Lerwick, Shetland, 19 July 1883 - Thomas Henderson (Delting)

THOMAS HENDERSON, Crofter, Olnafirth, Delting (49)—examined.

22401. Sheriff Nicolson.
—When were you chosen to appear here?
—On Saturday the 14th.

22402. Was there a meeting called?
—There was.

22103. What were you asked to say?
—Our grievances which were stated were these. First, that the rents have been raised during the last thirty years fully 30 per cent., while all the improvements have been made by the crofters. Second, that no compensation has been allowed by the landlords for improvements made by the crofters. In connection with this I may say that we have been afraid to cultivate or improve, because there might be more rent put upon us in consequence of the improvements. Third, that the crofters only hold their crofts from year to year, so that the landlords can put them off their crofts at forty days' notice. You are aware that in this country we consume peats, and not coals, and if an eviction takes place we don't know that it is to be until November. Now our peats must be cut and cured in summer, and not winter, and if we get notice to leave there is no resource but to stand and face it—we have no alternative but to face it, or go to the fields. Shelter we might get, but not fire.

22404. That last ground of grievance is not peculiar to Shetland?
—No, but we stand a worse chance than the people in Scotland, because we have no coals; we burn our peats on the floor, and then, if we had money for coals, we would have to pay 11s. of freight. Fourth, we complain that the landlords will not give long leases on favourable terms. Fifth, that the hill pasture, or common, in some cases has been taken away and given to others. The crofters have been charged 6d. for each sheep, and 3s. for each pony put upon this common. We understood our hills were common, and belonged to the crofters from time immemorial, which was guaranteed by treaty between Denmark and Scotland, when it was ceded to the latter in 1469. I heard the Sheriff make some reference to that, and I understood that, in days of old, the title deeds for the udal lands bore, that from the highest clod on the hill to the lowest stone on the beach, the tenants were entitled to the pasture when they took a lease of a farm. If we have a claim on them, we want to have it established. The people had the right of the pasture until, I think, about 1830, when, I believe, a man came from another part of the country, and offered a certain amount for the hills in the southern part of the parish, which was accepted; but I understand he failed about two years afterwards. The tenants in the south end of the parish were then called together at Busta, and £34 extorted from them under penalty of removal, and, like the old Highland piper at Waterloo, we had just to stand and face it out. We all paid the money with the exception of a few. That money was paid from 1832 to 1869, a period of thirty-seven years. Then we experienced the heaviest harvest weather which there has been in my time, uuder the visiting hand of Providence, destroying our crop to a large extent, and the remainder was destroyed by animals from the hills, and instead of receiving sympathy from the landlords, there was an addition made to the rent of 3s. and 5s. as the case might be. Indirectly, we thought that was to be for the erection of a new church and manse, but we were not sure. I produce receipt for 1868-69, showing the increase of 3s. in the pound. We grumbled and growled, in consequence of that increase, but some paid the rent, and some promised to do it, and in about three years fifty per cent, of the people in the parish were falling into arrears. In 1878 our cattle on the hills, for the grazing of which we were paying, were driven together by the factor's order—the factor was the man who did the work, whether he was ordered to do it or not, we cannot say, and 6d. was charged for every sheep, and 3s. for every pony. The stock was numbered in August or September, and no intimation was given to any man to pay until he came to the pay table, and consequently none of the people were prepared at the rent time. I didn't pay at that time, because I left the croft, but I went on a new croft, and the year following I paid everything that was asked. I may say that I am glad to see the Commission here, because the people wish the hill back again. The people want many things they can never get, but if we have a claim to the hills we want them back, and if we have no claim we don't want them. But I am almost certain we have a claim, because, as I have said, in our old country Acts it says, that from the highest clod on the hill to the lowest stone on the beach we have a right to the pasture. With regard to the compensation, I must say that any labour that has been expended by the tenants has been buried in the hearts of the landlords, and consequently there has been almost no improvement made. With regard to the leases to which I have referred, I may say that some people don't desire them. For my own part, the croft I have is hardly worth taking a lease of, and the rent I pay is far too much. Five merks of land at 16s. a merk was my rent; but in 1832 and 1869 it was raised, until now I pay £5 . I want that increase of rent off, besides having the hill restored to us. Sixth, we complain that the crofter cannot improve his croft under the present precarious system. Seventh, that most of the dwellinghouses are unfit for people to live in. The dwelling-houses and all the offices, have mostly been raised by the tenants. Mr Garriock referred to compensation being given for the roofs, but it is the incoming tenant who always pays that. In my own case, when I left my croft, there was no tenant coming in, and I was due the landlord nothing. The roof stood from the 11th November, when my term was up, until the May following when I removed it, and then it was a good deal worse.

