Helmsdale, Sutherland, 6 October 1883 - Sinclair Cooper

SINCLAIR COOPER, Merchant, Helmsdale (44)—examined.

38531. The Chairman.
—How long have you been settled here?
—I have been settled all my life here.

38532. Do you belong to a family of the place?

38533. What is the nature of your trade?
—My father was a fish-curer for fifty years.

38534. What sort of trade do you now prosecute?
—General merchant and commission agent.

38535. You have no connection with the fishing trade now at all?
— No, except that I buy herrings from the curers.

38536. What is the kind of goods in which you particularly deal? Do you mean provisions, stores, and clothing?
—Yes, and general goods.

38537. Then you have had experience of the local market in the place for how many yeare?
—Twenty-three years.

38538. Comparing your early experience with your present experience, do you lind any evidence of improvement in the condition of the people and their power to purchase, or the contrary?
—I find quite the contrary.

38539. Do your dealings lie with the crofting class, with the small tenant class?
—-To a large extent they do.

38540. Do you find, then, that their resources are falling off or improving?
—They are gradually falling off. That is my experience.

38541. Has that depended upon two or three bad seasons recently, or is it a general and progressive decline?
—I would say it is rather a progressive decline; but, of course, it is made worse by the failure of the fishings, as I was going to show; I have got a written statement. I may say that, when I consented to become a delegate I led my friends to understand that, except when it was absolutely necessary to refer to the past to make my narrative complete, I would confine myself to matters that came under my own observation; and, besides the condition of the crofters I would take this opportunity of directing the attention of the Commissioners to the condition and prospects of Helmsdale harbour, a condition which we all feel and deeply deplore. ' I shall first briefly, and with a due regard to your valuable time, make some remarks on the condition of the crofters in this and the adjoining parish, and from my lengthened experience among them as a trader, it may be granted that I ought to know something about them. In doing this it will be necessary for me to refer to the past, so as to understand how the present crofters came to be in the condition they now are. The present crofters are almost eutirely the descendants of the evicted population of the Kildonan Strath. At that period Helmsdale could scarcely be said to have an existence, and the hill sides we now see so thickly populated were simply moorland, and from what we know of it now, a most unlikely place to settle so large a number of crofters. Those people who lived in the Strath before those evictions took place have often told me that, notwithstanding what has been said to the contrary, those people were then in a very prosperous and contented condition. Every one knows that at that time agriculture was in a very primitive condition, and the crops then could not be compared with what could be got now, but this was true not alone of Kildonan but also of the whole north of Scotland, and had the inhabitants of Kildonan been allowed to remain there until this day, I for one believe that men who have been so long and so truly renowned for bravery in the battle-field, would not have failed to keep pace with the agricultural progress of the age, and instead of this Strath being the wilderness it now may be said to be, it would be one vast agricultural garden, peopled by a strong, hardy, contented, and loyal people, loyal alike to their queen and country, and to the noble proprietor under whom they now live; and who, instead of having to expend thousands of pounds in land reclamation, as he has done, would have come into possession of this estate with all the available land reclaimed by the strong and willing hands of a population of which he would justly be proud, and the history of the Sutherland clearances would never have had to be written. I am not going to occupy your time by going into the causes that led to the removal of those people, nor the manner in which that removal was carried out; suffice it to say that it has become a matter of history that it was done, and I shall only say it was in my mind a grand mistake, but a mistake which can be rectified. I must just give one reason set forth for the removal of those people from Kildonan to the sea coast, by the then leader of the movement, and that was that those people " might become fishermen," a very laudable excuse, but to this day they have not become fishermen; and although this has been said over and over again, it is time once and for all to dispel this idea, because there are not in this and the adjoining parishes a half dozen of fishermen who are crofters. Then, as to the present condition of the crofters, the fact of their being settled upon patches of but indifferent ground of from two to three acres, is almost saying enough. It must be evident to any one that it is an utter impossibility for crofters with families to do more than eke out a bare subsistence on such crofts. No doubt, when they came into possession of those crofts, the rents were merely nominal, but that is not the case now. I consider they are paying