EWAN ROBERTSON, Crofter's son and carpenter, Tongue Village (44)—examined.
26157. The Chairman.
—Have you any written statement to make?
—No; but I represent two districts —Tongue proper and what remains of Strathnaver, Invernaver—that is a piece of land a short distance above the hotel. I was appointed delegate for Strathnaver, and in the first place I shall deal with Strathnaver, and if you should wish to put any questions to me I shall try to answer them. After that I shall deal with Tongue, as their case is quite different. The complaint of oppression which I have to make, as far as Tongue is concerned, is not against the present or the
late factor, but against the loch laws —some imaginary laws we know nothing about.
26158. Deal with Strathnaver first?
—The people of Strathnaver are in great need of more land, and they are greatly in need of more pasturage. The best of the grazings or common is now under sand, and the fifteen crofters with their cattle are settled on a miserable fringe of land. Mr Horsburgh, the late factor, when the Borgie lease was being renewed, took it upon himself to deprive the crofters of Invernaver at Borgie, of their hill pasture, and added it to Borgie sheep farm. The people of Invernaver remonstrated with him—this is more than thirty years ago—saying they would have to complain to the Duke. He answered that they might go over the rocks for all he cared, and that he would show the people that he was there as factor. There is an old man here who was present when these words were used—old John Munro. The people also complain that they are closed in on every side while two sheep farmers have a run of forty miles in one direction. The people have petitioned his Grace twice for more land—the first time being when the grazing ground was given to Borgie farm. The late Mr Loch, in answering the petition, wrote that Mr Crawford, the factor, said it would spoil Borgie farm. Now if it spoiled Borgie farm to part with that land to the poor people, why was it taken from them first and given to Borgie ? The people petitioned again last year when Auchnaburin was out of lease, but the officials did not condescend to reply to the petition. The people complain also that they are fined for cutting divots on the sheep farm, their own land being so poor that what is low of it is covered with sand. Their upper pasture is something like a human being covered with smallpox—all over with rocks in every direction. The average rental is £3, 10s. The crofters are prepared to take as much land off Auchnaburin farm as they have at present and to pay the same rent as they do for their crofts, which is more than the sheep farmer pays for what he has. The average acreage is 4½ acres per croft. The whole crofts in Invernaver are cultivated ; the whole of the land the crofters hold is cultivated with the exception of about five acres. Again, the mountain pasture which I have described—rocks and cliffs—is a mile and a half by three quarters of a mile; and the general average of cattle is two cattle and following —which means perhaps a heifer—a calf, one horse, and five sheep. In this district there is only one pauper. A great complaint of the people also is in relation to the school; but I shall leave the school for the present and shall dwell upon the amount of land in Strathnaver; and as I know it well and wrought it and examined it, I am very glad to know that your lordship is to go up the strath. You will not see the whole of the land of Strathnaver. I heard you asking why the people were turned out; a jargon was got up at the time that the people were lazy.
26159. The Chairman.
—I must ask you to have the goodness to speak to Invernaver, that is the part of it which you individually represent, and not to enter upon the general question.
—I wish to give the Commission every honour, and shall bow to your Lordship's ruling; but as I have
visited the place and formed an opinion, I thought I might tell your Lordship the result of my examinations, so that it might throw a little light upon the subject.
26160. Adhere in the meantime, if you please, to Invernaver. It is impossible for us to go into the general question of the clearances on this occasion; and besides that, there is a great deal of evidence open to us from a variety of sources, written and otherwise.
—I have placed the Invernaver case before you.
