South Uist, 28 May 1883 - Rev Roderick Macdonald

Rev. RODERICK MACDONALD, Minister of the Parish of South Uist (60)—examined.

11468. The Chairman.—How long have you been incumbent here ?
—I was inducted into this parish in the year 1854.

11469. Do you belong to this part of the country by birth and extraction?
—I belong to the neighbouring island of North Uist. I was brought up there.

11470. You have been acquainted with the condition and habits of the people from your earliest years? —Yes.

11471. Will you have the kindness to make a general statement as to what you think the condition of the people now is compared with what you remember in your early life?
—I have jotted down a few notes on the subject. Having observed in one of the Inverness newspapers that it is the desire of the Royal Commission on Highland Crofters to get from the northern clergy a statement of their opinion regarding the matters which form the subject of the Commission's present investigation, it occurred to me that I should jot down a few remarks giving my views, whatever they may be worth, on this important but difficult question. It is, I may state, with considerable hesitation, arising from very great distrust in my own competency, that I venture to undertake this task. This reluctance does not, however, result from want of familiarity with the subject, for I had ample opportunities for the last forty years of being acquainted with the state of the crofter population of the Long Island district of the county of Inverness. Before entering on the subject proper of this paper, let me remark, that I have come long ago to tue deliberate conclusion, and that it is now a settled conviction with me, that the Highland crofter in days gone by, as a rule, was not in that condition of ease and comfort in which sentimental enthusiasts often portray him. True, I have heard old men, as far back as forty-five years ago, talk of the days of their youth fifty years or more previously than these, and with the propensity of all old men, to say that the former days were better, and depicting those bygone days in strains which almost rivalled the poetic description of the golden age of the world; yet in the course of the narrative gleams of stern historic truth showed the true state of matters ; the expressive terms, a hard year, a hard summer, when men lived on fish, whelk, shell-fish, roots of the ground, lean mutton, to the almost compete exclusion of bread, told truly how much the imagination of those men had to do with the rose-coloured descriptions of the years of their youth. But the present state of matters is the difficulty which requires to be dealt with. Let us first consider the character of the Highland crofter. From the amount of sympathy expressed for the crofter, and the tones of pity in which he is spoken of, a stranger to the facts would be apt to believe that he is a poor, wretched, babyish weakling, a savage of a low type requiring to be treated like the natives of Tasmania or Australia, for fear they perish from inaction and want of vitality off the face of the earth—people who ought to be cherished and nursed like children during the period of their nonage. A hundred fields of battle cry aloud with indignation in condemnation of -such absurd ideas. Their noble qualities as soldiers, their endurance under want and hardship, their unsurpassed bravery, their noble deeds, deeds of heroism, their self-devotion to duty, need not be dwelt upon here; are they not written in the chronicles of every campaign where Britons have most distinguished themselves ? Moreover, everybody who knows them will admit that they are a sharp-witted, keen, shrewd, intelligent race. Inspectors of schools tell us that Highland school boys, under the disadvantage of having to cultivate their intelligence through the medium of a foreign language, compare favourably with bòys in other parts of the country who are not so  handicapped; and let me add, and I trust with pardonable pride, that hitherto Highlanders have been a decent, honest, well-behaved, contented and loyal people. But, admitting all this, what about their industrial habits? It is allowed that, in strength and activity, the Highlanders are inferior to few, if any, of the other races of the nation, and that they are capable in certain circumstances of powerful and strenuous exertion. But the virtue of perseverance in their undertaking is denied them; and while it is granted that they can put on a violent spurt, and can work at a pinch with any, yet it is said that they are not given to constant continuous work, and that by the very constitution of their nature, they are not fitted for the strain of long-enduring and sustained labour. That this allegation has any foundation in fact, I could never bring myself to believe, and for any grain of apparent truth there may be in it their circumstances may account. During the season of spring and harvest, no people work harder or more continuous; they are at it late and early; but in the inclement season of a long winter, with the short, dark clays, with almost constant storms and blinding rain, one can easily understand how little can be done during that time in such adverse circumstances. But place them under more favourable conditions, and with more adequate inducements, and I am very much mistaken if they will fail to work steadily, industriously, and continuously all the year round. Then what is the quality of the land on which they have to work ? I believe it is a common opinion, founded on the dear-bought experience of farmers, that agricultural farms have not been paying for the last few years even on the best of lands, and I have no doubt it will