Obe, Harris, Thursday, May 31. 1883
13384. The Chairman.—You are local factor for Lord Dunmore?—Yes.
13385. How long have you been factor?—Six months only.
13386. You have not had much time then to ascertain the wishes or condition of the people ?—No
Thomas Brydon became Factor of South Harris in Nov/Dec 1882 and in 1891we find him remaining as Factor, Farmhouse Luskentyre, (Leaclee), b. Dunblane, Perthshire.
13387. Has there been anything said to-day in your presence on which you wish to make any remark ?—No, I don’t think there is. As far as the crofts are concerned there seems to be some misunderstanding, because the blame seems to be laid on the proprietors and factors as to the size of
the crofts. A crofter, in general, if he keeps a croft, in most cases divides it with some of his sons, who get married, without the consent of the proprietor or factor. It stands to reason that a whole croft will carry one family better than two or three, divided up, and I think if only one family lived on a croft they could make a comfortable living, but it is the cottar that ruins them, and it is cottars who deteriorate the land by constant cropping; and with the most of the laud, if there were only one
family on it, they could leave perhaps a little of the land out for two or three years, and leave it under grass, and then bring it in again.
13388. Then you think the subdivision of the crofts has generally been the result of the people settling their own children upon them ?—Yes.
There could be a tiny bit of truth in this for, assuming a natural growth in population, clearly subdivision must reach a limit. However, it totally neglects the fact that acres of fertile land were turned-over to sheep, that those forced into the Bays were often accommodated by subdividing already-occupied land, and that it was the earlier greed of the Kelp industry that had demanded a greater workforce before the market collapsed in 1815.
13389. Are you aware whether in former times the proprietors have made systematic efforts to provide for the younger branches of these families elsewhere ?—I don’t know, but I think young men ought to have enough courage in themselves to go forth, as I have done myself, and many a one besides. It is much better than getting married and settling down on an acre of land.
The irony of this incomer from the mainland telling islanders to go forth and multiply as a solution to overcrowding needs no further amplification!
13390. Can you tell us the nature of the relief works which Lord Dunmore has provided with a view to the present necessities of the country ?—Draining, fencing, and building dykes, repairing piers, and so on.
13391. We heard from Mr Davidson a great complaint about the want of a road along the eastern shore of the island. Has that want been brought to your knowledge ?—There has been nothing said to me about it; I know the road, at least the most of it.
13392. Is it now in a very bad state ?—Yes; there was a road made part of the way at one time, but it is mostly all broken up. It is not passable for vehicles.
13393. Has any of the recent work been bestowed on that road?— No.
13394. Would it be very useful?—Well, they have got no horses on the east side of the island, and they mostly do all their work with boats. Unless for foot passengers, I don’t think it would do much good. They could have ponies, certainly, if the road were made. They could not take a pony there now, but if they had it right they could.
13395. In other parts of the islands are wheeled carriages used?—Only along the main road to Tarbert.
The picture painted is pretty grim. Men engaged in, presumably needed, relief work under the requirements of the Poor Law(Scotland) Act 1845 would have toiled for a pittance and yet what they wanted was a road so that they could be relieved of the burden of having to carry in creels on their, and their womenfolk’s backs, everything that was used on the land. It is another matter as to whether they could have afforded to buy horses and another as to what and where their ‘ponies’ would graze.
13396. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.—Are you in a separate district of roads ? Who has the charge of the roads ?—The trustees here. I am not sure, but I think Mr Macdonald, Scarista-vore, has something to do with it.
13397. Is Harris a district of itself, or is it connected with the Long Island ?—I cannot say.
We can see that roads were not Thomas Brydone’s forte and, despite some six-months in the post, this Factor had no idea of precisely who was responsible for the roads in Harris, North or South.
13404. Are you authorised to intimate, or are you aware, that there are any further improvements or expenditure going on on the estate ?—Well there may be, I expect, in another year.
13405. But you don’t know what the nature of those may be? – Roadmaking.
Methinks the man doth supply an answer that he perceives the commission wants to hear!
13406. The Chairman.—What value is the labour here, compared with the labour in Aberdeenshire? Do the people work as much or do as much ?—No, and they are not paid as much.
13407. For a long day’s work in the summer, what are the common wages of the people here?—Twelve shillings to fifteen shillings a week for common labour.
13408. And you would be paying in Aberdeenshire from 18s. to 20s ? Yes, they get from 18s. to 25s.
13409. Do you think the amount of wages has much to do with the amount of work done ? Is it the custom of the country ?—Well, I think they are fully as well paid on the mainland as they are here.
13410. I mean, if you give a man higher wages, will he do more work ? – No, I don’t think he will.
Wages in Aberdeenshire are on a scale 50% higher than on Harris! It is unfortunate that the commissioners didn’t reiterate what they were clearly wanting to know I.e.was the alleged laziness of islanders the reason for them being paid only two-thirds of their mainland counterparts but perhaps they took Thomas Brydone’s answer as affirming that particular slander?
13411. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.—Do the family, either one or other of the members of it, live here a good part of the year ?—Yes, his Lordship lives pretty often here.
13412. Will he live here four or six months of the year, in the course of the whole year ?—I can only speak of the time I have been here myself, but he has been here I may say a few months since last Martinmas.
13413. But he is always here every year?—Yes, and he stays some time, and he knows the most of the crofters, and takes a great interest in them.
