Matt Myers: David and Goliath – The History of the Raasay Miners’s Strike

On the Left we need our own histories. Not the history of kings, queens, treaties, and conferences, but of ordinary people. This essay is a micro-history in that tradition. Raasay is a small island between the Scottish mainland and the Isle of Skye. The aim of this essay is to chart the Raasay miners’ strike of December 1917 in the context of the island’s history. An event without any thorough historical research, the strike remains not only a unique event in Britain’s labour relations, but also a unique piece of history, in and of itself. By focussing on a confined geographical space such as an island, the historian can reliably chart the continuity of island life, and subsequent changes wrought by external forces. A micro-history can also, however, pose problems. If one focusses too densely on a specific moment in history, it remains easy to forget the wider meta-trends and changes that contribute to the event itself. A deep understanding of the nature of the time, the nature of the island, the continuity of its history, as well as the nature of the iron mine itself, are all central. For micro-history, the sources are critical. It remains a recurring theme in the strike that the very agents of the event (the strikers) have left no historical records of their own. The historian must then piece together their motivations from second hand accounts from reporters or interested bodies. The historian’s role is to give these crofters, turned workers, turned strikers, a voice.

These sources are varied; the local papers such as the Oban Times, records of parliamentary debates listed in Hansard, the mining company’s own documents, and,, crucially,, first-hand accounts by eyewitnesses, listed in secondary sources like the Drapers’ The Raasay Iron Mine 1912-1942. Not all these sources were created equal. Each source has varying degrees of dissonance from the actual event. It is, however, true that the records from the papers indicate that journalists were conscious of the details of the labour dispute, and records from Hansard indicate politicians were obviously very knowledgeable of the conditions of the strikers. The closest source to the voice of the miners comes from Baird’s (the mining company that administered the mine on Raasay) records of a session held by the Attorney general to hear the grievances of 27 miners before the strike.1 Either way, these secondary sources cannot make up for the lack of a narrative by the historical agents themselves. Historians of the event must piece together what they can.

The strike itself started on Thursday 4th December 1917. The contributing factors can be traced to both the history of the mine on the island, and to the Raasay’s pre-mine history and sociological composition. As a percentage of the populace, Raasay had a large crofting community. This group had been depleted by years of enforced emigration, either by coercion or want. Those locals left on the island either scratched a living on crofts in the northern, less fertile part of the Island (the fertile middle section had been converted by the Woods family into a shooting range), or working directly in maintaining the Woods estate, fishing, or finding intermittent work outside the island.

In May 1911 William Baird & Co Ltd bought island from the Wood family, the previous owner of the estate. The mine was ready in the summer of 1914, yet soon lay idle due to the lack of man-power from men called up to the war. Out of 36 local Raasay men called to the colours, 22 were killed. To compensate for this, Bairds’ demanded 260 German prisoners of war from the Ministry of Munitions to act as labour for the mine. These were delivered somewhat reticently in the summer of 1916, in breach of the Hague Convention. Almost immediately the Government took on legal ownership of the mine and employed Baird’s as a private contractor, due to the perceived political complications of having a private provider employ Prisoners of War. Baird’s records indicate that sixty British men, along with thirty local men, were employed by the mine, along with the 260 POWs. This figure is also backed by the account of John Macleod in Draper.2 It is in this context that the tension in labour relations between the locals, the imported workers, and Baird’s and the government developed. This remained unlike any labour relation elsewhere in Britain at the time, and can be seen as one factor in the disturbances.

The prisoners, it seems, were paid by Bairds’ in a far smaller amount than the one agreed by the government.3 Draper4 suggests a piece rate of 1s was paid to the miners.5 The only recorded wages are those of the POWs. The lack of detail on the pay and conditions of the locally employed men is possibly testament to their undervalued and peripheral position in the mine. It may also indicate that they were paid informally on a local contract, with Baird’s finding no reason to alert the government of its terms.

Labour unrest built from February 1917 onwards. In February the Labour Department awarded Cumberland miners an increase in wages from 7s-6d to 9s-6d per shift and war bonus of 5s-0d per week.6 There was no record for this for the Raasay men. This issue was brought up by the miners at a meeting held to allow the miners to air their grievances to the Solicitor General for Scotland on Saturday 3rd March 1917. How the local men heard about the Cumberland miners’ victory is unclear, although one could possibly deduce that they either read it in a paper, or more likely, heard about their wages from their better paid mainland colleagues whom Baird’s had brought over to work. It is recorded that two mainland miners claimed their wages were adequate, and that their wages were twice those paid to the islanders who gave evidence.7 The financial grievances, in their relation to their other workers, were a large factor in the strike, months later.

