George Meikle McCrie

Conflict between the laird and the Rousay crofters came to a head with the visit of the Royal Commission to Orkney, and their findings were to lead to the Crofters Act. Burroughs evicted those tenants who gave evidence to the Commission. There was a storm of protest, not just in Orkney, but nationally and even overseas. This was the first case of crofters being evicted as a direct result of giving evidence to the Commission and their removal caused a sensation.

The local newspapers condemned the evictions, as did Scottish and English newspapers. An outspoken attack even appeared in The Boston Daily Evening Traveller, apparently written by one of the crofters who had emigrated after being evicted from Quandale in 1846. Both James Leonard and James Grieve argued the justice of their case in the local papers, the nationals copied their stories and Burroughs, supported by the `Respectables’, kept the controversy alive with a stream of letters and articles.

With support for the crofters gathering, Rousay itself was brought to the very brink of violence. Even before the Royal Commission there had been some unrest, but during the winter of 1883-4 there were frequent cases of damage to crops and agricultural implements. One of the `Respectables’, writing to The Scotsman, described how some of the Sourin crofters who had refused to attend the original meetings had damage done to their boats, and the writer warned the culprit that he ‘would not, if detected, guarantee him against a thorough lynching’.

The main trouble, however, centred on John Moyes, the Sourin schoolmaster, who was widely criticised for the part he had played in the investigation of the anonymous threatening letter sent to the laird. It was felt that he had been too co-operative with the authorities and had cast suspicion on boys who had recently been his pupils. Moyes’ duties included the unenviable task of collecting school fees from impoverished parents and compelling the attendance of children deliberately kept from school to assist on the croft. To this end he sent out Burroughs’ gamekeeper, George Murrison, who acted as Attendance Officer, to round up recalcitrants. Many were ready to believe the worst of the schoolmaster, and the Sourin crofters did not let matters rest until they secured his dismissal. Life for Moyes became increasingly difficult. Shortly after the Fiscal’s visit he went south to get married and arrived back in Rousay with a new wife and a boatload of furniture. He was met by a crowd of ‘roughs’ who jeered and hooted at him and he could find no one willing to transport his belongings to the schoolhouse. The farmer who eventually came to his assistance was threatened with vengeance and at night youthful vandals, now unrestrained by their parents, prowled round the school creating a disturbance and doing a certain amount of damage.

George McCrie of Curquoy, Inspector of Poor, was another target and, under cover of darkness, a section of his dyke was pulled down. He was disliked for his office and the niggardly amount of poor relief commonly given. He was also a leading ‘Respectable’ and a frequent writer of letters to the newspapers attacking the ‘Crofters’, sometimes under his own name but more often using various noms-de-plume. He encouraged Burroughs in the belief that unrest on the estate was the work of agitators. When Burroughs was in London for his customary winter visit, McCrie wrote:—

I trust that, by the date of your return, at all events, the present ‘wave’ of carefully fostered discontent will have passed away from the island. Nothing will give me greater pleasure than to see it subside – I am certain it will – for artificial sentiment never lasts long.

However, when Burroughs returned in April 1884, the disorder still continued. He did his best to restore peace, personally visiting the homes of some of the more unruly youngsters and telling their parents that he would hold them personally responsible for the actions of their children. He also wrote warning letters to some of the older people whom he suspected might be involved.

It was always Burroughs’ contention that it was the Napier Commission which had created the trouble in Rousay and set neighbour against neighbour. It was a rather superficial view since it glossed over the tensions which had been building up on the estate ever since 1840. Nevertheless, the Commission had acted as a catalyst. The facade of paternal concern had been stripped away and for the next six years there was to be continuous warfare between ‘Crofters’ and `Respectables’.

[George Meikle McCrie [1847-1895] was born in Leith, Edinburgh, the son of William McCrie and Isabella Greig.]

[Reference was made to The Little General and the Rousay Crofters by William P L Thomson: John Donald Publishers Ltd, Edinburgh]