Lerwick, Shetland, 19 July 1883 - Rev George Clark

Rev. GEORGE CLARK, Minister of Free Church, Coningsburgh (39)—examined.

22202. The Chairman.
—How long have you been minister of Coningsburgh?
—Eight years. A delegate has already appeared who should have presented the paper which I now produce. It is as follows :
—The South Coningsburgh crofters on the estate of Mr Bruce of Sumburgh, at a meeting held within the Free Church of Coningsburgh on the 2nd of July, agreed to lay the following statement before the Royal Commission.
1. In 1872, when Mr Bruce younger of Sumburgh took a lease of his father's estate, our rents were considerably increased.
2. Shortly after our rents had been raised we were asked by Mr Bruce to sign a paper giving up our scathold to him. Some of us refused to do this. Those of us who signed did so very unwillingly, but we felt that it was useless to contend with Mr Bruce. Mr Bruce himself did not say that he would turn us out of our crofts if we refused to sign the paper, but those under him plainly hinted that it would be worse for us if we did not yield. We were at the same time led to believe that wo would still be allowed to put at least a part of our stock on the hill.
3. Although the greater part of our scathold was taken from us we got no reduction of rent or compensation of any kind.
4. When the rents were raised we had no idea that our scathold was to be taken from us.
5. We feel greatly the want of our scathold. We think it very unfair that Mr Bruce should have so much pasture while we have such difficulty in getting grass.
6. In addition to rent we have to work, yearly, three days to Mr Bruce, and give a fowl for every mark of land that we have. The three days' work is a great hardship, and now that our rents are so much higher we strongly object to the giving of the fowls.
7. At the time Mr Bruce gave notice of raising the rents, we complained that the figure fixed by him was far too high. He agreed to make a reduction, if we would promise to fish for him. As yet Mr Bruce has asked none of us to fish for him, but nearly all of us are under an agreement to do so if he requires it.
8. Two years ago Mr Bruce asked us to agree to sell our herrings at 6d. per cran below the ordinary price going. He said if we would agree to this, he would make an agreement with a curer for us and pay us at the end of the year. Not being willing to do this, curers who would give us the highest price
for our fish and take them from us in Coningsburgh are not encouraged to come. The curer at present in Coningsburgh gives 6d. per cran less than other curers give.
9. Many of our houses are very bad, and there is much overcrowding. Mr Brace will not, as a rule, build a new house or repair an old one. Some of us would build better houses if we could get any encouragement to do so.
10. We have paid district road money for a long time, but are still without district roads.
11. We wish security against too high rents and evictions. We wish compensation, on removal, for buildings that we may have put up at our own expense. We desire to have the scathold, or at least a part of it.
We appoint George Clark, Laurence Jarmson, and John Smith to represent us before the Royal Commission.
—GEORGE CLARK, chairman.
At a meeting held on the 16th instant, Adam Jarmson was appointed in the place of John Smith.
—GEORGE CLARK, chairman.'
The next witness can speak about the fishing. But the point I would like to call attention to is the state of the houses; and with regard to that have prepared a short statement which I can read. When I speak about the houses, I refer not to the houses in South Coningsburgh, but to all the houses.

