Tarbert, Harris, 13 June 1883 - Rev Roderick Mackenzie

Rev. RODERICK MACKENZIE, Free Church Minister, Tarbert (45)—examined.

17871. The Chairman.
—You are entered as one of the delegates for the village of Tarbert, and you also no doubt, represent the parish. Can you tell us anything about the destitution in the parish—particularly this year ?
—Well, I had no experience of destitution on the west coast till now, and so I cannot speak of it comparatively, and all I can say is that it was very harassing indeed.

17872. It was due this year to the failure of the crops particularly ?
—Yes, and to the failure of the early fishing last year.

17873. When you speak of the early fishing, do you mean the herring fishing?
—The herring fishing.

17874. The fishing has been a failure for several successive years?
—It has, in Harris.

17875. Has the consequence been that the people have been getting deeper into debt ?
—Very much so.

17876. And you think for more than one year the distress has been growing worse ?
—Yes, in consequence of the inability of the dealers to meet their own payments, and their inability to relieve the people as they were in the habit of doing.

17877. Have you received money from the south for the relief of the destitution here ?
—A great deal. First of all, Sir Edward Scott's good deeds this year can hardly be set forth. He spent, I may safely say, over £900 in relieving the distress this year, and that for about one-third of the population of Harris. From Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London we have had a great deal of money. From Glasgow Relief Committee we had £300, and from the Lord Mayor's fund £1104. In all, the money for relief this year to Harris has been considerably over £2000—about £2400.

17878. Has it all been spent already?
—Not all quite spent We are keeping a little in hand—knowing that our distress is not by any means at an end, and fearing that until the 12th of August, when we expect some new potatoes, there may not be an end of it. At present we have good reason to fear that the worst is before us.

17879. Has there been any difficulty in distributing this relief?
—Well, the usual difficulties,—a good deal of complaint on the part of those who did not get as much as they thought they should have. We cannot avoid those difficulties.

17880. Notwithstanding the sum was large, you have been obliged to be very discriminating in giving relief?
—We have had to be. With regard to seed, there was scarcely any discrimination required, for the simple reason that they all needed it, and if the money spent in providing seed were taken from their stock it would leave very little for paying the proprietor or the merchants' or dealers' accounts.

17881. Have you thought of any means by which in the future, such destitution might be provided against ?
—Well, the almost universal cry is for more land—that if the people had more land they would not be subject to such destitution it future; and I believe that cry is well founded Overcrowding is the chief, indeed the only, cause of complaint. In Harris we have no quarrel whatever, no grievance whatever to be traced to the conduct of the present proprietors or their agents; with one exception, however, and as I am here to represent Tarbert, perhaps you will let me read a paper which one of them prepared setting forth the grievances of the people of the village. With that single exception, we have no grievance whatever to be traced to the conduct of proprietor or agent That grievance refers to the question of feu-charters or feu-duty. People have built, and after building they regret having done so. They have built on what they see to be foolishly short leases for thirty-eight years, and after thirty-eight years the building is to revert to the proprietor without any compensation.

17882. Is this a question which affects the trade of Tarbert—and consequently the condition of the population to some extent?
—It must affect the trade, for it discourages all building of houses and affects the comfort of the people, for there is many a one who would build a nice little house for himself if he were not so heavily taxed for it. The price paid for the site is higher than anything I ever heard of in Scotland.

