Skeabost, Skye, 9 May 1883 - John Bethune

JOHN BETHUNE, Crofter, Bernisdale—examined.

883. The Chairman.
—Have you got a croft at this moment ?
—Half a croft.

884. How long have you had it?
—More than forty years.

885. Have you been a fisherman
—Yes, I was a fisherman from my youth.

886. Have you heard all the previous delegate said, and have you understood what he said?
—I heard the most part of it.

887. Do you wish to add anything with reference to the hardships alleged to be suffered by the people, and as to the remedies which have been suggested ?
—Our place is divided into three portions.

888. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—What place ?
—Bernisdale. I am in the centre of Bernisdale. My successor is now located in the pasturage which belonged to the holdings on which I am now. We are much straitened by the smallness of the holdings and the crowded state in which we are. There are many half crofts on which nine souls live—eighteen souls on one croft—and twelve on some, and from that downwards, and the population is double what I have seen it to be in my young days. The only thing that would remedy our ills, as the previous witness alluded to, is that we should get more land. As for me I am getting old, and I will not need it, but the rising generation will need it, The land is all gone. We are cropping the land for the last sixty-eight years every year, and the soil is just gone, and should I sow a boll or two of oats, maybe I will not have what I sow in the ground. Last year I had not what I sowed, and the most of the people are in the same condition. I am speaking for the people as for myself. If they had what land would support their families they would be very well off. They might leave a piece of the ground out, and sow it down with grass. That would make strong ground, and it would produce good corn again. When I was here first, in the year 1830, before old Mr Macdonald bought the place, we were very well off. We were not in need of buying any meal or anything, because we had plenty of ground. W e had all the Glens that man possessed, and some other glens, and we are toiling that ground every year. W e had a fold for our cows and plenty corn at that time. I never saw my father buying a boll of meal all the time he was in the place.

889. What family had he ?
—Four sons and a servant. How bad the day is that we have not a hill to keep a cow or a horse ! We cannot keep any cows on the hill, or a horse. We have to till the ground ourselves with a crooked spade, as a man told before, and women are harrowing the place without a horse. But there is a thing worse than that altogether—we will not get the ground toiled till May, because we have no horse. The people hereabout who have horses labour their own ground before we can get any horses. Should I get a horse here, I would keep a horse myself,—I saw in the place here some years ago a man who had a horse, and he had grazing in another place summer and winter, and he brought it back here to the village, and he was fined £4, 10s. by the factor and ground officer for taking the horse to plough the ground. There were two of them fined for doing such a thing.

890. Mr Cameron.
—How long was that ago ?
—When Mr Robertson was factor for M'Leod. It was not by this proprietor at alL They got a summons of removal, and they paid £4, 10s. for that. Another bad thing that was done on the people here was this. When M'Leod got the estate —Kenneth M'Leod, who bought the place twenty-two or twenty-three years ago —there were only twenty-two crofts on Bernisdale. Well, they had a cow, a piece on the hill, and a bit of the hill was left. The best part of the hill is in the hands of the proprietor himself, where we used to have our cows and horses. When M'Leod bought the estate, we had only a cow, and a piece on the hill.  We are obliged to put sheep on the hill, and the people, when they sold their cattle, were in debt, and most of them could not keep sheep on the ground at all. He told them he would give them sheep till they would pay it, or else that he would pay the grazing. So he put sheep on the ground himself, and when he saw there was some profit in the sheep—some years they would have £4, £3, or 50s.—he never gave them a shilling for thegrazing. They were obliged to pay the rent, and he had the profit of the grazing himself. Mr Macdonald, the landlord that is here today, followed the same state as his uncle. He promised to pay the people for the grazing of the sheep, and when he went over again he would not do it at all. He would not pay them a shilling, and that money is lying in the hands of Mr Macdonald yet for eight or nine years. When he removed the people from Skeabost he gave a few of them sheep gratis for removal.

891. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Do you refer to the present landlord?
—Yes, he removed them from Skeabost, eight or nine families, and gave sheep to them, but he never paid the grazing to the people. There is nothing left us but to get more land, and how can any man live upon a small bit. of land, say 3 acres, when there are nine souls upon that 3 acres ? When the people till the ground they are obliged to go away to the south country or to the fishing to pay the rent and to pay the meal their family use all the year. Another thing is done here, too. Surely, if any of you gentlemen . is a proprietor—and I see one proprietor here, but he never did any ill to his tenants, that is Mr Macdonald of Treaslane—surely you will allow the tenants to manage their own cattle and sheep. Surely there is no man who can manage my stock better than myself. Mr Macdonald has put a man over our stock to manage them.

892. The Chairman.
—Which Mr Macdonald?
—The present one. We are not allowed to buy or sell anything, but the manager he sends over us to manage our sheep. Surely the proprietor has no right to take possession of the land that I am paying for to him. If the people allowed a man to build a little house on the pasture, he paid £2 to the proprietor for that. The people are not allowed to get a farthing of that. When Mr Robertson was factor when Mr Macdonald was here, there was a man out of our pasture, and he charged £2 of rent upon him on the ground we paid. Is that right?

893. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Can you tell us anything about the taking away of the right to the shell-fish ?
—Yes, I saw a poor crippled man here that gathered a few oysters on the shore here, and they put him in jail— a poor crippled man, with one leg, put in jail for gathering a score or half a score of oysters !

894. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Is the sea shore not open to anybody, then ?
—No, I do not think it.

895. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Who arrested that man ? By whose orders was it done ?
—I believe it was by the orders of the present proprietor, Mr Macdonald. He was proprietor at the time, at any rate.

896. Was the shore formerly a good place for oysters?
—Yes, but they are all gone now.

897. Did the people use all to lift them?
—Yes, they lifted them from all quarters here.

898. And the laird put a stop to that ?
—Yes. Speaking about the sea-ware here, when we had the sea-ware before, it was divided into shares. It was the best sea-ware, and they would cast lots for it, and that was very good for the people to manure their ground. To-day we will not get a dust of it unless I am a favourite with the ground officer of the proprietor. A favourite will get plenty of it ; and it is not this year or last year or many years back.

899. Mr Cameron.
—Are you a favourite?
—Oh, sometimes.  
Sheriff Nicolson.
—Have you got any of the sea-ware?
—About two years ago they appointed me a bit of it, and when I went there were only eight or nine creels of it, and I left it to themselves.

900. Are there any oysters now at all ?
—Very few.

901. What has become of them ?
—I do not know.

902. Do not the people take them all away ?
—No, they don't; but they went away themselves someway or another. I do not know what is the reason of that.

903. Don't you know that an oyster bed will be destroyed if the oysters—young and old—are taken away ?

904. Was not that the case ?
—I do not think it.

905. If people from all directions were taking the oysters, there would not be many left ?
—No, they would take them all; but there are a few left. I was there about a month ago and I saw a few oysters there, but there are not many.

906. Were the people prohibited from lifting any other shell-fish except oysters ?
—I do not think it. They were not prohibited from collecting any other shell-fish except the oysters.

907. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—In regard to the management of the common pasturage, how long is it since the proprietor put a man on to manage the stock for you ?
—The ground officer is managing our sheepstock since we joined them all together.

908. How long is it since you joined them all together ?
—It is only a few years back. Since then the proprietor put a manager over us. In the year 1861 we joined stock.

909. Twenty-two years ago ?
—Yes ; it was M'Leod at that time.

910. Before that each man had his own stock ?
—Yes, they had cattle on the hill and a few sheep.

911. And after that time they each had a share in one stock?
—Yes, each had a share.

912. And the proprietor gave the sheep to some of them?
—Yes, he possessed about seven or eight shares of the hill.

913. And he put his manager on to help to manage it?
—He had a manager on the place, and he had grazing himself. He never paid a shilling to the people for the grazing. They paid all the rent besides that. In the case of a man who pays £ 8 of rent, maybe M'Leod would get £ 8 or £3 or £4 for that poor man's grazing.

