Crofting Life in Gairloch in the 19th Century

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 3 comments

For many years Gairloch’s cottars, tenant farmers, and their families lived in crudely-built one-roomed houses, with a byre for the animals attached to one end. These houses were grouped together in small settlements. Strips of land, in the ‘runrig’ system were worked for cultivation and were re-allocated every year to share out the good and less good soil. Thus there was no incentive for anyone to improve his share of the land because he would not be working it in the following year.

In 1815 Dr. John Mackenzie, the late laird’s brother, became factor to the Gairloch estate until his nephew was old enough to take over its running. Under his custodianship most of the land near the sea was mapped. Croft of around three and a half to five acres, were set out ‘which a man and his family, if industrious, can properly cultivate with the spade alone without aid from a horse’, and these made up the crofting townships that still exist today.

Tenants were allocated a croft for which they paid rent to the estate. There were conditions to be met, some imposed by Dr. John and some self-imposed. A house had to be built with a separate barn and byre. The ground had to be worked so that crops could be grown. Collaboratively the men built stone walls around each croft and passage-ways between the crofts were organized. Men in many of the townships built corn-drying kilns so that their corn could be dried before taking this to the nearest mill. Where there was running water, wells, protected by cap-stones, were dug out.


Although the families missed the sociability of the former settlements they gained in other ways. Their houses had two rooms, a sleeping end and a living end and they were built more substantially with strong walls and infill stones to prevent draughts. No longer was the fireplace in the centre of a room with a hole in the roof to take away the smoke. Real fireplaces were set into the side walls with hearths and lintels and chimneys. Although the houses were single-storied, many had a loft space which could be used for extra sleeping areas. The animals were housed in winter in the byres and the barns were able to store tools and crops.

Working the ground was hard. So that crops could be grown, such as potatoes, barley and oats, the stones and boulders had to be cleared. The children helped with this and today in the fields around Gairloch there are heaps of clearance stones, proof of the exertions which went on in the past. Dr. John was passionate about the land and he farmed himself. In a letter to the crofters he wrote :
‘Be kind to THE SOIL, and THE SOIL, in return, will be grateful to you. Unless your cattle have plenty turnips and sown grasses, you will have worthless manure, poor crops, and valueless stock. ……. Feed your cattle well, and, with God’s blessing, your cattle will assuredly feed you.’

However, many men were resistant to his new ideas. They continued to use the foot-plough (cas chrom) rather than ploughing their fields with horses to pull machinery. Despite the improvements, in reality the land was scarcely sufficient to feed the large families and many men fished to supplement the food supply. Most crofting townships have a slipway which was made so that the men could launch and beach their rowing boats.

While the men were fishing, the women had to help with the livestock. They milked the cows and made butter and cheese. They kept hens for eggs and meat. They spun the sheep’s wool on their spinning wheels and knitted clothing. Gairloch stockings were particularly well known and sought after due to the high quality of the wool and knitting. Examples can be seen on display at Gairloch Heritage Museum, and a new knitting pattern for this traditional craft was recently produced by the museum.

During the better month of the year the beasts would be out on the common grazing land. Therefore the walls around the townships, the head dykes, had to be secure to stop any animal coming onto the croft land and spoiling the crops. Sometimes in the summer families or parts of families would take the animals further into the moorland and the hills and stay there to look after them in rougher houses called shielings. This seasonal movement of people with their livestock is called transhumance and is still practised in some areas of the world.

Conditions were harsh and the crofters found that they had to battle with the elements. However, the Gairloch estate understood the problems and when the potato crop suffered and when there were no fish to be caught, the crofters were given work to do so that they and their families could survive. They helped to build the roads which connected the townships in Gairloch parish, with the result that these are still referred to as the Destitution Roads.

Crofting life was often difficult and the people who lived in Gairloch in the C19th were hardy. Visitors to Gairloch Heritage Museum can re-live life in the croft house, imagine the locals joining in an impromptu ceilidh at the end of another hard day on the croft and see the locally built and owned open fishing craft which the crofters used to earn a living from the sea.

Thank you to the Gairloch Heritage Museum for this fascinating insight into real life on a croft in the 19th century. I’m not sure we could handle this ourselves in this day and age and it does make you stop and think. Maybe next time you see a “pile of stones” or a stone dyke, you will wonder at the effort that went into their creation. We highly recommend a visit to the museum to find out more of the life that was.

Photos courtesy of Gairloch Heritage Museum.

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Comments (3)
  1. Pat Cushing says:

    Enjoy reading the blog

  2. Shirley says:

    Very interesting. I enjoyed learning more of my family’s homeland.

  3. mark Ingram says:

    It makes me realise how much we take things for granted. Superb read.Kind regards, Mark.

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