Lerwick, Shetland, 19 July 1883 - John Spence

JOHN SPENCE, Teacher of Board School and Inspector of Poor, Nesting (45)—examined.

22516. The Chairman
—You are a delegate from the people of Nesting?
—I am.

22517. Have you got a statement to make on their part?
—I may read it:
— ' A meeting of crofters was held at Vassa, on Saturday the 30th day June1883, for the purpose of discussing any grievances that might be found to exist in the district, and to appoint delegates to present the same before the Royal Commissioners, presently inquiring into the condition of crofters in the Highlands and Islands. Mr John Spence, inspector of poor, was called to the chair. The crofters entered into a long and lucid discussion of the land question, and it was moved and unanimously agreed to, that the chief causes for complaint are—
1st High rents;
2nd Insecurity of tenure;
3rd Want of compensation for improvement;
4th , Inferior quality of dwellings;
5th, The landlord's claim to a share of whales captured in the areas of the sea around the coast;
6th, No roads.
The chairman was appointed to draw up a statement embodying the foregoing resolutions, and to lay the same before a meeting to be held on an early day.

—The crofters of Nesting here assembled do hereby submit that the rents charged for our lands are excessive, considering —
first, the unproductive nature of the soil;
second, the uncertainty of the climate; and,
third, our northern position, the winter having often set in while our crops are still on the ground.

Our crofts consist of from three to six acres, and are valued at about 25s. to 35s. per acre. The average croft will yield, taking one year with another, say—

6 bolls meal, at 20s., - £ 6/0/0
100 ankers potatoes, at Is., - £ 5/0/0
Produce of cows (say 3), at 25s. - £3/15/0,
Produce of sheep (say 6 ewes), at 7s. 6d., - £2/5/0
Produce of pigs (say 1), at 45s., - £2/5/0
Produce of poultry (say 40s.), - £ 2/0/0
Produce arising from ponies, say on an average, £2/0/0
Total return of croft - £23/5/0

Now, by deducting from the above total the amount of rent, £9, and price of seed 50s., in all £11, 10s., the sum of £11, 15s. remains to pay for all the labour expended on working the croft throughout the year, which at an average estimate will equal 600 days' work, and yield 4½d. per day for our work. Our rents have increased from time to time, so that during the last thirty years they have in most cases been nearly doubled. About ten years ago our rents were raised 10 per cent, in consequence of repairs being required for the parish kirk and manse, whereby we considered ourselves most deeply aggrieved. Insecurity of tenure is also a felt grievance. Although our proprietor has not had recourse to evictions as others have done, yet the fact that the only hold we have on our house and homes is the will of a single individual, who if he pleases can turn us out of doors at forty days' notice, makes our position most uncomfortable, and deprives us of that feeling of security and independence that we otherwise would enjoy. We further have to complain that the proprietor allows no compensation for improvements made on the land. The chief improvements made by us are breaking up pasture land, and bringing it under cultivation; building byre, barn, and other offices; and erecting hill dykes or fences, chiefly of turf or stones. Now the way-going tenant receives no compensation for any of these: improvements, whether he has occupied long or short; and, in fact, we are deterred from making improvements that we might, by reason of our insecurity of tenure and the proprietors policy of no compensation. No doubt, the two last grievances stated above are chiefly the causes of our miserable houses. It is true the proprietor furnishes the walls and roof of the rudest description, which are generally neither wind nor water tight. The houses built by the proprietor afford wretched accommodation for families of from six to twelve persons they are commonly [...] feet long by 12 feet broad, and 6 feet high of side wall. Any enlargement or improvement beyond must be done by ourselves, or if done by the proprietor, interest will be charged for the outlay from year to year at 7½ %. We further bring topward what we consider to be a serious aggrievance, viz., the landlord's claim a one-third of all whales captured by us along our shores. The shoals of caain whales which frequently visit our coast have often supplemented and eked out our precarious livelihood. We consider the law arbitrary in the extreme; and most unrighteous for any man to step down on the beach and seize every third fish that we have killed and landed, often at great toil and considerable hazard. While we, thus make known the main grievances under which we are kept down,—grievances not peculiar to ourselves in particular, but to Shetland in general.—grievances that we have long and silently borne,
and against which we have not risen in rebellion nor taken the law in our own hands, as those in more favoured parts of the country have done — we have no personal ill-will against the landlord or his factor, but against the one-sided land laws, which places us in the power and at the mercy of the owner of the soil. —depriving us of that feeling of independence and that freedom of thought and action which is our birthright as loyal British subjects. We thus submit our grievances to the Royal Commission, appointed by our Most Gracious Queen to inquire into our state, and we humbly pray that the Legislature of our couutry may take our cause in hand, and give us redress. The reforms we want, and which we have a right to claim, are—

First, the use of the scathold, which has belonged to the cottar from time immemorial;

Second, a fair rentfor land, regulated in proportion to its power of production, and fixed at the valuation of a competent valuator appointed by Parliament.

