Hillswick, Shetland, 17 July 1883 - George Sinclair

GEORGE SINCLAIR, Fish-Curer and Merchant, Ollaberry (42)—examined.

21074. The Chairman.
—How long have you been engaged in this trade?
—Nearly nine years.

21075. And have you been the whole of that time at Ollaberry?
—Yes, I took up business about that time.

21076. Do you do business as a general merchant a3 well as fish-curer?

21077. Not only trading with fishermen, but with anybody?
—Everybody who will give me custom.

21078. Do you find that your business has extended?
—Very much

21079. And you have greater sales than you had nine years ago?
—Generally I have; the general turnover is much more.

21080. And do you find that the people pay equally well? Are they equally able to pay their debts?
—It depends very much on the season; I mean on what they earn. Iu a prosperous year like last year, or any year that is prosperous in crops or fishing, they pay well; but, as a rule, I don’t allow debts to get into my books.

21081. You don't allow long credits to accumulate?

21082. But my object is to ascertain whether you have any knowledge that the condition and resources of the people are improving?
—I think, so as far as our district is concerned, they are very much improved—very much better off than they were a few years ago.

21083. Do they buy commodities of a more expensive kind?
—I do not mean that; although I daresay their tastes advance with the advancing times. We don't encourage the sale of useless or showy, flimsy articles; but, as a rule, I think their tastes are improving that way.

21084. Do you find that they buy a superior description of food? Do they buy more flour than they did?
—Much about the same, I think. I daresay I could sell a good deal more baker's bread if I would; but I don't waut to do that, I think it would encourage laziness.

21085. You think it is advantageous for people to bake their own bread?
—I do.

21086. Do they use much wheaten flour for scones, or do they still buy oat and barley meal?
—The most of the grain in this parish is oats; and to counterbalance that, they buy fully more wheaten flour than oatmeal. But we give them their choice.

21087. From what you say, you don't only sell what you can sell, but what you think you ought to sell?
—I think the people should not be left always to themselves in that respect. I think if temptation be put in their way, they may be induced to buy what they don't require. We are all exposed that way, perhaps.

21088. Do you sell any wool or worsted for the purpose of weaving at home for domestic use?
—Yes, I buy Shetland wools and sometimes other wools, and I sell the Shetland wool which the women knit up.

21089. When you sell wool to the women for knitting which is not Shetland wool, what description of foreign wool do you sell them?
—I don't sell any kind of cross. In speaking of other wools than that and Shetland, I don't mean foreign wools, but wool of Cheviot crossed with Shetland sheep.

21090. We were told by another witness that the people don't purchase blackfaced or Cheviot wools for purposes of knitting —that they were not sufficiently fine; I want to know if there is any kind of foreign or colonial wool sold for the purposes of the knitting trade?
—It is our interest always to put the finest wools into hands for knitting the underclothing. I have a trade similar to Mr Anderson in ladies' and gentlemens' underclothing and shawls, and it is to our interest to put soft wool into the knitter's hands. I also do a small trade in home spuns.

21091. What sort of wool do you sell as soft wool apart from the pure Shetland?
—There is really no soft and pure so valuable as the Shetland.

21092. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—You said you had a small trade in Shetland home-spun clothing; what wools do you put into that?
—Sometimes crossed Cheviots and Shetland blended together.

21093. Is there much demand for the clothing?
—No, not so much as there used to be; but there is a fair demand for it yet.

21094. The women, of course, make something of it by spinning the wool?
—Yes, I may say they make by spinning the wool more than the merchant does. They get the wool at a certain price, and the rougher kind of wool is much cheaper; it is 2d. to 4d. per lb. cheaper.

21095. What price do you sell the coarser wool at?
—14d. to Is. per lb.

21096. Blackfaced?
—Cheviots crossed with Shetland.

21097. At what price do you sell the Shetland wool to them?
—About 20d. per lb. I buy the best for about Is. 6d. and Is. 5d., and retail it again at Is. 8d.

