>Friday, 4th April 1851 – Sir John McNeill


In the previous piece, I gave a brief indication of Sir John McNeill’s progress through the islands beginning with his overnight stay with the Mathesons at Lews Castle on Sunday the 30th of March. He was in Carloway, Lochs on the Monday, had reached Uig by Tuesday and Harris by Thursday. The next day he was:
At Rodil, Harris, 4th April 1851
Meaning that he’d covered half of the four Parishes of Lewis in just three days!
John Robertson Macdonald, Esq., being interrogated, replied :
I am factor on the Harris estate of Lord Dunmore, and I have been so for nearly eight years-since 1844.
This was the last year of the 6th Earl’s life & ended Duncan Shaw’s decade as Factor of Harris.
Sixty-four crofters have been removed from the lands they had previously occupied, with a view to improve their own condition and that of the crofters remaining in the farms from which they were removed. At Whitsunday 1848 forty crofters were removed from the island of Bernera, then occupied by eighty-one, and the lands thus vacated divided amongst the forty-one who remained. Those who were removed, with two or three exceptions, were placed in crofts upon lands previously occupied by tacksmen. Six of the number who, with one exception, had occupied crofts of about five acres in Bernera, were settled in the Borves, on crofts of ten acres of arable, and hill-grazing for four milk cows, and followers till two years old, with forty sheep and a horse—about double the amount of stock which, with one exception, they had in Bernera. The exceptional case referred to, was that of a man who had a ten-acre croft in Bernera, with an amount of black cattle stock equal to that for which he got grazing in the Borves, but who had no sheep. They are all in arrear of rent, and, on an average, for upwards of two years. These six tenants were selected as the best in Bernera in respect to their circumstances. I attribute their want of success to the depreciation in the price of black cattle, and to their not having had sufficient capital to put upon their lands a full stock when they entered. Their stipulated rent in the Borves is on an average L.12.
This resettlement of Borve on Harris had been at the behest of a commissioner for the ‘Tutor’ of the 6th Earl (charged with looking after the boy’s Estate until he was old enough to manage his own affairs), one Captain Sitwell. Macdonald was against the idea from the start but it is significant that he cites the state of the market and the crofter’s lack of finance as the reason for the failure. The fall in price of the cattle is an unfortunate fact of life in market economies but the lack of capitalisation meant that the experiment was pretty well doomed from the start. Hardly the displaced crofters’ fault, either of these factors, Factor!
Of the forty-one who remained with enlarged crofts in Bernera, the whole are now largely in arrears, and have increased their arrears since their holdings were enlarged. I attribute their want of success to the same causes as that of the people removed to the Borves.
And I repeat the comment made previously, too.
The result of this attempt to improve the condition of these crofters, by enlarging their crofts, while it has failed to accomplish that object, has at the same time entailed a considerable pecuniary loss on the proprietor.
Here we are getting a little closer to the cause of the ‘problem’ – namely the conflict of interest between the (frequently absent) landed gentry owning the land and those who live upon the land & call it home.
I am quite satisfied, from experience, that it is impossible to improve the condition of crofters generally by enlarging their holdings, unless they have capital enough to put the full stock upon their lands when they enter on their occupancy.
This, again, seems to be a perfectly reasonable (or blindingly obvious) conclusion to draw but, sadly, I can find no further mention of it as something worth exploring.
About thirty of the persons removed from Bernera had fallen so much into arrear as to be unable to continue in the occupation of their crofts there. These were settled upon fishing crofts of about two acres of arable, and grazing for one or two cows, and a few from four to six sheep, and charged with rents of from L.l to L.2. A considerable number of them had boats, and some had fishing-gear. Some were supplied with gear by the relief committee; but I am not prepared to say that they were all adequately provided with the means of prosecuting the cod and ling fishing, though many of them were; all of them are now in arrear with their rents for the fishing crofts. Not one of them, since entering on the fishing croft, has paid an amount equal to his rent.
So, these poor people were ‘moved’ for a second time and this time told to go fishing, but not necessarily given the means (presumably, boats, nets, etc) to do so. A bit like not making sufficient cattle available to them following their first removal?
The attempt to improve the condition of these men, who had previously been unsuccessful as agricultural crofters, by placing them in a position favourable for fishing, has also failed, and this experiment also has entailed a considerable pecuniary loss upon the proprietor, who is not now receiving from these fishermen one-fourth of the rent he formerly received from tacksmen for the same lands.
