The Seven Men of Knoydart

You might be forgiven for thinking that the Seven Men of Knoydart was a tale of heroes of the '45 Jacobite Rising.

Historically, the story had its roots in the Highland Clearances when vast tracts of land were emptied of the indigenous population in order to make way for a more profitable land dwellers - sheep.

Knoydart, in the North West Highlands, was a particularly idyllic estate. However, a succession of potato blights and the failure of migrating herring shoals brought famine and poverty to the area. In 1852 the Factor was ordered to clear the tenants tomake way for sheep. Four hundred people were evicted and transported to America.

In the early 1930's, a young English aristocrat, Lord Brocket, bought the estate. Brocket was a Nazi sympathiser to the extent that he was Hitler's personal guest at the Fuhrer's fiftieth birthday celebrations in April 1939.

During the war years, the Knoydart Estate served a very useful purpose in the Allied war effort, much to Herr Brocket's chagrin. Britain's military authorities requisitioned the estate for the duration in order to house and train commandos and undercover special forces (Special Operations Executive) who would actively carry the war to Nazi Germany (aka Lord Brocket's friends).

When peace returned in 1945, the British troops left and after some time, Lord and Lady Brocket returned to Knoydart.

In a new post-war spirit of peace and reconciliation, Lady Brocket's first order to her employees was to completely remove every piece of crockery and cutlery from the house and chuck them into the sea. All other items which those nasty Allied servicemen also might have touched suffered the same fate - even every single cludgie, with seat, was ripped out and dumped in the briny ! Clearly - The last proud defiance of the Thousand-Year Third Reich ! (Nazi gold and priceless art treasures dumped in an Alpine Lake - dishes and worthless Barrhead lavvies dumped in the Atlantic !)

Continuing their "good employer and neighbour policy", the Brockets also sacked umpteen staff and replaced them with "loyal" gamekeepers to scare off unwelcome intruders such as leisurely hill-walkers, any children playing on the beach and unwise straying shepherds who were additionally warned they might accidentally get shot in mistake for red deer.

The locals may have been silently enduring all this up to now, but then the pressure cooker blew. A war for freedom had just been fought at great cost and a new social liberty and equality was expected. Returning young men needed a plot of land to build new peaceful lives and now they were losing patience with the high-handedness of this English despot.

Some questioned Brocket's right to continue, having been a vociferous and unequivocal Nazi supporter even during the War, who had somehow avoided prison or other punishment for his unpatriotic acts. For seven local young men, Brocket's position and power didn't impress them one iota. It was time for direct action.

On 9th November 1948, the seven, including fighting veterans of the recent World War, invaded the Knoydart Estate, staked out 65 acres of arable land each and 10,000 acres of hill land and settled in. Perhaps that sounds a lot, but as part of the whole estate, it was miniscule.

News of the land-raid (or sit-in or squat) was reported nationally. During this post-war period, when the Labour Government's promises of a new social deal was in the population's mind, the Scottish nation loudly cheered and sent mountains of fan-mail to the wee post-office at Inverie !

Undeterred, Brocket struck back with that landlord's legal remedy, a "Get off My Land !" Court Order.

The "Seven" meanwhile were invoking the Land Settlement Act of the post-WW1 era, which permitted returning ex-servicemen to take over land which was under-used and farm it as their own. The vast Knoydart estate was certainly under-used, being nothing more than a rich man's outdoor playground.

The "Seven" also believed that the landslide Labour Government elected at the end of WW2, who were swept into power on the votes of servicemen such as themselves, would not let them down when it counted. They hired a lawyer, who assured them that they only needed to follow a number of legal processes in order to almost certainly win their case. Now - this road to victory was best served in the modern day and age, by first vacating the squatted land. BIG MISTAKE !

Once off the land, they lost their best bargaining chip and were on a hiding to nothing. Brocket's legal legions mercilessly blitzkreiged the Seven. Then the Labour Government bottled out completely.

Lord Brocket, hallowed member of the British aristocracy, won. The Seven Men of Knoydart became legendary heroes to the cause of crofting rights as well as to many of the Scottish working class.

Hamish Henderson put the expectations of the confronting parties in a song named after the seven. As one verse so succinctly put it:-

"You bloody Reds" Lord Brocket yelled,
"Wot's this you're doing here ?
It doesn't pay, as you'll find today,
To insult an English peer,
You're only Scottish half-wits,
But I'll make you understand,
You Highland swine,
These hills are mine,
This is all Lord Brocket's land !"

And so the tale ended - or so it seemed. But even if the Seven Men of Knoydart failed in their attempt to secure a just distribution of landholding to accommodate local needs, their spirit lives on. In this new Millennium, little by little, but at increasing speed, Scottish people are reclaiming land from the outsiders. Places such as Eigg and Assynt are in the hands of real people.

Today, Knoydart is finding some positive new life breathed into it. The estate was purchased by the Knoydart Foundation in 1999 and has now hopefully seen the last of absentee landlords or sporting estate ownership.

More information and the opportunity to support the aims of the foundation can be found at: http://www.knoydart-foundation.com/

The Seven Men of Knoydart were:

Read about the history of Knoydart in Denis Rixson's excellent KNOYDART, which includes the story of the seven men of Knoydart. Available in the FirstFoot bookshop. Click on the book title to go there now.

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