RODERICK M'MILLAN, Draper and Grocer, Portree (43)—examined.
9398. The Chairman.
—Have you any statement to make to the Commission?
—Yes. I am a general merchant. I am also a member of the school board of Portree. I take a very deep interest in the crofter question. I and the other delegates for this village were appointed at a largely
attended meeting of the inhabitants, and at a subsequent meeting which was also largely attended we were intrusted to corroborate generally the evidence already laid before the Commission of the impoverished condition of the crofters in the isle of Skye. We were also asked to suggest to the Commission certain remedies which, in the opinion of the meeting and in our own opinion, would tend to improve the condition of the crofters, and we were further asked to state certain local grievances. From the nature of my business, I have since the year 1854 been in a position to know the circumstances of the people, not only in the immediate neighbourhood of Portree, but in several parishes throughout Skye, and I know it to be a fact that cannot be gainsayed that the people are much worse off than they used to be, not only this year, which is an exceptional one, but for several years back, and instead of their circumstances improving they have been for a number of years as a rule getting poorer and poorer; and it is beyond doubt that unless effective measures are taken without delay to remedy the state of matters, a large number of the crofters must necessarily be paupers. An attempt is being made to show the Commission that the condition of the people is better than it was forty years ago. With that I entirely disagree. The statement will not bear examination for a moment. There is certainly more tea and sugar consumed, but the scarcity of milk and other things accounts to a great extent for that. In the spring months, for example, there is more tea sold, chiefly because milk is then scarcer. Take the parish of Kilmuir as an example. I myself remember well the time when the crofters there were well off comparatively; they had more to eat and to drink, they had more money, they had more cattle and sheep to sell, more wool to make clothing; they were but little in debt, but now it is quite the reverse. In my younger days crofters from the east side of that parish had only to state in almost any shop in Portree that they came from that district, and goods would be given on credit with pleasure, it being well known they were in good circumstances, and that they were good payers. Now their credit, with a few exceptions, is entirely gone. The impoverished condition of the Isle of Skye is clearly attributable to the unequal division of the land, or, in other words, to the fact that by far the largest and best part of the land is occupied by the few,- whilst the bulk of the people have only a small fraction of it, and that almost without exception the worst part. It is computed
that four-fifth parts of the land in Skye is occupied by thirty individuals, whilst the remaining part of the population, say 17,000, have only a fifth part. It is driving the people off the best and largest parts of the land, and crowding them together on miserably small patches, that has very nearly ruined the island; and in my opinion, and in the opinion of those who appointed me as a delegate, the only effective remedy for relieving the distress which exists, and which is increasing year after year, is a more equitable division of the land. There is abundance of land in Skye for all the population—enough to give 150 acres (taking hills and mountains into account) to each family of five in the island, striking out this village and some other small villages whose living does not depend upon land. It is not the scarcity of good land, it is not the nature of the climate, it is not the natural poverty of the soil, it is not the failure of the herring fishing, it is not even the failure of the potato crop, that has brought an interesting, a peaceful, and a law-abiding people to the verge of pauperism. It is the large sheep farms —and that cannot be too strongly emphasised—that have done it. It stands to reason then that the chief remedy is the breaking up of the huge sheep farms and deer forests, and giving the land to the crofter population in suitable lots. There is one sheep farm in Skye almost equal in extent to the whole estate of and many other very extensive farms on each of which there could be hundreds of families living comfortably. Again, no division of the land will be satisfactory without fixity of tenure; or, in other words, an absolute right for all time to come to the crofter occupants of the soil to the land which they occupy so long as they pay rent for it, the rent to be fixed not by the proprietor, but by valuators to be appointed by Government, and this would not be robbing the proprietors of their rights or of their rents, it would be only restoring to Highlanders the rights which anciently belonged to their forefathers. With fixity of tenure there ought to be also a provision to the effect that the improvements effected upon a croft should belong to the crofter himself, and that it would not be in the power of the proprietor to raise the rents of a croft on account of improvements made upon it by the occupier. Say that I got an acre of land at a fixed rent of 2s. an acre, and that in course of time I improved it to such an extent as to bring the value up to 20s., and that I was giving it up, I ought to have the right of selling these improvements not to the proprietor but to my successor, who would sit on this acre of ground at the original rent, he having paid me one slump sum, say eighteen years purchase, for these improvements. Reverting to the subject of fixity of tenure, I trace the present unsatisfactory state of matters to the want of it in the past. No proprietor of land, let him be ever so good-hearted, ought to have such absolute power over a