914. Whom did he get the £3 or £4 from ?
—From the income of the sheep. Mr M'Leod had a share of the stock himself.

915. What is the stock on the hill ?
—There were about 400 sheep on the hill.

916. And how many shares were in it ?
—There were twenty-two shares at that time, and M'Leod had seven or eight at any rate of those twenty-two shares, and when the people could not stock the place he told them he would keep sheep on the hill for the people, and that he would give them the sheep until they would pay it. No, he did not give them that, but when he saw there was a little profit on the income of the sheep when they were sold as wool and wedder, he did not give them anything. He kept the profit to himself. He said ' they pay the whole rent,' and they did not get any.

917. But the stock was one whole stock? Was not the rent paid and all expenses paid before the profits were divided ?
—Yes. The profit was £80,—£4 on each share. Every man would get his share, and M'Leod would get seven or eight shares.

918. But you only find out the profit after paying the expenses ?
—The rent was paid.

919. And all the expenses?
—And all the expenses.

920. And then, what was over was the profit ?
—We were wanting him, because he had the sheep on the farm, to pay the grazing of the sheep to us. The grazing belongs to the tenant. Every crofter had sixteen sheep. The grazing belongs bo the people when they pay the rent. They would require to get payment for their own grazing from Mr M'Leod—2s. 6d. for every sheep. That would make £2 each he put in his pocket belonging to the people for eight or nine years,—eight shares—so he had £16 that the sheep would make—£4 in the year.

921. Mr Cameron.
—Does that system go on now?
—No. It was carried on by Mr Macdonald too. He promised to pay the grazing to the people, and he did not do it.

922. Does that go on still ?
—No, because when he removed the people from Skeabost he gave eight sheep's grass to every one he removed.

923. But this, which you describe as a grievance then, is not a grievance now ?

924. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Did he give eight sheep as a present to each of those he removed ?
—To seven of them.

925. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—I want to find out from you about the manager who arranges about your stock. Are the tenants not allowed of their own will to choose their own manager ?
—The tenants appointed two men to look after their own stock—two of the tenants. Mr Macdonald said he must send a man over them too, and so he did.

926. Does he do so yet?

927. Who is that man1? Does he control the other two men?
—He is the head man. He will do what he thinks proper himself.

928. Does he do the selling ?

929. Of the wool ?

930. And the whole of the sheep ?
—I know that about two years ago he gave the wool to the ground officer. The ground officer charged £4, 4s. on the people for sending the wool to Glasgow. Another thing that the proprietor is doing, very bad on the people, is that he is allowing the ground officer to have horses along with their poor cattle. Is that right ? Would any of you proprietors allow your ground officer to put one or two horses on the tenant's land, grazing ? Surely, it is not right.

931. Are these horses upon any other people's land than your own township ?
—I do not know. When they go to work at some other place they will have it there.

932. Mr Cameron.
—What kind of work do these horses do?
—They work for the ground officer, and the ground officer is working for people, ploughing the land, and it will be about £ 1 a day for a pair of horses.

933. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Has this ground officer a place of his own ?
—He has a croft, but he had only a share of the pasture as I had.

934. But is he allowed to keep his horses anywhere on the hill ?
—Along with the poor milk cows, and the grassing for the milk cows was only like a market stance. The grassing was not worth 10s. for every cow. There is no grassing at all We are obliged to cut the corn for the cattle in August, and whatever is my crop I must leave a good piece of it for the cow, or else she will die.

935. Mr Cameron.
—Were you selected as a delegate by the people to represent their views?
—No, the ground officer had an objection against me, and would not allow me to be there at all, but the last day here, the people selected me—not the first day.

936. But the day after, they selected you?

937. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—What had the ground officer to do with the selection ?
—I do not know.

938. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Has he a croft ?

939. Mr Cameron.
—Do you consider you are a fair representative of the people, your neighbours?

940. They chose you freely?

941. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—What objection has the ground officer to you ?
—Because I am always speaking about what is going wrong in the place. My tongue is too long.

