STATEMENT by the Rev. WILLIAM HALL TELFORD, Minister of the Free Church of Reston, Berwickshire (a native of the Tongue District of Sutherlandshire).
FREE CHURCH MANSE, RESTON, BERWICKSHIRE,
8th Nov. 1883.
When I had the honour of appearing before your Lordship's Commission on the 22nd of October, your Lordship desired me to put in writing the bulk of the evidence which I was then prepared to give. I now beg to submit the following statement, which is meant to apply to the Tongue district, and to bring out more fully than has been elucidated some facts connected with the more recent administration of that district of the Sutherland estate, and the present circumstances of the people there.
This district extends from the Caithness march to the east side of Loch Eriboll, and has a seaboard of about 45 miles, it contains a population of 4857, of whom 4000 at least may be regarded as forming the crofting and fishing population, and all of whom, with the exception of the Strath Halladale section of the community, skirt the seaboard. Two-thirds of this number form the descendants of those who formerly occupied the three straths that belong to the Tongue factorship, viz. Strath Halladale, Strath Strathy, and Strathnaver. Their removal from these straths took place between 1807 and 1820, at the period now known as the time of the Sutherland clearances. The three straths above mentioned are now occupied by seven sheep farmers. Besides these seven, there are other four located within the factorship, making eleven in all, three only of whom are permanently resident on their farms. I have given the wide margin of 800 to represent the sheep-farming and sporting constituency, with their servants and dependants, and also the local officials and their households.
That the state of the people prior to the removals at the period aforesaid was that of comfort, may be inferred from the fact that, according to the statistical account of 1790. there were in the parish of Farr, then containing a population of 2600, the following tradesmen : 4 millwrights, 16 joiners and carpenters, 34 weavers, 24 shoemakers, 20 tailors ; and there are other circumstances that point in this direction. The tacksmen of that time, representing such families as Langdale, Halmdary, Achiness, Achool, Clibrig, and Mudale, were all resident, and were men of education, as can be proved by deeds and documents now preserved in the Dunrobin charter chest. By their status in society as local justices of the peace and officers in the army, they exercised a wide and elevating influence on the tone and circumstances of the people in their neighbourhood. The effect of this was that a special regiment—the Reay Fencibles—was raised almost entirely in Strathnaver and officered by Reay countrymen, many of whom were the sons of Strathnaver tacksmen; and I may mention that one of them, Gordon of Halmdary, afterwards became Colonel of the 93rd. In 1802, when this regiment—the Reay Fencibles—was diàbanded at Stirling, Major-General Baillie, their colonel, spoke of them in the following terma:—"Major-General Baillie embraces with eagerness an opportunity of expressing his highest approbation of the uniform good conduct of the regiment since it was embodied and repeats his acknowledgments to the whole corps individually and collectively for the general respectability they have at all times and on all occasions maintained, with an anxious wish that they may speedily reap the fruits of so meritorious services, by the full and permanent enjoyment of all the comforts of a private life now so justly become their due."—
Dated from Stirling Castle, 24th September 1802. Vide History of the Clan Mackay, p. 552.
It may be mentioned that out of these disbanded Fencibles the 93rd Regiment of the line was raised, and that to the men forming it a promise was given of security for the land tenure of themselves and their parents; and it was while this regiment was serving in the Cape and elsewhere that the Strathnaver evictions took place. So that when the discharged men of the 93rd left their regiment " to reap the fruits of their meritorious services," their declining days had to be spent in circumstances and amid surroundings which no patriot could regard, or even now contemplate, save with the most painful and outraged feeling.
1.—The Strathnaver Peasants.
I quote the following sentence as to the social state and comfort of the Strathnaver peasantry of that day, from the testimony of the Rev. Mr. Macgilivray, late minister of Lairg, Sutherlandshire, and who had charge of the Achiness Mission between 1801-12. When asked as to the state of the people and their comfort generally, he said :—" There was not a single cottage in the strath where, if they knew I was coming, I could not be as comfortably entertained at table, and provided for for the night, as in m y own manse." And the late Dr. Angus Macintosh of Tain spoke
as follows of the Strathnaver tenantry:—"For hightoned Christianity and moral character, they were the noblest peasantry I ever saw, and I have been to all parts of Scotland." In the New statistical account for the parish of Tongue, No. 30, page 185, I read the following regarding the status of the evicted people of Strathnaver:—"When introduced here, several hundreds—many of them of a grade quite superior to mere peasants —were driven from their beloved homes, where they and their fathers enjoyed peace and plenty."
