STATEMENTS of ROBERT BELL, Esq. of Lunna, Advocate, Sheriff-Substitute at Falkirk.
BELMONT, FALKIRK, 28th July 1883.
I have seen in the Shetland Times of 21st July, a report of evidence given as to alleged grievances complained of by the people in the Lunnasting district. There was no report of this evidence in the Scotsman or Glasgow Herald ; but assuming that such evidence was given, as reported in the Shetland Times (an excerpt from which is enclosed), I take the liberty of troubling the Royal Commissioners with a few observations.
EXCERPT—' Gideon Sinclair (83), and William Sinclair crofter fishermen, were heard as to the grievances complained of by the people in the Lunnasting district. They stated that the rents in the district had been raised threefold in some cases, and there had been several cases where a crofter had to pay an increased rent in consequence of having improved his croft. There had been a number of evictions. In answer to Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, Sinclair stated that they had been under five proprietors, the last being under Mr Bell, who subsequently gave a tack of the property to Bailie Robertson. Before this they had paid l½d per head of sheep, and the average rental of the croft was £ 3 , 15s. Mr Bell thought the liberty of pasturing sheep was too low, and he raised it to 3d., and afterwards put on 6d. more, making it 9d. Then he put on another 7d., raising the tax to Is. 4d. The people did not so complain of high rents as of the grievous price they had to pay for their sheep. His own son had a croft for which he formerly paid £7 , 15s. The town was not previously cultivated, and he had trenched it and taken in about four acres of ground, had built a fine house, and made great improvements on the place, and now he was asked to pay £10, 8s. 7d. of rent. All these improvements would have to be left to another man, for although he had not been warned, still the exorbitant rent laid on was sufficient warning for any man. He himself had carried ashore in a season 600 cwt. of fish for Mr Robertson, and had to accept a shilling less per cwt. than he could have got from any other body, but he dared not deliver his fish to any other curer. Sutherland stated that fourteen years ago, he took three acres of ground, and had cultivated it, and worked at it with daylight and moonlight and now the rent had been raised from £3 to £5, 5s. 4d. He had seen his family go with only two meals a day, and sometimes they had never known the taste of anything but fish for eight days. £30 would not pay him for what he had expended on his croft, and it was a very hard thing that he would have had all that labour for nothing. Some other witnesses were examined. Having had charge of the Lunna estate, the property of my late wife, for more than thirty-five years, I have no hesitation in stating that the statements made by Gideon Sinclair and William Sinclair (erroneously named Sutherland), are essentially incorrect and misleading.
1. Some of the rents have been raised, but this was on account of expenditure by the proprietor upon new, or improved, houses ; upon wire or stone fences, and other improvements, generally undertaken at the request of the tenants, and followed by regulation of the grazing privileges on the enclosed pastures, with a charge of 9d. to Is. per head of sheep, of which the tenants are allowed to keep an ample number, proportioned to the size of their crofts.
2. In so far as I know, no crofter has had to pay an increased rent in consequence of having improved his croft.
3. There have been no evictions in the ordinary or offensive sense of the term. Cases of removal may have occasionally occurred in consequence of persistent failure to pay rent, or obstinate disregard of necessary estate regulations as to repairing fences, peat-cutting in a proper manner, and neighbourly conduct; but in other cases where changes were required in the course of necessary improvements, the tenants were treated with consideration, and were adequately provided for elsewhere upon the property.
4. Gideon Sinclair's statements, as to the case of himself and his son, who is joint-tenant, are essentially incorrect and misleading. They have not been charged with rent upon any improvements executed by themselves.
