) and drove the farmers sheep through Valtos Glen to Timsgarry Farm, apparently terrifying the farmer Alexander Macrae and his father who rented the Timsgarry Farm.  Nobody was injured, the stock were unharmed, though a little disturbed at the proceedings. Then after being returned to Reef Farm they were to repeat the journey on the 6th and 19th of December.  This time the authorities were at odds to know how to deal with the situation. The strong arm, gunboat tactics of 1885 would not work in the 20th Century and could possibly spark off a powder keg of trouble that had been simmering throughout the highlands, as the dispossessed demanded natural justice and the land from which they had been removed.

The government struck lucky. World War One broke out and those same rebellious individuals flocked to the colours to fight for their freedom. When that conflict ended, those who survived returned to the island with the sound of Lloyd George's, "Land fit for heroes", promises ringing in their ears, and expected those words to be fulfilled.  They waited as patiently as their forefathers had, but, by February1920, they were still waiting and in no mood to do so any longer.  Once again, the Mackays and Morrisons to the fore, they demanded the land so promised and threatened to act as their fathers and grandfathers had in 1885-6.  Finally, with Lord Leverhulme, throwing his hands up in despair, they won their own war.  In 1921 Reef Farm was broken up into 15 crofts and allotted to the descendants of those who had the courage to stand up against the landowners' tyranny and the governments' malfeasance. 

Three of the Crofts were allotted to Morrison's, three to Macdonald's, two to Macleod's and three to Mackay's.  In the latter instance Angus Mackay, the head of the family, occupied No.7 Reef, whilst his two sons, Angus and Andrew moved into No's. 8 and 9.  The new Crofters at Reef were not alone, raids broke out across many districts of Lewis in the preceding years.  The men and women of the Western Isles had suffered for over 150 years at the hands of pitiless and repressive governments and their suffering increased under the yolk of equally viscous landowners.  They had been defeated as warriors at Culloden, and downtrodden by usurpers at home, they died or emigrated in their thousands without a voice being raised in their defense.  But they were not to be kept permanently at heel, their spirits began to rise once more in the 1880's and they doggedly fought their corner for almost 40 years.  In the end they won, and the land that had been worked by their ancestors for thousands of years was, once more, theirs.

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