Representations of another kind owe any truth they may possess to the fact that the harvest of 1816 was a disastrous one—unprecedented before or since—and brought the people, hitherto comfortable and contented, into a state verging upon destitution. Advantage was taken of this temporary and exceptionable state of matters to urge a change in the condition of the people by those to whom such a change would be personally advantageous, and who had already secured a footing in the district. When the evictions took place, the people were sent to the sea coast, with a view, as was said, if proximity to the sea fishing (vide Loch's letter, Feb. 1818, in evidence). The places to which they were sent were already occupied; so much so, that in the New Statistical account for the parish of Farr, I find the following sentence :—
"In some instances 30 cottars occupying land formerly in possession of 12." This may be said to apply to the whole inhabited seaboard to which the people were sent. Since then little practically has been done to benefit the fishing and crofting population. No harbours were erected, no special interest worth speaking of taken in the fishing industry.
It has been represented to the members of the Commission that the sum of £140,826 has been expended during the last twenty-one years in permanent estate improvements, and that of this sum two-thirds has been disbursed mainly for the benefit of local tradesmen and the labouring population. This statement at first sight appears to be a somewhat formidable one. But I shall analyse it. It represents for local purposes, as mentioned above, an expenditure for twenty-one years of £93,800, which gives a yearly average of £4470, which at the rate of 15s. a week gives employment to 114 men and a boy. This it will be observed from the whole factorship containing 4000 inhabitants, requiring such labour employment, which means four men and a boy out of each township in the factoriate, i.e. dividing the latter into 25 townships. The local effect in the way of ameliorating the condition of the people generally by the giving of work is thus inconsiderable. Nor has this large sum of money been expended upon the crofting population, but upon the large farms, eleven in number, and also in building shooting lodges and making approaches thereto.
Of this £140,000 expended, it has been represented that £133,000 has been laid out in what has been termed " permanent estate improvements "—the Melvich water supply being one of them. But this large expenditure is admitted by the factor to have given only an Increase of £1757 of rental, or a return of 1½ per cent, of interest upon the outlay. The parties engaged in farming, for whom this large expenditure has been made, were compelled to go last year to the Duke to ask for a reduction of 50 per cent on their rents, which reduction was granted.
The rental of the crofting population in the Tongue factorship is £2127, the value of which is the outcome of improvements on the land effected by the people themselves. A re-valuation of their holdings has been recently made, and judging by the returns given in this respect, for the townships located between the Halladale Ferry and the Armadale sum, and also the Skerray and Tongue townships—the increased valuation must be at least 5700—equal to one-third of the present rental. This represents an additional capitalized value of £20,000 for land which was brought into cultivation by the crofters themselves, and for which, under existing regulations, they cannot demand, and have no title to receive compensation.
V.—Production from crofts.
But there is a further point which I desire to bring before the Royal Commission. The foregoing statement will make plain the disproportion that exists between the local distribution of the crofters and their rental; so much so, that production for their support must be largely imported. This, on economic principles, shows how futile have been all attempts to improve the Sutherland property permanently, or to secure for the people what Mr. Crawford, factor, Tongue, was pleased to call " a foundation for future profit as well as comfort."
I take the number of families represented by the 4000 crofting population in the Tongue district to be 800, and I allow 535 to be the annual sum required for the support of each family. Thus would require £28,000 for annual maintenance.
To meet this the annual value of the production of their crofts allowing two returns for the support of the families, would amount to £4254. Add to this the annual average disbursed in the interests of local labour £4470, which brings up the sum to £8700 ; this with the value of local fishings, prosecuted at present under great disadvantages, brings up the total to about 216,000, leaving £12,000 to be otherwise provided for This means that their crofts etc, only contribute four-sevenths of their necessary support, three-sevenths for which must be got elsewhere ; or in
other words, that of every twenty shillings spent in maintenance, 8s. 6d. must come from some source outside the estate. This statement proves the necessity for increased holdings, in order that each family may have within itself the means of producing on their own land the necessaries of life.
