STATEMENT by the Rev. DONALD MACINTOSH, C.C., Benbecula.
BENBECULA, SOUTH UIST, LOCHMADDY,
8th October 1883.
I came to South Uist in 1861; I was six years in the Boisdale district, ten years in Iochdar, and for the last six years in Benbecula.
When I came to the country the clearances in 1851, and the emigration, forced in some cases with circumstances of shocking inhumanity, were fresh in the memory of old and young. The measure by which, in or about 1846, several townships in South Uist and Benbecula were despoiled of their hill pendicles was also well remembered, and is well remembered still by the old people.
In the evidence given by the crofters' delegates before the Royal Commission at Lochboisdale and Benbecula, there was nothing regarding the doings in 1851 and the previous years that I did not hear long ago in every part of the parish from the Sound of Barra to the North Ford To say, as has been said, that they only repeated the lesson taught them by agitators, means saying that they learned the lesson long years before agitators or a Royal Commission to inquire into their grievances were dreamt of. They did not exaggerate. Indeed, in describing things that happened in those times, to exaggerate would not be easy. In their evidence relative to later grievances they were in all cases within the truth.
Those charged with the estate administration in my time were not to be blamed for the old grievances, nor for such of the later grievances as followed necessarily from the old. They did their best, according to their own ideas, of what was best under the difficult circumstances in which they were placed. There were harsh doings occasionally, specimens of which have been brought under the notice of the Royal Commission. These things were looked on as matters of course ; the factor's will was law. Any attempt at undoing the wrong committed in 1851 and previous years was not thought of. The emptied townships remained empty, returning gradually to a state of nature, and the people were left huddled in congested places.
At length, six years ago, it was announced that the crofter population was to be put on a satisfactory footing. The plan adopted differed from the old crofters' system in this, that what land a man was to have he would have together; there was to be no common. The land was to be surveyed, revalued, and redistributed. Every m a n was to have a lot at a fair rent. Leases were to be given. This plan was carried out in Benbecula in 1879-80. Being only three years in operation, it is perhaps too early to draw conclusions, but for one thing the crofts in most cases are too small. The few who have 32 to 40 acres can be comfortable. Most of the crofts are, I should say, under 25 acres. Some are very small, and poor creatures who have but a few acres of bad land cannot in the most favourable seasons rise much above the confines of destitution. The great want, however, is that of hill pasture for change of grass and water for the cattle in summer. The rent is fair; the proprietrix encourages and assists on favourable terms, the building of improved dwellings; a number of neat thatched and not a few slated cottages have sprung up within the last three years. In this respect the appearance of the island is changing very much for the better.
It has been said that the only large farm in Benbecula is nearly double the rent it was in 1836, while the rent of the crofters is less than it was at the same date. It was surely somewhat unfair to compare things so dissimilar, leaving an inference to be drawn unfavourable to the crofters. I suppose the rent of farms is regulated by the market. Prices of sheep and cattle have risen very much, perhaps nearly doubled since 1836. Not so the price of kelp, on which the rent of crofts was based. When the croft system was introduced in the early years cf this century, kelp was worth £3 per ton to the crofter, how much to the proprietor I know not. The rent of the croft was paid in kelp. The price of kelp kept falling, until the manufacture of it was interrupted for some years after 1851. Yet its money equivalent when its price was high remained as the rent of the crofts, with few exceptions, till the revaluation in 1879-80. What wonder then if the rent rose in the one case and fell in the other? It has been also asserted that the said farm is less extensive now than in 1836. However that may be, it absorbed the hill pendicles taken from Balvannich and Dungannach in or about 1846, and seven crofts with their pertinents from the township of Aird in or about 1851. As no one in Benbecula knows of any lands taken from this large farm to balance these acquisitions, how the assertion can be made good is not apparent.
The Catholics of South Uist have a grievance in connection with the education question. It is well known that the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the island of South Uist are Catholics. In five of the South Uist Board Schools Catholic children are in a large majority; in the sixth (Eriskey) I do not think there is a single non-Catholic child. Yet we have not succeeded in getting a Catholic teacher into any of the schools. Our legal right is denied, and because we do not acquiesce in the denial, we are accused of stirring up religious animosity; of muddling the water while we have to drink far down the stream. There has been no contested School Board election as yet. We have refrained from bringing on a contest for the sake of peace, which we are after all blamed for disturbing. Our legal disabilities have been removed. Should our social disabilities continue ?
DONALD MACKINTOSH, C.C.