Report - Introduction



Your Majesty's Commission, bearing date the 22nd of March 1883, having directed us to inquire into the condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and all matters affecting the same or relating thereto, we have during the course of last summer devoted ourselves as we thought most expedient to the performance of the duty committed to us by Your Majesty's commands, and we have now the honour to submit the following Report:—

The nature of the inquiry with which we were entrusted rendered it desirable that our proceedings should be prosecuted in the localities concerned, and in public, while the state of popular feeling existing at the time indicated the Island of Skye as the point at which they should be commenced. Your Majesty's ship ' Lively' having been placed at our disposal, we embarked at Oban on the 5th of May, and our first meeting was held at the Braes, near Portree, on the 8th of the same month. The inquiry in Skye and the Long Island was continued until the middle of June, but our proceedings were then suspended in consequence of the loss of the 'Lively,' and it was not until the 13th of July that we were enabled to renew our labours, commencing at Lerwick, having been meanwhile provided with another vessel by Your Majesty's Government. The islands of Shetland and Orkney, the northern and western shores of Sutherland, the western seaboard of Ross-shire, Inverness-shire, and Argyllshire, with its island dependencies, were then successively visited, and the engagement of the 'North Star' having expired on the 11th of August, we again broke off work at Lismore on the 13th. On the 4th of October we reassembled at Lybster in Caithness, from which we passed to the interior and southern parts of Sutherland, from thence to the district of Easter Ross, and eventually to Inverness, the valley of the Spey, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, concluding the active part of our mission on the 24th of October, with the exception of a short visit paid to Tarbert on Lochfyne on the 26th of December. In the course of the several circuits above mentioned, undertaken in the eight counties in which the interests of the crofters and cottars are most strongly represented, we convoked by public invitation, 71 meetings at sixty-one stations, and received the testimony of 775 persons. It is our agreeable duty to record the obliging assistance which we experienced in the execution of Your Majesty's gracious commands on the part of the local authorities, and from all orders of a community unanimously devoted to Your Majesty's person
and Government, though agitated by the discussion of questions dearly affecting the welfare of the class to which our attention in virtue of our Commission was specially addressed. Before proceeding to the material points of discussion, it is necessary that we should offer some remarks on the vast body of testimony which is attached to this report, testimony which has been partially disseminated through the channel of the press, and which, cannot have failed to produce some impression on the opinions and feelings of the country. In judging of the validity of much of this evidence, we shall do well to remember that these depositions, regarding acts and incidents often obscure and remote, are in many cases delivered by illiterate persons speaking from early memory, or from hearsay, or from popular tradition, Meeting and fallacious sources even when not tinged by ancient regrets and resentments, or by the passions of the hour. But here, in addition to causes of infirmity which, would apply to miscellaneous testimony offered anywhere, not on oath, and not in the face of a court of justice, we have the fact that the progress of the Commission was anticipated by agents enlisted in the popular cause. Intervention from without of this character was to be expected in a free country, and it may not have been without justification, and even utility, among a population in a dependent and precarious condition, persons referred to, of Highland birth, we have received assurances that their influence was not employed to intensify irritation, but rather in an opposite sense. We are willing to believe that there was no conscious incentive to misstatement, nor shall we deny to the individuals above mentioned, irrespective of their opinions and connections, a genuine zeal for the good of their countrymen. It is obvious, however, that a preparatory manipulation of the sources of evidence could not be conducted without some excitement, that it may have been attended with an ardent desire to make out a preconceived case. Many of the allegations of oppression and suffering with which these pages are painfully loaded would not bear a searching analysis. Under such a scrutiny they would be found erroneous as to time, to place, to persons, to extent, and misconstrued as to intention. It does not follow, however, that because these narratives are incorrect in detail, they are incorrect in colour or in kind. The history of the economical transformation which a great portion of the Highlands and Islands has during the past century undergone does not repose on the loose and legendary tales that pass from mouth to mouth; it