Helmsdale, Sutherland, 6 October 1883 - James Purves

JAMES PURVES, Farmer, Barrogill Mains, Caithness—re-examined.

38726. The Chairman,
—I am sorry we were not able yesterday, partly on account of the hour and partly on account of the disorder, to continue your examination, but you were so good as to say you would come here. I wish particularly to hear your opinion about the prospects of the large farmers in Caithness, which I daresay would be in some degree applicable to this county. You are the author of a statement respecting the agriculture of Caithness, which I had the pleasure of reading in 1875?

38727. Well, since that period what has the experience of the large farmers been in Caithness?
—Our experience since then has been most ruinous. Our losses have been nearly equal to the rental each year since 1875.

38728. Is it the experience of the large farmers generally that they have a larger amount of land in hand than they care to have and be responsible for?
—Well, there are none yet that have given up their farms, but thsir circumstances are very much reduced from what they were. In 1875 we were all in very good circumstances indeed, and there was little fear of our being able to go on, but the price of wool has gone down so much, and we have encountered disastrous seasons that have reduced us very much in circumstances, but with favourable seasons we expect to go on again.

38729 But favourable seasons, I am afraid, will not raise the price of wool?
—Perhaps not, but with favourable seasons we have always good trade, and if trade gives way the price of wool may give way relatively. Perhaps we shall never see such prices again, colonial wool being so much in competition with ours that the price will be kept relatively lower.

38730. And if at this moment the class of large farmers were at liberty to do what they liked, and not bound to any engagement, would they diminish the area of their holdings or not?
—I don't think they would.

38731. Do you think they would continue to carry on those large holdings at an annual loss?
—Not at an annual loss. If things do not turn, they must come down some time. However, they will be obliged to struggle on as long as they can.

38732. Then do you expect a reduction of rental?
—In some cases they have got it. I got a reduction from Lord Caithness myself.

38733. What I want to arrive at is this, whether you think the large holdings might be in some cases broken up into smaller holdings with benefit to the people and to the country; do you think the process of consolidation has been carried too far in Caithness or not?
—It depends entirely on this, whether or not steam is to come into application in the cultivation of land. If steam is to come into employment, certainly the occupations cannot be too large; if steam is not to become applicable to the cultivation of land, then I hold that occupations of eighty acres, that would keep a pair of horses, and keep a man and his family in employment, are best for the country and for the whole community.

38734. You would fix your agricultural unit at eighty acres?
—At not less than eighty acres for agricultural purposes, but I would not like to say that there should be no crofting in such a district as the West Highlands, or even Caithness, or Orkney and Shetland, where the fishings are so capable of being developed to an enormous extent.

38735. Then you think there might be a smaller class of crofters as auxiliary to other industries?
—I think so.

38736. But we hear from a great number of people that fishing should be entirely separate from the occupation of land?
—Well, I do not think so in those situations in the Highlands and Islands, and I think in Shetland it was a tremendous mistake letting the country out in sheep farm as has been done within ten or fifteen years. I think that a quantity of hind was required for the people, and would have enabled them to develop the fisheries much better than they could do without it.

38737. Then you think the occupation of land is a useful assistance for the fishings ?
—Yes. I wish to contradict a statement made by Mr Waters, condemning large farms in Caithness. There is not a county in Scotland where there is a better admixture of holdings, from the smallest farms to firms of £1100 a year of rental, and that occupation is suitable for all concerned. For instance, we buy up the calves and young cattle of the small tenants and make them marketable, and supply them with shorthortn bulls and stock of that kind for all their requirements, and they benefit us by enabling us to get all the stock we require, and they afford labour at the same time.

38738. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—-With regard to labour, do you get labour for your farm from the crofters of Caithness ?
—Very much from the sons and daughters of the crofters.

38739. What size of crofts are those that supply you with labour ?
—From £ 10 and under.

38740. What acreage is a £10 croft?
—Perhaps ten or twelve acres.

38741. A croft of that size will give a good deal of labour to a crofter, will it not?
—Yes, a good deal of occupation, but not full employment, unless he got labour somewhere else, and it is an extraordinary fact, which I show in The Agriculture of Caithness, that the rental of the crofts along the coast is 18s. 6d. an acre, and the rental of the same crofts in the two parishes in the interior of the county is only 8s. an acre, so the difference between 8s. and 18s. 6d. is what may be called the sea-rent.

38742. That is to say, a habitation in a favourable position for securing employment commands a higher rent?
—Yes, exactly on the same principle that ground near a town is worth three times as much as ground at a distance from a town.

38743. Do you think ten or fifteen acres is a good size of croft for a crofter who wishes to make the main part of his living by labour, and merely wishes to keep a cow for himself and grow potatoes?
—Yes, I think it is large enough.

