STATEMENT of Rev. ANGUS MACIVER, Uig Manse, Stornoway.
Uig MANSE, STORNOWAY,
11th May 1883
As a native of Lewis, and for the most part resident on the island, and taking a deep interest in the welfare of the people, I beg respectfully to submit some of the views I entertain as to the state of matters here, and the reforms necessary for the consideration of the Royal Commissioners. I am intimately acquainted with every part of the island, know a very large proportion of the people, their habits, and ways of thinking, and have a very good idea of their circumstances in general, besides having a very extensive knowledge of the Highlands and Islands, and a residence of nine months in Canada, travelling westward some 1200 miles, and living for the most part in the houses of Highland settlers. I mention these facts simply to let the Commissioners know that I cannot at any rate plead ignorance, or that I had not advantages and means for making up my mind in some way as to the question which now occupies the mind of the Commissioners, and on which Parliament, I hope, will soon legislate.
It is evident to any one who knows the real state of the Highland crofters that the Commission has not been appointed a day too soon. In many places matters have been getting into a dangerous state. This, I should think, will be pretty apparent to the Commissioners before they are through their work. On coming to this island a few things will strike the Commissioners at once, as, for instance, the poverty of the soil, the large population, the wretchedness of their dwelling-places, and to account for the fact of their remaining and living in such circumstances. The fact, however, is undoubted that things are, in many respects, becoming worse and worse with the people, and at the present rate are bound to come to a crisis at no distant day, unless some remedy is devised for averting it. The primary causes for the present state of things are the state of the land laws, too many of the people crowding into narrow and poor parts of the land, the want of tenure of the land, the want of interest in the people on the part of proprietors, and the want of education. The people naturally and morally are capable of becoming one of the finest class to be met with anywhere.
Take, for example, the people of this island, and before they can be made anything like comfortable as crofters they will require every inch of land on the estate at very moderate rents. They have sunk so low as to material resources and comforts, and in the independence of m m d that ought to characterise them, that it will take some time to raise them to the true ideal of manhood. They have been living hitherto on the borders of starvation, and absolute dependents on the will of others. I hold that the people had no hand in bringing themselves to this state. They have been helpless all along. Fifty or forty years ago they were quite comfortable and able to live well, but now they find it very dimcult to make a bare living. The population has increased enormously for the last forty years, and instead of the proprietor seeing to the comfort of these people by giving them more lands, they have just been deprived of them in proportion to the increase, and these made into sheep farms and deer forests. The result now is a congestion of population in the various districts where they reside. And, unless a very decided change takes place soon, a chronic state of destitution will be the consequence. The small patches of land the people occupy are divided and subdivided, so that there are very few of the original lots but are now in this condition. Both the proprietor and crofters have been at fault in this. The crofter would naturally permit his son to build a house on his lot, as he was powerless to do anything else for him, and hence the reason on his side for the subdivision. All the son's hard earnings up to the time of marriage went to support his father's family, to pay the rents, &c. He could not lay by any of his earnings to start for himself anywhere else. There is no use saying, Why would not these sons shift for themselves, and leave the father on the lot? One of the reasons is because the son sees it would be unfair to leave his father in old age to struggle with poverty and inability to pay his way after he had done so much for him. The obligation is strong on both sides. I believe this operates powerfully with the poor people here. Although they are poor, they have a sense of honour, and wish to perform their respective duties to one another as far as they can. Poverty and a sense of dependence on one another have been, I believe, the main reason, though not the exclusive one, for the great increase of population in this island. Other reasons are the isolated position of the island and hitherto the want of the English language. Perhaps there is no other part of the Highlands where Gaelic is so universally spoken. These, as far as I can make out, are the principal reasons for the present unfortunate position of matters.
I maintain that there are plenty of lands in Lewis to make the present crofters and squatters, as they are called, comfortable, provided they get them all on easy terms; but not otherwise. I mean, of course, what there is of arable land and grazings. My decided opinion is that they should all have lots ranging from £5 to £7 . The lands are so poor that the lots must be adapted to the circumstances of the people and the nature of the soil and climate. They should have what would afford them some comfort and leave them independent of others. It is quite evident that there is no other class of people who can make the same use of the soil as the natives themselves, if they are properly encouraged. And I say further, with the greatest confidence, that, poor though the island be, under a good land law there will be found in another generation a perfectly comfortable and respectable class of crofters in this island as will be found anywhere in Britain. They are naturally shrewd and intelligent, and their moral character stands high. Some people say, supposing they got the lands, the same 6tate of things would recur by and by, and the danger would necessarily be increased when there was no outlet for the surplus population. My answer to this is twofold. First, any new legislation on the subject would need to provide against subdivision of lots; but, secondly, I maintain, although there was no such provision, that the young people will, in a very short time, begin to move off to other and better parts of the world. If the Education Act is worked properly, the rising generation will have their eyes opened to see that there are better places in the world to live in than these, and they will spontaneously move off to other countries. While my convictions are very strong and decided as to the influence of education on the rising generation, I have equally strong opinions as to the necessity at time of encouraging and strengthening them for free and voluntary emigration. Education of itself will not effect the needed reform.
