Kingussie, 16 October 1883 - Duncan Lawson

DUNCAN LAWSON, Achnagallin (26)—examined.

43749. The Chairman.
—What is your occupation?
—I am a farmer's son.

43750. Will you make your statement?
—The notes on which I am about to make a few remarks regarding the agricultural condition of the country were hurriedly got up. I did not think I would be called upon to give evidence till to-morrow, and I intended to finish them up to-night. The crofters have ever been treated in a considerate manner on the Seafield estates. I cannot say from personal knowledge that there have been any evictions, as the word is generally understood in my neighbourhood. There have been a good many cases of putting small crofts together so as to form larger holdings; but I do not think that the result has always been satisfactory. One result of this has been, and still is, a scarcity of skilled farm servants and labourers. When crofts were more plentiful in Strathspey than what they are to-day —and I am old enough to remember a good many crofts which are to-day swallowed up in larger holdings and sheep runs—a farmer could get hands from the neighbouring crofts as he required them at a rate of wages which paid both the hirer and the hireling. The hands thus employed were in almost all cases superior, as they were, so to speak, to the manner born, whereas to-day farmers have to employ what they can get from the neighbouring towns and villages. These is very few cases have any knowledge of farming matters, and as there is no term of apprenticeship for farm servants, they fly away as soon as they are partly broken in, to try their luck in places where farmers can afford to be more liberal. I have stated this as one result of depopulation in rural districts. The crofters with whom I am more intimately acquainted in Strathspey seem to have a difficulty in forming an opinion as to what their real grievances are. One of them seems to be a want of good dwelling houses. The Earl of Seafield gives wood and slate free, the farmers and crofters paying for building, in short for all labour. The wood is only given in a rough state, and crofters experience difficulty sometimes in finding money to manufacture the wood, and paying for the labour required. The landlord builds houses too, but the rate of interest charged for the money laid out makes it impossible for small farmers to benefit by this; and in fact the large farms on which this has been adopted change hands pretty quickly. High rents, to adopt a mild term, seem to be another grievance, if not the chief. The last leases were renewed at a time when crops were good and prices for agricultural produce and cattle high; in short, they were renewed in the end of a succession of good seasons, and the result was that high rents were given. This was in 1866 or 1867. Immediately after the commencement of the leases a series of dry summers set in, and farmers had to dispose of most of their cattle at merely nominal prices, or buy hay and straw at famine rates. This series of dry seasons had barely passed when another of a still more disastrous nature set in; I allude to the late harvests which have visited us for the past ten or eleven years, more particularly those of 1877 and 1879, where there was scarcely a sound quarter of seed in Strathspey. Any person —let his knowledge be what it may—valuing a country such as Strathspey, where the danger from frost is so great, without taking this fact into consideration, will be likely to value crofts by far too high. The late Earl of Seafield in a very generous manner gave a reduction of rent on the farmers and crofters petitioning his Lordship. This reduction extended only over one year's rental. There is no estate in Scotland today in which more respect and affection is shown for the proprietor than in Strathspey, but I think that the crofters' grievances are too deeply seated for the landlords to redress. I would not for one moment think of blaming the landlords for the high rents; I would lay the blame at the crofters' own doors. If I see my neighbour improving his croft, and reclaiming waste land and making his croft snug, it is quite natural that I become envious of his compact holding, and I am willing to give an advance on the old rent if I can get quietly slipped into my neighbour's shoes. I have known men going secretly to the factor's and offering more rent than was indeed asked, and that before the old tenant had an opportunity of closing-with or rejecting the terms offered. But I am quite confident in saying that I never heard of such an offer being accepted in Strathspey. Hillside crofts suffer a good deal from the ravages of game, more particularly grouse. I have seen packs or flocks of grouse amounting to hundreds lying on the stooks of corn. These birds play sad havoc, as after they alight on the stooks and flatten them out and eat up the grain, if rain falls to any great extent the corn and straw rot. Some farmers and crofters complain of the hill being taken from them, so that they cannot keep sheep; but I think the old way of giving every person liberty to keep sheep on the hills was productive of more evil than good, for the simple reason that they took who had the power, and the result was an endless quarrel and a great amount of ill-feeling. The evils I have stated can all be remedied, I think, by—
(1) security of tenure, or fixity of tenure if you will;
(2) a saleable tenant right which will enable me to sell my lease to the best advantage;
(3) an appeal court composed of commissioners appointed in the same manner as the Irish commissioners ; and
(4) a right to protect my crops against all ravages of game.

