STATEMENT of WILLIAM R. TAIT, Esq., C.E., Factor for the Murkle Estates, Caithness.
MURKLE ESTATES OFFICE, THURSO, CAITHNESS,
1st Nov. 1883.
In the evidence taken before the Commissioners at Lybster in Caithness, Mr. Donald Mackay, delegate from Bulldoo, Reay, lodged a statement regarding a district upon the property of Sir Robert C. Sinclair, Bart, of Murkle, etc., occupied by twenty-seven crofters. There were other statements lodged by the delegate which have not appeared in print so far as I know, and my remarks must therefore be confined to the statement about the Bulldoo and Achreamie crofters.
I have had the management of Sir Robert's estates in Caithness for the last twenty-four years, and during that period very extensive agricultural improvements have been executed by the proprietor, mainly in conjunction with the tenants under specified agreements.
Without going into details, there has been expended by the proprietor the following sums upon the specified works, and it may be said the expenditure has proved judicious and remunerative:—
Buildings: £14,888 19s 8d
Drainage: £15,933 10s 3d
Interior fences: £2,414 12s 2d
Ring Fences: £1,519 19s 3d
Farm Roads: £434 10s 4d
Farm March Fences: £648 2s 5d
Property do.: £496 16s 9d
Service Roads: £646 7s 10d
Flag Quarries: £11,822 14s 2d
Miscellaneous: £3,174 0s 11d
TOTAL: £51,979 13s 9d.
The delegate admits there were no evictions made in connection with the improvements. This is so far satisfactory, and I shall say nothing whatever about the estates before Whitsunday 1859, the period at which the improvements were begun.
The delegate complains of the crofts being too small, and of their being surrounded by large farms. If the crofters are not to be transformed into small farmers, but are still to retain what has hitherto been regarded as the character of crofters, the quantity of land occupied by them should not, I think, be a matter of complaint. Of course there can be no objection to the cherished ambition of wishing to rise from the condition of a crofter to that of a small farmer. But I am dealing with those who were found crofters in 1859, and who at that time were unable to take more land than they then occupied. It is with some satisfaction that I admit the fact of their being surrounded by large arable farms. Under all the circumstances they could not be better or more advantageously situated. There are five large farms surrounding the crofts, paying the undemoted rents — £593, £615, £578, £319, £305. These five arable farms should supply a fair amount of work to the crofters and their families, and that too within easy distance of their homes. I hardly think there is one of the seven-and-twenty crofters who entertains the fear that any one of his big surrounding neighbours will either encroach upon or covet his croft. The crofters were offered leases some few years ago, and some took them, and some declined. The big farmers, however, do not appear to be equally secure in their possessions, for, in spite of the tenth commandment, the delegate gives a longing look at the "rich lands in their possession, at lower rents than paid by the crofters," and, in reply to a question, says, "some of the crofters" (I hope the majority of them) "would be able to stock a fair proportion of these rich lands, if they were divided amongst them." One may be pardoned for regarding this frank admission of ability to stock a proportion of the rich lands of the large farmers as evidence of the possession of no small amount of means by the crofters in spite of all their grievances.
The delegate complains again that their crofts are too dear, and that the proprietor has done very little for them. According to the delegate himself, the crofters occupy about 471 acres at a rent of about £221, being at the rate of nine shillings and fourpence per acre. The bulk of the waste land consists of a moss lying alongside the crofts, and as the peat disappears for fuel the ground is then easily improved and makes fair land. The delegate has suggested division of the large farms. Now suppose the croftera themselves set the example (and example is better than precept), and divide their land equally amongst themselves. What would be the result? This, that each crofter would have 17 acres of land, with house accommodation for himself and his stock at a yearly rent of about £8. Now to put the most moderate value upon the home with its privileges which the crofts afford, say £8, the rent of the 17 acres of land cannot be said to be too high.
Let us now look at the complaint about the proprietor having done but little. Well, as I have said, the proprietor surrounded the crofters by large farmers with capital at a time when they were themselves quite unable to occupy profitably more land than they then possessed, and on these surrounding farms and others in the near neighbourhood he has expended a sum of £35,985, 10s. 3d, which gave the crofters and many others what was felt to be much needed—a large amount of employment at fair wages. This was something, I think, which the delegate should have acknowledged. Further, the proprietor has expended upon the said crofts and in connection with them, the sum of £505, and for which practically no interest has been charged. On two sides of their ground, which roughly forms a triangle, the large farms have been fenced out from the crofts, and the crofters performed no part of this work—extending to about a mile and a half. To enable the crofters to drain the moss as it became ready for improvement, an outfall at a heavy expense was made without charge to them. Surely, these are some things and not very small things which the proprietor has done for these crofters, and still they are not contented. With a delegate so able and skilful as Mr. Donald Mackay at their disposal, I am not surprised to see grievances stated and claims made of which I never heard a word until I read his statement lodged with the Commission.
I am far from saying the crofters are as comfortable in the way of house accommodation as their proprietor would like to see them ; but, considering what he has already done for the property as a whole during the last four-and-twenty years, I think he has given the best evidence of his earnest desire to fulfil his duties as a landlord, and has shown his recognition for the principle that landlords have duties to perform as well as privileges to enjoy.
If the twenty-seven crofters represented by Mr. Donald Mackay had been all equally successful with himself in their exertions and industry, the Bulldoo and Achreamie crofters would have been at this moment, I venture to say, the model crofters of the county of Caithness. Why they have not been so successful, is not for me here to explain.
W. R. TAIT.