STATEMENT by the Rev. MALCOLM M'RiTCHiE, Free Church Minister, Knock, Stornoway.
Having been from home in ill health when your Honourable Commission appeared in the Island of Lewis, and thus unable to appear personally before you to give my estimate of the present state of Lewis, as compared with what I have known it to be, from a recollection of now close upon seventy years—having been born in Lewis in the year 1803, and since intimately acquainted with every part of it,—will your Lordship kindly allow me to submit the following statement bearing upon the condition of the island as a whole, as contrasted with what existed within my own memory; and also a more particular statement as to the condition of things in the parish of Knock, in which I have laboured for many years as a minister of the gospel, and at a former period as teacher.
I will also take the liberty of suggesting to your Lordship some of the remedial measures necessary for ameliorating the condition of the people.
My Lord, my recollections of Lewis go back for seventy years, and I well remember the comfortable circumstances of the large population that then inhabited my native parish of Uig. The population of the parish then would be about 3000, as against the present population of 3489 ; but how different the comfort and the circumstances of the population of sixty years ago ! All the people were then in a state of comparative comfort, having arable land, and hill pasture for sheep and cattle, whereas now poverty and want largely predominate. Increase of population cannot here be the cause of the immense difference in the condition of the people. The present population of 3489 is only some 448 more than that of fifty years ago, when the parish had a population of 3041, and when the circumstances of the people were much more comfortable. And this is so in the face of the large increase in the value of the fishing industry since 1831, affording a source of income to the people many times larger now than it was then. Why, then, the unfavourable condition of the people, as contrasted with their condition then ? Simply because the large reaches of pasture ground then in their possession have been taken from the people since, and are formed into sheep walks and deer forests, without any abatement of rents formerly charged; yes, with increase in many cases.
The value of his croft to the Lewis crofter depends largely upon the amount of grazing ground, and the number of sheep and cattle he can rear thereon. There are large portions of my native parish of Uig, where, in my boyhood, there were large populous townships of comfortable crofters, that are now all under sheep and deer, their former inhabitants driven away to foreign lands, or crowded upon other crofter townships. These townships had in my boyhood sheep and cattle in abundance, with full liberty to use to any extent the salmon that stocked the rivers so plentifully. These they preserved in large quantities for winter store, which, along with the produce of their land, flocks, and herds, and the abundant harvest of the sea, caused poverty and want to be unknown among them. These townships then suppned many a brave soldier to the ranks of the British army—among them several of my own near relatives — many of whom found a soldier's grave among the sands of Egypt, or the other battlefields of the Peninsular war. I do not know, my Lord, how many soldiers from Lewis are now serving in the ranks of Her Majesty's army, but the special reason for the smallness of the number must be sought in the state of vassalage and poverty in which the people have been kept for generations, undermining the spirit of enterprise and patriotism which formerly animated them. Unknown to the proprietor, who seldom resided among them, they became the victims of petty officials, who tyranised over them without any real regard for the moral and material interests of the people, who believed themselves to be entirely in their power. It is no small wonder to see what the people still are, for morally and physically they will bear comparison with any similar class of crofter peasantry in the world. As one who has conversed with old and venerable men, whose evidence, added to my own recollections, can go back more than a hundred and fifty years of the history of Lewis, I must testify to the high character my countrymen of the past bore for moral worth and honesty, as well as for parental and fraternal affection, and hospitality to strangers.
Much has been said of the large sums spent by the late Sir James Matheson on Lewis in improvements. Large sums were indeed spent, but much of it in mere experiments which resultedrin no permanent good,—such as the expensive experiments at Loch Ganavich, the paraffin works at Garrabost, &c. Had part of the sums so spent been applied to the improvement of the crofters' dwellings, and for piers and harbours for the better development of the fishing industry, the results to the welfare of the people, and the interests of the estate, would be very different now from what they are. After all the money spent, the fact still remains painfully evident that the condition of the people now is worse than when Sir James Matheson bought the estate. The whole tenor of the management has been all along rather to discourage than to encourage the crofter. Were it not for the fishing, the crofter population could not subsist upon their smaR allotments of the soil, and that generaRy the poorest and the worst For, the close upon 23,000 of the crofter population in Lewis pay only about £8200 of the £20,000 rental yielded by the island, while the other £12,000 are paid by a few large farmers and sportsmen. The soil in possession of the large farmers is by far the best in Lewis, and yields, considering its quality, a far lower rent than the portion in possession of the crofters. The best of the land was taken for the purpose of forming those large farms, and the crofters were driven from them, and huddled together on inferior ground, or sent away (as many of them were) to other parts of the world. This was done without any compensation, or consideration for their own and their forefathers' labours in bringing the soil to the state of cultivation in which it was when they were forced from it. All the land now in possession of the large farmers in Lewis, with the exception of what was reclaimed by the late Sir James Matheson, had been reclaimed by the forefathers of the present crofter population, without any cess that I know of to the proprietor. That being the case, is it just or fair, my Lord, that a few strangers should possess more than half the soil, and that the best of it, mostly for rearing sheep and cattle, while the descendants of the original possessors, a race of hardy and industrious men and women, are crowded together on the most sterile portions of the soil
But that is the present state of Lewis, and it is not possible to keep the rising generation—with their growing intelligence and information as to what is right and wrong in this matter, and encouraged by the sympathy their cause evokes in many quarters—from considering this state of things a grievous injustice, and entertaining a sense of wrong which may be found in the future far more troublesome than it has yet been, unless some remedy is applied. I will now humbly call your Lordship's attention to the remedies which, while largely ameliorating the condition of the people, will not injure, but rather enhance the interests of the proprietor.
