Bettyhill, Sutherland, 24 July 1883 - Rev James Cumming

Rev. JAMES CUMMING, Free Church Minister, Melness (62)—examined.

25256. The Chairman.
—Have you been elected a delegate by the people of Melness?
—I have.

25257. Have you a statement to make on behalf of the people?
—Not any written statement.

25258. Would you be so good as to make a verbal statement to begin with?
—I have to state on behalf of the people that they complain of the smallness of their lots, the uncertainty of tenure, and that they are subject to annoyances if they happen to offend any official.

25259. Smallness of lots, uncertainty of tenure, and petty molestation, do you mean?
—Yes. They also complain of lack of harbour accommodation, which shuts up the district from intercourse with other parts of the empire. That is true of the whole coast as well as to the district of Melness. The people are so located that in the greater number of cases their lots cannot be extended unless two-thirds, or at least one-third of them were removed so as to make room for the remainder to be somewhat comfortable. They are also subject to fines, not by the Sheriff or according to the laws of the empire, but according to estate laws. If a man receives a lodger into his house—his son-in-law or his daughter in law—he is subject to a fine, and that fine in some instances, if not in all, gradually finds its way into his rent, and becomes an increase of rent. [See Appendix A, LXIV]. May I mention a case in illustration? There was an elderly man, a retired shepherd, many years ago, who built a cottage on one of six or seven lots that were laid out for cottars or crofters—somewhere about two or three acres of surface. This old man reclaimed about two acres of ground, and built a cottage on it. He lived for some years in that way until at last his wife died. He had no family, and he could not manage to cultivate the lot himself. But he was permitted by the local agent of his Grace to take in a young couple to live with him in one end of his house, on condition that they would be kind to the old man. After living for some few years in this way, the old man wished to resign his lot and to become a pauper. I told him we had too many of these already, and that he had better keep on the lot nominally—he paid only a nominal rent—and that the people with whom he lived were very kind and dutiful to him, and that I would see him clothed myself. By-and-by he became blind, enfeebled, and lay in his bed. The people with whom he lived were very kind to him continually, and one day happening to call to see the old man, I noticed that he was not well provided for the winter, and I told my wife to send some cast-off clothes that I had, in order to make the old man comfortable. On further inquiry, I found that the person in charge of him could not put the clothing on, for reasons so delicate that I can scarcely mention them. She said she could not keep him clean, and on inquiring the reason she said she had no change of linen for him. I said the least thing the Parochial Board could do would be to supplement her when she attended to the old man, and boarded him, and did everything for him, and that I thought they should supplement her with a change of linen. I wrote to the inspector of poor, informing him how the matter stood. He promptly attended to the matter. Thomas Morrison, the husband of the woman who had charge of the old man, not long after that, happened to meet his Grace's representative at Tongue, who said to him, ' Why aren't you good to Angus Rankin, the old man' Morrison replied, ' I am as good to him as I can. " How is it that there is a demand made on the Parochial Board for relief ?' Morrison answered, ‘Well, I did not make that demand; probably it was some people who saw it was fit and proper,' for Morrison's family had increased, and he had enough to do to struggle through and make a livelihood for himself and his family. Meantime there was no more about it, but in the course of the month of March this old man, blind, bed-ridden, and I suppose about ninety years of age, was duly and formally summoned by a message from Dornoch out of the house. [See Appendix A, LXIV]. I made a statement, which I addressed to his Grace the Duke of Sutherland on the subject. The reply I got was, that this old man had occupied three acres of arable land for a number of years —for a long time—and that he was under the charge of the inspector of poor, and that his Grace saw no reason to interfere in the matter. I rejoined, that should the ground be measured by any competent surveyor, they would find there were not two acres of land arable, and that if there were, they were the product of the man's own industry or capital; that he was not under the charge of the inspector of poor, but was merely getting a supplement in order to enable the poor people who were in charge of him to get a cup of tea for the old man, and provide a change of bedding. I also stated that whoever represented to his Grace that the matter was otherwise had made what was an unmitigated misrepresentation. To this rejoinder I had no reply; but Thomas Morrison, who was one of many who