21098. Have you any idea of what a woman, depending upon her own labour, can make in the course of a year?
—I think I do, because there have been two or three instances of it around our place.

21099. Would you mention them?
—I know a case of two girls who support a grandmother and one child. They have been able to live entirely by their handicraft, and live well too, in a room. They support themselves, their grandmother, and a little boy. There are some articles that pay them better than others, but I should say that women who wrought anxiously would make from Is. to Is. 4d. a day.

21100. Is that in the finer goods, or in the coarser kinds?--
—In the class of goods we deal in here.

21101. Would a woman make that in home-spun clothing?
—I don't think she would. There are certain women who have finer hands than others, and who cau do better knitting; people who do home-spun cannot do the finer work.

21102. Fine spun fetches higher prices to the worker?

21103. Had you any statement to make yourself?
—I did not come here intending to make any statement; I have no complaint to make.

21104. Have the people beside you any complaint to make?
—I am not aware of any. I think, generally speaking, the people in North Mavin are better off than those of any other parish I know of in Shetland.

21105. The complaints that have been made to us to-day have been principally about high rents, do you bear any complaints about that?
—I cannot say I hear many. It is mentioned, now and again, in poor years or when their earnings are not much, and they have hard times, and have to pay their rents; but in prosperous years they don't feel it.

21106. In cases brought under your notice of complaints of this sort, have you had cause to think they were reasonable?
—-I think I have not heard any complaint at all. There is, however, one thing I could wish to state, and that is with regard to the Shetland crofters generally, and those of this parish particularly, if the crofters had continuous use of the scathold or commonty, as they are allowed here, and if they continue to get the privileges which they have now, with leases, and compensation for outlay, I think that is about all they require. As it is, there are large bounds of commonty in this parish, because the population is scattered along the sea-shore. I don't know if any person could really tell the number of square miles of commonty here, and any person can keep as much stock as they like and can attend to. The number is restricted very much according to what they can attend to in winter; they drop off in winter if they cannot attend to them —I mean with regard to sheep or ponies,—and of course an active farmer will have more than a man who is not active.

21107. Mr Cameron.
—What do you mean by continuous occupation of the scathold ?
—Well, in some parishes the scathold have been withdrawn,—in most of the parishes indeed; and the proprietors have put palings round them.

21108. You mean restoration of scathold?
—Restoration to those from whom it has been taken. We hold—though we may be wrong —that the
peasantry in Shetland had a right to the scathold, and that the landlord have no right to take it away.

21109. I gather from your remark, that it would be better, instead of having a common use of scathold, that each tenant should be fixed to a certain number?
—Much better, it would equalise the ownership of the general prosperity.

21110. So that one crofter should not be able to complain of any unfairness in the distribution of the common hill grazing?
—Quite so, no crofter can complain of his being excluded; if he is excluded it is want of being able to place stock on the commonty.

21111. But you think it would be more desirable that each crofter should have a right to place so many, and that one should not be allowed to place twenty and another not able to have any at all?
—That is my opinion,

21112. Was last year a bad season for crofters in the way of crops?
—The crops were only fair, but the fishing was very good, and I think last year was a good season in this parish.

21113. There was no failure of crops as there was in Scotland—no special failure?
—No special failure; the potatoes were almost a failure.

21114. Are the potatoes an important crop in this country?
—Very important on account of the shore fish always to be caught;—fish can be caught all the year round; and the potatoes are an important crop, because the fish and potatoes make an excellent article of food.

21115. Do the potatoes grow well in Shetland?
—Very well, when there are sunny seasons.

21116. Do the crofters renew the seed of their potatoes often?
—They are not so thrifty that way as they should be; but the most intelligent portion of the population do, and the merchants, so far as I know, are very open to give them help that way.

