From the Rev. JOHN S. M'PHAIL, Free Church Minister, Kilmuir and Stenscholl, Isle of Skye.
I have been a minister in Skye for thirty years—twenty years in Sleat, and ten in Kilmuir—and though I do not profess a knowledge of agriculture or of the value of land, I am acquainted with the circumstances of the people temporally as well as spiritually. As a rule, the people are moral, quiet, respectful to superiors, and lawabiding. Yet I have been of late led to think that there may not be many steps between such a desirable condition and one of disorder and lawlessness. Not only the cases of Braes and Glendale, but what I have seen on this same estate, has led me to this belief. There have been combinations among the people against payment of rent, and there have been threats posted up at the road side to deter men from settling with the factor on rent day. This course was followed from the idea that they had serious grievances for which there was no remedy, but by placing themselves in an attitude of opposition to those in authority. In the present circumstances and mood of our island population I feel sure that a little more strain and a little more agitation would soon fan them into a state of wild confusion This is a matter requiring the serious consideration of those who have the responsibility of governing our country. There have been no clearances in Kilmuir during my stay in it. But before then there was very much land cleared. Men residing in the parish have named to me eleven townships that they saw occupied by crofters in most comfortable circumstances, all of which townships have been cleared, the inhabitants scattered hither and thither, and the land added to the large farms. It is the universal testimony that when the people occupied these townships, there was not only abundance of food to supply the parish, but that much produce was sold to other places.
There have been no evictions that I can remember except one at Totescore which has had sufficient prominence given to it already. There have been many changes, however, during the ten years of my residence. Several families, finding themselves going back in their circumstances, voluntarily gave up their lands and moved away to the south. Others have been brought to hll up their places, as, for instance, from a cleared part of Uig Bay, to Borneskitag, which was already overcrowded.
On the Kilmuir estate there are none of the petty annoyances that we hear of elsewhere,—such as exacting days of work from the people, compelling them to sell their fish or cattle to proprietor or factor under market value, interfering with them in cutting sea-weed and peats, &c. The people have perfect liberty to make the best for themselves of their produce and of their time. The proprietor has done much since he bought the estate, in making bridges and improving roads—all of which has been beneficial to the inhabitants. As a Free Churchman, I feel it dutiful to say that the Free Church community have enjoyed far more freedom than existed before Major Fraser bought the estate. Sites were readily granted by him, and aid was kindly given in the building of churches. This ought not to be forgotten by us. And personally, I can say that I have met with invariable courtesy and kindness from Major Fraser. As to the prevailing destitution and distress, there have been many causes that have combined to make this year exceptional. But I have observed a gradual sinking of the people into deeper poverty during the ten years I have been among them. They have been becoming yearly less able to pay their way, and yearly more depressed in their circumstances. The causes of this are not to be found in any theory as to the indolence and intemperance of the people. I do not believe in any such theories, for they are as temperate in their habits js any people in Scotland, and as active too when they have any work to do. And they show this when employed as labourers in the south, as fishermen, and as tillers of their own lands. The people naturally think that the increased rent accounts for their impoverished condition, it being, as a rule, about double what it was thirty years ago; and, no doubt, £4 or £6 of additional rent is a serious burden upon a poor family. I did, and do, regard the last rise of rent as a most unfortunate occurrence. It was untimely,—out of season. The people had been suffering from bad years, and were in very distressed circumstances, and this increase of rent coming at such a time was most crushing. It ought to be known, however, that the rent still stands at the last increase; a fourth part has been remitted for the last two years. They pay rates according to the increased rent, whilst a fourth part of the rent has been returned. As to other causes of depression. There can be no doubt that the land from constant tillage does not yield anything like what it once did. The returns even in favourable years are very low, only two or three returns instead of eight or nine. So long as the people are confined within such narrow bounds, this of necessity must continue. Perhaps, too, in the circumstances, the people look less to the land and more to money earned elsewhere for the support of their