Lybster, Caithness, 4 October 1883 - James Innes Stewart

JAMES INNES STEWART, Fish-Curer, Lybster (59)—examined.

37599. The Chairman.
—Do you occupy any land?
—No land.

37600. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Have you been appointed a delegate to come here to-day?

37601. Was it by the people in the village of Lybster?
—No, by public meetings at Forse.

37602. Have you a written statement to make?
—Nothing special, but I have just two or three points to touch upon. At the outset, the tenants or crofters on the Lybster estate apparently have complained of no grievance. First of all, under the late Duke of Portland, both estates certainly were at a disadvantage so far as the estate previous to his purchase was under trustees, and consequently the rents were certainly run up as high as they possibly could be, the most of them; but, after the purchase of the estate, I believe it was the policy of the late Duke of Portland—and the present Duke pursued the same policy—that they are rarely known to raise the rents or remove tenants, and consequently these recommendations in their favour have rendered the people quite content with the rents, although they are somewhat high, and also rather precarious in being paid, because it must come principally out of the sea. The farms or crofts of Lybster are so convenient to the sea that they prefer, though they find it rather high, to make no complaint with regard to their rent. But they have another grievance. They have the parochial burdens bearing very hard upon them. In consequence of the larger farmers, as it is said, in this parish paying less per acre than the crofters, the parochial burdens bear very high upon the crofters. That is not their only grievance. There is the Poor Law Act, and I am very happy to have to bring before this Commission the injustice of a certain clause of that Act whereby proprietors, —rich proprietors, and even millionaires—are exempt from paying the rates as tenants upon their shooting grounds. Hence, it becomes very expensive to the small crofters of the parish, who are rated for all the public burdens, such as poor rates, vaccination rate, and also for registration and school rates, at over 5s. per pound. We look upon these as, for the crofters, one of the most particular grievances from a parochial point of view, because here are wealthy proprietors who are able to pay for their shootings and they get off scot free, while we have to distrain upon the poor crofter for the last farthing. I think it one of the most one-sided and unjust pieces of legislation that has passed into law in Scotland within the last hundred years, and I am delighted to have this opportunity of laying it before you. That is all I have to say, but I shall be happy to answer any questions.

37603. Now long have you been here?
—I have been here twenty-one years.

37604. This has always been an important fishing station?
—Very important. There have been just two or three seasons—1874, and the season before last—when it was an entire failure, but it has never been a complete failure here except those two years.

37605. Perhaps you will tell us something about the harbour works that are going on just now. Are they of considerable magnitude?
—They are not of such an extent. It is just the difficulty that, notwithstanding the large sum of money that has been laid out, the harbour is not protected from the sea. It will be absolutely necessary, to serve the end it was intended for, to have some breakwater thrown out on these headlands to prevent the sea coming into the harbour. Further, the harbour is too shallow to admit of shipping or ordinary sized boats loaded with herring.

37606. Is the whole expense borne by the Duke of Portland1?

37607. Who is the engineer employed by him?
—Mr Cooper, an Englishman.

37608. You appear, therefore, rather doubtful that what is intended to be an advantage will be sufficiently effective for the purpose?
—We are quite of that opinion. Then the entrance to the harbour is unprotected; the sea comes right in, and actually it is worse than before they commenced the improvements.

37609. What was the object of the Duke of Portland in making these additions? Was it still further to develop the fisheries?

37610. And chiefly for the benefit of the residents of Lybster?
—Yes; we petitioned the late Duke to have additional harbour accommodation. During a heavy storm that took place a few years ago, it broke down the sea-wall completely, and, in carrying out the improvements, they will not have the necessary effect without the improvements I have now suggested.

37611. Is this town increasing in importance? Is the population increasing?
—Yes, it is increasing in population.

37612. Are there facilities given by the Duke of Portland to build? Are there feus?
—Yes. At one time it was not so under the late Duke of Portland, but now there are plenty of facilities given.

37613. I suppose the rates vary; but for the fishing population what is the rate per acre for a feu?
—£3 per acre is, I think, the minimum. They can extend higher, but that is the minimum charge.

