The Highland Clearances
The whole of north west Scotland suffered from the Highland Clearance over a period of a hundred years or more. There have been many books, poems and Gaelic songs produced based on events across this period. Stiff resistance to the clearances happened only in a very few places and Bernera was one of these places. The Bernera Riot was one of the incidents that set the scene for the Lewis Land Struggle – Na Gaisgich, the term applied to the confrontation in the 1880s between the Island landowners and the crofting community in their struggle for land law reform and to stop the cruel oppression of landlords.
By the 1870s, the crofter population had almost given up hope of putting up resistance to landlords oppression and evictions that were being carried out. The law offered them no protection against an eviction order or any other form of landlord oppression, and any form of resistance from any crofters, or even if such a resistance was intimated there was the inevitable response from the estate officials, “Cuireadh mi as an fhearann thu” – “I will evict you”.
Sir James Matheson Purchased The Isle of Lewis - takes over Bernera - Appoints a Factor
Sir James Matheson had purchased The Isle of Lewis and also took charge of the Island adjoining it - Bernera. He appointed a solicitor to be his factor, Donald Munro. Munro was soon seen to be heavy handed, and his evictions were naturally unpopular.
Living Conditions - Appalling - Families Sharing Crofts
After many clearances it was inevitable that sooner or later the crofters would rise up and resist the treatment they were receiving. Living conditions of the whole crofting community were steadily getting worse and worse. Overcrowding was rife and the landowners stubbornly refused many crofters petitions for living space - which had now been taken over by the sheep. Crofts were having to be shared with more family members and the outcome was that crofts which really were only big enough for one family were in fact shared by many families. The Bernera islanders had had their summer grazings taken over by a new sporting estate and were forced to construct dykes at their own expense as a new boundary with the estate. Munro then even took away this new grazings from them. The islanders had had enough and made a stance against this tyranny in the shape of The Bernera Riot.
The Bernera Riot
In 1874 Donald Munro went a step too far for the crofters - he sent in a Sheriff Officer to Bernera to serve 58 eviction notices. Really, there was no just cause for this action and it was greeted with utter disbelief!
When the bailiffs arrived at Tobson they were pelted with a shower of clods of earth. The sheriff officer also had his coat torn and he issued a threat saying that " if he had a gun may Bernera mothers would be mourning the loss of their sons".
After three crofters were singled out and arrested hundreds of Bernera men with pipers at the front marched on Lews Castle, Stornoway. They demanded an audience with Sir James Matheson himself. Matheson who was somewhat aged at the time disowned Donald Munro, who came to be dismissed in 1875.
Court Case 1874
The Bernera court case of 1874 is the first documented victory for Highland crofters and correctly holds its place as the opening shot of the crofters fight-back which led to the Napier Commission and land reform. The prisoners were acquitted following the brilliant performance of the Inverness lawyer Charles Innes. Mr Innes's name is still revered in Bernera today. This case was a most welcome victory for the crofters and it inspired many more to revolt.
The Crofters' War took place about ten years later, and led to the founding of the Napier Commission, which led to compromises being made on behalf of the crofters, and the reform of crofting in Scotland.
Cairn Erected 1992
The cairn was situated in the centre of Bernera in 1992 to commemorate the Bernera Riot of 1874.