families, and that, in consequence of this, there is not so much attention paid to cultivation as formerly. The work is hurriedly done to enable the men to get away to the south to earn money there. Then the taking away of hill pasture from those who formerly had it has greatly added to the discomfort of the people. It has deprived them of the means of furnishing themselves with clothing for day and night. This is a very painful feature in the condition of the people with which one going among them comes into constant contact. This has also deprived them of an important part of food. When they had sheep they used animal food, t.e., meat once common among them, but now exceedingly rare. And it has deprived them of the use of ponies in cultivation and in carrying burdens. The poor women have, in consequence of this loss, to do much of the work that ponies did formerly, such as carrying peats and sea-weedi and harrowing the fields. Then a great change has come over the habits of the people, and far more money is needed to support a family now thad formerly. Far more money is earned now, still the people are far poorer. From the poor returns of the land much of the earning goes to purchase the necessaries of life—meal chiefly. It is no unusual thing to pay a meal account of £8, £10, £12 in the year, and this in a district where, thirty years ago, it was customary to sell meal. Then there is the universal tea account and the very general tobacco account, both innovations, and both very serious items in the family expenditure. There is clothing again. Very much of the earning goes to procure clothing. The home-mades are rare now where the hill pasture has been lost The warm, cheap, enduring cloth has been exchanged for the expensive and unsubstantial clothing purchased in shops. In my view, the distressed state of our people arises as much from what I have now stated as from any other cause that can be named. Is there any remedy for this gradual sinking of the people ? There seems to be none, if matters are just to continue as they are—no remedy, but by the people dying out—their being first reduced to a state of pauperism, and then by a slow process passing away.
Emigration is proposed as a remedy, and it must come to this if there be no other; for better far the people anywhere than starving on our own shores. No one can wish to see their present state perpetuated. But, though this remedy might ultimately be beneficial to them and their offspring, I look upon it as an injurious proposal for our country. For it deprives the country of a God-fearing, loyal people, who supply our industries with so much valuable bone and sinew, our fishing fleets with able men, our Naval Reserve with competent hands, and innumerable families with valuable servants. It is said that the land is overcrowded with people—that there are too many of them. That was said forty years ago, when the population of the parish was upwards of 4000. The only remedy proposed then was to thin the people by emigration, and that is still said to be the only remedy after 1500 of the population have been removed, and it may possibly be said to be the only remedy as long as any are left. But I have no faith in that remedy, as one tending to improve the circumstances of those who remain. I have never seen that emigration gave more room to people, though it did to sheep. The tendency has been to add more families to places already overcrowded. The remedy I would propose is to open up the land to the people who have from time immemorial lived upon it, and who have been deprived of it. Give them larger crofts, which will keep them in constant employment. Give them hill pasture to enable them to keep sheep and horses. Give them some security against eviction and arbitrary increase of rent. Encourage them to build better houses, to reclaim the land now uncultivated, and let the system of overcrowding be put an end to. Let it be shown that a real interest is taken in them. When a croft becomes vacant, by any cause, let it be added to another croft, instead of a tenant being removed from elsewhere to occupy it. In my own neighbourhood, a year or two ago, land became vacant that was most suitable for crofters. Eight or ten families could be easily accommodated there, and they might live in comfort. Why, instead of its being added to a farm already too large, should it not be given to families in the overcrowded hamlet in the vicinity? In such ways much might be done to improve the condition of the people. However indulgent some proprietors may be, I feel convinced that our land laws ought to be altered so as to give more security and protection to the people. The necessity of this was burnt into my soul many years ago, when I was a witness of scenes of cruel eviction in North Uist and in the south end of this island. The laws of our country ought to be such that no such scenes could ever take place, and I sincerely hope that the result of this Royal Commission will be to provide us with something similar to what has been already done for another part of the kingdom, where the people have security and much encouragement to better their circumstances by their own exertions
JOHN S. M'PHAIL.