Barvas, Lewis, 6 June 1883 - Rev James Strachan

Rev. JAMES STRACHAN, Minister of the Parish of Barvas (56)—examined.

15282. The Chairman.
—How long have you been minister of this parish ?
—Within a month of twenty-five years.

15283. Were you a native of this country?

15284. Did you come here at the time you were appointed to this parish?
—I came to the Lewis first of all in 1845.

15285. Between the period of your first coming thirty-eight years ago and the period you were nominated minister here, what was your engagement or occupation?
—For the first two years I was private tutor in the family of the minister of Stornoway; for three years thereafter teacher of a parish school; and then for an interval of eight years I was not residing in the Lewis, but I came regularly every year to see my friends on the island.

15286. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—In what part of Lewis did you teach a school?
—In the parish of Lochs, on the other side.

15287. The Chairman.
—Do you wish to make any statement here on behalf of the crofters?
—I should not object to make a statement, but whether it shall prove to be on behalf of the crofters I leave the Commissioners to judge. I should regret very much to say anything either for or against them. I should like to make my statement with the utmost impartiality according to my knowledge.

15288. We leave that to your discretion and judgment. Of course, we wish to hear your unbiassed opinion
—Well I cannot say, of course, how far the statements made to-day by crofters are inconsistent with the truth, but I have no reason to doubt that on the whole they are so—that the truth has been told. I cannot vouch for the facts stated, but I have no reason to doubt the truthfulness of the witnesses who have come forward. I would say that, in my opinion, the crofts held by the people are generally too small for their support. The average rent of a croft in this parish is £3, and I calculate that although 500 per cent, of the rent was realised in the shape of profit by each tenant, it would not be sufficient to maintain his family in comfort. It would leave him only £12 per annum to live upon. Therefore, it is perfectly obvious that the lots are too small for the number occupying them. At the same time, it is my present opinion that the rent charged is by no means too large. The rent charged I consider to be very moderate indeed for the advantages enjoyed. Still that does not do away with the fact that the lots are on too small a scale; in fact, I may state here what I have often said before in private, that though the lands were enjoyed without rent at all, they would not be sufficient to support the number in occupation of them. That is my general statement with regard to the complaint of the tenants. How this state of matters arose it is not for me to say, because I cannot go far enough back in the history of this island. I have not been able to form anything even approaching to an opinion upon that point. Whether they were better off centuries ago than they are now I cannot say, but I may say that there are certain things done by the tenants themselves which I think have been operating for long very much to their disadvantage. It is consistent with my knowledge that the rules of the whole estate of the Lewis have been always against the practice of subdividing the lands, and I am not quite prepared to deny that the smallness of the tenures now occupied by the people must be traced to their own wilful and determined breach of the rules to which I have referred. Of that I am perfectly satisfied, and had there been no subdivision such as unfortunately has taken place to the extent that I think has already been told here, there would not have been such grounds of complaint. It is, I think, altogether unreasonable that out of 1100 households living in this parish, there should be only about 800 that are actually rent-payers. The other 300 or thereabouts are living virtually at the expense of the 800. I should also state, that whatever is charged as a rent,—I will now make a remark in favour of the people and, apparently at least, against the management on the part of the proprietor,—whatever is charged in the shape of rent, ought to be in my opinion bona fide rent as well as nominal, and I think it is a hardship that the five shillings in this parish and six shillings in one or two others, charged for road money, and supposed to be done away with as road money when the Roads and Bridge of Lewis District Act came into force, should still be continued and charged along with the ordinary rent when the people are taxed for roads, as I am myself, at so much per pound by Act of Parliament; and my humble opinion is, that since this tax came to be uplifted, the rate charged for roads, whether in the shape of money or labour, ought to have ceased. That is my distinct impression, and I sympathise with the people in mentioning that as one of their grievances. I have also to state that, in my opinion, both the school rates and the poor rates in this parish are not only excessive, not only exorbitant, but I would venture to use a very strong adjective—monstrous. The poor rates, I think, might be reduced very materially, if we had an inspector residing within the bounds of the parish, if possible in the centre of it ; and I consider that the Parochial Board have fallen into a great mistake in years past in employing as inspector a gentleman who does not reside within the bounds, and who not only resides at a distance from the parish, but has assumed to himself the burden of acting as inspector for another parish besides this one. The consequence is that those already on the roll are not properly attended to, and the new applications are not faithfully and properly considered. They cannot possibly be. As for the school rates, I am sorry to say that for the current year they are as high as 3s. 8d. Last year they were still higher,—I forget what they were,—but the year before that they were actually 6s. 8d. per pound—a most preposterous tax, —and yet I must say further in connection with this, that I have to blame the people themselves, not say merely in a great measure, but almost altogether, for the excessive rate they have to pay for the maintenance of the schools. They will not help their children in regular attendance. Were they to do so it is a matter of easy calculation to show that an assessment of something like one shilling per pound would be quite sufficient. The misfortune is that they have not been awakened to the moral obligation lying upon them to furnish their children with what every man around this table must consider to be as necessary for their moral good as food and raiment are for their physical good. They are not alive to that, and the consequence is that the rates are enormous, and when the School Board attempts to put the Education Act in force it is consistent with my knowledge that they incur a great deal of odium from the people, and are threatened with ejection on the occasion of next election. These are briefly the statements I would make, and I conclude upon the whole with the expression of my opinion that the holdings of the tenants of this parish are too confined, and that the smallness of them is traceable much, if not entirely, to the unfortunate subdivision that has taken place.