were working at some improvements which were going on in the district, was boycotted. He was discharged from the work, and matters stood in that way until the term day, when some person told me that the ground officer was on his way to turn Thomas Morrison and his wife and five children out. I repaired to the place, and happened to meet two or three men whom I took to be officers. I told the ground officer to 'go and tell those who sent you here, that the time has gone by when the inhabitants of Sutherland can be turned out of house and home as vermin, and that when Thomas Morrison goes out all his belongings go with him, and they leave nothing to this blind bed-ridden man but the stocks of the bed on which he is lying; and before Morrison goes out he must be provided with a qualified nurse, cooking utensils, fuel, food, and bedding, for Angus Rankin has nothing in this world he can call his own.' The ground officer retired. I don't know whether he delivered my message or not, but in the course of that day, or next day, Morrison went to the office at Tongue, and he was charged £4 —£1 for what we call legal expenses, and £3 for getting the lot, although the nominal rent for it had been paid the previous Martinmas. There were two rents demanded and paid the same year, and for the same crop. Before I for one would submit to such treatment, I would go to the ends of the earth. Thomas Morrison is there still. He still pays £ 3 for rent —that is 30s. an acre for that poor land which is not worth the half. The old man died in the course of a few months afterwards. After the term at which this took place he was recorded as a regular pauper. I should have stated, that in my second letter to his Grace the Duke of Sutherland, I demanded or challenged proof. I asked my statement to be put to the test, but, whether that was done, or whether any attempt was made to do it, I never heard. There are other cases of a similar kind. There was an old man who got one of those lots when they were first laid out —pure hill ground at the time. He is now in about his seventieth year, and the rent was raised on him from the nominal sum he had been previously paying a year before the general rise was contemplated on this coast His Grace, upon reflection, or from what motive I know not, ordered this general rise to be remitted, and after the rise was taken it was paid back again, but in the case of the old man to whom I refer, George M'Kay, [See Appendix A, LXIV] More, and James Munro—old men between seventy and eighty years of age —interest on the capital, labour, and money which they had laid out upon the ground had to be paid. These are only specimens of what has created a feeling of insecurity, which prevents the people from exerting themselves in any case when it is possible to do so. It prevents them from making an effort to improve their condition and make themselves more comfortable. The fact is, that there is such a spirit of dissatisfaction, and such a sense of insecurity gone abroad, that it may become dangerous on the part of the Government, if they don't do something to ameliorate the condition of the people. The people feel that they have no country; that they have no right. If they are known to have a gun, or if they are known to transgress any of what are called the byelaws of the estate, there are a dozen ways which cannot be formulated, in which their condition is made intolerable, and it is tantamount to punishment to them. There is not a bit of ground which a countryman can call his own, or build a bothy on, from the top of Kilbreck down to the sands of Naver. And that is a very unhappy condition for the whole of the people to be in. There are, so far as I can make out, between 7000 and 8000 people in the Reay country—that is the country of Lord Reay or the Mackay country —and all that population —I had not an opportunity of very accurately making it out—have only somewhere about one-thirteenth part of the Reay country allowed to them—7000 or 8000 people —and the rest is under sheep, under deer, under hares, under rabbits, and under grouse, and other unprofitable occupants of the soil. I think it is time, on account of all these things, for some higher power to interfere. We are, in fact, under an absolute despotism. It is quite true that the House of Dunrobin, in intention at least, is a benevolent house. As a rule, their crofters are not rack-rented; but then the agents of his Grace are his hands, his eyes, his ears, and his feet, and in their dealings with people they are constantly like a wall of ice between his Grace and his Grace's people. And this is not the case in a single instance, or with respect to one individual, but it has been the case for the last fifty or sixty years. There may be in a locality here and there, and in the case of one individual now and again, an exception, but what I have said describes the district as a whole. Now our Government is a constitutional one. Her Majesty cannot fix a single farthing of rent upon a proprietor of the soil, without the consent of the House of Commons; it must be done by Act of Parliament. She cannot advertise any of the estates.

