Obe, Harris, 31 May 1883 - Malcolm Mcleod

MALCOLM M'LEOD, Cottar, Bernera (42)—examined

13114. The Chairman.
—Have you been freely elected a delegate by the people of Bernera ?
—Yes, both by crofters and cottars.

13115. How many were present when you were elected?
—Most of the people of the island were there, and there were seventy-two present when I read this paper which I now present to the Commissioners.

13116. Was it written by yourself?
—Yes. The first paper is on behalf of the crofters.
[The following is a translation.]

A Plea from the Island of Bernera, to be laid before the Right Honourable the Royal Commission.
—We consider it a great privilege to have the opportunity of pleading for our rights before the noblemen and gentlemen who have undertaken to inquire into the condition of the poor in the Highlands and Western Isles. But every history has its preface, and my preface is that I would not feel at liberty to say anything unless I disregarded the fear of those in authority over us. For if I tell the truth, I shall risk their displeasure; and if I do not, my conscience will condemn me and the people will stone me. Now I must go back to the past. In bygone times the people had the land cheap, and they were enabled to pay their rents by the manufacture of kelp from sea-ware, for which they got £2, 10s. to £ 3 per ton. In my grandfather's days they had islands for grazing their stock upon, as in many places to this day the people have outlying pastures for this purpose. Now it is the poverty of our day that sets us to inquire what is the cause of this, and whether we can find any remedy for it. In those times they had pasture for their stock, and the soil yielded better crops than now. Now we were first of all deprived of the island of Hermadra, which was given to Mr Roderick M'Gillivray for pasture ground. When he was removed from the north side of Bernera to a piece of ground too small to graze his stock, the factor, Mr Stewart, asked that this island should be given to him on the term day, and we did not get it restored to us to this day. The factor Macdonald kept it in his own hands during his lifetime and since then the Earl of Dunmore has it. They also reduced the price of kelp to £2, 2s. per ton. When Duncan Shaw, who was factor at the time, saw this he resigned his office and Macdonald succeeded. Shortly thereafter he ceased the manufacture of kelp altogether; and when the people were unable to obtain work, they fell in arrear of rent. The factor gathered together the cattle of the two townships Borv and Rusgary. and deprived the people of the best portion of their stock in lieu of rent. following thereupon, he deprived them of a good island they had, Sousay, for peats and pasture. He asked for this island only for a month or two; but he retained it till the day of his death, subletting it to any person he pleased. We were forced to rent from him another islaud for peats, for which we pay £12. This island belonged to Borv in my father's boyhood ; but it was taken from them to accommodate some of the tenants of Pabbay when it was cleared. Afterwards these went away to Australia, and the island was restored to us, but rent was charged for it. But the substance of what I said and mean to say, is to inquire how we at the one end of this small island can be raised out of our impoverished condition, and the remedy which I would propose is:

(1) To restore to us these islands, and to return the rent which we paid for them since they were taken from us.
(2) To reduce the rent to the figure at which it stood in my grandfather's time. The kelp was the cause of the rent being nearly doubled since my grandfather's days, and now the kelp has ceased, but no abatement was made in the rent. Now our holdings are so small and bad that we cannot live upon them. We crop them continuously. They are not sufficiently large to allow for a portion being left,untilled and giving it rest, as is necessary. Other portions of our holdings are so rocky that we must curry soil on our backs before we can sow seed in it, and after all our exertions there are twenty crofters in the island who have not ground corn for a twelve-month back. The produce of our crofts could not maintain our family six months—in many cases not four months. We have to get our meal from Glasgow; and with every endeavour to our rents we are unable to do so, we have to buy so much food, for our coru and stock cannot maintain us. If it were not for the manufacture of home tweeds by the women, we could not live at all.
 (3) We ask for larger holdings. There is plenty of land on every side of us in the hands of big folk. We think if it was given to us, we would have no cause of complaint.
(4) We wish further to be informed why we are taxed so heavily in addition to our rents. My father Roderick Macleod pays £7, 10s. of rent, and he pays taxes — without reason why—5s. for a doctor, in addition to poor and school rates. For the last four years we have paid 10s. per annum for road money, though we have no road. We are of opinion that we still pay for the old Harris packet, though we are ourselves without post or packet, unless we provide one and pay for it.