15289. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—Have you made any distinct calculation from which you draw the conclusion that the school rate might be reduced to one shilling per pound ?
—Yes, I have made a calculation very carefully. I take into the calculation not only the ordinary grants given by Government for passes, but also that most splendid grant commonly known in this part of Scotland as Lochiel's Clause,—the 7s. 6d. grant. It is always called Lochiel's Clause, and it seems to me to have been the very thing to suit a parish not able to maintain its own educational staff—the very thing to supplement the poverty of any parish. It is so framed as to meet the necessities of any case, however poor.

15290. Don't you draw the Lochiel grant at present?
—I am not a member of the Board now; but they ought to draw a considerable amount from the 7s. 6d grant, and they would draw a considerably larger amount if the schools were properly attended.

15291. What is that clause?
—It is to this effect—that there is a grant of 7s 6d. made for every scholar in average attendance, less the amount produced by a 3d. rate.

15292. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—It is limited to certain counties?
—Yes, the county of Ross is one to which the benefit is extended. There are 800 school-going children in round numbers in the parish, and were they to attend regularly I calculate they would realise something like 16s. per head by the ordinary grants, and if you add the 7s. 6d. grant to that, it is easy to see that there would be a sufficient amount of money supplied to keep the staff going, along with one shilling in the pound, which would amount to £150 additional.

15293. I suppose that the heaviness of the rates in Barvas is accounted for by this, that there are fewer large farm rents and fewer large shooting rents ?
—Yes ; a lower rent in general.

15294. And a larger population?
—A larger population. It is a singular fact that in proportion to the population, we have in this parish about the smallest if not the very smallest number of paupers in all the parishes of Scotland, and yet we pay about the highest rate.

15295. Do you think a resident inspector would be able to still further reduce the number of paupers ?
—I should think so.

15296. Although it is the smallest number that you know in proportion to its population ?
—The number might not only be reduced, but the whole management of the thing might be more economically conducted.

15297. With regard to the sizes of the holdings, do you see any way to increase the size of the holdings here ?
—No, I am sorry to say I do not.

15298. You have no remedy to suggest for the present state of things ?
—Not so long as the remedy is supposed to lie in the parish itself. I cannot suggest anything.

15299. But your remark points at some other remedy that suggests itself to you?
—Yes, I should just apply the remedy that is applied in every other case, with an extension of ground if possible. Let the superabundant population find employment elsewhere as they do in other parts. When my own family increases on my hands I do not keep them at home. I send them to Australia or New Zealand or any place where I can find a proper opening for them. I never think of over-crowding my own house with a super-abundant family.

15300. Have you observed, during the twenty-five years you have been resident in the parish, signs of increasing poverty among the people, keeping out this last year ?
—I am not prepared to say I have observed that their habits are different from what they used to be, but they are fonder now of buying things not produced at home than they used to be twenty-five years ago.

15301. But have they the power to produce these things at home?
—I cannot say I have observed any difference in that. I have often been advising them to use to a greater extent than they do their own home produce and not to be sending it to market, where they get perhaps very inferior and useless materials instead of the wholesome fish, milk, fowls, eggs, &c, which they can still produce at home.

15302. Are they in the habit of selling eggs and fish

15303. Dont they keep enough for their own home consumption ?
—Not so much as I think they ought to do, and not so much as they would require.

