Lybster, Caithness, 4 October 1883 - Alexander Sutherland

ALEXANDER SUTHERLAND, Crofter and Mason, Roster of Clyth (37)—examined.

38096. The Chairman.
—Do you hold a croft here yourself?

38097. Were you born in this place ?
—Yes. Sutherland.

38098. And you belong to this place?

38099. Were your forefathers always settled here?
—Yes, my immediate forefathers.

38100. Have you been living and working here, or have you been abroad?
—I have been in the south.

38101. Where have you been engaged?
—In Edinburgh.

38102. Do you come down here often?
—I have been here for ten years. Previous to ten years ago I was in Edinburgh.

38103. But you have been resident here for ten years?

38104. Exercising your own trade as a mason?

38105. And working the ground yourself?
—Yes. I have a statement to read.

38106. Are you a delegate?
—Yes, I have been appointed for that side of the estate.

38107. Has this memorial you are about to read been read to the people? Have they sanctioned it?
—They have been telling me the grievances, and I have written them down.

38108. So that though they have not heard it it is substantially their views?
—They approved of it. They are here to prove it. ' Roster, the district which I have been asked to represent at this meeting, is on the westermost boundary of the Clyth estate. As Britain is surrounded by the ocean so Roster is completely encompassed with heather-covered moor, and thus may truly be called an " oasis in the desert." Being isolated in this way, it has a peculiar history of its own. This I venture to submit to Her Majesty's Commissioners as worthy of their attention in illustrating the evils of the land system under which we crofters live. I wish to trace the effects of that system in Roster during the present century. At its beginning Roster had three tenants. I have been able to find out the exact rent of only one of these, that was £ 4; as the other two lots were about the same size and had the same privileges, each would pay about the same rent, that would make £12 in all. Let us say £15 to make sure work. Now I wish to point out the privileges this rental brought to the three tenants—not only had they a right to the arable patches round their houses, but to all the moorland within a radius of about two miles from the centre of the township; over all this their sheep, cattle, and horses roamed by right after their own free will.The average number of these on each lot was about three horses, five cows, ten small cattle, and from thirty to forty sheep. This state of matters was first disturbed about the year 1802 or 1803. Dr Henderson, the tacksman of these days, went to Tongue in Sutherlandshire, and the adjoining district induced a number of the crofters there to come to Clyth and settle down as fishermen. Several families had lots assigned to them in Roster. They settled down on unfilled land, and although the rent in most cases was only nominal, they had to build for themselves and reclaim the land before they could sow anything. When in 1865 evictions took place in Strathnaver, more families from that quarter came and settled down in Roster. In 1819 still larger accessions came from Kildonan, and a readjustment of the holdings had to be made, the moorland pasture being still the common right of all. Dr Henderson was tacksman still, and it is worthy of notice how he treated the people. He was proprietor, fish-curer, and merchant. One account was kept for all dealings, which was of course on the truck system, and the people knew only at the end of four years how matters stood with them. From this time (1820) on till 1840, as the people were reclaiming the land and bettering their houses, the rents gradually rose. There was indeed a promise of melioration for the houses built, but as the tacksman in the end failed this was never fulfilled. Matters, however, went on quietly in Roster till 1840; a considerable amount of moorland was now reclaimed, and formed an unbroken tract of arable land of such dimensions as would make one nice large farm. Some time about 1840 the tenants got word that they were to be cleared off the estate, and the reason assigned was that they were a lazy ne'er-do-weel lot. Mr Home was now factor, but instead of approaching him the tenants sent two of their number, John M'Intosh and William M'Kenzie, to Thurso Castle to Sir George Sinclair, to ask why they were to be turned off. He said he was told they were of no use on the estate, and of as little to the nation, as their young men never left home. These two delegates, however, pointed out that not only did the Roster people greatly improve their holdings and prosecute the fishing, but at that time there were sixteen men belonging to it in the army, and navy, and mercantile service. Sir George said, " If I get that verified, you are all secure in your district," and so the tenants went to their work again in peace, and a would-be big farmer was disappointed. We are glad to observe that proprietors now see the wisdom of disappointing more embryo big farmers. The next stage in this township's history is the granting of leases by Sir Tollemache Sinclair, and this brings me to quote figures to show how the land system wrought. In 1851 and for two years after leases were given to the tenants for fourteen years. They were got on conditions that new houses should be built, and an increase of rent paid both at the beginning and middle of the lease. When the tenant agreed to slate his house, the proprietor helped in money and material to the extent of £ 20; in case of some thatched houses assistance was given to the extent of £5; making a total sum of £200 expended by him. Some ditches were also put in as marches to the extent of £20 to £30 —in all £230. Now for a comparison of Roster in 1800 and in 1856 : —Rental in 1800, £ 15; rental in 1856, £172; increase, £157. If this increase were capitalised at twenty years' purchase, it would amount to £3140. Deduct from this £230, the sum expended by the proprietor in improvements, and you have £2910, the exact amount put into the landlord's pockets by the lazy tenants of Roster and by the inherent value of their soil reclaimed from heath and peatmoss. This is but half the story as concerns Roster, and the best or rather worst half is to be told. The rental of Roster in this year of grace is fully £372; increase since 1856, £200; this capitalized at twenty years' purchase is £4000. Deduct from this value of meliorations £120, other improvements £80, in all £200 for improvements made by the proprietor,—£3800 again put into the proprietors' pockets by this peat-
begirt region. And what are our privileges in return? There is no longer any moorland outside the crofts for our diminished flocks to roam over. Instead of three horses, five cows and ten small cattle, and thirty or forty sheep running over a wide extent of pasture, the crofter's horse and cow and two small beasts are now, as a neighbour pithily put it to me yesterday, anchored by tether on a few square yards of lea and stubble land. In eighty-three years Roster's rent has risen from £15 to £372, the increase ever rising faster and faster. This shows that our fathers and we have toiled hard. We have made the place what it is, and so we love it as our home. Our clinging to it has cost us dearly, no less than £6700 to the capital value of the place, worth only £300 in the year 1800. There is no end of waste land encircling Roster, much of it waiting to be reclaimed. We are tired of reclaiming on such conditions; however, we are gratified for the Land Act passed by the Government this year, but we hope this Commission will do something to help the tenants at least to share with the proprietor the result of their own labour in reclaiming the soil.

