North Uist, 30 May 1883 - John Macdonald

JOHN MACDONALD, Newton, Factor on the Estate of North Uist (56)—examined

12743. The Chairman.—Have you a farm ?

12744. Professor Mackinnon.—How long have you had charge of this property as factor
—Since Sir John Orde purchased it at Whitsunday 1855.

12745. That is twenty-eight years ago ?
—Yes, but I was only sub-factor at first.

12746. But you have been upon this property continuously since that time ?—I was born and brought up on the estate.

12747. You were born here ?
—Yes, on this side of the island.

12748. What is the total rent of the island?
—£4872, 16s. 10d.

12749. Do you think you would be able to say iu a rough way to what extent that rental is made up from large holdings, from crofters, and from cottars?
—To the best of my recollection, the crofters pay £1900 of the rent.

12750. Of course the rents of these crofters vary considerably among themselves ?

12751. How high do some of them go ?
—There are very few as high as £10.

12752. And some of them go as low as what ?
—£1 or 25s.

12753. Then there is a large number of cottars who don't pay any rent?

12754. Do they pay to the proprietor, or are they charged any rent ?
—They have been charged rent, aud a few of them pay, but not many.

12755. Does that rent cover any stock they may have?
—No; it is merely for the stance of the house, and for the privilege of fuel.

12756. You heard the complaint of the crofters to-day, that not merely were those cottars squatted there, but that they had some stock for which they paid nothing to them, which the crofters consider a hardship and a grievance. Is there any regulation upon the estate to prevent such a practice as that ?
—We do not tolerate it when we can prevent it, but it is the doing of the tenants themselves and not of the proprietor.

12757. Taking the small holdings upon the average, you have heard the statements of the people to-day, that while the rents were on the whole higher than they could have wished, still their chief complaint was not so much the rent as the smallness of the croft. From your well-known knowledge of what rents for crofts ought to be in such a place as this, do you consider the crofts upon this estate over-rented as compared with other estates more or less similar?
—I believe they are lower.

12758. You would agree in the main, however, with the statements of the crofters that it would be greatly to their advantage if their crofts were larger than they are ?
—Yes, it would be to the thrifty crofters.

12759. There was a very important statement made to us, and I should like to know in your experience whether those who are in arrear are chiefly from the smaller class of crofters or from those who have better
crofts and pay higher rents?
—They are principally from the smaller holdings.

12760. I suppose if it could be conveniently done you would be very glad to see the crofts of the thrifty crofters enlarged ?
—I would.

12761. Then in a township with enlarged crofts of that sort you would of course fence off the whole pasture from the arable ground ?

12762. Would you have the stock managed accordiug to the club system upon the hill pasture, or each one looking after his own ?
—The club system would answer better if they could winter their hoggs, but the custom on this island is to winter the hoggs in their houses, and the club system would not suit very well.

12763. Then, as to the arable ground, would you consider it an advantage that each separate croft should be fenced off if the crofts were a little larger than they are ?
—That would depend upon whose expense it was to be done at.

12764. Apart from that, would it be an advantage ?
—It would be an advantage to have a ring fence round each township.

12765. Would you not think it necessary that there should be a separate fence round the arable ground on each croft ?
—No doubt, every fence is au advantage.

12766. At present I suppose the arable ground is free to the stock of the whole place during the winter? —Yes.

12767. And in that way it is not so easy to put any portion of it under grass ?
—No. That is partly the reason why grass seeds are not sown by the crofters.

12768. That is the chief reason?

12769. But the great difficulty of putting up fences would be the expenses?

12770. I think it was stated upon your authority that there were two or three townships in which not only the whole of the pasture but the arable land was on the club system ?
—Yes, run-rig.

