STATEMENT by the Rev. ALEXANDER CAMERON, Minister of Sleat,
IT is right to state at the outset that as I have only been about eighteen months in the parish of Sleat, I do not wish to be understood as writing with the same authority as would belong to one having a longer acquaintance with the district and people. At the same time, certain general, and to me very patent, facts have pressed themselves on my notice. It is to a short statement of those facts, together with a few remarks thereon which have suggested themselves to my mind, that I desire as much as possible to confine myself. It will be convenient to arrange what I wish to say under one or two separate headings.
I. As to the Actual Circumstances of the People in the Parish
It is not always an easy matter to discover with certainty what these circumstances are. The people are generally reticent regarding them, and when statements are made, they must often be received with important qualifications. Nevertheless, I have little hesitation in saying that the most of the crofters are poor—many of them very poor. I am quite aware that many persons who know the country well, and to whose opinions the greatest respect and weight are due, firmly maintain that the people of this and other parishes in Skye are (as I have heard it put) " infinitely better off in all respects " than they were fifty, sixty, or seventy years ago. Various considerations are urged in support of this : e.g., the price of cattle is much higher than formerly; a large amount of merchandise is brought into the country, affording traffic to a large number of powerful steamers, as compared with one steamer trading to the west coast within the memory of not very old men; that people wear better clothes, and use many articles of food not thought of before, and so on. I think that all this may be perfectly true, while at the same time the material prosperity of the general body of the people may not even yet have greatly increased. Among the considerations which lead towards this opinion are such as these :—
1. The mere change of articles of food is not necessarily a sign of increased comfort. The change from living for a great part of the year on shell-fish (as is said used to be the case) to living the whole year on such articles of diet as bad tea (often without milk), oat bread, sometimes potatoes, and perhaps eggs and herrings, though undoubtedly an advance, is yet not a prodigious one.
2. Comparing the people here with the same class on different parts of the mainland, the difference between them as to apparent comfort is remarkable. Neither the houses of the people here, nor their appearance and mode of living generally, as to food, clothing, and so on, present at all the same aspect of comfort as is common among the same class elsewhere. It is very probable that in some measure the people themselves are to be blamed for this, but that cannot be held to be the cause generally.
3. The people here, again, seem to be forced from one cause or another to live in a more from-hand-to-mouth sort of way than the same class apparently do elsewhere. The most of them seem to be never very far removed from a state of actual want. The test of a bad year brings this out clearly. Crofters, as well as most people in ordinary circumstances in other parts of the country, generally manage tolerably well to weather through the bad years by the help of the good years. Here, on the contrary, not only are many in straitened circumstances as a general rule in all years, but if any unusual unpropitiousness of weather, or other interference with the ordinary run of matters occurs, it seems to tell on the people with a severity which is unaccountable, except on the supposition that from one cause or another they are not so able to stand it as their brethren in more favoured localities. This last winter of 1882-83 was of course severely felt everywhere, but its effects were undoubtedly more disastrous in Skye and the Western Isles than in any other parts.
4. Want of proper clothes, more especially in the case of women and children, but also frequently in the case of men, is one of the commonest excuses for non-attendance at church and school. And, certainly, if the clothing one constantly sees on children, and too often on women, in their own homes be taken as any indication of the general condition of their wardrobe, it must be set down as very scanty. Want of wool is often alleged as the cause. I am also informed that many who may be seen at kirk or market with fairly good, sometimes even with showy articles of outward dress, are very frequently obliged to neighbours for the loan of these, their own stock of upper and under clothing being of the smallest.
5. Most of the people are very deeply in debt to the local merchants, some I am given to understand to an amount scarcely credible. It is hardly to be supposed that a people who are regarded as honestly inclined, would choose t lie under this burden of debt could it be avoided.
II. Causes of the Present Condition of the People
In regard to this there is one feature easily discernible, which ought to be always borne in mind, viz., that just as it is quite impossible to say that any fine person in particular is to blame for the present condition of the people, so is it impossible to single out any one cause, or even set of causes, as as the cause in particular of the present aspect of affairs. The present condition of the crofter population here, however it may be viewed, is the outcome of a great many causes, and of the conditions in general under which they have for many generations lived and moved and had their being. Into those conditions and causes it is unnecessary, even were it possible, at present to enter very minutelv; but without pretending to any very exhaustive statement, two general classes of causes may be noted :—
I. Causes of an external nature, and beyond the control of the people themselves.
1. It is undoubtedly the case that the crofter population of the country has been dispossessed of much land. It is simply matter of fact that whole tracts of country once held by this class are now no longer held by them.
