STATEMENT by JOHN BRUCE, Esq., Yr. of Sumburgh, Shetland.
SUMBURGH, SHETLAND, 19th July 1883
The crofter, from a landlord's point of view, is not a desirable tenant. Though in some cases more rent is paid by crofters than could be got from a large farmer, as a rule the opposite is the case, while the collection of a number of small rents involves a great deal of trouble and almost always a loss in arrears. A crofter is, as a rule, not an improving tenant, and when he does improve, his improvements are usually executed in the cheapest and most temporary manner—as might be expected in the case of a poor man wishing to make every penny go as far as it can. A large crofter population, as a rule, means high poor and school rates. The crofter is, as a rule, a very bad farmer, and does not do justice to the land he cultivates, and consequently fails to reap a full return for his labour. He is, however, improving in this respect, especially in those districts where a rotation of crops has been introduced. In such districts a system of cultivation by rotation had to be forced on the people, but after a year or two they have invariably seen the advantage of it. On the other hand there is the pleasure to a proprietor of having a large population on his estate, and the satisfaction of seeing this population advance in prosperity under his management—and few proprietors born and living on their estates would like to part with their crofters. From my very limited information on the subject, I would draw this distinction between the West Highland crofters and the Shetland crofters. The Highlander is a Celt, while the Shetlander is almost a pure Norseman, and the old Viking blood still shows in his propensities. In only one district in Shetland is there any marked indication of Celtic or old Irish blood. While the West Highlander is a crofter doing a little fishing, the Shetlander is a fisherman with a little croft. There is as much attachment to their native country among the Shetlanders as there can be among the Highlanders, but the enterprising Shetlander is always ready to go abroad to better his condition. Consequent on our large population as compared with our rental, poor rates in Shetland are very high, but the number of paupers as compared with the population will compare favourably with other districts. In consequence of the number of young men who leave the country as sailors, we have a considerable surplus female population, and most of our paupers consist of elderly women in infirm health who have not been married, and who on the death of their parents are left without any near relation able or willing to support them. We have few male paupers, and these are for the most part very old men who have no sons. As a rule Shetlanders are very kind to their parents and consider it no hardship to support them, and many a son at sea or in the Colonies supports his parents in Shetland in plenty and comfort by regular remittances, and many a daughter in good service in the south sends a considerable part of her wages to her aged parents in Shetland. We have few women with illegitimate children, and these are seldom a burden to the parish. The illegitimate son when he comes to man's estate, as a rule looks as well after his mother as if his birth had been legal. One great burden on the rates is the lunatics. Without correct information on the subject, 1 am of the opinion that we have more than an average of lunatics. Whether the frequent inter-marriages among relatives has anything to do with this or not, there is almost no such thing as drunkenness (credited elsewhere as a great cause of insanity) in the country. It would be a great relief to this country were the Government to relieve the parishes altogether of the cure of all lunatics certified as proper persons to be confined in asylums, and such an arrangement would remove the temptations that exist to keep a lunatic at home as long as possible, taking away (I fear in some cases) the chance of recovery which immediate proper treatment in an asylum would give. The present law of settlement imposes an undue burden on Shetland, from the fact that our rapidly increasing population overflows into other parts of the kingdom; for instance, one of our young men leaves Shetland as a lad just when he begins to earn money, marries a wife say in Leith or Glasgow, spends his life as a sailor, and as such seldom gains a residential settlement in any parish, and at last dies leaving his widow (a native perhaps of Glasgow or Leith, w ho has never been in Shetland) a burden on the parish of her husband's birth in Shetland, though the husband may have neither earned nor spent any money in Shetland during his life. Again, a girl goes south to service in Edinburgh and changes about from place to place, never remaining for five years at a time in any one parish, and when she gets sick or old, is thrown back on her parish of birth, though all her working years have been spent out of Shetland. A Shetlander depends on his fishing. Were there no fishing it would be impossible for the average crofter to make a living on his croft without turning his hand to something else, even if he owned his croft, or had it rent free. As everywhere else we have industrious and lazy men. The industrious crofter makes a very good living. The produce of his fishing pays for his rent, his clothes and his meat, groceries, & c , and leaves him a margin to save ; while his farm gives him milk, butter, eggs, and butcher's meat, and as a rule keeps the family in meat during the winter. The Shetlander marries young, and when he has a large family he is often hard enough up for the first few years, till the eldest of his children begin to earn something; but as the children grow up they