be conceded that on the majority of West Highland estates, with few if any exceptions, crop-making does not pay. The land is poor, hungry, and ungrateful, and even if well cultivated, which often it is not, it would give but a poor return for the labour bestowed upon it. The system that seems to succeed best is to have some cropping land, with an outrun of grazing attached. This complex system is the only one suited to the Highlands. The grazing land enables a man to keep a few sheep; the crop, besides feeding his family for a certain period, enables him to winter his cattle and keep more of tbem,—to keep a pair of ponies, which are indispensable, especially to an Uist farmer who attempts to raise a crop. In short, it is difficult to see how a man without a certain amount of grazing land can subsist within the four corners of even a large croft.
But how much land should support a family ? What should be the size of a croft ? There can be no hesitation, I think, in asserting that a small croft of four, five, or even six acres, cannot support a family, independent of any other resources. Nay, I heard it stated, and I partly believe it, that such a croft would not support a family even if it were rent free. There was a time within the recollection of living men, when an ordinarysized croft would suffice for a family. But that was a time when a population that supported only three or four shops, now supports forty or fifty, and their men and women manufactured their own linen and cloth, when the men, instead of paying 20s. or upwards for boots (there are no shoes used), made their own shoes of their own home-tanned leather, and when there was no kind of tea. I do not wish to speak in a censorious or sarcastic
manner of my Highland fellow-countrymen; I do not wish to call them extravagant or luxurious; they are not so. But I want to call attention to the broad palpable fact of the incompatibility between the small crofter's
income and his expenditure on things which have before now become necessaries of life. I do not envy the man who would grudge the crofter and his family their tea and sugar, with their bread and butter. That they
use more tea than is good for them, and that of an inferior quality, is alleged. I do not know as to this, but it is believable. Moreover, I fancy that there are few, except stringent total abstainers, that would grudge the Highlander living in this moist climate an occasional dram, but they are not drinkers of whisky. Young men may occasionally take what is vulgarly called a ' spree' at weddings, markets, and formerly (but not now)
at funerals, and, like all men of Celtic idiosyncrasies, get very much excited, and make a great noise. But as a class Highland crofters, to my certain knowledge, are a sober lot. Under this head, it is obvious to remark, that in many cases the present size of crofts is not what they were at one time, or at all events, what they were intended to be. Whether they were, as is alleged, encroached upon by the ruling powers of a property, or whether subdivided by the crofters themselves, the practical result is the same. The great wit Sidney Smith is said to have stated, that there is one precept in New Testament which the clergy on the north of the Tweed literally obeyed. Taken bought for your raiment. The working classes of all countries, and Highlanders in particular, are said to be in the habit of giving implicit obedience to a much older command, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, 1 and replenish the earth, and subdue it ; ' the latter clause, however, not being so strictly complied with The subject of early and imprudent marriages is an old theme frequently commented on. But, as it was in the days before the flood, men were marrying and given in marriage, so it is likely to continue to the end of time ; and no doubt it is for the good of the world and mankind that it should bo so ; but it is but a common-place remark to say, that when a man enters into that state without a fair prospect of being able to provide for his family—or when, as is said, it results in squatting down as a cottar, or leads to the subdivision of crofts; from that point of view it is an admitted evil. Whether proprietors might and should have a quantity of reserved land, out of which to slice croft after croft for young married couples as they required them, is, I fear, a Utopian idea, and whether such a scheme, if adopted, would eventually succeed in benefiting the country is, I fear, also more than problematical. The condition of the crofter has been always, in a great many instances, a hard one. The history of many an honest hard-working man is as follows. A man marries a wife, enters upon a croft, stocks it to a certain extent, begins to cultivate it single-handed (for a croft cannot bear the burden of hired labour at the present rate of wages), but, like a brave man, he struggles on alone, keeping a stout heart against a steep brae, tries to pay his rent, and keep the wolf from the door, until after a while his family grow up about him, begin to get strong, and very materially to help him. He finds himself now in comparatively easy circumstances, and continues to be so until his family begin to leave him one after the other, until the last one goes, and the old couple are left alone in the feebleness of their old age, they begin to get poor again. So that, if he has not had the ability or prudence to lay up something for a rainy day, the last state of that man is worse than the first. This is not an imaginary case, but one of frequent occurrence. The great question is, where is the remedy for the evil ? Whatever may be the extent of the evil complained of