25260. The Chairman.
—Would you allow me to observe, with great respect, that if it is possible I would prefer that you should limit your observations to practical matters, rather than go into a general address upon the subject?
—Well the practical matter is this, that we should have some security analagous to occupiers of the soil and subjects —that we should have some security analagous to that which proprietors have from the Crown, that is the sum and substance of what we want.

25261. The first complaint you have mentioned is with regard to the small lots. Would you have the goodness to state how, and at what time these small lots were formed; were the tenants, as a body, moved from some other quarter, and placed in their present holdings which were mapped out for them?
—They were.

25262. At what period was that?
—I am not very sure, but it occurred generally speaking, between the years 1811 and 1824.

25263. Was that previous to the purchase of this Reay country by the Sutherland family, or was it after the purchase?
—I cannot answer that question, but I think it was much about the same time; the same spirit prevailed upon the two sides of the country.

25264. You don't know whether this population was settled upon these lots by the Reay family or the Sutherland family?
—No, I cannot answer that question.

25265. But the ground was systematically mapped out for them?

25266. Are you able to state from tradition or knowledge whether the lots then given to the people were better or worse than the lots taken from them?
—The people were infinitely worse off on account of the smallness of the lots.

25267. From what part of the country were the people removed?
—From the district called Strathmore, I believe; and most of these families found a location at Melness.

25268. Can you say whether those lots which were originally small have been since subdivided either by the people themselves or by other parties being brought in upon them?
—At a remote day before my day, they were divided, but not during the last forty or fifty years.

25269. Was the subdivision or diminution of which you speak in consequence of the multiplication of the people, and by their own will, or were other parties brought in and settled amongst them?
—The latter principally.

25270. What becomes of the natural increase of the population?
—They emigrate; there is a constant stream of emigration from the locality.

25271. Do you mean that they go to other parts of the estate or other parts of the country, or to the colonies?
—All of them. They go south, to America, to New Zealand, and to Australia.

25272. Leaving the lots practically much as they were?
—Very much.

25273. Is there any manifest improvements going on on the surface of the lots; are the houses improved, and the field cultivation and fences improved?
—The lots are so small they are scarcely worth fencing in; but the houses have made a great advance in the direction of being improved, especially since this Commission was appointed. [See Appendix A, LXIV].

25274. There has not been much time to do that?
—It strikes me to see so many cottages covered with slate, and wood given, and a great variety of privileges freely bestowed, compared with the grudging manner in which such things were granted before.

25275. In the case of the improvement of houses, has the improvement been made by the landlord or the tenant, or by co-operation between the two?
—The latter.

25276. On what system is the co-operation conducted?
—I am told his Grace gives timber for the roof, and allows the tenant two or three years to pay the slates. They pay the slates in instalments; that is the ordinary way.

25277. Are there any leases ever given?
—No, nor asked nor expected.

25278. What is the form of tenure which the people desire to have; what is the form of security which they desire?
—That an independent party or parties, such as a land court, or by whatever name it may be called, should be intrusted with authority to say whether or not a change was desirable —whether it be called an eviction or dividing of one lot into two, or whether it be any other change contemplated; that so long as the occupant ia a loyal subject, and pays his rent, he should not be disturbed without some good moral or social cause; and that another than the factor should be the judge as to whether the change was desirable or not.

25279. You have not mentioned the sort of petty molestation or interference in connection with the rules of the estate; what are the rules of the estate of which the people complain?
—That is a mystery to me. They are called the Loch laws; and who executes them or what the code is, or to what extent they may be strained or extended or contracted, is known only to those who put them in force.

25280. But one principal feature in them is that children are not allowed to settle on the croft or to live in the same house with their parents ; that the parent is not allowed to take in another family, however nearly connected with himself ?
—That is it. That may be graciously allowed if the factor is consulted; if the tenant does it without consulting his superiors, he is liable to be puuished by a fine. [See Appendix A, LXIV].