This is four years before the Countess of Dunmore’s death yet, despite her interest in Harris Tweed, she, unlike her son, doesn’t even get a mention here. The mention of Martinmass, the 11th of November , suggests that Brydone arrived around that time but Lord Dunmore’s presence since that date is somewhat ambiguous in terms of frequency of visits and their duration.
13414. Does he speak Gaelic?—Yes he can speak Gaelic.
13415. Sheriff Nicolson.—Can you speak Gaelic yourself?—Yes.
13516. The Chairman.—How did you learn it?—I was born in the south of Aberdeenshire, and I was brought up in Athole, where there was nothing but Gaelic spoken, and I was obliged to learn it.
13417. Sheriff Nicolson.-—And you find it a decided advantage to know it, to make what you intend to convey to the natives clear ?—Yes, it is not suitable for one in my position to be without Gaelic in this country.
13418. Don’t you think there might be a great injustice done without any intention, through people not understanding what was attempted to be conveyed to them in a language they did not understand ?—Yes, I quite believe it.
At last we find something positive about this particular Factor! His appreciation of the necessity of speaking Gaelic appears to be sincere. The only puzzle is that, in both the 1891 census when he is on Harris and the 1881 census when he was in Blair Atholl, his birthplace is given as Dunblane, Perthshire rather than ‘in the south of Aberdeenshire’ and in 1861 the 5 year-old scholar is indeed in Dunblane.
13419. The Chairman.—-What do you think are the prospects of planting in this country; do you think it will be possible to establish any plantations ?—I think it would never pay.
13420. But without paying, would they grow?—Well, in some parts of the island they would; in sheltered places they grow very well.
13421. But you don’t think it could be a source of profit or improvement to the island ?—I don’t think it would.
Clearly, having spent one Winter on the island, the young man was fully aware of the preposterous nature of this suggestion, a fact that would elude a later owner of the island some 35 years later…
13422. Do you think that much good could be done by fencing – by the erection of stone fences ? – I don’t know where they are required much. Wire fences would be more suitable for marches in this country.
13423. That is between the tacks and the crofters, for instance? – Yes.
12424 But with reference to the arable ground of the crofters themselves, would a good stone fence not be of any value? -Well, they have good turf fences as it is; they are pretty well fenced in Harris as it is.
I have a suspicion that he is not too convinced by the ‘Dyke-building’ that the poor have been engaged upon and would rather see wire fences being erected to create barriers between people. His would no doubt be quite pleased to see that just such a situation exists over much of Harris today.
13425. Mr Fraser-Maclcintosh.—Are there any prizes offered by the ladies of the family for neat houses and neat gardens? – I think there are. It is not that I know it, but I hear the Countess has been giving prizes to those who have the neatest gardens.
Thomas is gaining in confidence now and his answers are fuller and expressed more clearly.This is the only time he refers to activity on the part of the Countess.
13426. Sheriff Nicolson.—Are you much struck by the character of the houses here, as compared with those you have been accustomed to see? Yes, there is no doubt of that.
13427. Do you know whether Lord Dunmore has done anything to improve the houses of the people, and stir them up to improve them themselves? – Yes, I have heard of his doing that himself.
13428. Does he give them encouragement to make the houses more neat and clean than they used to be? – Yes, he does that; I have heard him speak about it when he was here lately.
13429. Does he give them any encouragement in the shape of lime or wood ?—They don’t get wood ; as for lime I have not had any experience.
13430. The Chairman.—Have many of the cottages on the estate got fire-places in the wall, or are they generally warmed by the fire in the centre 1—I have not been in many of the houses, but I think most of them are in the centre. It is the best part of the house, as they can all get round about it.
13431. And what about the smoke?—They don’t mind the smoke, as it keeps them warm, they say. I think their houses are much warmer than most of the slated houses here.
Aha! – he ends with recognition of at least one of the benefits of the island ‘blackhouse’! The earlier part of this final section reveals the usual prejudices of those for whom only four square walls, with windows and a chimney can be countenanced as fit for human habitation. I am not going to over-sentimentalise what it would have been like to live in a ‘blackhouse’, but it would make for a very interesting piece of experimental archaeology for a modern family to give it a go.
Overall, I think Thomas Brydone, who has entered the scene late in the day and without the taint of some of his predecessors actions, gives us a different and useful perspective. He is clearly a capable and intelligent young man and by 1891 had settled into the ‘Farmhouse Luskentire’ at Leac a Li with his wife and five children. In the intervening time he would have been charged with implementing the 1884 Crofters Act in South Harris, had seen the passing-away of the Countess of Dunmore in 1886, and we last see him back in Blair Atholl in 1901. He appears to have fathered 8 children between 1883 and 1900 with his Blair Atholl-born wife, Isabella. This is particularly helpful, for the first one to be born after the family departed Harris for Blair Atholl was born there in 1897. Hence the family left Harris sometime between 1891 and 1897.
For someone who was Factor of South Harris for between 9 and 15 years towards the end of the 19thC, I have discovered very little reference to his impact on the area. We do know that the ‘Golden Road’ was completed in 1897, 14 years after he had mentioned ‘Roadmaking’ to the commission, so can be pretty sure that he had a hand in that particular improvement, even if he left before it was fully opened!
Note: There is an earlier Thomas Brydone (1937-1904) of Blair Atholl who emigrated to New Zealand where he was instrumental in the development of the export of frozen produce to Britain, but I have not examined any possible family connection save to say that they do not appear to have been brothers –