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Outer Isles
Chapter VII. South Uist


THERE is nothing but a common name to associate the two islands of North and South Uist. They are separated by the island of Benbecula; they are under different proprietors: the one is Presbyterian, the other Roman Catholic; the one has certain connexions with the life of the outer world: it is, so to speak, the seat of government for the Long Island; the other is as separate from all that is human, kindly, genial, as if it were a suburb of the North Pole.

There is, thank Heaven, but one South Uist in the world, though in poverty, misery, and neglect, the island of Barra, sixteen miles south, runs it very close. Barra, however, thanks to its harbour and its fishing, is in touch with the outside world, whereas (save for a few tourists deluded by the tradition of past glory of trout-fishing—for the best lochs are withheld from the public —who for a few months in the year pay passing visits to Loch Boisdale on the east coast) South Uist is surely the most forsaken spot on God’s earth. In spite of some concessions of land, wrenched, on behalf of the people, by the tardy action of the Crofters’ Commission, the greater part of the island [The island of South Uist, including Benbecula and Eriskay, which, geographically, belong to it, is thirty-eight mites in length, and from two to nine miles in breadth. It contains some 137 square miles, of which, according to Campbell’s survey, 40,000 acres are adapted for cultivation.] is under sheep-farms, a “farm” here signifying a tract of country once bright with happy homesteads, now laid bare and desolate. Heaps of grey stone scattered all over the island are all that remain of hundreds of once thriving cottages ; narrow strips of greener grass or more tender heather are all that is left to represent waving cornfields and plots of fertile ground handed on from generation to generation of home-loving agriculturists. The more hardy and vigorous of the race which once flourished here are now scattered over the face of the earth; the old, the weak, the spiritless, for the most part, have alone remained, and their children, whitefaced, anaemic, depressed, driven to the edge of the sea as one after another the scraps of land redeemed by their perilous industry were taken from them, are still fighting hand-to-hand with Nature, almost worn out with a hopeless struggle. They are the only Highlanders I ever met who were curt in manner, almost inhospitable, discourteous; but one soon learns to forgive what, after all, is but the result of long years of life “on the defensive.”

Nature herself has been but a hard step-mother to the people of Uist. MacCulloch, the correspondent of Sir Walter Scott, wrote of it: “The sea is all islands, and the land all lakes; that which is not rock is sand, and that which is not mud is bog, and that which is not bog is lake, and that which is not lake is sea! ”

It is all true enough, but even Nature, “red in tooth and claw,” might be, has been,. propitiated. Even in South Uist there was a time when life was tolerable, “before chiefs divorced themselves from their retainers, before sheep became the golden image to be worshipped, before the lust for gold took the place of love for the people.” [Preface by Alexander Mackenzie to his edition of Stewart of Garth’s Sketches of the Highlanders.]

The last of the old chiefs of South Uist, Macdonald of Clan Ranald, driven desperate by family losses, by debts which had been accumulating ever since the disasters of the ’45, hopeless of alleviating the distresses of his people, an unwilling party to the cruelties of the trustees and factor, parted with his estate of South Uist in 1841, to Colonel Gordon of Cluny.

The next chapter in the history of the island may perhaps be told more fitly in the business-like report of a contemporary Canadian newspaper. It would be difficult for any fellow-countryman to assume language sufficiently unimpassioned to be convincing to the judicial reader of history. The following is from the Quebec Times, of the year 1851, the year in which all civilized countries were ringing with the horrors of slavery as painted by the author of Uncle Toms Cabin, slavery which tore fellow-creatures from their homes, divided families, exported them beyond seas, but, at least, gave them the means of living, and bread in return for labour.

“Many of our readers may not be aware that there lives such a person as Colonel Gordon, proprietor of large estates in South Uist and Barra, in the Highlands of Scotland. It appears that his tenants on the above-mentioned estates were on the verge of starvation, and had probably become an eyesore to the gallant Colonel! He decided on shipping them to America. What they were to do there, was a question he never put to his conscience. Once landed in Canada he had no further concern about them. Up to last week some 1,100 souls from his estates had landed in Quebec and begged their way to Upper Canada2; when in the summer season, having only a daily morsel of food to procure, they probably escaped the extreme misery which seems to be the lot of those who followed them.

