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The Crofter in History
The Policy of Sheep-Walks


But whatever might have been the result of the general adoption of the system which began so inauspiciously in Tyree, economic causes and not less potent economic theories, [In the Preface to Mr James Locke's "Account of the Improvements on the Stafford Estates" will be found an illustration of these theories or axioms. "The consideration of the more general questions as to the propriety of the policy of permitting or encouraging emigration and of converting small occupations into large farms, with the consequent effects of accumulating a large portion of the population of the country into villages and large towns, has in some degree been taken for granted in the following pages, as matters upon which the public mind seems to be in a great measure made up; at least as far as the practice of the whole nation can be supposed to be a proof of their acquiescence in the truth of these once strongly contested points."] interfered to prevent the attempt. The sheep farmer offered a short way out of the difficulties which were besetting the landowners. It is sometimes forgotten what these difficulties were. One instance may be given. In Clanronald's estate in Uist in 1812 the sum of £3353 was spent by the proprietor in purchasing meal for the people, and from 1815 to 1818 upwards of £6000. In 1828 the number of persons thrown out of employment by the failure of the kelp trade was estimated at 50,000. It was not only that the sheep farmer offered a higher rent than the old occupiers. Acceptance of his offer in many cases put an end to the expenditure involved in the cost of management. It was as if gold mines had suddenly been discovered. A school of political economists looked on, if not with indifference, at least without alarm. Was there not a great increase in production and a dimunition of a class verging on pauperism? were the people not better off in the towns : were they not happier in America or in Canada? To hinder this movement was now considered the height of folly. Emigrant ships once more appeared on the western coasts and carried off their living freights, which were destined in the fulness of time to strengthen and extend the limits of the empire. Lord Selkirk urged not only the expediency but the absolute necessity of emigration conducted on a system and with State assistance. He laid it down as indisputable that the landowners had every right, legal and moral, to remove the people and to make the utmost profit out of their lands. Even Dr Robertson of Callander, while he denounced such conduct as unpatriotic, pleaded that those proprietors who preferred what he considered the public interest to their own should be indemnified by the State. [Report to Board of Agriculture in Perthshire.]

Others warned the proprietors of the danger of the course they were adopting even for their own interests. Dr Walker declared that there would be no market for the enormous number of sheep in the country, little dreaming of the changes which railways and steamboats were about to make. But it was no want of foresight which led him to contend that the price of wool was precarious, and that "black cattle, the long established profitable production of the country should not be relinquished on precarious grounds." Stewart of Garth stoutly asserted that, "at a distance from market, with much ragged but improvable land, an active, abstemious population, and a comparatively barren soil, improvements which could not be executed by capital alone, unassisted by the manual labours of the occupiers, may be carried on to the mutual advantage both of landlord and tenant." Describing the conversion of some run-rig farms into separate tenements, he says—"The people were so numerous that about two arable acres, with a portion of pasture, were all that could be allotted to each person, but none were removed. The pastures remained in common as from their nature and extent they must always be . . . the horses, cattle, and sheep to be kept on the pastures were limited in proportion to the quantity and quality of the arable land occupied by each tenant." Later experience has proved that such small allotments cannot maintain a family in comfort; but the unfortunate inclination to deprive the smaller occupiers of their common pasture in order to add to neighbouring sheep farms has largely contributed to the failure. On this subject Colonel Stewart wrote, " Others, by separating the high pasture lands from the low arable grounds and letting them apart, have lost the advantages which joint possessors of arable and pasture grounds afforded for counteracting the evils of precarious seasons, and the difficulty of disposing of produce when distant from market, and have lost the benefit to the arable ground of the winter manure of the cattle fed upon the pastures in summer. It frequently happens that when corn is at a low price, the produce of the pastures is high, and again when sheep wool and cattle are low there is sometimes a great demand for grain. Judicious distribution of these natural advantages of the country have long secured an equality to, if not in some cases a superiority over, situations more favoured in point of climate and soil."