multitude of crofter population as proprietors have had in the past. This power ought for ever to cease. Let a proprietor be ever so good, what security is there that his successor will not be the reverse? I may state that my opinions are not communistic, I have always been the reverse except upon the land question. I may state to the Commission that my opinions have always been conservative upon other questions except the laud question. In Her Majesty's dominions in India, as your Lordship well knows, the small tenants have fixity of tenure and rents at valuation, and why should not Her Majesty's subjects in the Highlands have the same? Another question that I notice the Commission asking is, how in the event of the crofters getting increased holdings would they stock them, and the reply generally has been, we would expect Government to advance us money. I do not think Government would advance money on stock, it would not be real security, and Government, I suppose, would lend only on real security; but I think Government might easily advance money on permanent improvements, which would as nearly as possble be lending on landed security. Supposing then that a crofter [with fixity of tenure, by his own labour and that of his family effected permanent improvements on his land, Government could lend on these improvements, and the money so lent would help to stock his croft. Speaking on this subject the other day to a gentleman who was for a long time a crofter, he said, 'Oh give me so many acres of good land, and I would take as much crops out of it in one year as would make me independent.In any case let the land be given back to the people at moderate rents with fixity of tenure, and there will be no fear of their not stocking it. I might here be allowed to remark, that the large sheep farms do not benefit the trade of the country the fiftieth part that the same quantity of land would do, providing it were occupied by a crofting population in good circumstances. I do not think emigration a good solution of the question. Two-thirds of the Skye people would have to emigrate before the other third would have enough of land according to the present division, and surely it is not desirable on many grounds to send such a large number of people away from the island when there is land enough and to spare. If there were a surplus population, emigration might then be thought of, at present it is simply out of the question. Possibly the best possible settlement of the question would be a scheme to enable the occupants of the soil to purchase their holdings, in the event of the proprietor being willing to sell; and to make any such scheme workable, transfer of land ought to be as simple and as cheap as bank or railway stock. I have been asked to state some grievances peculiar to the village. The want of grazing for cows and the want of ground for potatoes is felt very much by the village people, as it is only very few that have either. The land surrounding Portree is practically in the hands of two individuals, none of whom will give grazing to the village people, let them stand ever so much in need of it. The consequence is that the milk supply for the village is exceedingly scarce and very dear; and children and others suffer iu their health through the scarcity of milk. Even our excellent procurator fiscal has been refused grazing for his cow by Mr Stewart, the new tacksman of Scorrybreck, although he had it from Mr Stewart's predecessor. There is another matter which I was asked to state before the Commission, though it is scarcely in connection with the crofter question, viz., that in this village parties anxious to build houses can only get leases for ninetynine years, which are considered too short. Formerly, I understand, the proprietor had no power to give longer leases, because the estate was entailed; but now, I understand, it is perfectly in his power to give perpetual feus. It appears, however, that he is not willing to do so, and I am asked to state to the Commission that it is felt to be a very great hardship that people who wish to build houses can only get ninety-nine years leases. It is calculated to reduce the value of house property to a great extent in Portree, and people don't want to build when they can only get short leases. There is one other remark I wish to make. It was stated here yesterday that it is impossible to get the same rents from crofters as from sheep farmers. I have simply to tell the Commissioners, on the other hand, that the large sheep farm of Raasay was let to Mr Mackenzie, the first and the only tenant who had it, for nineteen years, at the very same rent which the crofters paid for it, and when his lease was out he got it renewed at a very small advance upon the original rent, so that practically the crofters were paying Mr Rainy as well as the large sheep farmer did.
9399. Can you say, in reference to that last statement, that the crofters paid as regularly and were as little in arrears as the sheep farmers?
—I am not able to state that. Possibly they were in arrears, because in my early recollection it was shortly after the great destitution of 1846, and very possibly they may have been in arrears then; but I have no doubt whatever that if Mr Rainy had left the crofter population on the south part of Raasay, and taken some interest in improving their circumstances, there would not have been today a penny of arrears on their crofts, because that is the best part of the island.
9400. With reference to the local complaint of want of milk and of grazing ground, is there no common good, no land belonging to the town?
—Not an inch.
9401. Has no land ever been let to the inhabitants as a common grazing ground in former times?
—I cannot speak to former times. I have only been here since 1856, and since then there has been no common ground except some lots in which some of the people got grazing for cows, and a very few got potato ground.
