Waged over large parts of the 1800s, the “war” was a dispute between landowners and communities distressed by high rents, their lack of rights to land, or facing eviction to make way for large-scale farming operations.
The process of moving families out of inland areas where they had raised cattle for generations to coastal fringes of large estates, or abroad to territories in Canada, had started with the Highland Clearances in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Both the clearances and the Crofters’ War were marked by violent clashes between people facing eviction and landowners and the authorities.
One of the bloodiest incidents was the Battle of the Braes on Skye in 1882. After being attacked with stones by a crowd of men and women, about 50 police officers brought up from Glasgow baton-charged the mob. However, the unrest did not stop and spread to Glendale. The frustrated authorities called for military intervention to help round up the ring-leaders and in early 1883, the iron-hulled Royal Navy gunboat Jackal dropped anchor in the sheltered waters of Loch Pooltiel in Skye. This signalled an escalation in what became known as the Crofters’ War.
Marines disembarked the Jackal and landed at Glendale’s Meanish Pier and assisted police in making arrests. But the agitation continued, and Prime Minister William Gladstone ordered a public inquiry, something that had been called for before but rejected by the government. Backed by Royal approval, the Napier Commission was set up. Although its findings were much criticised at the time it led to a sequence of events that resulted in the Crofting Act (1886) and a dedicated body, the Crofters Commission, to enforce this bold new land law. Such events continue to influence the accelerating movement towards land reform in the Highlands today.