STATEMENT by the Rev. JAMES M. DAVIDSON, Minister of Stenscholl, Isle of Skye.
THE MANSE, STENSCHOLL, June 12, 1883.
I now take the liberty of submitting my statement. I may mention at the outset that the Royal Commission, over which you so ably preside, gave great satisfaction to the crofter population in this part of the island. The patient manner in which you listened to all grievances, the impartial and searching examination to which each delegate had been subjected, produced a very favourable impression here, as I have reason to believe, it has done elsewhere.
The tendency has developed from time to time, to a far greater extent than is at all desirable, to increase the large holdings and crowd the crofters upon inferior soil, which has contributed considerably to the present distress. Again, the crofter has no protection from the large tacksman; if he makes a complaint he can get no redress. " There is no law in Skye." Might is the only right, and that too in the last decade of the 19th century. One great evil that sadly needs reform, is the state of terrorism under which the small tenantry live, through the insolent threats of subordinate officials, whose impudence increases in proportion to the smallness of their authority. This vicious system has been found by selfish and unscrupulous individuals to work well for their own aggrandisement in the past, but is such as no right-minded man can justify, nor spirited people tolerate. Against that dread terrorism some remedial measures are absolutely necessary, as I have reason to believe that this feeling of insecurity prevents, in many instances, considerable improvements upon the holdings. The nature or extent of these measures is not for me to say, only the painful fact is too glaring to ignore it.
One thing greatly to be desiderated in the West Highlands, which is well worth the special attention of landed proprietors, is the formation of a third class tenantry, paying rent varying from £20, £30, £50, £70, or £100. These are always the backbone of a country, and help more than any other class to develop its agricultural resources. If these were once in a thriving condition, they would, to a considerable extent, be a safeguard against the periodical destitution from which so many in the West and North Highlands suffer at present. This is the class from which so many have risen and distinguished themselves, both in civil and military life. More of them go abroad, and, as a rule, succeed well in the colonies. I have observed that the more reduced in circumstances among the crofters are more averse to emigration than any others. It is surprising the tenacity with which they cling to their native soil, notwithstanding its barrenness and poverty. This may be traced to the backward state of education, a state of matters which the powers that be seem to foster, as if they found it to be their interest to keep the people in ignorance.
There can be no great reform nor radical improvement in the condition of the people so long as education is so much neglected. Previous to last election of the School Board, there was only one resident member in this parish. The majority of the board are still non-resident, a result which is fraught with much evil to the efficient management of the schools. If one dares raise his voice against abuses, he is accused of wanting in courtesy to officials. The law is not acted on, but is made to suit the convenience of officials. Even the default officer is non-resident, and though holding said office since the passing of the Education Act, he is still unable to tell the children in. the parish between 14 and 15 years of age who were never at school. As the default officer is one of the big tacksmen, his convenience receives more consideration than the interests of the schools. I have observed that there was a universal cry for more land. This may be partly remedied by and by, though not at once. Nor do I see how more land could benefit many of them at present, as they are unable to utilise it. But there are some among them who m it would benefit at once, if they could only get it.
One thing that would be an immense benefit to the whole of this parish, is the erection of a harbour and pier in Staffin Bay. I am informed that such could be made at no great expense. I am led to understand that Major Fraser has devoted a good deal of attention to this scheme some time ago, although it was never carried out One great boon is that it would help to develop the fishing of the district, which is said to be second to none in the West Highlands. The steamers pass close to Staffin Bay four times a week, coming and going from Glasgow. These could then be taken advantage of, in conveying the fish to the market. Many would find then that their present crofts were large enough for the time they could afford for their cultivation, as the fishing would prove more remunerative than tending their crofts. Second, the carriage of goods at present is very expensive, so much so that it depreciates the value of the land in this district, through its inconvenience to the market. It is often the cause of great hardships, as meal and potatoes have to be carried, often on the back, 12, 13, and 14 miles. Compensation for improvements is a subject which has received much attention, both in the press and on the platform. In this I would consider it just and reasonable that the proprietor should have a share, but would ask the law of the land to define that share. Where practicable I would give larger holdings to those who were capable of taking them. This would have a good effect upon others, in stimulating them to make an effort to raise themselves in the social scale, if they had the prospect of getting more land when they were able to take it.
I have heard several complaints with regard to the summing of townships. This is generally believed to be far in excess of what the pasture is able to maintain. There are some who have more than is allotted them, but many have none. If all had the number allowed to each in the summing, the ground they say would not maintain the half of it. This seems to have been the false basis upon which the rents were raised, and which proved so disastrous in its results.
With regard to the evidence on the other side, I must say that I was much pleased with that of Skeabost and Mr Baird of Knoydart. As to the defence set up generally, it seemed to me so complete as to defeat its own object, so that it failed either to convince or impress. .
JAMES M. DAVIDSON.