rests on the solid basis of contemporary records, and if these were wanting, it is written in indelible characters on the surface of the soil. Changes of this nature, going to the very foundation of social and domestic life, are not anywhere accomplished without some constraint, resistance, and distress, and if the instances produced for our information are not specifically and literally true, they are akin to truth. In making these reservations and distinctions in regard to the accuracy of the evidence submitted to our notice, it is right to add that even among the poorest and least educated class who came before us there were many examples of candour, kindness, and native intelligence, testifying to the unaltered worth of the Highland people. The depositions of the superior order of witnesses, embracing proprietors, factors, farmers, clergymen, and members of the other learned professions, contain much that is valuable in connection with the industrial history and moral and physical condition of the population, subject to the powerful influences of prepossession or interest belonging to their several conditions of existence and employment. It has been our desire to supplement oral evidence by tabulated statistical returns illustrative of the conditions of land tenure in the past and present. For this purpose certain forms of inquiry were circulated, which will be found in the appendix. We regret that it has not been possible to obtain the information solicited with entire fulness and accuracy, partly owing to the expense which would have been incurred in order to complete these statements, partly in consequence of defective knowledge or ability among those to whom our inquiries were transmitted, occasionally, it may be, in consequence of misapprehension on the part of the smaller tenants as to the motives which prompted the request for information. Notwithstanding these deficiencies in the returns thus supplied, we trust that they may still be found of material interest and value. On a general review of the positive information which we are enabled to supply, we are constrained to avow that it is not commensurate to the importance and complexity of the subject-matter of our Commission, and that our conclusions are in no small measure founded on impressions derived from personal observation, from the opinions of men of competent authority, from books, and from previous familiarity with the interests at issue. The classes whose condition we have been directed to study are qualified as crofters and cottars. By the word crofter is usually understood a small tenant of land with or without a lease, who finds in the cultivation and produce of his holding a material portion of his occupation, earnings, and sustenance, and who pays rent directly to the proprietor. The term cottar commonly imports the occupier of a dwelling with or without some small portion of land, whose main subsistence is by the wages of labour, and whose rent, if any, is paid to a tenant and not to the landlord. The crofter is a small farmer who may live partly by the wages of labour; the cottar is a labourer who may have some share in the soil. But these definitions are deceptive, for there are crofters who are sub-tenants under tacksmen, and there are many cottars who pay rent to the owner. The distinction between the two classes is more easily felt and understood than delineated. Nor is a strict definition necessary. For the purposes of this inquiry and report we limit the class of crofters to tenants paying not more than £30 annual rent, but we are unable to fix any point in rental below which the crofter descends into the cottar class. The difficulties which the small tenantry of the Highlands and Islands experience in the prosecution of the forms of industry which prevail among them are varied in kind and intensity by the accidents of physical nature, by the historical development of the laws and customs of the country, and by the qualities of race. Not much is absolutely homogeneous throughout the districts to which we have carried our inquiries. Nevertheless, there are certain generic features in the pursuits and condition of the labouring classes which may be discovered, with local modification, over the whole area of our survey, and which are susceptible of being dealt with in one common scheme. The capital sources of subsistence and occupation throughout the Highlands and Islands are farming and fishing, with the simple trades and arts depending on them. Mining and manufacturing industries, in the larger sense, with all the complex moral and material problems associated with those conditions of existence, are here unknown. In considering the circumstances and prospects of a population subject to the conditions of life indicated above, it would not be possible or equitable to exclude all reference to their social state in former times. M e n in all countries are disposed to discover motives for pride or discontent in the contemplation of the past, and the Highlanders of Scotland are certainly not less than others inclined to this indulgence of retrospective fancy. The delegates have accordingly not failed to bring all the features of distress and dependency in their actual existence