Lerwick, Shetland, 19 July 1883 - Walter Williamson

WALTER WILLIAMSON, Fisherman and Crofter, Burra Isle (59)—examined.

22079. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Are you a delegate?
—I am.

22080. You were elected by your people?

22081. Have you any statement to make?
At a meeting of crofters, held within the U.P. Church, Burra Isle, on the 18th of June, Mr Walter Williamson and Mr James Smith were appointed to represent them before the Royal Commission, and call attention to the following matters :—
(1) We think the present rents are too high.
(2) The proprietor will not give anything to build or repair houses, and if the tenants themselves put up new houses they get no lease or promise of compensation.
(3) If the crofts are improved or made better by the tenants, there is a danger of the rents being raised without any compensation for the improvements.
(4) The proprietor has power to put out his tenants at forty days' warning—a hard and unjust law.
(5) District road money has been exacted for a number of years, but the roads on the island are only now begun.
(6) Fair rents—rents fixed by a competent valuator, and not by the proprietor,—are desired : also security against evictions. The proprietor should not have power to turn out a tenant if he is paying a fair rent
(7) We do not want the scathold, or pasture land, taken from us, as we think it belonged to us originally.
—WALTER WILLIAMSON, Chairman, 20th June, 1883.

22082. On which of the two islands do you live?
—West Burra.

22083. How many families are on the island?
—There are about eighty crofters.

22084. Who is the proprietor?
—-The Misses Scott

22085. Where do they live?
—-Perhaps in Edinburgh. Burra is under trust, I understand, and for several years has been managed by Mr Garriock at Scalloway.

22086. How many families are on Easter Burra?
—I don't know that

22087. Is this paper only for Wester Burra?
—It is for both islands; both islands are united.

22088. You think your present rent is too high?
—We do.

22089. What is your own rent?
—£4, 4s. 4d. for the bit of croft I hold, and the small bit of another croft I paid £4. 2s. 2d.; but the actual rent is £3, 12s. 6d. exclusive of rates, for the croft I am in exclusive of the half croft.

22090. Is that the ordinary rent?
—I think it is rather below the average.

22091. What is the highest rent?
—Perhaps £7 I would suppose, exclusive of rates.

22092. And what is the lowest rent?
—I think there is one croft at £1, but only one.

22093. How many animals can you keep?
—I keep three cows; but then I have a bit of grass more than this—I have a guinea's worth of
land in another place. I could not keep the three cows without buying provisions, until I got that guinea's worth of land.

22094. How many sheep do you keep?
—The sheep upon Burra are in open pasture. The pasture is very poor, and has never been taken from us. Everybody is at liberty to keep as many as he can maintain alive. Some have as many as a score of the Shetland breed, and several. crofters have none at all.

22095. How many have you?
—About a dozen.

22096. What is the largest number anybody has?
—I would fancy about a score or thereby.

22097. What is the largest number of cows anybody has?
—About four or five cows would be about the most.

22098. What would you consider a fair rent for yourself?
—Some years ago, perhaps nineteen years ago, I think, or thereby, we had £50 of rent laid upon the island, and we were very aggravated, and thought it unfair, and that is what we complain of. We were then in Burra island, under the thraldom of the truck system, and we felt it very much, because we had no power over our fishing. We had to fish to the tacksman, and never knew the price of the fish until we came to settle, and the tacksman could give us just what he pleased. We felt very much aggrieved, and had several meetings among ourselves to see what plan or principle we might honestly and legally decide upon to keep ourselves clear men, and free like Englishmen. Englishmen have the boast of liberty; we could boast of none although we were British men. We were in bondage and slavery, and we had several meetings to get our liberty —the thing desired by all men. At one of these meetings we proposed to the law agent of the Misses Scott to give us a lease of Burra Isle for ourselves, and we would promise to pay the yearly rent in a day. Hay & Co. were then the lessees or tacksmen for Burra. We did not know that they were getting £50 off the rents of the island for drawing up rents and bad debts. We offered the law agent in Edinburgh the same rent they were paying, which turned out to be £50 more than the proprietor was actually getting. The law agent very likely thought it was better to get it from one gentleman than from a lot of rude fishermen and crofters, and he offered the same tacksman the land again at a new lease for the rent we were offering. He took it at that rent, and laid £30 more upon us in return, and that is how we think we are paying too much rent. I was in a half croft in Burra before that, which was in a poor state. The house was not worth calling a house —it was nothing at all. The roof was like to come down, and so also were the walls. I went to the proprietor wanting assistance to build the house, and was told their laws were to give no assistance, and I got none. I added twelve feet to the house, and made its walls higher, and gave it almost a new roof. The following year I had 20s. added to my rent, and that I think an unfair and unjust thing.

