STATEMENT by Mr JOHN T. MACKENZIE, Dunvegan, Skye (Factor for St Kilda).
I, JOHN T. MACKENZIE, having been called upon to give evidence before the Commissioners at Portree on the 23rd May, now beg leave to submit my written statement.
I am 54 years of age. I am well acquainted with Skye, having lived there the greater part of my life. I hold various public offices of trust. I am also factor for St Hilda. I observe that the Commissioners visited that island on the 1st of June. I read the evidence given before them on that occasion. I have no comments to offer thereon; suffice it to say that Mr M'Kay omitted to mention that a medicine chest is kept on the island under his own charge, and that he himself is possessed of some skill in the proper dispensing of those medicines.
Angus Gillies, in his evidence, when he said the factor sent a vessel with meal on 3rd May, omitted to mention than in addition to meal, there was also sent flour, seed oats, and potatoes. The potatoes were, by Miss M'Leod's special orders, given at half price, viz., 5s. a barrel, she undertaking to pay the other half out of her own private means. The natural products of the island, such as feathers and oil, are falling out of view, other industries taking precedence. Prosperity lies before the St Kildeans in the fishing occupation, which made a start a few years ago. Unfortunately certain circumstances have hitherto retarded its progress. I am glad, however, to say, that a fresh start has again been made with every appearance of success, if encouraged in the right direction and in the proper way.
The agitation in Skye and the " land question " throughout the rest of Scotland may to a certain extent be associated, the difference being that the " land question" to a great extent is in the hands of educated people, who know the danger of breaking the law, and who are responsible for their own actions. The crofter grievance is the " land question " in another form, but in the hands of a class who, fancying they have some hardships, know not what to do, but who are under the guidance and advice of irresponsible and, I am afraid in many cases, of thoughtless leaders, eager to gain notoriety through the simplicity and credulity of their followers.
It may be gathered from the evidence given generally, that the stock necessary to maintain an ordinary crofter family is one horse, four cows, and forty sheep, that the rental of such a holding may be fairly valued at £10. If we suppose a township of forty of those lots, returning a gross rental of £400, to be advertised as one farm, capable of carrying a stock of 40 horses, 160 cows, and 1600 sheep, and if compared with other holdings of the same sort, I should say it would bring £ 600, if not more.
It is said that the people generally are now worse fed and worse clothed than they used to be. On this point I am rather inclined to say that they live more extravagantly now than they did in bygone days. The nutritious diet of porridge and milk, so largely used of old, and which nourished such strong and healthy men and children, is not now, according to the evidence of one delegate, considered good enough; it has to be supplemented by delicacies and costly foreign imports, often beyond the legitimate reach of an ordinary crofter. Again, home-spun tweeds and wincey are not now sufficient for dress as of old; they must have fine cloth and gaudy millinery taking the place of more substantial requirements, so that a great part of the money that should be used judiciously is foolishly spent in this way.
From the evidence given before the Commissioners, the grievance appears to be the same in every district they visited,—the cry being confined holdings, rack renting, and fear of capricious evictions; the redress sought being more lands, low rents, and fixity of tenure. The question now is to what extent can those remedies be obtained.
As I understand the matter, what I am expected to say now is to offer my opinion as to what gave rise to what is now termed grievances; what causes the unproductiveness of the soil at the present day compared with what it was in the past; and under present circumstances what is the best remedy for the state of disorder now prevailing. The discontent throughout this part of the Highlands may have arisen from various causes, and from a combination of events, some of which, strange as it may appear, have been partly brought about by the prosperity of the country at large, simply because labour employed elsewhere paid better than by putting it into Skye land, as I shall endeavour briefly to show. The potato failure made the land less profitable and less productive to the crofter than it was in times preceding the date at which that failure occurred. This calamity was quickly followed by a new era in the prosperity of the country, when labour began to be in demand, and good wages obtained, which in 1849 went up with a bound. At this the working classes in the country got so elated that the benefit from land was then looked upon as a small matter. The potatoes having at that time almost become extinct, the people had no inducement to cultivate the ground, and consequently they allowed the land to slip out of their hands of their own accord without regret or grumble; all they wanted in the Highlands being simply a home for their families, as being less expensive, and accompanied with greater privileges than a labourer's home in the lowlands. The people soon found that it was more profitable to be employed at railways and other works than by cultivating land at home. It can therefore be easily conceived thai the crofters became indifferent about their holdings, so far as the extent of them was concerned, and in any case, after the rise in wages, agriculture in the Highlands, as a rule, was found not to pay; but grazing did, and consequently the land, looked upon by the crofters with indifference, was eagerly sought after by the graziers. Of late years, however, the price of Highland cattle and mutton has gone up so much, and this being the particular kind of stock crofters keep, they are now beginning to have a craving after hill pasture, for which they had no value in former days, but now seek after at such a rapid pace that the circumstances of the country are not able to meet the demand so quickly as the craving has come on. This craving, it is to be feared
has been injudiciously indulged, if not stimulated, by the doings of a certain class of public agitators, of whose patriotic and philanthropic motives many people feel somewhat sceptical.
