Bettyhill, Sutherland, 24 July 1883 - John Mackay

JOHN MACKAY, Crofter, Melvich (48)—examined.
[See Appendix A, LXIV.]

25619. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Have you any statement to make?
—I have. ' Statement of the Grievances of the Melvich Crofters (part of the Parish of Reay in Sutherlandshire):
—(1) Our grievances are numerous and hard to bear, arising first from overcrowding. There are now forty-four crofters, one hotel with about sixty acres arable land following. A ground officer's dwelling with about seven acres where there were only seven crofters before the Sutherland clearances took place. We are surrounded at our front, at our side, and at our back by the sheep farm's grazing, and on the other side by the sea-shore. The boundary line of the sheep farmer's grazing is almost in our doors, so that we always suffer grievances from that source. We have to watch and herd our stock regular before any of them cross over that boundary line, and if any of them happen to cross over they are sure to get a pair of dogs to return them back, and to be in danger of being damaged. The proprietor is bound to protect the sheep farmer's grass from the crofter's stock, and the sheep farmer's underlings take the advantage of this with boldness, and would wish the crofters and their stock out on the sea. Our neighbouring sheep farmer has the grazing of between 100 and 120 square miles of the best green and hill pasture, and the poor forty-four crofters have only about three square miles of the very worst of hill pasture—not deserving the name of pasture; but the name of waste ground. The extent of ground occupied by the forty-four crofters as arable land (the most of it being reclaimed by themselves and their predecessors) will be about a mile and a quarter long and three quarters broad.
(2) The spring water or well from which fourteen families got their supply of water for drinking and the preparing of their food and other purposes has been locked up under lock and key, and brought over in a lead pipe to the sheep farmer's residence to accommodate that establishment with one of the best spring waters in the north of Scotland. When the well was proposed to be closed up in a house with lock and key, the people depending on it for their supply of water were promised to get their necessary supply of water; but the consequence is that the people get only the overflow, and when there is no overflow, which is very often the case, the inhabitants want, or else shift for themselves the best way they can; while there is ample water at the farmer's residence, and very often when the water is scarcest with the crofters, it is running at the sheep farmer's residence without check.
(3) The chain boat ferry, which is a great drain on the poor people's pockets and paying road assessments besides. This ferrying differs very much from toll charges, as a person crossing has to pay every time he or she crosses or recrosses.

The remedy :—Sheep farms broken down, more land and more hill pasture given to such crofters as could remove thereto, security in their holdings, compensation for unexhausted improvements, that the fourteen families mentioned above get their necessary supply of spring water without any restriction or scarcity from the closed up well, that a bridge be erected across the river at the ferrying place. Suppose the landlord would grant the crofters their present crofts rent free, what would it help them? It would only help them to pay two or three bolls of their year's meal. The only cure for the evil is more land to cultivate, and more hill ground for pasture. Statistics, showing how the crofters of Melvich township manage to bring through their stock, the number of stock of all kinds, the expenses that are out in keeping them in life, the yearly supply of meal bought by the crofters of the township, &c. All his supply is bought from another county—the county of Caithness—which supply, if closed up from the crofters of the north coast of Sutherland, themselves and their stock would starve in one six months :
—Population 203; cattle 18; sheep 204; horses 23; pigs 17. Straw and hay bought last winter and spring—straw, 984 stones; hay, 423 stones; grain for seed, 16½ quarters; seed potatoes, 3½ bolls. Cost, straw, £28, 5s. 8d.; hay, £ 21 , 3s.; feeding stuffs, £9, 11s .; grain for seed, £16. 10s.; seed potatoes, £7. Meal raised of last year's crop, 139 bolls; bought for the year 350 bolls—cost £315. Total expenditure for the support of man and beast, and seeds bought for the twelve months, £397, 9s. 8d., groceries excluded. Present rent about £120, 6s. Id., rent thirty years ago £81, 3s. The question now is, Where does the money come from that will pay this amount and also rent? It is earned mostly in other counties, not in Sutherlandshire, when most of the young people male and female are away at this season of the year. But would it not now be more satisfactory for both landlord and crofters that they would be paying this enormous sum of money (that they pay yearly for meal) in rent to the landlord if they had value of land so that they could raise this meal off their own holdings. The land is close beside us, the land from which our forefathers have been exterminated and driveu down to the rugged sea-coast, there to live out a pitiful life.'