37614. Is that considered reasonable by the people?
—I think it is. We pay higher for some feus in the village. I pay 30s. for a feu extending sixty-five feet in front and one hundred feet back.

37615. Is there not a local authority in the village?
—Only the Parochial Board.

37616. What is the population of Lybster?
—I think about 1500.

37617. Have you never thought of applying to get it declared a populous place, and have authorities of your own?
—Unquestionably we would require it for various purposes, but the Parochial Board supplies all the
necessary local authority. Sanitary matters are all under the Parochial Board. The only thing, perhaps, would be to introduce water. It would be very important if there were some constituted local authority for that purpose.

37618. You have been present all this forenoon?

37619. And heard what was stated?

37620. Are you able tc concur generally in the statement we have heard that the rents in this locality generally are very high?
—They are certainly high. As it was so fully discussed, I did not think it necessary to go into the matter.

37621. But I ask your opinion generally whether you concur with what was stated?
—Yes; I see that from 1856 to 1882 there has been a rise of 40.2 per cent, on the whole of the parish.

37622. Can you state that very much has been laid out by the proprietors for that increase?
—Some of the proprietors have done so, but some of the proprietors I know must have laid out very little indeed.

37623. Has it fallen under your observation that a great deal of the reclamation of the land in this parish has been done at the expense of the smaller tenants, and crofters?
—Chiefly of the tenants, both small and large. They have reclaimed the land themselves, and carried on the improvements.

37624. A witness was asked whether originally the people who took any of the land had improving leases, and he seemed to be of opinion that they had no leases. Do you know whether those who first began had them?
—I think those who went in at first had improving leases. Nineteen years was the original lease. I know there were fourteen and sixteen, but nineteen years was the general improving lease.

37625. But you can hardly call a nineteen years' lease an improving lease?
—No, of course it is a short lease, but during the currency of the nineteen years vast improvements were carried out upon these farms.

37626. Even upon so short a lease as nineteen years?
—Yes; great improvements.

37627. Is there more land capable of being taken in in this parish and neighbourhood—I mean on the sea-board from Wick to the Ord?
—Yes, a good deal could be reclaimed, and if I had the management of an estate I think I would have the ground put out in small comfortable crofts adjoining the harbour, and let the land inland in large lots of from 50 to 200 acres that a man could live upon. I would allow crofts to those on the sea-board, because they follow a very precarious business, and if they had a croft adjacent to the harbour it would assist to support them during part of the season if they did not succeed in the fishing; and the larger farms I would have so that they could live upon them alone—from 50 to 200 acres.

37628. You concur with what Mr M'Culloch stated that the general feeling of the fishermen here would be not to depend entirely on the fishing, but to have a croft and a home?
—Evidently the crofters would require that, but the inhabitants of our village could not attend to that;
they must be wholly fishermen.

37629. You make a difference. They merely require a home?

37630. But would not you like these people in the village to have a cow?
—They have that; not all, but of course a good many of them have cows, and a large common pasture for those cows.

37631. What do you pay for this cow?
—I think it does not exceed 30s. for summer.

37632. Is that sum paid direct to the proprietor?
—Directly to the proprietor.

37633. And he has, in point of fact, reserved from letting on lease, a certain quantity of land for the benefit of the people in the village?
—Yes; but it answers a two-fold end—for drying nets on and also for the cow.

37634. So the proprietor certainly did a humane thing for the village and a wise thing in every respect?
—And a profitable thing for himselfvery profitable. He takes two rents out of it.

37635. You are a native of Forse?
—A native of the parish of Wick. It was at a meeting at Forse that I was appointed a delegate from the
estate of Lybster.

37636. You heard what the delegate George Sinclair stated about 105 families being evicted. Is that correct?
—I am not aware of the number. I know there were a good many evictions upon that estate, but I cannot tell the number.

37637. Without any ostensible cause?
—I cannot tell what was the cause unless to block out large farms. He blocked out two large farms.