I shall now give a short account of the island as a whole.

(1) It is about 3 miles long by 2 broad. A native of Uist who lives in Uist rents much more than the half of it. On our portion of it there are sixty-five families. Of these thirty-five are cottars, without a foot of land
(2) The grouud officer at the factor's order has reported on the amount of stock in the island. We were annoyed at this, for very many of the people have some of their stock pledged for meal—some who have got meal from Glasgow on credit till the market day, others who got an advance from the bank till the same time, upon the security of a man having a deposit in the bank, and who relieves many in this way—in this way our stock is not our own, but a great part of it belongs really to others
(3) The reason why so many cottars are in this part of the island. When the crofters were removed from the other portion of it, some of them came to this end. Again when the families grow up, and marry, and have families, they have no room on their father's land to make a livelihood, and so they must seek for their maintenance on the sea, many of them at lobster fishing—a work of danger on our rocky and stormy shore.
(4) In the last place, I have to say that we do not blame our proprietor for what we have endured and still endure. We blame the factors and the bad managers whom they employed. Our proprietor granted all our requests but one and he promised to grant this, our last request to him also.

The following is the statement on behalf of the cottars :
—The Grievances of the Cottars of Bernera.
I must now fulfil my promise to the cottars of Bernera, and lay their case before the Right Honourable the Commission. We are in Bernera forty-eight families, who have not as much as a turf of land to maintain ourselves and our families. Many of us formerly had land, and this makes us feel the want of it more now. Our land was taken from us, and every head of sheep and cattle which we possessed, and no crofter on the other end of the island was allowed to give us a foot of land to till. We began to fish lobsters to maintain our families, and at once the factor Macdonald sent the ground officer to stop us, he being angry with us because we were not going to Australia. Some of us then came to this end of the island, where we now are, along with the crofters and others, still in Borv. I am ashamed to tell you the manner in which some of the people lived at that time. They lived on shell-fish—limpets. Those who had boats went out to the rocks once or twice a day when the ebb occurred at fore-noon and evening. All this occurred because of the clearings of Borv to give it to William M'Neill. Mr John Macdonald, Newton, Uist, rents the place now ; and were it not for his liberality in giving us ground, we would have nothing at all, for there are thirty cottars of us getting benefit from his land and fourteen of the crofters from the other end of the island. And although he is as kind to us as any whom we have ever known, we are tired of asking him continually. We fish lobsters summer and winter, and still we are unable to provide ourselves with food and clothing. From want of nets, we cannot go to fish herrings, though the lochs on either side of us were full of them. Every year we think we can fish out of the Atlantic what will buy nets for us, but because we have our wage3 pledged for food before the fishing begins, we must deny
ourselves many things in order to keep up our credit. In order to deliver us out of this womb of poverty in which we are enclosed, we beg of your honours to assist us in getting the land, of which there is plenty in the island, restored to us ; for it is unseemly that the big sheep should die eating the fatness of the land at one side, and we banished from our fathers' land which ought to be ours, and forced to brave the dangers of the sea in order to obtain food ; and if we had Borv at its present rent, when we occupied it, I believe we were still there, unless we would be removed for debt. Now of the cottars living in both ends of the island, twenty-six could take up land if they had it as the rent the present tenant pays for it, if once they get stock on it ; and we are of opinion that if we had it at its present rent that no one would hear us complain.'

13117. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh
—When was Borv taken from you?
—About thirty years ago.

13118. Was the other half of the island, which was occupied by a gentleman from Uist, always of that size, or was the whole island at one time divided among the crofters ?
—The whoie island of Bernera was formerly divided among the crofters. Uisgary is the north and Borv the south end of Bernera.

13119. Who was it that took it from you?
—Factor Macdonald,

13120. What did he do with it at the time ?
—He gave it to Mr William M'Neill.

13121. Were your rents reduced at the time this was done?
—There was no reduction of the rents of the people at this end of the island.

13122. Did they lose any pasturage or anything else at the time that was done ?
—Two years before that the factor collected all the cattle of the island, and took them to pay their arrears of rent.

13123. Are the people complaining now of anything that was done thirty-five years ago except that some people on the north end of the island were crowded in upon them
—Fifty-seven years ago the island of Hermitray was taken from them where they had pasture, and thirty-five years ago the island of Susay was taken away from them.