17883. Do you think it is a matter which affects the crofter population ?
—Indirectly it_ does. As to the paper, I never read it, and as little had I to do with the getting of it up.
—Our grievances are—
(1) short period of lease
(2) No compensation on expiry of lease
(3) The high rate of feu-duty.
In 1840 the rate of feu-duty was 10s. and fifty-seven years lease, now we are charged £2 feu-duty and only thirty-eight years lease. Now we consider that £ 2 is full value for the site of our houses, which only measures 45 by 27 feet Should we get compensation for our labour and expense on expiry of our leases, we are quite willing to pay £2 feu-duty, provided we be allowed compensation for our labour and expense when our leases expire, or get perpetual leases and respectable gardens attached to our houses. The land on which our houses are built was only £5 rent in 1840 and on that land we are now paying £14,15s. feufeu-duty complained of. The chief cause of the houses of this country being such miserable huts is that should the people make better ones they will be so much burdened with taxes that they prefer not making any improvements at all. Those who have no land and consequently no straw, if they happen to put wooden roofs on their houses they are immediately heavily taxed on that account. I would consider it very fair profit for a merchant in the course of thirty-eight years, besides supporting himself and family, to save £600 or £700. This our proprietor saves without any trouble whatever to himself. Owing to the poverty of the country, we are almost ruined with school and poor rates. In 1882 we paid 1s. 6d. per pound for poor rates, and 3s. per pound for school rates. This year we pay 2s. 11d. per pound for poor rates and 4s. 8d. per pound for school rates. The chief cause of these taxes being so heavy is the poverty of the country. The people are so crammed together on the top of rocks and bogs, and consequently so extremely poor that they are not able to provide clothing for their children to send them to school, and when the School Board compels the parents to send their children to school they can do nothing else in the circumstances they are placed in than apply to the Parochial Board to provide their children with what they are quite unable themselves to supply. If the people get no land we shall be getting worse from year to year because the people are getting so well versed in law that they being poor, know right well, if we want to send their children to school we must see them clothed in the event of them not being able to do it themselves. If school and poor rates continue to increase in this way both tacksmen and crofters will be forced to throw up their lands. The herring fishing, which proved very remunerative here in former years, has been a complete failure for the past three years, and if fish is to be got it is not on the side of the island the people inhabit. If the people, however, got a sufficient portion of their native land to work they would
• not need to apply to any Parochial Board for getting their children clothed, because they could do it themselves and others besides. Let the people possess the land their ancestors possessed, and that at reasonable rents, compensation for improvements, and twenty or thirty years' lease, and I am sure there will be very little heard about destitution. The two meal "mills" in the island are sunk in debt to the amount of £200, notwithstanding the fact that they were getting one-sixteenth part of the grain of Harris. Six years ago the mills required some repairs in slating, but the proprietor refused to expend any money on them as the one-sixteenth part of the grain of Harris would not evidently pay the aforesaid repairs. In my opinion, land is the only remedy for the poverty of the people. Government may exhaust all their resources in relieving the poverty of the Highlands, but their efforts will be all in vain until they give the land of the people to the people, and not to sheep and deer as is now the case.

17884. Do you agree in the main with what is stated here ?
—I do.

17885. Do you think there is any reason to suppose that the trade of Tarbert would increase if there were facilities given for building houses here ?
—I do not know if that would of course increase it, but it might be the means of encouraging some who may be disposed to come and build here.

17886. It mentions here that if the crofters erect better houses they are burdened with taxes ?
—I do not think that is the case. The writer of the paper seems to me to mean that if the cottars about here who now live in huts should think of improving their houses or building them in better style, they are at once taxed.

17887. That is if they have long leases ?
—Even without leases I think they have been taxed, though they merely built them, and are tenants at will.

17888. Do these cottars pay rent at all ?
—They do not in the village. They have free houses. The proprietor allows them to build, and does not charge them feu-duty. They have no lease whatever, and they are taxed meanwhile.

17889. The universal demand is for more land. In what way would you propose by force of law to bring that about ?
—That is the problem the Commissioners or the Government have to solve. I suspect I can give them very little light upon it, only there are some corners here and there. The other day I was in the island of Taransay —a pretty large island—and the rental I take to be about £190. Now, I saw the arable land there in the island, and I should say it could easily accommodate forty comfortable tenants at the very reasonable rent of £5, which would make £200. The present tacksmen does not pay £200. Now, it may be said—' Why, these crofters would not pay—they get into arrears.' I believe the Harris arrears are very high indeed, but I suppose that would hardly be called a grievance anywhere. I am disposed to lay it down as one of the grievances the people are subjected to want of punctuality, even strictness in collecting rents. It may look very like the opposite of a grievance, but to me it seems a grievance. When people are not kept up to the mark in this respect they are apt to fall into indolence and indifference with respect to the paying of their rents. I know a proprietor in Skye who has been very much spoken of for raising his rents. I believe he has raised them ; but usually as he has raised them he has brought his people up to the mark in punctuality. He compels payment of rent, and does not allow arrears, and he has succeeded. I think there is a great deal in the power of the local gentleman or representative of the landlord in securing the regular payment of rents, and that we are backward in that respect in Harris. That is my own idea of the state of matters in Harris. I would not lay much stress on the non-payment of rent by the crofters if the people had land given to them. In too many instances I know the cause of the clearances has been to save the factor trouble. In Sutherlandshire they had a great deal of trouble in the collection of arrears, when there were large straths to be visited at collection time. Well, we know it is much easier to get rent from one tacksman, here and there, than have the bother of collecting it among so many. Now, I believe, that in many cases was the cause of the clearances in the Highlands. If local
agents took greater pains their rent arrears would not be so much heard of.