help their parents, and the prosperity of the family is secured. The material condition of the Shetland crofter has been for many years and is steadily improving, and I see no reason why, under existing conditions, the improvement should not continue. There is no great desire on the part of the Shetlander to subdivide his croft. There is a great deal of independence in the Shetland character, and a young man will rather go abroad than settle on land he considers too limited. Our birth rate is very far in excess of our death rate, but there is a constant exodus of young men going to sea or to the Colonies, and young women going south to service, which keeps our population from increasing. Shetlanders are to be found all over the world, and wherever they go they do well—not that they are more clever and industrious than their neighbours, but they are steady almost to a man. We have the same difficulty about house accommodation which exists wherever men are from London down to Shetland. A man in the position of an unskilled labourer cannot afford to pay the interest on the money it would cost to provide him with such lodgings as we would like to see human beings occupy. It follows that a landlord, simply as a landlord (and unless he is very rich he cannot afford to be a philanthropist in stone and lime), cannot afford to build good labourers' or crofters' cottages such as he would like to see his tenants in. Take the case of a crofter in Shetland paying £5 of rent. To build a nice, suitable, three-roomed, slate-roofed cottage, it would take £120, which at 5 per cent, would be 6 per cent, more rent. The man can afford to pay £6 for the croft and live in his present house, but he cannot afford to pay £11 for his croft with his new house on it. If the Government would lend £100 for each house at a sufficiently low rate of interest, we would hope soon to see the Shetland crofters housed as they ought to be. Notwithstanding the difficulties in the way, the house accommodation of the Shetland crofters has been and is steadily improving, while year by year more attention is paid to sanitary matters. A reformer in this line must have patience. He must convince the more intelligent of the people that his ideas are right, and he must carry public opinion more or less along with him, and any advance in this way is necessarily slow. It is useless to try to force reform against the wishes, the prejudices, or judgment of a combined population. It is only washing the sow. Should the Commissioners pay a visit to Fair Isle they will see an experiment in improved house accommodation being carried out there with I think marked success. As a rule the very poor are improvident or lazy, or both ; if they were not so they would not long continue very poor. All men are the better of being ruled, and the more lazy and improvident a man is the more he requires to be ruled. Even a despotic and arbitrary ruler is better than no ruler at all, and I venture to say that you will find the most prosperous crofters are those who are under the management of a resident landlord. It is the interest of a resident proprietor to promote everything likely to benefit his tenants and to oppose anything likely to injure their position, and in many cases he is better able to judge what is good for them than they are themselves. He will probably take more out of them in the way of rent and otherwise than an absentee, but he will more than give it back to them in other ways. The Shetland crofters, though as a rule they are neither lazy nor improvident, pre-eminently require a resident proprietor. Most Shetland crofters decline leases. Attempts have been made to introduce nineteen years' leases among them with little success. I venture to say that in the district with which I am best acquainted the crofters are and feel themselves to be as secure from eviction as if they held liferent leases, and that no case can be pointed out where a tenant having made improvements has left these improvements without compensation. The scatholds or common hill pastures used to be held in common not only among all the tenants on an estate, but in many cases among a number of different proprietors. There were no rules or restrictions as to the use of these scatholds, and each proprietor and each tenant might put as many head of stock on the common pasture as he liked. The consequence was as always, that the active man came to the front. One man paying £5 of rent might have one hundred sheep on the hill, while his neighbour paying the same rent and with the same right to pasture might not own a single sheep. The consequence of this state of matters was that the pastures were excessively overstocked. The stock on them was always in bad condition, and the death rate among them was extremely large, reducing the profit made even by the largest stockowners to a minimum. There was a constant struggle by those who had small stocks to get a footing for more stock, and by those who had large stocks to hold what they had, and a great deal of ill feeling, which did not always stop at feeling, was produced. As soon as the crops were off the ground, the whole starving hill stock was admitted into the arable land, when they soon consumed every green thing, and where they remained, or such as survived of them, till spring, effectually preventing any crofter, if so inclined, from growing such crops as turnips or sown grasses. Except in the case of the owners of very large stocks, to which property they had no right, I do not consider that the tenants had any profit at all out of these hill pastures. A man with a few sheep would spend so much time in the hill looking after them that the few pounds of wool and the few emaciated lambs he got were dearly bought if