Here we are back to the real issue – it’s the rent that the landlord receives that’s important, not the feeding of the people. The reason the tacksmen were able to provide such a large rental was simply because they had converted the places that were populated into sheep farms in the process called the Clearances. I should also point out that these ‘two acres of arable’ were usually two acres of feannagan which required a herculean effort to maintain as efficient ground for crops.
I therefore state confidently, that in Harris, the proprietor cannot convert lands held by a tacksman into small holdings, either for the purposes of agriculture or fishing, without a great pecuniary sacrifice, and that this will continue to be the case unless potatoes should again be successfully cultivated.
A reminder that 1851 was preceded by several years of Potato famine due to blight and that, because the feannagan were better suited to that crop than to any other, it had become the staple food of most people. As before, a factor wholly outside the control of the crofter was being used by this Factor as a weapon against them.
I cannot estimate the loss that would be entailed on the proprietor by such a change at less than two-thirds of the rental paid by the tacksmen. The results of the experiments that have been made on this property would in every case fully bear out this estimate.
This is interesting because, although it suggests a vast reduction in the rents received by the Proprietor, it implies that reduced rents could be paid and thus people able to remain on the land.
It is my conscientious belief, and firm conviction, that if this property were all divided into small holdings amongst the present occupants of land, the result would be, that in a few years the rent recoverable would not be sufficient to pay the public burthens on the property, if the potatoes continue to fail, and the price of black cattle does not materially improve.
Which is not the same as saying that it couldn’t be done, merely that there would be a risk attached to doing so.
Besides the occupants of land, there are on the property about 250 families of cottars, who hold no land from the proprietor. This is the portion of the population that I consider worst off. Many of them are persons who formerly occupied crofts, and who, from being unable to pay their rents, were obliged to relinquish their lands.
Actually, trumped-up charges of the non-payment of rent was a tactic that the Farmers & Factors used to justify many a Clearance despite, in many cases a total lack of evidence in support. Many cottars were providing essential goods & services, perhaps as Tailors or Boatmen for example, without which the local economy would grind to a semi-naked halt.
Some of these go to the Caithness fishing; but neither they nor any other class of the inhabitants of Harris leave the country to seek for any other employment. A few, however, have gone as far as Stornoway to get work.
This is the purest manifestation of what later led to the Land Riots – a total ignorance of what the people wanted & why. As late as the time of Lord Leverhulme, islanders made it clear that they did not embrace becoming ‘wage-slaves’ but merely wanted to be left in peace to live their lives as their forebears had – in self-sufficient, close-knit island communities where the sea was the highway, the land wasn’t any-ones to ‘own’, and where a rich a vibrant Gaelic culture prevailed.
Those from the mainland, such as the man who signed this document, had other ideas…
(Signed) J. R. MACDONALD.
Sir John, having apparently learned all that he needed to know from two days in Harris, was the very next day at Lochmaddy in North Uist, collecting more information from ‘the great and the good’, whether they be Proprietors, Factors, Parish Ministers or the Parochial Boards and, apparently, not troubling himself to speak to a single representative of ‘the Poor’ who were the very reason for his Report…
It would be more than thirty years before another group, the Napier Commission, got to the bottom the nature of the islanders grievances  but by that time many had been forced to ‘leave the country to seek for any other employment’ as many still have to do today…
Oh, and I have a list of the residents of Rodel House where this evidence was given and you will see that in 1851 my cousin Angus Kerr was a Farm Servant there. He remained in Rodel for the remainder of his life, becoming the Farm Grieve (or Manager) of the ‘Home Farm’ at Rodel and then Coachman to, I presume, the 7th Earl of Dunmore. Whether he was there in 1850 on the night of the famous elopement or not I cannot say, but he married a daughter of the Schoolmaster at Kyles Scalpay (she being the Housemaid Lexy Morrison who we see on the above list in 1861) so, although I am appalled at the injustices that were perpetrated upon the people, I have a sneaking suspicion that at least some of my relatives were amongst the more fortunate few…
Ref: Report to the Board of Supervision by Sir John M’Neill, GCB, on the Western Highlands & Islands, 1851, P109/110

One thought on “>Friday, 4th April 1851 – Sir John McNeill

  1. A predecessor to Lord Napier (who went round in 1883). Have put Sir John M'Neill's report on my "to read and possibly transcribe" list.

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