Stornoway, Lewis, 8 June 1883 - Donald Martin

DONALD MARTIN, Crofter and Fisherman, Back (46)—examined.

16104. The Chairman.
—Who delegated you here?
—I was appointed at a meeting that was held by the people of the township in the church.

16105. Were the people of Tolsta and Coll there at the same time?
—The people of Tolsta were not there. The people of Coll and Vacksay were there as well as the people of Back.

16106. Who summoned the meeting?
—I believe the association that is located here gave instruction that delegates should be appointed and a meeting held.

16107. Do you mean the Lewis Highland Land Law Reform Association ?
—I beheve these are the parties.

16108. And did the people of Back elect you on that occasion ?

16109. Were they all present?
—The most of them.

16110. Will you make a statement on the part of the people of Back ?
—[Read in Gaelic] When the townships in which I live was originally lotted out forty lots were made and the rent was £140. Since that time fifteen additional lots were made, out of the back portion of the township out of uncultivated land behind the ring fence. And instead of the township getting any abatement of rent, because of that the rent was raised. Now there are ninety-two families in the township. There are six or seven of these families who occupy mere bothies, and have no land at all. Then there are about twelve young married couples living in the houses of their relatives—their fathers and fathers-in-law—who would be glad to take land if they got it, in addition to other young men who would also be glad to get married, and to take lands if such were to be had. Again, it is one great cause of the poverty of the people that the holdings are so small that they can only keep as much stock as they are able to feed, for if we, the people, had plenty of land so that we could keep a sufficient amount of stock, we could be able,—although the Lord in providence has seen fit to visit us sorely this year—still along with what we could take from the sea, we have sufficient amount of Highland spirit in us as would prevent us from allowing ourselves to appear as beggars before the people of this nation. We ourselves would then be able to maintain ourselves, instead of being a burden upon the charitable people of the south. It now appears that things will continue in the same state unless some remedy is found for them through the intervention of the Queen and her counsellors. In the third place, this also is the cause and poverty among the people, that their holdings are so small that they must crop the whole of them every year. They are thus not able to leave a portion under grass for one year, as it ought to be, in order that the land could attain to some strength, for the land, by being continually turned over every year, becomes exhausted, so that it requires to be forced by manure before it can give any crop at all, and even then it will not yield a good crop. Again, in some places it is the cause of poverty among the people that the land is in such a bad plight by being so soft and wet, so that it is a risky matter to sow any seed there until it is past seed time; and so it is a matter of common sense that when sowing is late, reaping must be late too, and so the inclement season comes before the crop is gathered in from the places where it grows. An additional cause of our poverty is the want of harbours. In the place where I live the way the fishing is being prosecuted is sufficient to make an old man of one while he is yet young; for in winter we have to leave our homes for the fishing at ten o'clock at night, and on through all hours of the morning according as the weather will allow. We then, six of a crew, will have to launch a boat over a 100 yards of dry ground, and we have to do the reverse process when we come home again. We have to put a ton of stones into her along with the sailing and fishing material. The boat is thus loaded so that if the sea runs high upon the shore it goes over our heads before we can clear off. Now, if we had harbours we could work bigger boats than we have, where we could have greater safety on sea, and that would be less difficult to manage when we came ashore; and if we had that we could go three times farther away to the fishing ground than we can now do •with the boats we have. Again, in the sixth place, there is a thing that causes great vexation of spirit to the people, and their minds are now raised so that it is difficult to pacify them until things are put upon a proper footing. This is the cause of it all,—that we see the land which our fathers had brought under cultivation by the sweat of their brows put under tacksmen, or, as they should more properly be called, desolators of the land, and ourselves heaped upon one another upon small patches of the very worst portions of the land, and many without any laud at all, while upon the land which they possess as grass from one year's end to the other my father saw fourteen oat crops raised in succession without any manure, and the last crops better than the first. Now, in so far as I can understand the mind of the people, and especially of the younger portion of them, I fear that there is danger that they may rise as the clans of old rose, if they don't get a hold over the land of which they are deprived by Act of Parliament,—of which they are deprived for the sake of sheep, deer, and grouse. If some will say it is not right that we should be seeking these things, I shall not regard these as the poor man's friend; for if it is unlawful for us to ask it now, it was quite as unlawful for them to deprive us of it formerly.

16111. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—At what time was the land divided into the forty lots at the rent of £140 ?
—About thirty years ago.

16112. You mention that fifteen additional people were placed upon the back of your town, and in place of any reduction of rent it was increased. Now what increase was made ?
—So far as I can gather from the receipts that I have seen, there was 5s. of road money. This charge for road money was afterwards made into a charge for pasture money. Then there was Is. of kain. Now, this has of late been added on of our rent, and then separate road money came in.

16113. What is the rent at present paid by the ninety-two families that are there ?
—I cannot tell.

16114. It is a good deal more than £140 ?
—I believe there is a good deal more than £140.

16115. And not only is there no reduction of rent from the time of the forty lots—£140, but there are now more than double the number of people upon it?
—Yes, it is the case. There is scarcely a lot that has not been subdivided, and the very few that have not been subdivided have usually two families living upon them.

16116. You have accounted for fifty-five of the families,—the forty and the fifteen additional, but there are now ninety-two. Wrere there any people put in upon them, or was that rise the natural increase?
—They are the natural increase of the place.

