>(From a Correspondent) Glasgow Herald 23 April 1883 page 8
‘The special tour of inspection undertaken in the bitterly cold month of March by the two inspecting officers of the Board of Supervision, while it has fully corroborated the tales of distress from the Hebrides and the West Coast with which the public have for some time past been familiar, puts us in possession of nothing new regarding the deplorable condition of the able-bodied population in these regions.’
Thus begins a lengthy and very detailed article that proceeds to patiently, artfully and skilfully demolish the findings of the report published following the inspection. In this piece I am focussing upon the visit of ‘Mr Peterkin’ to Harris:
‘Mr Peterkin next visits Harris, North and South. A striking contrast appears between the two sections. In the North the proprietor, Sir Edward H. Scott, Bart., is doing everything needful for his people; while in the South, under the Dowager Countess of Dunmore as trustee, the people seem to be suffering, and have now been helped in money to the extent of £600 from the London Committee – evidently the result of Lord Dunmore’s recent visit to the metropolis to “beg aid for the distressed people.”’
A brief biography of Sir Edward H. Scott is to be found in this earlier piece
which contains a link to further information on his family’s contribution to Harris. The visits of SS Dunara Castle to Harris, an innovation of the Baronet’s that did much for the island’s economy, are recorded in the censuses and may be read here
. It is worth mentioning that the 1891 visit records Malcolm McNeill of the Board of Supervision as one of the passengers, reminding us that, even eight years after the publication of the article in the Glasgow Herald, the work of that Board in the islands remained very much ‘in progress’. (Those with an interest in ‘Society Gossip’ may also wish to read this from the Spring of 1899 regarding Sir Samuel Scott’s wife.
The aspect that interests me the most is the identification of the suffering of the people in South Harris ‘…under the Dowager Countess of Dunmore as trustee…‘ . Firstly, why was the 42 year-old 7th Earl’s 69 year-old mother acting as trustee to the Estate at a time when her son was not performing military duties abroad as indicated by reference to his recent visit to London? Secondly, the fact that we are provided with a contrast between the situation in the North (thanks to the attitude and activities of the proprietor Sir E Scott) and the situation in the South (where we are told that the proprietor went to London “…to beg aid…”) is a clear statement as to where the writer considers the blame to lie.
A century earlier Rodel had been the powerhouse of development under Captain Alexander Macleod and Tarbert was no more than a small cluster of houses at the head of the West Loch (as can be clearly seen in Bald’s 1804/5 map).
The Tarbert of the 1880s was a small yet thriving town strung mainly along the Northern shore of the East Loch whilst Rodel had been reduced to little more than an island retreat for an apparently absent landlord.
‘On this estate there are about 128 crofters, of whom 74 pay rents of from £4 to £5 each; 38 pay from £5 to £7 each; and 16 from £7 to £10 each. Some of these crofters are in arrears with their rents, and are now employed in working off this burden by roadmaking and trenching near the proprietor’s residence. It would have looked as well to have let the arrears to stand over in present circumstances and allowed the crofters to work their land and sow seed with a view to averting the calamities of famine next year.’
An interrogation of the 1881 census reveals 121 households headed by a Crofter which accords pretty well with the figure of 128 a couple of years later as given here. It is interesting to note that 58% of these were in the category paying the lowest rentals, 30% in the middle group and only 12% at the highest level as this gives us an indication of the distribution of rents, in this case one that is heavily ‘skewed’ towards the lower end.
The roadmaking was clearly limited to a small area around Rodel for, as can be seen in this evidence to the ‘recently appointed Royal Commission’
mentioned at the end of the article, the Bays were still in desperate need of a road and it would be another fourteen years before the ‘Golden Road’
‘Mr Peterkin reports that some of them have poultry and some cattle and sheep, but that the crofters would not willingly sell any stock this season. He might have added that no one would buy them at this season.’
The writer was clearly unimpressed by the Edinburgh-born Mr Peterkin’s ignorance of island agriculture and ensures that we are made aware of it:
‘The Harris cattle possessed by crofters are not of a good stamp, and bring but poor prices at anytime. It is said, and there is little reason to doubt it, that they feed partly on sea-weed in winter and spring, and at this time they are fit neither for being eaten or being sold to advantage.’
We should remember that the Harris cattle possessed by others, notably those of the Stewart & McRa farming families, were prized beasts that won awards but, for some strange reason, the benefit of breeding wasn’t accorded to their crofting neighbours. I do have to take the writer to task on the matter of cattle consuming seaweed for my understanding is that this is actually beneficial to them and hence not a factor in their fitness for either sale or consumption?
The idea of poultry is rather comical. The poorest of the poor in the Highlands has two or three hens. If they are killed for food they will not last long, and there will be no eggs.
This is the writer’s final twist of his ‘pen/knife’ and he then ends with a prescient predication as to what the forthcoming Napier Commission would discover:
There seems to be a providence in the present state of matters, bringing the wretchedness of the people to the surface, to give plenty of scope to the recently appointed Royal Commission.
I would dearly love to learn who the author of this article was but meanwhile here is a compilation of ‘snapshots’ of his ‘target’, William Arthur Peterkin (1824-1906 ), taken from the censuses of 1851-1901 and with his occupation shown in bold:
1851 27, Senior Clerk board of Supervision, Lewis Castle, Stornoway Distillery, Stornoway, b. Nk
1861 37, First Class Clerk, Civil Service Poor Law, 14 Grove Street, Edinburgh, b. Edinburgh
(Wife, 5 children aged 1 to 7, a Cook, a Nurse and a Nurse Maid)
1871 47, Civil Service Poor Law, General Superintendent of Poor, North District, Scotland. Inspecting Officer of Board of Supervision Under Public Health Act, Scotland, 9 Albert Street, Nairn, b. St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh
(Wife, 7 children aged 3 to 17, a Domestic Cook and a Housemaid)
1881 57, H.M.C.S. Board of Supervision, Visitor, 25 Union Street, Inverness, b. St Cuthbert, Midlothian
(25 Union Street was a hotel kept by a 35 year-old, Donald Davidson, from Elgin)
1891 67, Civil Service – Inspector, Terry Road (North Side) Fairholm, Edinburgh, b. Edinburgh
(Wife, 4 children aged 25 to 31, 2 Domestic Servants and 2 Visitors)
1901 77, Annuitant (Retired from Civil Service), 7 Eildon Street, Edinburgh, b. Edinburgh
(Wife, 2 children aged 39 & 47, 2 General Servants (Domestic) and a Visitor)
His occupational titles of 1871 are certainly the longest that I have yet read in the censuses!