22203. Is Mr Bruce proprietor of the whole?
—No, no; there are Mr Bruce of Sumburgh, Mr Bruce of Symbister, and Lady Nicolson, and perhaps eighteen or twenty small proprietors or udallers, one of whom represent to-day and can give the exact number. From North Coningsburgh I have the following statement:
—' At a meeting of crofters, connected with the estates of Lady Nicolson and Mr Bruce of Symbister, held at Nith on the 27th of June, the following statement was agreed upon, and Laurence Halcrow (for Lady Nicolson's estate) and Magnus Manson (for Symbister estate) appointed to lay it before the Royal Commission.
- 1. We wish to retain our scatholds. If they are taken from us our present stock must be greatly reduced. Without the scatholds we can keep no ponies.
2. We think the rig-run system should be done away with. The land could be wrought with far less labour if properly divided. Twenty-six marks of land in the district of Aithsetter were divided a few years ago. Seven pounds yearly have been laid on that land for expenses in connection with the division, while the houses are still where they were before the division took place. If the lands yet
undivided are to be dealt with in this way the burden will come to be a hard one on some of us.
3. Our rents are high. It should be rememhered that when the summer weather is bad, and that is not uncommon in Shetland, our crops come to very little.
4. Many of our houses are bad, and not a few of them are greatly overcrowded. Neither of the proprietors will build new houses. Some of us would build new houses if we could get any encouragement to do so. We can neither get long leases or the promise of anything like full compensation for buildings we may put up at our own expense.
5. We have paid district road money for nearly twenty years, but are yet without district roads. Through want of roads we have a great deal of laborious work. It is almost impossible without roads for young children of five years or so to attend school in spring and winter.
6. The wire fence on the hill pasture of Mr Bruce of Sumburgh is not sufficient. But if the sheep
on the adjoining scathold are found on his pasture they are poinded. We think Mr Bruce should not have the power to do this, seeing he does not keep up proper fences. Mr Bruce having taken the scathold from his own tenants, they drive their stock upon us.
7. The proprietors have power to turn us out at forty days' notice. We regard this as an unjust law.
8. Those of us on the Symbister estate were very unjustly dealt with by Mr Mowat the late tacksmaster. On the renewal of his lease in 1866 he not only laid an additional £1 on each croft, but turned out two who refused to fish for him. That £1 that was laid on us by Mr Mowat has never been taken off. We believe it was laid upon us without the sanction of the proprietor.
9. We wish security against too high rents and evictions. We wish compensation on removal for buildings or improvements we may have executed at our own expense. If the rents are to be raised they should not be raised on the valuation of the proprietor. There should be a Government valuator.
—GEORGE CLARK, chairman.

I have also prepared a paper, having special reference to the houses, which I would like to read. ' Many of the dwellings in Conigsburgh are not only very uncomfortable but injurious to the health of the inmates. It is no uncommon thing to see, even where the sick are lying, the walls and floors quite wet with damp. To the dwellings are usually attached the byres and other outhouses. In not a few cases the byre or part of it has to be passed through before the dwelling can be reached. There are, at least, eighteen such houses in Coningsburgh. These byres and other outhouses, so closely attached to the dwellings, polluting the drains and giving rise to sickening smells, is, I believe, one thing that accounts for the prevalence of fever in the district, and for much of the sickliness that is seen among the children. Fever, and especially typhoid fever, is very common. It breaks out every other year or so. It may be safely said that the Public Health Act is a dead letter so far as Conigsburgh is concerned. The local authority, who are the Parochial Board of Dunrossness, have been again and again urged to do something, but things are very much as they were seven or eight years ago. The chairman of the Board, who is the largest proprietor in the district, owns the worst houses, some of which are utterly unfit for human habitation or use.