21117. Have you observed that where they employ fresh seed the potato crop of the following year is better than it was?
—It always is so in my own little farm. I change the seed and bring it in fresh, and I find the crops better in potatoes and also in oats.

21118. How long does it take a Shetland woman to make one of the finest kinds of Shetland shawl?
—I cannot speak definitely about that. It is not the lace shawls we do here, it is wraps and warm underclothing.

21119. In what part of Shetland do they make the best of these shawls?
—Unst and Lerwick.

21120. Do you know whether the demand for these fine goods is falling off or keeping as it was?
—It goes up and down according to supply and demand, I think there is still very good sale for the finest class of shawls.

21121. Do you think more money is actually earned by making the class of goods you speak of in this district, or by the finer class of goods such as shawls?
—I cannot speak definitely with regard to the fine shawls, but so far as it has come under by observation, I think that it pays the knitters better to make the class of goods of which I spoke as being made here, because I have noticed particularly that women can earn what I have stated when they work regularly at it.

21122. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—According to what has been done in other places the scathold might be taken away from this parish, and you don't want that?
—No, we don't want that.

21123. Would you go a little further and say the scathold which was taken away in other parishes should be restored to the small tenants?
—Yes, I would; because there are one or two parishes, where I can say with assurance, they have lost their scathold and the crofters are in far worse circumstances.

21124. You said a little ago, that the people in this place were much better off than in other parishes?
—Yes, generally.

21125. And do you attribute that, to some extent, to their full possession of the scat-hold ground?
—I do, and also to the open competition amongst the merchants, giving them every facility, and the highest prices possible.

21126. With regard to the native wool, you say you buy it from Is. 5d. to Is. 6d., and sell it at Is. 8d.?

21127. What class of people are your purchasers of the wool?
—The women who knit.

21128. Chiefly those who knit?

21129. Not wholesale buyers?
—Oh no.

21130. Do these people pay you down cash?

21131. What credit do you give them?
—They pay for it with the goods they knit.

21132. You take the goods from them?

21133. Is there any difference in the class of native wool; is not what is called black or dark more valuable than white?
—The brown and murrait of various shades, and the gray of various shades —natural gray, grown on
the sheep —are the most valuable.

21134. What would you charge for that?
—Just the same. Is. 8d. is only the picked stuff we sell to the women to knit with.

21135. I suppose there are no large sheep farmers in this parish?
—No; there are two or three enclosed places where there are a few blackfaced and Cheviot sheep.

21136. Are there any Cheviots at all?
—There is a small enclosure west in Esha Ness where there are a few; and there is a sheep farm at Tingwall, but the stock there are principally blackfaced.

21137. But the system of large sheep farming does not prevail to any extent in the parish?
—No, it does not.

21138. Is your parish a very large one?
—It is about twenty-four miles long by twelve wide, taking it at the extremities.

21139. Are you the person referred to by the previous witness as having taken a lease of Ollaberry?
—Yes, of the business premises, and a small farm, and so on.

21140. What rent do you pay?
—I pay about £26, I think, of rent for the farm, and I pay so much for the business premises.

21141. In your lease are there any conditions of a stringent or arbitrary character imposed upon you?

21142. When you took your lease had you any difficulty in accepting the conditions laid upon you?
—They were not so just, perhaps, or so liberal as I would have liked, but that is more a question of pounds, shillings, and pence. I must say that I think the rent dear; but I was no way bound to take it, it was quite optional.

21143. You mentioned two girls who supported not only themselves, but some relative by their industry, to what class in life do these girls belong?
—To the crofter class. I just instanced them, but there are more of the same class. There is a young woman who supports her mother in the same way; and there are various other cases I could name.

21144. And all belonging to the crofter class?

21145. I presume the women in your parish are very industrious?
—They are very industrious; I think they do their part in the way of earning too. The greatest drawbacks is that there is very little employment for the men unless during three months of the summer, and only occasional employment then. There are four months in the year when they have not much work to do.

