STATEMENT by the Rev. A GALBRAITH, Free Church Minister, Raasay, Island of Skye.
FREE CHURCH MANSE, RAASAY,
Having been from home when the Royal Commission visited this island, I was unable to appear to give evidence along with the other delegates chosen by the crofters. Personally, I had no wish to act as one of their representatives; but as they have chosen to elect me, and have since urged me to send in a written statement of their chief grievances, I cannot, consistently with my relation to them, refuse to comply with their wish. I am persuaded that such an inquiry into their circumstances as is now being made was greatly needed, and if, as the result of this inquiry, justice should be done to the poor, without injury to the landowners, I would feel satisfied that the Commission shall have done good service. I am now Free Church minister of Raasay for nearly sixteen years. During that time I have seen many changes in the island. It has been my lot to live under four proprietors—viz., Mr George H Rainy, Mr George G. M'Kay, Mr Armitage, and the present proprietor, who is now in possession of the island over seven years. So far as I could learn from the public prints and otherwise, I agree generally with the statements made by the other delegates so far as they went. The crofts in general are too small, and the quality of their land very inferior. The greater part of the land held by them is scarcely fit for cultivation, or for sheep either. During the time of Mr Rainy, senior, the best part of the island—where the people should still be—was cleared of tenants to make room for a large sheep farm. I am told that between the years 1852 and 1854, the following twelve townships were completely desolated—viz., Suishnish, Eyre, Upper Fearns, Lower Feams, Leac, Upper Hallaig, North Screpadale, South Screpadale, Castle, Manish, Doiredomhain, and Lower Hallaig. The number of families removed from these townships is said to have been about 97. By far the greater number of these were sent away against their will, while a few left of their own accord. A few families, about nine or ten of that number, were allowed to remain on the estate, and were settled among the other townships, whose land was not thought sufficiently good to be added to the sheep farm. The crofters who remained were not therefore benefited by these extensive clearances. Instead of being increased, their holdings were in some cases diminished, to make room for those families settled among them. Mr Rainy, junior, succeeded his father. He removed none, and was not at all disposed to do so, and during the short time he possessed the property, did everything in his power for the comfort of the people. His early lamented death led to changes far from favourable. The property was sold in 1872. The purchaser was Mr G. G. M'Kay, whose chief aim appears to have been to make pecuniary gain by the purchase. Accordingly he set immediately about increasing the rents. Rents were imposed on a number who paid none, and the rents which were before, and which were considered high enough, were in some cases nearly doubled. Taking an average of the whole, the rise was nearly 50 per cent. The people at the time remonstrated, and were almost driven to open resistance. Whether rightly or wrongly, I did my best, in the interest of peace, to influence the people to agree to M M'Kay’s terms, though I considered them very hard. The people were quite willing to take their lands at valuation; but the proprietor, perhaps thinking such a course might in some cases rather diminish than increase the rents, told them they must either agree to his terms, or leave the island. The poor people were unable, and probably unwilling to leave, and so they were compelled to submit. Since then the people believe—and I think justly—that they are far too highly rented; and it is not true, so far as I know, that in appearing before the Commission, they were influenced by any parties whatsoever, but by a sense of injustice which they think was done to them, in imposing a rent far beyond the value of their holdings. Looking at the extent and quality of their lands, the inconvenience resulting from their insular and outlandish position, the want of roads, and several other disadvantages, I have, after careful comparison with other places, come to the conclusion that their rents are among the highest, if
not the highest, in the West Highlands. Mr M'Kay's reign was short. In about three years the property was again in the market, and Mr Armitage, a kind, gentlemanly man, was the purchaser. He only kept the place about eighteen months, and having spent but one summer in it, he did little in the way of giving employment to the people, and left things pretty much as he found them. He spoke repeatedly to me of the injustice of having all the good land devoted to sheep, and all the worthless land given to the poor people. That is a grievance which still exists. The place was again bought in 1876, at a fancy price, by the present proprietor. Were I speaking for myself only, I would feel it just to say that I have always found Mr Wood kind and considerate; and I have precisely the same to say of all his predecessors, in my time, without exception. I think it due to him also to add, that in cases of sickness, and to widows, orphans, and other helpless persons, Mr Wood has been very kind and very generous. But notwithstanding all this, the crofter population have real grievances, and I am not going to say who is to blame for this, although I cannot help having my own opinion on the subject. The high rents I consider a real grievance. I take as an example the township of Osgaig, one formed by Mr Wood himself. The tenants here are crofters on a small scale, the most of the men being employed by himself. The whole arable land here is not quite six acres, and the rent charged is, I believe, £18. That is more than £3 per acre, and the quality of the land is not good. Each tenant is supposed to keep a cow, and if he occupies a whole house of two rooms and a closet (not too much for an ordinary family), he pays a rent of £13. That is £10 for his house, and £3 for the bit of land connected therewith. If he must be content with half a house, then his rent is £8—being £5 for the one end of the house, and £3 for his land. This land I consider more than double its value. As to the houses, after careful comparison with such houses elsewhere, I consider the Osgaig houses are at present double rented. They are plainly built, and should not have been costly houses. But I know not, and care not to ask, how much they cost; but simply as a question of value between man and man, I think they would be fully rented at from £5 to £6 each house. The people in this township are very poor, and becoming poorer every year. They are getting into debt, and by this time they have learned by experience that they cannot with their earnings pay their present rents and support their families. It must be admitted that the works hitherto carried on have been very helpful to the people. Still the sums said to have been expended on the place do not benefit the crofters to the extent that might be supposed. The works hitherto mainly carried on, from their nature, could not be permanent, and, besides, the larger portion of the money must have passed into the hands of various tradesmen and strangers from without. This must be from the nature of the works. The factor in his statement says that over £3000 have been, on an average, spent yearly in works to the inhabitants, and divides this over so many crofter families and individuals. I have no doubt as to the amount expended; I only wonder it is not greater, although it is small compared with the sum expended yearly in the time of Mr Rainy, senior. But it would be interesting to know how much of these thousands was actually paid to the crofters for work done. It is well known that large sums of money are yearly expended on the raising of game, and the payment of gamekeepers, as well as on the importation of feeding stuffs for cattle—a thing not formerly required when rabbits were fewer. It is very difficult to understand how money spent on these objects could benefit the crofters.
