Obe, Harris, 31 May 1883 - Rev Alexander Davidson

Rev. ALEXANDER DAVIDSON, Free Church Minister, Harris (70)—examined.
12992. The Chairman.
—Will you kindly make your statement to us?
—The crofters and cottars of South Harris of this generation have no charge of oppression or injustice to bring against their proprietor or his officials. The proprietor—the Earl of Dunmore—seeks in every competent way to promote the welfare of his people, and the Dowager Countess of Dunmore is greatly esteemed in Harris for her long-continued endeavours to advance the social comfort of the people. Some painful evictions there may have been, whose sting rankles in the bosom of a few survivors to this day; and there were also frequent removals, which were most detrimental to the subject in loss of time and substance. The discontinuance of the kelp manufacture has been a great loss to the crofters of South Harris. The crofters, when engaged in kelp-making, got meal to support their families for three or four months in the year, and they earned money to pay their rates. This kept them from falling in arrears with the estate. There is now no work oo the estate that will enable them to pay their rent by labour. Last winter the proprietor did provide some work, which proved a great help to many of the people. Generally the crofters have no capital, and when the season proves unfavourable in regard to crop and fishing, they have nothing to keep them except any little stock they may possess, and if they are forced to part with it, they are wholly destitute. For instance, if a man at such a time has to sell a cow, perhaps he may not be able to buy another cow in his lifetime. Overcrowding has a tendency to impoverish; for instance, where three sons, with their families, share the croft that their father occupied alone. Huddling the people together in some particular localities, mossy bogs, as they are in Ardvee or Finnisbay, while other larger areas of the country are almost without an inhabitant, is most injurious. Fishing is a most precarious source of industry in Harris, especially the herring fishing. The people buy materials and waste their time about it, and often gain nothing by it. They earn something by the lobster fishing. Through the complete failure of the herring fishing for the last few years, and of the crops,—especially last year—many of them have fallen considerably into arrears, as they were obliged to lay out all their earnings in meal for their families. This year many of them could not have put down their crop, but for the aid they received from friends in the south. That aid was most seasonable. Quis cito dat, bù dat. I would suggest that the people should get a competent portion of the earth to cultivate. The want of a road through the East Bays of Harris, and bridges on the rivers, is an unspeakable grievance and hardship. All the crofters pay road money. This is not a country for the squatting system of farming, where there are men to cultivate the soil. It is most unnatural that man should be chased away to make room for sheep and deer ; that the land should lie uncultivated when men are perishing for lack of food. It is very unnatural that old or young should not be allowed to cast a hook into a standing lake or stream to catch a trout without being pursued by an officer of the law. This Royal Commission has a most sacred—I had almost said divine—duty entrusted to them. The state of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland for many generations to come will be influenced either for good or evil by their report. The heaven even the heavens are the Lord's, but the earth has He given to the children of men.Man's original charter was God blessed them, the parents of the human family; 'and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it ; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that liveth upon the earth. May I add a few words? With regard to this crowding, the most of the people are driven to the East Bays. There are about 100 people about the bays between Rodel and Loch Stockinish, within au extent of seven or eight miles. There are a great many cottars, and this kind of crowding has a great tendency to impoverish the people—where there are so many, for instance, three families on one lot. And in Finsbay—the place I mentioned formerly, there are three families on a plot of ground that pays 15s. of rent. The only other particulars I could wish very especially to bring before the Commission is the want of roads in this part. We have no road, I may say, from Rodel to the place where the bays pass with the main road that goes round the west side to Rodel. There is a distance of some fifteen or sixteen miles, and there are eight large streams. We. often call them burns, but large rivers is the proper term, as they are quite impassable during a flood; and life has been lost there, and many very narrow escapes with life frequently. I may say. The people have been paying road money for many generations. All the crofters pay road money, and before my time I believe all the adult male population were made to pay road money. I heard it said that every young man, whether he had lands or not, had to pay 5s. in the year for road money. Another thing in regard to Strond here—the south end. We had a conversation with the people there last night, and they think that their land is rather too highly rented, and the reason for that is, that the rent was put on the land when they had this kelp-making in connection with the land—that the rent was put on the land very much in proportion to the convenience and facilities they had for kelp-making. Now the kelp-making has ceased ; it is gone, but what they consider its burden still remains on the land, I shall be glad to answer, if I can, any questions that may be put to me. At Finsbay there were only two crofters in times past, and now there are seven or eight, besides a number of cottars.