9402. Has any representation been made to Lord Macdonald on the subject?
—I rather think not, and I may state that, in my opinion, it would have been better if Lord Macdonald or his factor had been approached first on the subject.
9403. Lord Macdonald, I believe, is coming to live in the immediate neighbourhood of the town, and perhaps a representation might be made to him on the subject of grazings. How does the town stand in reference to fuel? Have the people in the town the right of cutting fuel upon the neighbouring bog?
—I understand they have.
9401. Have you exercised that right?
—No, I never cut peats there.
9405. But the bog is open to all the people to cut peats?
—I think so.
9406. Is any charge made for fuel?
—There is no charge made.
9407. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Did the former tenant of Scorrybreck give facilities for cows grazing?
—To a few, for instance, Mr M'Lennan had the grazing of two cows from Mr Macleod.
9408. I suppose most of the people in Portree who are well-to-do would keep cows if they had grazing?
—Most willingly. They would think it a great privilege to have the grazing of a cow.
9409. What would they be willing to give for a cow's grazing?
—£2 or £ 3, I believe, for good grazing.
9410. That is merely for summering?
—Summering. They would have to winter the cows, of course.
9411. Did the former tenant of Scorrybreck give facilities for potato ground?
—No, I don't think Mr Macleod did.
9412. Is there any authority of any kind in Portree? Has it been declared a public place?
—No, it is just a parish, with the usual authority in a parish.
9413. Are you a native of Skye?
—I am a native of Raasay.
9414. Mr Cameron.
—You stated that in your opinion the difficulty as to the croftersstocking new land, might be got over by Government advancing money on improvements made by the crofters?
—Yes, to a certain extent. It would not meet all the case, but it would meet it to a ertain extent.
9415. If the money were given by Government to assist the tenant in improving his land, how would it also be available for stocking the ground as well ?
—My meaning is this. Suppose I had a croft, and four or five grown-up sons, who worked upon it for two or three years and improved it, that is the value of my own and my family's labour, and I would get my improvements certified, and Government could easily lend money upon them then, and I could have the money to pay for the cattle and sheep, which I had got perhaps on credit, when I got my croft.
9416. But if the Government were to advance the money to repay for improving the land, it would be utilised in repaying you and your family for your labour in improving the land. Therefore, would not the money be already disposed of, and how could it be available for the double purpose of stocking the land ?
—It would be so much wages earned by the family. Suppose I worked a whole winter on my croft, and at the end of the winter or spring I got this money from Government for improvements, it was for my own labour when I got it, —it was in my own possession,—and it was in my power to do anything I liked with it.
9417. But still labour is money, and if you expend the labour in improving your croft, you cannot also labour for other people, and you lose the wages you might obtain in other ways?
—But I am labouring for myself.
9418. Still it is worth money, and if you worked for other people you would get the return in the shape of money?
—Yes, but perhaps working for other people would not be so remunerative as working for my own croft.
9419. That may be so, but I am talking of an advance given by Government. If the Government made advances to you for improvements, they would be considered as remuneration to you for your labour, and for improving your croft. That would be an end of that transaction. But how would that same money which was paid to you for labour be also available for stocking the land ?
—It would be available if I had it in my hand at the time, —if I had any other way of living when I was working.
9420. You would require to keep yourself and your family going?
—I might have some other means of keeping myself and my family without encroaching upon the money.
9421. But the money would be the value of your labour, would it not ?
—That would not make it less money. It would be at my disposal to purchase stock with.
9422. How could it be available as payment for your labour in improving and also available for stocking the land ?
—It is quite clear to me. Suppose I had so much meal and other food during the whole year, that
I did not require to touch this money at all, and if I was enabled at the end of that period to have this money clear, without any demand upon it, it would be at my disposal for the purchase of cattle and sheep.
9423. Still, it would be for the support of your family, during the time you are labouring?
—But I am supposing a case in which the family would not require that support during the time they were labouring.
9424. How would they find the support ?
—There are several ways of finding support.
9425. They could not do two things at once. They could not improve their crofts and earn money at the same time?
—Yes, there is a lot of spare time. It would encourage people to work.
9426. Can you make any other suggestion, supposing this plan of yours was not feasible, whereby the crofters could stock their farms?
—If they were not able to stock them at once, they might stock them gradually.
9427. But how would they pay their rent in the meantime?
—Though the crofts were not fully stocked, they might be able to pay the rent. They might stock them by degrees.