“On their arrival here they voluntarily made and signed the following statement: ‘We, the undersigned passengers (per Admiral from Stornoway in the Highlands of Scotland), do solemnly depose to the following facts: That Colonel Gordon is proprietor of estates in South Uist and Barra; that among many hundreds of tenants and cottars whom he has sent this season from his estates to Canada, he gave directions to his factor, Mr. Fleming, of Cluny Castle, Aberdeenshire, to ship on board of the above-named vessel a number of nearly 450 of said tenants and cottars from the estate in Barra; that accordingly a great majority of these people, among whom were the undersigned, proceeded voluntarily to embark on board the Admiral at Loch Boisdale, on or about the 11th of August, 1851; but that several of the people who were intended to be shipped for this port, Quebec, refused to proceed on board, and, in fact, absconded from their homes, to avoid the embarkation. Whereupon Mr. Fleming gave orders to a policeman, who was accompanied by the ground officer of the estate in Barra, and some constables, to pursue the people who had run away among the mountains, which they did, and succeeded in capturing about twenty from the mountains and islands in the neighbourhood, but only came with the officers on an attempt being made to handcuff them; and that some who ran away were not brought back, in consequence of which four families at least have been divided, some having come in the ships to Quebec, while other members of the same families are left in the Highlands.

“The undersigned further declare, that those voluntarily embarked did so under promises to the effect, that Colonel Gordon would defray their passage to Quebec; that the Government Emigration Agent there would send the whole party free to Upper Canada, where, on arrival, the Government Agents would give them work, and furthermore grant them land on certain conditions.

“The undersigned finally declare that they are now landed in Quebec so destitute, that if immediate relief be not afforded them, and continued until they are settled in employment, the whole will be liable to perish with want.

“(Signed) Hector Lamont
“and seventy others.’

“ . . . Words cannot depict the atrocity of the deed. For cruelty less savage, the dealers of the South have been held up to the execration of the world.

“And if as men the sufferings of these, our fellow-creatures, find sympathy in our hearts, as Canadians their wrongs concern us more dearly. The 1,500 souls whom Colonel Gordon has sent to Quebec this season have all been supported for the past week at least, and conveyed to Upper Canada at the expense of the colony, and on their arrival in Toronto and Hamilton, the greater number have been dependent on the charity of the benevolent for a morsel of bread. Four hundred are in the river at present and will arrive in a day or two, making a total of nearly 2,000 of Colonel Gordon’s tenants and cottars whom the province will have to support. The winter is at hand, work is becoming scarce in Upper Canada. Where are these people to find food?”

Thousands more were evicted from their homes in Lewis, the property of Sir William Matheson, and from Tyree, the property of the Duke of Argyll; and those who remained were driven, for the most part, to little patches of bog or moor, the most barren of the whole district, while the country, fertile from centuries of the labour of their forefathers, was laid waste to make room for sheep.

No sooner had they, by industry and frugality, redeemed these, than the landlords, seeing profit in acquiring what had before been valueless, drove them on to barren strips of sea-coast whore from the sea alone could they hope for sustenance.

“To accelerate the departure of the doomed natives the heath pasture was set fire to and burnt. The act deprived the cattle of their only subsistence—heather and young grass—during the spring months prior to the May term. The animals by this means were starved, lost, or sold for a mere trifle. The growing crops belonging to the tenants under notice of eviction were invaded by the incomers’ cattle, owing to the destruction of the fences by fire, for which they got no redress. The houses occupied by tho natives had all been erected by themselves or their ancestors—not by the landlord—and were consequently their own property ; but that fact excited no scruples in the minds of the despoilers, for while the able-bodied men were engaged at a distance, the houses were pulled down over the heads of the old people, the women, children, and infirm, and set on fire! The people were thus left exposed to the mercy of the elements, many dying from alarm, fatigue, and cold. The barns, kilns, and mills [for storing, drying, and grinding corn] were also burnt, except what the factor was likely to require. What escaped fire was confiscated.”

The excuse for these brutalities was, of course, that the Islands were overcrowded, that the people were too thick on the land, that the land could not produce enough to support the population, that for some years past there had been a small voluntary emigration which had had excellent results, and that therefore it was, in all respects, for the best interests of the people that these clearances should be made. To dwell upon the last point is, of course, superfluous. The man who emigrates voluntarily has, it may be presumed, arranged not only for his future abroad but for the disposal of his possessions at home; moreover, to put it moderately, Britain is, theoretically, a free country.

On the other points we may venture to offer a few remarks because the question, though more pressing in the Gordon property than elsewhere (unless on that of the Duke of Argyll), is one prominent in every part of the Outer Hebrides.

