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Letter From Scotland

Living on the Edge

Were the residents of a Scottish hillside immoral squatters or hard-working farmers?

Monday, June 09, 2014

Bennachie-Mcdonald-House-Excavation

 

It had to have been one of the most defeating days of Alexander Littlejohn’s life. After 40 years of living in a home he’d built by hand, the 85-year-old was unceremoniously carried out, still lying on his bed, as his family looked on. Local folklore tells of how he was made to watch as bailiffs removed all his furniture, smashed his walls, and burned his roof.

 

It was Scotland, 1878. There was little compassion for landless peasants. The Littlejohns lived on the slopes of Bennachie, a prominent rounded hill in northeastern Scotland. Years before, Littlejohn had been lured to the hill—a patch of common land, where local people had traditional rights to use its resources to support themselves—because it offered a small opportunity to build a life of his own. But eventually local landowners decided to revoke the land’s common status and claim ownership. When the elderly Littlejohn became unable to pay the rent, he was evicted in front of his wailing grandchildren.

 

Standing on the slopes of Bennachie today, next to the knee-high ruins of Littlejohn’s croft, it appears idyllic. Sunshine bathes the south-facing slopes, which offer splendid views of rolling hills and open skies. A freshwater spring gurgles behind the remains of the house, and a hillfort, built in the late Iron Age by the Celtic people known as the Picts, stands sentinel above. But it is a misleading picture. “Living up here would have been really harsh, particularly during the cold, snowy winters,” says Jeff Oliver, archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen. “The land is marginal and windswept and would have been covered in scrub and small trees at that time. Water runoff down the hillside was a huge issue. It was hardly an ideal place to set up a smallholding.” Despite these challenges, at its peak in the 1850s, the hillside supported a colony of some 70 settlers—10 families—who came from all over Scotland to try to make an independent living.

 

Since the early eighteenth century Scotland had been undergoing what was known as “improvement.” Before then, landless peasants were able to support themselves by farming small plots of land as tenants of wealthy landowners. But those landowners were determined to bring Scotland into the modern age by transitioning from arable and mixed farming, which supported a large tenant population, to sheep farming, which was proving more profitable. History records brutal evictions and forced emigration of the surplus farmers as aristocratic landowners instituted an agricultural and social revolution.

 

Many people who were cleared off their land emigrated to North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Among those who could not emigrate or chose to stay, some toiled on the new sheep farms. Others were tasked with farming marginal land in new “crofting townships.” And a large proportion became migrants, perpetually traveling around the country in search of work. They constructed temporary dwellings from turf and heather thatch and moved on when work dried up. Some of these migrants ended up at Bennachie, where they found a stability few others did. “It is one of the few sites that we are aware of where this pool of landless people could form a settled community. People arrived here from all over the north and east of Scotland,” explains Oliver. Unlike other landless folk, the Bennachie people settled down long enough to have left a mark. And a rare mark it is. Historically, there are no other colonies known in Scotland quite like this one. Seldom do such marginalized people leave much in the archaeological record. To some extent, the story of Bennachie is the story of marginalized people everywhere—an important story rarely preserved or told.