15304. Mr Cameron.
—Do you think that in former times the people used to live more upon the meal they produced at home than they do now ? Did they always buy meal ?
—They always bought more or less. I do not remember the time when, year after year, they were able to live on the produce of their own holdings.

15305. Do you think they grow less meal than they used to do ?
—I am not prepared to give an answer.

15306. Where do the people in this parish earn money to enable them to buy articles from the south ?
—In one district there is an extensive cod and ling fishing carried on; and a number of men also leave the country to go to the east coast herring fishing, and they realise more or less money from both sources.

15307. Do you think they realise more money from these sources than they did in former times ?
—Yes, they do.

15308. Do you think they realise more money from the sale of sheep and cattle than they did in former times ?
—Markets are very fluctuating. At the present time I believe the prices for cattle and wool and sheep are very much larger than they were twenty years ago. Even though the price of wool has fallen for the last three or four years it is still larger than it was before.

15309. I suppose the people sold very little wool?
—I don't think they sold much wool then.

15310. Would you say that the people are better off now than they were in the few years immediately following the great potato famine?
—No. I think not. This of course is an exceptional time. I think they were rather better off then than they are now. I mean, taking that as an exceptional time and this as an exceptional time, I think the destitution is more severe now than it was in 1847 and following years in consequence of the failure of the potatoes, because at that time there was no failure of the fishing as there was last year, and there was no destruction of crops.

15311. I was not speaking so much of one year as of the last few years. I would like you to compare the last few years with the period succeeding the great potato famine ?
—I should say they were better off within the last few years.

15312. What date would you fix as that at which the people enjoyed most material comfort and prosperity ?
—Well, I should say, for the last fifteen years markets have risen, and they have got better prices for their cattle and wool than they used to get.

15313. Have you any suggestion to make on the subject of the fishings in this neighbourhood, and the relations which subsist between the fishermen and the fish-curers ?
—So far as I have been able to ascertain the fish-curers pay the fishermen well and in my opinion the fishermen ought to be content with the prices they get for the fish caught.

15314. Do you know if they are paid in money or in kind?
—To very great extent in kind.

15315. Is the value of the meal property estimated and the value of the fish caught properly estimated, so as to be just and fair towards the fishermen ?
—Well, there is a complaint on the part of the fishermen that they buy dear meal and dear goods at the hands of the curers.

15316. Do they complain also that they sell cheap fish?
—No, I have not heard any complaint of that.

15317. The curers allow them sufficient for the fish but do not give them meal cheap enough ?
—Yes; that they lose by the transaction of being paid in kind.

15318. Have they ever made any representation to the curers to alter the system ?
—I am not aware they have.

15319. Do you think the curers would be willing to come to some arrangement by which they would pay them in money ?
—What I have heard fish-curers allege is that people were so deeply in their debt that they could scarcely afford to deal with them on any other terms than the truck or payment in kind system.

15320. Do you believe that statement to be correct?
—I am bound to believe it when men are unanimous in making the statement.

15321. Have you ever heard anything to the contrary from the fishermen?
—No, I have not heard anything to the contrary.

15322. But as a rule the fishermen complain of the system. They would prefer getting the money, and dealing with the fish-curer as with any other tradesman in the way of supplying them with meal ?
—I fancy so. There would be an open market for them to go where they chose with their money.

15323. You are a member of the Parochial Board ?

15324. Have you ever made any attempt to remedy the state of things you complain of ?
—Yes, I was in a minority of the board contending for a resident inspector instead of one living at Stornoway.

15325. Are the representatives of the crofters fairly distributed amongst the different townships of the parish in the parochial board ?
—They are.

15326. Do you ever have any contested elections?

15327. I suppose it is generally the most respected and well-to-do crofter who represents the crofter class ?
—Yes; I have never known any contest take place with regard to them. They elect one from the south end, another from the northwards of that, a third from the northwards of that again, and a fourth from the north end of the parish.

15328. Have you found these crofter representatives endeavour to reduce the cost of working in the Parochial Board ?
—Well, I am sorry to say that though I occupy the position of being chairman of that board and have been so for years back, I do not find them disposed to support my views of economy, especially in regard to the inspector, I find in fact that the Parochial Board, perhaps are more inclined to side with the chamberlain than with me; I mean that the crofter members of the board are always more inclined to side with the chamberlain than with me.

15329. Do you find that they are inclined to be more extravagant than the others ?
—They are by no means inclined to be extravagant.