I am not at present informed as to the previous house, although I think it probably was erected by the proprietor, but their present house was built by the proprietor about twenty-six years ago, at an expense of more than £22, when by an addition of about 20s. the rent was raised to £5,15s. The charge for sheep was originally l½d. per head (called sheep teind, not rent) at a time when the pasture was not ascertained as regards conterminous properties, and being unenclosed, was trespassed upon by all and sundry from all quarters. But a few years ago, the charge was raised to 6d. in the first instance, and latterly to Is., in order to meet in some degree the cost of an expensive process of declarator, and division of commonty, and of several miles of wire-fencing, and in order to give the proprietor a very moderate return from an extensive range of enclosed hill pasture. Gideon Sinclair and his son exercise this privilege for sixty sheep at Is. per head, and without any extra charge for as many cattle as they can keep upon their croft. Their whole rent is £8 , 18s. 6d., and anything beyond that sum consists of the tenant's half of poors' rates, school assessment, and road assessment—the latter averages 6½d. per £1 , instead of the old burden of six days' statute service formerly exigible. Gideon Sinclair's statement as to the quantity of fish (600 cwt.) delivered by him to Mr Robertson in one season, is incredible, and it is, I believe, equally so as to his having received Is. per cwt. less from Mr Robertson than he could have got from any other curer. Mr Robertson, as tenant of the fishing station at Skerries, belonging to the Lunna estate, was entitled to receive delivery of their fish from those Lunna tenants who fished at that station, but under the express agreement that they should receive the current price paid by all the principal curers, and I have no reason to suppose that Gideon Sinclair, as well as the other tenants, was not fairly dealt with. William Sinclair's statements are equally misleading. At his request, about fourteen years ago, a good house was built for him at the proprietor's expense and a piece of ground, about six acres, I think, allotted to him to bring into Motivation, but to what extent this has been done, I do not at present know. The interest on the cost of the house, together with a small charge for the rent of the ground, was fixed at £3; and, until the enclosure of the adjoining pasture before mentioned, he had an unrestricted privilege of grazing without any extra charge ; but, for the past few years he has been charged in the first instance, 6d., and latterly Is. per head for each of his thirty sheep—but with no extra charge for grazing his cattle. The additional sum of 15s. 4d. which he mentions, consist of the tenant's half of assessments, and this sum, or thereby, he has for two years past failed to pay. The newspaper report does not state whether the Sinclairs were authorised as delegates to make the above statements. I shall be surprised if they were so ; for, in my opinion, the Lunna tenants, as a body, know that they have been treated in a considerate manner, and are fairly comfortable and contented with their lot, which is, in many respects, more favoured than that of many of their fellow countrymen in other parts of Scotland. I shall be much obliged by your communicating this letter to the Royal Commissioners, and it will afford me pleasure to give any further explanations or information which they may desire.
BELMONT, FALKIRK, 12th September 1883.
While in Shetland, and since my return here, I have ascertained some further particulars which I am anxious to add to my former statement in correction of the evidence reported to have been given by Gideon Sinclair and William Sinclair, tenants in Tarraret, Lunnasting.
1. Both of the houses, successively occupied by Gideon Sinclair and his son, were erected at the expense of the proprietor. Although the matter does not fall within my province, I may state that Gideon Sinclair's evidence as to his fishing grievances has been distinctly and publicly contradicted by Mr John Robertson, Lerwick.
2. From the tenor of William Sinclair's statements, I assumed incorrectly that the croft referred to had been originally occupied and reclaimed by him. I find, however, that twenty-one years ago the house was built by the proprietor at an expense of £33, and along with a piece of hill ground, was allotted
to Robert Sutherland at the agreed on rent of £3. About a quarter of an acre was trenched at the proprietor's expense for Robert Sutherland, who, during his occupancy of the six following years, reclaimed a considerable extent of the allotted ground, the benefit of which William Sinclair has enjoyed during the last fourteen years—the period of his tenancy. Sinclair, I am informed, has trenched a considerable piece of ground, but he has not been charged any rent upon his improvements. The original rent of £3 for house and ground has not been altered, but, as explained in my former letter, a charge for sheep was made some years ago—at first at the rate of 6d., and latterly at the rate of Is. per head of each of his thirty sheep, in the hill pasture which is enclosed. I regret having to trouble the Commissioners with these observations, and I trust it may not be considered unreasonable to express the hope that the statement of facts which I have made, may be embraced in the report, in correction of the erroneous and misleading evidence given by Gideon Sinclair and William
BELMONT, FALKIRK, 6th OCTOBER 1883.
I have to thank you for your letter of the 4th current, enclosing a correct copy of the evidence of William Sinclair and Gideon Sinclair, tenants in Tarraret. I observe that the report of their evidence differs very materially from the report given in the Shetland Times, upon which my previous remarks were based ; but, in compliance with your request, I have to state that I find no cause for changing any of my previous observations. The only additional remarks which I think it necessary to make upon the evidence of Gideon Sinclair are—
(1) that I find that, on several occasions many years ago, he received credit in his account for work in trenching and draining, and I am not aware of his having executed any such improvements at his own expense; at any rate he has not let me know of them.
(2) His statement as to his request for a lease, and my alleged refusal and promise of never increasing his rent, is an entire fiction. I have now seen, for the first time, incorporated in the report of the evidence, the statements which appear to have been made by, or attributed to, some of the oldest crofters, at the meeting held at Queeness, Lunnasting, on 7th July last. These statements were not reported in the Shetland Times and as they are incorrect, disingenuous, and misleading, I shall make a few remarks upon each of them.