There must be means for enabling them to carry out their wishes and intentions. Parents and children having the means at command will see the necessity and utility of doing as is done in other parts of the world. Combine education and material comfort, and it solves any difficulty that may now exist or may be supposed to exist hereafter. Highlanders, as you all know, have force of character that will enable them to make their way anywhere, provided they get equal chances with others. In illustration and proof of the soundness of the view I now express on this subjeet, I may mention to the Commissioners that I taught a school in my present parish upwards of twenty years ago. The children were well grounded in the principles of education. I mind on coming back to the parish a few years ago that there were very few of them to be met with here now ; the most of these boys are away to other parts of the world, and some of them making fortunes. When I inquire how they managed to get away, I find that they have been almost all taken in hand by some one, and those who were not have settled down as crofters and fishermen. I mention this fact to show that education of itself is ineffectual.
I always recommend to as many as can emigrate to do so, for the circumstances of the colonists are far beyond anything that can be met with among crofters in the Western Highlands. There is no comparison between them in any respect. Many of those colonists who are now in comfortable circumstances suffered great hardships after arriving in America, and I have no doubt, from the accounts given to me by many of themselves, that a number of those who were sent away died from sheer want. The hardships encountered by those who left the country have had a great deal to do with discouraging those who remained behind from attempting to follow them. As far as I can make out, it is quite hopeless to think of getting these people to emigrate at this stage, and it would be very wrong to bring any pressure to bear upon them for that end. They cannot afford it on account of their poverty and destitution, and one would incur a serious responsibility who would attempt it in the present condition of the people. Let the best that can be done for them in their native land be done in the first instance, and when all the means at the disposal of the country are exhausted, it will be time enough then to try the expedient of sending them to other lands. In the meantime, I cannot see that there is any necessity for attempting anything of the kind. Let there be a proper and equitable distribution of the land, and the social position of the people will come all right.
If the people of this island are to have any benefit from legislation about the lands, it is out of the question to think that they can afford to give the present rents for them. I understand the rents have been doubled for the last forty years by reason of sports and other causes which may readily occur to the Commissioners. What reduction there should be is not for me at present to say, as the Commissioners will see for themselves the nature of the soil and the state of the country. They will not traverse any part of the Highlands so poor as the most of it.
A most important part of any reform that is to be effected in this island must have reference to the dwelling-places of the people, and it has been hitherto surrounded by many difficulties, as, for instance, the want of leases or proper hold of the land, the fear of being evicted from their houses, the want of timber and material for building better ones. Within sight of where I am writing, the poor people, forty years ago, built at their own expense and by their own labour, houses according to plans and specifications drawn out by order of the proprietor and immediately after they were finished, they were sent away to Canada without getting any compensation. While they were endeavouring to carry out these plans and specifications, they supported themselves and families on shell-fish. Dealings with the people, such as I now describe, have militated very much against any improvements that might have been effected in this direction. They have not been encouraged, but I should rather say discouraged. I know in the case of my own parishioners that they are sensible of the backward way in which they stand in this respect, and many of them have improved their houses lately, and I know that they are all anxious to have them in a better state. At the present rate of progress, however, it will take generations to see them anything like what they ought to be. Some means must be adopted to bring about a decided reform as to houses in Lewis ; for as matters stand now, they are simply actionable on the grounds of sanitary law.
There is a notion prevalent with some, viz., that the people, or at least many of them, should become exclusively fishermen, and that this would leave them better off than they are at present. I wish very strongly to impress upon the Commissioners the folly of this view, and the danger of entertaining it. The herring fishing is carried on for two months of the year on the east side of the island. During the remainder of the year the native population prosecute the ling fishing exclusively. I should also mention that for two or three months in the year they go as hired men to the east coast herring fishing. The principal fishing in Lewis, however, is the ling fishing. It is plentiful around the island in winter and spring, but the sea is so rough and boisterous that they can very seldom get out, and they are considered the boldest and best of fishermen. They will stand out to sea when east coast fishermen, with better crafts, will make for the land. This year they have been anxiously waiting to get to sea, and for seven months they have been unable to do anything. During the most of that time the east coast fishermen have been able to prosecute the fishing. The sea around Lewis and the fishing ground are quite different from those on the east coast. The fishing can never be much more than merely a help to the people. They won't live by it alone. Besides the distance from the market will always leave the people at a disadvantage. Good harbours are much needed in different parts of the island.
In case I may not have an opportunity of meeting with the Commissioners when they come to the island, I wish to lay before them the foregoing statement of my views on the subject. I have no doubt the Commissioners have long ere now thought over all the points bearing on the settlement of the question in general; but as their duty now calls them to hear all that may be said on the subject, I trust you will excuse the length of this letter. And if there should be anything in it that may be of help to the poor people, and to facilitate your investigations, I shall be much pleased.
As to the mere details of grievances, the crofters themselves will give you plenty of them in the various districts of the island through which you will
pass. ANGUS MacIVER.
P.S.—I read the foregoing statement to a committee of crofters here, and they agree with the views expressed. A. MacIVER.