Am Bratach No. 313
November 2017

History file
by Malcolm Bangor-Jones

In his booklet, “The Highland Estate Factor in the age of the Clearances”, Eric Richards describes the responsibilities and power exercised by factors. Highland factors have gained notoriety for the role they played in the Clearances, but their influence was to be felt long after the Clearances were effectively over.

There had not been a resident factor in Assynt since 1824 when George Gunn had taken over at Dunrobin. After the purchase of the Reay estate in 1829, John Horsburgh the factor at Tongue had supervised arrangements in Assynt, with Ralph Reed assisting as subfactor at Scourie.

In 1832 the Marquis and Marchioness of Stafford, no doubt advised and guided by James Loch the estate commissioner, decided that the management of the Reay estate should be divided into two separate factorships. There would be a new factor for a Scourie district comprising the parishes of Assynt, Eddrachillis and most of Durness.

The instructions which Loch gave to the appointee, John Baigrie, are particularly revealing in terms of Loch’s perceptions of the people. We must assume that what Loch wrote had been agreed to by the Staffords.

All three parishes would require the factor’s “frequent and vigilant superintendence”. The factor “must be active and very industrious, look carefully and kindly toward the people, but at the same time strictly enforce the regulations of the estate and the improvement required”. To this the Marchioness had added a knowledge of Gaelic.

The completion of the coast road from Inchnadamph to Tongue that year would mean that the district would no longer be so remote. Lochinver was twenty-nine miles and Rispond twenty-eight miles from Scourie — this was the “real distance of active and real management”.

Loch stressed that “it must be distinctly understood that all the great outline of arrangement as determined on by the Marquis of Stafford, and communicated thro’ me, must be implicitly adhered to”. Though the judgement of the local factor must determine how it things were effected or “the degree to which it is to be pressed, yet no material departure from it must be made”.

“The principal duty of the factor will be to watch over the interests of the people and by explanation and continued perseverance to induce the people to adopt better habits of industry, more cleanly and tidy customs, an improved and increased cultivation of their Lots and in building new houses.”

One reason for a separate factor was to restrict and control expenditure. There was no farm to improve at the expense of the landlord: the factor’s expenditure would be limited to some new buildings which would be built under contract, construction of some branch roads and draining, but only where it would benefit more than one tenant.

In Loch’s view, the people of the district were “necessarily from their position among the most backward in Scotland”. They had “hitherto been unaccustomed to the presence of any immediate management”. The factor would require “much firmness, perseverance, and determination, accompanied by still more patience and temper”.

According to Loch the Staffords took “the greatest interest in the welfare, and watch with the greatest earnestness every thing connected with the prosperity and contentment of their smaller tenants”.

Donald Macdonald, tenant of Lochinver sheep farm and owner of the fishing station at Culag, was singled out as a particular challenge. Loch informed Baigrie confidentially that Macdonald had been “long accustomed virtually to direct the affairs of Assynt as he chose [and] the influence of the Landlord’s authority was little felt”. Although Loch did not explain, Macdonald had commercial dealings with many of the small tenants, and most of the other sheepfarmers in Assynt who might have been a competitor had gone bankrupt in the 1820s.

Loch was confident that he and Baigrie would be “able to inspire into these remote districts the same spirit of Improvement that has commenced in other quarters of these domains and that we shall be able to teach the people the value of having so kind and wise and so just a Landlord as the Marquis of Stafford and her Ladyship”. While the residents of the Reay country might regret their transfer to the Sutherland family, Loch and Baigrie would “succeed in convincing them that they are as much considered as the people of the Ancient Clan [of Sutherland]”. 

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