21146. How do you suggest that should be remedied —what could be got for them?
—Nothing better than encouragement to work on their own crofts.

21147. Give them something to do on their crofts?
—A great many of their crofts are large enough, but the proprietors might give them something to encourage them to work upon them. There is very litle work done on the crofts just now.

21148. Do you attribute that non-improvement to some extent or altogether to the want of leases or encouragement?
—That is what they say. They don't care about working to another; but I cannot recall an instance where a man has spent a good deal of labour on his croft, and been set adrift.

21149. You know the case of the man who has just preceded you —what his father did?
—I know the man, but I do not know what he did to his croft.

21150. But from your observation, and knowledge of the men generally of this parish, do you think if they did get what they want,—some security that they would not be dispossessed or got compensation for any improvements—that they would work during their idle time ?
—I am sure they would. I have expended about £400, simply because I had a lease; if I had not had a lease I could not have done that, and I would not. But I must say it has been with a sort of selfish end, because it was with a view to help forward my own business while it was improving the land, and I should think they would be of the same way of thinking.

21151. Is there any difficulty in persons like you of being able to purchase a small property where you could carry on your own business ?
—That is the great difficulty. I don't believe I could get an inch of ground to purchase where I should like to plant my business round the whole of Shetland. There may be spots to be got, but not what would suit a business man, or any, very few.

21152. Do you mean that they are really not in the market, or that exorbitant terms are asked?
—They are not in the market at all.

21153. Does that remark apply pretty generally to the whole of Shetland?
—I think it applies to the whole coast.

21154. And that has a tendency to stifle trade?
—It does stifle enterprise, and retard progress very much.

21155. Do you think that if the land were more free and open than it is, that with the improvement in the fishing during the past few years, great progress might be made in Shetland?
—Very great indeed. There are facilities for leasing the fishing stations, but there is a good deal of restriction about them. However, a great many of them have been taken up.

21156. Notwithstanding these disadvantages?

21157. But they are only leased under restrictions?
—Leased under restriction.

21158. The Chairman.
—Can you imagine that, if encouragement were given to small tenants, any would be found desirous to purchase the property of their holdings with the consent of the proprietors?
—There might in some of the parishes; but I don't think there, would be much of that here in the case of the crofters.

21159. Did you ever hear any desire or aspiration expressed on the part of the crofting class to become proprietors in fee simple?
—I cannot say I ever did; not to such an extent as to strike me that it was a desire on their part.

21160. When you speak of the fine underclothing which is produced here, do you refer to fine hand-knitted underclothing?
—I do.

21161. There has been no introduction of machinery whatever?
—No, not in underclothing; there is no power in the islands.

21162. There is no water power?
—No, nor steam power.

21163. Do you think that the quality of the underclothing produced by the people here, by the process of hand-knitting, is decidedly superior to machinework of the same sort?
—Intrinsically it is not so valuable; but there is a superiority about it, that takes the taste of the better classes, and so the trade moves on.

21164. It is a fancy preference?
—Yes, we seek to place those goods in the hands of the people who can buy them as a luxury.

21165. Is there plenty of raw material, or, if you had more could you develop the manufacture?
—The hosiery is a very limited trade. I think it has been extended as far as it can be made profitable. It degenerates when it becomes too much; in other words, when women get set on to work at it who cannot do it, so as to produce more goods, we find it does not do so well.

21166. Has this industry, carried on in the cottages, any bad effect upon the health of the women?
—I don't think so.

21167. They do a great deal out of doors'!
—Yes, they have to get out door work in some shape or form. They have fuel to cure and carry, and
they have all got some farm work to do, more or less, and when their husbands are away at a distance fishing they have to visit them.

21168. Did you ever see the distaff used, or always the wheel?
—It is the spinning wheel which is used.

21169. You never saw a distaff?

21170. Do you know whether that was used in former times?
—I don't know the machine by that term.

21171. A stick with wool at the top of it and twisted by the hand?
—I think I have seen my grandfather spinning tethers out of horse hair that way. But it is a very rough sort of yarn that should be spun that way.