into marked contrast with the happier conditions and higher privileges which they believe to have prevailed in a preceding age. It seems indispensable for us to subject these impressions, as briefly as possible, to the test of reason, and to state in what respects they are, in our opinion, supported by probability or proof, and in what respects they are destitute of foundation. In attempting this part of our task, it is fortunately not necessary to enter upon any controversial disquisition as to the state of the people or the distribution of proprietary rights at a remote period. To this argument we have not been invited by the witnesses who have appeared before us, and it would not have any practical bearing on the subject matter of our inquiry. In reverting to the earlier condition of the country and its population, the delegates did not for the most part go further back than the interval between the fall of the clan system in the middle of the last, and the great clearances for sheep farming completed in the first quarter of the present century. In referring to alleged deprivation of land rights, if we may except a few ambiguous utterances, they urged no claim to property in the soil, in the strict sense, but rather to security of tenure as occupiers, at a customary rent or a rent fixed by some impartial authority. The conception formed by the people of the condition of their forefathers a hundred years ago, derived from tradition and from the fugitive writings of the present time, appears to present the following picture :
A large extent of arable and pasture land held by prosperous tenants in townships, paying a moderate rent to the proprietor; a sufficiency of grain grown, ground, and consumed in the country, in some places with an overplus available for exportation; cattle in numbers adequate to afford milk in abundance and young stock for sale; horses for the various purposes of rural labour; sheep, which yielded wool for home-spun and home-woven clothing of a substantial quality, and an occasional supply of animal food; fish of all kinds freely taken from the river and the sea. The population, thus happily provided with the simple necessaries of rustic life, are represented as contented with their lot, deeply attached to their homes, but ready to devote their lives to the service of the Crown and the defence of their country. Of the terms under which the smaller tenants held their possessions no definite account is presented, but it is assumed that they were entitled to security of tenure, subject to rent and services, as the descendants or successors of those subordinate members or dependants of the family, who in former ages won the land for the clan and maintained the fortunes of the chief by their swords. This claim to security of tenure is held to have been in some sort transmitted to existing occupiers. If the picture thus submitted is a faithful likeness of any phase of popular life that ever existed in the northern parts of Scotland, it could only be in fortunate localities and in favourable seasons. That it contains some of the lineaments of truth must be admitted, but it is a view drawn without a shadow, and offers in many respects a striking deviation from the dark realities portrayed in the narratives of contemporary observers, in the statistical accounts compiled by the clergy in the last decade of the eighteenth century, and in the notices of estate management preserved in the families of hereditary proprietors. There have been in some districts from an ancient date small tenants holding farms in common, and paying rent direct to the proprietor. Such undoubtedly existed in considerable numbers in the latter half of the last century. In these cases the small tenants occupying large areas at low money rents, and little vexed by services to the landlord, who was remote or indulgent, no doubt enjoyed a life of tolerable ease and abundance, diversified from time to time by the deprivations caused in years of scarcity. Of such a state of existence there are some indications, which it is consolatory to identify among the painful records of penury and oppression which form the burden of the contemporary literature devoted to the subject. The larger proportion of the land in the Highlands and Islands was, however, held by tacksmen or leaseholders from the proprietor or chief, and the mass of the cultivators lived under their sway as subtenants at will, paying rent in money, kind, and service. The tacksmen were usually gentlemen of the country, members of the family or clan, of good education, resident on the land, connected with the peasantry by sentiment and blood. Some partook in a great measure of the character of middlemen, paying a small rent to the owner of the soil, receiving a larger rent from the cultivators, and supporting themselves and their families on the difference, aided by pensions or half pay, for many in this class had passed their youth and middle age in the profession of arms; others were themselves active farmers on a greater or less scale, breeding and selling cattle, and cultivating their arable land by the customary, sometimes by the unlimited service, of the subtenants, without money wages. Below the subtenants