STATEMENT by the Rev. J. Ross, Free Church Minister, Durness, Sutherlandshire.
July 23, 1883.
It is to be regretted that the Commissioners pass over without enquiring into the condition of the crofters in this parish. It is not easy for poor people to go to Kinlochbervie, 20 miles off, and thus sacrifice three days, even though they were not under the influence of intimidation, as they are, of which there could be sufficient evidence had the Commissioners come to the parish. Though the outward circumstances of crofters here may seem more comfortable, as to being well housed and clad, than some districts in the Western Islands, yet there are many hardships in their lot and many depressing influences which they desired should be laid before the Commissioners, had there been a fair opportunity. Durness having the largest acreage, 140,812, and larger rental than the neighbouring parishes (£6615), contains by far the smallest population (987), and always diminishing for several decades; and there is no room for increase, no room for marriages, as neither house nor land can be got. When parents get old and frail, the son or son-in-law, if there be such, occupy and work the croft, and is expected, besides bringing up his own family, to support his aged parents and any other members with them, while the croft is by far too small to support one family; indeed, no croft by its produce alone could furnish a livelihood for one family.
There are 100 crofters paying rent from 5s. up to £ 5 ; many of the holdings being very small, from 2 or 2½ acres up to 5 acres. The rent and most of the livelihood must be obtained from other sources, from the sea or from some other employment at home or from home. Nor could any family live from the sea alone under the present system; besides the precarious and perilous nature of the fishermen's life, from the exceeding wild and stormy coast, and the want of suitable boats and fishing gear, they have no ready transit to market. For this there is needed a pier at which a steamer could periodically call.
There are four sheep farms and part of another from which the people were removed, and condensed into the townships now occupied by the crofters. There was thus a deprivation of both arable and pasture lands from which they suffer to this day. Balnakiel farm, which contains a large slice of good arable land taken from the crofters long ago, was in the Duke's hands a few years ago, and then less favourable to the crofters than the neighbouring tacksmen. There was an attempt made to intercept them from the drift sea-ware, as they would have to come through a portion of the sheep pasture, though it was not fully carried out. The customary arrangement by which the crofters got grass to cut and season, themselves getting the half and the tacksmen the other half, was departed from, nor would they get dairy produce to buy, and when they did get it afterwards it was at an increased price. So the crofters sought advanced wages, women from 8d. to 1s., men from 1s. 8d. to 2s. or 2s. 6d. About thirty years ago the township of Durine was deprived of a large park of some scores of acres in the middle between the north and south sides of the village, and given to Balnakiel without any reduction of rent or compensation, except that Balnakiel dropped the ancient custom of washing their sheep in the loch on the people's commonality on the moor. The people resisted that deprivation, but without avail.
On the same system they have been deprived last year of the ancient right and privilege of grazing their horses for two months at Fionnbheinn, which they held from time immemorial. They paid for a herd with the horses Is. 6d. each, and removed them about the 1st of August. An order came from the factor's office last year not to send the horses, and such as sent their horses were fined 5s. for the offence against the factorial order. They petitioned the Duke, and the result was that the 5s. tax is made perpetual for grazing and herding, and 2s. 6d. on the few surviving of the older tenants; and each tenant was asked separately to sign an agreement of that sort. Some demurred, and were told or threatened to be reported as disloyal. Another part of the system which causes discontent is the increase of rent, some one-third, some one-fourth, at each succession, which is interest on their own improvement without any expenditure on the part of the proprietor.
Sangobeg, which originally contained three families, had successively at one time three families thrust in, and ultimately other six families removed from other places to make room for sheep, so that there are now twelve or thirteen families where there were formerly only three.