Then it is further stated that the number of people permanently employed in the place is about 94. I have taken some trouble to ascertain accurately who compose this permanent staff. I find that a goodly number are mansion-house servants, yachtsmen, gamekeepers, gardeners, shepherds, tradesmen of various kinds, salmon-fishers, farm-servants, &c. I find, further, that only about one-half of this permanent staff are natives, and fewer still—I would say not more than one-fourth—are in any way connected with the crofters. I do not say these things in the way of undervaluing the employment hitherto given by the proprietor, but simply to show that only a small portion of the sums expended really benefit the crofter population. Then as to the circumstances of the people, they are very poor, and worse off this year than I have seen them during my time. I cannot personally compare their state now with what they were in the time of the M'Leods. But I know the present, and I have tried every means in my power to discover what their circumstances were when the population was large—at or above a thousand—and the people were in possession of the most of the land. Some of the oldest inhabitants now alive—and I consider them trustworthy—have told me that in M'Leod's time the people were more comfortable than they are now. The able-bodied men now, as a rule, go to the East Coast and other fishings, and on these earnings they mainly depend for the payment of their rents, and the support of their families. In M'Leod's time no one, as a rule, left the island for work. The population then was much larger than now, but they had plenty of land, and between their crofts and the herring fishing about the island, they managed generally to pay their rents, and to live comfortably. Doubtless the failure of the potato crop had a good deal to do with the poverty of succeeding years. But now that the potato crop is again doing better, if they had more land of better quality than they have, I believe their circumstances would be considerably improved. As to those generally employed on day's pay about the farm, I do not think there is any improvement. In Mr Rainy's time the wages were, as a rule, 12s. per week. With this they had as much potato land as they wished to plant, got their coals landed and carted by the proprietor's horses free of charge, and had their houses rentfree. Now they receive, as a rule, 13s. per week for six full days' work. Some have little or no potato land; they pay for the landing and carting of their coals, and pay full rent for their
houses besides. In face of these facts, I regret I cannot say with the factor, in his statement, that 'the position of the people now, as compared with their state in 1876, is one of great improvement.' Again, as to the general health the people, I regret to say that sickness is on the increase. Two young men who were last year at the fishing, died this summer of consumption—a disease which is on the increase, and which, I believe, in most cases is traceable to cold and poor feeding, when the men are from home at the East Coast and elsewhere. In order to save as much as possible, they live too cheaply for their comfort and health. I have no doubt that poverty has a good deal to do with most of the cases of sickness. A medical man of considerable experience, who spent a couple of years in the island lately, on being asked what the prevailing disease in the island was, replied—' The prevailing disease is poverty, and the chief remedy is food.' But in my opinion the greatest grievance in this island now is the loss by game. I do not profess to be able to state this fully, nor can it be understood by any who are not eye-witnesses. Mr Wood's representatives admitted, I believe, before the Commission, that 'he bought Raasay as a sporting estate more than anything else.' The manner in which the estate affairs are managed, shows that this statement is strictly true. Game is the first and principal consideration, and everything else appears very secondary as compared with this. This being the case, however kindly Mr Wood is disposed to be—and he is kindly disposed—yet the crofters must suffer serious loss. The Rona people have no ground of complaint on this score, as there are no rabbits there, and winged game are comparatively few. But the Raasay crofters suffer very serious loss. I am aware that three parties received compensation at Martinmas last. Probably the rest did not apply, partly because they did not wish to be troublesome to their proprietor, and partly because they might fear that if the complaint became as general as the loss, they might expose themselves to serious consequences. They are tenants-at-will, and such a state of things is not fitted to cherish a spirit of independence. I believe the island of Raasay is at present fully stocked with rabbits, although all the sheep and cattle were at once cleared off. This is becoming more apparent every day. The large sheep farm in Mr Wood's own hands formerly carried over three thousand sheep. Now the stock is about the half of that number, and the reduction is mainly through the want of grass. The losses during the past year have been so great, that now, I understand, it is proposed to send off the remainder of the sheep, rather than leave them here to starve. One thing is plain, the island cannot support a full stock of sheep and a full stock of rabbits. Meanwhile the rabbits have practically cleared the ground for themselves, or will speedily do so, unless they receive a very effectual check. I have been told by the keepers that so many as fourteen