Colonel Stewart wrote when the controversy occasioned by what are known as the "Sutherland clearances" was before the public. It was probably with reference to them he says—"Rents might have been gradually increased with the increasing value of produce, and improved modes of cultivation introduced, without subverting the characteristic dispositions of a race of men who inherited from their ancestors an attachment seldom equalled, and still more seldom exceeded, either in fidelity or disinterestedness. . . . Tenants might have been induced to pay adequate rents for their lands without the necessity of depopulating whole districts; the farms, too, might have been gradually enlarged —the mode of husbandry altered, sheep stock introduced—the surplus population, if such there was, employed in clearing and improving the land fit for cultivation, or induced to change their residence from one district to another, or to transfer their industry from the land to the fisheries, without being driven at once from their usual means of subsistence, and from their native districts. . . . This mode of giving all the good and cultivated land to a few rich individuals, and of subdividing small portions of barren moor, or of inferior soil, among the previous occupiers, in a country without any permanent means of subsistence beyond the scanty and precarious produce of those unreclaimed patches, is a line of policy which could not fail to excite universal surprise did we not yearly witness so many theoretical schemes, and so little regard for the happiness of the people." Experience has done much to confirm these views, and the Sutherland clearances are generally condemned as the result of a scheme unhappily conceived and unfortunately executed. But it would be more accurate to say that they were done from a mistaken view of what was for the happiness of the people rather than from a cynical indifference to their welfare. Again, the old system of occupation, it must be borne in mind, had not only led to great distress and misery in the people, but was in Sutherland, as elsewhere, producing a drain on the revenue of the estates which few proprietors could have borne. Nor was the result of the measures adopted a surplus instead of a deficit. It is certain that for many years the expenditure on these estates, long after the evictions, was greatly in excess of the rental. Whether the expenditure was a wise one or not is another question. The fact is a sufficient refutation of the charge that the changes were done with the selfish object of immediate gain to the proprietor. Whatever method of improvement might be adopted, an eventual increase in the revenue derived from the property was of course to be expected.

Pennant, in 1772, described the natives of Sutherland inhabiting the district between Loch Shin and Loch Broom in the following terms:— "This tract seems the residence of sloth; the people almost torpid with idleness, and most wretched; their hovels most miserable, made of poles wattled and covered with thin sods. There is not corn raised sufficient to supply half the wants of the inhabitants: climate conspires with indolence to make matters worse; yet there is much improveable land here in a state of nature, but till famine pinches they will not bestir themselves : they are content with little at present, and are thoughtless of futurity. . . . Dispirited and driven to despair by bad management, crowds were now passing, emaciated with hunger, to the eastern coast, on the report of a ship being there laden with meal. Numbers of the miserables of this country were now migrating: they wandered in a state of desperation; too poor to pay, they madly sell themselves for their passage, preferring a temporary bondage in a strange land to starving for life in their native soil." [Pennant's "Tour," vol. i. p. 366.]

Mr Loch, after detailing the evils of the runrig system, thus describes the people of Sutherland:— "Such being, until very lately (1820), the condition of the estate of Sutherland, the effect was to scatter thickly a hardy but not an industrious race of people up the glens and over the sides of the various mountains; who, taking advantage of every spot which could be cultivated, and which could with any chance of success be applied to raising a precarious crop of inferior oats, of which they baked their cakes ; and of bear, from which they distilled their whisky; added but little to the industry, and contributed nothing to the wealth of the empire. Impatient of regular and constant work, all the heavy labour was abandoned to the women, who were employed occasionally even in dragging the harrow to cover in the seed. To build their hut, or get in their peats for fuel, or to perform any other occasional labour of the kind, the men were ever ready to assist; but the great proportion of their time, when not in the pursuit of game or of illegal distillation, was spent in indolence and sloth. Their huts were of the most miserable description. They were built of turf dug from the most valuable portions of the mountain side. Their roof consisted of the same material, which was supported upon a rude wooden frame, constructed of crooked timber taken from the natural woods belonging to the proprietor, and of moss fir dug from the peat bogs. The situation they selected was uniformly on the edge of the cultivated land and of the mountain pastures. They were placed lengthways, and sloping with the declination of the bill. This position was chosen in order that all the filth might flow from the habitation without further exertion upon the part of the owner. Under the same roof, and entering at the same door, were kept all the domestic animals belonging to the establishment. The upper portion of the hut was appropriated to the use of the family. In the centre of this upper division was placed the fire. . . . The floor was the bare earth, except near the fireplace, where it was rudely paved with rough stones. . . . Every hollow formed a receptacle for whatever fluid happened to fall near it, where it remained until absorbed by the earth. It was impossible that it should ever be swept, and when the accumulation of filth rendered the place uninhabitable, another hut was erected in the vicinity of the old one."