13124. Did they get any reduction at the time these islands were taken from them ?
—There was no reduction of the rent when these islands were taken from them.

13125. Are we to understand that, besides getting these two islands back, the people are so numerous that they would be the better of having the whole island?
—Yes, they desire that the whole island should be given to themselves to be distributed among crofters and cottars.

13126. Do you know what rent is paid for the other half of the island by the one gentleman? Do you know that it is £140?
—It was £120 before, and the tenant gives £20 more now.

13127. Are you able to pay that rent if you got the offer ?
—I could not say till I would see it paid, but I think they could.

13128. Are you yourself prepared to take an additional piece ?
—Yes, if I could get it. I would rather have a thing myself than let another man have it, but if I did not get that myself there is no man I would rather
see have it than the man who has it at present

13129. Did you compose this paper entirely? Is it your own composition ?
—The composition is all my own, but I noted down and made a scroll at first of the substance of what the others told me.

13130. And it is solely and entirely the production of the people of Bernera, without any outside assistance of any kind, minister or otherwise ?
—There was no assistance given by anybody outside the island.

13131. Where did you learn to write Gaelic ?
—At home. I never learnt it at school.

13132. Are there many upon the island who can write Gaelic
—Yes, there are.

13133. Are there some who can write English ?

13134. Did you feel more at home in writing it in Gaelic than in English ?
—I felt more sure in writing Gaelic that I would not put down anything I could not stand to.

13135. Have you a school in the island ?

13136. A board school?
—A board school.

13137. Has the teacher got Gaelic?

13138. How many people attend upon the average?
—I don't know how many attend that school, but in the Sunday school there are ninetyseven attending.

13139. Is the Bible in Gaelic regularly taught ?

13140. Can most of the rising generation read the Gaelic Bible ?
—Yes, most of the children can read the Bible in Gaelic.

13141. The Chairman.
—How many families are altogether upon the island, crofters aud cottars, not counting the farmers' servants?
—There are forty-seven cottars.

13142. How many crofters altogether?
—There are twenty tenants, as they may be called, and ten with half lots. The population of the island is 454, having increased during the last ten years by seventy-two. These include the whole cottars on the island, and of these some are on Mr Macdonald's part.

13143. Which is the half that belongs to the crofters ?
—There are about thirteen cottars on Mr Macdonald's farm besides his own servants.

13144. Which is the larger half of the island—Borv, or your own end—the tacksman's grounds or the cottars' grounds?
—Mr Macdonald's is the larger half.

13145. Which is the better soil?
—His end of the island is the better to-day whatever.

13146. Is the soil cultivated by the crofters much exhausted?
—Yes, it has grown so weak that it gives bad crops.

13147. When does the tack of the farmer expire for Borv?
—I don't know.

13148. Have you ever asked the proprietor when the tack expires to give you back the other end of the island ?
—No. We were suffering many things, and we were willing to suffer in case we should lose the more by what we would get.

13149. You say Mr Macdonald was giving you labour. What kind of work do you do for him ?
—Whatever work is to be done on the farm.

13150. What wages do you receive—an able bodied man or a woman ?
—The payment is regulated by the grieve, and I am not very sure what it comes to; but it U3ed to be ground for a barrel of potatoes for four days' work.

13151. It is not paid for in money ; is it paid for in land ?
—The payment is never in money. In former days it was one day's work for a barrel of potato ground.

13152. Was the farm of Borv given to the present Mr M'Donald or his predecessor?
—Mr William M'Neill had it.

13153. But when M'Neill lost it, was it given to the present Mr Macdonald ?
—It was given to this Mr Macdonald on Mr M'Neill's death.

13154. How long ago is that ?
—I am not sure.

13155. Who is your proprietor ?
—Lord Dunmore.

13156. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—What kind of stock has Mr Macdonald upon his half ? Is it sheep or cattle, or does he crop it; and if he crops it, how much?
—Both cattle and sheep.

13157. Does he farm also?
—There is not much of it under crop this year.

13158. Is there a fence between the crofters and Mr Macdonald?
—There is a stone dyke on the east side ; on the other side is macher land, where the sand is constantly drifting up and down, and a fence could not be erected.

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