Keose, Lewis, 12 June 1883 - Roderick Ross

RODERICK ROSS, Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Edinburgh (42)—examined.

17704. The Chairman.
—You are medical officer of the parish of Lochs ?

17705. How long have you been there ?
—Eight years next September.

17706. You are a native of the Lewis ?
—Yes, born in this township of Keose.

17707. You have heard what has been going on to-day, and you know the object of this Commission ?
17708. Can you make any statement which will assist the Commission ?
—I beg to submit a short statement as to my opinion of the condition of the people generally, and then I would state some disabilities which I think they are labouring under, and point out a few of the remedies that would be suitable to meet these. It is entirely my own opinion I give on any matter, and I am responsible for it. In any investigation into the condition of the population of the Highlands and Islands, the first point that has to be noted is that the people are in a state of transition as regards their habits, their education, and language. The people of the Long Island especially are in this condition. This should account for and explain many peculiarities and apparent deficiencies in the case of the people. It should also be an excuse for many shortcomings, whereas it is frequently made the occasion of bitter sarcasm and animadversion by journalists and others who pretend to enlighten the public, not with the truth, but with the hasty and imperfect impressions which superficial information convey. That a people be primitive and in a certain sense behind the age as regards their habits, customs, dwellings, and language, is certainly no excuse for despising and denouncing them, and even for disdainfully disowning them as if they belonged to an inferior and unimprovable race. Do the proud lords and ladies of England disown their relationship with their rude forefathers, because they lived in rooms and houses compared with which the present Lewisman's house is infinitely superior ? Are they not proud to be named after the Saxon braves who actually littered their dwellings and sitting rooms in exactly the same fashion that a Lewisman litters his byre, laying on a fresh layer of straw each morning, and never think of removing the accumulation on account of its odours or its unsightliness, but only when it becomes inconvenient by its encroachment on the owner's space? In short, it is no reason for despising and abusing the poor inhabitants of these islands that they are somewhat primitive and simple in their ways and surroundings; it is rather a reason to sympathise with them and help them to improve their condition. In some things they are not behind, but even far ahead of the age. In the new Statistical Account of Scotland we find the Rev. Messrs M'Rae of Barvas and Finlayson of Lochs, men who were not natives, and so could not be suspected of partiality, and men whose power of observation and veracity could not be gainsaid, testify of the people of Lewis as follows :
—They are remarkable for sobriety and hospitality in their own sphere—possess vivacity of intellect, acuteness, and sagacity, and are tainted with few vices except what poverty in similar circumstances begets. They are generally tolerably well versed in the Scriptures, and afford several examples of uprightness and piety. In their domestic economy they are frugal and moderate beyond conception; their simple cottages are abodes of happiness and contentment.
Of the people of this parish it is said
—They are sober, intelligent, quiet, tractable, and very hospitable, sensible of their ignorance, and eager to be instructed in temporal as well as in spiritual matters, and their good behaviour is such as might put many individuals more favoured than they are to the blush.'
These statements were made about half a century ago, and an intimate and life-long acquaintance with the people enables me not only to repeat such evidence without any qualification, but to emphasise it as being equally true of the people at the present time. Indeed, there is abundance of evidence that they are
Lowlander's knees bend under him. And besides they don't do it as a matter of hardship—they do it, as a rule, with a smile on their faces, or are very ready to it at least, and for fear of being accused of indolence by such snobs as the men we know, while carrying such burdens they at the same time ply their knitting wires as vigorously as if sitting on an ottoman. Well, it would be strange if such women were the mothers of lazy sons. So strange would the phenomenon be, that any person who could prove its reality deserves a high place among our modern discoverers. It ought to immortalise the Scotsman or ' any other man' were he to prove such an anomaly—such a freak of nature. Of course, we all know that an irresponsible correspondent, nay, a prejudiced scribbler, can assert any nonsense that may please himself. Would that those fellows had even one day of the poor crofter's spring work, or one day or night of our fisherman's toil and dangers on our stormy shores I We would afterwards hear less of such nonsense. There were factors and others in Lewis who thought that they could get nothing out of Lewismeu, and so they imported shepherds, drain-workers, ploughmen, and all sorts, to show how they could work. Well, what was the result? We had men here who could smear ten head of sheep a day, and who could fleece as many more