22204. Who is that?
—Mr Bruce, younger of Sumburgh. Then many of the houses are overcrowded. We have at least forty-five families living in dwellings of one apartment. I have only to mention the numbers living in some of these one apartment dwellings to show how great the overcrowding is. In one we have a young man and his wife, with his mother, brother, sister, and nephew. With the exception of the nephew, all are above twenty years of age. In another, we have a father and mother and eight of their famdy, some of whom are grown up. Other two belonging to the family have to sleep elsewhere, there being no room for them at home. In another, we have a father, mother, grandmother, and six young people. Several other cases almost as bad I could mention. The size of these dwellings of one apartment is about 15 feet by 12 feet. Then we have ninety families living in houses of two apartments. But many of these families are what are called in Shetland "double families," that is to say, two families living in common or at one fire. For example, in one house of two apartments which I know, we have a father, mother, and three young men, and a young man with his wife and child,—eight in all. In another we have a father, mother, son, daughter, and aunt, and a married son with his wife and two children,—nine in all. I might give many other examples. We have a population of 700. For these we have about 150 dwellings, 45 of one apartment, 90 of two apartments, 9 of three apartments, 6 of four apartments or above four. No crofter lives in any of those houses of four apartments. There has been an increase to the population of at least fifty during the past eight years, while more of the young men are at home than formerly. But during that time only four additional houses have been built. Six new houses have been built, but two of these have been in the place of old ones. All these houses have been built by crofters or fishermen or those connected with the crofting and fishing. Two of them have been built by small merchants. Not one house has been built by Lady Nicolson, Mr Bruce of Sumburgh, or Mr Bruce of Symbister, the three chief proprietors in the district. This overcrowding is inconvenient enough when a family is in health, but when there is sickness the state of things is simply heartbreaking. To show what it sometimes leads to, I shall mention what I saw myself only five months ago. Typhoid fever broke out in a family consisting of a father, mother, and six young children living in a dwelling of one apartment on the estate of Mr Bruce of Sumburgh. The eldest child took ill first, but there being only the one apartment he could not be removed from the others. Shortly afterwards the mother and three other children were laid down. Two of these children died, and I saw their dead bodies laid out in that narrow place beside those that were sick and those who had not yet caught the infection. The dead bodies remained there a day and night. The people themselves are blamed for the state of things that exists, but it is unfair to cast all the blame on them. The proprietors will not help them to build better houses, and many of them are not able to do so themselves. Those who are willing to do so get little or no encouragement. On the estate of Lady Nicolson, where almost every dwelling is overcrowded, not a new house has been built for years. Lady Nicolson is neither willing to build a new house nor grant a building lease. I am sure if Lady Nicolson knew the state of things on her estate she would do something. Unfortunately she never visits her tenants. I believe she was never in the district in her life. She is now an old lady. On the estate of Mr Bruce of Sumburgh, where there are also some bad houses and much overcrowding, only three new houses have been built during the past eight years. But the young men who have built these houses have no leases or promise of compensation. They hold no written agreement of any kind. Two of them at least were led to believe that they would get leases, but in the case of one of them seven years have passed away, and in the case of the other four years, and no lease has been given. They receive no help from Mr Bruce in building. They are charged £1 for house and garden. They understand that they hold these for nineteen years at this rent. When young men on Mr Bruce's estate are urged to make better houses, they point to this and say, ‘Who will build on terms like these? Our rents may be raised any day, and if we leave we may not get a farthing of compensation." I do not mean to hint that Mr Bruce intends to take any unfair advantage of anyone. Mr Bruce is an honourable man. But those who speak in this way say that they can at least point to one case where something like undue advantage has been taken. They can point to the case of a man in the adjoining parish of Sandwick whose rent has been raised £4 by Mr Bruce, notwithstanding the fact that he got a verbal promise from Mr Bruce's father that his rent should not be raised for nineteen years. This man laid out £180 in rebuilding an old house and improving a piece of waste land. He understood that his rent was to be £3 for nineteen years. At the end of fourteen years Mr Bruce asked £10, but brought it down to £7. I have the man's own letter to me, which I should like to read, stating these facts. He says:
—I became tenant of the house I am now in in 1856, at a rent of £3 sterling per year. I also got about two acres of waste land along with the bouse, with the promise that it should follow or belong to the house at said rent of £3 sterling whenever I might get it cultivated, as it was very barren. In the course of about five years I got the land under crop, and then wanted a lease of the place. John Bruce, Esq., promised to give me a lease, but after a time when he saw me commence to build houses on the place he would not do so, but said my rent should not be raised for nineteen years after. I built or raised the dwelling-house from one room high to what it now is, viz., two rooms high, and built three other houses, as can be seen. In doing so it has cost me £180 sterling. As soon as I had finished doing so, which was fourteen years after I got the promise from Mr Bruce that my 1 rent should not be raised for nineteen years at least, nor should I be evicted, I got notice that my rent was to be in future £10 per year. I then remonstrated with the landlord, but he would give me no compensation for my money, but would allow me to remain in the house at £7 rent per year. You are at liberty to show this letter to the Commissioners if you want to do so. [See Appendix A, XLIX]. On the estate of Mr Bruce of Symbister, which is managed at present by trustees, there is not so much overcrowding, but there is the same discouragement to those who would build. I know a crofter on that estate who built a nice house quite lately, but he has no lease or promise of compensation. Another that I know, a seaman, built a cottage a few years ago worth at least £40, taking into account the time and labour he spent on it. He got a lease which I have here. (Lease exhibited to Commissioners.) If this man leaves the place before the expiry of the lease he gets nothing. If he remains, whatever extra improvements he may make he gets no value for them, for £10 is all that is allowed him at the end of the lease. The roof is a thatched one just now. If he puts on a slate one by and by he knows that he can get nothing for it. It is no wonder that young men do not care to build on such conditions. An intelligent farmer well acquainted with Shetland tells me that unfavourable as this lease may be, there are worse leases given in Shetland. In some cases compensation is not even promised he says. Let those who are not crofters be offered long and favourable leases—leases that they can sell if they have to leave the place. Let those who have crofts have security against evictions and too high rents, with promise of compensation for buildings they may execute at their own expenses, and a better state of things I am persuaded will soon be seen not only in Conigsburgh but in other places in Shetland. While things are as they are there is no hope of improvement. Things must go from bad to worse.'