by crofters, there is no doubt of its being a crying evil. I forgot who said, ' For every evil under the sun, there is a remedy or there is none. If there is a remedy, try to find it ; if there is none, never mind it.' But this evil of poverty, about which there is such an outcry, cannot be let alone, and cannot be ignored. There appears to be a felt need; and to meet this need, more lands must be given to the crofters, according to their own unanimous verdict; and this no doubt seems a very feasible way of meeting the difficulty, but this cure, like every other cure, requires means and appliances, and the means in this case must be money, and in the great majority of cases money given ab extra, for the crofters declare they have none, and in a vast number of cases their declaration is true, so that without this external aid, the giving of more lands would seem a good purpose in the case of those only who are pretty well-to-do already, and those most in need of help are left where they were. The giving of more lands then entails the indispensable concomitant of giving money to stock and work it. How to obtain this money for the use of crofters is a problem, the solution of which has not been hinted at in any suggestion of a practical nature which has come within my knowledge. I am of opinion, speaking of the Long Island and especially of the two Uists, with which I am better acquainted, that the most is not made of the land which the crofters already hold. There is no attempt at cropping by rotation, and consequently the land has ceased to yield the returns which under a better system of tiUage might be fairly expected. There is scarcely an attempt at improving their crofts by clearing or draining, or in any way whatsoever, the excuse given being the uncertainty of their tenure as tenants from year to year, which excuse should be removed by giving the crofters leases of their holdings. Late sowing is another evil, which is a great loss to crofters, and this is caused by the unfenced state of the crofts. Many of them allege that they would sow earlier, but what would be the use, as long as the horses and cattle of a whole township have free access to roam over the tilled land, trampling and poaching the ground, and even cropping the young braird after it has fairly sprung Ì Tillage is thus continued till far on in June, the crops consequently have no time to ripen—must often be cut green—is exposed to the storms at the end of harvest; of course the yield of meal in unripe corn is inconsiderable, is scarcely fit for anythiug better than provender for cattle, and such as it is, is exposed at this stage also, in its unprotected state, to the ravages of cattle badly herded, and hungry horses (of which too many are often kept), which no tethering can effectually secure. The value of those lands would be vastly increased by being properly enclosed. Then their grazing lands are but poorly utilised for the common good. According to the present system, every man is his own shepherd—every man has his own lug-mark ; each man his own collie dog, with which he goes to the hill any idle day he has to spare, and for little or no purpose except to disturb, not only his own sheep, but those of his neighbours. The consequence is that one may have forty or fifty sheep, while others have few or none. A club stock—with one lug-mark, one shepherd, one uniform system of management—would secure even-handed justice to those concerned; the stock of sheep would undoubtedly thrive better, and would be a sure source of income to every man concerned. Lands so managed would no doubt result in increase of means, and lead to improvement of comfort. Already there is a taste for finer clothing, and what is thought to be a more comfortable way of living in general; and along with other improvements, the black thatched cottage (which by the way is not always the comfortless abode a stranger may fancy), would soon give way to a more civilised-looking dwelling. But after all that can be
said or done, land being a limited quantity, and the increase of population proceeding with rapid strides, it is evident that a time must come when people will see the necessity of moving of their own accord from a country which must eventually become crowded, to some place where there is more ample room and better scope and better remuneration for energy and persevering industry. And if they shovdd resolve to sever the tie which knits them to their native land, let them not be advised to migrate to the south country, and settle down in large towns, when although many a north country man has thriven and succeeded in life, yet where many
a poor Highland family had to descend to an underground cellar, a sad change to those accustomed to the free air of heaven, and when the surroundings are anything but favourable to the growth of the higher and
better nature of their offspring. Let it be emigration then, but even to emigration one feels many objections; it deprives the land of its best inhabitants—we lose the bone and sinew of the country; and considering the violent wrench required to enable a Highlander to tear himself from his native rocks, one has not the heart to advise them to leave. Yet there is a conflict between one's feeling and judgment—between the head and the heart; and what I state here publicly is, what I have told my Highland fellow-countrymen in private—that however unwilling to part with them, should rather hear of their comfort and happiness and welfare in a far country, than to see them poor and complaining in their native homes ; and whether they are to leave now, or a distant date, depends upon what may be done now to better their condition.