21172. You never saw yarn spun that way?
—No, not wool.

21173. Professor Mackinnon.
—When you said that you wished to see the scathold restored to the people, you stated that the people here believed they had the right to that scathold, and that the proprietors were not entitled to keep it from them?
—That is the general belief among the crofters and tenantry.

21174. Upon what is that belief founded?
—I daresay it is founded on this—that some of the proprietors would have a difficulty in proving their titles to all the ground they assume they possess, and another reason is that from time immemorial the people have had the use of it, and it has been an understood thing that they were to have the scathold with the croft, because the crofts could not keep their-families without the scathold.

21175. Do they consider they have a firmer right to this scathold than to the arable portion of the land?
—Yes, they do, it appears that its name would imply that—a commonty for the common people.

21176. When rent is charged for a croft, is it considered that so much is paid for the arable land, and so much for the commonty, or is it that so much is paid for arable ground, and, as a matter of right, so much commonty goes along with it?
—It lies between the proprietor and tenant to properly define that. Say a small croft is vacant, and that there are two or three applications fur it, the factor naturally chooses the man who, he thinks, will suit him best. Rent was fixed very much according to the locality—that is its nearness to good scathold —and so, looking at it that way, it would appear that the whole pasture was taken into account in fixing the rent. But generally speaking, the rent is fixed according to the supposed value of the arable land in the holding.

21177. And when one gets a piece of arable ground he is entitled to a bit of commonty along with it ?

21178. Without any separate rent?
—Yes, it is the accepted understanding always.

21179. And that right is not limited to the amount of stock the croft will winter?
—-Yes; and sometimes the scathold is too heavily stocked, and nature rights itself by clearing them off.

21180. Suppose the head of a family to have no arable land at all, does he believe he has any right, in any shape or form, to a portion of this scathold?
—No, I don't think so—that is a man without a croft—no, I don't believe that. But at the same time he is not prevented from keeping stock —on the commonty, either by the tenants or by the proprietor.

21181. In the belief of the people it would seem that their right to a portion of the commonty is dependent upon their having a croft?
—Quite so, so far as I understand.

21182. But as a matter of actual fact, a person who has no croft is not prevented from having sheep upon the commonty?
—He is not.

21183. I suppose there are not many cases of people without crofts?
—Very few.

21181. Are there cases of some people without crofts having stock upon this commonty?
—A few solitary cases.

21185. Chiefly of sheep?
—Chiefly a few solitary sheep—a few solitary cases—but not to such an extent as to be taken notice of.

21186. You stated that when you sold wool to the country people they paid you back in goods. I suppose they could pay in money if they wished?
—I would prefer that, but they cannot.

21187-88. You attributed the improved condition of the people partly to successful years, and partly to the open competition in trade. I suppose, practically, the trade is now quite all over the place?

21189. And a fair share of the improved condition of the people is to be attributed to that?
—Yes, a fair share is certainly due to the merchants and open trade.

21190. There is more ready monev among the people, so that they can go to any merchant they choose?
—Yes, generally speaking, they can go, and do go, to any merchant with whom they can make the best bargain or whom they prefer.

21191. Last year was a good year, and fully better than the average?
—It was.

21192. At settling time last year had a fair number of those who fished for you a balance upon their side?
—Yes, last year, except in one case, they all had money to get. One of my boat's crews, the little open
boats, which are now despised —carried away within a few shillings of £100 of cash after paying all expenses. But that was an exceptionally prosperous fishing. Nevertheless, all the others had money to get.

21193. They got nearly £100 at settling time after all the accounts of the season were equalised?
—Yes, the crew which had the best fishing.

21194. This was white fishing?
—Just for the three months in summer of ling fishing.

21195. The previous witness stated that they paid ready money for the fishing received, except during these three months; is that the common practice?
—Yes, it is.

