Hillswick, Shetland, 17 July 1883 - Rev James Fraser

Rev. JAMES FRASER, Minister of the Congregational Church, Sulem (70)—examined.

21214. The Chairman.
—Is your communion a very numerous one in these islands?
—Not very numerous.

21215. From what date has it existed?
—I am not able to fix the precise date. I think it is just about as old as the century.

21216. Under whose influence was it established?
—Under the influence of the late brothers, Robert and James Haldane.

21217. And since their death it has supported itself?

21218. Do you stand in immediate connection with the English congregations in the same communion?
—Not in immediate connection, but pretty close.

21219. Is the Scotch Congregationalist Church a separate organisation?
—Scarcely. They are very nearly amalgamated, but there are some slight differences.

21220. Do you receive any pecuniary assistance or encouragement from your English co-religionists?
—Not at all.

21221. They don't do anything for the Northern churches?
—There may be individual cases of assistance in building churches, but there is nothing done systematically.

21222. You don't depend upon your richer brethren in London at all?
—No, certainly not.

21223. How long have you been settled here?
—.Since 1847.

21224. And in what class of people does your strength lie—are your adherents among the crofting population and fishermen?

21225. The lower class —the labouring people?

21226. Since you have been here do you think the condition of the people has been improving physically and morally?
—Yes, I think it has. The improvement is slow, but I think it is visible.

21227. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Are you a native of this island?

21228. Then, you are well acquainted with the inhabitants and their customs?
—Yes, I think so.

21229. And do you think, on the whole, their living is as good now as it was before or better?
—I think it is better on the whole.

21230. Is there any difference in their moral conduct, for which I think they have been always honourably distinguished?
—I think they have improved considerably in morals since I can remember.

21231. Intemperance has never been one of their vices?
—No, not as a rule. There have been some cases in the island, but it is not general.

21232. There are no public houses in this parish?

21233. Has that always been the case?
—-Well, I think it has always been much the same as it is.

21234. Is that ever felt to be a grievance?
—Not at all.

21235. You mean by natives?
—I don't think it is felt to be a grievance.

21236. Don't strangers find it a grievance?
—I don't know what they feel.

21237. It has never been the custom here so much as in the Hebrides, for young men to go south to work in the harvest?
—No, the young men here mainly go to sea.

21238. And the young women don't go away?
—They go south and take service.

21239. Have they been always in the habit of doing so to any great extent?
—No, only lately. There were very few going south when I remember first; but they go very largely now.

21240. Has that any influence for good or evil on their character?
—I could not say. Some of the men that go to sea improve their condition very much, and a number of them become masters, mates, and officers.

21241. But as regards the young men in particular?
—I am not so well acquainted with the circumstances of the young men in regard to that. I don't think there is a great deal of improvement.

21242. Has there been any great progress in education within your recollection here?
—There has been.

21243. How many schools were there when you came here?
—There was the Parochial school, and others were got up by private individuals, or by public subscriptions. I don't remember that there was any other fixed school, but that of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge at Esha Ness.

21244. There were a number of places far removed from school?
—Yes, a number.

21245. And now there is a sufficient number of schools within reach of all children fit to go?
—Yes, but some have a considerable distance to go still.

21246. Have any to go more than three miles?
—I think there are some that have fully three miles to go; and the difficulty is increased by the want of roads, and the existence of burns over which there are no bridges. And in the winter time the children are not able to go through the marshy ground without wetting their feet and being exposed to danger by afterwards sitting in school during the day. That has a considerable effect in lessening the attendance at school.

21247. The people of these islands are naturally of a religious disposition?
—Yes, they are naturally morally disposed.

21248. Do you find in that respect there is any falling off from their old feelings?
—I cannot say I do.

21249. Do they attend ordinances as well as they used to do?
—Yes, they do; there may be individual cases of falling off and neglect, but the people generally attend.

21250. Do you know of anything in the circumstances of the people making it necessary for this Commission to come here?
—I think it is possible some advantage may be reaped by the people from this Commission—at least I hope so.

