STATEMENT by JAMES URQUHART of Conan and ALEXANDER MCLEOD of Scuddaburgh, Tenants on the Estate of Kilmuir, in the Isle of Skye.
We , the undersigned, having been cited to appear before the Commission at their sittings at Portree on the 23rd and 24th days of May last, and not having been heard, but having then been informed that our course was to send in a written statement as to the matters at issue, now beg leave respectfully to state our views as follows, viz. :—
1. We wish to point out that an organised agitation was got up and prepared for the advent of the Commission, which therefore did not find the district in its usual peaceable state, but apparently rather in a state of discontent—that is, judging from the statements then made, but which we the undersigned do not consider truly represent the feelings of the community at large. Previous then to the arrival of the Commission, certain parties organised meetings of the tenantry, with a view to agitation and the allegation of grievances before the Commission. It is known that the more moderate and peaceably inclined men of the district declined taking part in these proceedings, whilst various of those who were appointed delegates did not act. It may also be noticed that many well-inclined townships sent no delegates, although every effort was used to induce them to do so. It cannot, of course, be expected that in so large and populous a district of country as Kilmuir that there should be no discontented characters; and this considering the pressure brought to bear upon them by outside and other agitators, and what these people were made to expect would be got by spinning woeful tales before the Commissioners. It appears to us that the wonder is, not that they should have stated things as they have done, but that they have been kept within any ordinary bounds at all. As is known, at the Uig and Staffin sittings as elsewhere, the evidence was given in a somewhat easy way, no parties being placed on oath, the witnesses also being allowed to appear in court before giving their evidence, thus each one hearing what the previous one had said; all which, together with previous promptings, would more or less account for the generally similar character of the evidence given. Then it must also be borne in mind that at Uig and Staffin there was no one present on the part of the proprietor or loyal tenantry to contradict anything said by any of the disaffected, or of those influenced to speak as they did. Then, again, it may be imagined what was the effect produced on the minds of an impulsive people at an excitable time by the advent of one of Her Majesty's ships with flags flying, a Royal Commission on board, and understood to be freighted with all sorts of boons for all who could call themselves crofters. This no doubt helped to act at the time on the general feeling then current, that all was going in favour of the so-called crofters (hitherto known as tenants), and that it was almost hopeless at the time for proprietors or loyal tenants to express themselves, popular feeling, under the prevailing influences, being apparently all for revolutionary ideas. And may it not be asked, was some ground for such a supposition, for who were the leaders who organised these preparatory meetings ? Who were they in communication with ? Who spoke at the meetings, and what was the general tendency of the subjects discussed? Were not the proposals that large farms should be cut up and divided amongst crofters, that Government should supply funds, and that grievances should be alleged, amongst the chief topics discussed ? Then, again, on arrival of the Commission were not these sittings apportioned to hearing the crofters or receiving their statements at different places in Skye, whilst only two days were apportioned at Portree to hearing the side of the landlords and their loyal tenantry, when, after all, out of said two days, a large part of one of them was devoted to hearing crofters or their delegates again; so much so, that though various parties had gone all the way from Kilmuir to Portree to make contradictions to statements made at Uig and Staffin, none but one was heard. There was no time left to hear the others. Whilst then we, the undersigned, wish most respectfully to address the Commission, we feel we cannot properly state our case without mentioning that we think much more time was devoted to hearing arguments in the shape of alleged grievances than to hearing all that might have been said on the other side.