Alexander Gillies chaired the meeting and reported that the Islanders complained of low wages and unrepaired houses, according toan accurate condensed report in Hatch. This piece of evidence indicates that the islanders believed that Baird’s had a formal obligation to the upkeep of their properties. From archaeological evidence at the Inverarish housing blocks, and Baird’s company records, some locals did live on the same site (outside the prison compound) for the other miners. These blocks were built by Baird’s before the POW’s arrived, with each house only having enough garden space to grow a small amount of produce. Norma Macleod8 claims the lack of land to use as pasture and arable as one of the major grievances in the pre-strike meeting, chaired by Alexander Gillies of Rona. This grievance is understandable given the history of the local men as crofters. Mr Adamson MP alludes also to this in a Parliamentary debate on the Raasay matter,9 discussed in detail below. Most simply wanted to have enough land to live a crofting lifestyle, yet circumstances throughout the 19th century forced locals to take on work such as fishing and upkeep of the estate. The role of the locals (who all worked on the surface) in the project can be seen as the continuation of a trend.

Grievances were again reported to have broken out on the 27th November 1917,10 and then two weeks later (11th December) the strike was reported in the Inverness Courier: “The natives of the Island of Raasay, who are employed at the surface works at the mines stopped work on Thursday 4th, without giving notice to the management, but the work at the mine is proceeding as usual. It is rumoured that they sent in a demand for an increase of 10s per week in wages; that they be supplied with sufficient land for their own use; that all Germans be removed from the Island; and that all miners now employed at Raasay mines be removed from the Island. It has not transpired if any reply has been received.”11

The evidence seems to point to a form of “wildcat” strike. It seems a logical impossibility that the workers could have given notice of the strike to management, as the local workers had no union and no history of trade unionism. The source must be eyed with caution, however. The news story was probably collated from second or third-hand information relayed to a journalist in Inverness (Raasay would not have warranted a full-time correspondent). Even so, it remains important in deducing the motives of the workers. The demands seem very confused and self-contradictory. How could the workers both demand a wage increase and land, and maintain that all Germans and British miners be removed from the island (effectively closing the mine)?

The strained relationship between the striking locals and the Germans, however, was not the one which is noted by John Macleod.12 Stories of locals giving extra food rations to prisoners may be true, yet most of the stories of friendship listed in Draper were between the officials of Baird’s (such as Mr Munro-Baird’s chief mining engineer) and the prisoners, rather than the prisoners and islanders. Norma Macleod notes that prisoners did not have to work Sundays (due to the Hague Convention), while British (and presumably islanders) did. Raasay has always had a very religious, nonconformist, culture, and so this may have been a serious grievance. Other grievances not listed in the article may well have been the environmental degradation caused by the mine. The sea between Raasay and Skye went a rusty colour and fine red ash was deposited on the windward side when the mine was in operation.13

During a Prime Minister’s debate in the Commons,14 the Raasay issue was raised for the first time by Mr Adamson (Labour MP for West Fife). The friction between the locals and the mining operators exposed by Adamson has already been discussed. The most interesting part of the source, however, is his insistence that Baird’s used the war and the German POWs as intimidation against the striking miners. Adamson claimed that the Raasay men’s wages were around 4s per day.15 How he knew this exactly is unclear. Given the history of Baird’s paying less to its workers on Raasay than officially stated (such as for the POWs), it is not clear that anyone besides the miners themselves knew their wages.

Further to the intimidation from Baird’s and the alleged strike breaking by Prisoners of War, Adamson alludes to the inadequate conditions of the Islanders. He describes there being only one shop on Raasay which was run by Baird’s, and from which the locals had to buy produce.16 He also claims that their wages were paid monthly rather than weekly, as in the rest of the country. Why Baird’s felt they could treat the workers this way seems mixed. They were not unionised, they were crofters, and it is arguable whether they were central to the process of capital accumulation. They were, after all, mostly surface workers like cleaners and the pier-master. Both their small number (just over thirty) and social function in the productive process meant that their labour was less valuable to Baird’s, and so could be replaced. It is important to note that according to Baird’s documents, production was not affected and remained within expected fluctuation in December and January during the strike. This certainly backs the argument that the Raasay men were not central to the process of capital accumulation at the mine.

The consequences of the strike reached the top of British political society. Their grievances had already been heard by the Prime Minister in Parliament, and now their strike was to catch the attention of the union movement and the rest of civil society. On 28th December 1917 the Inverness Courier reported that the Executive of the National Union of Scottish Mineworkers had met and discussed a report submitted by a delegation to Raasay. They heard their demands, and agreed to allow them in future to form a branch of the NUSM. This article is the only allusion to a union delegation to the island. What one can deduce from the type of response of the mining union, is that strikes, most especially in war time, were considered very pressing issues. It is likely that both the government and the unions feared strikes as both a threat to production, a threat to morale (especially in a mine with POWs), and for the unions, a threat to their command over labour relations nationally. The report said that there were prospects of a settlement as the management had agreed to communicate with the Ministry of Munitions at once regarding the workers claim to 10s per week.17

The management and government, it seemed, were not fast enough to calm the strike, or more importantly, the embarrassing scandal reaching the public. On Friday 11th the Scotsman published a full article entitled “German Prisoners used as Strike Breakers”.18 It similarly reported that the President of the National Union of Miners, Robert Smillie, had met with Winston Churchill, who was acting Minister of Munitions. Churchill had pledged that if this allegation was true, then the Germans would be removed. Smillie, at a similar meeting at the Ministry of Munitions two days after, claimed the Germans had still not been removed. He specifically mentioned the use of a German prisoner as filling in the position of pier-master during the strike, an important job, once filled by an islander.19

It is not totally clear whether the Germans were strike breaking in the usual sense. Norma Macleod 20 claims that the Germans simply maintained the previous roles they had, and due to the fluidity between different job tasks above ground, it would be impossible to deduce whether the Germans were strikebreaking, or simply carrying out a job which they would have done previously. Norma Macleod’s criticism of the allegation of strike-breaking is inadequate. The key roles carried out by the strikers would have been filled by either prisoners or by imported British strikebreakers if the mine was to carry on production (as it did in December 1917).