21251. Do you think there are any serious matters of complaint which it would be well that the Government and the public should know of?
—The principal matters of complaint have been referred to before—the system that prevails beteen landlord and tenant —the tenant at will system—the tenant may be turned off on forty days' warning. Then there is no compensation for improvement; and that having existed from time immemorial has almost blotted out the disposition to improve, and consequently improvement has almost stopped. There are a great many improvements which might be carried out if there were fixity of tenure and compensation for improvements. That grievance, I think, is universally felt throughout the Shetland Islands. The existing state of matters is not owing to the present proprietors or factors; it has always been the same. At every reference I make to improvement, I am met by this, that they have no security and no prospect of compensation; and the result is that the people spend many days in idleness when they might be improving their small crofts and making them better for themselves and the people.

21252. Mr Cameron.
—Would the people be satisfied with compensation without security, if they got it?
—-I think they would do a great deal which they don't do now.

21253. Are you aware that there is a bill before Parliament providing for compensation for improvement?
—I am aware of that.

21254. What number of years' lease do you think the people would be satisfied with?
—I think a lease for nineteen or twenty-one years.

21255. Are the conditions in regard to houses satisfactory between landlord and tenant just now?
—That would be settled according to the other conditions of the lease.

21256. Who repairs the people's houses now—landlord or tenant?
—Sometimes the one and sometimes the other; generally the landlord if it is any great repair.

21257. That is the custom of the country?
—Yes, generally.

21258. I suppose there have not been many evictions on a large scale in these islands?
—To some extent, but not upon a large scale.

21259. Have there been any in this parish at all?
—No, not what may be properly called evictions; none since I came to the parish.

21260. You have heard of none amongst the people with whom you have been coming into contact?
—No. There have been some proprietors laying down grazing parks, but, generally speaking, some provision has been made for the tenants.

21261. Supposing leases were granted to the crofters would you make any reduction for loss of common pasture or scathold?
—I would very much like if there was a right understanding about that; at present there is no proper understanding about it. The people have always had the right to the pasture here, and that has not been interfered with; but in other parishes it has been taken from the people, and there is still an understanding that they have a right to it, and that creates a great deal of heart-burning and dissatisfaction, and makes the conditon of the people worse than it would otherwise be.

21262. But with regard to these parishes where the scathold has not been taken away, and where the conditions under which the cattle, ponies, and sheep are grazed are satisfactory?
—There have been some questions about that; but the conditions are tolerably satisfactory. One thing, however, is that the people do not know how long the existing state of things may last, and no doubt a better arrangement or distribution might be made. There have been several questions put about the dissatisfaction of some of the tenants with regard to others having stock on the hill pasture, and not allowing them the same chance, and some better arrangement about that should be made.

21263. Have you any suggestion to make which you think would meet with the approval of the people?
—I have not, because, although I have conversed with the people about it they have never suggested anything that might be an improvement; but I should think —and I have suggested to the factor himself —that if so many sheep were allowed the tenant for each £of rent, the tenants who have more might be taxed for their over stock.

21264. What do you mean by taxed?
—That they should pay so much for the sheep. In some places in Shetland the people pay as much as a shilling per head.

21265. By a tax you mean something added to the rent?
—That so much should be paid for every sheep—added to the rent could that arrangement be simply and easily carried out?
—It might be for ought I know.

21266. You are aware that in Scotland the practice on the crofting farms is to have a certain stock called the summing, which every crofter is entitled to, put upon the common pasture?
—I think something of that kind would be judicious and right. At the present time there is a misunderstanding on the subject It seems to stand in this way: the tenant is very apt to look at it from the custom which has existed from time immemorial. When, for instance, you see advertisements of land to be sold, it is spoken of as so many acres or merks of arable land with the right of so much hill pasture. The hill pasture is not properly bought, but it enhances the value of the arable land, and from time immemorial. the tenant has held the arable land and so much hill pasture;—it may be mentioned or it may be not. It was not paid for per se, but it was held under scathold, and was held to enhance the value of the arable land. Now, in many cases, it is taken from the tenants, and they are told they are to pay for nothing but what is within the arable land. They don't believe that, and hence the heart-burning and dissatisfaction which prevail. That does not exist here, but nobody knows how soon a change may take place.