he valued his labour at what it would have produced at any other employment. In many cases the hills still remain on the olden footing, and in some cases any change is impracticable while the hills or scatholds remain undivided among various proprietors. In many cases, however, a change has been made. The hills or parts of them have been enclosed and sheep drained by the proprietor and made into sheep runs. Or the hills have been left with the tenants under regulations limiting the amount of stock to be placed on them. The responsibilities of a landlord of crofters are very heavy, and any change involving the welfare of so many fellowmen requires great consideration and judgment; and even when a landlord has full faith in his theories, he must advance slowly and with great caution, and be guided by the experience he gains step by step, and even then he would be more than human if he did not often make mistakes. As far as my experience goes, I am of opinion that a middle course is best for all parties. The hills are too extensive to be profitably stocked by the crofters, looking to their limited extent of arable land, and I consider that where a part of the common is made into a separate sheep farm and a part left with the crofters, either as a Club Farm or under other suitable regulations as to management, that the most desirable arrangement both for landlord and for tenant is likely to be obtained. Rents have increased very largely during late years, but only in proportion to the increased value of stock and farm produce. From want of communication, Shetland was a long way behind the rest of the country, and though of late years our development has been rapid, we have still much leeway to make up. 150 years ago the pound Scot would go as far as the pound sterling will now, and the rental of 100 years ago would do little more than pay the present poor and school rates. In some districts, formerly in all, the crofters give so many days' work on the landlord's home farm. The rent is supposed to be the value of the land the crofter occupies, in which value his house and peats are not included, and the days' works are supposed to be the rent of the house. Thus if a crofter went away, and his croft was added to that of his neighbour, one house would be done away with, and one set of days' works lost, the remaining tenant paying the money rent of the two farms, but only one set of days' works for the one house. Shetland is not the only place where labour forms part of the rent. On many estates in England and Scotland the tenants cart the landlord's coals, & c , free of charge. In some districts, formerly in all, the tenants pay so many fowls as part of their rent This practice probably dates back to the time when the Norse Lords moved from place to place through their domains, each district supporting the Court while it remained with them, and when all payments were made in kind. The same sort of thing is to be seen in the hawk hen still paid in some parts of England, and in the puppies which fox hunting landlords expect and require their tenants to rear for them. Both the days' works and the fowls are valued, and it is in the option of the tenant to make the payment in cash or in kind. Where tenants hold from year to year, the rule on my father's property is that the land will not be revalued within 19 years of the last valuation, and that an outgoing tenant gets paid for or is at liberty to remove his improvements. Should a tenant think the valuation put on his farm too high, he can apply to the landlord for a mutual valuation by two men, one named by the landlord and one by the tenant, and in this case should the mutual valuation be lower than that of the landlord the tenant gets the benefit, but if higher he makes himself liable to pay the higher valuation. In some districts where the landlords have built curing stations, the tenants are expected to deliver their fish at these on equal terms to what they can get elsewhere, but the time is past when such a regulation would be considered a real grievance, or its infringement treated as a very serious matter. These islands have been treated with very little consideration by the Government (it may be thought an open question if we may not some day be claimed back by Denmark), and yet perhaps no poor little place has shown so much pluck in public matters as the islands of Shetland. The Highlanders objected to a change of dynasty, and they had splendid roads and bridges made for them. We gave no trouble, and so were left without a road till we had the courage to go to Parliament, with a little bill of our own and get power to assess ourselves, and the expense of the Zetland Road Act, which should have been an imperial matter, is a heavy burden on our rates to this day. We are more heavily taxed than any other part of Her Majesty's dominions. The Scat or old Norwegian land tax was continued, and is paid to this day ; but nevertheless the Scotch land tax was imposed on us in full. Ireland escaped assessed taxed, but every little Shetland pony we dared to put a saddle on and ride to church or market, was charged for as if it had been a thoroughbred. We are a community of sailors, and our brothers at sea get their stores duty free, but we on shore are punished with fine or imprisonment if we presume to buy a pound of tobacco or a bottle of Schiedam from our Dutch friends (for long the only quarter from which we could procure these luxuries, and with whom we have fished side by side in peace for centuries). The Government spend more money in hunting poor fishermen, who only smuggle a little for their own use, than all the revenue to be got out of them. It would be a saving to the revenue, and only a proper encouragement to the Shetland