…by Sir John M’Neill GCB, on the Western Highlands and Islands 1851
I have made reference to this report in previous pieces and will include links to those within these notes.
The parish of Harris comprises, besides Harris proper, several adjacent islands, which are inhabited. The whole belongs to one proprietor.
The proprietor being 10 year-old Charles Adolphus Murray, the 7th Earl of Dunmore whose mother, Catherine, Countess of Dunmore, was running the estate on his behalf.
The population in 1841 was returned at 4429, but St Kilda, with a population of about 110, appears to have been omitted from the census of that year. The number, therefore, was truly 4539.
By the census of this year, including St Kilda, with a population of 110, the number returned is 4250, showing a decrease of 289.
I have included these population figures for reasons that will become clear later.
The annual value returned to Parliament in 1843 is £4015, 8s. 9d.
The aggregate stipulated rental in 1850 was £4289, 2s. 0d.
As a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), these amounts are equivalent to about £10 Million pounds today which gives us some semblance of the economic power wielded by the landlord.
The crofters holding land at rents not exceeding £10 are 348 families, or about 1812 individuals.
The aggregate rent payable by these crofters is £1456, 7s. 9d., and the average for each, £4, 2s. 5d.
The average rent equates to about £3000 today using average earnings in comparison.
The produce of a croft at that rent in Harris, including produce of stock, does not afford food for an average family for more than six months, reserving seed for the next year; but not providing for rent or anything for which money must be paid.
So a crofter additionally needs to find the means to feed his family for the remaining half of the year plus enough to pay his annual rent.
The cottars are estimated at 250 families, or about 1300 individuals. There are thus in the parish above three thousand persons dependent for their subsistence, during the whole or the greater part of the year, on other employment than the cultivation of land occupied by themselves.
A cottar did NOT possess the land needed to feed his family (beyond perhaps a small patch of vegetables) and hence was reliant upon employment to do so. A cottar was often a tied-tenant, their home being tied to the service they provided the employer, and they would only be able to seek work outside that done for the employer for perhaps one or two days each week.
A simple sum informs us that a figure of 5.2 people per household was used in calculating the number of people reliant upon employment to survive. If we use this average on the figure of 4250 that we are given for the total population, we see that there were perhaps nearly 820 households on Harris. This accords reasonably well with the figure of 783 households that I have for 1851 and which produces a slightly higher average figure of 5.4 people per hearth (to use my preferred term!)
The ordinary local demand for labour is small, being such only as a country chiefly pastoral affords; and the inhabitants have not been in the practice of leaving home to seek it, except at the Caithness and east-coast herring fishings, to which about two hundred men go yearly.
This reluctance to travel in order to seek work (which has resonances today in certain political circles!) is something that the Report focussed upon, rather neglecting the reason WHY there were large numbers of people by 1851 without a livelihood to support them and their families, We only need turn to a single word (& a four-letter one at that) to find an explanation – Kelp! The islands had become overpopulated purely to satisfy the greed of those for whom the Kelp industry had furnished a very substantial income over many years. In fact, such was the demand for workers that emigration, which was to become the watchword for the perceived solution to the ‘problem’ had itself been banned in earlier years. The landlords had sown the seeds of unemployment and now the people were reaping the results of what their masters had sown. All the people wanted was land to live upon but the fertile arable areas were being profitably pounded by sheep – profitable, that is, if, for example, one happened to be Donald Stewart of Luskentire or Alexander McRa of Kyles Lodge…
About 350 men in 70 boats are engaged, more or less regularly, in the cod and ling fishing on their own coast, and a few have lately gone as far as the town of Stornoway, in the same island, to look for other work.
The figures for Fishers are interesting, not least because they greatly exceed that which I had gleaned from the census data. There, some 230 occurrences of ‘fisher’ were found and, after removing the wives & children, this left some 174 men who gave fishing as their occupation. I do not doubt the figure in the Report and remark on the discrepancy merely as a reminder that my research methodology will not always deliver results that are 100% accurate!
The Report was the result of Sir John McNeill’s visit to the islands in the Spring of 1851 and on the 30th of March the Census records him staying at Lews Castle .
There has been, during the winter, with the exception of about six weeks of bad weather, employment in road-making for about a hundred men.
For the last month, there has also been employed at road-making in the south end of the island, and covering land-drift, about thirty-six able-bodied persons.
The hundred men engaged at the road first mentioned are earning at the rate of from 1s. to 1s. 4d. per day.
The thirty-six persons engaged in the southern part of the island may earn from l0d. to 1s. a-day, when they take advantage of the work there offered.
The work on the sand-banks will soon be finished, and the road at the south end is carried on only for the purpose of affording employment to the able-bodied persons who are most destitute