Frontline Index




Occupy Knoydart - The Seven Men of Knoydart

knoydart memorial

Knoydart memorial. Image: Andy Howell on flickr

Bill Scott looks at a song that addresses an issue still to the fore in Scottish politics, land rights. Hamish Henderson's song The Seven Men of Knoydart.

Lyrics: Hamish Henderson/ Tune Johnstone's Motor Car

Twas down by the farm of Scottas
Lord Brocket walked one day
And he saw a sight that troubled him
Far more than he could sayFor the seven men of Knoydart
Were doing what they'd planned
They'd staked their claim, they were digging their drains
On Brocket's private land

"You bloody Reds!", Lord Brocket cried
Wot's this you're doin' 'ere?
It doesn't pay, as you'll find today,
To insult an English Peer
For you're only Scottish halfwits
And I'll have you understand
You Highland swine, these hills are mine
This is all Lord Brocket's land"

"I'll write to Arthur Woodburn, boys,
And he'll soon let you know,
That the Sacred Rights of Property
Will never be laid low.
With your stakes and tapes, I'll make you traipse
From Knoydart to the Rand
You can dig for gold till you're stiff and cold
But not on this 'ere land."

Up spoke the men of Knoydart
"Och, away an shut yer trap
For threats from a Saxon brewer's boy
We just don't give a rap
For we are all ex-servicemen
And we fought against the hun
We can tell our enemies by now
And Brocket, you are one"

At this the noble Brocket
Turned purple in the face
He said, "These Scottish savages
Are Britain's dark disgrace
It may be true that I've let a few
Thousand acres go to pot
But each one I'd give to a London spiv
Before any goddamned Scot!"

"You're a shower of Tartan Bolshies
But I'll soon have you licked
I'll write to the Court of Session
For an interim interdict
I'll write to my London lawyers
And they will understand"
"Ach, tae Hell wi yer London lawyers,
We want our Scottish land"

When Brocket heard these fighting words
He fell down in a swoon
But they splashed his jowls with uisge [uisge : water]
And he woke up mighty soon
He moaned, "The Dukes of Sutherland
Were right about the Scot
If I had my way I'd start today
And clear the whole damned lot"

Then spoke the men of Knoydart,
"You have no earthly right
For this is the land of Alba
And no the Isle of Wight
When Scotland's proud young Fianna [Fianna : warriors]
Are assembled in the van
We'll show the world that Highlanders
Have a right to Scottish land"

"You may scream and yell, Lord Brocket,
You may rave and stamp and shout
But the lamp we've lit in Knoydart
Will never now go out
For Scotland's on the march again
And we think it won't be long
Roll on the day when the Knoydart way
Is Scotland's battle song"

The Knoydart peninsula is a beautiful area in the north-west Highlands lying between Lochs Nevis and Hourn — often translated as Loch Heaven and Loch Hell. The northern part is traditionally known as "the Rough Bounds" because of its harsh terrain. Knoydart is also called "Britain's last wilderness". It is only accessible by boat, or by a 16-mile walk through rough country as its 7 miles of road are not connected to the UK road system. There is no vehicle ferry but passenger services operate from Mallaig, Arnisdale and Kinlochhourn.

In the mid 19th Century the potato blight and failure of local herring fishing brought famine and poverty to the area. In 1853 one of the Highlands most brutal clearances took place there when 400 locals were forcibly evicted and transported to America (the last 60 of them were literally hunted down by the police and factor’s men when they tried to remain). This left just a few hundred, mainly estate workers, still living on the 100 square mile peninsula.

Brocket himself was a Nazi sympathiser - he was Hitler's personal guest at the Fuhrer's fiftieth birthday celebrations in April 1939

The estate was first turned over to sheep and then deer hunting. It passed through several hands becoming successively more depopulated. In the early 1930's, a young English aristocrat, Lord Brocket, bought the estate. His family had made their fortune from breweries and Brocket himself was a Nazi sympathiser - he was Hitler's personal guest at the Fuhrer's fiftieth birthday celebrations in April 1939. Brocket continued his predecessors’ work and actively hounded out the remaining few crofters who did not work directly for himself.