Sutherlandshire, with its beautiful and fertile straths and glens, is admirably adapted for such a purpose, if only facilities were granted to the people to take small farms. Such facilities would in the landward districts of the county be the proper application of wealth or labour capital to material resources, and would be a means of increased revenue to the proprietor and of widespread benefit to the country.
VI.—Mildewed crops in the strath.
I am aware that statements have been persistently made to show that, on account of mildewa and frosts prevalent in the straths, and so-called " mountains," arable farming could not be carried on with any advantage either to labour or capital.
To refute this cherished theory on the part of certain interested individuals, I have only to state the following facts:—In Strathnaver there are upwards of twenty shepherd homes, attached to each of which there is arable ground, which has been regularly cropped since 1820 with corn, barley, and potatoes. Excellent crops have been reaped from year to year, and with the single exception of the harvest of 1846, when potatoes failed, neither mildews nor frosts have ever been known to prevent the Strathnaver shepherds from reaping the most bountiful and remunerative crops.
Representations on this subject have been made to the Commissioners. A few facts, however, will bring out that the pauperism of the county is a direct result of the estate policy of the last sixty years. I will deal with two representative parishes—Assynt and Farr—the former belonging to the Lochinver district, and the latter to Tongue. In the former there are by last published report 104 registered poor. Of this number 22, or one-fifth, are aged 80 and above; 52, or one-half, are aged 70 and above, while 10 only are under 30. In the parish of Farr there are 110 registered poor. In this roll I find there are 20 aged 80 and above, 45 aged 70 and above, and only 4 under 30 years.
The above table of returns goes to show that the pauperism of those two parishes, and by inference of the whole county, is to a large extent a legacy carried down from the eviction period, at which time numbers must have lost their health from the hardships then experienced. The present system of estate management, moreover, develops pauperism in this way; that if a crofter should happen to lose his health in consequence of his toiling at improvements or otherwise, he must necessarily become chargeable to the parish, in which case he loses his holding and forfeits all right to any interest in the value of his improvements.
I wish to add further under this head, that an appreciable element in the pauperism of all Highland parishes results from the present law of settlement. I have known instances of individuals who were absent from 20 to 30 years from their native parish, and after bestowing their labour elsewhere, became permanently chargeable to the pariah of their birth.
VIII. School rates.
It is to be observed in this connection that the burden of the school rates in Sutherlandshire has been aggravated by the fact that advantage was not taken by the Sutherland family of the advance made by Government to the Highland counties in the interests of education. The money thus advanced was of immense advantage to destitute Highland parishes, particularly to those that had their populations scattered in inaccessible hamlets and outlying localities. This special grant being denied to Sutherlandshire, necessarily caused the school rate to be excessive; so much so, that in one parish in the county, the school rate has been 2s. in the £ for three years since 1874. And in the same parish the parochial burdens for poor rates, school rate, and road money amount to 4s. 6d. per £ for the current year. This is payable by parties to whom no reduction of 60 per cent, has been allowed, and who in their struggles have actually benefited the estate through the capitalized value of their labour.
Under this head I desire to controvert the evidence of Mr. Crawford, factor, Tongue, which would lead the Commissioners to suppose that the common pastures or hill grazings are good ; this is entirely misleading. I admit that the Strath Halladale grazinga are on the whole fair ; but those attached to the following townships—Melvich, Portskerray, Baligill, and Strathy, including Strathy Point—are of a poor character, unworthy altogether of being called hill grazings for stock of any kind, e.g. the hill grazings attached to the Melvich and Portskerray townships, though comparatively wide in extent, are really no better than waste land. From this ground 150 families have for the last 50 years been cutting their fuel, thus still further rendering the land inefficient for grazing purposes. The comparative worthlessness of the land I here speak of can be seen by any one travelling from Melvich Inn to Strathy Free Church.
There is additional ground for complaint in the fact that from the Halladale Ferry to the Strath of Melness, a distance of 35 miles, there is not a single fence between the crofter's pasture and the large farms, with the single exception of a dyke fence, erected about 25 years ago (barely extending one mile) to bound some new pasture given to the Farr tenantry, and for which they have been taxed £66 annually. This want of fences gives rise to ceaseless annoyance and discomfort to the tenants, and hurt to the stock. In some instances cattle have to be driven daily two miles from home ere any passable pasture can be reached. This brings them near the boundary of the sheep runs, into which they at once wander, where they are not infrequently poinded. It will at once be apparent how serious a drawback the want of fences is within the bounds of the Tongue district.