I have had opportunities of ascertaining the opinions of crofters themselves on the subject, and they all agree that a Bill on the principle of the Irish Land Bill would give them what they want. The Scottish peasantry ask indignantly why should a law be framed so as to give so much to Ireland and so little to Scotland 1 Is it because the Scotch are a law-abiding people, and the Irish, alas ! too often the reverse? Is our respect for the laws of our country to be used against us, to bind us down to a life of servitude? If such is to be the case, do not wonder that we, a class who are pitied for our iguorauce, and made the butt of many an ill-timed and rankling joke, look upon the Irish Land Bill as the reward given for illegal agitation. Some would-be reformers tell us to live less expensively. Well, if any person thinks that our distress is brought about by expensive living, let him or her come and see. I am giving facts when I say that I have seen families brought up on porridge and milk and potatoes and milk without any other variety, and not only the families but the head of the family sharing the meal; and sometimes when the milk failed, it was a repetition of the Irish meal of " tatties and point." Think you, gentlemen, how this would suit your valets and footmen. We are not seeking a method by which to "make money," as the term goes we could not do this on a Highland croft even if we had no rent at all to pay; we are simply asking the land on terms which will enable us to live in some degree of comfort. I believe the average depth of soil on a hillside croft or farm in Strathspey would not be more than three or four inches. There are acres and acres in some places where you cannot get enough mould to cover the sock of the plough; and such land would be dear at 2s. 6d. per acre, as you seldom get a return to your seed. A good many crofts are deficient in drainage; of course, since the passing of the Agricultural Holdings Act, greater attention will be paid to drainage, &c, but still this Act does not give the security crofters require. There are vast tracts of land in Strathspey which could be reclaimed if sufficient encouragement were given and sufficient security. These improvements could be carried out by farmers, and would give employment to a good many hands at remunerative rates of wages, if the farmer had security of tenure, and a right to dispose of these improvements by a saleable tenant right; but without this it would not pay him to lay out £15 or £20 an acre on improving waste land. The country is, I am quite well aware, suffering from the want of lime. About thirty years ago I am told the crofters used to procure limestones from two quarries on the estate and burn them at home. They could procure the limestones for very little more than the cost of quarrying, and they had thus a plentiful supply of lime, a first class fertiliser, at very little cost. I have it on the authority of an aged miller, lately deceased, that the amount of grain raised on the north side of the Spey, in the parish of Cromdale, thirty years ago, was double what it is to-day, and the price obtained was equal to one-third more. The number of cattle raised then was considerably more than to-day, although the quality is certainly better. I can certify from personal experience that the cereal crops of the present day do not equal those of nearly twenty years ago; but I attribute this to the backward state of the past few years, and the use of too much artificial manure instead of lime. What, in my opinion, would go a good way to restore the land to its former vigour would be a few years of rest, and then breaking it up and applying lime. As things are at present this cannot be done, but if sufficient encouragement were given waste land could be reclaimed gradually by crofters, and this would give an opportunity of resting the old worn-out arable land. There can be no doubt but a good deal of the land which has been lying under sheep in favoured spots could by made to yield good crops of cereals; now I would not like in any way to interfere with the land attached to the home farms throughout Scotland, as these farms are models which we in many ways could profitably imitate. I said at the commencement of my evidence that there were few if any evictions in Strathspey, but 'further down towards the "laich of Moray," there have been cases of evictions. On Lord Thurlow's property at Dunphail several crofters have been evicted, and the crofts all put under sheep. I think this is one of the greatest hardships that can be inflicted on crofters, removing them from their homes involuntarily—homes which they have been accustomed to look upon as their own, by the strong hand of the law, such as it is at present —and the ground they once occupied, and loved to till, the land which was reclaimed by their forefathers and themselves, covered over by their landlord's sheep or deer. Was it for this that on countless bloody fields Scotland's sons, our fathers, asserted their liberty and love of independence? Surely not for t h i s; and if the present method of driving out men to make room for sheep and deer be persisted in, you will, as has been often stated, require to recruit your thinned ranks of soldiers from your deer herds and sheep flocks, which cover the fields where once the hardy sons of Scotland toiled —men who had to leave their homes and seek in far distant climes that which their native land denied them, and who are now sending from the utmost parts of the earth grain and meat cheaper than we can raise them at home. Did it ever strike you as peculiar, that a mechanic could purchase a pound or two of beef or mutton for less money, after coining thousands of miles by sea and land, than he could the same quantity of Scotch meat? And why should this be ? for the simple reason that our colonial brother lives in a land of freedom; the land is his own, and the improvements he makes are all his own. I think I stated in the commencement of my evidence that eviction led to a want of skilled labourers and servants. This was well illustrated, in the case of a crofter who married rather suddenly a short time ago. Happening to meet him shortly after the auspicious event, a friend began to quiz him on the start he had taken; but I think he was a little taken by surprise with the crofter's reply. " Faith, its as fack's death I wisna meanin' tae marry sae soon, but I couldna get a quine either in Tomiutoul, Grantown, or Forres to keep the hoose an mak my brose, and I wis just forced tae daet." In Strathspey at present we have little cause for complaint. We live under a good landlord —descended from a line who were always distinguished for their leniency to their tenants; but we have no assurance that it will ilways be so. Our noble proprietor, although in the bloom of manhood, has no fixity of tenure of life more than his tenants have of their crofts and farms, and who knows what years may bring round. When we read the accounts of the Sutherland evictions do not we question ourselves thus, what hinders their fate from being ours? Events might occur which would bring round such a result. We know that a good deal is left in the hands of factors, and although Strathspey is blessed with a factor who is every iuch a gentleman at present, still things may not be always so. It may be asked why do I hiut at any thing so calamitous as this? My answer is, what has been may be again, and you know the Scotch proverb "Prevention is better than cure." The grievances I have stated are not of a local character, and I should be extremely sorry if anything I may have stated should be looked upou as a reflection on the Earl of Seafield or any of his servants. The redress which the crofters whom I have the honour of representing before you to-day seek is the redress which crofters and farmers over England and Scotland seek,—fixity of tenure, saleable tenant right, and fair rent; and even if the two first benefits were bestowed upon us we would not care so much for the latter, as any persevering person could improve sufficient land to make the croft pay better. One of the accusations brought against crofters is that they are generally lazy. I can give this report an unqualified denial. I do not think that there are a harder working lot on the face of the earth to-day than the crofters and their families, and for my own part I can say that laziness is an accomplishment I never had time to cultivate.