There is an immense amount of specialist literature upon this subject, and it would be out of place here to attempt to do more than indicate the nature of the problem with which the Crofters’ Commission and the Congested Districts Board are, however late in the day, not ineffectively grappling.

The question is now one of evidence; it has been taken out of the domain of sentiment, prejudice, opinion; and, on the whole, perhaps it is not too optimistic to say that, after nearly twenty years of inquiry on the one hand, and of incredibly patient waiting on the other, something in the direction of justice is beginning to be done. The problem—is it not stated in piles of folio Blue-books, 1883 et seq? And where in all the nation's history can one find Bluebooks so readable; Blue-books that are literature— even poetry, written in great measure by the people themselves, in their own quaint English: the story of their own sorrows and sufferings, their hopes and fears, their love of home, their loyalty, their infinite courtesy, their kindness to each other, their gratitude, their readiness to forgive.

It is worth while, in this connexion, to quote from the evidence given before the Crofters’ Commission of 1883 by the Rev. Donald Mackintosh, for twenty-two years priest in different parts of Lady Cathcart’s estates.

“When I came to the country, the clearances in 1851, and the emigration, forced in some cases with circumstances of shocking inhumanity, were fresh in the memory of old and young. In the evidence given by the crofters’ delegates before the Royal Commission . . . there was nothing regarding the doings in 1851 and the previous years that I did not hear long ago in every part of the parish from the Sound of Barra to the North Ford. To say, as has been said, that they only repeated the lesson taught them by agitators, means saying that they learned the lesson long years before agitators or a Royal Commission to inquire into their grievances were dreamt of. They did not exaggerate. Indeed, in describing things that happened in those times, to exaggerate would not be easy.”

Under no circumstances could South Uist, or even the slightly more fertile neighbouring island of Benbecula, be in a condition of prosperity from agriculture alone, though in the old days of the kelp-manufacture, as we learn from the Old Statistical Account, 1,100 tons were manufactured in years of average dryness and absence of extremes of weather; and even after the discovery of the Le Blanc method, and the consequent reduction of wages to as low as £2 per ton, this was, in good seasons a very fair remuneration. And the people were not without other resources. There was considerable trade in eggs, for the excellent harbours made some small exportation possible. “The egg trade is carried on by young able-bodied men, who go about the country with baskets, buying up all the eggs they can get at threepence per dozen. These are shipped off for Glasgow and Greenock from Loch Roisdale, Loch Eynort, and the Sound of Eriskay, in open boats of from seventeen to twenty feet keel, in return for wrhich the dealers bring home goods such as dye-stuffs, tobacco, cotton goods, crockery, and some other articles of convenience ” (Old Statistical Account).

In the Report of the Crofters Commission of 1883, (p. 5), we read:

“The conception formed by the people of the condition of their forefathers 100 years ago, derived from tradition and from the fugitive writings of the present time, appears to present the following picture:

“A large extent of arable and pasture land held by prosperous tenants in townships, paying a moderate rent to the proprietor; a sufficiency of grain grown, ground, and consumed in the country, in some places with an overplus available for exportation; cattle in numbers adequate to afford milk in abundance, and young stock for sale; horses for the various purposes of rural labour; sheep which yielded wool for home-spun and home-woven clothing of a substantial quality, and an occasional supply of animal food; fish of all kinds freely taken from the river and the sea. The population, thus happily provided with the simple necessaries of rustic life, are represented as contented with their lot, deeply attached to their homes, but ready to devote their lives to the service of the Crown and the defence of their country.”

The fisheries of South Uist, though a valuable addition to the resources of the islanders, do not seem to have been profitable for commercial purposes, in spite of the excellence of the Loch Roisdale harbour which is so safe and so capacious as to have long been the resort of shipping from the Baltic in tempestuous weather. There are, indeed, some five or six good harbours on the coast of South Uist.

From the Old Statistical Account we learn that Bois-dale—one of the Clanranalds settled in the south end of the island—was then “the only person who carried on the fisheries with any success, excepting some adventurers from Peterhead, who come to the coast here in March and return in July generally pretty successful.” Their catch seems to have been principally of ling, cod, skate, and turbot. Herring-fishing here* as elsewhere, at that period was unprofitable on account of the severe tax upon salt.

We hear, moreover, from Campbells Survey, of the successful growth of hemp and flax (often referred to in local traditions), of “ excellent grass, and garden stuffs of good quality and sufficient plenty.”

And if the past, here as elsewhere, has gained “a glory from its being far,” it is only fair to say that the Commissioners certainly extracted little or no evidence in disproof of such conception.

