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The Poor Had No Lawyers...The Story of Aignish


Generations of my Dads side of the family come from Aignish on the Isle of Lewis which this painting is named after. Moving away from my normal colours, I found myself using golds and silver; the colours of wealth … a result of reflecting on the hardships of the generations that have come before me and the struggles they have faced. The cloud is deliberately painted in the shape of a scythe to represent the Aignish Riot, and the birds flying amongst it; freedom. I’ve written a bit below to give some context for this, and shed some light on the history of the area…


The Aignish riot took place in January 1888, in the wider context of the highland land wars/ clearances and in the aftermath of land agitation following the ground-breaking legal victory of the Bernera Riot of 1874 and the Park deer raid of 1887.

The local population of Lewis at that time were suffering acutely due to the downturn in Herring and struggling to feed their families. Government poor law administrators labelled this a lie made up by agitators despite countless reports of the hardship and potential destitution people faced. In conjunction with this 80 Soldiers from the Royal Scots were sent to Lewis on standby, in case any further rebellion should break out.

A Journalist who accompanied a government official examining the living conditions of people at the time described: “In one township after another the same state of matters was met with; Half clad, half fed people living in squalor within wretched and overcrowded houses”

With no government assistance and no available land ,it was clear the situation could not continue. In December of 1887 men from Aignish and neighbouring Melbost met and decided that the livestock of two large local farms would be taken, and driven to the grounds of Stornoway Castle, residence of Lady Matheson. To facilitate this, the boundary fence of Aignish had to be torn down under cover of darkness.

The local Sheriff heard of these plans and in January of 1888, issued a warning in Gaelic and English that those who were found to have taken part in the planned occupation would be liable to heavy penalties. The men of Aignish and Melbost were not intimidated by this threat and several hundred marched on Aignish as planned. The Sherriff contacted the Scottish Office who dispatched the police force, army and royal marines who met the crowd heavily armed. The local men were read the riot act, but it did nothing to deter the crowd or to prevent one of the highland land wars most bitter and bloodiest confrontations.

The Royal Marines and Army carried guns and bayonets, whilst the local men had nothing else but clubs, sticks, and objects used as missiles. It is remarkable given the disparity in the types of arms that there were almost equal losses on both sides. Because of the military presence, the original plan of driving the animals to the grounds of Stornoway Castle had to be abandoned and instead many animals were driven into the Sea or had their spines/back legs broken. In the chaos thirteen men were grabbed at random and taken to jail (they would later be prosecuted). Their comrades attempted to effect a rescue but this failed as they were overwhelmed by marines and arrested.

The local anger was not quelled, people had had enough. Four days after this men from all parts of Lewis met and urged government ministers to ‘Restore the land to the descendants’ of the clansmen…the lands formerly tilled by their ancestors for centuries, the restoration to the people of said lands. This can be the only answer to the land question’.

I think these men were heros, but its quite hard to believe that five generations later I and many others still can’t afford to live on Lewis...

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