26161. But there is another place which I understand you represent?
—Then I shall go on to Tongue. Tongue proper is supposed in this part of the country to contain the most comfortable class of tenants we have. There is a law there which applies to all his Grace's estate in this part of the country, and it stops all improvements. A son, if he assists his parents and spends his time and his labour in improving the croft, under these land laws, the moment his father dies and he comes into the croft, there is a rise of rental. I can instance one case here and another in Tongue. On entering Tongue by the Thurso road one is at once struck by a pretty line of villa-like cottages on Brae Tongue. The first that catches the eye is a long white, slated house with large slated shop and stabling, which were occupied by the late Mr George Mackenzie, merchant. More than three-fourths of that lot was trenched and drained at his own expense. Nor did the house, shops, out-buildings or dykes ever cost the Duke one sixpence although, they cost poor Mr Mackenzie several hundred pounds. After his death one of his sons applied to get his name entered as tenant. He could not get it unless he paid £5, 10s. of a rise of rent. The young man thought this a great hardship; that he should have to pay the Duke for the improvement his father made, for if his father had left the lot as he got it, it would not have been worth £ 2 a year instead of £10. What is the consequence? The widow now has only a room, closet, and garrets with her married daughter, who may have any day to join her husband in America. The widow's sons are, the eldest in Manitoba and the other in Queensland. Both left about twelve months ago. The father only died four years ago. Another man has got the rest of the premises and lot for the sum asked of the son. We will now go to the extreme end of Tongue village. There we will see a large lot on a beautiful flat; and we will probably consider this crofter very fortunate. But on making inquiry we find that there are two, and that the one who ought to be the real crofter has only one-third of the lot, namely, the widow of James Mackay. The whole of this lot was made by her father, brother, and her first husband, William Mackintosh, during his lifetime. During her first widowhood and part of her second husband's time this lot was shared equally between them and her brother. Her brother went to Australia about twenty years ago. She naturally expected to get the lot and applied for it; but no, another tenant got two-thirds while she had to be content with one-third. And the worst of the matter is that neither she nor her husband ever owed a penny of rent. Her aged mother lived in the house occupied by her brother which had only two rooms. When her mother died the factor ordered her to give up possession of the house which was found for her and when she refused to do so, as she wished her married daughter to live there, she was summoned out of it legally. But instead of their taking legal steps for the removal of her furniture the ground officer was sent with assistance and broke open the door and took possession of the houses, built a wall across the centre, cut out another door, gave one room to her married daughter and turned the other into a house for paupers. The houses, trenching, and draining of this lot never cost the Duke a farthing. My reason for instancing this case is to prove that instead of the people wishing to have the lots subdivided, in certain cases it is the Duke who subdivides the lots and not the people. The people are entirely against the subdivision of the lots. In other districts I know of no case3 of voluntary subdivision. By-the-bye a large drain was cut across the brow of the hill above the Kirkebol lots which cost the Duke something, and the widow something too, as it greatly assisted to destroy their lot. For instancing these two cases of oppression I ask no guarantee from Mr Purves as I believe that neither Duke nor factor dare take these poor widows' lives, and they cannot do them more injury than they have done. Then there are two crofts adjoining Tongue woods, the one on the Brae Tongue side and the other on the Rhi Tongue side. Both had to do away with their sheep because they were going into the woods, which were not properly fenced. These tenants had a right to keep thirty sheep each. They were not ordered to part with them, but they were continually getting letters from the factor. I have other complaints, but I shall not trouble you with them just now. Only I should wish to say, as to the district which we represent that what the people want in general is more land. The Farm of Ribigill adjoining is suitable to have eight crofts, and I have not the slightest doubt but that it would pay his Grace, and at the same time keep down this cry of poverty, because Ribigill farm alone gives more employment than any other works about there. As far as his Grace is concerned, and according to the people here, any office, it does not matter what it is, from gamekeeper to contractor—no man belonging to this place, or native, or inhabitant of Tongue proper, or about it, can get any position, not even gamekeeper under his Grace; no native get into any position under his Grace except perhaps a common day-labourer. It has been asked whether the people are industrious. I say the people are industrious, and I was sorry to notice that the Rev. Mr M'Neil did not say directly that they were. The people would work if they had the work to do. They will walk many a mile to work if they can get it, and I am sure at the present time I am justified in saying that most of the people in this church who are not employed, would walk three or four miles to employment if they could get it.