During the Second World War, much to Brocket’s fury, the estate was requisitioned by the military to house and train commandos and agents of the Special Operations Executive. When peace returned the troops left and Lord and Lady Brocket returned to Knoydart. On her return Lady Brocket's first order to her servants was to completely remove every piece of crockery and cutlery and every single toilet bowl and to throw the lot into the sea! Clearly anything which had been sullied by being touched by enemies of the “1000 Year Reich” could not be allowed to contaminate Lord and Lady Brocket.

The Brockets also sacked dozens of local staff and replaced them with "loyal" gamekeepers to scare off unwelcome intruders (such as hill-walkers, local children and straying shepherds who were additionally warned that they might accidentally get shot in mistake for red deer). This loss of work also meant a loss of tied-homes for the house servants and estate workers.

Until then the oppression of successive absentee landlords had been endured by the local people but they had now had enough. They questioned Brocket's right to lord it over them, when he had been a vocal supporter of Nazism throughout the War who, unlike others, had not been imprisoned or interred. Seven local young men, most newly returned from fighting the Nazis, decided it was time for some direct action.

After the war, hundreds of Highlanders, including the seven of Knoydart, applied for crofting land, land which had, remember, been stolen from their ancestors, but were informed by the Department of Agriculture that no land was available. Yet several vast estates were lying underused in the hands of private landlords.

In the 19th Century the Highland Land League had occassionally carried out land-raids to sieze and farm under-used estate lands. The Land Settlement Act passed in the post-WW1 era, also permitted returning ex-servicemen to take over land which was “under-used” and to farm it as their own. The vast Knoydart estate was certainly under-used, being nothing more than a rich man's playground.

So on the 9th November 1948, led by the local parish priest, Father Colin Macpherson, the seven invaded the Knoydart Estate and staked out 65 acres of arable land each and 10,000 acres of sheep grazing land. It was a very small part of the whole vast estate.

News of their land-raid (or squat) was reported nationally. During this period, when the Labour Government had also promised a new social deal including land reform, the ordinary folk of Scotland knew who to support when it came to a choice between ordinary, but heroic, local ex-servicemen trying to scrape a living or a millionaire London-based Nazi. Fan mail for the seven poured into the local post office! Brocket struck back with the traditional landlord's legal remedy, an interim interdict to "Get orrrff My Land !" .

The "Seven Men of Knoydart" as they had become known believed that the Labour Government elected in a landslide at the end of WW2, by the votes of ordinary servicemen such as themselves, would not let them down. Arthur Woodburn, the Labour Scottish Secretary of State, sailed up the Loch in a warship to see what all the fuss was about and boasted later that he had never set foot in Knoydart.

The seven hired a lawyer, who assured them that they would almost certainly win their case but first they had to obey the law and vacate the occupied land. Of course once off the land, they lost some of the attendant publicity and the public sympathy that a forced eviction would have brought them and as Brocket knew “possession is nine tenths of the law”. His lawyers won the day with Woodburn being no help whatsoever. He even turned down the seven’s final appeal to him under the Land Settlement Act.

And so the tale ended, the seven though heroic had failed - or so it seemed. But they had inspired others. In the late 20th Century locals in Eigg and Assynt bought out absentee landlords and returned the land’s ownership to ordinary people. In their determination to take action to change a rotten system the seven men of Knoydart also have much in common with today's Occupy Movement and like the Knoydart occupiers today's activists should not rely on the law or soft spoken politicians to change things for the better. Real power comes from mobilising mass support.

In their determination to take action to change a rotten system the seven men of Knoydart also have much in common with today's Occupy Movement and like the Knoydart occupiers today's activists should not rely on the law or soft spoken politicians to change things for the better. Real power comes from mobilising mass support.

And Knoydart itself? The estate was bought by the Knoydart Foundation in 1999. The Foundation is a partnership of local people, the Kilchoan estate, Highland Council and the Chris Brasher and John Muir Trusts whose aim is to preserve and develop Knoydart for the well-being of local people and the environment. In 2003 Scotland’s new Parliament passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act which gives legislative and financial support to local people’s community buy-outs. It is a far cry from returning all the land to the people it was stolen from but it is a step forward.

The Seven Men of Knoydart were:
Sandy Macphee (Crofter)
Duncan McPhail (Gardener)
Henry MacAskill (Shepherd)
Jack MacHardy (Gardener)
Archie MacDonald (Carpenter)
William Quinn (Shepherd)
Archie MacDougall (Soldier)

You can hear a version of the song on the web here.