>Robert Somers – ‘Letters from the Highlands; or, the Famine of 1847’

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Robert Somers (1822-1891) had only recently joined the ‘North British Daily Mail’ in Glasgow when he went to the Highlands to investigate the Potato Famines and the results were published in a book the following year. I have only just begun reading the tome but thought that these extracts from ‘Letter XXI‘ on the ‘Want of Plantations in Skye – Profits of the Kelp Manufacture – Extravagance of the Highland Chiefs – Its Results’ were especially interesting:
‘When Dr. Johnson visited the Hebrides, the lairds were only beginning to draw money-rents from their estates. A proprietor of one of the islands declared to him that “he should be very rich if he could set his land at 2½d. an acre.” Every one knows how very different it is now.
Since then rents have undergone a fourfold, a six-fold, and even a ten-fold increase, and the Highland proprietors have reaped the benefit of the kelp manufacture, the profits of which far exceeded, in many cases, the rental of the land itself. We have heard of Highland proprietors receiving £10,000, and some £12,000 and £14,000 a-year from kelp alone.’
‘There is no more interesting passage in Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” than that in which he describes how commerce and manufactures gradually broke down the power of the feudal barons, and promoted the improvement and cultivation of the country. In rude times a landed proprietor could find no way of consuming his revenue but by sharing it with a multitude of retainers, who were necessarily always at his command, whether in peace or war. But when commerce and manufactures arose, they spread before his eyes numerous articles of curious workmanship and dazzling material, the enjoyment of which could be lavished entirely upon himself. His vanity was tickled; and for a diamond buckle, or a gilded coach, he bartered the produce which would have maintained 1,000 men for a year.’
Towards the close of last century, the rise of rents and the profits of kelp brought the Highland chiefs within the reach of the same temptations to which the English and Lowland barons had yielded a century earlier. They introduced them into the splendid warehouses and saloons of London, filled with the richest handiwork and the rarest and costliest luxuries which the ingenuity of man could devise, or the unwearied energies of commerce could collect.
There, too, were the English aristocracy, with their princely equipages and their glittering wealth, to excite emulation and to ruffle pride. The effect was the same as when a hawker of the backwoods spreads out his toys, and trinkets, and fire-waters, before a tribe of Indians. The vanity of the Highland chiefs was intoxicated, and the solid advantages which the new tide in their affairs had opened up to them were bartered for the merest baubles. There is a staircase-window in Lord Macdonald’s mansion in Skye which is said to have cost £500. In residences, dress, furniture, equipages, pleasures, and style of living, the Highland chiefs copied the English model; and while they necessarily lost their power by this new way of life, the only resources by which their rugged country and its untutored inhabitants could have been brought into a cultivated and civilised condition, were wasted in the vain attempt to rival the magnificence of an aristocracy who possessed much richer domains and larger revenues.
The decay of the kelp manufacture completed the ruin which personal extravagance had begun; and the men who had long reaped the profits of this lucrative trade passed from the scene, leaving their estates as unimproved as they had found them, a numerous population starving, and rentals reduced far below their nominal amount by the annual charges of their mortgages.
The heirs of this poor inheritance occupy a difficult and painful position. They are entitled to sympathy and indulgence. There is only one way by which they can hope to gain their lost ground, to improve their estates, or even to transmit them, in a state worth possessing, to their children. They must forsake the world, forswear pomp and fashion, retire to their country seats, live penuriously, and spend in the improvement of their properties the last farthing of their rentals which they can spare from the consumption of their families.
The ‘Letters’ must have pleased his employers for, the following year, Somers became the paper’s Editor (a position he held until 1859) and we may glimpse the 29 year-old in the census of 1851 living at 16 Pollok Street, Govan, Renfrewshire with his wife, Janet, and their three children.
I had some difficulty in discovering further information regarding this address but, as can be seen from the link that follows, that is hardly surprising! – The Hidden Glasgow .
(It was also an anomaly of the period that the part of the Parish of Govan that the Somers’ lived in was considered to be in Renfrewshire, unlike the majority of Govan which lies in Lanarkshire.)
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