On the contrary, we find among the statements of the witnesses, passages such as the following from Father Campbell, for a great number of years priest in South Uist :

“I remember that there was a great deal of barley - grain exported from this island, but now, since these unfortunate changes, almost every sort of prosperity has declined. The late proprietors always kept a store of meal in the country, and allowed no one to suffer the pangs of hunger.

They received payment for the meal in kelp. Now kelp-manufacture is discontinued, and the usual supply of meal is stopped, which sinks the people deeper and deeper in the debt of the merchants.”

Or again, this is taken from the evidence of Mr. Alexander Carmichael, formerly resident for seventeen years in the island, in true sympathy with the people, and in his capacity of exciseman constantly going about among them, hearing their talk, and entering into their lives :

“In various localities and on various occasions I made minute inquiries of old people as to the detailed farm stock and domestic substance of their fathers. The people then had more land and of better quality, they had more horses, sheep and cattle; they had more crops and of better quality, they had better nourishing food, and they had better bed and body clothing. They had also more constructive ingenuity in arts and manufactures, and they had more mental and physical stamina, and more refinement of manners.”

To the unprejudiced observer it is, I think, abundantly clear that the enforced emigration was merely an excuse to get the people off the land at any price, so as to get the highest price possible from tenants, independent alike of kelp-making and sea-fishing.

The irony of this position taken up by the landlords is, that so long as kelp-making was profitable even the voluntary migration of any of the population was looked upon as an injury to the proprietors. Dr. Johnson has many remarks on this subject, and always from the point of view that, of course, the emigration of the people is a great misfortuue, but the proprietors have only themselves to thank for it; they should have made it better worth the tenants’ while to stay at home! “ That the immediate motives of their desertion must be imputed to their landlords may be reasonably concluded, because some lairds of more prudence and less rapacity have kept their vassals undiminished. From Raasay [Macleod’s Island] only one man had been seduced, and at Col [Maclean’s Island] there was no wish to go away. . . . Some method to stop this epidemic desire of wandering, which spreads its contagion from valley to valley, deserves to be sought with great diligence. In more fruitful countries, the removal of one only makes room for the succession of another; but in the Hebrides, the loss of an inhabitant leaves a lasting vacuity; for nobody born in any other part of the world will choose this country for his residence; and an island once depopulated will remain a desert as long as the present facility of travel gives every one, who is discontented and unsettled, the choice of his abode.”

Dr. Johnson had obviously not contemplated the possibility of the existence of a class of proprietors who preferred that their island should be depopulated in order that it might “remain a desert.”

Little more than fifty years later, in an article in The Witness, then under the editorship of Hugh Miller, (The Depopulation System in the Highlands), referring to the island of Tyree we find, in contrast, the following paragraph:

“And it is a melancholy reflection that the year 1849 has added its long list to the roll of Highland ejectments. While the law is banishing its tens for terms of seven or fourteen years, as the penalty of deep-dyed crimes, irresponsible and infatuated power is banishing its thousands for life, for no crime whatever. This year brings forward, as leader in the work of expatriation, the Duke of Argyll.”

As has been well said by the Rev. John Macphail, a most deeply respected Free Church Minister, for many years upon Lady Cathcart’s property, “I have never seen that emigration gave more room to people, though it did to sheep. The tendency has been to add more families to places already overcrowded.”

A Roman Catholic priest, also a witness before the Crofters’ Commission, and long resident on this property, further enforces this point:

“Owing to the removal of small tenants to make room for large farms or tacks, townships became over-crowded, and the extent of land originally estimated to support one family was made to be depended on by two or more families. . . . There can be no doubt that the land, from constant tillage, does not yield anything like what it once did. The returns, even in favourable years, are very low, only two or three returns instead of eight or nine. . . . The work is hurriedly done to enable the men to get away to the south to earn money there. Then the taking away of hill-pasture from those who formerly had it has greatly added to the discomfort of the people. It has deprived them of the means of furnishing themselves with clothing for day and night.1 This is a very painful feature in the condition of the people with which our going among them comes into constant contact. This has also deprived them of an important part of food. When they had sheep they used animal food—i.e. meat, once common among them but now exceedingly rare. And it has deprived them of the use of ponies in cultivation and in carrying burdens. The poor women have, in consequence of this loss, to do much of the work that ponies did formerly, such as carrying the peats and sea-weed and harrowing the fields.

