Portree, Skye, 23 May 1883 - John Robertson (merchant)

JOHN ROBERTSON, Merchant, Portree (42)—examined.

8992. Sheriff Nicolson.
—What is the nature of your business or trade1?
—Draper and grocer.

8993. You do a great deal of business besides that ?
—Yes, in fishcuring.

8994. I believe you were elected to say something here on the part of some people ?
—Yes, in my absence I was.

8995. Then you will be so good as to state what the views or facts are that you were asked to represent to the Commission ?
—I believe that the poverty of the people has been caused principally by their small holdings, by their being huddled together along the shore of what is considered the worst part of the land, I believe that is the great cause of the poverty of the crofters, along with bad seasons and the failure of the fishing. I honestly believe the principal cause is the smallness of their holdings.

8996. Is that the cause, so far as your knowledge goes, in the parish of Portree, and in Skye generally?
—Yes. I have not been much in the west of Skye, but I do business with people there, and I have been listening to their complaints from time to time.

8997. Have you heard these complaints made for a long time back?
—Yes, as far back as I remember.

8998. Do you attribute the representations that have been made to us by delegates chosen by the people in any way to the influence of persons from the outside, who have come putting notions into their heads?
—No, I do not

8999. Have you been reading the newspapers, and seeing the statements of the crofters in all the places we have visited ?
—Yes, and I may say they have put me in mind of the Gaelic saying—but the evidence since then has perhaps toned down the idea a good deal—A bhèist a's mò ag itheadh na beist a's lugha, 's abhèist a's lugha adeanamh mar a dh'fhaodasi,'—which means, 'The larger beast eating the smaller beast, and the small beast doing what it can.'

9000. Do they practise fishing much about here?
—Yes, when there are fish to be caught.

9001. Chiefly the herring fishing from Portree?

9002. The people of the Braes and all the townships along from Camustionavaig are engaged in the fishing?

9003. And the people round about the bay of Portree?

9004. Are there a considerable number of them engaged in the salmon fishing?
—Not many; some are, of course.

9005. But that only lasts for a short time?
—For a short season.

9006. Do they all go to the east coast fishing?
—The majority of them go to the east coast

9007. How do you find them in your dealings with them?
—I find them very honest when they have the means to pay; but I find they are not able to pay regularly.

9008. I suppose they are owing you a good deal of money?

9009. Is there a tendency to increase the debt from year to year?
—Yes; especially when there is not a good herring fishing, I find there is great difficulty in getting my money from them.

9010. Last year was particularly bad?
—Last year and the year before that. Last year was worse than the year before, and the year before that was still worse; but the year 1880 was a good year for fishing. I cured that year 1550 barrels, and last year only 850.

9011. Barrels of herring caught round the coast here?
—Yes; there were a good few caught in Loch Hourn.

9012. A great many of the men go there to fish when there is fishing?
—Yes; their boats, however, are too small for going that distance. As a rule, the boats are only suitable for the Sound of Skye.

9013. Professor Mackinnon.
—You say you have heard complaints ever since you remember, and you have read the evidence given by the people themselves?

9014. Is that evidence practically the outcome of what you have been hearing since you remember?
—I think so; there may be a little colouring in part of it.

9015. Perhaps a little stronger, but just giving definite shape to what you have been hearing all along?

9016. And have you been here all your life?
—Yes, with the exception of five years.

9017. How long is it since you became engaged in business?
—I have been twenty years in business.

9018. Have you observed generally any change in the habits of the people with respect to food and clothing during that time?
—Not much; they are a little better.

9019. Not much within twenty years?

9020. But gradually improving in that respect?

9021. And their food in the same way?
—I cannot say so much for their food. I always thought their food was as substantial before as now.

9022. Do they buy increasing quantities of luxuries?
—Well, I don't see what they can buy except tea; milk is scarcer than it was.

9023. And getting scarcer?

9024. So even if their natural inclination was against it, they are obliged to take tea as a substitute?

9025. Then, this year apart, which was an exceptionally bad year, are you able to concur with those who say that of late years the condition of the people has been getting worse ?
—-I do not know it is much worse, except on account of the severe gales of the last two yeare. As regards the fishing, thirty years ago this used to be a famous place for fishing. I remember when a boy, as many as 800 boats going out of the bay of Portree. The last good fishing was in 1857—the year I went to serve my time —and ever since 1857 it has been going gradually back, till within the last five or six years, when it has made a start again.