2. As to the cause of the agitation, we believe that it was, in the first instance, due to the course of events in Ireland. So much has been done for the Irish in consequence of agitation there, that on its being pointed out by agitators to people in Skye that they had only to agitate and make disaffected statements in order to get what they might want, that surely, with such an example before them, it is no wonder if a certain number of the disaffected jumped at the bait, and went in for all sorts of wild dreams. It has been said at Portree that the agitation was not got up by Irish agitators; but it is well known that an Irish agitator was in Skye for most of last season, as well as various others of similar type. Indeed, it would be no compliment to Skye and the Highlands if the agitation can be put down wholly to Scottish sources. Can the sending of coffins and murderous letters, and the publication of such a work as that of “St Michael and the Preacher” by the Rev. Donald MacLillen, minister of the new gospel, Portree/ be accepted as the work of good Highlanders ? It is surely to be hoped not. Whilst, however, that may be, at all events we, the undersigned, repudiate all sympathy with all those who have fermented the present agitation on such lines. As to Major Fraser, the proprietor of our own district, that it is only about three weeks before the sittings at Uig and Staffin a memorial was sent to him signed by practically all the tenantry and others on the estate at the time. It was in reference to a proposal to erect a new pier at Uig, and the following are extracts from it, showing at the time the feelings of the tenantry towards him :—
' We, the undersigned tenants and others on the Kilmuir estate, Skye, desire to convey to our esteemed proprietor, Major Fraser, our best thanks for the kindly interest he has always taken in everything calculated to promote our welfare, and at the same time to lay before him the views of a meeting recently held by a number of us. It was the unanimous opinion of the meeting that nothing would so much promote the interests of residents on the Kilmuir estate as the erection of a quay at Uig, for the following reasons, &C, &C, &C. We are the more encouraged to lay this before our respected proprietor as he has given ample evidence of a sincere desire to improve our position in every practical way; and by giving this matter the attention which we think its importance demands, he will add to the many benefits he has and already conferred upon us, and command our lasting gratitude. Now we submit that the tenor of such a memorial, signed by almost all the male inhabitants on the estate above a certain age, cannot but singularly affect such statements as those made before the Commission—statements in which every possible or impossible grievance was brought forward, and not a word said in favour of what the proprietor had done for the good of his estate and the people in it, such as the construction of roads, the erection of various useful public buildings, his assistance towards the improvement of postal communication, the part the proprietor had taken in the construction of a railway to the west coast; which also, when on the subject of rents, nothing was said on the subject of practical men having been employed to value the lands, nor was any mention made of the rise in the value of stock of late years, which, it is believed, is quite equal to any increase of rent on the small tenants' holdings. One would indeed be led to suppose that something must have occurred, as betwixt the date of the memorial about the l7th of April and the sittings of the Commission on the 10th and 11th May, to account for the difference of feeling shown by the people in their memorial, and by and by the evidence of those who spoke before the Commission or handed in statements. On inquiring, then, into what has passed during this interval as between proprietor and tenantry, it is found that the only thing worthy of special notice that has occurred during it is, that the proprietor within that time sent a cargo of potatoes and another of seed oats to be distributed amongst his tenantry at cost price, and to be repaid at Martinmas next, and on which, no doubt, he will sustain a considerable loss, as even at present we have heard that about £250 is due to him on account of about £800 worth of oats so supplied to the tenantry about five years ago. Further, if it should be said by any agitating parties that such statements were made in the memorial merely in order to get a quay, then may it not be said with even greater force that the strong statements made before the Commission are not of great value—that is, if the ground is taken that anything may be said or done for an object to be gained thereby.
3. As to destitution, whilst aware that two or three bad seasons have had their effect, yet we think that the state of poverty necessarily accompanying the presence of a large proportion without sufficient means of employment has to a great extent been made the most of, though, no doubt, in cases here and there the pinch of poverty has been felt. But had scarcity of seed been as general as represented, the people could not, we think, be as well off as they now are, nor could the lands have been sown as they were, notwithstanding the aid given in the shape of seed com and potatoes.
4. As to the rents of the small tenants on the Kilmuir estate, we believe they were fixed by competent persons. It is easy to conceive, no doubt, that many tenants might think them high—not an unusual thing on the part of those who have to pay; but at all events it is well known that until the late agitations were on foot, and the laws allowed to remain unvindicated in certain parts of Skye, that they were remarkably well paid. After what has been said in the Lewis, surely the argument cannot be held up that small tenants' rents are the cause of poverty; for where can greater poverty be alleged than in the Lewis, and where are rents lower.
5. As to general improvements and alterations of boundaries, and increase value of the lands thereby affected, no doubt when an estate is left at a complete standstill there may be less to complain about; but does it follow that ultimately better for the country and people than a course of suitable improvement, even though such should necessarily involve certain changes from time to time ?
6. As to population, it is no doubt the case that Skye is rather limited in extent for the number in it, and there is also a want of sufficient occupation within its bounds to give work to such a population; that may to a certain extent account for so little work being done each season (except on the large farms) from November to April. Should any new works be prosecuted, such would, of course, be much to the advantage of the population.
7. As to certain replies in reference to questions put as to what the crofters have and have not, and what they would like to have, and so on, what we ask would be like replies to similar questions put by, say, a Commission appointed to inquire into the state of the working-classes and the poor in our larger towns.
8. We conclude by saying that we think more good can be done by granting assistance for emigration and useful works within the island of Skye, and by promoting good feeling and industrial occupations, than by attending to the wishes of a few agitators and discontented persons at the expense of the general good.