942. Sheriff Nicolson.
—What happened that first day ? Were you there ?

943. What happened the first day you met to elect delegates ?
—The first day the ground officer had a number of men,—six men he selected himself,—and one of the men rose and said they would select me. " Well," said he, " I will not part with any that I have at all," and the people did not say any more to him at that time. The people were always speaking about it, after that, that they would select me, because I was here for a long time. I was here when General Macdonald was here about thirty-three years ago.

944. How old are you ?

945. The Chairman.
—You spoke of the hardship of not being allowed to keep horses?

946. When you were a very young man do you remember that the people had horses then ?
—Yes, my father and the family had two crofts in Bernisdale.

947. But do you remember long ago that some of the people really had horses ?
—Yes, every one that was in the place except two men. There were twenty horses in Bernisdale.

948. You saw it yourself ?

949. You complained, as a proof of the poverty of the people now, that the women are obliged to draw the harrows and work in the fields. When you were a young man did women never work in the fields and
draw the harrows?
—No, they did not, and as for those two men who had no horses, the people of the place ploughed their ground gratis.

950. Do the crofters consider it a great hardship that the women should work in the fields, and draw the harrows, and carry the sea-ware, and so on ?
—Yes, it is miserable, and very bad for the weakest member of the family to carry a creel of ware upon her back, and draw a harrow after her.

951. Did you ever hear it said that it injured the health of the women to carry those burdens and do those works ?
—No, I did not hear that; but I know that old women cannot do it.

952. Had the people in those days better food than they have now? were they better fed ?
—In my younger days I think we had better food than we have to-day.

953. In what respect was it better? Was there more of it?

954. Were there more potatoes in the house ?
—Yes. There were more potatoes, and they could at a time take home a sheep and kill it; and in winter time, most of'the people here would kill half a cow or a hail cow through the winter. They would have plenty of potatoes and plenty of meal when they had ground.

955. Do you remember whether there was more milk in those days for the use of the children ?
—I remember my sister coming from the hill after milking the sheep, with three or four pints of milk every day.

956. Ewe's milk?
—Sheep's milk.

957. Do you think they had more milk for the use of the children than they have now ?
—I know they had three times as much milk.

958. Do you hear frequent complaints of the want of milk for the children now ?
—Oh ! surely I do in my place to-day. They have no milk, but very little. Mr Macdonald is giving milk to the people here about.

959. Do you mean he sells it ?
—No, he gives the milk gratis.

960. Do they ever kill any sheep and salt them for the winter ?
—A few of them do, but very seldom.

961. Do they ever kill a cow ?
—Well, they seldom do that.

962. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Are the people in arrears of rent just now ?
—Not to the proprietor, but they are in arrears to the bank. A good many of the people are going to the bank every year to pay rent.

963. At the time you were alluding to, when you were a young man, were the rents regularly paid?

964. And the people were not in debt?
—Not in debt; when I was young in the place, at the time of the markets, three or four or five of the drovers would come to Bernisdale, and go to the hill and buy a good cow from the hill, and that would pay the rent in the meantime.

965. Did the dealers come to your door ?
—Dealers came to the door for the cows and went to the hill to buy them. There were no lads going to the fishing at that time, or to any place. I am sure there were only three or four young strong lads going away in my young days out of the country at all.

966. Their own districts supported them ?
—This place supported them,

967. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
 —How many people were in the place then?
—There were only twenty-two at the centre of Bernisdale, but there was another place near Aird.

968. How many are there now in Bernisdale. How many families?
—In the Glens and on the estate of Bernisdale there are about ninety families.

969. And it will keep twenty-two well ?
—It would keep twenty-two very good. There are seventy-three I believe paying rent, and there are twenty-nine poor that do not pay rent at all. In my days there was not a poor man in the place but four small houses, and these men were better off that day than I am to-day, and I will tell you the reason. They would get plenty of potato ground and they would get their ground sown with corn the next spring again, and they were getting that gratis. They would have a few sheep on the hill gratis.

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