Portree, Skye, 24 May 1883 - Rev John Darroch

Rev. JOHN DARROCH, Minister of Portree (52)—examined.

9634. The Chairman.
—I believe you have a written statement which you wish to read?

9635. Will you be good enough to read it?
—Portree, May 23, 1883.
To the Right Honourable Lord Napier, Chairman of the Royal Commission for the Highlands and Islands.
—My Lord, Having taken notice of various standing grievances of the Skye people so repeatedly brought before your honourable Commission in this island, I have been a little surprised to find no complaints made on the sum of heavy taxation, more especially those for poor and school rates, and roads and bridges. It is difficult to account for silence upon such a subject, unless the people had not been properly instructed by their counsellors as to what to say. Still there is not the slightest doubt that such a grievance does exist, and that the crofters do complain of it heavily, for I have heard the people speak of it frequently, not only in this parish but in various other parishes in the island. You will therefore excuse my calling attention to it, and expressing the hope that it may yet receive legislative attention, with the view of affording a remedy. The burden arising from these various assessments would scarcely be credited in the more highly-favoured parts of the country. As to the poor rates, they were always a heavy burden here, as may easily be imagined. However, they were not formerly felt so much until the pressure of other taxations was added to them. Then of late years the assessment for roads and bridges have become vastly increased. This arises from the fact that Skye has been cut off from the rest of the country and constituted into a separate district, and so must bear the heavy burden of its own roads and bridges ; and there are also new roads wanted in various parts of the island, which it is impossible to construct without a ruinous assessment. You have heard a statement of the case of Glenmore (and it is not the only one), where the necessaries of life, coming to a large extent from other places, have to be transported on the backs of ponies, or in the absence of such a quadruped, on the backs of the unfortunate natives. Such is indeed a hardship and a grievance requiring remedy. But worse than these are the school rates, which since the beginning of the new Education Act press so heavily upon the poor tenants. Previous to this Act there was no felt grievance on this score, for all the schools in this parish (and there was no less than eight of - them) were supported without the cost of a penny to the parties interested. Since then, however, matters have sadly changed in respect of taxation for schools, without at the same time a corresponding benefit. Instead of being a benefit, it is rather the contrary in most of the schools in this parish. Parents and children seem determined to nullify the compulsory law of attendance. They seem to make every effort, by a thousand evasions and excuses, to shirk the duty of attending school, and the consequence is that these youth attain to their scholastic majority in a state of far greater ignorance than obtained under the old regime of moral suasion. And yet, let it be noted, that this non-attendance which is connived at by parents, manifestly increases the burden more and more, by preventing the possibility of earning a reasonable grant for average attendance. But in their infatuation parents seem to disregard this view of it, and act as if by cheating the authorities there were a gain instead of a loss. This is the universal complaint of teachers. One of them told me lately, that out of a school roll of fifty scholars, it was quite impossible for him to present an average attendance of ten scholars. If matters are allowed to go on as at present, there is but a sad look-out for the educational interests of the island, and the case is the more aggravated that the rate-payers have to be at the cost of such delinquencies. But it may be asked, are there not " defaulting officers," and what they are doing? We answer, they are doing very little except drawing their salaries. In fact, they are powerless for any good. And the school board also are equally impotent to cope with the evil or to afford a remedy. This important body, with all their wisdom and erudition, and the defaulting officers, though accoutred with policemen's batons, are utterly incapable of carrying out the provisions of the Educational Act in this exceptional part of the country. And the reason is obvious. It is found in that deplorable state of poverty which has been brought before your honourable Commission for the last two weeks. When people are in want there is a great temptation for sacrificing every interest to that of earning a morsel of bread. Now it is a fact that the great majority of children here are poorly clad, and are not able to attend school during the inclement season. And when weather favours, they are found at the sea-shore gathering shell-fish, or doing something else for helping a poverty stricken family to eke out an existence. In this way the schools are deserted, and the deficiency must be made up by the unfortunate parents themselves. Now, is it not a great hardship to be burdened with a system of which we cannot take advantage? Is it not a sore grievance to be saddled with a machinery which we cannot work? Is it not cruel to wrest from a poor crofter his hard earnings by land and by sea, in order to pay for costly structures, high salaries, school board elections, defaulting officers, rate collectors, money interest, and all the other expenses incident to the carrying out of the new Act, and at the same time to be precluded by the form of circumstances from deriving any benefit in return? I hold this indeed to be a very sore grievance to the poor people of Skye; and if any one is