43751. One of. the complaints I think you have mentioned, and that you have heard made by others, has been the limitation of area—land taken from crofters and occupied by sheep and deer and plantation, and so on. You did not seem to attach so much importance to that. You thought that the people, when they had the common pasture, did not care about it?
— In many cases they did not.

43752. But still, do you not think that the possession of outrun or common pasture, if properly regulated, is a great benefit to the people?
—There can be no doubt it must be, if properly regulated.

43753. Well, but among the remedies which you have suggested I don't see any remedy for this evil of withdrawal of common pasture. You have mentioned fixity of tenure and compensation, and so on, but none of these remedies, if carried out, would, I think, give you or your class back a single acre of the land that has been withdrawn from their occupancy?
—No, I suggested no remedy for that, because in my immediate neighbourhood that policy of turning farms into sheep farms and deer forests has not been carried out to any extent. There are no deer forests within a good many miles of where I reside.

43754. Then in your immediate neighbourhood no common pasture has been taken away from the small tenants?
—Yes, it has been taken away for plantation, but still I think the benefit at the end of a few years that would accrue from planting would almost compensate for any loss.

43755. Are there any cases in which plantations have been made previously in older times and in which the right of pasturage under the trees in the plantation has been restored to the small tenants'?
—In some cases, but not always. Mr Macbean remarked, and I think it was made sufficiently clear, that such gentlemen as Sir John Ramsden, with long purses at their back, and with whom tenants could not successfully cope, came and offered large sums of money for these plantations, and so
excluded the crofters.