12771. It was stated as one advantage of that system that there was not the same tendency to overcrowding, but rather that the neighbours would prevent overcrowding if possible. Is there any disadvantage, however in the way of cultivation?
—There is no disadvantage in the way of cultivation ; but there is this disadvantage in the case of squatting, that if you wanted to turn out a squatter you would have to summon the whole tenants of the farm, because you don't know who owns the grouud on which he squats.

12772. As matter of fact, are those places that are cultivated in that way, where one has the ground for a year and his neighbour has it for another year, and so on, as weU cultivated as where every one has his own?
—I believe they are better.

12773. It is good for the lazy man, but is it good for the thrifty man ?
—Yes, the thrifty man carries the lazy man with him.

12774. Then you think it would be an advantage ?
—In a small township, but not in a large township. If you have only six you can get these pieces equally divided, but if you divide it among twenty you can hardly get them of equal value.

12775. And when the holdings are very small, you would consider it better the other way ?
—They are the most tidy we have on the estate.

12776. And part of that you attribute to the mode of cultivation ?
—Yes, I think so. There are various other causes, of course; the farms are moderately rented.

12777. Having been born and brought up on this estate, I suppose you had and always have had plenty opportunity of knowing not only about the condition of the people, but about their ways, habits, and mode of life. Do you agree generally with the statements they make themselves that they were more comfortably off before the potato disease than they are now ?
—I concur with Mr Macrae's statement.

12778. His statement was that they now live less substantially, but more extravagantly—and that perhaps there was more of rude comfort and less finery formerly
—There was not the facility which there is now of sending their produce away to market, which is a great inducement to send away things that were useful to them in those days. For instance, they could not send sheep away in those days. There was no steam communication.

12779. And you are quite certain that the crofting population of North Uist in those days actually ate more mutton than they do now
—Yes, that is my belief.

12780. Of course, there was more milk and less tea
—Less tea, no doubt.

12781. They were less finely clothed, but were they comfortably clothed in those days ?

12782. About as comfortably as now-a-days, but less expensively
—Yes, they were clothed in clothes of their own making.

12783. With respect to their general habits now and then, are the people as hearty and cheerful as they were then ?
—I am sure that I see no difference. Of course, this is not a cheerful year, but previous to this year I could see no difference.

12784. At gatherings and merry makings, is there as much singing and amusement as ever there was ?
—No, I do not suppose there is.

12785. Is there any special cause for that ?
—Well, the evidence which you have been taking in other places would bear the same way here.

12786. It was stated in some places that some of the clergy discouraged amusements of that sort ?
—I believe it is the case.

12787. Have you any local bards of note now ?
12788. Have you been a member of the school board since the introduction of the new Act ?—Yes

12789. And you were perfectly acquainted with the education of the people long before that ?

12790. I suppose there is no doubt that the common school education of the people of the place has improved very much within the last forty years ?
—Yes, very much improved indeed.

12791. And within the last ten years it has still more improved?
—Still more improved.

12792. I suppose, were it not for this voluntary school first kept up by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and now by the committee of the Free Church, at Boreray, you would feel almost bound to erect a school at Boreray ?
—Yes, I must confess it was an error of the school board that we mentioned another place instead of Boreray.

12793. There was a statement made by some of the people here with respect to teaching the children Gaelic. Has the school board any educational views on that question? Other things being equal, would they
consider that an advantage in the education of the children1?
—I do not think they would.

12794. The great object is to endeavour to get as much English as possible ?
—As much English as possible.

12795. And the belief of the board is that anything done in the way of teaching the children Gaelic rather stands in the way of teaching English ?
—Well, if the teacher had plenty of time it would not do the children any harm to be taught their native language.

12796. Is there any complaint of late years, and under the new system that clever boys are not able to make their way so well as they used to do, when perhaps the teacher gave them more time than he gave to the rest of the children of the school ?
—The teachers cannot devote as much time to technical subjects now as they could before, because when I
attended school there were no small children at all.

12797. And of course the big boys, especially if clever, got all the time

12798. And there was a large number of clever boys who went from Uist and made their way in the world? —Yes, a great many.