Third, fixity of tenure, whereby the landlord shall be bound to give long leases, say ninety-nine years, and grant feus to those who may wish to build houses; and that the landlord shall be bound to allow a fair compensation for any and all permanent and unexhausted improvements; and that it shall be the duty of the landlord to encourage those who may wish to improve their dwellings.' Signed by JOHN SPENCE, chairman and twenty-five others.

I have not a very extensive knowledge of Nesting, as I have only lived in it about six years; but I have some knowledge of Shetland in general, and of the North Isles in particular. I have drawn up a paper which I should like to read :
—' Observations on the Shetland Land Question. Rents may not appear to be excessive in Shetland
when compared with other parts of the British Isles. But if land in the northern counties of Scotland was rented at 25s. per acre, in Orkney it should be 15s. and in Shetland 10s. I believe the soil in some parts of Shetland is very good, but the climate is extremely uncertain. It is no uncommon thing to see the crops destroyed by snow as early as September. The potato crop is very uncertain, not chiefly from potato diseases, but owing to blasts of wind and frost—a very common thing in Shetland. The people trust more to their potatoes than their corn for their living. Potatoes and fish are the staple food of Shetland. Hence any damage done to the potato crop is always a great drawback to the Shetland crofters. Sheep farming is greatly increased of late years, and has been most derogatory to the interests of the crofters, for the best grain-producing parts of the country have been laid waste for this purpose, have been depopulated, and planted with blackfaced sheep; for example, the best parts of Unst, Yell, and Fetlar, are in grazing; also in the vales of Dale, Laxfirth and Wiesdale, the ruins of cottars' houses may be counted by the score. Hence it follows that numerous evictions have taken place. I am not prepared to mention special cases of eviction, or suffering arising there from —only I know that in the Nor th Isles many crofters have to quit these, and give place to sheep and cattle; others were compelled to give up their croft, owing to the stringent measures under which they were placed by the landlord, or his factor. I remember being at a large meeting of crofters, held in the island of Unst, a meeting called and presided over by the factor on the Garth estate. At this meeting it was pointed out that the only condition on which they could retain their holdings was by submitting to an increase of 20 to 25 per cent, on the rent, and further they had to break up and bring under cultivation from half to a whole acre of pasture land every year for nine years. They had to enclose their crofts by means of fences, and maintain a system of rotation of cropping quite incompatible with a croft of a few acres. A good number of persons emigrated, particularly to New Zealand; some went to seaport towns in England and Scotland; a few got crofts from other proprietors, while several settled down in Lerwick. Eviction would, I have no doubt, been more common had it not been for the Earl of Zetland's, property, that is in a great measure intermixed with the lands of other proprietors. His Lordship never took any part with those who assumed the right of depriving the tenant of the common. I consider the crofters on his lands the best conditioned in the county, and have the least cause, if any, to complain. The chief evil to the Shetland crofter arising from sheep farming is the right that many landlords have assumed to deprive the cultivators of the soil of their ancient possession, the scathold. Of this I shall note more particularly at the close of this paper; but being thus deprived of the hills, Shetland ponies have become very scarce, and that famous breed of sheep peculiar to the islands are well nigh extinct, hence the fine Shetland hosiery, the only thing for which the islands have been noted since the days of the invincible armada, can now no longer be produced, and the young women who gained their livelihood by manufacturing these beautiful and highly marketable articles are now forced to work for their living at that disagreeable and more degrading occupation of gutting and curing fish. The general prosperity of Shetland has increased during the last few years, owing to the development of the fishing industry. But there is no certainty that the herring fishing in Shetland will retain its present high state of development. The happiness and comfort of Shetland fishermen can only be maintained by crofting and fishing combined. The uncertainty of either of these industries alone would often plunge the Shetland household in great straits. Fishing cannot be prosecuted to any payable extent on the Shetland coast from October to March. The fishing during that part of the year is chiefly with hand lines. Near the shore and in the voes or arms of the sea among the islands fish have increased in price of the late years, and are purchased by dealers and curers through the country. The average price for fresh cod and ling will be about ¾ d. per lb. Cod commonly sell at Lerwick wet, salted at about Id. per lb. From the above quotation of price, combined with the limited catch during our six months winter, it is evident that the fishermen must have something to fall back upon besides the harvest of the sea; and this something is the produce of his croft, which enables him to feel at ease during weeks, even months, of storms. Proprietors, formerly made it imperative that their tenants should fish to them or their middlemen, and a tenant would have been ejected for refusing to do so. Even the sons of tenants were obliged to fish to their father's landlord. Tenants were also bound to give tithes of all they possessed to the landlord; even the scanty produce of the poultry-yard was not exempted from taxes. But collecting rents in kind no doubt occasioned some difficulty. Heuce the lairds allowed their tenants liberty to fish to other curers, and recouped themselves by exacting increased rents. The rents might not be considered exorbitant, if tenants had been allowed the unrestricted use of the hills, or if a fair deduction of rent had been made in lieu of the scathold. Hence the great grievance of Shetland crofters is their being deprived of the common. Shetland crofters have possessed the right of pasturage on the hills during a period of at least 900 years. Since the days King Harold Harfagre of Norway, it has been held in lieu of a t ax said to have been first imposed by him on the freeholders or udal possessors of property in the islands. [Udal = Der, from Odin, the god of the Scandinavian; hence udal, holding by divine right] This tax was called scat, hence the common is called scathold, or holding in lieu of scat. This significant name conveys at once the relation of the cultivator of the soil to the common. This, however, was a crown tax originally; and at the time that these islands were pledged to the crown of Scotland, it was the chief thing, in a pecuniary point of view, that gave them any value as a pledge. These facts can be authenticated by history. This tax, since its first impost in the ninth century, has been continued, and is today paid by the landlord as holding in trust for the tenant, but paid by the landlord in the same sense as the collector of customs pays customs dues. Had the revenue derivable from scat never been subverted by being farmed out and ultimately sold by the Scottish crown, or its favourites, and that in violation of the treaty between it and Denmark, when these islands were pledged to Scotland, this grievance could never have existed. The revenue from this source, whatever value it might now have been, would have been flowing into the British Exchequer, and the privilege of pasturage would been held direct from the Government, which would have been placed in a different position from any other county of Scotland. Up to a comparatively late period, scat and teinds formed separate items charged against the cottar. This will be corroborated by reference to the land books of the first or even second decades of the present century. But a time came when this item disappeared, being amalgamated with the rent, and the rent being increased, scat is also increased. It is only within a late period that the tenants' right to pasture on the hills has ever been disturbed; and I am of opinion that its possession for more than 900 years ought to form a right, even exclusive of the right conferred by the payment of scat, but surely together they ought to render the right undisputed. If your Lordship desires it, I can give reference to the source of these historical facts, and there are men still alive who can give testimony to the truth of having paid scat as a separate tax.
—Hibbert Jamieson's Statistical Account of Scotland; the author of Grievances of Orkney and Shetland; and Gifford's History of Slieiland.