38744. And when a crofter has to make his living entirely by farming and not to earn wages at all, you think the minimum size should be eighty acres?

38745. With a pair of horses?
—Yes. We have a great many of these occupations in Caithness that are, I think, as comfortable a class of tenantry as can be found anywhere under the sun. But with regard to the occupations in Caithness, I can show you exactly how they stand as to rental—85 occupations above £200; 107 occupations between £100 and £200; 171 occupations between £100 and £50; 386 occupations between £50 and £ 20; 576 occupations between £20 and £ 10; and 1927 occupations under £10.

38746. And the crofters in those nineteen hundred occupations have not sufficient opportunity of finding employment for wages?
—I think the Caithness people are pretty well employed all round.

38747. That was their complaint —that their holdings were not large enough to support them?
—These are along the coast, without making wages from their sea labour.

38748. In the paper you deposited with us the other day you refer a good deal to,the want of compensation for improvements; have you studied the new Agricultural Holdings Act?
—I have had it in hand, and I have not had time to study it. If it is wrought fairly, I think it should
make a very great difference as regards the occupation of land in Scotland.

38749. Is there a way of eluding its provisions?
—I think so.

38750. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—I think you told us you did not at all approve of the big farms that have been recently started in Orkney and Shetland?

38751. But you very much approve of big farms in Caithness?
—I do not approve of increasing the number of big farms, but as they are I think there is no county in Scotland that is better situated as to large and small occupations than Caithness is, and I would like very much to have had this Commission in sight of the Pentland Firth, where all classes of occupations and residences could be seen, and a more comfortable and happy allocation and of occupation cannot be conceived.

38752. You are a factor yourself?
—I was a factor. I served a seven years' apprenticeship.

38753. You were present at Lybster the other day?

38754. You heard a proprietor state there that when one of his crofts was out of lease he invited offers
—he would never tell what rent he wanted, but invited offers. Do you approve of such a thing ?
—Most decidedly not; but it is very much the practice. Most farms are advertised for set, and the highest offer is taken.

38755. But Mr Sharp is not in the habit of advertising at all?
—If I recollect right, he does not require to advertise. I think it is quite the case what he said—that for one holding near the coast he had ten applications.

38756. Do you think that is a healthy state of matters?
—I do not think it is a healthy state of matters to take one-third more for land than it is worth under the circumstances, and not to do the necessary improvements and make the necessary outlays to put the place in perfect order and sive every accommodation that is necessary.

38757. Upon what grounds do you justify, if you justify, the adding of farm to farm'? We find one tenant has gut nine big farms in different places?
—I do not justify it. I say the thing is wholly wrong, and if compensation for improvements at expiry had obtained, no such thing could possibly have happened, because a tenant when he entered his farm would have to pay the outgoing tenant so much that he would not be able to go in for half the amount of land he can take now. That is a system which has risen up in Scotland under the present land lawsystem—that there are too or three men who go in for taking up all the land that goes out of lease in good order, and scourging that land during the currency of the lease, putting the money which the preceding tenant had laid out upon it into their pocket, and returning the land to the proprietor ten times worse than it was before.

38758. Do big farmers do such dreadful things?
—They do, and the present land laws induce them to do it.

38759. You mean help them to do it?
—They induce them to do it, because if they do fairly they see it would be confiscated at their outgoing.

38760. Is it your observation as to land which has been taken in by small people and crofters, that they have been put out and evicted because larger farmers were willing to go in, in order to reap the benefit of the crofter's work?
—Well, I do not think that under the crofting system very much improvement is done to the land. I know that a large proportion of the land under crofts on some estates in Caithness would take as much
to put them into good order as the waste land of the county.

38761. Take a sheep farm, Is it not very advantageous to a sheep farmer who has some crofters bordering on him to get the benefit of their arable land?
—Yes, to lay it waste, but there has not been much of that done of late in Caithness.

38762. It has been all done already ?
—Yes, it has been all done. There is not much to do.

38763. You know the county of Sutherland well?
—I know it pretty well.

38764. You are a native of Caithness?

38765. Don't you suppose the big sheep farmers who came into Strath Naver and Kildonan were able to make fortunes there in consequence of the extent of old arable land they got possession of?
—There is little doubt Sutherland would not have been adapted for keeping the sheep stock it did unless that arable land had been there.

38766. Did you ever hear that when the people who made that arable land were turned out, or burnt out, they got compensation for what they took in?
—I cannot say as to that, because these things were before my day, but I do not suppose they did.

38767. Such timbers as were not burnt they were allowed perhaps to take with them ?
—Timber of that sort is not of much value, and I do not think it would pay the cartage.