in some cases too high a rent; but this is not the chief complaint, it is that they have too little land—so little, in fact, that the constant cropping has made much of it really valueless; and it is I those with whom the crofters have commercial dealings who know how straitened they are in their circumstances, and how hard it is for them to live; and when the herring fishing fails, as it has done for some years past, then they are much worse off, because while the fishing is prosperous, they obtain not only employment for themselves, but also for their families; and when the fishing is a failure, no such employment is to be got. Now, it will be asked, how is this state of matters to be remedied? I can only see one way, and that is by giving the people more land. There is plenty of land to be had, and if the crofters were, as it were, thinned in their present holdings by giving holdings of say ten to twenty acres to those people most likely able to take them, and their crofts given to those that remained, and so enlarging their holdings in this manner, and that along with those holdings suitable hill pasture be also given on fair and equitable terms, then, and not till then, can those people be in any manner comfortable. Then as to the herring fishing, which is of such vast importance to the county and to this place in particular, I may just mention as an instance of this importance, that one fish-curer on a medium scale gives more employment to the people in one season that one dozen of the largest sheep farmers in the county. I have mentioned that the fishing has failed for some years past, and I am going to show what has, in my opinion, largely contributed to this failure, and that is the want of a good harbour. Helmsdale harbour was erected many years ago, and proved a very great benefit to the district. It will be granted that engineering, like many other things, was not then as perfect as it is now; and at the best, Helmsdale harbour could never have been called either a good or safe harbour. It is- a tidal harbour; that is to say, at low water no boat or vessel can either enter or leave it; and what is worse still, the river runs through it, thus making the entrance liable to be silted by the frequent floods in the river; banks of sand also get accumulated inside the harbour, which is both dangerous and obstructive to vessels. Yet notwithstanding this for years it suited fairly well as a fishing harbour, until the period some ten or twelve years ago came round, when it was found to make a successful fishing, fishermen had to go great distances at sea, and to enable them to do that with safety they had to get larger and stronger boats, so much so that while in 1864 this harbour had 365 boats fishing out of it, it will now be overcrowded with 150. And yet the boats that still come here to fish are by no means of the largest class, for owing to what I said about the bar, those could not fish here at all, there being not sufficient water for them, because if they did manage to get in at high water with a cargo of fish, by the time they discharged their fish the tide would be gone, and so a whole night's fishing would be lost Since last December the bar on this harbour has been almost closed, and the consequence was that many tons of fish were landed at Buckie, that would have been landed here, but for the state of the harbour, thus entailing great loss on the curers, and depriving the railway company of a very large amount of traffic, all the fish caught in winter being sent by rail. The bar is still, I am sorry to say, in the same condition. Now a great many people are owners of property in Helmsdale, particularly of excellent curing-yards, than which there are not better anywhere. His Grace also owns several of those yards, and if the harbour is not improved, so that the most modern method of herring fishery can be carried on here, as well as other places, and if, at the same time, an effort is not made to improve the condition of the crofter population, then Helmsdale must go down, and property become of little or no value, thus entailing great loss to both the proprietor and the feuars, whose interests at least in this respect are identical. In 1878 I had thehonour of laying a scheme of harbour improvements before the Duke (a copy of which I now hand to you). I accompanied the scheme by a sketch of the harbour lately made at Buckie, and which was built entirely at the proprietor's expense; it is a deep water harbour —that is boats can enter and leave it at any state of the tide; yet Buckie never had the one half of the traffic that was usually here. I am sorry to say nothing came of my scheme, and although nature has made Helmsdale a very suitable place for a deep water harbour, as not only could it be done cheaply, but also efficiently, I hear of no steps being taken in that direction. I conclude those remarks with the fervent hope that the labours of your Com-mission may be the means of giving lasting benefits to the crofter population of Scotland, and that his Grace will yet, and soon, see fit to erect such a harbour here, as will not only prove a safe haven to many a stormtossed mariner, but that it be the means of bringing a return of prosperity to Helmsdale, besides being a lasting memorial of the goodness of his Grace the Duke, and of the House of Sutherland.

