Tiree and the Dukes of Argyll

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The concise history of one island during arguably the most dramatic period in Scottish history is tackled in a new book, Tiree and the Dukes of Argyll.

A story of change and controversy, the book, by Dr James Petrie covers the period of 1674-1922, spanning burgeoning population growth, destitution and emigration, followed by government intervention and land settlement.

Long held by the MacLeans of Duart, Mull, Tiree was wrested from them in 1674 by the Campbell Earl of Argyll, and he and his descendants, the Dukes of Argyll, have owned it ever since.

It has constituted an important part of their estates and some dukes have involved themselves personally in the governance of the island, having noteworthy concern to bring about change in the lives of the island’s ordinary people. But what were these changes and what were the effects? Were they entirely for the better – for the welfare of the population or rather were they principally for the dukes’ benefit by making the island more profitable?

The two and a half centuries covered in this book looks at those three essential elements of modern Highland and Island history – the Clearances, the Crofters’ Wars and the period of Land Settlement, which continues to the present.

The first is infamous for the forced expulsion of people from their ancestral homelands, the second for their eventual fight-back and the third for a gradual reoccupation of the land by some of them. The book looks to show how these dramas panned out in Tiree, drawing on comparisons with circumstances on other estates to give perspective. It looks at what happened during notable bouts of famine, sometimes lasting a number of years, when mortality rates rose. And it pays especial attention to the consequences of Tiree’s population explosion – how it arose and then waned.

It is also a story of drama. In particular, it pays especial attention to events of the summer of 1886, when hundreds of Tiree’s islanders banded together to defy the owner, the 8th Duke of Argyll. The book relates how they resisted a sizeable police force sent to carry out the Duke’s orders and despatched them, defeated, back to the mainland.

‘There is war in Tiree’ reported The Times:  the eyes of the UK were suddenly focused on this remote, largely obscure little island off the west coast of Scotland. In short order, the government sent in the military and the ringleaders were arrested and imprisoned. Soon afterwards, one ‘honourable gentleman in the House of Commons … said … the Duke of Argyll was a thief and a robber by law – a shameless thief and a shameless robber’.

Dr Petre says: ‘The book offers a concise history of one island during arguably the most dramatic period in Scottish history. It is a story of change and controversy.  It does not seek to romanticise the islanders’ plight or their stand for what they wanted; nor does it cast the landlord dukes as villains of the piece. Instead, it reflects on the islanders’ natural desire to better their lives and the dukes’ attempts to modernise this important part of their estates. Much of Tiree’s history in the period is characterised by the resulting tension.’

In its conclusion, the book offers thoughts on what can be learned from this history of one island by applying those lessons to some central problems facing the world at large at the present. In this, it reflects on the value of history – that such knowledge should inform us in influencing the future – for all of us, not only in the Highlands and Islands but, in fact, everywhere.

Tiree and the Dukes of Argyll 1674-1922 is available from James Petre, The Old Barn, 8A Church Road, Stevington, Bedfordshire, MK43 7QB or email:jamespetre@btinternet.com