21196. What kind offish is got during the winter and in the early spring months, when the people fish nearer the shore?
—Shore fish,—cod and ling, and tusk.

21197. The same as during summer but less of it?
—-Yes; they go to the deep sea fishing in summer, and lie at out-stations, and we take the fish from them and cure them at out-stations.

21198. How do you use the fish you pay ready money for?
—We salt them down, and dry them in spring; we take our chance of them. We would rather there was a fixed price all the year round, but the fishermen won't do that. For instance, the price of ling in spring from the men in large boats is, I think, about 8s. a cwt., and I would gladly pay that price to my men just now if they would take it. But I have no doubt they will get 9s. or more when they settle.

21199. Per cwt.?
—Yes. It is a feeling of confidence which exists between the men and the curer.

21200. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—The price is fixed at the end of the season according to the rate at which you can sell the fish—if you get a high price you give them a high price?
—Yes. It takes so much wet fish to make a ton of dried fish, and the prices are calculated that way, and the expenses of curing being taken off, the men get much about what is realised. Sometimes a merchant has a small commission, and sometimes he gets very little. But the men are not bound to deal, so far as I know, with any curer, even during the summer months. For instance last season I had three open boats fishing at Vidian, and I sent out a good many stores, but it seems they required more, and they purchased things from other people, and I paid about £30 of cash to these men to clear them out with other places, so that they might be quits with everybody for the summer's work.

21201. The Chairman.
—You stated that you had leased a small farm?
—Yes; it was leased along with the premises.

21202. Of what area is the farm?
—I can only speak at a guess; it has never been measured by me. I should think the arable land is about sixteen acres, perhaps; and then, there is pasture ground besides, perhaps about fourteen or sixteen acres more.

21203. You took this lease for your own personal convenience, and not for the sake of making sub-tenancies?
—For my own convenience, and keeping up a supply of milk and vegetables, and also a pony for riding or driving.

21204. Have you established anything like a vegetable garden or kitchen garden in which you could raise better vegetables?
—No, we can grow very good early cabbages and turnips, but it is not a growing district. But I am a working sort of man, and cannot afford to spend time in fancy work. My neighbour —our minister—grows very good strawberries in his garden.

21205. And can you grow good carrots, turnips, and peas and other vegetables?
—Yes, all the ordinary vegetables used.

21206. Do the proprietors ever make new arable ground out of the scathold and the crofts in that way?
—No, the proprietor don't do it; but sometimes men who have some spirit and friends attempt to do it.
Suppose a young man marries and don't wish to leave the country, if he has a good will and good courage he may get a patch of ground and hill pasture, and by and by work it into a very good croft; but it is his own labour that does it, the proprietors don't seek to extend the arable ground.

21207. But what I want to arrive at is this, —is there a good deal of ground in the scathold which is susceptible of improvement as arable ground; or is the good arable ground all already taken up in that way?
—In places, there is a good deal of hill or common pasture that could be made good growing land by drainage and cultivation.

21208. Supposing that the proprietor wishes to promote the extension of the arable ground on the scathold, has he the right to do that without the consent of those who have the claim to the commonty—can he do it of his own will, or must he have the permission of the shareholders?
—There is no accepted claim from the neighbouring proprietors; anything done in that way it is expected will be looked into at the common division of the whole scathold, which is always held in abeyance, as far as this parish is concerned.

21209. But it is not common to form new crofts upon the scathold?

21210. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—May anybody settle upon the scathold and take in land?

21211. What do you call outset?
—That is what Lord Napier has been asking about, whether a man can get a piece of commonty marked out for him, and be allowed to settle down on it, and make it into a farm.

21212. Who gives him the privilege?
—For instance, if a man wants an outset in Ollaberry, and Mr Anderson of Hillswick chooses to give it him he may do so.

21213. Out of the acathold?
—Yes, and the same way with Busta, if it is near the township.

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