“Emigration is proposed as a remedy, and it must come to this if there be no other; far better for the people anywhere than starving on our own shores. No one can wish to see their present state perpetuated. But though this remedy might ultimately be beneficial to them and their offspring, I look upon it as an injurious proposal for our country. For it deprives the country of a God-fearing, loyal people, who supply our industries with so much valuable bone and sinew, our fishing fleets with able men, our Naval Reserve with competent hands, aud innumerable families with valuable servants. ...”

It is interesting to observe that the very same remedies suggested now by the Report of the Crofters Commission, were suggested half a century earlier by many of the writers in the New Statistical Account (1847).

“The only way to render tho people comfortable and industrious, would be to grant each tenant a larger proportion of lands than what he presently possesses, as he could manage that with the same number of hands, the same number of horses which he requires for the small lot, and to grant the tenants a more permanent holding of their lands by leases of nine or ten years, with stipulation for improvements and other regulations.”

It would not be fair, however, not to point out that the alien farmer question had begun before the importation of the alien landlord. The threatening decay 1 Burt, in his well-known “ Letters,” observed such changes as long of the kelp industry, the disasters of the ’45, the consequent increase in prices, the increasing tendency of landlords, also incidentally a consequence of the ’45, to migrate with their families to the south,1 all these things and others, led to the letting to outsiders of those farms which formerly had been the portion of younger sons of the Chief or of members of the clan whom he desired to propitiate or delighted to honour.

“I must here observe,” says Buchanan, in 1793, “that there is a great difference between the mild treatment which is shown to sub-tenants and even scallags by the old lessees descended of ancient and honourable families, and the outrageous rapacity of those necessitous strangers, who, having obtained leases from absent proprietors, treat the natives as if they were a conquered and an inferior race of mortals.”

It is probably to this new race of alien tacksmen that Anderson refers (1785) 4 when he tells us that as long ago as 1791. He was probably not sufficiently aware of the real state of things to know much of the distribution of blame, and inclines to lay everything at the doors of the ambition of the gentry in the islands to compete with those elsewhere in the elegancies of life, and of the consequent necessity of exacting higher rents. Thus the ancient adherents of their families are displaced. These, having been accustomed to a life of devotion, simplicity, and frugality, and being bred to endure hunger, fatigue, and hardship, while following their cattle over the mountains, or navigating the stormy seas that surround their islands, form the best resource of the state, when difficulties such as the inhabitants of a happier region are strangers to, must be encountered for its service.

“Certain exactions by the tacksmen they sell stores to their tenants in necessitous times at fifty per cent, profit, “so that the destitution of the people is truly deplorable.” One has, however, to remember that tho only means of transport was in open boats, that oven when *they reached tho mainland, unless they accomplished the long and dangerous journey to Glasgow, they were still far from any centre of commerce, that the stores would often be months on their hands before they were needed, and that credit must be long and payments precarious.

Whatever the alien tacksmen might be, there was always the Chief to appeal to, ready to help those of his own name and blood, those by whom his fathers had gained and kept the lands which he was beginning to feel were slipping away from him, and even at this very time we find Buchanan constantly speaking of the kindness to their tenants of the Mackenzies in the Lews, of the Macdonalds in South Uist, and of Macleod in Bemera. It should be mentioned that Seaforth, perceiving to what species of injustice the sub-tenants were liable, allowed from the sub-tenants were so far recognised by custom that there is a Gaelic rhyme enumerating them:

“Seven days forced labour in Spring,
Seven days forced labour in Autumn,
A lamb at Lammas,
A wether at Hallow-tide.

“There was formerly a barbarous law in Uist by which, if a woman lost her husband, she forfeited one of their two horses to the tacksman. There are some lines about the Each Urmnn, the forfeited horse, made by a man who married a widow who had been thus mulcted:

“Who was conflicted with the law of widows,
'Whom fate robs of their tiller (husbandman),
A deed not easy to bear would be done to them,
The ursann horse would be taken from them.

“The fat sheep sent at Hallow-mass was called the caora chdraidh, and a fat fowl required at intervals was called the cearc fearinn. The days of exacted labour were known as the caraisde; one day a year was also exacted for road mending.”

The new school of proprietors and their advocates have tried to insist upon the serf-like conditions of life, and the oppression of the rule of the Chiefs in the old days, but even as far back as Martin (1703) wre read :

“If a tenant [in Barra] chance to lose his milk cows by the severity of the season, or any other misfortune, in this case Mackneil of Barra supplies him with the like number that he lost,” and “when any of these tenants are so far advanced in years that they are incapable to till the ground, Mackneil takes such old men into his own family and maintains them all their life after.”