37638. It was not in consequence of any arrears on the part of the small tenants?
—I don't think it. I think it is generally understood that small tenants pay fully as much rent and pay punctually.

37639. And pay as well?
—And pay as well. I have always found in my experience that they would even lift money in advance from me when fishing for me in order to pay the rent.

37640. I observe in the valuation roll the following entry :'Farms of Rumster, Glosary, Shepherd's Town, Arrycraggan, Auldandoo, Jock's Lodge, &c. William Brown and George Little, £410.' I presume that is the farm that was constituted out of the crofts of those evicted people?
—Yes, that is the farm.

37641. Who are William Brown and George Little? Are they Caithness people?
—Yes, they belong to Caithness.

37642. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—Do you give money advances to the fishermen?
—We do.

37643. Do you engage boats for the next season by giving advances?
—We do, as soon as we engage the boats. There are a few independent men who don't require advances, but a great many require advances. They cannot carry on without] it, and pay these rents. Generally the little crofts are not expected to do more than keep them for part of a season.

37644. And they depend upon next season's fishing to pay the rent of this year?
—Yes, a good many of them do.

37645. Do you engage boats from other places besides those of the country here?
—Yes; I engage them at Wick and at Stornoway.

37646. You engage West Highland boats as well as the Caithness boats?

37647. Do you give advances to engaged boats in all cases?
—In nearly all cases; but there are a few independent men who don't require a rap. Generally speaking, we have to give advances even to the West Highland men. We sometimes give them new boats.

37648. Does it sometimes happen that you don't get paid the first season?
—Yes, sometimes not for three seasons.

37649. And they carry on this fishing the next season?
—Yes, they carry on the fishing, and when they meet with success they clear us all up.

37650. On the average, how long are they before they clear up?
—Well, I gave a boat at £100 two years ago and some nets to a crew, and they fished one year for me at Boathaven and one at Wick, and they cleared it off, and had money to draw this season.

37651. These were good fishing seasons?
—Remarkably good.

37652. But of late years the seasons have not been so good?
—Not so good.

37653. Notwithstanding that, have they been in the habit of clearing up?
—The last season here was a complete failure, and that threw a great many of them back. There were only about ten and a half crans on the average. I am referring to the spring season of 1882. That kept them back for a long time, but we have advanced boats and nets, and I have seen them clear off in two years.

37654. But though they clear boats and nets they are obliged to have advances to pay their way?
—The greater number, but there are a great number who come from the Western Islands, quite independent men, who never lift anything.

37655. I am speaking of those from the parish of Latheron?
—A great many of them are independent men. They go to Peterhead and Fraserburgh; but a good many that fish at Latheron require advances.

37656. You spoke of the great hardship of having to pay rates here, the proprietors not having to pay on their shootings. I think I saw in a paper lately that the proprietors of Caithness had petitioned that they should be assessed on their shooting rents?
—I am glad to hear that. I merely knew that Sir Tollemach Sinclair agitated that. We look upon it as a vexed question, because it is a very great hardship on the poor crofter, to distrain his effects and let the millionaire with shootings pass scot free.

37657. Are the shootings in the parish let?
—They are all let, except the Duke of Portland's and Major Stocks'.

37658. Does the shooting produce a large rental?
—A very large rental in some cases.

37659. It gives considerable ease to the rates?
—Yes, it is great revenues that they draw from the shootings, and hence we could lower the rates.

37660. There have been complaints made of the ravages of the grouse. If grouse were extirpated, would it be for the disadvantage or advantage of the country?
—I cannot say much about grouse, but I know rabbits are very destructive. As for grouse, we used to think they were diseased when they came into the crofts.

37661. I am speaking of the grouse, which are a source of great revenue for shooting purposes, and I ask your opinion whether it would be desirable that they should be done away with?
—I for one would oppose it. I should not like to see them done away with, especially if we had such a
revenue in our hands for parochial purposes. It is worth a great deal more than all that the grouse eat. They chiefly live on heather.

37662. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Of what nature are the harbour works that are going on just now?
—Concrete walls principally.