were the cottars, and below these the 'scallag' or farm labourer. In this scheme of society much would, of course, depend on the individual character of the tacksmen. Some would be careless, some would be benevolent, some intelligent and enterprising, votaries of innovation and improvement; but it is impossible to resist the cogency of contemporary testimony; not a few were exacting taskmasters, habitually severe, occasionally unscrupulous. The temper of the times was rough and stern. The small occupiers were more widely and equally distributed than they are now, something of the patriarchal system lingered after feudal obligations were abrogated, a superabundance of hands were summoned to intermittent labour, and the mixed cereal cultivation and cattle breeding of the period preceding the era of sheep required a greater number of workers quickly available for the emergencies of seed time and harvest. The people lived in groups or communities externally much as they do at present, with arable and pasture lands in common, depending partly on fishing, partly on farming, with the alternations of plenty and poverty, inseparable from a life so deeply affected by the inconstancy of sea and sky. The cottars were merely a poorer sort of sub-tenants, with less land and less stock, the dependants of dependants. Of the farm labourers we have different accounts,—some describing their state as preferable to that of the cottars, while others are fitted to arouse the most poignant feelings of commiseration. At no time that we know of was the cereal production of the Highlands as a whole equivalent to the consumption of the inhabitants. Importations of grain were frequent and considerable, and the cost of food brought from more fertile districts was formerly defrayed, as it is now, by the sale of live stock. It may be doubted whether enlistment in the regular army was for any length of time generally popular or entirely spontaneous. The evidence on this subject is conflicting. Martial traditions and hereditary attachments on the part of the tenantry, transmitted authority and personal popularity on the part of the proprietor or chief, had no doubt a preponderant influence in eliciting those contributions to the national defence before the American war, which we now regard with admiration and wonder. Promises of favour on one side, and dread of displeasure on the other, in connection with the land were, towards the end of the last and at the beginning of the present century, when many Highlanders enlisted, perhaps more operative causes. The following statement is offered as a general view of the advantages and disadvantages attached to the condition of the subtenant in the past, compared with those belonging to the condition of the crofter of the present, in many cases his representative. The sub-tenant had often the benefit of more room; in this case he held a larger arable area, by which cultivation could be suspended, and the productive properties of the soil, in consequence, to some extent preserved. On the vast unappropriated waste he could pasture a greater number of live stock; he possessed the potato in a more prolific and reliable condition as a main source of sustenance; in the manufacture of kelp he found the means of paying his money rent. He had a greater freedom in regard to the natural produce of the river and the moor. The intervals of leisure were passed with greater cheerfulness among a primitive people, to whom hardships were familiar, w h o enjoyed their own traditional forms of physical and intellectual recreation, and whose minds were not embittered by an intelligent envy of the welfare of others, or by the belief in rights from which they were debarred. The various orders of society were more fully represented in the resident community; the natural leaders of the people lived among them. These benefits were greatly outweighed by definite or unlimited services, often relentlessly exacted from men and cattle in seasons when labour was most valuable to the people for their own subsistence; by Government regulations onerous to industry, like the taxes on salt and coals; by restrictions on foreign importation, oppressive to those who did not produce provisions enough for their own support; by impediments to movement and traffic, which left the cultivator a prey to the cupidity of a local monopolist; by ignorance and indigence, which attached him to the soil and rendered him the helpless vassal of a local master; by the delays, sufferings, and terrors incidental to distant voyages and a change of country. We may add to these causes of distress, that in the absence of a benevolent proprietor, or impartial factor, justice was in the remoter parts unattainable; the complaints of the poor were unheard, their wrongs unredressed. The crofter of the present time has through past evictions been confined within narrow limits, sometimes on inferior and exhausted soil. He is subject to arbitrary augmentations of money rent, he is without security of tenure, and has only recently received the concession of compensation for improvements. His habitation is usually of a character which would almost imply physical and moral degradation in the eyes of those who do not know