15330. You do not find them to be anxious to burden the rates with paupers who may be relatives?
—Very rarely. Attempts of that kind have been made, but very rarely. The tendency is rather to keep down the rates

15331. The Chairman.
—Who is the inspector?
—Mr Hector Macleod Ross, residing at Stornoway.

15332. He is inspector for this parish ?
—Yes, and also for the parish of Lochs.

15333. Is he in the habit of coming here frequently ?
—Not frequently. I question if he comes of toner than he is obliged to do by statute.

15334. You mention that there were a very great number of children who did not come to school, but whose presence would conduce to relieve the rates; are many of those children kept away by distance ?
—No; they have no reason to be kept away by distance.

15335. Are they almost all within three miles of a public elementary school ?
—They are.

15336. Do you think that any of them are kept away for want of decent clothing ?
—Yes. In some cases I am sorry to say they are kept away on that account.

15337. You have borne testimony to the fact that the holdings are too small in area. You have also probably heard it alleged here or elsewhere that the productive capacities of the soil are much diminished by constant over-cropping ? Is that consistent with your experience and observation?
—I cannot say it is so far as I can judge. I have not seen any signs of that. I may make an exception to that in connection with potatoes. The potato failure last year has been a sort of unexplained mystery, and I have heard it attributed to the exhaustion of the soil, I do not concur, however, in that opinion. It may be so, but I cannot understand it. The other crops were sufficiently good.

15338. Would it be possible to extend the small holdings of the crofters in any degree at the expense of the large farmers either in the parish or on the border of the parish ? Do you think the congestion of people might be relieved in that way ?
—Unquestionably, and when I said that I saw no local remedy, I meant so long as the tacksmen have leases of their farms.

15339. In fact so long as there are tacksmen?
—So long as there are tacksmen.

15340. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—With reference to this matter about the inspector of poor, is there any person within this parish who is competent to fill that office ?
—Yes, more than one.

15341. There is no difficulty on that score?
—None whatever in my opinion.

15342. May I ask then what influence is it that prevents the people of Barvas from having an inspector of their own within their own parish ?
—The people of Barvas in their inner hearts and in their expression of opinion to me were dead against having a stranger to be inspector, but unfortunately ten or twelve years ago it was recommended by the Board of Supervision to the Parochial Board here to make the inspector of Barvas the inspector the Lochs and Uig. This recommendation was made by the Board of Supervision under the belief that the management of the three parishes would be more economical to each—that they would have to pay one inspector instead of three, and that the whole thing would be the better of being concentrated under the management of one man. But, instead of its having proved an economical arrangement, it has been the reverse. The inspector of Barvas, instead of deriving an income of £25 from the parish of Barvas, had it increased till it was £50. The same increase was made in Lochs and Uig. The poor came to be neglected; new applications for relief were hurriedly and slovenly looked at, and the rates increased from the day the inspectors took the management of another parish besides this. I for one remonstrated with the Board of Supervision for having made such a recommendation, and when a vacancy took place, two or three years ago, I repeated my remonstrance to the Board of Supervision and hoped they would not encourage what the people had so much reason to complain of. Of the candidates for the office I supported one belonging to the parish. The only other person nominated was Mr Ross, and he got the appointment by a majority of votes, though it was well known at the time that he was also inspector of the parish of Lochs. I dissented and protested to the Board of Supervision and the Board gave me the answer that they had no power to interfere, and the matter has remained in that state.

15343. How many members were present at the time this vote was taken?
—There were four elected members. The number of elected members in this parish is limited to four. Besides these, were five others, non-elected, present at that meeting.

15344. How did the vote go?
—I had two supporters.

15345. Did all the crofter interest go with the chamberlain?
—Yes, with the exception of one; I got one vote from a crofter.

15346. Then we may take it that the chamberlain's interest was thrown in favour of Mr Ross ?

15347. It was not in your time that the additional glebe was given?
—No. But it can scarcely be called an additional glebe. The minister of Barvas never had a properly designed glebe previous to the designation of what is now in possession of the minister.

15348. What is the extent of the glebe?
—I suppose it will be about 200 acres.

15349. Do you know who possessed that ground before it became a glebe ?
—The minister possessed it as a tacksman, with sub-tenants.

15350. Some of the Barvas crofters complain that thirty acres were taken from them. Do you know whether that was so or not ?
—There were sub-tenants under the minister on the ground now belonging to the glebe, and when the glebe was designed they were necessarily removed.