17890. Do you think, generally speaking, the crofters could afford to pay as much rent for the land nominally as the tacksman does ?
—I have not sufficient experience to answer that, but I know some cases where it would be no loss to the proprietor, and I mention this case of Taransay. From my own knowledge of the ground, I venture to say the proprietor would be no loser, and there are other farms in Lewis where the same could be said.

17891. Have there been any instances of emigration in your time from your parish ?
—Not in my time. There were one or two individual cases, and they have done very well indeed.

17892. So far as you know, have these all done well?
—They have. They had hardships at first, but as soon as they got over these they got on. I believe a liberally devised scheme of emigration would be a good idea in connection with a land bill. I would agitate for emigration if I were pretty sure of those who wore left being better in their circumstances. I am quite prepared to say I think they would succeed in getting on could money be given on those terms. I do not mean merely that they should be assisted to go, but that they should be looked after after going there,—that they should have something like a home provided for them, and secured from the risk of either starvation or too much hardship, before they got under weigh in their new place.

17893. You refer to a scheme of family emigration, I presume?
—Yes, a scheme of family emigration.

17894. Do you think in connection with some scheme of land reform that would be taken advantage of?
—I think so. But without the prospect of getting more land I think it would be a very unlikely thing to get them to emigrate of their own accord. Why, there are 280 crofts, I think, in the civil parish of Harris exclusive of Bernera, and in the same parish we have over 900 families living. That means 620 having no land living upon those 280 who have, and while that continues we can have nothing else but poverty. But I scarcely think it would be possible to give land to all these. However much the Government could do, however ready they might be to lay their hands on the property of those who have purchased those lands—which I do not think any Government could think of doing,—should they give us all the land in Harris we would need an emigration scheme. I do not think there is land in Harris for 620 families, and on that account, I would say, we would need a well-devised scheme of emigration in conjunction with a land bill—a land bill making it positively illegal to subdivide or sublet. Subdivision and subletting are the main causes of the poverty. Subdivision is forbidden on Sir Edward Scott's estate, but it is carried out in spite of the factor and laird.

17895. I suppose it is very difficult to carry out any restriction of that sort ?
—Very difficult.

17896. Have you any thing to mention on behalf of the people of Scalpa. We understand their grievances were not fully represented today ?
—There is very little difference from the rest of the people we have. It is the most crowded land we have. There are 40 lots and 100 families, and 60 of those families having no lots are a burden on those who have. The difficulties in Scalpa are just the same, with this exception, that if the fishing is prosperous the people of Scalpa do not depend so much on the land. I would be disposed to think, if some of them were exclusively fishermen in Scalpa, they would get on better.

17897. But their present rents are not so high as to be a burden upon them if they really devoted themselves to fishing ?
—I do not think any tenant in Harris has reason to complain of rent, but should they have the land for nothing they would still be poor. I intended to mention that, but for a branch of industry begun and carried on by Mrs Captain Thomas. I cannot say whether Mrs Captain Thomas or the Dowager Countess of Dunmore was first in the field,—but for her efforts in connection with Harris, destitution would be of more frequent occurrence than it is. That industry is web making and stocking making. From Mrs Thomas's web making, I believe the greater part of their living is derived. It has been far more remunerative than both land and fishing for the last three years. It would be unjust to Mrs Thomas not to mention her efforts, for she is prepared to live and die for the islands. On Monday last she very nearly risked her life going to Taransay in a small boat, and all from love to the people.

