STATEMENT by JOHN BLACK, Esq., Sheriff-Substitute, Stornoway.
SHERIFF'S CHAMBERS, STORNOWAY, Esq., Sheriff-
15th May 1883.
In view of the Royal Commissioners visiting this island soon, I take leave to bring under their notice some usages, &c , connected with our fishing industry well worthy of examination, calculated as these are to cripple the industry not a little.
The Lews population, amounting to 26,000 or so, is a crofter population, with the exception of 3500 or so (mostly resident in Stornoway) ; and as Lews crofters are also fishermen (as a rule), and their living is mainly got out of the sea, it seems eminently desirable to remove all removable impediments in the way of the people making the most of the golden girdle that surrounds their island.
The usages, & c , I refer to are these :—
I. The system of fixing many months in advance the prices to be paid for the fish that may be caught.
In Yarmouth and other places in the south, the fishermen fish for herrings on their own account, and the fish when landed are sold to curers at the market price of the day (ascertained in some places—Yarmouth, for example— by the fish being sold by auction). In the Lews again, and other places in Scotland, the usual practice is for the crew to be, months before the commencement of the fishing season, engaged by a curer to fish for him for the season, the price to be received by the crew for the fish cured being paid at the outset (in the case of herrings at so much per cran, say 20s.). These prices are in addition to the ' bounty' noticed below. This fixing of the prices many months in advance tends, I imagine, to reduce the average profit to the fisherman, as the curer, in fixing the prices; will be anxious to keep himself safe. Moreover, so far as the curer is concerned, the system tends sensibly to increase the gambling element in the industry. The evils just noticed are perhaps unavoidable in small stations, where the absence of keen competition might place the fishermen at the mercy of a small number of curers. But at all large stations, like Stornoway, the evils seem quite avoidable. Good might be done if, after inquiry, this were pointed out by the Commissioners in their Report.
II. The Bounty System
When a curer engages a crew to fish for him during the season, he engages to pay them so much in name of 'bounty' (say from £20 to £50 in the case of herring fishing). This bounty is in addition to the stipulated price of the fish. The crew receive the bounty long before the fish is caught, and it remains their property whether the fish caught be few or many. It is alleged by critics of the system that this diminishes the zeal of the fishermen, aye, if dog-fish are numerous, or if the weather be unpromising, the fishermen are tempted to remain at home, under circumstances that would not keep them on shore but for their having received the bounty. The fish-curers, I believe, are practically unanimous in disliking the system, which entails a heavy burden on them. Attempts to terminate it by a mutual agreement to witldiold bounties have failed through the disloyalty of individual curers. The hands of honest curers might be strengthened in their efforts to put an end to bounty giving if, after inquiry, the Commissioners were to condemn the system.
III. The Truck System
Our ling and cod fishing, as distinguished from the herring fishing, is mostly in the hands of local curers, who keep shops, in which they sell clothing, boots and shoes, nshing gear, pots and pans, groceries, provisions, &c. The boat from which a crew fish for a local curer has, with the appurtenances, been sold by the curer to the crew on credit, the crew undertaking to pay for it when able, the boat to become the property of the crew when fully paid for. During the progress of the nshing season each of the crew purchases in the curer's shop, on credit, the meal, clothing, and other necessaries required for himself and his family. A settlement takes place at the end of the season, i.e., the fishermen are credited with the price of the fish delivered by them to the curer, and debited with the price of their purchases. Money may or may not pass on the occasion, and a 'balance' is struck. The prices charged against the crew seem to be regulated by the conscience of the curer, for although the two parties have many disputes, resulting sometimes in litigation in the Sheriff Court here, it is a rare occurrence for the fishermen to question the fairness of the prices charged. As matter of fact, the prices are considerably higher than the usual prices. For example, a boll of meal, for which the curer might charge another customer 20s., would be charged 24s. when sold on credit to the crew. And the risk of nonpayment is so great, that most mainland shopkeepers would probably consider the prices charged against the crew to be much too low. In like manner, the conscience of the curer largely regulates the terms of his contract with his debtors the crew, and ill-natured people aUege that accordingly the curer prefers that the crew should not be quite ' clear' with him, and that their boats should not be ' free.' In the case of Murray v. Macleod and others, decided in 1878 by m y predecessor Sheriff Spittal, in the Sheriff Court here, a fish-curer sued a crew on what the curer called a running agreement, in the shape of a missive addressed by the crew to the curer, by which the crew bound themselves to fish herrings for the curer 'until