Moreover, as Burt reminds us (Letter 19, 1730), the alien is for the crofter what the nouveaax riches are to-the peasantry of the village, whose squire they displace.

“This power of the Chiefs is not supported by interest, as they are landlords, but as lineally descended from the old patriarchs, or fathers of the families, for they hold the same authority when they have lost their estates, as may appear from several, and particularly one, who commands in his clan, though at the same time they maintain him, having nothing left of his own.”

As has already been seen, Tyree was the first (1674) to pass from the old Chiefs: from the Macleans to the Campbells of Argyll, aliens in blood and faith, though that story belongs to another chapter of history altogether; other proprietors, the Macneills in Barra, the Macdonalds in South and North Uist, the Macleods in Harris, the Mackenzies in Lewis, at least parted with their property by honourable purchase, however distressing the loss of the lands of their ancestors might be, and in some cases undoubtedly was.

The Reformation, which had caused so much bloodshed and heart-burnings elsewhere, had passed by the remote and peaceful Hebrides, and in most cases the old religion remained untouched till the introduction of Presbyterianism by the followers of the new proprietors.

In Tyree, we learn, Ferchard Frazer, though himself a cadet of the Lovat family, who have maintained the old faith, was the first minister, and his son John, well known to antiquarians in another connexion, who succeeded him in 1680, is said by his biographer (1707) to have converted twenty-four families in Coll.

It was not till some fifty thousand Highlanders had been cleared from their native glens, and, in some of the islands, till hundreds more were perishing from want of proper shelter, food, clothing, and sanitation, that in August, 1882, Mr. D. H. Macfarlane, M.P., moved for a Royal Commission to inquire into the condition of the Highland crofters. The facts were so flagrant that, with none of the delay usual on such occasions, within six months the Commission was at work, and in 1883 their Report was before the public.

Mr. Macfarlane, to whom fell the privilege of bringing about such an inquiry, remarks:

“Everybody knows that it was a Commission composed almost entirely of landlords, that the crofters had no direct representative upon it, and yet, so irresistible was the evidence of wrong and the need of remedy, that it has made proposals almost revolutionary.

That its report is favourable to the people may be accepted as proved when it is stated that it has incurred, the bitter animosity of the Duke of Argyll. Notwithstanding the studied caution of its language, the Report discloses a state of misery, of wrong-doing, and of patient long-suffering, without parallel in the history of this country. As great oppression may have been inflicted upon the Irish, but it was not endured without bursts of wild, criminal resistance.”

A parliamentary commission is not, as a rule, overcharged with sentiment or philanthropy; a group of landlords compelled to sit in inquiry into the conduct of their own order, investigating conditions in which their own privileges are at stake, were hardly likely to overvalue the merits of the accuser in such a trial; but one cannot but feel that their appraisement of his value as part of the stock of our national hive is expressed in handsome terms:

“The crofting and cottar population of the Highlands and islands, small though it be, is a nursery of good workers and good citizens for the whole empire. In this respect the stock is exceptionally valuable. By sound physical constitution, native intelligence, and good moral training, it is particularly fitted to recruit the people of our industrial centres who, without such help from wholesome sources in rural districts, would degenerate under the influences of bad lodging, unhealthy occupations, and enervating habits. It cannot be indifferent to the whole nation, constituted as the nation now is, to possess within its borders a people, hardy, skilful, intelligent, and prolific, as an ever-flowing fountain of renovating life.

“It would be difficult to replace them by another race of equal ability and worth.”

It reads rather like a recommendation to go on breeding Highland cattle, and in consideration of its obvious adaptation to its environment, not to allow the whole stock to be exported ; but one cannot quarrel with the terms of an appreciation, which is perhaps the more convincing that its manner is essentially business-like.

The problem finally brought before the Crofters’ Commissioners appears to amount to this:

The evidence having tended to show that, more especially in relation to certain districts, the native population is not in possession of sufficient land to provide them with food for themselves and their stock, is the difficulty to be met with more land or less population? They have expressed themselves very definitely as to the necessity of redistribution of land, and the Congested Districts Board, the practical outcome of the Commission, has already taken steps to carry out their recommendations—in some cases; notably those of Sir Arthur Orde in North Uist and Macleod of Macleod in Skye, with the ready collaboration of the proprietor; in others, in spite of the proprietor. In the island of Barra, after what the Blue-books politely call “prolonged negotiation,” that is to say, something as like a riot as the peace-loving Highlander knows how to produce, the people, by the timely action of the Congested Districts Board, have been put in possession of 3,000 acres of land, largely subtracted from that of a single farmer, who, as appeared in the Commission, was renting over one-third of the entire island.