12993. You have stated that the painful evictions, as you have justly termed them, are a thing of the past. Do you speak of removals from one place to another?

12994. How long is it since any removals of that kind took place?
—Well, there have not been any particular removals of late.

12995. Have there been any within the last twenty years?
—I don't know it is exactly within twenty years that the people were removed from the south end of Bernera, and when they were removed from the island of

12996. Where were they brought to?
—A good many of them were sent to the island of Scalpa, down in Loch Tarbert, and other parts through the country.

12997. And when they were removed were they crowded upon existing crofts, or were additional lands brought in to accommodate them?
—The places they would get in the island of Scalpa would require to be taken in. I believe there was no cultivation there before. A great many were sent there, and they would be sent perhaps where there was a person occupying a lot, and one of these people would be sent in on that lot.

12998. And when they were removed to those places, was that to benefit the condition of the people who were removed or left behind, or was it for the convenience of the people who took large farms ?
—Well, there were no crofters left behind.

12999. The loss of the kelp must, of course, have been a great loss to the people ?
—A great loss.

13000. But has that not been in some measure compensated by the increase of the price of the stock they have to sell ?
—Well, I don't think the one made up for the other at all, because the stock is a very poor stock generally, and there was no change, I would say, in the price of stock or in the increase of stock that would make up for that loss.

13001. How long have you been in this island ?
—Since the year 1848.

13002. Are you a native of the island ?
—No, I am a native of near Inverness.

13003. But your memory extends back here for more than thirty years ?

13004. What change in the condition of the people do you remark ? Do you think generally, with reference to their physical condition, that they are better or worse?
—Well, I think they are nothing better whatever. They were suffering very much at the time I came here from the failure of the potato crop in 1846 and 1847. They were in a very depressed state at that time, but I don't think there is any improvement since that time.

13005. Is there any marked deterioration ? Do you think they are decidedly getting worse?
—I cannot say it is very apparent that they are getting worse, but I don't think they are getting better at all, for when they are crowded together that way it is a very great discomfort to them, and diminishes the supply of everything.

13006. Do you think that when they were removed and when they were re-settled they were taken from the best lands and put on the worst lands ?
—Certainly. There is no place in Harris, I believe, for grain and crop like the island of Pabbay • and the south end of Bernera too, I think, is good for crop.

13007. Is there any number of persons of either class or any age who are unable to go to the church or to go to school on account of want of clothes ?
—Yes, a good many. The school board are endeavouring to compel the children to attend, but still they suffer from want of both food and clothing.

13008. They are inclined to go regularly to divine service if they can?
—Well, generally. There are some who may remain back, but generally they don't.

13009. Is there any reason to complain of intemperance?
—There is very little intemperance in this end. There are no shebeens so far as I know, and we are most thankful that there is no public house. Strong drink is not sold in any part in this end.

13010. You mean in this part of the island ?
—Yes, in South Harris.

13011. Sheriff Nicolson.
—I thought there was a public house at Obe?
—Not now; it is discontinued, and we are very thankful for it.

13012. The Chairman.
—Then you don't think the people who are so poor owe any part of their poverty to dissipation or extravagance ?

13013. Do many of the people go away south during the summer to labour ?
—Not to the south, but they go to the herring fishing in every part—to the Moray coast, and Caithness, and everywhere.

13014. Within your recohection there has been no considerable emigration ?
—There was. I think two or three batches left this country for Australia.

13015. How long ago?
—I cannot exactly mention the date, but the last batch, I think, left in 1858.

13016. Is there any inclination on the part of the people to emigrate?
—They are not very desirous to emigrate at all. There was a sort of move among them here in spring to go to Queensland, but they heard such bad reports of the place, in their estimation, that they just gave up the idea of going.

13017. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—Do they get good crops on the west side of the country ?
—Yes, I think they get good crops.

13018. Is the climate very much against cropping? Is it not very wet and windy ?
—Not on the west side. Sometimes it is windy. It is a good deal exposed to the gales from the Atlantic, but still the land is dry, and I think in favourable seasons would produce a very safe and sure crop.