how much decency, courtesy, virtue, and even mental refinement, survive amidst the sordid surroundings of a Highland hovel. The crofter belongs to that class of tenants who have received the smallest share of proprietary favour or benefaction, and who are by virtue of power, position, or covenants, least protected against inconsiderate treatment. On the other hand, the crofter has been brought into direct relations with the landlord, which by common assent is preferable to sub-tenancy; he has got higher prices, higher wages, greater facilities of local intercourse, better access to external labour. Except in very rare cases, he is exonerated from unpaid services, and where such survive, they are for the most part in the interest of the holding or the township. All burdens on native industry and foreign importation have been long since removed. The shackles of local dependency are falling away. If the crofter and crofting fishermen arc not entirely emancipated from compulsory custom, truck, barter, and payment in kind, these trammels are being removed by the altered conditions of society. Provisions have been made for popular education which, when better appreciated and further aided, will eventually lay open the whole world with all its resources and attractions to the sight of the most secluded inhabitant of the glens. Steam and telegraphic communication have already done much to connect the British and even the continental markets with the remotest seats of production, and the same means may be rendered more effectual for the same purposes. The material risks and difficulties connected with emigration are daily diminishing. The benefits of public justice have been extended. Sanitary regulations, medical assistance, and poor law relief have been introduced, and the people of- the Highlands and Islands, far from being regarded with indifference, attract a large share of public solicitude, and are surrounded by the active sympathies of their countrymen settled in the great marts of industry in this country, or dispersed over the whole colonial dominion of Great Britain. The opinion so often expressed before us that the small tenantry of the Highlands have an inherited inalienable title to security of tenure in their possessions, while rent and service are duly rendered, is an impression indigenous to the country, though it has never been sanctioned by legal recognition, and has been long repudiated by the action of the proprietor. Neglected by earlier and succeeding writers, the views of the Highland tenants in respect to permanency of tenure are incidentally noticed by Captain Burt in his well-known ' Letters from the North of Scotland,' written about the year 1730, while the clan system was still in full vigour. His words are memorable, for they stand almost alone. The casual remark of a curious Englishman is perhaps the solitary contemporaneous testimony to a custom unknown to the Statute Book, but which may have been practically embodied in the reciprocal necessities and affections of chief and clansmen, as long as those relations remained a reality. We are not indeed informed whether the claims of the people were admitted in principle by the tacksman or the proprietor, but it may be assumed that where the numbers and fidelity of the clan constituted the strength and the importance of the chief, the sentiments of the humblest vassals would be habitually respected. Removals had indeed already commenced in the time of Captain Burt, for we hear of emigrants from Inverness-shire to Virginia, but it does not distinctly transpire under whose impulse, on what occasion, or among what order of men this early movement occurred. We are bound to express the opinion that a claim to security of tenure, founded in the old usage of the country, cannot now be seriously entertained. The clan system no longer exists. The chief has in many cases disappeared, and his property has been transferred by sale to another name and another race. The people have in many cases disappeared as a distinct sept of the other example is of a minister w h o had a small farm assigned him; and upon his entrance to it, some of the clan, in the dead of the night, fired five balls through his hut, which all lodged in his bed, but he, happening to be absent that night, escaped their barbarity, but was forced to quit the country. Of this he made to mean affecting complaint. This kind of cruelty, I think, arises from their dread of innovations, and the notion they entertain that they have a kind of hereditary right to their farms, and that none of them are to be dispossessed, unless for some great transgression against their chief, in which case every individual would consent to their expulsion.'