25281. Considering the nature of the dwellings which now exist, and of which you have already spoken, do you think it would be desirable that the members of a family in unrestricted numbers should be allowed to settle in the same house as their parents?
—I think the very reverse; and it is rarely or never done with the view of its being the permanent order of things.

25282. You say that the want of a harbour is felt, not only in your own district but all along the coast?
—All along the coast.

25283. Has any particular spot been designated which might be judiciously selected as a harbour?
—I have heard sea-going people point out Talmin, at Melness, as the best and fittest place.

25284. Has that been brought under the consideration of the Duke?
—It has, but the factor put his finger on it, and spoiled the whole affair. His Grace expended between £4000 and £7000 on a harbour on the Tougue side of the Kyle, at a place called Scullomie. The reason the pier was put there is popularly believed to have been the following:—Mr Bremner, the engineer at Wick, had finished building the harbour there, and had a great deal of plant on hand, and the factor that was, wished to have the harbour on the Tongue side, and tampered with the engineer so to appoint it. The engineer declined, and pointed out Talmin as the best place, but the factor told him, « Well, if you do so, I will not advise Mr Loch to purchase your plant for the building of the harbour.' This would have been a loss of several hundreds of pounds to the engineer; and between that and voting—(Mr Bremner had considerable influence in procuring votes at Wick for the member for the Northern Burghs of the day)—they agreed to put the harbour at Scullomie, and it has been of no service to the world.

25285. Has it succeeded?
—No. It is described in what a Scullomie man said to his Grace on one occasion shortly after it was built. His Grace remarked, ' I hope you will find this harbour of great use to you and to the whole locality;' and the man, not willing to be too rude, said, Oh yes, my Lord; it's very good for catching sillocks.'

25286. You said a fine is sometimes levied for alleged misconduct on the estate; and that it is levied for a series of years, and at last becomes grafted on to the rent, and becomes an increase of rent; can you mention any instance?
—There is the case of Hugh Maclean, Dalnafie, West Melness.

25287. What was the nature of his supposed offence?
—His daughter married a neighbour's son who was a militiaman, and he lived with his brother-in-law. He has since then got a lot which became vacant for himself, but the increase of rent which was put on, on account of his staying with his father-in-law has been continued down to the present date.

25288. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—You said there was no room to extend the lots without removing the people?
—That is my opinion.

25289. Is there land adjoining them to which they could be removed
—Yes, an indefinite amount; but it is under a large farm.

25290. I mean land suitable for arable purposes?
—Yes, thousands of acres,

25291. Quite as good as they have got?
—If they would labour it for a generation, it would.

25292. As good as the land they have was, when they entered upon it?
—Yes. There is this difference, that the further one resides from the seacoast the snow is apt to lie longer, and to be heavier on the inland portions of the county; but a very large part of the ground, with that abatement, is superior to the fringe of the country occupied by the people.

25293. The centre of the country is occupied now principally by sheep farms?
—Almost wholly.

25294. Could a part of these farms be given to crofters, and the remainder be suitable for being worked as a sheep farm?
—I am not sure that I see the drift of the question. If you mean that a slice should be taken off one of these large farms, and that the remainder would be still fitted for breeding sheep, I most certainly think that could be done in most cases. A sheep farm requires a certain amount of low ground along
with the high ground.

25295. Could you give sufficient low ground to the crofters and leave sufficient for wintering the stock of the sheep farm?
—Yes; for the crofters would need outrun for their stock as surely as the sheep farmers require it.

25296. One saw in the papers lately a good deal about a harbour or pier, which it was resolved to build at Rispond; is that not in your parish?
—No, in Durness; you will get information about that at Kinloch Bervie.

25297. There is no harbour along this coast?
—No harbour, except the one at Scullomie, which is of no use, until one goes I don't know how fur
round Cape Wrath. There is a jetty or something at Rispond, but it is not easily taken. A harbour at Talmin would prove a harbour of refuge for any vessel that might be in distress between Cape Wrath and Strathy Point.