The Sutherland estate has a seaboard of 140 miles, and along all its coast, with the exception of one or two small piers, there is not one single harbour worthy of the name. I should state that there is what is termed, by the estate management, a harbour at Scullornie, near Tongue, but the access to it is so intricate and dangerous that it is practically worthless for fishing purposes. The location and building of this harbour has a history peculiarly its own, and is one of the many instances of useless and profitless so-called Sutherland improvements. The fact is that nothing practically has been done to encourage or foster the fishing industry, which can never be successfully carried on until proper deep sea harbours are erected at Portskerray, Armadale, Kirtomy, Skerray, and Talmine. Three of these places are admirably adapted for the erection of such harbours, and with comparatively little outlay safe and commodious sea basins could be constructed at Portskerray, Skerray, and Talmine.
The hardships connected with the present state of matters are very great. I instance the difficulty of launching and hauling their deep-sea boats. The writer has witnessed every available man and woman in some of the fishing villages on the Sutherland coast, engaged in hauling up their boats over a rough, rocky, and exposed beach. Such scenes have been witnessed for the last fifty years, and yet the Royal Commissioners have been asked by an estate official to believe, " That the Duke of Sutherland entertains a parental regard for the well being of his people." In consequence of the grievances thus experienced by the Sutherland fishermen, the fishing industry has actually declined, and must necessarily until harbourage is provided for them. It will be patent that if it were otherwise, better boats would be provided, and the feeling of security thus gained would enable the fishermen to prosecute their calling with advantage and success.
I now feel compelled to make a statement as to the possibility of providing harbours for the fishermen who skirt the seaboard of the Sutherland estate, from the known refusal of the Sutherland family to permit second parties, under any conditions, to build harbours in the interests of the fishing community, as such erections with their results might infringe upon their proprietory rights. I make this statement on account of the refusal of the offer made by the late Mr. Bremner, of Wick, to erect a harbour at Portskerray. I submit, then, that as there does not seem to be any change in this policy of indifference—on the part of the proprietor or of his officials — to the wellbeing of the representatives of the people, who sixty years ago were evicted from their large holdings in the straths, in order that they might reap the wealth of the ocean," representations should be made to Government, in order that by a special arrangement with the Scotch Fishery Board, harbour accommodation may be provided for the Sutherland fishermen. Circumstances may conspire to induce the Duke of Sutherland to offer to Government his proprietory rights, in order that they may spend public money in the construction of harbours for the benefit of the resident and fishing population; which means that the British tax-payer will step in to remedy the grievous mismanagement and reckless expenditure of the Sutherland estates, and this not in the interests of the 40 sheep farmers who have hitherto enjoyed the benefit of the hundreds of thousands already expended, but because there are 15,000 loyal and industrious subjects resident in the county, who have suffered from the dire effects of studied neglect at the hands of the proprietor and his officials, who would fain have the people keep silence, accounting them to be but step-children, entitled to no heritage in the resources or privileges of their motherland.
It follows that any satisfactory dealing with this whole question must embrace,—
I. Compensation for improvements.
II. Conditional fixity of tenure, or leases with the right to make the lease an asset.
III. The providing of harbours as already referred to.
IV. No solution of the Land grievance will be satisfactory that does not in some way give additional land to the people. This necessarily involves the breaking up of some of the large farms ; but I am assured that the granting of this, with the outlay necessary to its realization, would result in a doubling of the rental of the straths aforesaid.
In conclusion, it will be apparent to your Royal Commission that the present state of matters in Sutherlandshire haa arisen from gross mismanagement and mistaken idea of improvement. If it continues, the results will be most disastrous in the way of denuding the country of its best and most loyal sons, and of embittering the relations between landlord and tenant, and thereby inaugurating a social discontent which may have serious issues.
And the day may come when some other may be compelled to reiterate the words of General Lake at Castlebar, " If I had m y brave and honest Reays here, this would no have happened."
WILLIAM H. TELFORD.