HEW MORRISON, Schoolmaster, Brechin, Forfarshire (33)—examined.
26121. The Chairman.
—Are you a native of this district?
—I am the son of a crofter in Torrisdale, Tongue.
26122. Have you got any written statement?
—I have, but I am afraid it is too long, and the delegates, of whom there are seven, here, asked me to
make a short statement.
26123. You were elected a delegate?
—I was compelled to become one besides being elected for Tarrisdale and for the Skerray district
26124. Be so good as to make your verbal statement?
—One time there were just about twenty crofters in this district of Skerray, before the general evictions. Now there are eighty. When these twenty crofters occupied the place they were all very comfortable, and in evidence of that I may say that my grandfather paid a rent of £14, which was raised afterwards to £21, which he was very willing to pay, and paid for many years until the estate passed into the hands of the Sutherland family when the rent was reduced by thirty per cent. But on the lotting of the lands three years later he only got oue-fourth of the holding he previously had, because there were other crofters put into the same place. He paid £4 for that reduced croft, a rent which has been paid for the croft ever since. I have been asked to say a few words regarding the condition of the people. Many of them as they stand at present have come from Strathnaver, from the farms of Ribigill and Borgie and were settled on the lands that the original crofters held, and were told that they could reclaim this land which they could get at a nominal rent. There was no reduction of the rent of the former tenants when those people were settled down upon the lands. Fourteen families were sent from Borgie and Ribigill and got land at the nominal rent of one shilling. They improved the lands and now pay rents varying from £2, 10s. to £3, 17s. Their condition is wretched, always verging upon poverty, and they could not keep themselves alive were it not that they have young men who go to the east coast fishing and elsewhere in the south, and send home money to pay for meal and provisions which they require over and above what they are able to raise upon their crofts. They are hardly able to raise anything on their crofts except in one way. A crofter who has a horse can hardly make any meal; the only way he can make meal is when he works the land himself, and turns it with what is called the casdirach. That instrument—I should like to have shown it —is the most primitive of all agricultural implements and much inferior to the caschrom. The soil is poor and the people are not able to make much of it. Those who till nu the way I have mentioned make a little meal, but the meal they make is the produce of what they ought to have given to the horse which ought to work the land. They apply a great quantity of sea-ware to the land. Then a harbour is greatly wanted at Skerray. It is a fishing place, and I believe the fishermen there would be better without crofts, if they were settled simply as a fishing community.
26125. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—You say Skerray. Is that the same as Port Skerra?
—No, this Skerray is eighteen miles to the west of Port Skerra. Skerray has advantages which none of the other two places which have been mentioned as harbours have. I am anxious there should be harbours in other places, and I recommended them in a guide book which I published. But Skerray had advantages as a harbour, and is about an equal distance between Port Skerra aud Talmin. The number of acres tilled in Skerray is 246; the number of crofters eighty; and the average rent of each crofter is £3, 7s. The average rental per acre is £1, 2s. During the last forty-one years there has been no valuation. There has been no rise on the average rental per acre since, although rents in several cases have been raised. The people don't complain as Mr Mackay, Tongue, said, of the amount of the rent so much as of the want of land. There are only among the eighty crofters 383 sheep, 39 horses —half a horse to each croft—and 182 head of cattle. In regard to steamboat communication I may say that I had a correspondence with Mr M'Brayne, and Messrs Langlands, and both parties said there were no proper landing places on this coast and that it would not pay to send steamers round, or to add to their present routes.
26126. Did they give as a reason that there were no piers?
—Mr M'Brayne said that there were no landing places.
26127. We have had some correspondence with the working men's Association at Skerray; what is the nature of that association?
—I believe that was an association set on foot very much in the same way as we have debating or literary societies in the south, just for the sake of getting gentlemen here and there to give public lectures upon passing subjects and to take up any question and debate it or consider it among themselves. I believe it was started more with a view to enable a few of the young men to adapt themselves, or try to adapt themselves, to public speaking in a better way than they could have done before.
26128. Is English generally spoken in the district?
26129. Is it generally understood?
26130. Is there a large centre of population at Skerray where the people can meet together for mutual purposes of cultivation?
—Yes, the population is about 700.
26131. And close together?
26132. Are you a representative of that association or of the crofters?
—Of the crofters.
26133. Has this association sent any delegate here?
—Not as an association.
26134. They have been merely corresponding on behalf of the crofters?
—So I understand.
26135. It is entitled a working men's association; does it mean a labourer's association?
—Anybody may become a member of it in the place; that it is simply a name.
26136. Are there any large farms in the Skerray district?
—Borgie farm is in the district.
26137. And it would be admirably suited for crofters to go back to?
—Very much so, in great measure.
26138. The farm your grandfather had was worth £24; was that arable or pasture land?
—Both, he had not very much arable land, but he had a large outrun of hill pasture extending to the present farm of Borgie.
26139. Was it common pasture?
—Yes, common pasture.
26140. Were other tenants rented at about the same rate as he was?
—Some more and some less.
26141. Have you any idea what stock they kept at that time and what was the character of the stock, of cattle or sheep?
—They kept cattle and sheep and horses, and sometimes they had three or four hill ponies, not very serviceable I should think.
26142. What did your grandfather's sales consist of?
—Cattle and sheep, principally cattle.
26143. The sheep farming was not conducted on the modern system?
—No, on the old crofter system.
26144. If the lands were given back to the crofters would they revert to the old system or would they adopt improved methods?
—I think they would adopt improved methods.
26145. And by doing that you think they could pay as good a rent as the large farmers?
—I think they could pay more.
26146. What reason have you for supposing that?
—I look upon it in this way, that Strathnaver, for instance, could accommodate, perhaps, two hundred tenants. Mr Sellar's farm pays a rent of £1750 or thereby. I believe that two hundred tenants could be accommodated on that farm who could pay £20 each, including in that the land of Auchnaburin.
26147. Without outlay on the proprietor's part?
—No, certainly not.
26148. What sort of outlay would the proprietor have to incur in order to get that rental?
—The outlay would be in lending money to the crofters. If they got money at a reasonable rate of interest, —and as one of the delegates stated, it would be far better to give it to them, because they would lay it out to the best advantage.
26149. But £20 would include interest on this money?
—-Yes, I include that.
26150. How much of the £20 would be interest, and how much for rent?
—Many crofters could go to Strathnaver —a few from the district of Skerray—if they got £300 at three per cent, interest, and could improve the land and build a sort of comfortable residences.
26151. Two hundred tenants, you said, at £20?
26152. If they had each £300 advanced at three per cent.?
26153. That would leave £11 of rent for each?
26155. What do Mr Sellar and the other farmer pay for the ground?
—Less than £2000, I understand, but taking the two farms it will be upwards of £3000. There are two sides to the strath.
26156. Then, after all, as you put it now, the 200 tenants would pay £2200 of rent, and the rest would be interest on the money advanced, and at a low rate?
—Yes; but I think Strathnaver could afford more than that. I am putting it at a very low estimate.