25620. Does this statement contain almost all you have got to say?
—No; I could expand upon it.

25621. How long ago is it since the well was taken from you?
—Eight years.

25622. How long is it since the farm house to which the water is now taken was put up?
—It was the residence once of the Mackays of Bighouse.

25623. Where did the family used to get their water from?
—They had a pump in the garden, and they got water from the river also.

25624. And what satislied the old family of Bighouse would not suit the tenant?

25625. And he took away your water?
—Yes, except when there was an overflow. When there is no overflow we have to dig wells for
ourselves like the people of old.

25626. Are you sure you are correct in saying that there is an unnecessary escape of water at the house?
—I am quite sure of it, at times.

25627. Have you seen it?
—No, but there are men here who have seen it, who can testify to it.

25628. And there is no other well for supplying the people except this one?
—Not in that place. Any well that is there, the water is inferior and not near that place at all.

25629. What rent do you pay?

25630. How long have you had your lot?
—Nine years,

25631. Have you a lease?

25632. Were there any conditions under which you took your land?

25633. Was there any writing about it?
—Yes. There is a piece of round of eight or nine acres just in front of my house that I was promised verbally by the factor would be reclaimed; but that has not been done yet.

25634. He was to take that in for you?

25635. Was that a condition upon which you were to pay rent?
—No. I was to pay 2s. 6d. an acre, besides interest on what was to be laid out.

25636. You were to have paid that if the money was laid out?
—Yes; and I have reminded the factor of it two or three times since.

25637. Did you build your own house?
—Yes, I expended close on £200 on building. I have not built a dwelling house, but I have built all the offices, and had the factor's hand of writing for timber for the offices.

25638. Timber and lime?
—No lime; but I had the factor's writing for the rough timber for the offices, which was never fulfilled, and I had to go and buy timber at a cost of £17 to £19.

25639. When you made the bargain originally did you intend to get a lease?

25640. How long were you to be on the place?
—There was no statement about that; I was only a tenant at will.

25641. It was not very wise of you to go and build all these houses without security?
—Well I would not do it to-day.

25642. Are you afraid you will be turned out?
— Not the least; but then there is no security, and that leaves matters that the tenants have no encouragement to improve.

25643. You said you have not built a dwelling house?
—No, and I have only one single room for a dwelling. I built a house seventy-four feet long of stone and lime and timber, and also shed covers.

25644. What was that for?
—For a byre, barn, stable, and a room to dwell in.

25645. Have you applied to the factor for a lease?

25646. Don't you think you should have done so, and had the thing put upon a satisfactory footing?
—I did'nt suppose I would get a lease.

25647. Is that the reason why you did not apply?
—That is what I understood in my own mind.

25648. With regard to the other people whom you represent here, you said that every one of them is buying meal from another county?
—Every one in the locality.

25649. If you got more land and got some security in your holding, would you begin to reclaim land and make holdings for yourselves?
—There is no land for the rest to reclaim in the position they are in just now.

25650. But supposing they got some of the land of the farmer, who is hemming you in every way, would the people be able to take it?
—Some of them would.

25651. And would they thereby be able to dispense with buying meal?
—Of course they would. There are meadow lands where there are hundreds of bolls of meal lying in the soil.

25652. You say there are meadows quite close to your croft and the crofts of others which, if cultivated, would produce annually hundreds of bolls of meal?

25653. What does that land produce at present?

25654. If you have anything special to say, you can now do so?
—I have nothing special to say, except that I will answer any questions that may be asked.

25655. The Chairman.
—You stated that one of the complaints was about a chain boat ferry; has there been a ferry at that place from time immemorial?
—Yes—since the country road went by there.

25656. In old times how did the people get over there?
—I cannot account for it unless they were crossing down at the foot of the river at Bighouse. They cross there still when the sea is out, and there is no flood.

25657. They could ford the river near the mouth?

25658. Is there any appearance of any old road which led to that place?
—There is; that is the way the old road led before the county road was made.

25659. The ferry was first established at the time the road was made?
—I suppose it would be about that time. There was no need of it before, as there was no road there.

25660. Is there a charge made for foot passengers?

25661. How much?
—A halfpenny for a foot passenger.

25662. How much is it for a cart and horse?
—A pony and cart, l ½ d . but for a horse passing fifteen hands, 3d.

25663. In old times the people went round and forded the river near the mouth, is that stopped now?
—No, it is not stopped; but a horse with a load cannot go there; a horse with an empty cart could go there.
25664. But the people are allowed to go that way if they please?

