The Little General and the Rousay Crofters

by William P. L. Thomson

The Little General and the Rousay Crofters

The problem of the Clearances is often associated simply with the Highlands, but on the small island of Rousay one of the most dramatic conflicts of all took place between tenant and landowner in the dramatic years from 1840 to 1890.


SKU: 9781912476213 Categories: ,


Burroughs had the reputation of one of the most brutal of all Orkney landlords and, in a time of great economic change, the harshness of his actions made that change particularly traumatic.

When the Royal Commission whose findings were to lead to the Crofters Act arrived, Burroughs acted in character. He evicted any tenant who gave evidence to the Commission. As tension mounted a gunboat arrived off Rousay to keep the peace. As Burroughs’ tyranny mounted it became clear his intention was to drive every tenant off the estate and he was only prevented by the belated passing of the Crofters’ Act and even a special Act of Parliament directed specifically against him.

But both Burroughs and his tenants were rather unusual. Burroughs acted entirely out of principle, often proving unyielding where a more flexible approach would have yielded profit. Out of a sense of honour he even withheld information regarding the minister, one of his main enemies, which he could have used to destroy him. His tenants too were unusual, for the Orkney farmer was a far richer and more independent individual than the downtrodden crofters of the west coast.

The scene was set then for an almost Greek tragedy where landlord and tenants fought each other on the national stage to the bitter end, where no compromise was possible, and where neither side could or would back down. It is an extraordinary and dramatic story told brilliantly by the author, a story full of great characters and incident, a story set against the dark gales of economic change which were to sweep away both landlords and the communities they claimed to control. At the end of the book Burroughs, once a national hero, now reviled, emerges as a much more complex and human figure than history has painted him.

William P. L. Thomson was the author of a number of books on Scottish history. He was Rector of Kirkwall Grammar School, in Orkney, from 1971 to 1991, previously having been Principal Teacher of History and Geography at the Anderson High School, Shetland. He died in 2016.

ISBN: 9781912476213

Publisher: Birlinn Ltd

Stock status: Published

Categories: Birlinn/Polygon , Orkney and Shetland