38768. Do you consider, that this demand which is now so generally made all over the Highlands on the part of the crofters, to increase their holdings, is a bona fide wish on their part?
—I should think it is. I do not think it is in human nature not to wish to increase their holdings, and I have told them over and over again that the man who wished to remain a crofter and not to better his position was not worth his salt.

38769. Then you sympathise very much with them?
—I sympathise with them in maintaining the rural population of Scotland, so long as it can be done, on the soil.

38770. Mr Cameron.
—I do not think you answered Mr Mackintosh's first question about big farmers taking crofters' lands. He asked whether you had come across any cases where large farmers had taken possession of lands that were improved by crofters?
—I only objected to the word ‘improved.'

38771. He asked you whether that had happened in your experience, and the subject turned to what happened in 1811. In your own experience has any case occurred where large farmers have obtained from the proprietor lands formerly in the occupation of crofters, and which were improved at their expense?
—Well, I object to the word 'improved.' There is not much improvement in turning land over and cropping it and leaving it in a worse state than you got it in, but if you say 'cultivated' I can answer you.

38772. Well, I put it 'cultivated' —lands begun to be cultivated by the crofters?
—Well, at the meeting at Lybster I myself was accused of having taken the land of thirteen tenants. There were not quite thirteen tenants on the Lochend estate when I got it, and there was not a man evicted during my occupation. Three of them were paupers. The Parochial Board paid their rent till their death. The others have died out except two. There were two sons who wished to remain in and got their fathers' occupations. They are there yet ; they are younger than I am, and they will remain in their occupations till their death. Except these two, all the land occupied by the former small tenants on that estate is now in Lochend farm occupied by me.

38773. From what period was that ground cultivated by these crofters?
—It may have been for a very long time.

38774. Was it within the memory of man or not?
—I think not. I think there must have been people located on it before the memory of man.

38775. But the land was not taken in by the sitting crofters 1
—-No; I think they were just sitting quietly. It was in a very miserable state indeed.

38776. The Chairman.
—Then if I understood your statement rightly, none of these crofters were removed from the soil in order to increase the area of your farm during your time?-
—Not until death. They were not removed by me, and instead of advertising the land I took it into my own occupation.

38777. Did they leave any natural heirs'?
—Two of them have done so, and these two are still on the land; and they are younger men than I am,
and will remain on the land till they are gone if they hold on to it.

3S778. Then you have nothing to do with the eviction of crofters!
—Well, if I had to do with it again I would not have anything to do with being a middleman. I would not have small tenants again.

38779. You do not think it a good thing that farms should be let with small tenants upou them?
—I think not

38780. You would rather leave the responsibility of managing that class of tenants to the landlord?
—I should say so.

38781. Is there anything you would like to state about the tenure of land in Caithness?
—I do not think I need to state anything further. I have handed in ' The Agriculture of Caithness' and a statement of the outlays made on Lochend and Lybster by me, and the gold medal report of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, which shows how it was done. I would like you to hear me on behalf of a petition by my road constituents in the parishes of Dunnet and Canisbay. I am the elected representative road trustee for Dunnet, the parish that Lochendand Leister are in, and I have been so since the passing of our Road Act in 1860. I came to Barrogill four years ago, and then the inhabitants of the parish of Canisby elected me their representative too, and I have since had to act for both parishes. The road we ask for is one which will connect this district with the whole system of county roads. I have been working at this matter since 1854 trying to get this road, and I was first on the list on Monday last trying to get it adopted out of some money we are getting from the Exchequer for the abolition of tolls, but the opposition was too strong for me. We cannot adopt the General Road Act for Scotland without a majority of two-thirds.

38782. Is this the region you say is so well divided into large and small farms?

38783. This is rather a question for your local road trustees than for us ?
—Yes, but it is a crofters' grievance. The population in that district is 4300 odds.

38784. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—How many represent the crofting interest?
—The number of inhabitants is 4390. That was the population in 1871.

38785. Are most of those crofters?
—The large farms above £ 10 rent are 166, and below £10 there are 437, making 603 occupations altogether in these two parishes, and of course the 437 are the number that are most thrown out for want of those roads.

38786. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—Are the elected trustees unanimous in asking for this road?
—Well, I cannot tell as to that. They would wish their own roads in preference.

38787. Then it is not exactly the case that the elected trustees are outnumbered by the higher powers?
—No, but we would be out numbered in getting the General Road Act adopted, which provides on principle for the making of all new roads that are required.

38788. The Chairman.
—You must look forward to a Local Government Bill ?
—I think the Acts are there if we could agitate till they are put in force. There is nothing for it but publicity.

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