>Some notes on a selection from the Report to the Board of Supervision…


…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.
p xxi-xx2.
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 .
From pages 106/7 of the Report we know that on the 3rd of April the Parochial Board of Harris wrote their response to his request for information where we learn that:
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
Of these 136 men, only 42 were recorded as involved in roadworking in the 1851 census but it is that last sentence that is the most damning – the work (like that of some of the dyke-building that was also occurring) was simply an invention to occupy the men. Yet, some 80 years later, the people of south Harris were still having to plead to Parliament for a decent road along the Sound of Harris.
The letter was followed on the 4th of April by Sir John and his entourage visiting John Robertson Macdonald, the Factor of Harris, at ‘Rodil’ where they heard his evidence.
And that was it as far as Harris was concerned for by the 5th of April 7th the party had moved on to North Uist were Charles Shaw provided his evidence,some of which is pertinent to this piece.

I shall perhaps return to the Report later, when the manner in which it was related by ‘The Quarterly Review’ will be investigated to see the Tory (in the 19thC meaning of the word) reaction to it.

Cottar Heads of Households of Harris

I am looking at the number of households on ‘mainland’ Harris that were headed by a Cottar.

A Cottar is defined by Scotland’s People as a ‘Tenant with only a house and a little land’ but colloquially reference is often made to ‘landless cottars’. The point is that whilst a cottar would have had a patch, or patches, of mean ground to cultivate (predominantly by feannagan or ‘lazy-bed’) he or she was on the most precarious margin of subsistence.

I have ignored the other islands simply in order to gain an impression of the scale of cottar households over the period in question. I would like to look at each outlying island in detail at a later date.

1841 – None Listed
1851 – 51
1861 – 36
1871 – 42*
1881 – 24
1891 – 27
1901 – 42

I should point out that there were cottars who, because they had an additional occupation (and therefore source of income), do not appear in these figures. For example, I am descended from a Tailor who was also a cottar but his occupation ‘masks’ his status as a cottar in the censuses of 1851 and 1861.

I do have a relative amongst the cottar population of 1871, but he is recorded as a Shepherd in 1861 and 1881 (and as a ‘Retired Shepherd’ in 1891 and ‘Keeping at Home’ in 1901) so I am confused by this apparent anomaly.

However, these two examples do illustrate that this is not an exact science. We have no idea of the number of cottars existing in 1841 simply because they are not defined in that particular census.

If nothing else, we can say that on Harris itself there were an average of three-dozen cottar households throughout the second-half of the 19thC. Not a huge number in itself but still representing perhaps one-hundred and fifty islanders clinging-on to existence as firmly and precariously as limpets on a storm-swept rock.

Ref: http://scotsfamily.com/occupations.htm

Condition of the cottar population in Lewis 1881

Condition of the cottar population in Lewis.
Report to Her Majesty’s Secretary for Scotland.
Accounts and Papers, 1888.
Vol. LXXX, 43p., maps. [C. 5265]

Meetings of parochial boards were held in Lewis and it was discovered that some destitution did exist.

A previous inquiry into destitution on the island had been held in 1851, following the collapse of the kelp industry between 1844 and 1849 and the failure of the potato crop in 1846.

The expansion of the herring industry had soon relieved the situation.

By 1888, however, over-production and foreign competition had affected the herring fishery and it became increasingly difficult for the cottars of Lewis to obtain credit from local merchants between the fishing seasons.

In addition, an epidemic of measles had afflicted most of the population.

Mr. Fraser and Mr. McNeill visited 108 houses in the parishes of Lochs and Stornoway. Tabulated results of their inquiries are included in the appendix.

They found that the soil was of poor quality, there was a shortage of food and “a listless apathy is everywhere apparent.”

They predicted starvation on the island and recommended that some of the surplus population should be removed.

Source: http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/haynin/haynin1403.htm#p290