disposed to doubt it, let him just look at the school rates, and be at once convinced by the logic of figures. What are the school rates. A year past they were 2s. in the £, an exorbitant tax which was scarcely ever heard of in any civilised country. And this year they are but a trifle less, who could believe it. Could our friends in the south imagine that the wretched Skye crofters were paying 2s. in the £, and meanwhile their children not getting the benefit of an education. Who can say, then, that some reform or remedy is not required? But notice we are not undervaluing the benefits of the new Education Act where it can be taken advantage of. What we hold is that it is not adapted for such a place as Skye without a material modification. What Skye needs is in fact free education, or at least to be put on a par with other places in point of expense. If the majority of other places receive an education at the rate of 4d. or 6d. in the £, surely it is not too much to ask the same privilege for such a poor locality as this. We would therefore humbly plead that 4d. in the £ should be made the maximum school rate for this and for all the Western Islands, and that the deficiency should be paid by Government. We would also have all school fees abolished, because although now charged they are almost never paid. We would therefore humbly suggest to your honourable Commission to represent the matter to Her Majesty's Government with the view of securing virtually a gratuitous education for the section of the country just mentioned; and may we not trust that such a patriotic measure shall enlist the services of eloquent and influential legislators connected with Highland districts, who in this way would confer a lasting benefit on their poor countrymen, and relieve them of a sorely felt and pressing grievance? I would like further to make a statement regarding a branch of industry which seems to have escaped notice, but which is a considerable source of benefit to the Skye people, and which might be made more beneficial by extension of the scheme —I mean the salmon sea fishery. I have been authorised to refer to this matter before the Commission by one who has a right to speak on the subject, and who has ever evinced his desire to benefit the island in his own line of business. I refer to Mr James Johnston of Montrose, of the firm of Joseph Johnston & Sons, the extensive salmon fishers on this coast. This branch of industry, I may say, in his own words, " is one of the principal sources within the island
of circulating 'ready money, and upwards of two thousand pounds per annum is yearly paid in wages, and if it were more extended, it would be beneficial to the natives at a time of the year when other employment is not to be had." This suggestion of one so well acquainted with the island, and so much interested in its welfare, is well worth considering, because if it were acted upon it would doubtless be a great boon to a large number of the natives. For it will easily be seen that the scheme is practicable, and offers advantages over foreign fisheries. It is immediately at hand, and there is ready disposition to engage in it, with the certainty of good and sure pay. In fact, there is rather a premium for this service, and parties who receive employment find themselves so fortunate in earning that they can afford to do little else the rest of the year. What is needed is such an extension of this enterprise as would bring to Skye, not two thousand, but ten thousand per annum. The mode of extension must be left to others, but this enterprising gentleman seems to hiut that special legislation would be necessary in order to insure against serious losses by parties investing heavily. He says, in fact, " I think that Skye and the Western Islands should have special legislation." His operations during the past two years have been attended with loss instead of gain. And yet we candidly believe that his perseverance in the work, in the face of pecuniary loss, was prompted in a great measure by the benevolent spirit in which it was begun ; that is, in his own words, " for one great reason - to help the Skye people." I am sure that every one in this village and parish will readily believe the sincerity of his professions as to his good wishes for Skye. We have had such an instance of his disinterested kindness during the past winter. It is enough to say that the generosity of his gifts, by which he endeared his name to the needy poor in our midst, and to the children of this and other parishes, is not to be estimated by its money value. It implied kindly thoughts and a generous and good heart. We cannot therefore question his desire for improving the condition of the Skye people, through the term of business in which Providence has placed him, nor do we doubt the wisdom of one of his expressions in devising the means towards that desirable end. It is therefore hoped that Mr Johnston's suggestion will receive the consideration to which it is entitled, and be taken advantage of for ameliorating the condition of the Skye crofters.
—I have the honour to be, my Lord, your most obedient servant, JOHN DARROCH, minister of Portree. I have only to add that the manager of the salmon fisheries, Mr Lawson, is present, and if you desire to interrogate him as to the number of people employed, or anything else in connection with the salmon fishery, he is ready to answer questions.

9636. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—You say that the children in summer time are much employed in gathering shell-fish. Is that for the purpose of consumption?
—It is not for consumption, but for sale.

9637. You mean whelks?

9638. They do not gather them much for home consumption?
—They do in some places, to my own knowledge.

9639. In this parish?
—In this parish.

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