43756. Then you don't know any case in which the small tenants or crofters have been admitted to the enjoyment of the pasture in the plantations when the trees have grown up?
—Yes, I know of some cases.

43757. Then, when that is the case, they are charged a separate rent for pasturing plantations?

43758. When the common pasture was taken away from them on which the plantations were made, was their rent reduced in consideration of the ground taken away from them?
—I cannot speak as to that.

43759. How old are the trees when people are restored to the use of the pasture below the trees?
—It depends on the nature of the soil. In some cases they may be restored in fifteen or twenty years, and in other cases it may take forty or fifty years.

43760. Have you ever fed sheep or cattle in woods, or known others who did so?
—I have known many who did so.

43761. You can feed best under larch trees, I suppose, or can you feed among fir trees?
—You can feed better under fir than under larch, because the foliage of the larch trees falls and covers the grass to a large extent at this season of the year, whereas the fir does not fall to such an extent.

43762. Then you think the pasture under Scotch fir trees is better than that under larch trees?
—I think so.

43763. And you think a higher rent would be given for pasture under fir trees than under larch trees?
—I would naturally expect so.

43764. How about the other trees—such as the birch, and trees of that sort? I suppose there are not many of them planted?
—No, the birch woods are all natural.

43765. Have you had in your part of the country, on Lord Seafield's estate, any recent cases of land being withdrawn from cultivation or pasture to be made forest land?
—Not in my part of the country.

43766. You mentioned that Lord Seafield gave rough wood and slates towards dwelling houses; does he charge interest for the slates, or is it given without interest?
—It is given without interest. I don't know how it is given at the renewal of the lease, but in the meantime it is given without interest.

43767. So the proprietor provides rough wood and slates; does he lay the slates down at the place?
—No, the tenant carts them.

43768. Now, supposing a new house on a farm of £20 or £30, what sort of a house is built with the assistance of the proprietor?
—Well, I suppose, it would be best described in the old Scotch saying as ' a but and a ben,' with generally attics.

43769. With a closet below or sleeping room?

43770. Three rooms below and two above?

43771. With glass windows and a chimney at each end?

43772. Is the wall built of stone and lime usually?

43773. When it comes to be finished, how much do you think it costs altogether? It would cost more than £100?
—I cannot speak from experience in the matter, but I think £100 would build a fairly respectable crofter's house.

43774. What share of the value of the house is represented by the rough wood and the slates, and what share is represented by the expenditure on work and the stones and the fittings inside? How much does the proprietor substantially do, and how much does the tenant do?
—That is a subject on which I have arrived at no definite conclusion.

43775. I understand there is a great deal of wood and probably good wood for building purposes, and there are saw-mills, and so on; would it be considered a great advantage by the tenantry if the wood were supplied in the manufactured state—if the couples and boards were cut out, for instance?
—Yes, it would be considered a great advantage.

43776. What provision is there for compensation for the value of such a house at the end of the lease if the man goes away?
—I don't know of any compensation.

43777. Though there are no rules, what is practically done? Did you ever know a case of a man going away and another man coming in? How was the man going away compensated for his outlay on the house?
—I am not aware he receives any compensation.

43778. Does the man who is coming in ever compensate him; does he pay anything for the standing improvements?
—Sometimes he gives a grassum; but that is a word I don't understand. It is not so much for the improvements as for coming in.

43779. You mean as a sort of good-will?

43780. Is that paid to the landlord or to the outgoing tenant?
—To the outgoing tenant.

43781. The landlord takes no part of it?

43782. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—What rent does your father pay?
—I think he pays rather more than £100.

43783. Do you help your father?
—Yes, I have done so since I was fourteen years of ago.

43784. Where were you educated?
—At the parochial school in Strathspey.

43785. Have you been away out of the country at all?

43786. You are accustomed to speak in public, are you?
—Not to any great extent.

43787. Where did you learn that accomplishment; was it in Strathspey?
—I don't know whether I can consider it an accomplishment or not.

43788. But such as it is you have learnt it at home?

43789. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—Is this grassum given with the knowledge of the proprietor or factor, or given underhand?
—It is given with the knowledge of the factor. It is only given in some cases, I suppose.

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