9026. That is the herring fishing ?
—Yes, and since then I think the people have been rather improving, for they have got better nets and
boats than they had formerly. From the year 1857 till six or seven years ago, there were scarcely any nets worth speaking of, but since then they have got better nets.

9027. Do you think the fishing is capable of further development if they had better boats and nets?
—If they had larger boats they could follow the herring fishing still farther off the island.

9028. What about the local fishing?
—They are quite prepared for the local fishing.

9029. Is it going back or improving?
—Last year was not so good as the previous year.

9030. Do you think it is capable of improvement —that they could do more than they do?
—No, I do not think they could. Whenever they find that there are herring on the coast, they are at them. They are not lazy; of that I can assure you.

9031. Do you know about the cod and ling fishing?
—We have nothing of that now.

9032. Lobsters?

9033. You fish these in winter?
—Yes, from September to the end of March.

9034. Do many of them engage in that during winter?
—Well, the lobsters are not to be got every year. Round by Uig, Kilmaluag, Rona, Glendale, and Waternish, these are the places. There are no lobsters at the south end of the island or in the Sound here.

9035. Supposing the mass of the people were to obtain larger crofts, what would become of the fishing?
—They would be able to devote a certain portion of their time still to the fishing.

9036. Would you think it advisable that a crofter should be a crofter, and a fisherman a fisherman?
—Scarcely, I am afraid the fishing here is necessary. I would give a man a little land, even if he were a fisherman.

9037. Yes; but don't you think a good croft might suffer when the man was devoting himself to fishing?
—It depends on the number of the family. There might be three or four brothers, and two could manage the farm and two the fishing. I do not think it could interfere so much with the farm.

9038. Their feelings are evidently set upon a larger amount of land. Have you found them expressing a reluctance with regard to emigration in any shape or form?
—I do not think they are fond of emigration. I have often asked them about it, and they say that emigration has been tried and does not better those left behind a bit.

9039. Emigration as conducted hitherto in Skye has not benefited those who remained, but could it not be conducted so that it might?
—Yes, certainty it could, if the land that belonged to those that went away were given to those who remained behind.

9040. Do you think in that view some might be induced to go?
—Not so long as there are so many large farms in Skye; I do not think they would like to leave their native land.

9041. They would like te people Skye first, and then send the surplus to the colonies?
—I think so.

9042. From your knowledge of these matters, is it your opinion that there are a considerable number of them, who upon reasonable terms would be able to undertake a moderately sized croft?
—Yes, I daresay a good many of them are able; but I believe they would have been abler some years ago than they are now.

9043. But still you think there are some?
—Yes, I think there are some amongst them who could stock it.

9044. But many are not?
—Yes, a great many would require to be assisted. If they got a guarantee that they would not be removed out of these lands so long as they paid their rent, I have no doubt that some people would come to their assistance, and help them to stock their crofts.

9045. A guarantee against removal is not so much a practical necessity as is a guarantee against raising of rent?
—I mean both; that the arrangement might remain for a certain number of years.

9046. Because, as a matter of fact, within the limited area they have got, there have been very few removals?
—No, there have not been so many removals, as raising of rent.

9047. With respect to subdivision of the crofts, I suppose you would set your face strongly against that?

9048. It has gone on too far?

9049. And no doubt that is in great measure owing to the desire of the people themselves to keep their own family about them?
—Yes. And because they could not get crofts.

9050. And due also in some measure to those removed from cleared townships being thrown in upon them?

9051. That is within your own recollection?

9052. Within your own recollection the area of the crofting population has diminished?
—-It has.

9053. By taking the hill pasture from them, in some cases to add to large farms, and in other cases by clearing the townships altogether? Have you seen both?

9054. Have you seen the reverse process?

9055. You have not seen a new township opened?

9056. Or additional land given to old townships?

9057. We have been told that that has been done at Ulinish?
—It must have been lately.

9058. Mr Cameron.
—I understood you to say that if people who were industrious and showed perseverance, took larger holdings, they would find people who would advance money to stock these?
—Yes, that is my opinion.

9059. May I ask who these people are?
—There are benevolent strangers in the country, that have been advancing money to a large extent already.

9060. Do you think the flow of mouey from these benevolent strangers would continue?
—Well, along with the proprietors, they might continue to help the people.