13019. There were people there when you first came?

13020. Did they get good crops ?
—I cannot very well say whether they did or not. They were not there very long ; they were there a year or two. The place was put under crofters in my recollection, but I think they were behind in arrears, and were removed without delay. There is no question but the place is good for crop.

13021. Do the sheep farmers have large crops ? Do they cultivate their land ?
—Yes, Mr Kenneth Macdonald has good crops.

13022. But the crofters on that side, though with good land, fell into arrears. What was the cause of their falling into arrears ?
—Well, the crops were not good for some time, and they did not succeed at all at the herring fishing for some time back, and they did not even get their wages at the herring fishing for some time back, which was a great drawback to them. There were several causes which concurred in throwing them into arrears at that time.

13023. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—I suppose you are well acquainted with your own district, and have travelled over the most of it ?
—I have.

13024. Is there a good deal of land out of cultivation, in consequence of the removal of the people you have been referring to since you came here first ?
—A great deal. The west side of Harris here is out of cultivation, so far as the crofting system is concerned. I may say that from Tarbert to within sight of us here, was a place at one time filled with crofters.

13025. And they cultivated the land?
—Yes, and there is no crofter population there now.

13026. And I presume the farmers only cultivate a small portion of arable land?
—Not much, compared to the extent of the arable land.

13027. And in consequence the production of corn in Harris is very much diminished ?
—Very much diminished.

13028. Will you mention the names of the larger tacks in the island here, beginning with Rodel ?
—There is the home farm ; and then Mr Roderick Macdonald, Caolas, has another farm ; Mr Donald Macdonald, Scarista-veg; then Scarista-vore ; and then the farm of Luscantire, which is a very extensive farm, and extends to Tarbert.

13029. The proprietor has Luscantire in his own hands at present ?
—Yes. These are all the large farms ; and there are the islands of Ensay and Pabbay. These places, especially Pabbay, were filled with a crofter population.

13030. The places you have mentioned are on the mainland. How many families are resident upon these farms, beginning with Rodel and ending with Scarista-vore?
—I cannot state the number, but there are not very many.

13031. They bear not the shadow of the number they could bear?
-No, it bears no comparison.

13032. Or that are upon the crofter lands ?

13033. And I presume these lands comprise a very considerably larger proportion of acreage than the crofter population possesses ?
—I would say there was more of the land under these lands—under the large farms—than we have under the crofter population in the bays.

13034. Is it within the recollection of men now living when this system of making large farms was begun ?
—I think there may be some in this house who would be eye-witness of that.

13035. Of the system of making large farms at the expense of the small crofters ?

13036. And the small crofters were either crowded down to the seashore or were obliged to emigrate ?
—The one or the other.

13037. Is the population increasing or decreasing since your time?
—I think it is about stationary.

13038. We shall come to the island of Pabbay. You mentioned it as a rich green island, which contained at one time a considerable population, and there are none on it now ?
—None, unless a shepherd or two.

13039. Have you an idea how many used to be there?
—No, but there was a very considerable crofter population.

13040. Would there have been 100 souls?
—I should say there would have been about 100 souls.

13041. To whom does Pabbay belong?
—To Mr Stewart, Ensay. He also possesses some smaller islands in the Sound of Harris.

13042. But these were never inhabited ?

13043. Is there an old man now living in this neighbourhood, upwards of eighty years of age, who was very ill used at the time of some of the evictions that took place many years ago ?
—There is such a man, and he had some intention of coming forward to be present here, but I think he did not come forward.

13044. What is the name?
—Donald Matheson.

13045. Where does he reside?
—Ardvee, Finisbay.

13046. Have you heard him relate the circumstances?

13047. Can you mention them very briefly? What is the import of his complaint ?
—This is a part of the subject I do not wish to enter into, as I was not an eye-witness. I know there are present here, about this house, those who were in Harris at the time, and who could give an account of these things,

13048. You mention in the paper something to the effect that people were prevented fishing in the lakes or lochs?
—I don't mean they are altogether prevented, but it is a rule they are not allowed to fish.

13049. Is that one of the conditions of the estate?
—Yes. A person would be afraid to go out to any of these lochs or streams to fish.