17898. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Who is this lady?
—The wife of Commander Thomas of the Royal Navy—an English lady. To her we owe this Free Church Manse—to her we owe this Free Church, I may say,—and a great deal more than I can mention before the Commission. Harris perhaps owes more to her than to anybody else.

17899. I presume you mean North and South Harris in the statement you have made ?
—Yes, my congregation extends to both.

17900. With regard to the question about the leases and the feu-duty, when was the period of thirty-eight years first introduced ?
—Just after Sir Edward came into possession.

17901. Did any Scotsman ever hear of such a building lease ?
—I believe it is an English custom. I do not believe Sir Edward was remonstrated with, and I thought he should have been spoken to of it before bringing it here. He is one of the best proprietors in the Highlands, and it is a great pity a syllable should be said here in any way to annoy him, for he is a generous English man of the highest type, and we should take care not to do anything to annoy him. I should be very sorry if this subject of leases, accepted by the parties who now complain of them, should be the means of giving him annoyance. However, he is too sensible a gentleman to be angry with people for making known their grievances.

17902. Will you explain this a little more fully ?
—The chief cause of the houses of this country being so miserable is, that should the people, make better ones they will be so much burdened in taxes that they prefer not making any improvements at all.
—Is the meaning of it this, that if the assessor sees a better house built he values it accordingly, and the taxes follow ?
—That is the case with cottars, but not with crofters. A crofter may build as respectable a house as he chooses, and not be taxed on any more than his rent

17903. Have you ever seen the Valuation Roll of the county of Inverness ?
—I have seen it pretty often. I have not seen this year's roll.

17904. Do you observe that the proprietor is always put in for tenants under £4 ?
—I see that.

17905. And I presume the proprietor exacts the proper proportion from the small tenant for taxes, though he is under £ 4 ?

17906. Do you agree, in the main, with the statements that have been made here and elsewhere, as to the desirability of the holdings of the crofters being enlarged ?
—Certainly, but as to the possibility and practicability there is the difficulty. There is one thing I noted down, viz., the want of regular daily communication with a railway terminus to encourage the regular prosecution of the fishing. The post office department is to be blamed.

17907. What blame have you to find with the post office ?
—Instead of giving us the mails, sending them direct from Strome to Stornoway, they are sent to a very out-of-the-way corner where there is no trade,—to Ullapool. Now, for an expense of £3000 or £4000 a year, we could have a daily mail or a daily boat to all the fishing stations, and in that way the people would be encouraged to go to sea regularly. They would get their fish carried away as soon as they were caught. It is scarcely worth a poor man's while to go to sea to get only eight or nine cod and ling. They get 6d. or Is. for them. If they could send away the fish fresh they would be worth double the money. The result is that men here do not think much of going to fish unless they get a large haul. The regular prosecution of the trade is what we want to be encouraged, and this I take to be one of the most likely means ; and another good effect likely to arise from that regular communication would be this—the doing away with the ruinous credit system—ruinous especially when it descends to the truck system, which it almost invariably does.

17908. Have you anything of the kind in Tarbert?
—Not directly, but there is a good deal of the nature of it.

17909. Then what you want is the mails brought by steamer daily ?
—All round those islands. There was a letter by Lord Colin Campbell to the Times expressive of what we require, and what the Government may well do in connection with the grievances in the Highlands. It is one of the most likely steps to improve our circumstances.

17910. You have a harbour here ?
—Yes, and there should be a good harbour on the west coast. The island of Taransay could be made a good harbour. There are only ten crofters there,—no cottars.

17911. Who is the tacksman of the island
—Mr Donald Macdonald, who is a farmer on the mainland as well.

17912. Mr Cameron.
—It has been stated by one of the witnesses that there are twice as many people in North Harris without land as with it, and from your remarks I understand you coincide with that view ?
—It is not above the mark. I believe it holds true of North Harris as well as Harris generally.

17913. That cottar question is one of considerable difficulty in matters relating to land in the Highlands ?
—It is.

17914 What is your idea of the solution of the question ?
—I think I spoke of it already,—both emigration, and giving them more land,—cutting up some of the large farms where such can be done without very great injury to the proprietor, and my idea is that the proprietor would not suffer very severely.