25298. Where is Talmin?
—On the west side of the Kyle of Tongue.

25299. Is Loch Erriboll not a natural harbour ?
—It is; but although it is very safe when vessels get in, it is very difficult to sail out.

25300. What would it cost to make a pier or harbour at Talmin?
—I cannot give any idea as to that, but it would cost much less to make a
secure harbour than it cost to make the one at Scullomie.

25301. Mr Cameron.
—What is the average rent of crofters in your parish?
—I cannot say; they pay up and down between £3 and £4, and some possibly may reach close upon £5.

25302. They range from £3 to £5?
—Yes, and some of them may be less than £3.

25303. You say your crofts are small; what amount of arable land do the crofters hold ?
—Probably about 3 ½ acres each. I don't suppose it will average 4 acres.

25304. Can you tell me what stock any individual who pays £5 of rent keeps?
—A £5 crofter would keep a pony and two or sometimes three poor hill cows, and perhaps a stirk or two; and he might have a setae of sheep, or perhaps sometimes as many as thirty. There have been
instances of persons who were very careful of their flocks, and who have many more sheep than that. We have a very good outrun at Melness—the best outrun on the whole coast.

25305. You mentioned before that the crofts were not highly rented?
—That is my opinion.

25306. I did not quite understand an answer you gave to Lord Napier. Where did you say the people came from who were located in your parish subsequent to the general migration that took place?
—I am not sure it was subsequent to the general migration.

25307. The Chairman wanted to know how the crofts became subdivided, whether it arose from the natural increase of the people, or whether they were sent from other places, and you replied both?
—From other places.

25308. Where were the other places?
—On the east side of Loch Hope and in the district called Strathmore—the district of Fresgell up to Inverhope.

25309. After this emigration of the people took place, how was it that they got more numerous? After the general migration from these places, you stated there was still a subdivision of the crofts at a later
—If I stated that, it is not what I intended to state.

25310. You said that the number of the families at the present moment is the same as it was when the general migration took place?
—Very much.

25311. You stated that when the heads of families allowed their relations to remain in the house, it was not intended that that should be permanent?
—Certainly not, if there be more than one representative.

25312. You disapprove of that yourself?
—Most certainly I do.

25313. Don't you think if it were once allowed that the heads of families might, permit their sons-in-law or daughters-in-law to reside in their houses, that their occupation of the house might, in spite of themselves, become permanent?
—I don't think it. The general feeling, so far as I know it, is that one representative of the old people is all that ought to be looked forward to as a permanent successor.

25314. But I mean that the rule of the estate, which you say is a wrong rule, is established, as I understand it, in order to prevent two families occupying one house; if the house is once permitted to be occupied by two families, although only temporarily, might it not become permanent, and therefore the rule is a good one?
—It is a harsh rule, and against the laws of nature, and therefore cannot be a good one.

25315. But you said it would not be good to allow it to become permanent; I say if it were allowed temporarily, might it not become permanent?
—I think not. Since 1874 the people are better educated, and will emigrate, as they in fact do.

25316. Do you think it would be easy for the head of a family, after he had allowed his son-in-law or daughter-in-law to reside a short period, to get rid of them afterwards?
—Sometimes it is.

25317. Easy or difficult?

25318. And sometimes it is more difficult?
—I don't remember of any case within my knowledge. The people themselves instinctively shrink from more than one family settling down upon one lot.

23519. If the rule is one which is for their benefit, and carries out what they think right why do they object to it?
—Because it takes them at a disadvantage.

25320. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—How long have you been minister at Melness?
—For the last twenty-two years.

25321. What is your parish called?
—Melness and Erriboll. It is partly in the parish of Tongue and partly in the parish of Durness quoad

25322. You represent then the whole of your parish?
—No, the Erriboll district.

25323. Was there a large attendance of the people to send delegates here?
—Every one that could come out was present, so as to deliberate on what was to be done.