22105. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Is Mr Garriock factor on your property?
—No, Mr Gifford; but I could not help making that remark. In all cases, so far as I am aware, when a removal takes place, it is the incoming tenant who pays; and in some cases the proprietor has been obliged to advance for the incoming tenant. In all cases the roofs have been left to the incoming tenant, at a valuation; but the proprietor never paid that, unless the tenant was evicted, and was obliged to leave his roofs behind, and then the tenant would go to the landlord for the damages. In certain cases, in nearly all cases, the tenant coming in pays the damages to the one going out The following are the reforms which we consider are greatly needed:—
1. That the crofters shall get long leases on favourable terms; or rather that he shall be made secure
in his holding while he pays his rent.
2. That where the hill pasture or common has been taken away, it shall be restored to the crofter; and
where sheep, ponies, etc. have been charged for, the charge shall be taken off.
3. That the crofter shall get compensation for all improvements, whether in cultivating his croft, building, or improving his dwelling house, or offices, or whatever improvements he may have made, or paid for making.
4. That all crofts shall be valued by valuators appointed by the Government; said valuators to be acquainted with our climate and soil.
5. That no crofter shall be removed or ejected from his croft, so long as he pays his rent and cultivates his croft.
6. And last, that all sheep farms, however long they may have been used as such be discontinued, and again subdivided into reasonable sized crofts. This we insist on, because there is a demand in the islands for them. They contain the very best land in the islands. Their existence have been our chief source of pauperism. And finally, the best interests of our population at large, which should ever be our prime object, demands it.

22106. Who drew out that statement ?
—We drew out our grievances amongst ourselves, and this paper was agreed to unanimously, in the meetings. These are the advantages we most desire, and I got the teacher to draw out the statement as I am no scholar myself.

22407. But the statement, is the bona fide productions of the people themselves?
—Indeed, Yes.

22408. Have you any sheep farms in your parish?
—We have. I calculate that about one-fifth of the parish is laid down under sheep farms.

22409. How long is it since they began?
—I was not born in the parish, but I know the farms have been in existence ever since 1855.

22410. Were these farms the means of dispossessing some of the people from the land, or were they the means of the scathold being curtailed?
—No, the people were not absolutely dismissed, but there were patches taken off almost all of us.

22411. Was that done by one proprietor or by several ?
—By several proprietors.

22412. Who is the largest proprietor in your part of the country?
—The Busta estate, I suppose, is the biggest.

22413. Was the old laird alive at this time?
—I believe it was in the old laird's time, that one-fifth part was given off as sheep farms, when eighteen or nineteen families were removed. Two of the families remained in a fair position, but that was about all. The rest fell off one way or another. Some of them emigrated, some settled down on the hills, and others along the shores. The younger people emigrated. Some of them fell into pauperism.

22414. Has there been discontent ever since that took place?
—There has, over the parish.

22415. How many people were present when you were elected a delegate?
—About thirty.

22416. And you were quite unanimous?

22417. Would you be able to live on your croft if you hadn't something else to do?
—No, in addition to the croft, I have been running postman for the last five years.

22418. What family have you?
—My father, my father-in-law, my wife, one child, and myself—five in all.

22419. Are you a native of Shetland?
—Yes, I am a native of Whalsay.

22420. And do you consider that statement you have made, represents the feelings of the people in the district you represent?
—I do.

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