22205. The statement which you have made is very interesting, although it is one which might be painful to those whom it concerns. It contains matter prejudicial to the management and the proprietor, and I would ask you to tell me whether the facts stated have been ascertained by you by personal inquiry, and whether you are well persuaded and advised in your own mind that they are all correct?
—As regards the matter of the local authority I am fully persuaded of it. It is what I feel to be conscientiously true. I am to be examined, and I stand here to-day saying these statements are perfectly true.

22206. With reference to the numbers of persons residing in the same room of a house, these facts have been ascertained by you on personal inspection?
—I have done all I could to ascertain the facts accurately, and while I may be wrong in a figure or two, I am satisfied that the statement is substantially true. I have read the statement to the men of Coningsburgh, and I have myself made inquiry into the matter.

22207. It is stated as a matter of fact that Lady Nicolson, who is an old lady, has never been upon her property; have you inquired whether that is the case?
—I have, and so far as any one knows she has never been upon her property.

22208. I observe that the man whose letter you read states that he built three houses'?
—I suppose that means outhouses.

22209. You don't think it means dwelling-houses?
—No; he is a merchant that man.

22210. He does not mean that he built additional dwelling-houses which were perhaps not contemplated by the landlord?
—No, I think he rebuilt the old house and repaired it.

22211. With regard to this lease which you have shown us, while it may not be a very favourable one, it was freely entered into between the contracting parties'?
—Yes, because the man could do nothing else. He was living in such a miserable hut that he had to build.

22212. Did he build upon the site of his previous house?
—No, but quite near to it.

22213. He has to pay £1 a year for the stances, so that it looks as if he got a new piece of ground?
—Yes, but no garden. Mr Bruce of Sumburgh is here to-day, if you wish you may lay the statement before him.

22214. Is he in the rootn?
—Not at the present unfortunately; but the agent for Lady Nicolson is present, and, I think, Mr Irvine, factor for Symbister also.

22215. I suppose Mr Bruce is his own factor?

22216. Who is factor for Lady Nicolson?
—Mr Macgregor, a writer.

22217. Who is factor for Symbister?
—Mr Irvine; and he is also factor for Whalsay.

22218. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—If I understood you rightly you mentioned a case of three young men who built houses and got nineteen years' leases at £1 each?
—In the hope that they would get that.

22219. They would be satisfied with nineteen years' leases?
—Yes; what annoys them is that they have no leases. They say that they were led to believe they would get leases, and leases have never been given. I know one of them never asked for a lease, but for two years they were led to believe they would get them. One has occupied his house for seven years and the other four, and these leases have never been forthcoming.

22220. Is it the custom of the proprietor to build houses for these crofters?
—It is not the custom. I don't say much blame lay on the proprietors for not building the houses, but rather for not encouraging the men more to build houses by granting better leases or giving terms of compensation, in which case they would build themselves. If the proprietor gave £20 or £3 0 they would put up a very good cottage indeed.

22221. If you gave a nineteen or twenty-one years' lease would that be sufficient to induce them?
—Yes, but I would rather have those who are not crofters to have a longer lease. I know the case of a man just now in the adjoining parish who has a nineteen years' lease, and at the end of that he gets half the house in value. If he should have sold that, I am sure he could have got a higher price.