First.—The people must have more land, if their present condition is not to deteriorate into something worse. In saying this I am far from wishing that the system of middle-sized farms should be discontinued, except when the absolute necessities of the population demand the change. These always existed in the Highlands alongside of the crofter population, and the influence of the one class of tenants upon the other had always been beneficial. They were generally a hardy, intelligent, and patriotic race—very superior to the race of large sheep farmers who displaced them. Many of the latter were as void of patriotism as of generous interest in their poorer neighbours. In many instances they are non-resident in the country-sides they rent, and have no further interest in the place and people than what concerns their own individual advantage. These ought to give way wherever there is a population requiring to be accommodated with land ; while, out of these large tracts now under sheep, small farmers could also be accommodated, as well as a crofter population. There is enough land in Lewis—with which I am now more immediately concerned—to accomplish both these objects. Let me begin with the quoad sacra parish of Knock. In that parish there are the following townships,
with the specified number of crofters and cottars in each, viz.:—
(1.) Portnaguiran, 30 crofters, 9 cottars = 39 families
(2.) Portvallar, 18 crofters, 18 cottars = 36 families
(3.) Aird, 28 crofters, 31 cottars = 59 families
(4.) Sheshadder, 20 crofters, 12 cottars = 32 families
(5.) Shader, 28 crofters, 11 cottars = 39 families
(6.) Garrabost, 69 crofters, 17 cottars = 86 families
(7.) Bayble—Upper and Lower, 100 crofters, 37 cottars = 137 families
(8.) Swordle, 27 crofters, 15 cottars = 42 families
(9.) Knock, 30 crofters, 15 cottars = 45 families
(10.) Branahnie, 22 crofters, 10 cottars = 32 families
(11.) Melbost, 27 crofters, 8 cottars = 35 families
In all, 582 families, of whom no less than 183 are cottars, or families without land, except any small portion which they may have from the crofters. On many of the crofts—originally small enough for one family—there are now located in many instances two families, and in not a few cases three families. Of the 399 crofters in this parish very few pay £4, or upwards of £4, while 183 cottars have no land at all, except through the subdivision of these small crofts. Is there any way, then, in which the overcrowded state of this parish can be remedied ? Within the parish itself there is not certainly sufficient land to give a good-sized croft to each of these 183 cottars, while doing justice to the original crofter population. But many of the people now in the parish of Knock are the children of parents driven in past generations from other parishes in the island to make room for sheep and deer; and that fact should be taken into account in getting land for their accommodation. If there is not enough land in the parish of Knock, there is plenty of land in other parts of the island now lying fallow. In the parish itself, however, there is the farm of Aignish, now under sheep, and it is by far the best arable land in the whole parish. On that farm rushes and ferns largely cover parks once yielding splendid returns of every kind of crop. That farm might accommodate some thirty families, and being contiguous to the sea, is admirably suited for the class of crofter fisher population that inhabit that district. And surely, my Lord, to make comfortable homesteads for some thirty families of the sturdy, hardy fishermen of the parish of Knock is of greater importance than the grazing of a few hundred sheep. This farm yields for grazing purposes now a rental of £110, whereas thirty crofters might pay a larger rental, and be comfortable on the produce of these crofts, along with that of the fishing industry. There is no use in giving very large crofts to fishermen, because they cannot manage them well without interfering with their fishing operations.
Contiguous to the parish of Knock, if not partly within it, are the two farms of Holm and Melbost, paying an aggregate rental of £291, which, along with the above-named farm of Aignish, could accommodate more than the whole surplus cottar population of the parish of Knock, and they could and would, under proper arrangement, pay a larger rental than the present. There would still remain, near the town of Stornoway on every side, nine large farms of an aggregate rental of £905, along with twenty-two larger or smaller parks or farms in the hands of single individuals, of an aggregate rental of £214. There is, therefore, plenty of land in or near the parish of Knock to give a fair croft to every family, and leave still a number of small farms and parks for all the wants of such a population as occupy the town of Stomoway. The land, however, should be given under such conditions as to occupancy and cultivation as will guard for the future against the evils which have crept in under the present system. There should be leases given of reasonable length, and every encouragement given for the improvement of the soil. Under such leases it should be a condition—(a), that a house, barn, and byre suitable to the holding should be erected—a model plan for such being supplied by the estate, and Government or the estate supplying at moderate interest the money necessary—to be payable, interest and capital, within a certain number of years. To those capable of erecting such buildings at their own expense, there should be the promise of compensation at the end of the lease, if under the necessity of removing. (b), It should be a condition that special attention be given to the cultivation, feeding, and improvement of the soil, (c), It should be a condition that all subdivision should be strictly prohibited, as well as the housing of more than one family on the holding. The rising generation should be made to keep the prospect before them, that as they settle down in life, as many as the land will not properly maintain must make homes for themselves elsewhere. This would largely correct the evil of early marriages, and also direct the attention of many of the young to the propriety of acquiring some trade or profession, or of emigrating to the wide and inviting fields of our colonial empire. It might also lead many to the naval and merchant shipping service.