above the best shepherd that could be imported. In drain-making we could find men who would take the heels of the readiest mattock worker if coming behind him. And as long as prizes were given for ploughing, we had a Lewisman who would beat the best of them. Now that these people are hardly used, and at times sorely pressed, cannot be concealed, and any means which could be devised to improve their condition would be welcomed as a great boon by themselves, and ought to be sought out and applied immediately by the Government of the country. I will now state the grievances of the people. The first is the overcrowding and subdivision of lots. In explanation of this, I may be allowed to say that this is the result of the natural growth of the population, and also the natural reluctance to remove from home, particularly in the case of an uneducated people who cannot talk English, and who do not like to go abroad that way, and also I must say that it has been partly due to the indulgence and kind-heartedness of our lady proprietor. Now the remedy I would propose for that overcrowding, is to relieve the pressure by enlarging the holdings to from five to ten acres of arable land, with leave to cultivate behind the townships, handing over the most suitable of the present sheep farms to crofters, erecting fishing villages, and offering facilities for emigration to any families anxious to emigrate. In connection with this, my plan would be that each crofter should have from five to ten acres to cultivate, and that certain sheep farms, when their leases expire, such as Park, in which there has been a splendid opportunity for relieving the congestion of population in this parish,—the low-lying part which does not interfere with the real forest,—should be given to these people, and I think that Lady Matheson has lost a splendid opportunity of doing good to her tenantry, and of doing her own family a credit, by refusing to let these poor men have it, and giving it to small tacksmen. Now, I would in such a case as this, be inclined to erect some pure fishing villages,—for instance at Ness, on the Carloway side, and in Lochs, and I would not have these to be crofters at all; I would give them just an acre to cultivate, and let them follow the fishing wherever it is to be found. I would strictly enforce the avoidance of subdividing any of these crofts.
The second grievance is defective laws and management. This is certainly a grievance as regards the Highlands, and as regards this island in particular. There is a complaint of the uncertainty of the tenure of the crofters' possessions, and no doubt there have been cases of capricious removal. I know myself,—if I were allowed to enter into particulars,—I know the case of one man who at the last letting, about thirty years ago, got a piece of moss land, and cultivated and trenched it, and he was rewarded on account of his exertion by receiving a prize from Sir James. He was brought with some others to the castle of Stornoway, and was there treated to his dinner, and got some prizes in money, and in clothing as well. In the course of a few years his neighbours got envious of the good crop he was raising, and were making complaints about him. Unfortunately, these complaints were listened to, and the result was that the man was summoned out of his holding; and, to make a long story short, before the system of persecution ended, this man got five summonses, and his family and he had to pay 30s. for each summons he got, and besides that his rent was raised and part of his original croft taken off. That is a case that occurred in my own neighbourhood. I know other cases in which, in the case of outgoing tenants, the incoming tenants had, and were glad to pay the arrears of their predecessor. I know one case where it was £8, another £10, another £12, and another where it was as high as £16. These things, I am happy to say, did not happen since Mr Mackay became factor; but that they should happen under any factor in this nineteenth century is a disgrace not only to our laws but to our country. Of course, the remedy for these things is to give leases to the people, to be granted on favourable conditions, for twenty years, with a break at the tenth year, compensation to be insured, security to the sitting tenant against capricious removal at the termination of his lease, disputes to be submitted to arbitration or a special court, land to be valued by competent parties, and its rent fixed and revised by them.
The third grievance is the defective harbour accommodation and defective traffic facilities. It is abundantly evident that in Lewis we have much need of harbours to accommodate our fishing boats, particularly on the more exposed parts of the coast, but not in this parish fortunately; and another thing we should have is roads to be constructed between these harbours and these towns, if possible to lay down a track or a tram road, so that the fish could be taken fresh to town and forwarded to the market; and I think this is a thing that Government ought to do,—that is, to take an interest in the erection of these harbours and in the construction of roads between these harbours and the town.