In regard to the other phase of the problem, the utility of emigration, the evidence and the judgement upon the evidence has largely tended to show that, as Mr. Fraser Macintosh, himself a Highland landlord, expressed it:

“. . . No necessity for State interference as regards emigration has been established, except in the case of the Lews and some of the minor islands of the Hebrides. Re-occupation by and redistribution among crofters and cottars of much land now used as large farms will be beneficial to the State, to the owner, and to the occupier.”

Some of the members of the Commission, without going so far as Mr. Fraser Macintosh, were of opinion that emigration would be useful under certain conditions :

“Emigration offers few difficulties to the young and able-bodied, but it is obvious that it can be no benefit to a country to lose its workers alone, and that it is only by the removal of entire families that any serviceable relief from congestion will be experienced.”

Surely the condition of some of our villages in rural England is sufficient protest against the subtraction of the able-bodied, a protest which the horrible consequences of our war in South Africa emphasize still further. At the time of the Commission it was pointed out that the Highlands and islands were contributing 4,431 men to the Naval Reserve, an organization which, as will be pointed out in the chapter on Lewis, is well worthy of special consideration in the Highlands. It is long now since, commenting on the emigration then beginning, before the resuscitation of the kelp-industry, Sir Walter Scott wrote :

“If the hour of need should come, and it may not be far distant, the pibroch may sound through the deserted region, but the summons will remain unanswered.”

The problems with which the Government has to deal, prominent everywhere, are so much a part of the very existence of South Uist that it would be vain to attempt any account of the island without first describing its conditions of life. To quote once more from the Report:

“The history of the economical transformations which a great portion of the Highlands and islands has, during the past century, undergone, does not repose on the loose and legendary tales that pass from mouth to mouth; it rests on the solid basis of contemporary records, and, if these were wanting, it is written in indelible characters on the surface of the soil.”

One might well go further: it is written on the faces, on the manners, on the very lives of the people. If anything on God’s earth could be beyond hope it would seem to be the island of South Uist, for the people themselves seem hopeless. They have largely lost the frankness, the ease of manner so commonly characteristic of the Islands ; those who know them best allege that they have even acquired some of the cunning, the graspingness so often characteristic of those crushed in body and soul.

I well remember the remark of one, whose life was sacrificed to the needs of these suffering people, upon looking at a spray of the blue forget-me-not which, mixed with the golden iris, makes a belt of June glory round every one of the hundred lochs of his watery parish, “Fancy any one wanting to remember this place that got a chance to forget it! ” It was of South Uist that, when I had suggested a tidal wave as the only solution of its problems, Mr. Stanford quaintly remarked, “It would be more economical to turn it into hypopliosphatea.” He too well knew and realised the stagnant hopelessness of the island poverty.

The very existence of the island of South Uist is itself a tragedy which shames our civilization. Nowhere in our proud Empire is there a spot more desolate, grim, hopelessly poverty-stricken. It is a wilderness of rock and of standing water on which, in the summer, golden lichen and spreading water-lilies mock the ghastly secrets of starvation and disease that they conceal. The water is constantly utterly unfit for drinking purposes. There is not a tree on the island, and one wonders how the miserable cattle and sheep contrive to live on the scant grey herbage. The land of the poor is not enclosed; and to preserve the tiny crops from the hungry wandering cows and horses they have to be continually watched, and as half an acre of bore may be distributed over five acres of bog and rock, the waste of human labour is considerable. The potatoes often rot in the wet ground, and I have seen the grain and hay lying out as late as October from the impossibility of getting it dried.

Excellent and abundant fresh-water trout there is, but that is not for the poor; nor the rabbits, nor the game, and even the sea-wrack, formerly a means of living, is now hardly worth the getting. Nevertheless, when the “tangle” comes on the beach—provided the factor gives them leave to get it at all, which by no means necessarily follows—men, women and children crowd down with earliest daylight, and work on by moonlight or starlight, with the hideous intensity of starvation.