13050. Those that are connected with the sea, where the sea comes in ?
—No, the mountain lakes—in the burns and streams.

13051. They are not prohibited from fishing in any waters with which the sea is connected?
—In some of them. At Obe, I think there is a place where they are not allowed to fish. I think that seems to be a part of the fishing connected with the estate.

13052. You mention that this district received certain amounts of money that were subscribed by charitable people. How was that brought about, because we find in Benbecula that the people never heard that there was such money collected ?
—We were in the way of reading the papers. The sheriff went up to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and told the state of the people at these places—and then there was a move made to make a collection on their behalf, and we thought we were as much entitled to it as any one else.

13053. Then, when you saw in the newspapers that there was a movement you very properly went forward yourselves

13054. And you got some money from the Mansion House Fund?
—Yes, and a good sum.

13055. And that has been very beneficial ?
—Most usefuL It enabled the people to put down a crop, and I hope that with the favourable season we expect they will have a more favourable crop.

13056. And I daresay you want to express to the public your thankfulness?
—We are most thankful to every person who put his hand to that work.

13057. And you believe it has been beneficial?
—Most beneficial and useful. There is no question it was, both in the way of seed and food.

13058. Are there any deer in South Harris?
—A few. There are tame deer about the mansion house of Rodel, but very few on the hill.

13059. Is there any complaint against them?
—Not much. There used to be a few, and they used to come down sometimes, but there was nothing to speak of.

13060. And there is no complaint on that score just now?
—Not that I am aware of. I never heard that any damage was done here.

13061. In answer to his Lordship in the chair, you stated, after being a little pressed by him as to the condition of the people, that you came at a bad time — immediately after 1848—and you would not say anything more in the way of contrasting their present condition with their condition at that time, than that they were not getting better I—I won't venture to say anything more. I don't think they are much better off.

13062. Is it consistent with your observation that the constant cropping which the crofters are obliged to do, in consequence of the smallness of their arable land, is rather wasting and deteriorating their land ?
—There is no doubt it is. The land is quite exhausted; it has no heart.

13063. Can you state, from your own observation, there is much more meal imported into Harris than when you first came ?
—I think there is a great deal more.

13064. You see that from your own observation?
—Yes. They import almost every grain of meal they consume. They make very little meal in the bays of Harris.

13065. Is there a mill?
—Yes. There is a mill at Obe. It is in working trim just now. Sometimes it is, and sometimes not. There is a mill at Loch Tarbert, but it is far away from here.

13066. What work may the proprietor, Lord Dunmore, have had for the benefit of the people, say since October last, when things began to look serious ?
—They drained a good deal of land. They improved the roads. They built dykes, and cut down some plantations.

13067. Do you know what rate of wages was given to those employed ?
—I think he was giving about 2s. and 2s. 4d.

13068. Were these works convenient for the people to go to—I mean not beyond a reasonable distance from their homes ?
—Well, they could not go and come to their own houses every day. They had to lodge at Rodel during the week, and they went to their own homes on the Sunday.
It was out of reach of many of them.

13069. So far as you are aware, were they paid in money for the work then done, or was it placed to account of any arrears they might have ?
—It was placed to account of arrears, and they were getting money and meal too.

13070. Then it was not a sharp payment of arrears?
—No, I think he was giving them meal and money.

13071. Was that of material consequence at the time?
—Very great consequence to the people that could avail themselves of it.

13072, Sheriff Nicolson.
—Is there local fishing going on ?
—Sometimes there is, but not last winter.

13073. The Harris men are good boatmen?
—Yes, they are good boatmen.

13074. I suppose the young men regularly go to the east coast and other deep sea fishings?
—Yes; and I may mention a good many go to the militia, and they attend the naval reserve training.

13075. Have you any idea of the numbers in the militia?
—I cannot exactly state the number.

13076. Are there scores?
—There may be twenty or thirty through the whole country.

13077. And in the naval reserve?
—Perhaps twenty.

13078. I suppose it is good for these young men to get the training they get in the militia?
—Yes, they considered it very useful at the time.

13079. How long does it take them away from home ?
—About a month in summer. They are away till about the beginning of August.

13080. After the east coast fishing is over?
—No, they go away to the east coast fishing just from the militia training, and to the Caithness fishing too.

