Letter to the Gairloch Crofters by Dr John Mackenzie
This small leaflet documents the substantial changes that occurred on a remote Highland estate during a period of socio economic turbulence in the Highlands. It is ‘letter’ written by Dr John Mackenzie to his tenants the Gairloch Crofters. Dr Mackenzie was a member of the Mackenzie of Gairloch family – a son of Sir Hector the 4th Baronet. He took on the role of trustee and factor of the Gairloch estate for a fifteen year period when his nephew was a minor in the 1840s and 50s. This was a very interesting period in the social history of the Highlands, encompassing an overhaul of land use on the Gairloch estate – switching from runrig to crofting – which has shaped the landscape as it is today. It also takes in the so-called destitution years of the Great Highland Famine.
Dr John was an agricultural reformer and set up a model farm on an island in Loch Ewe. He encouraged his tenants to adopt new practices, but they were suspicious of change and his efforts drew mixed reviews at home and abroad. When his nephew came of age and he handed over the reigns, Dr John wrote this ‘letter’ to his tenants outlining how much better a situation they were in now than before he had taken over the running of the estate. Throughout its four pages, published bilingually in English and Gaelic, he lectures his tenants on how well off they have become during his factorship, despite their resistance to reform.
Dr John contrasts the management of the Gairloch Estate with that of other Highland estates, impressing on his tenants their good fortune that their landlord is sufficiently interested in the land to act as his own factor. By the 1850s, this is in great contrast to the absentee landlordism that was becoming increasingly common place. By contrast, Dr John encourages the Gairloch Crofters to be industrious and count their blessings, so that their new, young landlord (his nephew Francis) will find his ‘natural and happy home among his Gairloch tenantry’.
Dr John’s determination that the land could support the people and his attempt to persuade them to improve their treatment of it are a welcome antidote to the story of the Highland Clearances. In the ‘letter’ he demonstrates his pride in the progress that has been made over the past fifteen years. For the first time, Gairloch is accessible by roads, financed by the Gairloch Estate in conjunction with the Destitution Relief Boards. A pound of meal for a day’s work kept those whose potato crop had failed from starving.
Dr John is even at pains to remind his crofter tenants of their great good fortune in contrast to those who pay the same rent for a ‘room with four bare walls’ in the city. Not only do the crofters have a comfortable home, an abundance of fuel (peat) and food for most of the year from the land and the sea – they also have free education and a preached gospel at their landlord’s grace. Dr John concludes with a rallying call to ‘be kind to the soil’ and ‘feed cattle well’. In return the soil and the cattle will provide food.