On the Leathad, aside Loch Eriboll, there are upwards of twenty families driven on that barren slope of shore from various parts, their only advantage being the loch near them and the heather pasture on Ben Spionnadh behind them for stock, but they can have very little for provender in winter. They need a pier or port for their boats. Their rents are generally under £2. Their holdings of land are of the poorest description, as also are those of Sangobeg, the smallest narrow stripes, and also Lerin and Smoo, so that when the potatoes fail and fishing not successful, they have very little help off the land—small miserable patches. The soil by continual cropping and constant use of sea-ware is getting thinner and more exhausted, the crops consequently weaker, and more readily destroyed by the severe gales of autumn. It would need rest by rotation of grass sowing, which on several of the larger crofts is now practised. But fencing from sheep would be also necessary to secure the young grass as well as the corn, and that on the part of some was resisted and opposed by the Local Authority.
At the best, though the rents may not be considered high, if the amount of labour and toil in spring taking ware from the tide, carrying on the back, and the constant round of working and watching were estimated in money value, the produce of the ground is exceedingly dear, the countervailing advantages being a country home, fresh air and water, milk and potatoes, and such privileges. And several improvements and reform would add to the content and comfort of the people, and remove causes of discontent.
The manner in which personal rule is exercised, often fitful, arbitrary, or capricious, is one such cause of discontent. The factorial order issued through the ground officer, or the latter's own order as bearing ducal authority being the supreme law, people being hindered or allowed improvements on house or land as the case may be. Instances enough might be given. There is no doctor for the parish nearer than the remote corner of Edrachillis, 30 miles off, this parish paying the half of his salary for the benefit of Edrachillis. There is no sheriff court nearer than Scourie once a year; no police officer, and for many years no resident justice of the peace, and it was recently there is a resident inspector of poor. Wanting some of these we could get along fairly, as there were only two or three criminal cases within the last eighteen years.
There is now and then cropping out, as if under breath, a frequent grumbling as to the state of education generally, and that all the offices and conduct of the teaching and of the school are concentrated in one family—the ground officer's. Himself was till this year compulsory officer; his son-in-law both teacher and registrar; his daughter, the teacher's wife, sewing mistress; his son, assistant teacher, inspector of poor, and sanitary inspector; and his daughter pupil teacher. All these possibly might be good appointments, but people complain and are discontent, and there are children in this neighbourhood up to twelve or thirteen who can't read a word, as well as some in other parts not being kept at school, neither can read. The ground officer is the sole meal-dealer in the parish, and it suits him better than it would suit any other, for he knows their capability and their stock, and he is kind and considerate in giving meal on credit, and many are in his debt, which gives him great influence, and people would be afraid to utter a complaint about the school or any other matter. Such concentration in one, and the spirit of fear on the one hand or favouritism on the other, tends to deteriorate and demoralize the spirits of the people.
From the domineering spirit, I resigned m y place at the School Board after its first meeting. Mr M'lver (the "returning officer " keeping aloof or absent) emphatically announced "that he must constitute the Board” and further, that he “was appointed chairman” in the other parishes, and “if any other should be nominated there” it would be held a slur on the Duke of Sutherland ;" and as the representative of the parents I held aloof since, unwilling to submit to the assumption of authority nor disposed to contend against it. Not that I have anything against the factor or other official. He may be the very best for any such office, but concentrating all affairs of this parish in one place, 30 miles off, and all the offices in one family here, as well as the influence of intimidation, is objectionable.
Now, it may be difficult to devise a remedy for the state of the crofters here. Emigration can scarcely apply, the population being so small; and the rental paid by the 100 crofters so small a proportion (£224) of the total rental, £6615; and some of the districts, as Lathad and Lerin, and so unfit for cultivation. The great bulk of the land in Durness, arable, pasture, and heath, is bound at present under lease, and no room on that side for the population to expand. But there might be given to the people a firm hold of the land they have, their interest in it and improvement of it, without fear of disturbance or removal from it, and freedom from irritating interferences; farther encouragement and stimulus to education and learning of trades, with a pier for steamers to call in at regular intervals, and thus create traffic for the fishing; for the lobsters at which the fishermen are engaged in winter and spring, and even the whelks which women and children gather every spring-tide during winter and spring, though not very fit employment, but of which the people of Leathad make good help for their living, until they get other ways and means of living.
These are the subjects, or some of these, on which I was willing to be examined by the Commissioners had they come ashore here, and as I am not able from ill health to go from home, I now write and submit to them.