Under the present state of things there is no proper directing of the energies of the rising generation, and as a result they marry young, and settle—or
rather huddle together—in their present miserable surroundings. But were the land given on such conditions as the above, and the people made to feel that they have a real interest in the soil, I am firmly convinced that the whole aspect of things would undergo a complete transformation in a few years, while
the interests of proprietor and people would be better secured than by the present system.
The remarks under this head applicable to the parish of Knock are equally applicable to the other parishes in the island. Lochs, with its large population, has within its boundaries ten farms, the rents of which amount to £1349, or within £340 of half the rental derived from land over the whole parish. The whole rental of the parish, according to the valuation roll of 1871, is £4320, 17s. 10d. But of that sum £947 odds are drawn from shootings, salmon fisheries, and feu-duties, leaving £3373, 17s. 10d. as the rental from land, of which the above ten farmers pay £1349, leaving only £2024 to the whole crofter population of thousands of people. Surely, my Lord, this is an unfair division of the soil. The farm of Park alone would supply all the cottar population with land, and would, under a fair arrangement, pay a higher rent than the farmer, while the shootings would be in no way deteriorated.
The same thing is true of the parish of Uig, but in a more aggravated form. The whole rental of that parish is £3771, 10s. 6d, which, after deducting £926, 8s. 6d. for shootings and salmon fisheries, leaves £2845, 2s. as rental from land, of which fourteen individuals and the proprietor pay £1577,12s. 6d., leaving only £1267, 9s. 6d. as the portion of the thousands of the crofter population ! Is it any wonder, my Lord, that the condition of the people is such as it is, when the division of the land is so inequitable ? The same thing is true, but to a more limited extent, of the parish of Barvas, and to the part of the parish of Stomoway immediately adjoining. In both of them there is sufhcient land for all the crofter population, while leaving a margin for a few middle-sized farms.
Another improvement that would largely benefit such a population as occupy Lewis, depending, as they do, so much upon the fishing industry, would be the making of suitable harbours in the island. The fishing industry has never been developed to the extent to which it could easily and profitably be developed. The want of harbours in suitable centres has mainly hindered this development. There has no proper attention been given to a close time for the herring fishing ; the best kind of boat and rig for the ling and cod fishing; and several other points in connection with this industry. The forming of a few harbours cannot fail to give a very great stimulus to this industry, and add to the comforts of the people, as well as to the food supply of the kingdom.
Two places in the parish of Knock are specially adapted for such harbours, viz., Bayble and Portnaguiran. Harbours could easily be made in both places, and both are most conveniently situated for the herring nshing, and also for the winter and spring fishing. Of all places in the island Loch Roag would be the most suitable and safe for a harbour on the most extensive scale. It would be large and safe enough for the whole herring fishing fleet engaged from Barra Head to the Butt of Lewis. Many disasters have taken place among the fishing population for want of these harbours. Within the last fourteen years forty fishermen belonging to my own congregation met their death by drowning, many of them within sight of their homes and friends, who are thus saddened, and discouraged in the prosecution of their calling.
Much, and at no very great outlay, could in this way be done for the population of Lewis, and for the better development of an industry so important to the nation. I have thus, my Lord, gone rapidly over the most of Lewis, pointing to some things that ought to be remedied, and the remedies that should be applied in justice to the people. I believe the application of these remedies would prove as beneficial to the proprietor as to the people. Many of the burdens imposed by the present condition of the people would be removed, or greatly lightened. Poverty WGuld become less common, and hence poor-rates lighter ; rents would be more punctually paid, and the whole tone and condition of the people would be elevated. It should also secure a contented and industrious population on the sea border, plying with more energy and success than ever their fishing operations, and pouring still larger supplies of so necessary an article of food as fish into our large towns and cities. It would also secure a basis of supply of the best possible element to meet the requirements of our army and navy, of our merchant shipping, and the many industries of our large towns and cities. And where could we get better materials for all these than fioni among such a people ? Nor do we know how soon the need of such an element may be felt, and the folly seen of giving up to sheep walks and deer forests the homes and lands once possessed by our brave Highlanders.