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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 June 2007, 05:37 GMT 06:37 UK
The story of the Vatersay raiders
Gaelic BBC journalist Teārlach Quinnell looks at the background behind land raids on an island in the Western Isles archipelago which took place a hundred years ago.

The incident will be the subject of talks and visits to Vatersay, Pabbay and Mingulay this weekend.

They have been arranged as part of the Year of Highland Culture.

Looking south from the summit of Hčabhal above Castlebay in Barra, you see the green Eileanan an Easbaig - the Bishop's Isles - Vatersay, Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Bernaray.

To those visiting the Hebrides these islands are, on a beautiful summer's day, attractive, and present an opportunity.

The Vatersay Raiders. Picture courtesy of Comunn Eachdraidh Bharraidh agus Bhatarsaidh
The Varersay Raiders

Wouldn't it be great to have a house there, surrounded by that blue sparkling sea, away from the troubles of the world?

Today only one of those islands is still inhabited - Vatersay, linked to Barra by a causeway.

A hundred years ago, it was not tourists that looked at the islands to the south of Barra and saw an attractive opportunity in them, but people looking to the north from the other end of the view.

On the island of Mingulay - the largest of the islands to the south of Vatersay - there lived about 150 people when its population was at its peak. As the 20th century began they had serious problems.

Life had become to difficult for them and for the people on the other small islands.

During the Clearances in Barra, the population of the Bishop's Isles rose, as those who were pushed off their land chose to stay there rather than emigrate.

The population of Mingulay had risen above that which the land could support.

The North East of Vatersay

In 1897, every male resident of Pabbay was drowned, when their boat capsized.

The problems associated with small boats and small islands without reliable landing facilities - already well known to the inhabitants - were coming home.

The community on Mingulay had appealed for help in the construction of a pier on the island, as it was very difficult for them to haul their boats up the beach, with fishing the mainstay of their economy.

In 1901, they were given a derick that did not work properly instead of a pier.

The eyes of some on the island looked north to the fertile island of Vatersay.

That island was run as a single farm, under Lady Gordon Cathcart who owned the estate - and only visited the islands once during her 54 year ownership.

To those without land, or even a proper dwelling, the island with its sheltered anchorages was ideal.

In July 1906, landless men from Barra, who weren't even alowed to build a proper house in Barra, took land on Vatersay.

Ancient law

Some have said that they were drawing on an ancient law - that does appear in the old law texts in Ireland - by which a man might gain ownership of ground by building a wooden dwelling and kindling a fire on its hearth within a day.

Whether or not that is correct, that's what they did, and it wasn't long before they were joined by others from Barra and the Bishop's Isles.

Lady Gordon Cathcart took them to court, but the judge said that she had neglected to fulfill her duties as a landlady.

He said she had been ambivalent towards the needs of the cottars - those without land - and that there was little wonder at what they had done.

Eileanan an Easbaig
The Bishop's Isles from Hčabhal

The question of the Raiders was raised at Westminster, but inspite of that and much public support, the men were sentenced to two months in prison.

In 1909 though, the Congested Districts Board bought Vatersay, which they then divided into 58 crofts.

Then in 1912, the last inhabitants of Mingulay left their homes, and settled on Vatersay.

Today, the decendants of the Raiders still live in Vatersay, with a causeway now linking them to the larger island of Barra which was built in order to avoid the same fate as befell Mingulay.

The story of the land raid will be told by men who have done much research into the subject in Castlebay on the 8 and 9 of June as part of the Year of Highland Culture.

Ben Buxton and Calum MacNeil will give talks on the land raid at the Dualchas centre, home of Comunn Eachdraidh Bharraidh agus Bhatarsaidh.

There will also be a trip to Vatersay, and a boat-trip to Pabbay and Mingulay, to mark the centenary of the island's settlement.

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