9061. Do you think the proprietors would have it in their power to advance funds to stock any considerable part of the land in Skye?
—Not to any very considerable extent; I would not wish the large farms to be all broken down.

9062. But in order to make a considerable difference in the number of holders of land in Skye, which many people desire or wish to see, would it not require a great deal of capital to be advanced? Do you think the proprietors and benevolent strangers would be sufficient to raise the capital?
—I don't think the capital required would be very great, along with what they have, to stock a £ 10 or £20 croft.

9063. Would not that depend very much on the number of crofters that would require to be assisted?

9064. And if you wanted to help the crofters to stock as much land as one man now has, the same amount of capital would then be required ?
—Yes, but they are not absolutely free of stock. They have less or more cattle on the ground; and if these were allowed to multiply, the landlord need not be exacting the rent.

9065. But what would happen during the time the stock was multiplying?
—I would have the landlord do what I often do,—take something to account. In the case of a fisherman or crofter, when he cannot pay his bill for meal, amounting perhaps to £10, to £12, or even £20, I have taken as little as £ 4 or £ 5 to account, and let him go on.

9066. But would not a crofter make rather a bad start with that debt hanging round his neck 1
—He might; but he would by-and-bye get out of it.

9067. What is the price of the meal that you supply?
—20s. a boll.

9068. Have you read any of the evidence given in other places ?

9069. There was a dealer in Bracadale who stated to us that he has selling meal at 23s. a boll. Do you consider that dear?
—It depends on where he took it from.

9070. Is it the best quality that you sell for 20s.?
—I just write for meal; I do not keep a store of meal.

9071. Do you make a small profit upon it ?
—Very little.

9072. You can afford to sell at 20s. ?
—With a very small profit

9073. Would you consider 23s. to be rather dear?
—It depends entirely on what he paid for it.

9074. Do you deal in groceries, such as sugar and tea ?

9075. What do you sell tea at ?
—I have two classes—at 2s. 6d. and 3s.

9076. Sugar ?
—Fourpence per lb., and moist sugar at threepence.

9077. Do you consider fivepence a high price for sugar?
—Yes, I consider it high, but it depends on where it is sold and what it takes to carry it to the place.

9078. What class of work are the people here most fond of when they go south? What do they take to most readily ?
—Railroad making.

9079. I believe Skyemen are famous for being good roadmen?
—Yes, they are good at almost anything except improving their crofts.

9080. Were many Skyemen employed in the construction of the Callander and Oban Railway ?
—I think there were some.

9081. Have you heard of the scheme that is now proposed for making a railway by the west coast to Inverness ?

9082. If that went on do you think it would be useful in the way of finding work for the people who go south ?
—I think it would.

9083. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—What is the population of the town of Portree ?
— Between 700 and 800.

9084. Are you well acquainted with the feelings of the people generally in all public matters °
—Yes, pretty well.

9085. Is there a great deal of sympathy in Portree for the crofters ?

9086. Is the feeling very general in the town ?

9087. You have said that industrious and sober crofters might get some assistance from outsiders, if they had larger lands given to them ?
—Yes, with a guarantea that the rents would not be increased, and that they would not be removed so long as they paid their rent.

9088. You told us several of them are in debt in your books . Would you not prefer as an outsider to advance money to a crofter to go into his new holding under these conditions, rather than to give him credit as you are doing just now?
—Yes, I would. I have already helped them to pay their rents, without charging them any interest, by signing bills for them,

9089. Is there anything in the character or disposition of the population of Skye that would prevent them from bettering themselves and their own condition, except the insecurity under which they labour, from constant evictions and fear of dispossession ?
—That is all.

9090. Are you aware it is a very natural thing for a man whose father and grandfather were in better circumstances than himself, to think with pride, of the time when his forefathers were in a better position ?

9091. They cling to that ?
—Yes, many of them do.

9092. And I suppose many of them would wish to be restored to the position which their fathers and grandfathers had ?

9093. That is a strong feeling with them ?
—A very strong feeling.

9094. Were you born in the country?

9095. Supposing you wanted to take a croft at £10, with (say) five cows, two horses, and about fifty sheep, can you give me any idea of what money you would require to put into it ?
—I would require about £150.

9096. And in the case of a crofter who has already a good deal of that stock, the additional stock required would be comparatively little?

9097. Perhaps £50 for each crofter would be enough in addition to his present holding ?

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