thousand rabbits have been killed in a season. The number that die of starvation and other causes is very great. If we suppose (and it is no extreme supposition to make) that as many live as are killed, that would make a total of thirty thousand. And if we allow that seven rabbits eat as much grass as one sheep, then we have a stock equal to more than four thousand sheep, which would be enough for the whole island of Raasay to support, even if the place was completely cleared for themselves. The crops and grazings of the tenants in the north end of the island are entirely unprotected from the ravages of these vermin, and the loss, as I can testify from observation, is very great. Except for a few months in summer, they have little or no grass for their cattle, and, in several instances, the few sheep they have remaining are scarcely worth mentioning. How can it be otherwise, when so many of these destructive 'creatures' come in for their share of the little grass they have! The people have been feeling it a sore grievance, that they should have to cultivate the most inferior land, and pay such high rent for it, while the best part of the island was under sheep. But instead of diminishing, it will, only increase the grievance manifold, if, as is now supposed, the best land in the island is to be practically, if not wholly, converted into a rabbit warren. I admit that proprietors who have the means and inclination are entitled to a reasonable amount of sport; but I do not think it a kind treatment of his tenants, on the part of any proprietor, that he should reserve the best of his lands exclusively for sporting purposes, and leave the people to continue delving miserable patches, that can never repay the labour bestowed upon them. If this system is to become general, it will be fraught with serious evils to the country, as well as hardships to the crofter population. The people do not think they have liberty to kill rabbits, and if they had permission, they have not the means wherewith to kill them. I believe dogs are not allowed, except in a few instances; and if a cat should venture outside a door, a gamekeeper is watching with poison, traps, or gun to destroy it. Besides, over two thousand pheasants are reared annually, and these are to be found over all parts of the island. The factor is reported to have said that these are amply fed in the preserves, and consequently have no inducement to wander into the crofters' crops. The fact is, they wander wherever they can get food. He lives in Inverness, and does not see the crofters, or their crops, but seldom. He generally sees the crofters at' rent time "; but as for their crops, I question if he sees them at all. I live, however, in Raasay, and see for myself— hence the difference of our observations and experience. I feel strongly tempted to notice several other matters referred to in the factor's statement, but I fear I have already taken up too much space and time, and so I must be done. The foregoing I believe to be a /atr representation of the views of the people, as well as of my own, on the subject of their grievances. I now come to state, in a few words, some of the remedies which appear to me required to meet the case.
(1.) I should like, if possible, to see the crofters with more land, provided it was land worth having, and that they had it at its value. In my opinion, the people here would not be much the better of getting more of such land as they have at present. If they had more good land, and were protected from vermin, I believe they would prosper bettor, and be in a better position to get through, when a hard year, such as the past, came upon them. I know there may be difficulties in the way, but if it could be done, I do not think the proprietors would suffer any loss, and I believe the people would be benehted. I cannot conceive how proprietors would be losers, if it be the case, as I think it is, that crofters pay more per acre for their lands than the tacksman does.
(2.) I believe proprietors and people alike would be benefited, if the power of factors was more limited. In many cases, I believe, the grievances are largely due to them.
(3.) I would desiderate for the crofters better security for their holdings than at present. Tenancy-at-will involves uncertainty, which not only prevents the improvement of their houses and lands, but is unfavourable to a reasonable measure of independence, to which every man is entitled who conducts himself properly, and pays his way.
(4.) In every case of dispute about the value of a crofter's lands, it would be a fair thing, for proprietor and tenant alike, that the question be settled by competent valuators. This would greatly do away with anything which looks like oppression, and causes in many cases a feeling of dissatisfaction.
(5.) That all damage to crops and grazings by game, and especially by rabbits, should be estimated by valuators, and not by proprietors or their factors. For the present, at least (though I trust not permanently), this island is quite spoiled with rabbits. It could scarcely be expected that any parties who prefer rabbits not only to sheep, but to people, could be impartial judges as to the amount of damage done. I am thoroughly satisfied that if the crofter population generally are to receive justice—and we ask no more for them—this must be secured to them by the law of the land. I trust the Report of the Commission will be followed up by practical legislation, and I do not know any places that more urgently require this than properties 'bought as sporting estates more than anything else.'