2. It is also matter of obvious fact that if the majority of those people are to be supported by the produce of the soil, the portions of land now held by them are far from sufficient to maintain them comfortably.
3. Unproductiveness of the soil is complained of, and it is no doubt the case.
Among other causes (beyond the control of the people themselves) of this may be assigned—
(1) Too frequent cropping, owing to small amount held.
(2) Want of any supervision, or instruction in, or incentive to the acquiring of improved methods of cultivation.
(3) The climate has undoubtedly changed, so as to be now very much less favourable to the operations of husbandry and the growing of crops than formerly. One proof of this seems to be that land in this district, even when in best condition and held by those who highly cultivate it, actually cannot, in many instances, be made to give the same returns or to pay as before.
4. Want of regular employment at public works, roads, or otherwise. Little or nothing in the way of regular work is to be had throughout the parish, and the want of it is much felt. That such employment would be beneficial is proved by the circumstance that a few families, the heads of which are in regular day's pay, are among the best off in the parish. It must, however, in strict truth be added that, when labour or any similar employment does chance to turn up, people are not always very easily satisfied as to wages.
II. Causes, more or less, within the control of the people themselves.
1. The unproductiveness of the soil so much complained of arises partly no doubt from—
(1) Bad farming. There is unquestionably an undue clinging to primitive and inefficient methods of husbandry, both as regards implements, tillage, manuring, time of sowing, management and cleaning of crops when growing, and so on, which acts hurtfully in the general result of the produce of the land.
(2) Over-cropping, consequent on the continued subdivision of the land, which in turn is the result of over-crowding. This over-crowding is no doubt owing partly to causes beyond the control of the people; but it is also in no small measure the result of what has been called "limpetism" on the part of the people themselves— a feeling, natural enough and so far commendable, of clinging to home and friends and country to their own loss, instead of, as they ought, "seeking fresh fields and pastures new." They have themselves (in spite of estate regulations to the contrary) subdivided their lots to such an extent that they now willingly, though when too late, acknowledge the folly of the custom. The fact is that, were not the land held by crofters in this parish more than usually fertile naturally, it would give no crops at all considering the usage it gets.
2. Want of greater energy (or perhaps of knowledge) in utilising those means of improving their condition which lie nearest at hand. Instances which more readily occur to one are such as—
(1) Improvement of their houses, both outside and inside. The houses of most are in much the same condition as, by all accounts, they were in a hundred or more years ago. Whitewash is all but unknown. In not many cases indeed are the cattle housed under the same roof as the human beings; but then the manure-heap is suffered to lie so near the door in most cases as to make it a matter of the utmost discomfort and difficulty, and of no small generalship to approach the house in wet weather. Inside, the floor is always earthen, and in most cases very far from being even. The furnitnre and domestic appointments generally are not only of a very primitive kind (which indeed would not in itself be a very serious objection), but they often want that appearance of order and cleanliness which is usually associated with ideas of comfort Houses, not very much better than many here, are to be met with in other parts of the country, but yet with an air of order, cleanliness, and comfort far superior.
(2) The advantages of keeping a small garden seem to be quite unknown. I cannot remember a single instance of a crofter cultivating a garden
(3) One cannot help thinking that the fishing round the coast (white fish) is not prosecuted so vigorously as it might be by the natives. Want of proper appliances, piers, and so on, is pled as the excuse; but that want might probably be overcome, to some extent at all events, if there was a will. East country boats carry away many pounds worth of white fish from the coasts here every season.
3. Improvident marriages are undoubtedly another cause of poverty. It is common enough (though I understand it is less so than formerly) for a young couple to get married with but little or no provision made for their future subsistence beyond a bothy hastily knocked up at the end of the father's house, and the liberty of planting a few potatoes in his already divided lot. There is besides not unfrequently more or less of debt hanging over either or both of the young couple.
4. With all this it is, however, but fair to add that in many instances women try to turn an honest penny by such expedients as sending away to the south, eggs, stockings, dairy produce, and so on.
III. As to Remedies.
It is a wide subject, and opinions on it differ even more widely than on the state of things to be remedied. A few of the more obvious suggestions only can be mentioned.