—Burt's Letters from the North of,Scottland, vol. ii. pp. 176-77. That the Highland tenants cherished the same impressions seventy-five years later is affirmed by the Earl of Selkirk in his work entitled Observations on the present state of the Highlands of Scotland (1805), p. 120:—'They remember not only the very opposite behaviour of their former chiefs ; they recollect also the services their ancestors performed for them ; they recollect that but for these the property could not have been preserved. They well know of how little avail was a piece of parchment and a lump of wax under the old system of the Highlands ; they reproach their landlord with ingratitude, and remind him that but for their fathers he would now have no estate. The permanent possession which they had always retained of their paternal farms they consider only as their just right for the share they had borne in the general defence, and can see no difference between the title of the chief and their own.The same right of permanent tenure has been claimed for the 'tacksman.' See A Tour in England and Scotland, by Thomas Newte, Esq. London 1791, p. 125. common extraction, under the influences of emigration, intermarriage, and substitution. The relations of ancient interdependency have vanished with the parties who acknowledged them, and where the parties can still after a manner be discovered and brought face to face, the duties which were natural and lawful in another age can no longer be performed by either party to the other. It is, however, not surprising that the tradition of a lapsed privilege should be preserved under altered circumstances, for it was created by causes which leave a durable impression among an ardent and isolated people, or that where the belief has expired it should be easily revived, for it may be made the basis of a claim of material value. Nor must it be forgotten that the authority of chieftainship has been reasserted, and the obligations of vassalage have been avowed, in a new form, and for a new cause, almost within the memory of living men. It is difficult to deny that a Macdonald, a Macleod, a Mackenzie, a Mackay, or a Cameron, who gave a son to his landlord eighty years ago to fill up the ranks of a Highland regiment, did morally acquire a tenure in his holding more sacred than the stipulations of a written covenant. Few will affirm that the descendant in possession of such a man should even now be regarded by the hereditary landlord in the same light as a labourer living in a lowland village. On the whole, we cannot entertain a doubt that the small occupiers of the Highlands and Islands have participated in no small degree in the benefits which modern legislation and commerce, and the prevalence of philanthropic principles in government and individual action, have conferred on other classes of their countrymen. We remain under the impression that while in the whole community there was a larger proportionate number of persons living in rude comfort in former times, there was also a larger number in a condition of precarious indigence. The average amount of moral and material welfare is as great now as at any previous period, and the poorest class were never so well protected against the extremities of human suffering. We cannot flatter ourselves that this statement of opinion will fully satisfy those whom it concerns. The tendency to paint the past in attractive colours will not easily be abandoned, nor is it likely to be obliterated by contemporary education or political training. A comparison of the present with the past is a favourite and effective instrument in stirring popular aspiration for enlarged rights. We shall, we trust, draw nearer to the prevailing sentiments of our countrymen when we add that, whatever has been the progress in the condition of the Highland and Island population, we have not reached a point which should satisfy their just expectations. There are still wants to be supplied and abuses to be corrected in the Highlands, as elsewhere, and to these we now propose to direct our attention. The population belonging to the class of crofters and cottars engaged in agricultural and pastoral pursuits, in addition to the evils attached to an unproductive soil, high elevations, and a variable and boisterous climate, suffer from several causes of indigence, discouragement, and irritation, which are subject to remedial treatment. These may be enumerated as follows:
—Undue contraction of the area of holdings; undue extension of the area of holdings; insecurity of tenure ; want of compensation for improvements; high rents; defective communications; withdrawal of the soil in connection with the purposes of sport. To these we may add, as contributing in our opinion to the depressed condition of the people, defects in education, defects in the machinery of justice, and want of facilities for emigration. The fishing population, who are largely intermixed and identified with the farming class, share the same complaints, and have their own peculiar disabilities in the exercise of their hazardous calling, which may be summarised under the ensuing heads : — Want of harbours, piers, boat shelters, and landing-places ; inability to purchase boats and tackle adapted for distant and deep-sea fishing; difficulty of access to the great markets of consumption ; defective postal and telegraphic intercourse. In submitting suggestions for the diminution or removal of these numerous causes of depression and discontent, our proposals may be conveniently consigned to six sections of report, viz.:—

I. Land;
II. Fisheries and Communications;
III. Education;
IV. Justice;
V. Deer Forests and Game ;
VI. Emigration.

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