Portree, Skye, 24 May 1883 - Hugh Macrae

HUGH MACRAE, Farmer, Lettermore (33)—examined.

10175. The Chairman.
—Where is your residence?
—Principally in Portree.

10176. Do you wish to make a statement to the Commission?
—Yes. I am not going to enter into the several grievances of the crofters, the Commission having had ample evidence of that from themselves, but I wish to state before the Commission, though it may not exactly come within their province, but which affects the prosperity of this romantic village, that with one or two exceptions house property here is only held on a ninetynine yearslease, and at the expiry of each lease the property becomes the absolute property of the landlord and his heirs. Is not this confiscation of property? What encouragement is there for improvements under such conditions? I concur generally with the evidence adduced before you with regard to the oppression and chronic poverty of a great portion of the people. I am in a position to know a great deal of the circumstances of the people, my late father having been for upwards of forty years an extensive meal dealer and general merchant here, my brother and I having succeeded him. I have no doubt whatever in stating that the condition of the people generally is gradually getting worse, and that they are now in a much worse position than they were thirty or forty years ago. In fact, a large proportion of them are practically bankrupt; and if some measures are not adopted to ameliorate their condition, a number of them will soon be chargeable to the parish ; indeed, if it were not for remittances from relations outside Skye, a proportion of them would have succumbed ere now. This was far from being the case forty years ago, the people then being in comparatively easy circumstances, owing little or nothing, but are now deeply in debt. Their present condition is due to the insecurity and insufficiency of their holdings, and the deprivation of their hill pasture, and the huddling together of large numbers of them on unproductive land, to make room for sheep and deer. The chronic poverty prevalent in the land is mostly if not wholly due to the unequal distribution of the land, the most and the best of which is in the hands of a few. There is sufficient land in Skye to support in comparative comfort the present population; it supported a much larger one before, and not a tithe of the food now imported was required to be imported then. The land then was under cultivation, it is not so now. All that is necessary to remedy this sad state of matters is a redistribution of the land, giving each family as much arable and pasture land as will keep it in comparative comfort, and then to apply the principles of the Irish Land Act by fixing fair rents and giving security of tenure. Nothing short of this will allay agitation, restore contentment, and satisfy the just demands of the people. What need I speak of emigration as a cure for the present condition of the people, when the Highlands have been all but depopulated, and when the condition of those left behind has not improved in consequence, as is apparent in presence of tho condition of many parts of the country, when the cry of hunger and of deep and wide-spread distress is heard in various parts of the land, and but for the contributions of charity and public alms many of the people would have perished from want. It is not true that, in the Highlands at least, the people have pressed on the limits of subsistence, and that the only remedy is emigration. There are thousands of acres in Skye, fit for cultivation, growing little else than fog and brakens. What is wanted is migration. The time is gone bye when the welfare and natural rights of the people can be sacrificed to any parchment rights the landlords may possess. I for one have no fear of the issue, once their political power is conceded, to which the present Government is pledged, that the people will work out their own salvation. Put the people in possession of the land from which they and their forefathers were removed, and ways and means will hot be wanting to stock the land. I hold that land, being limited in extent, should not be dealt with on commercial principles. This is not a question of mere rent; it is one involving the well-being of the people, even of their very existence. Among all the Acts passed by the lords of the soil, I am not aware of one to preserve the people, but there are many on the statute book to preserve game and deer. I hear a great deal of the evils of absenteeism; what will it benefit the crofters on Lord Macdonald's estate by his Lordship residing on his property? Simply nothing. Major Fraser, who got a comfortable and fairly prosperous tenantry, resided a great deal on his estate; has that benefited his tenantry. I appeal from their former to their present condition. I am satisfied that, as regards Skye at least, where the proprietor is resident the people are in greater subjection and bondage. Let the people ask for no more charity, but let them demand their rights. If the money spent by the late Government in fixing a scientific frontier had been applied instead in bettering the condition of the people, matters would not now be as they are. Let the Liberal Government, who has shown so much solicitude concerning the Egyptians, grapple with this question and restore their rights to a noble, loyal, patriotic, law-abiding, but down-trodden people. I think it a mistake, however, to consider the crofter question as a mere local question affecting only the crofter population, and that can be settled by remedies that have only a surface and local application. It involves the great social problem of modern civilisation, viz., the institution of private property in land, the ownership by some of the people of the land, on which and from which the whole must live. It is this system that produces the destitution in the Highlands and the hideous squalor of our city slums; it involves the problem of the distribution of wealth. Is not labour the source of all wealth? without it you have no wealth How comes it then that the creators of this wealth get but the barest living of it? Manifestly owing to the ownership in the natural agent laud. Is not rent the devourer of wages, or in other words the earnings of labour. This is the system that keeps the masses of mankind mere hewers of wood and drawers of water for the benefit of a fortunate few, who reap where they do not sow, and appropriate to themselves wealth which they had no share in producing. This is the question worth fighting for, and not any mere local one, which is only iu the interests of a class; it is universal in its application, benefiting equally every man, woman, and child within the realm.

10177. Have you any further statement to make?
—I have not.

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