13081. Do many of the young women go south?
—Not many.

13082. Have they never been in the habit of going much from Harris?
—No, they never went.

13083. A good many of the women in this island get employment in knitting and in spinning cloth ?
—Yes, kilt making. That is their principal employment, and of late years it has been very useful to them.

13084. Who set that agoing?
—Well, the Countess of Dunmore takes some interest in it, as well as other parties. I see they get very much into the way of dealing with the local merchants in order to get meal.

13085. Are most of the women in the parish employed in that way?
—Well, generally.

13086. I mean every family?
—Perhaps not every family, but very generally they are.

13087. They knit a great many stockiugs and hose?

13088. What price do they get for socks?
—Not very much—perhaps about 1s., but I can hardly say whether that is the fixed price.

13089. And they manufacture a peculiarly coloured native cloth?
—Almost every kind of cloth.

13090. Native dyes?
—Yes, they use native dyes.

13091. Is there a want of harbours on the east coast, or of piers?
—They have generally some lauding place for their boats. There is no regular harbour in any place from Tarbert till we come to Rodel, where there is a sort of quay.

13092. Would it be a great advantage to the people on that coast to have one or two piers, with a breakwater, where they could come in in any weather ?
—I don't think they complain very much. They are well acquainted with the shore, and they know where these landing places are.

13093. I suppose the boats they use are old-fashioned skiffs?
—Yes, small boats.

13094. Have they any of the big east coast boats?
—Yes; young men through the country bring a good many of them. I cannot mention the number, but there are a good many of them throughout Harris.

13095. Worked by themselves?
—Yes, they get them from the fishcurers, and bind themselves to pay for their boats by fishing.

13096. Do they go to the east coast fishing themselves with these boats, and to the Barra fishing ?
—Yes, and to the Caithness fishing. I don't think there are any in this country intended for the Moray side.

13097. I suppose all the men would use such boats as these if they could afford to buy them ?
—Yes, no doubt. They would be safer and better adapted for the work than these small boats. They cannot go any distance from the shore with these small boats.

13098. Is there any cod and ling fishing round about here?
—Occasionally they catch a good many cod and ling, but I don't think that is any great source of industry for them. They do sometimes earn a little in
that way.

13099. The Chairman.
—Is there any large common ground here to which the people take their flocks in summer for summer shielings ?
—Well, there is. They don't go now. There was such a place, and they used to go in summer from these bays, but they have given it up,

13100. But do they send their cattle to the hill ?
—Yes, they send their cattle to the hill.

13101. And do their cattle graze over the same area which was occupied by summer shielings ?
—Every day.

13102. But they don't send women to dwell there in bothies and cottages ?
—No, they don't.

13103. Is there any land on the sandy coast and elsewhere which is held on the run-rig system ?
—Very little in Harris.

13104. But you think there is some?
—I am not aware. As far as I am aware, there is not a bit where they go on the run-rig system.

13105. Do you think there is not a bit of land held in common which is redivided from year to year ?
—There may be a creft where there are two parties occupying one croft, and they go on the run-rig system—just rig about.

13106. But you don't think there is any large extent of ground held by one township in that way ?
—No, there is not a township, so far as I am aware, of that kind in Harris.

13107. Do you remember that when you were first here ?
-Well, I saw a little of it—one or two lots, as it were, together, in my neighbourhood, at one time, but it has been given up.

13108. When the land was redivided for the year, or at the end of two or three years, by whom was the redivision made ?
—Well, it would be generally made by the ground officer and by the people themselves.

13109. Had they an officer called the maor ?
—That is the popular name in Gaelic for the ground officer,

13110. Did you ever hear the people had a ceremony or recited any kind of rhyme or service connected with the division of the land ?
—I never heard that.

13111. Or when the people were starting for the shielings?
—There might be some such thing, but I never heard of it.

13112. Do you think that such a thing might exist and be concealed
from the clergyman ?
—Well, I don't think it existed at all. I saw nothing of it in this part in my time. A great many things were put down in this country before I came.

13113. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—I forgot to follow out'a question which I put about the lands. Taking South Harris as a whole, is there not enough land to support in comfort even more than the present population ?
—I should think it would give land to the present population, if the land were distributed among the people. I think it is quite capable of bearing
all the people in comfort.

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