The houses of the poor, especially of the cottars, are inconceivably wretched. They are of undressed stone, piled together without mortar, and thatched with turf. Often they have no chimney, sometimes no window ; the floor is a bog, and a few boxes, with a plank supported by stones for a seat, is all the furniture except the unwholesome shut-in beds. Cleanliness is impossible, with soot coating the roof overhead, wet mud for floor, and, except in the very rare fine days, chickens, and perhaps a sick sheep or even a cow or horse, for feliow-occupants.

To the old Boisdale and Clanranald chiefs with all their faults the people were ready to forgive much ; but the Highlander, at best conservative, exclusive, distrustful of strangers, becomes, when oppressed, starving, terror-stricken, unreasonable in prejudice, intolerant of change, perverse it may be in refusing to do his part in establishing mutual understanding.

Only those who have sojourned among them, not in the cosy fishing-hotel at Loch Boisdale.far away from the villages, but who have established personal relations with the people in their own homes, can even guess at the utter hopeless dreariness of their lives. The chronic dyspepsia which accompanies the ever-present teapot, the wan anaemic faces of women and children, the continual absence from the island of all able-bodied men make the human element almost as depressing as the flat, grey, glimmering, wet landscape.

One gleam of brightness there is, a cottage hospital, built and maintained by the Marchioness of Bute, on whom, needless to say, the island has no claim whatever. There three devoted women are constantly fighting such disease as comes of starvation, bad water, no drainage, and the accidents inseparable from seafaring life in open boats on a dangerous coast. The doctor, responsible for a district of over thirty miles in length, with a dangerous ford and a treacherous minch to cross and many a weary mile where there is no road to travel, cannot, as a mere question of time and space, do anything like justice to his work. His self-sacrifice and unceasing toil I know well; they are qualities one takes for granted in South Uist.1 When an epidemic breaks out—influenza again and again, or the virulent typhoid, which one can only expect under the conditions of life at Dalibrog and other villages on the island—the people are helpless and terror-stricken. They are so absolutely without means of grappling with illness, of protection for the healthy, that they are panic-stricken with an animallike savagery of self-defence. For the sake of others, such cases cannot be taken into the hospital; the Sisters can seldom leave their own work for distant nursing, though at critical times they have accomplished even this.

The summer of 1898 was one of the worst they have ever endured. The potato crop had failed the previous autumn, the fishing was exceptionally bad, and an epidemic of even more than usual virulence had broken out. Only one person was there to help, the young priest, the Rev. George Rigg. He was in every sense of the word a gentleman, and a scholar, educated at St. Sulpice, where he acquired something of the special subtlety of French thought which fitted him for work very different from that which lay in his path of duty. He had the fastidious refinement of thought and habit which is often inseparable from years of delicate health and over-work. Not himself of Highland blood, his personal devotion had made him nevertheless perfectly at home with his people, and often have they told me of the eloquence of his preaching in their own Gaelic tongue.

I remember that on first seeing him there I turned to his predecessor, himself broken down from over-work and heroic self-sacrifice in the interests not only spiritual but material of his flock, saying, “How I hope that bright boy won’t be allowed to eat out his heart on this desolate island! ” I little thought his deliverance would come in three years.

This is the bare story as written to me by that same faithful friend, a priest on a neighbouring island, who encouraged his work in life and nursed him like a brother 011 his death-bed :

“For three weeks he devoted himself to a fever-stricken family where husband, wife and children were all prostrate at once. No one ever called to see them or nurse them but Father Rigg and the doctor who called and prepared food for them several times. Not even the mother of the man nor the sister of the wife ever entered the door. Father Rigg came daily and nursed and fed them and spent the day with them to cheer them. He had the most menial and loathsome work to do, and did it heroically. He was struck down himself a week last Thursday, and died on the following Friday, at 7.30. a.m., in the height of a violent typhoid fever, after receiving the last Sacraments. . . . Father Rigg had not the enthusiasm, or I should say the natural pleasure, that hard, work often gives [owing greatly to extreme delicacy of health], but worked out of a conscientious devotion to religion and duty. It was trampling down his natural inclinations thoroughly to undertake these three weeks of solitary and sickening work. He took pleasure in subduing himself.”

And now
His place in all the pomp that fills
The glory of the summer hills
Is that his grave is green.

He lies among the scattered and unenclosed graves of his flock on the “machair,” the flat grass-grown expanse above the shore. A handsome Celtic cross marks the spot, and as one comes upon it suddenly on the bare expanse, one feels that here, far away from all the traditional sanctities to which one is accustomed, one is —perhaps all the more—on holy ground. He still lives in the hearts of his people, his deeds are told in their stories, and his name, like those of the heroes of their past, is preserved in song.


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