we shall be clear of your debt, on the east coast, for 2s. less per cran than current prices given to free boats.' And even working under such a contract the curer probably found his transactions with the crew anything but profitable. One result of the truck system is as curious as it is injurious to the fisherman, who, with such fatal facility gets goods from his employer on credit; for even if the fisherman chances to have the means to buy with cash, somehow he readily yields to the temptation to buy on credit, and so he pays, say 20 per cent, more for his goods than he need do. Another result of the case with which they thus obtain credit is that, in the vast majority of cases, the crews are in a state of chronic indebtedness to the curer, and fish for him, year after year, with little prospect of ever being ' free.' And the fisherman, long accustomed to get this accommodation —trained as it were to walk on crutches,—fancies probably that he never would learn to walk without them. As to the fish-curcr again, he probably believes that the fishermen are too poor, and ignorant, and spiritless, to give him a chance of getting them to fish for him unless he will supply the needs of themselves and their families by advances either in money or in kind, and that he may as well do it in kind as in money, and thus secure the merchant's profit, the money, if paid to the fisherman, being wanted for immediate use. His crews are largely indebted to him, and encouraged by occasional gains in exceptionally good seasons, or moved by mere feelings of humanity, he continues to make advances, dreaming that some big prize will come some day, and enable him to recoup himself for all the lottery tickets he has paid for in the game of hazard, which is his calling. The big prize never comes, and the impoverished curer must be content, sooner or later, to write off as a bad debt the greater part of the many, many thousands of pounds representing the total indebtedness of the fishermen.
It is hard to say which victim of this advance system is more to be pitied, —the curer, whose capital is hopelessly sunk in advances to the crews, and who must go on ' throwing good money after bad/ unless prepared to throw up the whole business as a bad job ; or the fisherman, who goes through life the serf of the curer, burdened with a load of debt of which he can hardly hope to get rid, a load which heavily weights the honest man in the race of life, and is a sore temptation to the m a n of weak principles to act a dishonourable part towards his employer.
It seems plain that the termination of the truck system would remove a part only of the evil—perhaps only a small part. But this is no reason why the truck system, if in itself mischievous, should not be attacked. I take leave humbly to submit, for the consideration of the Commissioners, whether, after inquiry, they should not report that the system ought to be rendered illegal by some such statutory enactment as that contained in sec. 6 of the Truck Act, 1 & 2 Will. IV. c. 37.
IV. The combination of croft work with fishing As already mentioned, the Lews crofter is usually a fisherman. But the claims of his croft come into sharp collision with those of his boat. Our herring fishing is in spring, when the crofter is engaged in the cultivation of his crop. And the attractions of the croft, I imagine, tend to withdraw the crofter's affections from the sea, and so to deaden his energies as a fisherman. Of the vast and ever-increasing quantities of herrings caught in the seas that surround our island, the great majority are caught by strangers. I submit it for the consideration of the Commissioners, whether it would not be better and more profitable for all concerned if the Lews fishermen, like their more successful brethren of the east coast, would confine themselves to fishing, limiting their territorial possessions, say to a house and garden with grass for a cow, and give up the crofts for the (greatly-needed) enlargement of adjoining crofts, to be occupied by crofters pure and simple. The expression of an opinion by the Commissioners in this sense would encourage those aiming at such a reform.
V. Defective harbour accommodation.
Except at Stomoway, there is no proper harbour in the island. Thanks to the enlightened views of the Fishing Board, and to the benevolence of Sir James Matheson's representatives, the harbour at Ness, our most important station for the cod and ling fishing, is being greatly improved, but there are other points on our coast where harbours for fishing boats are a great desideratum Carlorray, for example, and Valtos, and Bayble ; and the hands of the Fishery Board might be strengthened if this were indicated by the Commissioners.
With reference to the various points I have noticed—particularly the truck system—I may be permitted to suggest that the Commissioners, while in this island, should examine (1) one or two of the leading local curers ; (2) one or two of the leading curers who come to the island from other parts (England and the east coast of Scotland) ; (3) some of the crofter-fishermen, especially Ness men ; (4) Mr Mackay (Lady Matheson's factor) ; and (5) one of the Stornoway bank agents, say Mr Macleod, who was at one time a fish-curer himself.
Our seas team with fish, the value of which might be indefinitely increased to our islanders ; and, with all their faults, a lovable race those islanders are, and well worth careful conservation. I do not believe that legislation can do much to help them ; but it would be useful if a body like the Royal Commissioners were to draw attention to removable delects, and hint to the crofter the urgent need of industry, energy, and self-reliance for himself, and of education for his children.