Most of the delegates before the Commissioners have spoken of the unproductiveness of the soil compared with what it was fifty years ago; the cause stated being the constant tilling of the same soil year after year. No doubt this is a cause in its own way, but there is a great deal more than that to be explained. The true cause is want of manuring. Prior to the date of the first appearance of the potato blight, the manufacturing of manure was looked upon as a very important branch of business in the country, requiring constant attention and skill, and the result was that a large quantity was put into the ground every year. This, coupled with proper attention to the soil and otherwise good husbandry, yielded corn tall in stalk and heavy in grain, but such attention to the land as this is now unknown to the crofter population. Corn is not now grown in the Highlands on account of its grain, it is grown simply for the straw for the purpose of feeding cattle,—the finer the stalk, and the more mixed with grass, the better for that purpose— hence bad farming.
The evidence given before the Commissioners clearly shows that the value put on land by the crofters is measured by their own agricultural experience, which is certainly less than half market value, which anyone can calculate who reads the evidence now in print. I was present myself where one delegate said, that in his township ‘the grass of a cow was valued at 5s.,' that ' a cow represented six sheep’ and that ‘a horse represented two cows.' If a cow at 5s. represents six sheep, that means 10d. a sheep. I have no doubt this delegate not only expects to keep what he has at 10d. a sheep, but expects more land at reduced rents, while yet the neighbour he marches with is a tacksman, paying a rent of 4s. 6d. a sheep. The difficulty is to suggest a speedy remedy for the present state of things, and I am afraid what I would be inclined to propose is not suitable, as it might by many be considered too slow in its results. I would suggest—
1st. That compensation be given for unexhausted manures, for permanent improvements, and for loss by game.
2nd. That leases be given to the crofters, and when a new lease is to be entered into, if on the old terms, so be it; but if the landlord asks for an increase of rent under the new lease, or the tenant wants a reduction, that the whole question of value be referred to valuators,—thus making the party disturbing existing arrangements to take into consideration before doing so the possibility of a valuation instead of bettering, leaving him worse than he was.
3rd. That there should be prevented the subdividing of crofts under £ 10, the squatting of people on any part of crofters' farms, except in cases where it cannot be judiciously prevented, such as in the neighbourhood of fishing stations and villages to which people generally gravitate on account of the labour that is always to be obtained at these centres.
4th That every proprietor should have at his disposal a tract of improvable moss land, where young married men, who would not be allowed to subdivide a parent's lot, who would be prevented from squatting, and who would refuse to emigrate, might get ten acre or so to build and improve upon, with the privilege of cutting sea-ware free where such is available. The land to be given at current value for a certain number of years, and at the expiry of that period, the tenant to be paid the difference between the market value of the land when he entered, and the market value when the lease expired, provided always that the rent had been paid regularly during the currency of the lease. The value to be ascertained, not by a process of valuation, but to be guided by the increase in the rent obtained in the public market, through the improvements made by the tenant during his occupancy. The interest of the money thus paid to be chargeable to the new lease in addition to the original rent, unless the landlord and the tenant (if the old tenant) mutually agree to defer payment. Landlords would also do well to create on every estate a sprinkling of small farms, say of £ 50 and upwards, in order to afford an opportunity to deserving and well-to-do persons from the crofter class to rise in the social scale when they could.
5th. That the Government organise an equitable scheme of free or assisted emigration to the colonies, in order to afford the crofters an opportunity of emigrating at any time they felt so inclined.
JOHN T. MACKENZIE.