38542. You stated that there was evidence of deterioration in the condition of the crofting population, and no doubt one reason for that has been the decay of the fishing ?
—Most decidedly.

38543. You also mentioned that there were not half a dozen crofters who were fishermen. Do you mean there are not above half a dozen men from the crofting population who take wages as fishermen and go out?
—No, I don't mean that; I don't call these fishermen. I mean those who have shares in boats and nets.

38544. Are there a great number who take wages and go to sea?
—No, there are not a great number.

38545. Is the number of those who have an interest in the boats decreasing or increasing'?
—They have greatly decreased.

38546. Then one remedy you suggest besides the expansion of the occupancy of the.land is the improvement of the harbour so as to increase the fishing industry ?

38547. Has the town of Helmsdale any municipal constitution at all?
—No, it has not, except the local authority—the Parochial Board.

38548. Nothing but the Parochial Board?

38549. There is nobody in existence who could contract a loan and who could impose a tax ?
—There is not.

38550. You cannot get a loan from Government ?
—No, because the present harbour belongs solely to the Duke of Sutherland; it was built entirely by the late Earl of Sutherland.

38551. And there is nobody here that can become proprietors of the harbour and borrow money for the purpose of improving it?
—Not that we are aware of.

38552. So you depend upon his Grace's agency entirely?

38553. Do you see any evidence of deterioration in the food of the people, or in their dress or general appearance, within your memory?
—I cannot say I do.

38554. Do they get much higher prices for what agricultural produce they send to market?
—Well, they are scarcely able to sell any. They sell some cattle, and of course the prices have gone considerably up, I understand.

38555. Is there any export of cattle from the port?
—None at all.

38556. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—You say you don't see, in their general appearance, any evidence of the deterioration of their circumstances. You know it from your dealings with them?
—I do.

38557. You have more bad debts?

38558. Have your bad debts been increasing year by year from the time you first recollect?
—They would have been increasing if I had allowed them.

38559. You are not able to extend your trade as you think you might do?
—I am not. I believe I could not make £20 more in the year.

38560. You recollect more than twenty-four years back?-

38561. At that time there were people in possession, of very much the same extent of land as to-day?
—They were.

38562. To what then do you impute the deterioration in their circumstances?
—For one thing they have not the same crofts as they had then. The land has been getting gradually worse —has been falling off—and they had several bad years, and there has been a falling off in the fishing. In 1878 was the first great failure of the fishing. Instead of 100 crans as the average, they had only 12½ , which was virtually a failure.

38563. Then, practically, it is the want of the fishing that has lowered their circumstances?
—No, what I maintain is that they should have something that would render them entirely independent of the fishing, because it is not a right thing to have people entirely dependent upon such a precarious occupation as the fishing.

38564. But in point of fact, they have had the same amount of land ever since you remember, and the change in their circumstances is therefore due to the failure of the fishing, not the land?
—Well, they have never been in a good condition since I remember.

38565. But you say they are getting worse?

38566. And that must be imputed to the want of the fishing?
—Undoubtedly that is one of the great causes of it.

38567. If their circumstances are so straitened would they be able to stock more land?
—There is no doubt many of them have friends in the south who would give temporary assistance till they could repay it again.

38568. They could borrow the money?

38569. You mentioned ten to thirty acres. What sort of capital is required to stock that, with a proper proportion of hill ground?
—I am not capable of answering that question, because I am not an agriculturist, but I should say the matter of £100 might do it fairly well, with what they would do themselves.

38570. Mr Cameron.
—I understand you to say you would like to have the people entirely independent of the fishing, and give them larger crofts?

38571. And you also eay that, in order to assist the people in prosecuting the fishing, you want the harbour improved. How do you reconcile these two statements?
—Just because, owing to the precarious nature of the fishing, it is a very bad thing for people to depend upon it in any way.

38572. And suppose you were to approach the Duke of Sutherland and ask him to help in the work of bettering and improving the present harbour, seeing that you have said to us you thought the fishing was a mistake, and that the people ought to be crofters exclusively, do you think that would be an inducement to the Duke?
—But the people are not fishing. They are dependent upon that for employment when not working at their crofts.