25665. Have the people ever petitioned the road trustees to build a bridge?
—Not to my knowledge.

25666. Is the. water very deep?
—About six feet at this time of the year.

25667. Does the tide come up and down?

25668. Did you ever hear whether there was any difficulty about building a bridge?
—I never heard of any difficulty at all.

25669. Did you say the people had petitioned to have a bridge?
—Not to my knowledge, but I suppose the matter has been considered at a meeting of the Road Trustees since a year or two ago, but still we are without a bridge.

25670. Did the Road Trustees take any resolution to build a bridge or not?
—I cannot say.

25671. Why do the people not petition the Road Trustees if they feel this to be a grievance?
—As far as my knowledge goes the Road Trustees have nothing to do with it; it is the proprietor as far as I understand.

25672. Who keeps up the road?
—The assessment.

25673. Would the Road Trustees not be responsible for the bridge too ; do they never make improvements on the roads?
—The roads are contracted for by contractors who repair them. There are Road Trustees in the county who have management of these roads, and who are elected by the ratepayers.

25674. I think you would do well if you feel this to be a grievance, to petition the Road Trustees and agitate the question; and perhaps you will get satisfaction.
—Thank you, my Lord.

25675. You say the well has been given to the farmer, and that the families are sometimes deprived of the water from it; how many families of crofters depend on this particular well?

25676. Is it a common thing to be deprived of the use of the water?
—During this dry summer almost every second day we are wanting water.

25677. Have you any other water you can get conveniently!
—I do not draw my water from that spring.

25678. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—You produce certain statistics with regard to your expenditure for twelve months amounting to £397, 9s. 8d. Was that sum returned to you by the crofters?

25679. The forty-four?

25680. How did you ascertain it?
—I just went round the crofters, and every one of them told me.

25681. What is the average rent of the crofters there?
—There are two in the township about £5, and I pay £10, all the rest pay from £ 1 to £3.

25682. You have a £ 10 croft; is that sufficient to supply your wants without importing food?
—It keeps me from buying much; but I have no family.

25683. What size of croft would be required generally in the county?
—A croft rented at from £ 10 to £20.

25684. £120 is the rent of forty-four crofters; that makes an average rent of about £2, 14s.?
—About that.

25685. And the others who import food to the extent of £397 make the money by fishing?

25686. Have they boats?
—No; but they go to the east coast fishing.

25687. If they had larger crofts they could still do that?
—Yes; and if there was a harbour at Port Skerra it would benefit Melvich also, because the men at the sea-coast are, I believe, all fishing.

25688. But if they had boats and went to the fishing they could not take larger crofts?
—I could not answer that question.

25689. Who is the local factor?
—Mr Crawford, at Tongue. John Mackay

25690. Did the people ever represent to him the want of water in consequence of their supply being taken to Bighouse?
—They have represented it to the ground officer, I know.

25691. What reply did the ground officer give?
—That they would get the necessary supply of water.

25692. How long ago was that?
—I could not say.

25693. Did he specify in what manner they would get this water?
—He did not.

25694. About how long ago was it that they spoke to the ground officer?
—I could not say.

25695. Was it this year?

25696. A long time ago?

25697. Was there any understanding as to how the water was to be supplied to the people when the ground officer promised it to them?
—The people understood they would get the necessary supply of water from the same well.

25698. By another pipe or how?
—They expected that they would get their supply by a pipe that let it flow out on the same level with the pipe that leads to the sheep farmer's residence. The pipe which leads to the sheep farmer's residence is at the bottom of the cistern, and the pipe that lets the overflow out is up near the brink.

25699. From that time to this have you heard anything more about it?
—As far as I know any time that they spoke to the ground officer about it, he answered in such a way that they expected to get what they wanted.

25700. Perhaps you don't know much about the circumstances, seeing you don't get your water there?
—No, I was not personally there, but I have heard what he said.

25701. Are the people in your district very poor?
—Yes, in general they are.

25702. Can you give us any idea as to the number of crofters who might be in a position to take more land provided they got the chance—what proportion out of the whole number?
—From twelve to twenty.

25703. Out of a total of how many?

25704. There must be a good many cottars on the place?
—Only one who pays rent, and he has a few sheep.

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