Lybster, Caithness, 4 October 1883 - James Miller

JAMES MILLAR, Achow, Swiney (44)—examined.

37508. The Chairman.
—What is your occupation?
—I am a crofter'son.

37509. Is your father alive?

37510. Is he holding a croft himself?

37511. Do you work along with him?
—I work along with him.

37512. On whose property?
—On the Duke of Portland's property.

37513. Is that near Lybster?
—About a mile west from Lybster.

37514. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—Are you delegated here by the people on the Duke of Portland's estate?

37515. Have you any statement to make on their behalf?
—Yes, I have prepared a statement.
—' The rents on Swiney estate were raised three times during my memory. It was always by a rise of rent we knew our improvements were taken notice of. In 1846, a lawyer factor named Morrison Snody increased each crofter's rent £1, 10s. to £ 3; but death removed him before the increase became due, and the greatest regret was that the burdens which he imposed could not be got free of as easily as himself. The next increase was under the proprietorship of the late General Gordon twenty-two years ago. The poor rates being raised to four shillings per pound —two shillings on proprietor and two on the tenant. In order that the general might stave off his own share of the rates, he clapped 10 per cent, immediately on every tenant not protected by lease. Besides, no opportunity was lost of increasing the rents when a change of tenancy occurred, or when a sitting tenant drew a lease. But the third, last, and worst, the climax of cruelty was in 1875, when we got a fiscal factor named Malcolm M'Lennan, a Lewisman, who still resides in Wick. Under this oppressor our rents in many instances wore raised over one-third. And in attempting to come to terms with him for our crofts, it was all in vain to plead by word or letter, how unlikely his demands were, for he never wanted as much of a barbarian's charity, but could tell us " If you don't agree to my terms, another will when I advertise your place." In consequence of M'Lennau's exorbitant rents, a shameful number of evictions took place; and owing to his opposition the meliorations of some of the evicted are still unpaid. He imposed heavy fines on others for carting a few loads of mossy earth to their " middens," or even cutting peats, although five-sixths of the estate's surface is peaty ground. The tenants who had no other shift but to comply with M'Lennan's proposals were also fined, for every form of lease wherewith they were more effectually " tied down " cost one-fifth or sixth of a year's rent, being his fixed price for a sheet or two of paper and their contents; whereas other tenants on neighbouring estates got leases fully as good but free of cost. In 1878 the estate of Swiney was purchased by the Duke of Portland, and in consequence of high rents and bad seasons we were compelled to implore his Grace three times for relief—twice we asked reduction of rent, and the other time many who were in extreme need sent in their petitions in the spring time, requesting some help in seed oats. All our petitions were answered indifferently, or treated with silent contempt, except a small consideration granted in the name of a reduction; but even that itself, in our opinion, was shared out with amazing partiality. Hence our recent action in behalf of submitting our grievances to the investigation of a Royal Commission.

37516. Was it the custom to give meliorations on this estate?
—Yes, it was the custom.

37517. For what?
—For the wood of the roofing of the house.

37518. Were meliorations given for anything except the roof of the house?
—Nothing that I know of. We got no compensations for any improvements or buildings.

37519. What extent of land does your father hold?
—Nine acres.

37520. What is his rent?
—The rent, by the increase which M'Lennan put on us, was £10, 10s., but the reduction I referred to cut off about £1 of it. M'Lennan put £3, 10s. of increase upon it, and Snody put 30s. upon it.

37521. How long is it since your father first went to this place 1
—Thirtynine years ago.

37522. Was it bare moor when he went there?
—There were only three acres of it cultivated at the time.

37523. Was there a house?
—There was a sort of a house.

37524. Had he any lease when he went there first of all?

37525. He improved the land without any lease?
—Without any lease.

37520. Had he any promise that he would have the place for a certain time?

37527. Had he any idea that he would be left there for ever at the same rent?
—Well, there was no guarantee.

37528. I am not speaking of guarantee. I am speaking of the impression he himself was under?
—There was no promise, but then we were improving the land for our own benefit; indeed the late General Gordon put a check upon it. He said —' There is no use trenching or improving that land unless you agree with me for a rent; and if your offer pleases me I will accept of it, and if not I will advertise the place.' He even at one time put a stop to open drainage.

37529. Were you objecting to pay any increase, or was it the amount of the increase?
—We never objected, but we always grudged its enormity.

