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Knoydart, Seven Men of (act. 1948), protesters on the Scottish highland land question, became famous for a land raid on the Knoydart estate of Lord Brocket in which they sought to establish their claim to have smallholdings created by the department of agriculture for Scotland. Alexander Macphee (b. c.1893), Donald Macphee (fl. 1948)—brother of Alexander Macphee—Duncan MacPhail (b. c.1914), Henry MacAskill (fl. 1948), John [Jack] MacHardy (fl. 1948), Archibald MacDonald (fl. 1948), and William Quinn (b. c.1911) were not crofters in the strict legal sense of the word, but they all lived on the Knoydart peninsula on the west coast of Scotland and worked, or had done so, for the proprietor. Duncan MacPhail had spent six years in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War. An eighth man, Archibald MacDougall (1927–1999), did not participate in the raid as he was absent due to military service, but he was associated with the claim as land was staked out on his behalf by his neighbour, MacAskill.

MacDougall, the last survivor of the protest, did most to keep the memory of the Knoydart land raid alive, publishing a book on the subject (1993), and his name was used by the Scottish National Party in November 1999, shortly after his death, in association with propaganda on land reform. The men were assisted in their correspondence with government agencies, and in publicizing the raid and its aftermath, by the local Roman Catholic priest, , later bishop of Argyll and the Isles. Arthur Ronald Nall Nall-Cain, second Baron Brocket (1904–1967), a millionaire landowner and brewery director, and former Conservative MP, was demonized at the time and in subsequent memory as a Nazi sympathizer: an accusation based on visits to Germany in the 1930s and views on the regime expressed on such occasions.

The events which occasioned the seven men's notoriety began on 8 November 1948 when they took possession of land on farms at Scottas and Kilchoan on Knoydart. This form of land protest had been common in the Hebrides from the 1880s to the 1920s, a period which saw Scottish land-reform legislation. The raid was to some extent a publicity exercise; photographers as well as newspaper reporters had been informed, and were present to witness the seizure. A series of especially well-informed articles appeared in The Scotsman of Edinburgh in the days following the raid. The proprietor of the land immediately responded by taking out an interdict in the court of session against the raiders. These interdicts were served on the raiders, once again with attendant photographers, and they agreed to withdraw from the land. Duncan MacPhail later recorded his regret at this decision, taken on legal advice: ‘we would have been far better to have done what the old boys in the olden days did, stick on the ground until they put you to gaol’ (Grigor, 77).

The proceedings in the court of session revealed much hostility between Brocket on one hand, and the raiders and Father Macpherson on the other. Brocket's legal representatives remarked in the course of these proceedings: ‘It is denied that the Respondents have all been bred to agriculture, denied that they have sufficient capital and denied that they have sufficient skill or knowledge to work new holdings successfully’ (NA Scot., CS275/1952/4). The same source refers to a petition organized by Brocket, which, allegedly, demonstrated that the rest of the population of Knoydart disapproved of the raid. Most of the signatories were in the landowner's employment. Brocket was certainly willing to use coercive tactics and did so against one of the raiders late in 1949. Jack MacHardy had been working as a gardener on the estate prior to the raid and in October 1949 sought such employment once again. Brocket demanded, and received, an ‘unqualified apology and undertaking never to repeat such acts as those on November 9 1948’ before granting MacHardy's request (NA Scot., CS275/1952/4).

This public phase of the events surrounding the Knoydart estate was a culmination of longer-running events which had taken place with less fanfare. Lord Brocket's estate management had been heavily criticized during the Second World War when he had allowed the sheep stock on the estate to dwindle. The government had requisitioned the estate in 1940 in an effort to counter this neglect and to increase food production. As late as 1947 accusations of neglect were still being levelled at the proprietor. In that year Father Macpherson had submitted a scheme to the department of agriculture for Scotland proposing that forty-six new holdings be created on the estate. The subsequent investigations of that department reached the conclusion that the land could sustain only nineteen such holdings, but that areas of the estate were suitable for afforestation. The background to these ideas was the rapidly declining human population of the estate; this had been as high as 500 in the 1870s but had fallen away to 148 by 1939. The aftermath of the raid saw a revisitation of these schemes as an attempt was made to find a solution to the problems of Knoydart. The Scottish Office appointed John A. Cameron, a well-known farmer and former member of the Scottish land court, to report on the matter. His investigation included a hearing for the views of the parties involved, including the raiders, at Mallaig in December 1948. His report, published in 1949, concluded that neither the ‘Father Macpherson scheme’ nor the proposals of the department of agriculture for Scotland for the creation of smallholdings were viable, on the grounds that the expense of providing roads and other infrastructure would be excessive. He recommended, although with some regret, that the estate could best be run as a single unit with stock grazing, forestry, and sport as the principal enterprises. Arthur Woodburn, the secretary of state for Scotland, accepted Cameron's recommendations. The seven men responded by sending a ‘Memorial’ to Woodburn, attacking Cameron's conclusions and claiming that he was ‘blind to the lessons of the past’ and had failed to perceive the significance of the facts placed before him at the Mallaig meeting (NA Scot., SEP12/7/3).

The Knoydart land raid was an isolated event and, unlike such raids in the 1920s, did not influence the government to create new holdings for landless people. Nevertheless, it was commemorated in several ways. The noted folklorist Hamish Henderson wrote his ‘Ballad of the Men of Knoydart’ soon after the event; this song saw the raid as a possible starting point for a nationalist revival in Scotland. Politicians such as Dr Robert Macintyre, of the Scottish National Party, and John Macdonald Bannerman, of the Liberal Party, used the event as a stick with which to beat the Labour government over its perceived neglect of highland and Scottish questions. In 1993 a cairn was erected to the memory of the ‘Seven Men of Knoydart’, an event which sought, like Henderson's song, to make wider political points from the events of 1948. The inscription on the cairn reads:
In 1948, near this cairn, the Seven Men of Knoydart staked claims to secure a place to live and work. For over a century Highlanders had been forced to use land raids to gain a foothold where their forebears lived. Their struggle should inspire each new generation of Scots to gain such rights by just laws. History will judge harshly the oppressive laws that have led to the virtual extinction of a unique culture from this beautiful place. (Withers, 335)
In 1999, after a long struggle against absentee and corporate ownership, Knoydart was purchased by the community which lives there.

Ewen A. Cameron

Sources  

A. MacDougall, Knoydart: the last Scottish land raid (1993) · I. F. Grigor, ‘The seven men of Knoydart’, The complete odyssey: voices from Scotland's recent past, ed. B. Kay (1996), 71–7 · NA Scot., court of session papers, CS 275/1952/3–4 · Scottish economic planning department files, NA Scot., SEP12/2; 12/7/1–3 · The Scotsman (10–12 Nov 1948) · The Scotsman (26 Nov 1948) · The Scotsman (23 Dec 1948) · The Scotsman (26 March 1949) · Scots Independent (Dec 1948–June 1949) · J. A. Cameron, Knoydart estate (1949) · H. Henderson, ‘Ballad of the men of Knoydart’, Collected poems and songs, ed. R. Ross (2000), 128–30 · C. W. J. Withers, ‘Place, memory, monument: memorializing the past in contemporary highland Scotland’, Ecumne, 3 (1996), 325–44 · Bannerman: the memoirs of Lord Bannerman of Kildonan, ed. J. Fowler (1972)

Archives  

NA Scot., court of session papers, CS 275/1952/3–4 · NA Scot., Scottish economic planning department files, SEP 12/2, SEP 12/7/1–3


Likenesses  

portraits, repro. in MacDougall, Knoydart