Repeated failures in the potato crop gave rise to a partial famine every third or fourth year, when "the starving population became necessarily dependent for their support on the bounty of their landlord." In winter cattle died, not by scores, but by hundreds. In the year 1807, "there died in the parish of Kildonan alone, 200 cows, 500 head of cattle, and more than 200 small horses."

Yet, in spite of all this misery—if it be admitted to be such—the people were devotedly attached to their homes. On this subject Loch remarks— "Like all mountaineers, accustomed to a life of irregular exertion with intervals of sloth, they were attached with a degree of enthusiasm only felt by the natives of a poor country to their own glen and mountain side, adhering in the strangest manner to the habits and homes of their fathers. They deemed no comfort worth the possessing which was to be purchased at the price of regular industry; no improvement worthy of adoption if it was to be obtained at the expense of sacrificing the customs or leaving the homes of their ancestors."

But what was to be done? Were the people to be allowed to remain in the condition here described, sinking deeper and deeper into poverty with the increase of their numbers, and forming an indefinite drain on the resources of the proprietor—a proletariat rooted to the soil? Was it possible to introduce improvements, and by new regulations of the estate convert them into a prosperous peasantry? It must be admitted that the prospect was not encouraging. It required the enthusiasm of men like Stewart of Garth to believe in the possibility of such an undertaking. Still it must be regretted that the experiment was not tried. Instead of it a resolution was arrived at, which may be best stated in Mr Loch's words.

"As there was every reason for concluding that the mountainous parts of the estate, and indeed of the county of Sutherland, were as much calculated for the maintenance of stock as they were unfit for the habitation of man, there could be no doubt as to the propriety of converting them into sheep-walks, provided the people could be at the same time settled in situations, where, by the exercise of their honest industry, they could obtain a decent livelihood and add to the general mass of national wealth, and where they should not be exposed to the recurrence of those privations which so frequently and so terribly affected them when situated among the mountains. ... It had long been known that the coast of Sutherland abounded with many different kinds of fish, not only sufficient for the consumption of the country, but affording also a supply to any extent for more distant markets, or for exportation when cured and salted. ... It seemed as if it had been pointed out by Nature that the system for this remote district, in order that it might bear its suitable importance in contributing its share to the general stock of the country, was to convert the mountainous districts into sheep-walks, and to remove the inhabitants to the coast, or to the valleys near the sea."

In accordance with this decision the removal of the people was completed in the spring of 1820. Amongst those removed were more than 400 families, consisting of nearly 2000 individuals, who were mere squatters, and paid no rent either to the proprietor or the tacksmen. As an inducement to the others, all arrears were abandoned and no rent was exacted for the last year of their occupation of their old holdings. They were also given the price of the wood belonging to their houses, such price being fixed by "two sworn appraisers." The amount thus expended, together with the value of the arrears, was estimated at more than £15,000. It is noteworthy that, in connection with these arrangements, improving leases were adopted on terms which appear to have been favourable to the settlers. This was the settlement on Dornoch Muirs, a portion of which was cut up into lots of various sizes. For each lot, 1s. of rent was demanded; tacks were given for seven years, "with a condition to continue the term for seven years more for the land which may be brought under cultivation." For each acre rendered arable, £3 was allowed. It is to be regretted that improving leases of this description were not more generally tried.

Those who carried out these removals had no doubt that they tended towards the general prosperity. The possibility of the people failing near the sea coast to secure the means of livelihood, never crossed their minds. In seasons of scarcity the people so situated had been comparatively thriving. The managers of the estate jumped to the conclusion that it was only necessary to place those who had lived in the interior alongside of them and all would be well. It is not proposed here to mark the precise degree in which these anticipations have been fulfilled or disappointed. It will suffice to quote one description from the pen of an eye-witness to prove that grave doubts of the success of the new arrangements were entertained before they had been long carried into effect.

"These [Letter to General Stewart, Stewart's Sketches, introduction and appendix. The district is not specified.] wretched people exhibit every symptom of the most abject poverty and the most helpless distress. Their miserable lots in the moors, notwithstanding their utmost labour and strictest economy, have not yielded them a sufficient crop for the support of their families for three months. The little money they were able to derive from the sale of their stock has therefore been expended in the purchase of necessaries, and is now wholly exhausted."