1. There does not seem to be any valid reason why such as wish to get, and can pay for, and have any reasonable prospect of profiting by more land should not have an opportunity of getting it, provided always, of course, that suitable arrangements could be made with proprietors. There is abundance of land for both large and small farmers, and the country would be all the better of having both; nor is it desirable, or even necessary, that the large should suffer at all, or proprietors incur any loss by the creation of smaller farms. I am aware that calculations are often made which are said to lead to a different conclusion, but taking an " unprofessional" and an entirely disinterested view of the whole matter, there really does seem to be plenty of room and of good land for all, provided only the thing were gone about with moderation, and with a sincere desire to do the best for all concerned. The system of club farms, which works very well in other parts, would no doubt do well here also if properly set agoing and managed with the help of some person possessed of greater knowledge and experience in the management and sale of stock than the people themselves generally possess.
2. There is undoubtedly much room for the encouragement and development of the local fishing industry—meaning thereby not merely the herring fishing, but the white fishing oft the coasts on all sides all the year round. When Buckie men find it worth their while to come and remain for many
weeks and send away hundreds of pounds worth of cod and other fish from our coasts, surely some means might be found of enabling the natives—most of — who m are good sailors—to profit by the same industry. The system of attempting to combine crofter and fisherman in the same individual, however, militates against this.
3. The setting agoing of employment of some permanent kind is much needed in many ways. Chiefly, perhaps,—
(1) By the making of roads to and through more distant and inaccessible parts of the parish. There are two districts in particular—Aird and Tarskavaig—which are really very badly off in this respect
(2) By the formation of piers at certain points along the coast. Except at Portree and Dunvegan there is no pier in the whole island of Skye alongside of which the trading and passenger steamers can be brought. The want of such a pier in this district is very greatly felt. With all the care that experienced and careful boatmen can exercise, the injury to and destruction of goods at the landing place at Armadale is very great. The shore is of the very roughest description, and the landing of goods is almost always attended with damage of some kind. The construction of smaller piers at some of the larger townships along the coast would be a great boon. There are four points specially where these piers would be of much use for such purposes as the protection and safe landing of boats and other gear, the landing of sea-ware, the prosecution of local fishings, and so on, all of which as at present carried on involve greater or less risk to limb or property.
4. While not an advocate for emigration on any large scale, yet I cannot help seeing that it would be the best thing in many cases for the poor people to do. Too many young men and women are content to remain here in a state, I shall not say of idleness, but often of something approaching to semi-idleness, and consequently of poverty, who, if they went to other countries, would undoubtedly very soon attain to comfort and independence. The same remark applies to young married couples without serious encumbrance.
5. Heavy school and poor and other rates are felt to be a serious burden. If a grant in aid from Government, or some other means of relief could be devised, it would unquestionably be well bestowed, and received most thankfully.
6. I do not know if matters pertaining to postal and telegraphic communication come within the scope of the inquiry by the Commission, but assuredly there is very much room for improvement in that respect in this district. The whole of this district, south from Broadford, has a mail only three times a week. It takes a week to get an answer to a letter from London, Edinburgh, or Glasgow; and if a letter for Portree or Inverness be posted at Ardvasar on Saturday, it is the following Thursday before an answer can arrive. The Edinburgh and Glasgow newspapers of Friday and Saturday are not to hand till Tuesday following. A daily post from Broadford to Armadale is all that is asked in the meantime. An extension of the telegraph from Isleomsay for seven or eight miles to Armadale would be a very small matter to the Post Office, but would be an immense convenience to the parish in very many ways.
7. Besides what is actually done (and something is done) in the way of showing an active interest in the moral and material improvement of the people, and in their affairs generally, there is still room for more continued had personal effort in this direction. There are, of course, numerous lines which such interest might take. The people, for instance, might be helped and encouraged to better their condition by such means as prizes, awarded at an annual competition, for best kept houses, for samples of agriculture produce (oats, potatoes, &c), for dairy produce, home-spun cloth, stockings, and so on. A yearly show of cattle and ponies, with prizes offered for the best, would, without a doubt, be not only popular, but could not fail to be both interesting and useful.
In closing, I would remark, that in all such matters as the attempted improvement of the crofter, or of any class of people, there is one principle which it seems to me ought to be acted upon, and that is the principle “festina lente”. It must be a slow growth, and not a mere spasmodic spurt. Not by his and starts, not by trying to do great things all at once, and then as suddenly getting discouraged and stopping short, is the desired amelioration to be brought about; but by the continued and patient use of those means of improvement, of those levers which have been elsewhere most successfully employed for the elevating of other classes of society. Some words written not long ago by Earl Cowper are well worthy of attention in connection with this matter :—" A great deal," says his Lordship, " may with advantage be done gradually, which, if attempted suddenly, would be disastrous. If you wish to fill a basin with water, you must pour slowly, for if you empty your jug straight in, you will make a great splash and a great mess, and your basin will only be half full after all."
Alex . CAMERON.