The fourth grievance is destructive fishing—fishing herring on this coast when the herring are in an immature condition, and when they are spawning. This has done a great deal of damage to this parish. I remember seven years ago one township in which there were six herring fishing stations, and now there is not a single fishing station in that village. The fishing is quite destroyed, and I have no doubt it is entirely owing to fishing at improper seasons. I would apply the same remedy to that which has been already applied to the protection of wild birds, and also to the protection of salmon and other fish out of condition at spawning season. The remedy is a close time, preventing the leaving of herring nets in the sea during daylight, and fishing while the fish are out of condition. The fifth thing I would mention as a grievance, is the unsuitable militia headquarters. I would appeal to the Lord-Lieutenant of our county to look into this. We have a large number of our young lads, members of the militia, and they go to Fort-George to be drilled. They leave Stornoway by steamer, and proceed by rail from Strome Ferry, and unfortunately they behave very badly. These are young lads mostly from seventeen to eighteen years of age, and when they go away they think the proper thing is to have a spree, and behave as riotously and badly as possible. Worse than that, at Fort-George they come in contact, not with young lads like themselves, but with a great many of the lowest characters about the town, and from these they learn habits and vices which cling to them all their lives, and have been instrumental, not only in ruining the health of many of them, but in leading them into habits that they never get clear of. We were in the same position with regard to our own reserve men some years ago. They used to drill at Greenock, and the scenes witnessed in connection with the travelling of these reserve men became at last a public nuisance, and threatened to be very injurious. Now we have our reserve men drilled at Stornoway, and their order and behaviour there are remarkable. A very large number of them join the Temperance Society, and they behave very well; and we know, if our militia men were drilled in this country, they would get to be a splendid regiment of Long Islanders, and we know that  they would behave better, and that they would not learn a great amount of the vices that they learn at Fort-George. Another grievance and complaint in connection with this, as I may state from my own experience, is that there is not a year since I became medical officer of this parish, but these militia men have imported some epidemic disease into the place, necessitating, in several cases, the closing of our schools, and putting the ratepayers to considerable loss, besides causing the death of a great many children. Last year they brought two epidemics into Lewis—measles and scarlatina. Another grievance is our crushing taxation. The taxation here is simply crushing. When it comes to be a matter of about one-fourth of our rental for taxation, every body knows that must press hardly upon the people, Our poor rates last year were 3s. 10d. in the pound, our school rates 4s. 2d., and road money Is.—that is, 9s., half payable by tenants and half by occupiers.
There is one grievance we have in connection with our schools, and that is that we were compelled to build a large number of schools in this parish—about twelve, I think—and that we were compelled to build them in a certain fashion, which entailed a great deal of expense, and entailed upon us heavy debt. Our School Board pays over £300 a year in interest on the loans we had to borrow to erect these schools, and that is a tremendous burden on our ratepayers, and a burden that will continue, and what we would ask our members of Parliament, and particularly Lochiel, who had a clause with his name added to the Educational Bill, is that they would endeavour to get another clause, and that Government should relieve us of this annual debt; that is, what we pay for the loans, and for the interest on the loans. Another thing I would like to see is the abolition of the Poor Laws in this part of the world. They are quite unnecessary in such a place as Lewis. They involve the people in debt; and though I happen to be an official connected with the Parochial Board, still I would approve of their being abolished. The people are very heavily taxed to keep up their poor, and the poor only get a small share of it. Another thing I would mention is this, that there is among us a deep and growing spirit of uneasiness, discontentment, and fretfulness, owing to the way things are managed among us. There are several causes for this. I cannot but observe it. I take nothing to do with it personally. I wish to abstain from it, and discourage it as far as possible, but I cannot close my eyes to its existence, and I have no doubt it is a thing that will continue increasing till there is some remedy provided, and it is a thing I would seriously ask proprietors and our legislators not to delay in grappling with, for if the people don't get more consideration than they have got hitherto, there cannot be any doubt that worse will come of it. It has been asked here to-day why don't the people claim their share of the money in the island as they claim their share of the land of the island. The answer is simple and easy; they have not an equal right to the one that they have to the other. It may be inquired, who got the land? Was it the people or the proprietors that got the land 1 And with regard to the Lewis, it may be asked especially how did the Mackenzies of Seaforth acquire their right to the Lewis? That is a point which ought to be investigated, which will be investigated, and which in the agitation that is going on is sure to come up. We know very well how they got the Lewis. We know they got it by a process that cannot bear investigation, and cannot bear daylight; and we know the right they got to the Lewis is certainly more questionable than the right the Lewismen have to their share of it.

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