fishermen, to give them their tobacco duty free. No place is more in need of improved harbours. In many parts of Shetland we can't use larger boats, because we have no harbours to save them in and no piers to land at, but Government has done nothing for us. Even when the plucky little town of Lerwick determined to build a pier, the Government refused to lend the money though the security was good, and we have had to borrow the money from private capitalists at a higher rate of interest. We hold our land under udal right, which gives us the sea shore, but Government step in and claim the foreshores and interfere with us in our little attempt to improve our landing-places. We believe we are legally right, and the Government legally wrong, but we are too poor to go to law with the Crown, and have to give in. We ask for telegraphs, and the Government ask us to guarantee the expense, and that at an exorbitant rate. What would you think of a landlord who would only build a house for his tenants at a rate which would repay capital and interest in seven years, leaving the house the property of the landlord at the end of that period without cost; but these are the terms the Government ask us for telegraphs. We want piers and harbours at our fishing stations and telegraphs to them, and the public money it would take would not affect the general taxation, and though it might not pay directly just at first, it would pay hand over hand indirectly in the increased trade and prosperity of the country. We have the finest Naval Reserve for our population in the British Isles, ft is worth an effort to keep these men employed at home rather than see the pick of them going off to Iona or Colorado and becoming American citizens. Under an inquiry such as the present, a landlord is placed in a sort of pillory; his past career is searched for failings and errors of judgment, and these are dragged forward and magnified and distorted by hostile critics, while any little good he has attempted is ignored. Can it be wondered at if he appears at a disadvantage ? I was not aware of your meeting at Lerwick on the 13th inst. till after it
was over, so could not attend, but I have seen the evidence given by Laurence Jamieson as reported in the Scotsman. This man gave up his croft and emigrated to America in 1877. After a year or two he returned to this country and I was able to arrange that he should get back his croft. I do not know how far Mr Jamieson represents the feelings of the crofters in Cunningsburgh, but I understand his complaints are—
1st. That the tenants' rents were raised. I made a revaluation of the property in Cunningsburgh to take effect in 1872, notice of which was given to the tenants on 22nd Sept. 1871. From this valuation the scathold outside the hill dyke was excluded. Laurence Jamieson agreed to the rent put on his croft. His present holding, however, only dates from 1880. If the value of stock formerly and now be compared with the rents at the same periods, it will be seen that the present rents are not proportionably high. Mr Jamieson greatly understates the quantity of stock kept by the tenants.
2nd That a part of the hill pasture was taken from the tenants. I enclosed a part of this pasture in the winter of 1874-75. My views on the subject of scatholds and commons have been already given. If this witness had been examined as to the quantity of stock he had on the pasture before I made the enclosure, and what he was able to keep afterwards, it would have appeared whether and to what extent his position had been affected. The tenants were unwilling to agree to take the enclosed hill as a club farm, and I kept it in my own hands. At the request of the tenants I agreed that they might remove my fence so as to throw out a part of the enclosed ground, on the understanding that they should hold the part so thrown out rent free, till such time as the neighbouring scatholds in North Cunningsburgh were divided. The cost of the removal of this fence, which amounted to £16,13s., was paid by one man, William Laurenson. How much, if any, of this came from Laurence Jamieson I do not know.
3rd. Days' work and poultry charged. M r Jamieson's statement as reported is incorrect. What he says is paid for each merk is only paid for each farm. These are simply rent, as has been already explained. Laurence Jamieson has not paid his fowls since 1880.
4th. That he is not allowed to take fowls or sculf from the hill. The tenants can take as much as ever they like from places where the ground is of any depth, but they are not allowed to sculf the ground when there is nothing but a turf on top of the channel. Only a very lazy man would wish to spoil the pasture just under the hill dyke rather than go a few yards further where the soil is deeper.
5th. I understand he complains of an agreement entered into by some of the tenants to fish to me. I will explain this. I entered on the management of my father's property in Cunningsburgh in 1869. It then consisted of sixty-nine holdings at a rental of £194, 19s. 7d., and the arrears of rent due were £487, 10s. 3d. I have not and never had anything to do with their fishing (Mr Jamieson's statements seem a little confused now), but I took care to ascertain the wishes of the people as to my establishing a fish-curing station, should I find it necessary to do so in the event of the people continuing to drift into poverty through improvidence and mismanagement. This proved unnecessary. The people have prospered ever since, have paid their rents well, and are now free of much indebtedness, and most of them have money at command. Notwithstanding the indifferent husbandry practised in the district, a great part of the land is very fertile and grows excellent crops.
JOHN BRUCE, Jun.