38109. Who drew up that paper r
—I did.

38109. With the advice of your neighbours?

38110. What has become of the large common pasture? You said there was a common pasture two miles on each side of the original township?
—It is turned into sheep runs.

38110. A portion must have been turned into arable?

38111. But the greatest amount of it you say has been turned into sheep runs?
—Yes, the greatest part.

38112. How much do you think has been brought into cultivation in these eighty years by the township as arable, and how much has lapsed to the sheep farmers?
—About 300 acres, I think, have been cultivated.

38113. There are now about 300 acres of arable ground?
—About that.

38114. And the rent of that is £372 ?

38115. Is there no right of common pasture left at all?
—No, not as common pasture. There is a small strip of a few acres in one case that belongs to nobody, but it is not of much service as pasture.

38116. There is no common pasture?

38117. Are there any bits of waste ground attached to the different holdings?
—There are some bits.

38118. Would they add much to the area of 300 acres?
—Yes, it would add to the area, but not to the value.

38119. How much would it add to the area?
—There is a plot of four or five acres of rough ground in each croft at present.

38120. How many sheep farms have been created upon the outskirts ?
—Three—two complete ones and part of one.

38121. What sort of size and rental have these farms ?
—The one is to the east side; I did not look at the rental as it lay a bit from the district, but I think it is something like £100.

38122. Are they arable or altogether sheep farms?
—One of them is wholly a sheep farm, and the part of the one that was taken out of that pasture is wholly a sheep farm. They are all almost wholly sheep farms.

38123. Are your people employed in the fishing?

38124. How do they live? Do they live upon the crofts?
—Some of them live by the crofts, and there are others abroad assisting them to pay the rent and live, and a few go to the fishing.