11472. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.—You have heard a number of statements made to-day. Have you anything in the way of criticism to mention?—I am not sure I could remember every statement so as to criticise it, and what I would have to say in regard to them is contained in that paper.

11473. We have received a number of written statements from other clergymen?
—Yes, I saw that; and I thought I would just jot down a few remarks.

11474. The Chairman.—As a general statement, would you state whether you think, in your personal experience, the moral and physical condition of the people is improving, or the contrary
—I think they partake in the general progress of the country, and that compared with the former state of the Highland tenantry, they are not as a rule worse off, excepting such years as this when there is destitution, or some particular cause for their not being so well off as they normally are.

11475. But you have heard a very general allegation to-day, and you will probably have seen it in the newspapers, that their condition is becoming worse in reference to the smallness of their holdings and the exhaustion of their soil ?
—Yes, that is true in many cases. I have no doubt that their holdings are very often too small, and that the land gets exhausted in consequence of their being obliged to turn it over every year.

11476. And looking back upon all you have seen and heard, is it your opinion now, upon reflection, that the policy of removal and consolidation has in past times been carried too far by the proprietors
—Yes; I have not the slightest doubt in giving an affirmative answer to that.

11477. And you would gladly see some change in the opposite direction.

11478. Do you think that that could be effected without doing violence to the rights of property and to existing interests?
—Well, that is a very difficult thing to say. No doubt many of the crofters require more lands, but those who require more lands are those who are least able to take larger crofts.

11479. Sheriff Nicolson.—Do you think that if a substantial effort were made to benefit the condition of some here, others would be more inclined to emigrate,—that being satisfied with the good intentions of the Government or the proprietor, they would be more inclined to leave their friends and go ?
—I think it would be very difficult to bring influence upon them to emigrate.

11480. We have had it often stated before us in Skye, that people did not like to go and leave their relatives, especially the older people, destitute and unprotected. But if they had more confidence in the future of their friends here, do you think they would be more inclined to seek their fortunes?
—I think that such is the good feeling between the Highland crofters and their children, that children would have less objection to emigrate, provided they thought they would have a chance of leaving their parents comfortable.

11481 What do you think with reference to the very imperfect house accommodation? Do you think it has any prejudicial effect upon health and morals
—I don't think it has very much. I think they are just as healthy and moral as people who are better housed.

11482. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.—Have you any farm of your own?
— Yes.

11483. Do you find on your farm you can raise good crops?
—Yes, excellent crops.

11484. Do you sow earlier than the crofters?

11485. I saw a man yesterday at Barra who said if he were to sow his ground with barley, it would be time enough in a fortnight, and that it actually would not do to sow it earlier, or they would get no straw ?
—I believe Barra is an earlier part of the country, and I believe if there was one year left lea it would not do to sow it very early; but of course, twenty days after this, I would consider out of the question altogether.