16117. In the statement you made you referred to the state of the land being such that they could not sow early. We heard it alleged against the crofters that they did not plant so early as they ought. Why don't they plant so early, or sow their seed ?
—I can say for myself, and I believe I can also speak for the others, that there are many reasons in which, from the nature of the soil of my croft, which is so wet, so soft, that it is quite impossible to put one grain of seed into the ground until long after the period of sowing is over.

16118. Have you attempted to drain your own land so far as that could be done ?
—I did everything I could to drain it. I made no close drains, but I made open drains.

16119. Are you quite aware of the importance of early sowing?
—Quite aware of that.

16120. We heard in some other places that the reason why the crofters did not sow earlier was that they could not agree, and that it was impossible for one man to begin until they all began. Is that the case at Back ?
—Well, as far as I am concerned, I never found that cause interfere with our seed time; but where the soil is light—where it is sandy soil—there might be some foundation for it.

16121. Would you be in favour of a strict regulation among crofters themselves to agree upon early sowing ?
—We don't by any means oppose any just and fair law that would contribute to our own advantage.

16122. You spoke about the twelve married men among them who want land, and also the young men who wish to marry and settle. Are these people possessed of means to stock the land, or would they require assistance?
—There may be some who would be able to put stock upon the land, but there are many others of them who, on account of the poverty of their parents and other reasons, have very little laid by, and would require assistance.

16123. Are those you refer to—the twelve married men and the young men—strong active men, willing to work ?

16124. Do you believe that if they got such lands as they would like, they would pay a fair rent, and work most industriously until they got it into a state capable of producing support for themselves?
—We believe they are very much depressed in spirit from the fact that they don't get land, in order to get a chance of doing so.

16125. Will you mention the place which you think a suitable place for making a pier for the people of Back ?
—I think there are various places where it would not be very difficult to make a good anchorage; but because there is a fishing station at Gress, I believe that would be about as suitable as any.

16126. Have you any idea what it would cost to make a pier that would be suitable for your purposes—that you might go out and in all weathers ?
—I can give no idea of the cost of an undertaking of that kind, but I believe in this particular case it could be done cheaper than in most places.

16127. Would you and others be willing to pay a small toll or rent for the privilege of using it ?
—Very willing indeed.

16128. The Chairman.
—Is it a pier or harbour you are speaking of ?
—A pier, I mean a slip or a breastwork; whereas by a harbour, I mean a place of shelter protected by a breakwater.

16129. And what you want is a harbour into which the boats may run ?
—Yes ; that a boat might enter in all weathers and at all states of the tide.

16130. What would be the length of such a breakwater?
—It would require about sixty yards, or perhaps eighty.

16131. How many boats are there that would anchor at Gress if that were made?
—They would not require to be anchored. They could be fastened to the quay within the harbour.

16132. But how many would there be in such circumstances ?
—Sixty or eighty boats perhaps.

16133. Is there a population around Gress and within three or four miles of Gress that would own so many boats ?
—Only during the herring fishing time.

16134. And then boats come from other places at that time?
—Yes ; but there are plenty of the natives who come there at the same time.

16135. How many boats do the natives of your township at present own ?
—Seven or eight in the particular township and about thirty in the parish.

16136. Would Gress suit for the whole parish ?
—Yes, it would be a sufficient station for the whole parish.

16137. Have you anything further to say ?
—Now, as to the remedies in order to put matters upon a proper footing. In the first place, to give plenty of land to every one who asks for it—that is from six to eight acres, at an average rent of 10s. per acre according as the soil is worth. In the second place, we want harbours, so that we can prosecute the fishing more sucessfully. In the third place, we want that there should be a fund raised or something provided by Government for providing stock and improving the land. This money we would pay interest for, and would pay it back. In the fourth place, we ask that under an Act of Parliament we and our children in coming generations should have a right to the soil which we occupy, and compensation for any improvements that we might make upon the lands or upon the dwelling houses. Now, if we get all these things, we will be able to live in comfort, enjoying the fruits of the land of our birth and our ancestory.

16138. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Are there no Gaelic words for 'compensation' and ' improvements ' ?
—Well, I would endeavour to express it in Gaelic.

16139. Is there not a good Gaelic word for improvement ?

16140. Why did you not put it in Gaelic when you were writing the Gaelic paper? Why did you choose English ?
—Because I was not certain that the Gaelic phraseology would express the same thing.

16141. If you never heard the people speaking, or if you had never spoken yourself about compensation for improvements in Gaelic, what first put it into your head ? Was it English-speaking people ?
—I knew very well what the English phrase meant, but I was not sure that I could express it quite accurately in Gaelic—that my Gaelic expression would be a quite accurate rendering.

16142. I asked that question because Lowlanders and English people will be apt to think that Gaelic people have no idea of improvement, and that they have no word for it. You understand what I mean ?
—I knew myself the meaning of the phraseology quite well.

16143. Is it not a pity that strangers should think that Gaelic people have no idea of improvement and no word for expressing it ? Is it not likely to put it into their head that the ideas of the people were got from outside, and not out of their own heads ?
—Perhaps it is.

16144. The Chairman.
—There are fifteen crofters at the back of the ring fence. Did they improve their own land, or was that land improved for them ?
—It was themselves that improved it.

16145. Have you got one of these lots?

16146. How long have you had it ?
—About thirteen years.

16147. Are you complaining, as one of those who got the fifteen lots or because the fifteen lots were given ?
—I am here to represent the people of the township, and to express their cause and complaint.

[Rev. Mr Cameron, Free Church, Back.
—I wish to explain that the delegate or witness is in the habit of reading the newspapers for himself, and it is there he saw the words 'compensation' and 'improvement.']

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