22099. Was that done immediately after your enlarging the house?
—The very year it happened after the enlarging of the house, when we wanted to get our liberty. I don't say it was because I enlarged the house, but the house being enlarged, there was no mercy on account of that, which I think was a very unjust thing indeed.

22100. Wliat improvement did you make upon the croft?
—The croft has not been of long standing. I remember the son sitting on it as a tenant—the son of the man who dragged it out of its virgin state, and put it into a croft. It was very shallow ground; I itched, up a good deal, and quarried out stones, and improved it in many ways, and took a great deal of sea ware and laid it upon it, and improved it for giving a crop; and I was indignant that, after all my improvement, it should have been immediately raised in rent.

22101. Have any of your neighbours had their rents raised since that time?
—The £50 was laid over the land, but chiefly on those who improved.

22102. Has the rent been raised since then?
—No. I don't complain of Messrs Garriock & Co. Since the Truck Commission came we have little or no complaint to make. It is the only time we have ever got anything like the free liberty of free men. We act under him in every circumstance as we please under the bonds of the civil law. He does not want our fish, unless we want to sell to him : and if we want to sell to him he gives as good a price as any. Two years ago he gave us £1 more than any other body. I don't come to complain against Mr Garriock, but I come here to complain of the confounded laws which hurt the poor crofters. I know the crofters have had a hard and bitter time for a long time back. I am free to tell that.

22103. When did you get free from this truck yoke?
—Just shortly after the Truck Commission came. We were watching it with a good deal of interest, and it is from that time only that the Burra people have had either a stitch of clothes on their back or a morsel of food.

22104. Now you are at perfect liberty?
—Yes, and a most blessed thing it is. We can do anything we like —either go to the merchant who gives the highest price, or cure our fish ourselves.

22ÌO5. Have you no roads in the island?
—That was considered a grievance, but the roads are getting on now; they are making fast progress.

22106. When did that begin?
—Last winter, but they made little progress because the weather was bad, but now they are working pretty hard.

22107. Have you horses?
—Yes, a few have horses in Burra island, but I have none.

22108. And carts?
—No carts; no roads and no carts. There is not a cart on the island.

22109. Is everything carried on people's backs?
—Everything; and the poor women work a good deal harder than many of the rich men's horses. No true gentleman would work his horse so hard as our wives are wrought, and we must needs do that to make a creditable living. I did not for my own part wish to come here, but the meeting which was held wished me to come, and I said if they wished me I would do so, but my time was past,

22110. You say you don't want the scathold taken from you : —is there any danger of that?
—There is nobody in Shetland has a bit of pasture anywhere worth while to take. It is in great danger of being taken; proprietors have taken it away yearly.

22111. But none of yours has been taken yet?
—No; and we have never heard of it being taken. It is not worth taking. It is a strip of island and remarkably sea-girt, and a great amount of danger connected with stock on it. And the land is very bad. We believe the crofting population not only in Shetland, but in Great Britain, is a great power? There is an everlasting amount of national wealth among the crofters. In Scalloway alone there is not a gentleman or business-man, or fisherman or common labourer, but his father or grandfather was a crofter, and in Lerwick.. it has been crofters since it began to rise. The crofters in England, Scotland, and Ireland are, I contend, the wealth of the nation. They are there in war and peace, and it is nothing but just and equitable that they should have more fair play when I am dead than they had before, and it is the nation that must do it and not the landlords. Every man is a selfish man, and why not the landlords as well. as others. We want improvements on our crops, aud also on our houses. Wè are living all through the country in hovels, and not houses. The blame of it lies on the landlord laws. I don't say it is on the landlords, but on the landlord laws. If I had been a landlord, I am not sure but I should be as bad; but there should be proper laws.

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