15351. And you have no knowledge whether they received any allowance or not for what was taken from them at the time?

15352. In regard to the attendance at the school, if there is a good attendance it has a tendency to diminish the rate in a populous place ?
—The amount of the rate, in fact, may be said to depend altogether on the attendance.

15353. And the large population in your parish, if properly regulated, should make the rate very low ?
—It should make our rate very low.

15354. You have been a long time in the Lews and know it very well. Don't you think there is enough of land on the island for all the people now in Lews if they got increased holdings? There are said to be 450,000 acres and 25,000 people ?
—I am not prepared to give an answer to that question, inasmuch as I am not a professional in the matter. I should be prepared to doubt whether there is enough, looking at the general quality of the land.

15355. How much of your own land is arable; how much do you cultivate ?
—I cultivate nothing but potatoes, and also a few turnips.

15356. Is there not a good deal of it susceptible of being turned over and cropped year by year?
—Yes, there is a good deal of it so. I may mention that I do not cultivate the glebe myself. It is occupied by a tenant, and he rather goes in for sheep farming than cropping, and he raises no crop but turnips for sheep.

15357. In point of fact, is there not a good deal of what was once arable land within the parish, but now uncultivated ?
—Yes. There is a good deal of superior ground as ground goes here.

15358. You have stated that to the best of your belief the circumstances of the people have not deteriorated very much of late years, except this last year. Now if they are all very anxious to get land, do you think several of them would be able to stock increased holdings ?
—Yes; those of them who are better off than the rest. A number of them are much better off than the rest. Some of them keep more stock than the strict summing which the crofts allow, and a number of them would be able to stock much larger holdings than they at present possess.

15359. You have, no doubt, in travelling about, been in the habit of seeing the kind of stock that the crofters and small people have. If they really had more grass and better feeding, would their stock be a very fair stock. Their cattle especially?
—Their cattle turn out very well; I find it so.

15360. And from your own knowledge dont you think they have a very fair breed ?
—The breed is very fine as to quality, but small as to size

15361. Do you think a crofter who got a larger holding and was industrious could raise in a smaller degree stock that might even compare with some of the big farmers in the market ?
—Yes, in proportion to the size.

15362. There is nothing to prevent them doing so ?
—I think not.

15363. With reference to the matter about roads, was the labour or payment of five shillings exclusively for roads or for other works as part of the rent?
—It always went under the name of road money. I never knew it to be for any other purpose.

15364. Of course in old times there was such a thing as statute labour, and a man was bound to work or pay a certain sum?

15365. Now you are under an Act of Parliament, and an assessment is levied for roads ?

15366. And what you complain of is that this old converted statute labour money is still kept up in the name of rent, while a rate is levied per pound for the roads under the Act ?
—I have no title to mention it under the name of complaint, because it does not affect me, but I mention it as a matter I do not exactly approve of, in consequence of its not being fairly and squarely rent from the first.

15367. Do you find the people altogether in your parish a peaceable, well-behaved class ?
—Remarkably so.

15368. And under very trying circumstances particularly this last year ?
—Under very trying circumstances,—peaceable, temperate, and, in fact, singularly free from all the more open vices.

15369. The Chairman.
—Do you find the people humane and charitable to each other in circumstances of distress ?
—Very much so indeed.

15370. And no offences against property?
—No, nothing to speak of. Of course there have been instances in which the police have had to interfere and report to the fiscal, but they are comparatively few considering the population.

15371. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Do you find any strong objection on the part of the people here to any proposal that they should relieve the overcrowding by voluntary emigration ?
—I have known individuals object to it, and I have known individuals highly approve of it and avail themselves of the opportunity of emigrating, especially when they got assisted passages. I am not prepared to say that there is a general feeling against emigration

15372. Do you think there has been any influence used from outside to persuade them not to think of emigrating until this great land question is settled?
—I am quite aware they have been advised to that effect.

15373. Recently ?

15374. Do you think that if they were left to themselves they would have no deep-rooted objection such as has been expressed to us in one or two places ?
—I have not found the objection to be so stubborn if the people were convinced they had good prospects on arriving at their destination, and provided also that a number went together, especially if it could be contrived that families and not individuals should be selected for assisted passages.

15375. There was emigration in Sir James Matheson's time ?

15376. Were the results satisfactory ?
—So far as I have heard, they were generally satisfactory.

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