"The Vatersay Raiders" by Ben Buxton is a superb account of events that took place just over a century ago on the Outer Hebridean island of Vatersay. The author's foreword notes, almost apologetically, that he is not a resident of Barra or Vatersay, and that he is not a Gaelic speaker. He concludes that as a result it might be possible for someone, some day, to produce a more definitive account of the Vatersay raiders. That may or may not be true, but it seems unlikely that anyone will ever be able to produce a better account. Ben Buxton's book offers a nicely judged balance between depth and detail on the one hand, and accessibility on the other. It is also very well written and organised in a way that draws you into the very human stories behind the history. The end result is essential reading for anyone visiting these islands and wonders how they came to be the way they are today.
In 1908 ten men from the islands of Barra and Mingulay were imprisoned in Edinburgh for refusing to obey court orders that they must leave the island of Vatersay, where they had marked out crofts, built huts and planted potatoes. At one level it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that this as a story about the dispossessed seeking to ensure their families were fed after over a century of clearance by landowners interested in nothing more than profits from sheep.
The story that emerges from Ben Buxton's book is more subtle and very much more complex. He covers the historical background to the situation on the Barra Isles before looking at the latter half of the 1800s in more detail and then covering the raids and their consequences. Many aspects that are missed in the simplistic version of history are brought to light. The tensions between raiders from Barra and others from Mingulay are highlighted, as is the role of the tenant farmer on Vatersay and the relatively well-off merchants and farmers on Barra. Especially interesting is the picture that emerges of the landowner, Lady Cathcart, who is convincingly portrayed as out of touch with the situation on her islands, but probably fairly well meaning: at least by the standards of landowners who had gone before her.
The importance of the political dimension is also brought to the fore, and a lot of attention is given to the handling, and frequent mishandling, of the situation by the Scottish Office of the day and the by Congested Districts Board, responsible for implementing government policy on land reform and crofting allocation in the Barra Isles.