A century ago the founding members of the villages of Upper Coll and Gress gathered in peaceful protest and planted potatoes to mark the land of these villages as theirs.
Yesterday (Saturday April 13) their descendants gathered together to commemorate the efforts of those men who fought to secure the land and homes fit for heroes they had been promised once the fighting of World War One came to an end.
Comann Eachdraidh Sgìre a’ Bhac said on Facebook: “The children and young people of Upper Coll and Gress did a fantastic job in making sure their potatoes were planted well and we all look forward to tasting the fruits of their labour later in the year!
“Find out more about today's event on BBC An Là and Aithris na Maidne on Monday.
“Comann Eachdraidh Sgìre a’ Bhac would like to thank the community for your continuing support as we commemorate and celebrate the rich history of our district.”
Facebook comments included; “Big thank you from everyone in Gress for organising today to help us commemorate the Gress Raiders. A great community occasion much appreciated by all who attended or watched it online.”
It was on March 12, 1919 that Lord Leverhulme agreed to meet the raiders at Gress Bridge where he stood on an upturned barrel in front of 1,000 people and began to outline his plans for the island before being interrupted by protests. He replied:
“No I will not give you the land, not because I am vindictively opposed to your views and aspirations but because I believe that if my views are listened to if my schemes are given a chance the result will be enhanced prosperity and greater happiness for Lewis and its people.
Again, he was interrupted by John MacLeod who said: “You have bought this island, but you have not bought us, and we refuse to be the bond slaves of any man. We want to live our own lives in our own way, poor in material things it may be, but at least it will be clear of the factory bell; it will be free and independent.”
It was only because of obstructions from the previous Lewis landowner, Major Duncan Matheson, that the farms were not already occupied by crofters. Every legal obstacle was placed in the way of the Board of Agriculture which, once the country was at war, had more urgent priorities.
The island awoke on New Year's Day, 1919, to the Iolaire disaster. Amid the general atmosphere of despair, work started on Leverhulme's schemes which provided the focal point for hope and optimism. MacFisheries, conceived of as the vehicle for marketing the fish landed and canned at Stornoway, was incorporated in February.
There had been no public indication of Leverhulme's determination to create a showdown around the future of Coll and Gress farms, which he had decided must not be broken up. But Thomas Wilson, the Board of Agriculture's representative on Lewis, reported: ``I found it necessary firmly to inform his Lordship that the condition he found the Lewis crofters in was very largely the result of the neglect of the former proprietors of Lewis.''
Leverhulme had formally requested that the resettlement plans for the farms should be abandoned. But the Secretary for Scotland, Robert Munro was personally very much on the side of the crofters and also knew the dangers of reneging on promises made before the war.
The MP for the Western Isles, Dr Donald Murray, said in the House of Commons that there need be no conflict between the crofters and the landlord’s schemes: ``There was always a large floating population in Lewis ready to engage in industry in any part of the country. I would be the last person to discourage any man or woman under these schemes. But as far as I can see there is no necessary antagonism between the old civilisation and the new. There is room for both.''
By early 1922 the crofters of Gress and Coll succeeded in winning their battle and in the ballots for land, despite Leverhulme’s protestations, the raiders were included in the draw organised by the Board of Agriculture.
The renowned Scottish Socialist leader John Maclean visited Lewis more than once during this period, and he saw Leverhulme’s venture as part of international capitalism’s preparations for another war, this time between the USA and the British Empire. He wrote: “The press has admitted that the Admiralty early this year made a thorough examination of the Hebrides to find out all port and store facilities for the navy. The buying up of Lewis and Harris and other Western Islands by Lord Leverhulme for fishing and fish oil purposes suggests that he is working with the Admiralty in organising industries that will not only breed sailors and provide food but lay that basis of economic organisation without which the navy would be comparatively helpless.”
Photographs from Comann Eachdraidh Sgìre a’ Bhac