The Rousay Clearances Part 2

By Fiona Grahame Images by Martin Laird

“Although I may have to leave the land, I am prepared to speak the truth, and will not be cowed by landlordism. I consider as Burns says – ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’” James Leonard

Looking towards Westray from James Leonard’s house at Digro

The words of James Leonard, crofter and mason of Digro, Rousay, as he gave evidence to the Napier Commission in 1883. The commission was charged with inquiring into the condition of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It had come to Orkney to take evidence from those who worked the land about what had happened and was still happening in their communities.

Nearly the whole of the island of Rousay by this time was owned by retired ‘hero’ of Lucknow and the Indian Mutiny, General Frederick William Traill-Burroughs, the Little General. Born in India and having served in the 93rd Sutherland  Highlanders, Frederick inherited lands in Rousay when a distant uncle, George William Traill, suddenly died. Frederick, who had never been to Rousay,  was only 16 when the lands became his and changed  his name to ‘Traill-Burroughs’.

General Burroughs built himself a mansion, Trumland House designed by David Bryce, and a pier servicing that end of the island with a steam powered ferry. Rents were increased of the many tenanted farmers and crofters to pay for the substantial debts his lifestyle and projects were accumulating. And like his uncle before him, he carried on the practice of eviction.

There had already been changes to farming in Rousay.  Many of the tenanted farms employed labourers who would also have their own crofts.

A feather in a rock pool on Rousay

Representing the crofters of Rousay, James Leonard, sought assurances from The Napier Commission that there would be no retribution against those who were to give evidence. General Burroughs, to the shock of the Commission, refused to do this. This was unprecedented in the whole of the commission’s experience of hearing evidence.

Lord Napier, pressed Burroughs several times for an assurance even reminding him that he was before a Royal Commission.

“I would ask you to reconsider your statement, and say whether you are not, on reconsideration, able to state that nothing that is said here to-day will influence your action, towards those persons, whatever your feelings may be.”

Burroughs replied: “Is the property mine, or is it not mine.  If it is mine, surely I can do what I consider best for it ? If  these people are not contented and happy, they can go away.”

Unable to get any assurance from Burroughs the Commission warned James Leonard that  he ‘must do it at his own hazard’. James Leonard was not to be cowed by the Little General. He continued to give his evidence even being reprimanded by the Commission for making a speech when he stated:

“We are telling only the truth, and you are here to receive evidence of the truth; and because we do that we will be evicted from our places and holdings. Certainly there is much need for a change of the law, and security of tenure. I think you have the strongest evidence before you to-day that you have had, perhaps, since you left London “

Concluding his evidence James Leonard was almost pleading with the commission to heed the evidence  of the Rousay crofters: “We are under the despotism and terror of the landlord, and we want that removed; and even though I should fail in this battle, I will fight it out.”

Frederick Traill-Burroughs, the Little General of Rousay

The crofters also had the support of the Rev Archibald MacCallum of the Free Church on Rousay who presented a statement on behalf of the tenants. In his presentation he referred to the poverty of the crofters which they said was due to the “system of land management in Rousay for the last forty years, and especially for the last twenty years.” It pointed out the decrease in population and a tripling in the rents. Owning most of the island Burroughs had a  power over the people of Rousay like no other had held in modern times. The tenants were further impoverished by the loss of the common land which “the people from time immemorial had the privilege of grazing and pasturing cattle, sheep, horses, and pigs without payment of any kind.”

The  Napier Commission’s findings resulted in the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Bill of 1886 which brought very little security to the people of Rousay. James Leonard and James Grieve, who had also given evidence, were evicted in 1883. Burroughs set about trying to bankrupt other tenants. Many left, including James Leonard. In 1904 Frederick William Traill-Burroughs was knighted and died a year later.

 At the time of The Napier Commission the population of Rousay was 1118.  Today is just over 200.

The abandoned Skaill farm with covered excavation

To purchase a copy of the book which accompanied the exhibition in 2020 please email The price is £8 which includes postage.

There is also an ebook available at £3 click on this link: The Rousay Clearances: Exodus from the Egypt of the North

This article first appeared in iScot magazine.

Related articles:

The Rousay Clearances

Rousay: ‘Gods of the Earth, Gods of the Sea’

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2 replies »

  1. Very interesting. It encourages the reader to picture the situation the people were in. The landowners could do as they pleased, the power of the law stood at the landowners back and the power of the state decorated them.

    The indigenous people were effectively defenceless, Napier Commission or not.

  2. Gordie, you seem to think that this was a situation which only applied in the past. However, although not so visible now, the power of large landowners in Scotland is still an outrage to anyone who has an inkling of justice in their bodies.

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