21267. Have you heard that a crofter with a large scathold has a fear of selling a beast or sheep to any neighbour?
—I have heard that.

21268. Do you know why it is so?
—I don't know. I believe in some places it is something like a superstitious fear that it will take away the luck; but I am not aware of that existing in my own neighbourhood, nor do I think it exists in this parish. I think any person here would sell to anyone else, whether a neighbour or not.

21269. If he got a good price he would put the luck on one side?
—I have no doubt of it. But I have known places in Shetland where the people would not do that. I think, however, that superstition is passing away mostly everywhere.

21270. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—When a man has a large stock is he not jealous of his neighbours?
—That, I believe, arises from the depravity of human nature.

21271. The grazing on the scathold is limited, and if everybody held a big stock he would not fare so well?
—No, certainly not.

21272. The Chairman.
—Suppose that in the township the scathold has been nearly fully occupied by two or three of the richer or more fortunate tenants, and that there are two or three poorer who have got none or only a few animals between them, and suppose these poor tenants become a little better off and are able to put more stock, and wish to have their fair share upon the ground, have they any means of reducing the stock of their richer neighbours, and of getting their own stock put on the scathold?
—No, not so far as I know.

21273. Such a case must surely have arisen, what do they do?
—They do nothing, so far as I am aware. That is a thing which I think the proprietor should put right.

21274. They don't appeal to the proprietor about it?
—They may speak about it, but there is very seldom any interference upon his part.

21275. Is there any rumour of any intention upon the part of the factor to form a farm out of the scathold?
—No, I don't think there is.

21276. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—There are several proprietors in this parish?

21277. And I suppose what you state is something like this —that although the state of the crofters at present is fairly good compared with other parts of Shetland, yet their future is very doubtful?
—That is what I mean. And, therefore, their state is not satisfactory. It is not satisfactory.

21278. And improvements are, to a great extent, at a stand still?
—At a complete stand still.

21279. You said that, some time ago, there were not so many young women going to service in the south as now?

21280. What is the reason for that; is it because the people are poorer and the young people are obliged to leave their homes?
—I don't think so; I can hardly tell the reason.

21281. But you would not put it upon the score that their families at home are poorer than they used to be?
—No, I rather put it upon this, that they are anxious to improve their condition—more anxious than they were perhaps fifty years ago.

21282. Professor Mackinnon.
—Do you know of any case of the hill being overstocked?
—I do not think it is overstocked. They generally find the remedy for overstocked pasture in a severe winter.

21283. That is, the stock will be lost?

21284. The winter comes and reduces the stock to very satisfactory dimensions?

21285. But it is just as hard upon the one who has few as upon the one who has many?
—Yes, that is the worst of it.

21286. So that there is no limit or equality of stock in respect of the capacity of the croft for wintering stock?
—Yes, there is inequality, and there always must be for various reasons.

21287. And you would approve of the practice we have in Scotland to prevent that—that every man should have a right to so much either in proportion to his arable land; or in proportion to his rent—a definite fixed thing?
—Yes, I should like some definite fixed thing.

21288. And while adding an additional rent for additional stock would you make a reduction for a reduced stock?
—I think so.

21289. The one would carry the other?
—I don't know that the additional rent would be very acceptable. I think their rent is generally as high as it should be.

21290. The practice in Scotland very often is, that when one has overstock he pays to his neighbour who has a reduced stock?
—Matters are very different indeed from what I remember in that respect.

21291. In what respect?
—There is a greater equality now than there used to be forty or fifty years ago.

21292. So that matters are improving as it is?
—Yes, as regards equality and stock on the pasture.

21293. The Chairman.
—I think you said that if a man kept more than his legitimate share he ought to pay a small rent for the number of sheep to the landlord—would it not be more equitable that he should pay to his neighbour who has a deficient stock
—Far more; but the difficulty would be to get that settled.

21294. Professor Mackinnon.
—The people should see to it that the one who has too much should pay to the one who has deficient stock?

21295. But you think the thing is more or less improving itself now?
—Yes, it is very largely.

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