37663. What is the design of the harbour?
—The first was to strengthen the outer walls, and they excavated a certain part in the upper harbour so as to enlarge it, and the one they are going on with just now is intended for an inner harbour, but I am afraid it is too small for the purpose.

37664. What number of boats would it accommodate?
—I think it could accommodate about 145.

37665. What number of boats is there belonging to Lybster itself?
—I suppose they all belong to Lybster or the district.

37666. All boats of the large kind that are used on the east coast generally?
—Yes, of the large size. They are building them as large as fifty feet keel, and forty-eight feet and forty-six feet, and so on.

37667. With seven or eight men as a crew?
—Six men and a boy.

37668. Do most of these boats belong to the men themselves at present?
—Yes, nearly all to the men.

37669. Do you cure any fish but herring?
—It is chiefly herring we cure, but there is cod curing going on here every winter, and they send them up in the state of what they call mud fish to the London market.

37670. Is there any reason except want of refuge why they should not carry on white fishing as well as herring fishing all the year round?
—No other reason but the want of harbour accommodation. There are as able crews and efficient fishermen as you will get anywhere, but the want of a harbour deters them from going out many a night when they would go out.

37671. When these present harbour works are completed, will they be able to prosecute the fishing with more advautage?
—Provided they take all precaution to protect the entrance from the sea coming right in, there is no doubt they will, but unless they do that I am afraid there will be no more safety than there was before.

37672. Do you know what the estimated cost is of the works that are being executed by the Duke of Portland?
—I have heard it stated they would come to about £11,000.

37673. But you think, to make them more useful, there ought to be a breakwater besides?
—I do.

37674. Where?
—There is a diversity of opinion; some say down near the entrance. If there were a jetty there, it would protect it wonderfully; and there is another plan of building a quay-head on one of the out lying
rocks at the outside of the harbour.

37675. What would be the probable cost of such a breakwater?
—There is a little uncertainty in working it out. Probably it might be done at £3000, probably more, but it would depend very much on how they succeeded. Great storms might come on when they were in the act of erecting the quay-head, and it might get knocked down.

37676. When the present harbour is improved are there harbour dues to be exacted?
—There are harbour dues just now, but these are to be doubled. A boat pays 10s. just now, and Id. per barrel of herring; it will be 2d. per barrel, and 10d. for a ton of salt, and so on when the works are
entirely completed.

37677. The Chairman.
—There is no municipal constitution here at all?
—None whatever.

37678. If the place were declared to be a populous place and obtained some form of constitution, would they then be able to obtain a loan from Government for the improvement of their harbour?
—I have no doubt, but it is all done just now at the Duke's expense.

37679. The people would be more satisfied to pay higher dues with improved accommodation?

37680. What would the area of the basin within the inner harbour be? How many acres?
—Two and a quarter acres inside.

37681. Would that be susceptible of increase by excavation towards the land?
—Yes, it could be excavated.

37682. To any extent?
—To almost any extent, and the more excavation the safer it would be.

37683. Is there any river or stream flowing into the harbour?
—Yes, there is the burn of Reisgill.

37684. Does it bring a great deal of stuff down?
—Yes, a great deal of debris.

37685. Would they be able to make works on the course of the burn which would arrest the flow of the debris?
—Yes; not very easily, but it could be done quite well at little cost. Just now they have a weir, and
the accumulations are kept from going into the harbour.

376S6. You said you believed that the land was originally broken in and improved under improving leases. When these first leases expired and the rents were raised did the people obtain a renewal of the leases or not, generally?
—Sometimes they did. It depended very much on the management of the estates. Some of the proprietors put the land up to the highest bidder, but others had an amicable arrangement between themselves and the tenant.

37687. Can you mention any particular estate upon which there was a wise and liberal system pursued in that respect?
—Well, there is one estate I know: but I am not so well acquainted with the management of it now, the Dunbeath estate. It was very particular that way. They were not very apt to remove the tenants. They must have done so at one time, because they removed a whole strath of tenants, but for a long time Stewart. I did not hear much about it.

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