The Bernera Riot

April 2024
The cairn commemorating the Bernera Riot is located at the junction to Tobson

Exactly 150 years ago, in April 1874, an event known as the ‘Bernera Riot’ took place on the Isle of Lewis.

Probably somewhat less dramatic than it sounds, the ‘riot’ involved around 150 men, accompanied by a piper, marching over 15 miles to Stornoway (the island’s administrative centre), where Bernera crofter* Angus MacDonald had been incarcerated in the town’s police station overnight.

The story goes that MacDonald had been accused of being one of the ‘ringleaders’ in an uprising against the tyrannical behaviour of the landlord’s representative, a Donald Munro, at the time when the Isle of Lewis was under the ‘ownership’ of the wealthy baron Sir James Matheson.

Munro, together with two accomplices, had attempted to evict 57 families in Great Bernera from the land they’d crofted for generations, in order to make way for a hunting and sporting estate.

When the 150-strong group reached Stornoway, MacDonald was released from the police cell and they all continued their march to Lews Castle to appeal to Matheson himself, who professed ignorance of the whole affair and promised to look into it. Then the men marched peacefully home.

However, three months later, MacDonald and two other ‘ringleaders’ were summoned to court on a charge of assaulting one of Munro’s accomplices on the day of the attempted eviction. Fortunately, their defence lawyer, a man named Charles Innes, showed outstanding adeptness during the long trial, resulting in the Bernera men being exonerated.

Interestingly, in a karmic twist of fate, it is said that Munro, whose tyrannical acts had been feared all over the island, never recovered professionally nor financially from the outcome of the trial and ended up dying a pauper.

As undramatic as this riot may sound, it did in fact have very dramatic repercussions on crofting laws in Scotland. At the time, families with the traditional right to work the land were being unjustly evicted in many parts of the country by the landed gentry in what were termed the ‘Highland and Island Clearances’.

The Bernera Riot was the first in a series of Land Wars which consequently led to the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act being passed in 1886, which granted security to crofters and established a court to mediate on land disputes.

The importance of the event has been commemorated in two ways on Bernera:

  1. the erection in 1992 of the Riot Cairn (built with stones from every croft on Bernera)
  2. naming a social housing township after the exceptional lawyer who got the men acquitted.

*crofting means working the land via crops or livestock, similar to farming

The plaque on the cairn reads: “This event was the first successful confrontation with authority leading eventually to the passing of the Crofters Act which gave Security of Tenure to all crofters. Stones from every croft in Bernera and Tir Mor are incorporated in the Cairn. The coping [top] stones are taken from the houses of the three men who stood trial.”
The township of Dun Innes was named after the defence lawyer who achieved a momentous victory in the trial.
This is truly council housing with a view!

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