12799. Of course, you would consider that a great advantage to the general community as well as to Uist? —Of course it was.

12800. Do you think of late years the supply of good scholars who go away from the country has been kept up, or is it going back under the new system ?
—Under the new system they are not so far advanced, but we have as many clever boys who can earn bursaries.

12801. But they are not able to get the same amount of attention in school, because of the strain upon the teachers in supplying common school education to the whole people ?
—That is what I say.

12802. Would you consider it a very great advantage if both could be kept up ?

12803. Mr Cameron.—It was stated by a previous witness, and also referred to by Mr Macrae, that turnips were not sown here for fear of people stealing them. Have you had any experience of that, or do you share in the apprehension of that delegate ?
—Foolish boys may take a turnip, but the complaint of the crofters used to be that if I compelled every crofter in the township to sow turnips it would be an advantage, and then if anybody lost everybody would lose.

12804. Is it not the custom of the crofters to sow turnips?

12805. Very few of them do that ?
—Very few.

12806. But you would endeavour to encourage them to do so as much as possible?

12807. Do all the crofters on this estate have sheep more or less?
—I am not aware of any that have not sheep.

12808. What class of sheep are they ?
—Principally ewes.

12809. Of the blackfaced breed?

12810. Do they sell their wedder lambs?

12811 And keep there ewe lambs?

12812. Do they sell their slack ewes?
—Yes; they send them away, principally to Glasgow.

12813. How do they winter their young sheep?
—Most of their hoggs are wintered in the houses.

12814. Turnips then would be of considerable advantage to them in wintering those sheep if they grew a few? —Yes.

12815. Have there been any cases lately of sheep stealing in the island ?
—I cannot bring any case to my mind. There has not been a conviction for a great many years.

12816. You can corroborate the statement made by Mr Macrae that sheep stealing is of very rare occurrence?
—Very rare indeed.

12817. What hill pasture do the crofters of this estate possess?
—I cannot state it in acres, because I have only the Ordnance map on the 25 inch scale.

12818. Is it very considerable ?

12819. Does it lie adjacent to each township, or is there a great deal of it together in one patch ?
—They do not keep their stock separate. This island is a roundish island, and their common is very much in the middle part of the island, and the whole tenantry have liberty to send their sheep in there.

12820. Do the crofts surround this common hill?
—On the one side.

12821. Where is the hill grazing of the other crofters who are not on the side of the hill ?
—They extend all over the island from one end to the other.

12822. Is each hill grazing adjacent to the township whose sheep it pastures?
—Yes, I believe every tenant on the estate has grazing for twelve sheep.

12823. It has been stated that in former times the people did not require to buy food from the south, but now they do. Can you account for that at all ?
—I remember when there was none brought into the country—when there was no meal sold except the produce of the country. In a great measure, I think it is due to the change of the seasons—the winter or spring weather goes so far into summer and the autumn weather goes into the winter.

12824. Does it not possibly happen that it pays the people better to rear more cattle and sheep, and with the produce of these cattle and sheep to buy meal in the south, rather than to grow it in a climate like this ?
—It is principally grown now to provide fodder for cattle and horses, and they keep more cattle than they did in former times

12825. And you agree with what was said, that the price of cattle is very much above what it was in former times ?
—Very much indeed.

12826. Do you find it pays better to raise cattle, and with the produce of those cattle to buy meal in the south?
—Yes, that is the general practice in the island.

12827. In the observation you made on the subject of the climate, do you attribute the fact that less corn is grown more to the change in climate than to the exhaustion of the soil ?
—The produce is less.

12828. But we have heard a good deal about the soil being supposed to be exhausted by frequent cropping. Is that your belief and experience ?
—Well, I can hardly speak on that subject, because there are some here whose grandfathers have been cultivating a piece of ground, and their great-grandfathers, and still in a good season I do not see any difference on the crop.