The strike officially ended on 15th January 1918. All strikers were reinstated, and the NUM agreed to send another £50 donation to the Raasay strikers. The newspaper reports in the Oban Times and Glasgow Herald make no mention of a change in the rate of pay. The only evidence for the settlement comes from an oral source of Mr John MacLeod21 who claims that ten totwenty of them did win a substantial increase, plus donations from various sources more than recouped those lost in wages. Due to the fact that Baird’s (and the government) probably wished to think no more of the strike and the scandal it caused, it is not surprising that there were no press releases . The type of employment the Raasay men were in probably lent itself to the fact that their contacts were informal and with documentation a luxury. We can only trust in the truth of Macleod’s lone voice on the matter.

The Raasay strike was a truly extraordinary, and hitherto un-researched, episode in British labour relations. The influence of a strike by only thirty surface mine workers, previously crofters and with no experience of unionisation (or even wage-labour) reached the highest levels of government. The Raasay mine, whose workers included both mainland British, local men, and of crucial importance, 260 German Prisoners of War, gave the strike its unique nature. The thirty Raasay men who struck in December 1917 wished nothing more than a piece of land to call their own, and enough food to feed their families. High land rents, evictions, and the collapse of the local fishing industry forced them to seek paid work in the mine. Theirs is the story of a simple people thrust into the heart of a capitalist war economy, proletarianised by the force of circumstance. Yet where you have wage-labour and capital accumulation, you also have resistance. The Raasay miners exemplify this universal characteristic of the international working class. Even if the historian cannot recreate the voices of those thirty striking islanders, one grants them a voice by writing them a history they themselves never had the means, nor the thought, to write. The story of those Raasay men is just one story in the history of our side.

Matt Myers studies History at Wadham College and is an Associate Editor of the Oxford Left Review.

1 Glasgow University archives. Baird and Co Ltd documents listed under reference UGD/164/1/…
2 Laurence & Pamela Draper, The Raasay Iron Mine 1912-1942: Where enemies became friends (self-published, 1990) p. 17
3 A letter from Mr A K McCosh (from Baird’s archives) on 28th April 1916 (before the prisoners arrived) to the Ministry of Munitions, suggested paying the miners 3s per day for 10 hours on surface, and 3s per day for 8 hours underground, or piece rate of 4d per tonne.
4 Draper, p, 12.
5 This is backed by account (also in Draper) from Alex Fisher (fireman, i.e. safety inspector) of giving food too one prisoner who insisted on handing over his wages (1s) in order to keep his dignity and independence.
6 Hatch, F.H. The Iron & Steel industry of Furness and District (Hume Kitchen: Ulverston,1908), p. 83.
7 Draper, p. 19.
8 Norma Macleod, Raasay: The Island and its People (, Edinburgh: Bellin, 2002), p. 160.
9 Hansard, 5th Series, Vol. 100, p. 2232-20, December 1917: In Prime Minister’s review of war situation, Adjournment Motion: “They are crofters by trade, they come from a crofting community. They wish to both work in the mines and work their own land. The worst land on the island has been preserved for them, the best part fenced off for dear and other game.”
10 Inverness Courier, 27th November 1917: “The Ministry of Munitions issued a statement showing grievances among the Raasay Islanders relative to the wages paid at the iron ore mines and other conditions on the Island: The Ministry of Munitions states that in regard to all matters for which that Department as owners of the iron ore mines are responsible, full enquiries have been made and steps taken to remove all legitimate grounds of complaint, whether as to wages or otherwise”.
11 Inverness Courier, 11th December 1917.
12 “Both British men and locals worked well with the prisoners,” Draper, p. 16-18.
13 N. Macelod, p. 163.
14 Hansard, 5th Series, Vol. 100, pp. 2232-20, December 1917: In Prime Minister’s review of war situation, Adjournment Motion: “Five of six years ago one of the large iron and coal companies bought one of the islands on the west coast of Scotland, namely the Island of Raasay. The firm is that of William Baird and Company. The population of Raasay was a crofting population. From the very moment the company took possession, started to win iron ore and tried to get the necessary labour from the crofting population, there has been continued friction. When these men asked for higher wages they were met with a statement that if they did not care to accept the wages that were offered then they could join the army. When they struck against the wages they were paid, German Prisoners of War were used for the purpose of forcing them to accept unfair conditions.”
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid. This is the same practice outlined in Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England (London, 1887) among many Lanarkshire factory owners.
17 Draper, p. 17.
18 Ibid.
19 Draper, p. 21.
20 Macleod p. 161.
21 Draper.

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