37530. What do you think now would be a fair rent to give for this place which you yourself improved?
—I think 6s. 6d. or 7s. an acre would be a full rent for it, going to the outside of it. There are many other crofts that would be dear at 2s. 6d. per acre, and some not worth labouring in their present state.

37531. Then 7s. an acre would be the same rent that you paid when you entered in 1846?
—That is it.

37532. You think it should not rise beyond that?
—Well, if there was anything granted us for our improvements; but all the labour is due to our own energy and expense.

37533. The Chairman.
—What was the first rent your father paid for the place?

37531. Did you not say that in 1846 it rose from £ 1 , 10s. to £3?

37535. What was it that rose from £1, 10s. to £3?
—That was over the whole estate in general. I am not sure that each crofter's rent was raised equally.

37536. But your father's original rent when he went to the place was£ 5?

37537. And now it is £9, 10s.?
—Yes, it was for a few years at £10.

37538. And during that period has any proprietor laid out anything or afforded you or your family any assistance?
—Not a farthing.

37539. How many years is it since your father went there?
—Thirtynine years.

37540. And you say that you ought to have it now for the same rent it was at first? You think that would be a fair rent?
—I say that 7s. an acre is rent enough.

37541. So you think you ought now to give £2 less than your father gave for it at the beginning?
—Well, it would scarcely recoup our labour in draining, trenching, and manure.

37542. How is the rent practically paid? Is it paid by the sale of an animal?
—By an animal or by crop, but very seldom by either. It is often done by external labour. We pay our rents generally by working otherwise.

37543. What stock do you keep upon this little farm?
—One horse, one cow, a stirk, and maybe a calf.

37544. Do you never keep more than one cow1?
—It would not support more than one cow.

37545. Have you ever, practically speaking, more than one cow in your byre?
—Yes, sometimes there are two.

37546. Are there ever three?
—But there are other outlets upon another estate on which they pasture.

37547. What is the name of the township?

37548. You consider it is a township?

37549. You consider you belong to a crofting township?

37550. What is the connection between the crofts? Have they got any common pasture?

37551. Had they ever any common pasture?
—Achow had no common pasture; but other parts of the estate had common pasture.

37552. Had your township ever any sheiling ground?
—None that I am aware of.

37553. Had it never any rights of common pasture at all?
—None outside the tenant's own pasture.

37554. Is it a very old township?
—I am told there was scarcely a croft in it about eighty or ninety years ago.

37555. Where do you think the people came from?
—They came there, a good many of them, in consequence of the Sutherland evictions in 1818 or 1820, and some of them before that—back to 1810.

37556. Do the people still remember that they came from Sutherland?

37557. And they look upon themselves as Sutherland men?
—As strangers.

37558. Was your family a Sutherland family?

37559. With regard to the old townships on the country, had they as a rule common pastures and sheiling ground, or had they sometimes none at all?
—They had common pastures for the most part, and sheiling ground, outlaying pasture common to each tenant.

37560. When those people came from Sutherland and settled in your place, who was the proprietor that took them in?
—Old Swiney Gordon, the father of the General Gordon to whom I have referred.

37561. What family succeeded the Gordons'?
—The last of the Gordons we had was a sort of half Gordon or Yankee, but the estate was sold out
of his hands to the Duke of Portland, and that was the cause of the immense increase of rent; M'Lennan was principally put in, I believe, to roup us up for the market.

37562. The high rent was imposed in order to sell the estate to advantage?
—Just a year before the sale, M'Lenuan came in early in 1874, and we were sold in 1878.

37563. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—It was the late Duke of Portland who bought the property?
—Yes, he died in the beginning of 1879.

37564. You represent in the paper you have given in, that you made three applications to his Grace?
—We did, as an estate.

37565. Was that to the late or to the present Duke?
—To the present Duke. The first application indeed went in before the late Duke's decease, but there was no response to it for about a year afterwards, when the reduction took place.

37566. What is the name of the gentleman who has charge of the Portland estates in Caithness now?
—Mr James Muckart, factor, Langwell, Berriedale.

37567. You complain that the reductions of rent are partial; whose doing is that?
—I cannot account for that, but there are some tenants in our township who have got far worse reductions than others in proportion to what they occupy.