12829. Is the arable ground of the crofters sufficently large to enable them to give part of their land a rest occasionally?
—On most of the farms it is.

12830. You said they did not give it that rest in the shape of taking turnips. Do they do so in the shape of  laying down grass for two or three years ?
—They do not lay down any grass seeds.

12831. Would that not be desirable ?
—Very desirable indeed.

12832. It would require more fencing?
—It would require a great deal more fencing

12833. Have you had any application on the part of the crofters that you should erect fences, and that they should pay interest ?
—Yes, there is one application iu the meantime.

12834. Is the proprietor inclined to favour such applications?
—He is.

12835. And you would be inclined to recommend that fences should be erected at the proprietor's expense, if the tenant would pay the interest on the cost?
—Well, they prefer building them themselves to paying interest.

12836. Will you state the amount of school rates, poor rates, and road money payable in this island? —School rate, 3s.; parochial, rate, 2s. 7d.; road money, 7d.—making a total of 6s. 2d., divisible between landlord and tenant

12837. I suppose those rates have increased very little of late?
—Yes, very little.

12838. You stated it was in contemplation to build a school on Boreray, and instead of that you built it on another island ?—Yes; it was a mistake on the part of the school board. They mentioned the one island instead of the other at the time of applying for the grant.

12839. Which island is it?

12840. Was there a ladies' school there?
—A Gaelic ladies' school.

12841. That was done away with?
—We have given them the use of the house, and they keep a teacher.

12842. How do you manage to keep a school in the island of Boreray? Was the teacher not withdrawn when the Education Act was passed ?
—They have not withdrawn that yet.

12843. It was stated by Mr Macdonald, the factor in South Uist, that he attributed the want of milk which the people experienced now to their keeping fewer cows, in consequence of keeping too many horses. Is it your experience that the people here keep too many horses ?
—When they exceed two horses they have too many, but they all require two horses. They have a long way to carry sea-weed, and again in spring they plough with a pair of ponies.

12844. Do they make much profit by selling young horses ?
—They do now.

12845. What do they get for a young colt?
—Prices are low at present. I have seen a year-old fetch £17.

12846. Is there a good supply of stallions in the country?
—Sir John used to supply us. He sent us three.

12847. I suppose there are none of the old Highland ponies?
—They are dying out fast. The last I got was a Welsh pony, which I took from the Duke of Sutherland.

12848. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.—What will the average crofter be able to sell off his croft in a year—say a man who is paying £ 5 ?
—The produce of his cattle, and if he keeps two mares instead of horses he must sell a colt every year.

12849. Of the value of £171
—No; at the present time I should say that for a year-old a good average price would bo between £7 and £8.

12850. Could he sell one young animal—a stirk?
—Any crofter having four cows ought to be able to sell two every year. Some have four stirks, others have none, in a year.

12851. But could an average croftor sell two in a year?
—Yes, I think he could.

12852. What would be the value of them ?
—Up to £7 each, the best of them—generally from £ 5 to £6.

12853. Then that is all he really could sell, because the corn produced is nothing at all ?
—In favourable seasons they could sell more—that is, in the next year after a favourable season, because all their cows are in calf; but a season like this puts them back very much indeed.

12854. You said something which I considsr very heterodox about Gaelic. You speak Gaelic yourself? —Yes.

12855. And have done so all your life?

12856. You read it?

12857. And write it ?
—I cannot say I can write it well

12858. You would not wish that you never had Gaelic?
—No, I would not.

12859. Then why is it that you discourage the teaching of it in schools, and therefore prevent Gaelic scholars from having that proper knowledge of the language which could be so easily given ?
—Without an additional staff of teachers, it could not be done. It would take up too muchof their time.

12860. It is only a question of expense ?
—It is only a question of expense.

12861. You would not go to the length of saying that Gaelic is of no importance in the Highlands ?
—I believe the importance is getting less every day.