38125. To whom does the property now belong?
—Mr Adam Sharp.

38126. It is on the Clyth estate?

38127. Was it sold by the Sinclair family at the same time?
—Yes, altogether.

38128. Was the greatest rise of rent made by the Sinclairs, or has it been made since the sale by the present proprietor?
—Sinclair held it longer, but it has been at a faster rate since the present proprietor came.

38129. Has there been any outlay by the proprietor in drains?
—None but what I have mentioned. He is liable to pay meliorations, and he expended about £100.

38130. But the contribution to building the houses was given by the Sinclairs?

38131. Do you find employment as a mason in the country?
—All over the parish.

38132. But you live at the croft?
—When I am at home.

38133. How long have you been working at the mason trade in this parish?
—Since ten or twelve years ago.

38134. Has there been a good deal of building and improving going on?
—Yes. There have been any amount of schools to build. That is the principal thing.

38135. You have been employed in building schools?

38136. Have the wages of your description of work increased in the last twelve years?
—They increased, and have diminished again.

38137. Did that depend upon the schools being finished?
—A good deal, because there was seldom such a thing happening as so many buildings going on.

38138. Is there an improvement in the nature of the crofters' houses now?
—There are none being built just now. We get no security for meliorations.

38139. Are any of them built with stone and lime, or are they dry stone?
—They are all stone and clay; they are not built with much lime.

38140. And pointed outside?

38141. How long will a house of that kind last?
—It will last one hundred years.

38142. It is excellent stone?
—Excellent stone; the weather has no effect upon it.

38143. It does not fall down?
—No. They are not like the stones in the south of the country.

38144. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—Does the population at Roster hold from year to year at will, or by lease?
—The greater part from year to year. There are very few leases.

38145. Was it ever generally the case to hold upon a lease?
—There were leases given at one period. Every one had leases. When the former proprietor sold the estate he had leases, but since then very few have had leases.

38146. Is that owing to the unwillingness of the proprietor to grant them or the unwillingness of the tenants to accept them?
—They think their position is so bad that they don't care for going into a contract of lease under the present system.

38147. Is that especially owing to the amount of the rent or want of compensation?
—Both; and that their holdings after all that they have made are too dear.

38148. Too much rent?
—Too much rent, and they don't get compensation.

38149. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—How many people are there in Roster? How many families paying rent?
—About eighty, I think.

38150. The most of these people, I understand, came originally from Sutherland?
—The greater number.

38151. And so they had to leave Sutherland, In the first instance, and came to Caithness to get in time enormous rents put upon them ?
—-Yes, so it turned out. Some were induced to go, as the factor wished to get the fishing started.

38152. You have described the stone here as very good. If encouragement were given, and the people were pretty secure in their holdings, is there any reason why the houses of the crofting class here should not be as good as any in the country?
—There are several waiting and ready to do what they can with their work, if they would get security for what they put out in money at the end of their leases; and some of them have bad houses too.

38153. You know the house of Clyth Mains?

38154. It is a very old house, is it not?
—I think so. I am not minutely acquainted with it.

38155. Is it reported to be 200 years old?
—I don't know.

38156. It has always been occupied?

38157. And is occupied at this momeut?
—Yes. The tenant has another farm at this moment in Ross-shire.

38158. But it is occupied?

38159. Do you complain of game in the place where you are?
—No, our proprietor is not strict on us in that respect. We are on very good terms so far as we can manage.

38160. You complain simply of over-renting and the uncertainty of your position?
—Yes; and then, if we got security and the like of that, there are some patches which the greater part of us could cultivate, and so improve our position.

38161. Are there many of the young members of families in Roster obliged to go abroad and elsewhere?
—Yes, great numbers go. They go to all parts. Those who don't go abroad go away to the fishing in the summer season, and wherever they can get work.

38162. And some go away tor good?
—Yes, a great many.

38163. Is there at this moment any encouragement for the young men to remain at home?
—No, I could not say; there is nothing special.

38164. Is there a good deal of land in Caithness that might be reclaimed?
—Yes, there is a good deal that might be reclaimed.

38165. Would it not be well that the people in Caithness should reclaim lands of Caithness in olace of going say to Manitoba?
—If they got the land on the same footing on which they get it there, it would be better.

38166 For everybody concerned?
—Yes, that is my opinion.

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