1. Thomas Herculeson.—The rent of his croft was, at the date of his entry (1849), £2,18s. 8d., and remained the same until 1866, when, by an arrangement with him, a new house of a superior kind was built by the proprietor at an expense of more than .f 20, and the rent was raised to £ 4, 4s. A few years ago, when the boundary of the hill pasture was ascertained by an action of declarator, and a march wire fence had been erected by the proprietor, the privilege of pasturage was regulated, and the number of sheep allowed to each tenant in the adjacent township was fixed at fifteen, with a charge of Is. per head. More recently, at the request of the tenants, a wire fence was erected at the proprietor's expense for the protection of their arable land, and the annual charge falling upon Thomas Herculeson is 8s. 4d. His rent now stands at £5, 7s. 4d., and his whole payments, including his half of poor-rates, school assessments, and land assessment, amount to £6 , 5s. 7d., and not to £6, 12s., excluding assessments, as stated in the report.
2. John Halcro, in 1849, entered on possession of an 'outset' which had been prepared for another tenant, who preferred to go elsewhere. The original rent, £ 2, was calculated upon the cost of a new house and extensive turf dykes erected by the proprietor, and the value of a considerable extent of grass ground included in the enclosure. When the adjacent hill pasture, effeiring to the town lands of Lunna, was some years afterwards enclosed as a park, and let separately for grazing purposes, Halcro's privilege of sheep pasture, hitherto exercised by sufferance, was transferred to Lunnaness pasture (within a mile), and his rent, including grazing for two cows in the enclosed park, never exceeded £3 , 9s. 3d., and latterly, when he relinquished the grazing for his cows, the rent was merely £ 2, 13s. 3d., including his sheep privilege in Lunnaness. John Halcro was not evicted or arbitrarily removed. He had persistently neglected to repair his hill dykes, which he was obliged by his original agreement to keep up ; and he got leave from me in 1880 to enter a farm in Lunnaness, which, however, finding himself unable to occupy it, he abandoned in 1881.
3. I do not understand the nature of Gilbert Johnson's complaint. His remarks seem to apply to his tenancy in Delting, under another proprietor, prior to 1824, He voluntarily gave up his Lunnasting croft more than ten years ago.
4. The statements attributed to John Simpson, Hamnavoe, Lunnaness, are incorrect and misleading. His rent has not been arbitrarily or unnecessarily raised. The original rent in 1849 was £3 , 2s. 3d., and, with the addition of 10s. for a wire fence, erected at the request of the tenants, 11s. 3d. for the grazing of Lunna, fifteen sheep in the enclosed pasture, and 6s. 6d. as interest upon the cost of an addition to his house, the whole rent is now £4, 10s., exclusive of his half of parochial and road assessments. In reference to the general charge of evictions, it is untrue ' that a number of evictions have taken place for the purpose of the proprietor enclosing the greater part of the pasture, and turning it into sheep farms. But the following are the facts:—Several crofts in the vicinity of the manor house of Lunna were lying in some instances in runrig, and all unimproved ; and, from time to time, as these crofts became vacant by deaths or by removals, either voluntary or by arrangement without hardship, they were taken into the proprietor's possession fur purposes of amenity and general improvement, and the adjacent pastures at Lunna and Setterness effeiring to these crofts were enclosed along with them, and incorporated with lands from time immemorial occupied in connection with the family residence of Lunna. There were no arbitrary removals. After some time the farm thus concentrated was let to a tenant, at present a Shetlander. However, notwithstanding these changes, the crofters in Lunnaness have still as much pasture as properly effeired to their respective townships, and it is adequate to the reasonable requirements of the crofters. The privilege of 'pasturage has, since the enclosures were completed, been allotted among the tenants, in proportion to the rents paid for their crofts, at the rate of 9d. for each sheep; and possibly those tenants who, before the regulation of the grazing privileges, had an undue share of the grazings, without a corresponding payment, may feel discontented with the present more equitable arrangement. There is practically no other restriction as to the number of cattle than the number which each croft can fodder during winter. I may add that the present rents arc extremely moderate, considering the very great rise in the value of the tenants' cattle and sheep within the last fifteen or twenty years—a result brought about in great measure in consequence of the county being opened up by roads, to the original formation of which the proprietors generally largely contributed, in conjunction with the Highland Destitution Committee, at the time of the potato failure. No evictions have taken place at Vidlin. Several crofts became vacant by death and other ordinary causes, including a voluntary removal by one tenant, who was dissatisfied with the regulation of the pasture and with other improvements ; and these crofts became the nucleus of improved farms of moderate extent, which are now occupied by tenants, natives of Lunnasting. I regret having to trouble the Commissioners with those details; but I am unwilling to remain under the imputation of having acted in an arbitrary and unfair manner towards any of the Lunna tenantry, with whom I had hitherto
believed that the moat agreeable relations had been maintained.