25324. You have made a statement this afternoon; I presume that statement represents the real feeling of the people of your parish, and the Melness district especially?
—So far as known to me.

25325. It represents your own feeling?
—It represents my own, certainly.

25326. You have referred to Melness frequently?
—I have; it is of it I principally spoke.

25327. Is there a large farm called Melness?
—There is.

25328. Have you any idea of the extent of it?
—No; my memory is somewhat treacherous, but so far as known to me it is between 70,000 and 80,000 acres.

25329. Is that all in possession of one man?
—It is.

25330. How many people do you think are upon that farm?
—Eleven shepherds and a ploughman.

25331. You mentioned that in what is called the Reay country, there might be a population of 7000 or 8000?
—I did.

25332. Are these all together or separate?
—All between Kyle Sku and Holstenhill.

25333. When you spoke about the tenth or thirteenth part of the country being given up to the small farmers and to the population, did you refer to any particular district, or to the county of Sutherland?
—I referred to the Reay country between Kyle Sku and Holstenhill along the course of the coast on the Sutherland property.

25334. Is what is called the Reay forest in your district?
—It is; it is in the Reay district.

25335. Do you know to what extent it goes?
—It is very large; I cannot give any idea of its extent.

25336. Are there any people living upon it except gamekeepers and others?
—Not that I am aware of. There are one or two superannuated people—a superannuated shepherd and gamekeeper—living upon it.

25337. Will it amount to 50,000 acres?
—I cannot condescend upon its extent.

25338. Is it of vast extent?
—It is; it is a day's journey to go through it.

25339. Was the country which is now forest at one time inhabited by people?
—Parts of it, but I am not locally acquainted so as to point out the particular districts.

25340. Was it a forest when the Mackay s had it?
—It was a forest from time immemorial—at least parts of it.

25341. You stated that there has been considerable emigration in your time from the country?
—Yes, there is not a year in which people are not emigrating. All the people of spirit and enterprise leave the country; for everything done in Sutherland must be under the eye of the factor and in the interest of Dunrobin. It is the Duke ! the Duke ! the Duke ! There is no room for enterprise or any independent spirit; a man cannot trench a rood of ground without asking leave of the ground officer or
some such official.

25342. Are the people of Sutherland attached to their country and home?
—All Highland people are.

25343. Suppose they got facilities for taking in some of the lands now occupied as forest or large sheep farms, would they be disposed to go there instead of emigrating ?
—No doubt about that.

25344. Do you see any reason why they should not get such opportunities at home?
—I see many reasons to the contrary—not to empty our country of its population; it would be suicide.

25345. You made use of the expression ' the Loch laws,' which you said the people don't know much .about; are these printed?
—I am not aware. I never saw a copy if they are. They are printed on the people's minds, and the people feel them if they cannot understand them.

25346. I suppose you know the expression that ' the evil that a man does, lives after him, and the good is oft interred with his bones?'
—I don't agree with the last clause.

25317. Does the former apply in connection with the Loch laws?
—I cannot say, as I have not perused the laws—I have not seen them. I only know that they produce a feeling of discomfort.

25348. They are not good laws?
—They are not reckoned good laws, and in many instances they are made to neutralise imperial laws.

25349. You spoke about the importance of a harbour here; is there any fishing population?
—The most of our people are sea-going people.

25350. And it comes to this, that they are not only scrimped in their land, but are hindered from developing the resources of the sea?
—They have no opportunity at all. They are a most unhappy people in that respect. Everything they export they export at a rate of 5 or 10 or 15 per cent, of loss, and everything they import they import at an equal loss on their side again—that is, it costs that more than in general centres and places where there is access to the markets. I don't know any part of the British coast that is so ill provided with means of communication with the world outside as the district between Cape Wrath and Holstenhill.

25351. Supposing larger crofts were given to the people, whereby they could really make a living out of them, do you suppose that, with the views these people entertain, they would subdivide the crofts?
—I don't believe they would. They are quite alive to the pauperising effect of subdividing their crofts.

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