12862. You have stated that in your younger days no meal was brought into the country. You know that? —Yes.

12863. And now a great deal is brought in ?

12864. How do you account for that? You have mentioned the weather, to some extent?
—The ground in some cases may be getting exhausted, but it is remarkable that ground which is not in grass produces the best crop of potatoes.

12865. Will you say it is not to some extent in consequence of a great deal of land which was once under cultivation being now out of cultivation and under permanent pasture ?
—I cannot say that, because all the holdings are of the same size as when I first remember. I myself am now obliged to give a six-course shift. I found that with a five-course shift the crops were not so good as they used to be, and I gave it up.

12866. For instance, in Sollas, you don't see so much land cultivated as there used to be ?
—Oh, no.

12867. Then would you not attribute the greater necessity there is now to bring meal from the south to the fact that a good deal of land, which was once under cultivation by crofters at some period or other, is now under sheep ?
—I cannot agree with that.

12868. How many acres do you suppose there are in North Uist that are under sheep and not crop?
—I cannot say. There are 75,000 acres in the whole island, but I cannot say how many are under sheep.

12869. Would there be 10,000 acres that were once under cultivation and are now out of cultivation, taking the most fertile parts of the north ?

12270. Not so much as that?
—No, because the cultivated part bears but a small proportion to the grazing part of the land.

12871. But still you say that in your younger days, when the people were as numerous as they are now, they did not import corn, and it must have been grown on the island ?
—But they have the same holdings that they had then, except the Loch Eport tenants. No grazing has been taken from them, and no part of their tillage land has been taken from them.

12872. Since when?
—Since 1855.

12873. But I am going back fifty years ago?
—I cannot speak of fifty years ago.

12874. I will put the question again. You said that when you were a young man there was no meal then imported into the island, and you have also stated that now a great deal of meal is imported into the island. Is it not one of the probable causes why meal is necessary to be imported into the country that a deal of land that in your younger days was turned over by the plough regularly is not now turned over by the plough ?
—I attribute it to the seasons having changed, and to the ground being in some places exhausted. I do not see the bearing of the question at all, because the people have the same quantity of land now that they had then.

12875. Is there at this moment over the whole of North Uist as much land turned over by the plough every year as there was fifty years ago
—No; since these clearances took place there could not be.

12876. How much was thrown out of cultivation by these clearances ?
— I cannot say in acres.

12877. But there is a great deal ?

12878. That being the case, surely if so many acres have been thrown out of cultivation, must it not follow that the produce of grain has decreased ?
—No, not from that cause. A crofter who was a crofter fifty years ago has the same holding to-day. There has been nothing taken from that croft. His father and grandfather had it at the same size. He had plenty of grain in the days you speak of. He has the same amount of land to-day, but he has not the grain.

12879. But I don't think we have found any man who is in the same spot and in the same circumstances as his father and grandfather ?
—There are a great many here.

12880. The Chairman.—Since you have been in the management'of this estate have there been any evictions except on account of non-payment of rent ?
—None at all. There has been no eviction in my time.

12881. Since the management came into your hands, has there been any diminution of the hill pasture of the small tenants ?
—Not one foot; more has been added to it.

12882. Has there been any increase of rent in reference to the small tenants ?
—Not one sixpence.

12883. Has there been any diminution of the same ?
—No. Of course, burdens have largely increased in that time.

12884. Could there be in many cases land added to the crofters' holdings, both arable and hill pasture, without destroying the large farms, but leaving, the large farms still of tolerable area ?
—Some of the farms of course might be reduced in size. There are only seventeen in the island paying above
£30 of rent.

12885. You told us what has taken place during the period of your management, but looking back on all you have read and heard about the management of this island, do you think on reflection that the system of
evictions and consolidation into large farms was in those days carried too far, and do you regret it now ?
—It may have been carried too far, but it was before my time.

12886. You have not formed any decided opinion about that ?

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