It remains to notice the work of a writer of some repute, who travelled in the Highlands before the clamour excited by these proceedings had subsided. It was the misfortune of Sir Walter Scott, in the decline of life, to be the recipient of a series of voluminous letters, which occupy the four closely-printed octavo volumes known to us as "M'Culloch's Tour in the Hebrides." It would not be inaccurate to describe these epistles as a fifth-rate encyclopaedia. M'Culloch was a man of versatile talent and extensive information. He had a wide knowledge of history and literature: he was a proficient in the classical and modern languages. His claims to be considered an antiquarian were by no means despicable. To these accomplishments he added, in his own estimation, the reputation of a political economist, a mathematician, an astronomer, a geologist, a mineralogist, and a chemist. He determined to prove to Sir Walter Scott and the public the vast range of his faculties. Yet, absurdly ostentatious as the work is, the want of judgment which prompted such parade would have been venial if it had gone no further than to fatigue his readers. But he was so deeply prejudiced, so violent and rash in his opinions of men and things, and so intemperate in his mode of expressing them, that for all the effect produced on his mind by what he saw and heard, every chapter might have been as well inspired in London as in the Highlands. Everywhere he discovered pegs on which he hung interminable disquisitions for the satisfaction of his intellectual vanity. Of all the topics in the Highlands which might have called for careful examination, that of the occupation of the land and the recent alterations of system was the first and most important. There was material enough to occupy one at least out of the four volumes. Yet he devotes only a single chapter to the subject, and warns his readers that they must ascribe any obscurity in his meaning to this unfortunate lack of space.

The following abstract and quotation from M'Culloch's argument may be taken as a fair example of the view adopted by the "economic" school of his day. "In the Highlands, black cattle cannot consume all the pasture. Sheep can: and sheep can only be cultivated in large flocks. Small capitalists cannot manage them. As it is necessary to have a proportion of winter food, the smaller interspersed tracts must be taken from petty agriculture, when these are adapted to that purpose. These tracts were occupied by a race of starving and miserable tenants, who impeded the application of what they could not use, producing nothing themselves, and obstructing production." "It had become imperative on the proprietors to eject them and place them near the shore."

"This reform was advantageous: it was favourable to the increase of population: the land was incapable of further division among the people, because everything arable was occupied: they were incapable of farming the pastoral farms: by their removal to the sea-shore they have been introduced to fresh wealth. The rent of the maritime crofts is a tax upon labour. The farms themselves are so minute that the people could not subsist on them without fishing. They could pay no rent from a surplus produce, since their lands afford none. The rent is the rent of the fisheries, fust as in the neighbourhood of a city, the rents are high because they represent accommodation for labour, so are rents higher near the shore, where there are more demands than room for houses." "Fishing and competition are the two main causes of the occupation of such lands. The temperate habits of the people are another cause."

"Land was formerly cultivated in a manner which only such a population as then existed rendered practicable. A large tenant could not cultivate it by capital and hired labour. If labour had a value, the produce of a crofter's holding could not offer an equivalent; but labour has no price in the Highlands. The small tenants are improvers by compulsion, and their capital is their own labour." "It is impossible to concentrate or accumulate the smaller capitals and their effects, and thus, while the improvements of the small tenements are great, even to folly, in a commercial view, the larger are neglected. Thus it is the worst looking land that maintains the greatest population. The resources of this land are, however, in the way to be exhausted : what remains of eventual augmentation of wealth must be sought in the interior lands and the extensive tracts; but it is a distant and contingent one, otherwise than as the crofting system may still be continued to these."

It is unnecessary to quote further. The bearing of the passages printed in italics on existing disputes is too obvious to require comment. The question has arisen, Are our fisheries worth anything to the maritime crofters as a class? There is a general agreement that fishing and agriculture are incompatible. Attempts to combine the two have failed and are certain to fail. The weakness of the arguments urged by M'Culloch's school appears to consist (1) in adopting no middle course between sheep farming on the monopoly system and the old joint tenancy; (2) in supposing that a pastoral and agricultural class could be suddenly converted into fishermen, and that the fisheries would furnish an unfailing source of supply; (3) in not foreseeing that sheep farms would leave no room for the expansion of the crofting system on a scale which would have given it a reasonable chance of success. The cry for "more land " is a natural, and, in some places, a necessary consequence of these mistakes.


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