38573. And you wish them to stick to the land?
—I would wish them to be independent of going to the fishing at all.

38574. Then if you wish them to be independent of going to the fishing, how could you ask the Duke to go to great expense to assist them in the fishing?
—I ask it for the feuars of Helmsdale, who hold thousands of pounds worth of property. What will become of that property if there is nothing done for the harbour?

38575. Then I understand you ask him to improve the harbour accommodation, not in the interest of the crofters, but in the interest of the feuing population of Helmsdale?
—Not of the crofters. Of course there are fishermen who are not crofters.

38576. And you think they ought not to be fishermen, but entirely occupied by land?
—They ought to be able to support themselves without being dependent on labour otherwise.

38577. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—What is the population of Helmsdale?
—I think about 700.

38578. How many houses may there be?
—I think there are over 200 houses.

38579. What kind of title have they from the Duke of Sutherland? Is it a long building lease or a feu?
—In some cases they have ninety-nine years, and I know some of them have got perpetual leases.

38580. Are the terms moderate?
—The terms are very moderate indeed.

38581. Then I understand there are two classes of the population hereabout—the crofting population, and what may be called the feuing population?

38582. All the people in the town of Helmsdale, I suppose, are more or less connected with fishing?
—They are more or less dependent upon it. There are many who are coopers and make barrels, and there is a class of fishermen who are fishermen alone, they are living at a place called Port Gower. There are eight crews of them.

38583. Do you think that by an expenditure of £20,000 there would be a fair return?
—I do.

38584. I presume also you look to this that the development of the fishing would not only directly benefit the feuars of Helmsdale, but would indirectly benefit the crofters?
—Perfectly; that is my opinion.

38585. The one class would help the other?
—The one class would help the other.

38586. You want a good harbour for the feuars and enlarged possessions for the crofters?
—That is my idea.

38587. These things are easily within reach?

38588. You say there is no local authority here except the Parochial Board. Do the Parochial Board exercise a sanitary authority?
—Yes, we have a sanitary committee.

38589. And is that department looked after?
—It is looked very well after.

38590. How are the people supplied with water?
—The Duke has put some water into the place with pumps. When they were making the railway, water was brought down to feed the engines, and he was good enough to bring it into the place at his own expense entirely.

38591. Then you get the water by gravitation ?
—Yes, from the hills.

38592. Did you draw up this printed paper [with reference to the harbour] yourself entirely?

38593. And you say nothing came of it?

38594. Had you a personal interview with his Grace about it?
—I had not a personal interview, but I had correspondence.

38595. Are you a native of this parish ?

38596. Have you ever been out of it ?
—Yes, but not for any lengthened period.

38597. Did you receive your education entirely in this parish ?
—I did.

38598. Sheriff Nicolson.
—What is the nature of the works you propose in this paper?
—A deep water basin. I could not explain it unless you could come and see the ground.

38599. Is there anything else required besides the deepening of the basin? Are there additional piers and breakwater required ?
—I mean an additional deep water harbour outside entirely of the present harbour.

38600. When was the present harbour constructed?
—Part of it about thirty-five or forty years ago, and the other part sixty or seventy years ago.

38601. Do you know whether there was any harbour here when the people were removed from Kildonan to the shore?
—I am told by a party here who says he knows that there was nothing of the sort.

38602. Had the people any boats when they were removed down from Kildonan to become fishermen?
—No, nothing of the kind at the time.

38603. Do you know whether they were supplied with boats ?
—No, I am not aware that they were supplied with anything.

38604. And how long did it take to make the harbour fit for the accommodation of fishing purposes?
—It took four or five years, I suppose, before they got it finished.

38605. Do you know what it cost?
—£1600, I understand, was the sum.

38606. And has it been kept up ever since by the Duke?
—Yes, but it has always been giving a fairly good revenue.

38607. Has anything been done to prevent the silting up of the river by mud ?
—There has been a sort of attempt by means of groins, but it never answered the purpose.

38608. What is the biggest tonnage that can find anchorage in the harbour?
—I should say it would be rather dangerous to take a vessel in that drew more than 9 feet of water.

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