22518. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—What acreage of croft does your calculation refer to at the beginning of the paper ?
—The crofts consist of from three to six acres. The people understand merks as the measurement.

22519. You put down the labour at 600 days?
—The labour I refer to is chiefly carried on by women, who work daily on the crofts.

22520. They work at the household business—domestic affairs ?
—Yes, the old woman of the house probably attends to that, while the younger portion of the family are constantly engaged in carrying turf from the hills and sea-weed from the shore, and breaking up the green and other things—all the land being hand-wrought with the spade and without machinery. Everything is carried in baskets on their backs; ponies are not used, because there are no roads.

22521. The Chairman.
—How long have you been a teacher in this country?
—Fifteen years.

22522. Have you ever held any land yourself?

22523. As a crofter?

22524. Do the children attend school well?
—They attend pretty well; but the roads are a great drawback. No children can attend during the winter season, because of the want of roads.

22525. What is the farthest distance any of the children travel?
—On the average, the children travel two miles.

22526. Do any come a greater distance?
—A few.

22527. How much?
—Perhaps two and a half or three miles at the most.

22528. Are they often prevented from coming in winter by the state of the ground or the burns?
—Very often.

22529. Is there any compulsion exercised —are those who don't send their children to school regularly visited by the officer?
—Occasionally they are, by a person appointed by the School Board; but the people have a great many excuses, such as distance, and so on.

22530. Is the attendance improving?
—No, it is diminishing almost at a ratio; it is about as low this year as I have seen.

22531. Is that from any want of attention on the part of the School Board?
—I don't think it is. The School Board seem to be doing all they can. The great complaint is the want of roads, and crossing burns in the winter time.

22532. Of whom is the School Board composed?
—Seven gentlemen elected by the people.

22533. Who are they?
—The factor on the estate of Symbister is the chairman.

22534. The Clergyman?
—There are no clergymen on the board.

22535. Who are the other six members?
—We have a farmer; and Mr Anderson, merchant, Lerwick; Angus Donald, Lerwick; the minister of
Whalsay; Mr Zachary Hamilton; and Mr Sutherland.

22536. Is there any representative of the crofter class on the School Board?

22537. Have the crofters ever shown a desire to be members of the School Board?
—No; not to my knowledge. They don't consider themselves qualified to come forward on public matters; they are chiefly seagoing men —fisherman, crofters, and sailors. They wish to send forward
people whom they consider better qualified.

22538. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—What is the usual wage for women in this country?
—Wages have risen very much since the fishing industry developed. The common wages twenty years ago would have been 6d. a day and victuals.

22539. What is it now without victuals?
—About the fishing stations it may be more, but in the country where I live I pay 8d. a day for people
working to me, and victuals.

22540. That is Is. without victuals?
—More than that; perhaps nearly 16d., because we generally give them plenty of victuals.

22541. But to make this croft pay, the landlord would not only have to give it free, but he would have to give the crofters £10 besides. If they have 600 days in a year at Is., it not only represents the whole rent, but £7 or £8 besides. Is it worth while to keep a croft if it produces no more than that?
—It does not produce more than that directly, but it produces it indirectly, by giving a house to the family, and allowing one to be his own master. The fisherman can sit down and take his leisure for a few days, whereas the man who is bound to work day by day must work continuously.

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