17915. Supposing there were not many Taransays in the neighbourhood,—that is to say not much land which could be distributed among the crofters and cottars—not sufficient to enable all to have a portion,—with which would you commence,—with the crofters who have land, or cottars who have none ?
—I would give it, in the first instance, to those who were able to take it up—who had means of stocking it, and who had energy and perseverance to carry it on ; and as to cottars who had no land, and could not get any, I would do all in my power to persuade them to go.

17916. Then, in all probability, you would have to dispose of the crofters first before the cottars were touched, because, I suppose, among the crofters would be found those who have means to enable them to take such land as may be available ?
—No, I think we could find among the cottars too a good many comfortable ones—pushing men with families, who are able to work well when they get it to do, who would be quite able with a little encouragement, and some who by their labour might already have made a little means to stock a small farm.

17917. Have you ever considered or obtained information from others with regard to places besides Taransay in this neighbourhood, which might be held by crofters or cottars ?
—I hear the people speak of all the west side and the north-west. There is a good deal of Sir Edward's estate on the coast, but it is not at all so probable or likely. I think nature seems to have intended Harris for a deer forest, except the patches along the sea. In South Harris, however, yon have a great deal of good land capable of cultivation.

17918. The difficulty we have always met with has not been as to the patches of land on the mainland which may be cultivated, and of which there is a limited quantity, but what to do with the remaining hill land or hill pasture which is occupied by sheep and deer, and which it would be difficult to stock without available capital?

17919. How would you meet that difficulty?
—I can scarcely say very much as to that, further than the laying it out in connection with the shore ground,—giving them some of the hill pasture. I believe but that for our deer forests the rental could not be what it is now.

17920. That would be a very obvious and pleasant solution of the difficulty ; but what I want to know is how these high lands are to be stocked by any animals—cattle or sheep—without a certain amount of capital, which I am afraid the crofters do not possess ?
—I do not know that they are so destitute of capital as to be unable to take small lots. Of course, the proposal is that they should leave Government advances. That might be desirable, but I do not think they could meet the interest. There are many who would make an effort to take and to stock them too.

17921. It has been suggested that, in the case of improving land, Government might be induced to advance money in the same way as they did at a former period—between 1846 and 1850—and that they would have the land always as security for the repayment of the money so advanced. Would there not be a difficulty in regard to advancing money for the purpose of buying stock, which does not afford an available security ?
—There would be a difficulty, no doubt.

17922. I do not quite understand what you mean by saying the daily steamers would do away with the credit system. Perhaps you would kindly follow it up and explain ?
—I mean there would be such a quick return for fish sent away that the dealers could afford to pay at once. As matters are now, the fish caught they have to cure, and it has to lie on their hands for months, and in that way they must have credit, as well as give it to the people ; whereas if they got the money for lobsters and other fish sent away at once, they could pay the people with ready cash, and the people could buy where they liked.

17923. Should not you suppose that any loss which the post office might incur by transmitting the mails daily in the way you suggest would be more than made up by the quantity of fish that would be carried to Strome Ferry every day of the year ?
—Most certainly. I think it a financial mistake as well as an injustice to us.

17924. Are you aware whether any negotiations or proceedings have taken place, or how far they have gone, in regard to this matter, between the people of Stornoway and the post office authorities ?
—I notice in the newspapers there was a public meeting in Stornoway for the purpose of getting the mails direct to Stornoway. I do not know their petition contemplated what I mean, viz., getting the daily steamer to go round all those fishing stations. What they want is to make sure of Stornoway ; but what we want is to get all the Outer Hebrides supplied, from Barra to the Butt of Lewis, including Loch Boisdale, Lochmaddy, and Tarbert.

17925. Taking Strome as the starting point ?
—They would need one steamer to go to Stornoway and another to come round the south end of Skye, and it might take the back of Skye, across to Loch Boisdale and go back, taking the islands.

17926. Unless there were two steamers, the Barra people would have to wait for the Stornoway post ?
—There must be two steamers at least, but the increase of traffic would make the loss to the Government less.

17927. But so far as you are concerned here, would you be satisfied with a steamer that left Strome daily, and called at Portree, Tarbert, and Stornoway ?

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