22222. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Are you a native of Shetland?
—I am not.

22223. To what part of Scotland do you belong?

22224. How long have you been here?
—Nearly eight years.

22225. And always in the same place?

22226. Have you got a considerable congregation?
—Yes, my church is the only one in the district.

22227. I think you stated, or it is mentioned in the paper, that there have been no evictions in the parish?
—None since I came, and I am not aware of any.

22228. Although there have been no evictions there has been no encouragement of the people in the way of getting additional houses for the increase of population ?

22229. Have you taken every means in your power to ascertain the truth of the statements you have made about the houses?
—I have, I may be wrong, but if I am so in one or two figures it is unintentional. I have gone over it again and again and done my very best. I have been very anxious to put it in the most favourable light. I have said 150 houses, there may be 152; but so far as I can make out there are 150.

22230. I suppose what has made you come here is the imperative duty upon you as having charge of the people?
—It was the death of these two children lying in the churchyard brought me here to-day; but for that I would not have appeared before this Commission.

22231. There are other facts?
—Yes, but that is what brought the thing to a head on my part.

22232. What may be the numbers of your congregation?
—313 members.

22233. And adherents?
—Altogether I have probably a congregation of 400 to 500.

22234. Are the facts you have stated well known and constantly talked of amongst the people?
—The statement I have read I read to most of the men, and put questions to them and asked them if they thought I had overstated anything, and they all said, 'You are speaking the truth.'

22235. There was a meeting held to appoint delegates to come here; was that meeting largely attended?
—The meeting at South Connigsburgh was attended by about 20, but there were those who represented others, and I think the statement I have made is one that represents the opinion
of the people. The statement may be correct or incorrect, but it expresses the opinion of the people; I have no doubt about that.

22236. In the paper which you have just read, you say there are two Bruces in the parish; you made no reference to the estate of Symbister until you came to the end?
—Quite so.

22237. This matter of the buildings has now become so clamant that you think public attention must be drawn to it and some public measures taken?
—That is what I think.

22238. The Chairman.
—You said you would advise, for the encouragement of the people in building, that they should have a long lease, and that they should have liberty of disposing of or selling it to their successors. Do you think it would be fair that a tenant should have the right of disposing of the lease and interest in the holding to anybody he liked without the consent of the proprietor?
—Probably it would be better to have the consent of the proprietor.

22239. We have heard generally in Shetland that the custom of the country in making new houses is that the proprietor builds the wall and supplies the timber and the roof, and that the tenant puts on the
thatch, and pays for or makes up the fittings. Is that in other places the custom of the country, and if so, why is it different on Mr Bruce's estate?
—I don't know. 1 only speak the opinion of the people when I say that Mr Bruce of Sumburgh is not willing to build new houses or repair the old ones. It is stated that although Lady Nicolson is not willing to build new houses, she is willing to give a sum to repair old ones. Of course, in stating this opinion I am only expressing the opinion of the people—what the people told me. They have stated that again and again.

22240. How long is it since this case occurred of the death of the two children?
—In the month of March of the present year.

22241. You say that those proprietors to whom you alluded will not build new houses; you have also said that, in the case of over crowding to which you alluded, there were frequently twenty-six of the same family living under the one roof; do you think it would be a wise thing to apply to the proprietor to allow the children of the occupier to build separate houses on the same croft, and thus sub-divide it?
—If the fishing prosper that might do very well, but, of course, if the fishing were not to prosper, the state of things would just become worse under that.

22242. Do you think, if the proprietors gave unlimited liberty to the younger members of a family to build new houses that might not discourage them from seeking their fortunes elsewhere, and that, hereafter, the evil of over-population might not become greater than it is now?
—That is quite possible. In speaking of these matters I am taking into account the hope that the fishing may prosper and a better state of things come about. Of course, one might be mistaken about these things.

22243. Is it remarked that the fishing is sometimes rather precarious, and that fish may come for some years to a place and be absent from it in other years ?

22244. Therefore, you cannot count absolutely upon fishing as a resource for the population Ì
—No, but the men have large boats, and can go a greater distance now.

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