STATEMENT by JOHN SCOBIE, late Factor for the Lewis.
KEOLDALE, DURNESS, SUTHERLAND, December 1883
Seeing the misstatements emitted before the Commission in evidence given in the Island of Lewis, I deem it but right to submit a few remarks on the facts of the case in justice to the late Sir James Matheson, and myself as factor at the time referred to.
I may mention that when Sir James bought the Lews there were arrears of £1417, 18s. Id. due by the crofters to the Seaforth management, which he paiDr ather than disturb his tenants, no part of which was recovered by him, owing to the severe years that followed. A considerable part of the said arrear was due by the tenants of Reef, Valtos, and Kneep, on the south side of Loch Roag, which may have induced the said management to set these townships, the year previous to the purchase, on 15 years' lease to a Dr Macaulay, along with the adjoining farm of Ardroil, formerly possessed by him. This being brought before Sir James as a hardship on the part of the crofters to be evicted, anDr epresented to the Hon. Mrs Stewart Mackenzie of Seaforth, she handsomely came forward and arranged with Dr Macaulay to renounce said lease, for which he was paid upwards of £4000, to which Sir James, on the score of goodwill, contributed £500, and besides took over the 8tock of Ardroil from Dr Macaulay at a cost of £933, 4s. 10d., in the hope of improving the condition of these crofters. Not long after, the Reef tenants complained of being far from their hill pasture and peats (being about 8 miles by water), saying they would be glad of any holdings where these would be convenient. The arable land at Reef was light sandy soil, and from constant tillage apt to be blown away by every gale, being much exposed to the full force of the Atlantic, from which cause their fishing was anything but prosperous. Neil M'Lennan, Breasclete, parish of Uig, stated before the Commission:
' The tenants of Reef got notice of removal from Mr Scobie, factor, and as they had no arrears of rent they refused to remove, and stood out against it for three years; and after his term of office expired, the new factor followed up what his predecessor had begun, and at last got them forcibly ejected.'
The facts are that there was no attempt at clearances during my five years of office except at Reef, in the hope of their doing better. They did not attend the works going on in the island as they should have done. Latterly there was a road made beside them at Glen Valtos, and a lake drained at Kneep, each work more with the view of giving them employment than any hope of remunerative benefit. At Whitsunday 1848 the Reef tenants were £141, 17s. 9d. in arrears, their yearly rent being £89, 14s. They were summoned, but were not removed till 1850, by my successor as factor, Mr J. Munro Mackenzie, They were then £231, 8s. 6d. in arrears of rent, besides a large sum for meal and seed given them. These tenants were then removed to crofts vacated by such as took advantage of free emigration, or to land not otherwise occupied, and were not crowded into other townships. On the west coast of the island, from Loch Roag to the Butt of Lewis, there are no boat harbours available for fishing, and the ground swell of the Atlantic lashing along that seaboard makes it hazardous to go to sea, even with the weather. The soil generally is less capable of improvement south of Galston, so that the people are still very far back comparatively. On the coast of the island there is comparative shelter and places of safety to run to, and the Ashing is prosecuted with energy. Sir James laid out largely in making new storehouses and curing places at the fishing-stations of Carloway, on the west coast, and on the east at Port of Ness, Skegirsta, Tolsta, Bayble, Portnaguiran, Holm, and Cromore, which outlay was a great success, the improvement of quality in the cure realizing more money in the home and foreign markets, giving a new impetus to the fisheries, which increased greatly beyond any idea formed of this industry.'
Add to this steam communication which had not extended previously north of Skye till Sir James opened weekly steam services to the Lews direct from the south, which brought about a ready-money system, doing away with the truck system which formerly existed less or more, thus bringing a direct benefit to the community at large.
Roads and bridges were projected at the same time throughout the island. The first that came out to work from the remoter districts were barefoot, and thought the factor a very extravagant adviser in recommending shoes to all at spade work; but in four years after they all had shoes or strong-laced boots. The exigency of the unparalleled destitution of the years 1846, '47, and '48, caused by the potato failure of 1845, being unprecedented, made it more difficult to deal with in every Highland management, and led to a simultaneous outlay of land improvements, trenching, fencing, &c, in addition to the said roads and fisheries, so as to make work available to all in various parts of the island. Supplies of food (oatmeal, &c.) were early secured by Sir James, and given out to the people during the whole period of destitution 25 per cent, below the current market price.
Schools were placed in hitherto unprovided localities, and endowed by Sir James. Approved of teachers were provided from the Free Church Normal School, Edinburgh, so that the people could send their children without prejudice to sect. At the same time Sir James was opposed to rival schools, but gave sites to the Free Church within a reasonable distance of the existing parish schools, so that all might be useful. He contributed freely to the schools placed in outlying parts by the Edinburgh Ladies' Association for the Highlands and Isles. Still the people did not value this boon, saying that if they sent their children to school they would not remain with them. Now that education is compulsory, it is to be hoped that it will prevail ultimately, and encourage many of the rising surplus population to go abroad, where soil and climate will remunerate with returns for their industry, and enable them to assist their poorer relations at home, and so induce others to follow.
The population in 1841 was about . . . 17,037
And in the year 1881 is stated to be . . . 25,487
Present increase, 8,350
And this shows an increase of one-half in forty years, without including 2231 who took advantage of free emigration in 1850, which, at the same rate of increase, would give about 1000 additional, which implies the necessity for free emigration to relieve the island of its still increasing population beyond what its capabilities can support—especially the we'st coast, where fishing is not available, and the soil and climate unfavourable to cultivation. During my period of office of five years in the Lews, I have no hesitation in stating that the people were better clad and better fed, and the interior of their houses more comfortable from being more amply provided with bedding, &c, and became more self-reliant anDr eady to contract for any piece of work, which at first had to be done by strangers, and were brought actually fifty years in advance to what Sir James found them. The fishermen especially are admitted to excel their neighbours on the mainland, and the well-doing fishers and industrious of the landsmen had deposits in the banks; and certainly there was less excuse for the able-bodied to be in arrears during that period, though the excessively low price of cattle aggravated the distress. Experience shows that if the rent is reasonable, the idly inclined find in the exertion of getting it that they can earn more to help to provide for their families, and would be worse off if they had no rent to pay, as their labour is their capital, and they are thus taught how to turn it to account. Such as will not work or try to exert themselves will ever be a drawback and source of discontent in any community.
There never was a more benevolent, liberal, and large-minded proprietor than Sir James, who, having the means, went hand and heart to ameliorate the condition of his people, and proved, under a ruling Providence, the instrument of saving many lives that would otherwise have perished of starvation. There was not one soul in the island died of want during these years. Lady Matheson was ever kind to the poorer classes, and in planning extensive improvements in the Castle grounds, afforded constant and emunerative employment to the neighbourhood.
It is much to be feared that the response was wanting for all the good that was bestowed so freely, though there are honourable exceptions; and it is to be regretted that the evil disposed and ungrateful should now be pushed forward to misrepresent matters, which can only have the effect of causing mistrust and disappointment ultimately to all concerned.
Without going into particulars, which would make my remarks unnecessarily lengthened, I may refer to Sir John M'Neill's Report on the Western Highlands and Islands, in which it is stated that, between 1845 and 1850. Sir James expended in works executed in the Lews the sum of £101,875, besides gratuities for education and charity to the amount of £65,892, being .£67,980 (exclusive of the cost of management), more than the whole revenue derived from the property during these years. I much regret occupying your valuable time, but think it best to forward this statement, in case it may touch on any point that requires explanation.