9428. Do you suppose the Government valuators you spoke of would fix the rent on the assumption that the croft was fully stocked, or on the assumption that it would take a considerable period to stock it?
—I suppose they would value the land according to what it was worth, supposing it was stocked.
9429. And in that case the tenant would be at a loss during the period he was working in order to get the full stock on the ground?
—People have very often to fight against these things. Rome was not built in a day.
9430. Professor Mackinnon.
—If I understood you aright, your plan would virtually be to feu the crofts. You spoke of fixity of tenure, to continue always?
—I did not mean that the proprietor should have at no time a right to revalue the crofts.
9431. I think you said the crofter should never be dispossessed so long as he paid the rent, though the rent should be made a little higher. That is virtually feuing?
9432. Would you feu the land out in equal shares'?
—No, I would have crofts of different sizes, according to the circumstances of those taking them. I do not think it would be a good plan to make every croft the same size.
9433. You would like them to be of various sizes?
9434. Of course the nature of the country itself would require that,—looking to the matter of fences?
9435. Would you not keep a considerable proportion for pretty large farms?
—I have no objection to a portion being kept for large farms.
9436. Only you think there is too much at present?
—I do think so.
9437. When you stated that you did not expect Government to advance money upon stock, and at the same time that the croft would require to be stocked from the very first year, was it your idea that the people should be prepared to undergo even greater hardships than at present in order to obtain an ultimate benefit?
9438. Apart from that interminable lease which has been spoken of, upon what length of lease do you think the people could be encouraged to improve their crofts?
—I would have no leases at all
9439. Your own idea would be a continuous permanent lease?
—I w»uld have absolute security to the occupier of the soil.
9440. Would that give a right to the crofter to subdivide his croft?
—No, I would not allow that.
9441. And who is to succeed in the croft?
—There would be no fear of getting successors. I believe there is an earth hunger in Skye just now, the same as in Ireland.
9442. I want your own view, because my fear is that there would be too many successors?
—Do you mean in the same family?
9443. Would the crofter be entitled to leave the croft to one son to the exclusion of the rest, or to distribute it amongst all?
—It would be far better he should not have power to distribute it among them, especially a small croft.
9444. What would become of the others?
—The world is wide; they can work for themselves.
9445. But is that not the case at present, and still they will not go?
—I do not approve of that
9446. What reasonable guarantee would you have that they would go then, when they will not go now?
—Stern necessity would make them go then, if they could not get a part of the croft
9447. You would make that statute law?
—I would make it statute law so far as small crofts are concerned. Of course, with a person renting a
farm at £100 or £200, I would not make it the law in that case.
9448. Would the heir be obliged to buy out the rest?
—I would leave that to family arrangement.
9449. I am afraid, as a practical measure, you would have to consider it ?
—Well, I would leave it to wiser heads than my own.
9450. I understand you would not allow subdivision upon any consideration whatever?
—I would allow no subdivision except in very very rare cases,—such as the case of a very old man who had only one son.
9451. That would be no subdivision.
—In that case I would allow the son to live upon the croft till he was able to take it up in the course of
9452. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—If the owner of the croft could not find any one to purchase his tenant right, would you allow him to let his croft ?
—I have not thought upon that question.
9453. Professor Mackinnon.
—You would make it part of your scheme under statute that the croft should not be subdivided ?
9454. And you would thus compel those, except the one who was to sit upon it, to seek their fortunes elsewhere?
—Perhaps they would get another croft.
9455. Of course you would expect that a good number of them would be supplied by means of crofts that had run out, but still in a large population like this there would always be a large surplus who would be compelled to leave?
—That is possible.
9456. Is it not natural?
—As a rule, population in the Highlands has not been increasing of late.
9457. Is it not the case that there is a great increase of the population except when a continuous overflow goes elsewhere ?
—Yes, as a rule.
9458. The Chairman.
—We have heard a good deal about the reluctance of the people to emigrate. Do you think, if there was an honest attempt on the part of the proprietors and the Government to do justice to the people in the island, and place them in a better position, others among the population would be more inclined to emigrate?
—I would think so, most certainly.
9459. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—About the succession to the croft, would you give the crofter power to select the person to whom it was to be left ?
9460. In preference to its falling to his heir-at-law ?
9461. You would give him the power of nominating his successor?
9462. That would do away with all the trouble about the succession ?
—I should think so.