11486. But you sow earlier than the people cf the country and you get better crops ?

11487. Don't they follow your example, when they see you have better crops
—Well, they are very conservative in their way, and not apt to change their mode of tillage.

11488. Then how do you propose to induce them to adopt a better system of cultivation ?
—I have stated in that paper a few things which would be improvements. It has been often asked of a man
who is a good farmer, ' Why don't you sow earlier ?' 'I cannot sow earlier,' he says, until a certain time; the cattle and horses are not removed.'

11489. They would sew earlier if the ground were fenced ?—I believe some would sow earlier, and I believe when the rest saw that good example they would be apt to follow.

11490. And you think the want of grain of which they complain is due to the want of early sowing ?
—I believe so, to a very great extent.

11491. Are you a member of the parochial board ?

11492. And of the school board ?

11493. You have heard complaints that the parochial board do not publish their accounts ?
—That is so, but we had an auditing of the accounts every year, and if anybody wanted a sight of them we would give them the MS.

11494. Of course, in an island of this sort it is very difficult for people to travel a long way to see a manuscript?
—Yes, of course we did not circulate copies.

11495. Might it not be satisfactory to the rate-payers if you printed and circulated a few copies ?
—Yes, it would be an improvement, and I suppose we shall adopt it.

11496. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.—You said, in answer to the Chairman, that you did not think the poor dwellings had anything to do with morality or even health. On the ground of morality, I quite agree with you, but in regard to health, in the case of sickness, for instance, do you think they are proper places for a sick person to be in ?
—No, I don't think them so at all. I think in a case of sickness there ought to be some means of isolating the sick person from the other members of the family, which is not always easily done in the case of many of these huts.

11497. Mr Cameron.—What is the amount of the poor-rate?
—2s. 6d between landlord and tenant.

11498. And the school rate?
—8d. and 4d. each.

11499. Do you know what the road-rate is?

11500. Has the poor-rate been increasing or diminishing of late years?
—No, not very perceptibly; not to any great extent.

11501. Not diminishing or increasing?
—It has been much about the same thing for the last few years.

11502. Do you notice much evidence of money being expended on spot by the proprietor ?
—My understanding is that this property has been of very little use to the present proprietrix, that she was paying nearly the whole rent and laying it out in work, and that the returns from it to Lady Gordon Cathcart had been very trifling indeed.

11503. Do you consider that the money she so spent has been well laid out?
—Perhaps I am not a judge of that, but there have been roads and steamboat piers, and hotels such as this and the one in Barra, which are calculated to improve the property.

11504. Has any money been expended in any way directly for the benefit of the crofters ?
—Well, of course the crofters were employed at all those public works, and of course it was for their benefit that it should be so.

11505. I suppose this property would not have paid any other proprietor who had not other sources of income?
—I would pity the proprietor who had to do with this property under its present circumstances, that is to say,
if he was a poor proprietor, and I think it is very fortunate for the people that they have a rich proprietor, who, I believe, is very anxious to improve their condition.

11506. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.—Was this country not prosperous once?
—Well, what might be called prosperity, fifty or a hundred years ago.

11507. Going back a hundred or more than a hundred years ago, was it not prosperous then by all accounts?
—I believe the people were comfortable and contented.

11508. Did not Clanranald draw a lot of his men from here?
—Yes. We were not so celebrated as Skye for that, but we sent a lot of good soldiers.

11509. Are you aware the wealthiest and greatest proprietors in the county of Inverness two hundred years ago were the men of the west,—that Macleod, Macdonald, and Clanranald were the greatest men?
—Yes, we considered them so.

11510. Then their greatness must have consisted in rental, or the number of men they could bring into the field?
—Yes, especially the number of men.

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