37568. You do not blame the proprietor for that?
—No. There was one Alexander Sutherland, Bravell, Swiney, who got no reduction, and in common justice should get a reduction. He pays £14. Donald Gunn, Swiney Mains, also got no reduction.

37569. Has the present proprietor ever come among you at all?

37570. Have the tenants come into personal contact with him?
—Yes, there was a reception here three years ago when he came north.

37571. Do you not think, as he is a young man, lately come into a very fine estate, it would be well to approach him directly with regard to any grievances you have?
—Well, there were two approaches of late. I am not sure if the latest approach came under his notice, but the other approach, which was occasioned by the poor crop of 1881, came under his notice without any profitable results,—the second approach for reduction. The crop that year was remarkably poor. In fact, we paid £ 3 per boll that year for meal.

37572. So far as you are aware, except the matter of the rent, there is no other complaint on the part of the tenants on the estate you represent?
—Well, I think some of the crofts are far too small. T here is a complaint too that the land is very bad, but that is included in the complaint of too much rent. The quality of the land is very bad.

37573. Are there farms upon the estate that could be given up for the enlargement of the smaller crofts?
—There are two pretty large farms on the estate—the farm of Swiney and the farm of Reisgill.

37574. Are these suitable for breaking up?
—I would not say but they are. I leave them to the powers that be.

37575. With regard to the people who came from Sutherland long ago, who consider themselves still strangers in Caithness, do they still preserve the Gaelic language? Do they speak Gaelic?
—Not so much as they were wont to do in my earlier days, but there is a good sprinkling of Gaelic
among them.

37576. Do you speak Gaelic yourself?

37577. Sheriff Nicolson.
—How small are these crofts that you say are too small?
—Some of them are only 2, 2½ , or 3 acres. Some of the people are not able to keep horses, and they pay immensely dear for laying down their crops in spring to keep horses and have five or six acres.

37578. What stock can they keep who have these small crofts?
—In general, one cow and a calf, and maybe a sheep.

37579. There are none I suppose without cows?
—There are some who have no cows.

37579*. Are there many of them that don't make their livings out of the crofts?
—I don't know but the smallest share of them make their living out of the crofts. They draw their living from extraneous sources, such as labouring or fishing. They are very poor indeed. I knew one industrious crofter lately who was so poor that she had even to borrow clothes and shoes from a pauper when she went out to pay her poor-rate, to go out decently.

37580. What size of croft do you consider sufficient to support a family independently of other sources of income?
—15, 20, 25, or 30 acres.

37581. Is the number of that size in your neighbourhood very small?
—There are a few.

37582. Who are able to make a comfortable living out of their crofts?
—Well, the fishing helps them considerably.

37583. Are most of them fishermen as well?
—A proportion of them.

37581. Is their fishing confined to the herring fishing entirely?
—Almost entirely. A few near the sea-coast fish cod and haddocks, but it is merely for the benefit of their own families.

37585. Who is the present factor?
—Mr Muckart

37586. Is he an Englishman?
—He is from the south.

37587. How long was Mr M'Lennan factor?
—Too long.

37588. How many years?
—He was three years our factor.

37589. Why did he cease to be factor?
—When the Duke of Portland purchased the estate, the late Mr Bowler of Berriedale became factor, and Mr Muckart succeeded him.

37590. Is there any difference in administering the estate since the new proprietor and factor came?
—I find no difference, only that when we meet at rent day we are all good friends.

37591. What other work do the people get besides fishing?
—Ditching and draining, and there were a good many working at the harbour that was going on down at Lybster. They also hire for the fishing, a few of them who have not boats or nets of their own.

37592. Is there any regular work to be got on the land round about?
—As long as the harbour works are going on there is work for a good few, but when these are done the work is very irregular and unremunerative.

37593. What are the wages?
—Generally 2s. a day or 2a 6d.

37594. The Chairman.
—Who gives the employment in ditching or draining? Is it the proprietor or the tenants who give it?
—It is confined sometimes to some of these large farms in the hands of the farmers who have an improving lease. They give work to the surrounding crofters in ditching draining, and quarrying.

37595. Is the proprietor at this moment giving any employment?
—None that I know of.

37596. Are there no works going on at the harbour?
—At the harbour there are. That is on Lybster estate. It is the Swiney estate I represent.

37597. But they belong to the same proprietor?

37598. Do the Swiney people get employment at the harbour1?
—Yes, there are some working there.

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