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On Emigration and the State of the Highlands
Chapter VII


Means that have been proposed for preserving the population of the Highlands: improvement of waste lands; fisheries; Manufactures: cannot obviate the necessi1y of emigration.

THOUGH the partial interests of the Highland proprietors do not seem entitled to all the regard that has been claimed for them from the Legislature; though it is contrary to every principle of justice, that unusual and unnecessary restraints should, for their benefit, be imposed on the personal liberty of their dependants; yet every friend to his country would rejoice, if they could find means of obviating the local depopulation of their district, by the introduction of suitable branches of productive industry.

Among. these, the most promising is the cultivation of waste land. Some attempts have been made in the Highlands to turn the superfluous population to this branch of industry. The success with which they have been attended is sufficient to encourage further experiments, and to leave no doubt that, by this means, a number of people may every where be retained fully adequate to any supply of labourers that can be required for the accommodation of the country. The maintenance to be derived from this resource is indeed a very wretched one: poor as it is, however, there are few of the class of cotters who would not readily accept any situation where they could by this employment find a support for their families.

The plan upon which the gentry of the Highlands have proceeded in encouraging this branch of industry, does not seem calculated to draw from it all the advantage which circumstances might admit. They have in general laid out patches of a few acres of waste land,. Which they have granted on very short leases, seldom exceeding seven years; leaving, the Occupiers to their own management without further guidance, and with little or no pecuniary aid. It is surprising, that under such leases, any improvements at all should be made; and it is only, perhaps, from the low value of labour, that the poor in the Highlands are disposed to consider a bare subsistence in the mean time, as a sufficient indemnification for work of which the benefit is in so short a period to revert to the landlord. Such, however, are the circumstances of. the country, that these tenures are sufficient to prompt the occupiers to considerable exertions of their own personal labour; but there are few instances where that alone is sufficient for improving waste lands. Calcareous manure is a requisite almost indispensable; and where it must be purchased from a distance, the poor occupier cannot be expected, on such a tenure, to undertake any share of the expense. If, therefore, the proprietor does not find it convenient to incur the expense himself, it is absolutely necessary that the terms of the lease should be much more encouraging.

It is not easy to judge whether these poor people could by any means be induced to sink in such improvements the little capital they may possess: but there is no probability that they would do so without a lease of such duration as to be nearly equivalent to absolute property. The calculations which a rich and intelligent farmer would make, as to the proportion between his outlay and its return, would by no means be suitable to a case of this kind. The poor Highland cotter finds so much difficulty in accumulating a small sum. of money, that it is no wonder he should be disposed to hoard it with tenacity, and be reluctant to lay it out-for a profit, which a person accustomed to a liberal scale of business might think more than adequate. In proportion as he finds his labour of little value, he must value his money the more, arid will not part with it without a very evident advantage indeed. On the other hand, a very long lease would certainly have bad effects. The exertions of these poor cotters are seldom carried further than they are impelled by the necessity of providing a maintenance for their families. Whenever this becomes tolerably easy, their new and half-formed habits of industry relax; and at any rate, they proceed in a trifling and unsystematic manner.

The improvements would be carried on with much more effect, if the proprietor would advance not only the pecuniary expenses which are indispensable, but make the occupier an allowance for every work he executes, Such amount, as to form (along with the first crop or two on the improved land) a fair compensation for his labour. In this way there would be no necessity of giving him a permanent tenure and the proprietor might carry forward the improvements with spirit and regularity, keep up the industry of the people, and, render it far more effective. This, though a temporary burthen, would soon be compensated by the increased value of the land, and those who have the means could not perhaps apply their capital in a more advantageous manner. How far pecuniary difficulties may prevent the proprietors in general through the Highlands from making these advances, and how far the situation of entailed estates may be an obstacle, are questions very interesting in a review of the improvements of which the Highlands are capable, but not immediately connected with the subject of these observations; for there is no probability that this resource can have any effect in diminishing the emigrations. It is only to the poorest of the people that it can be rendered acceptable; by the tenants, even those of the lowest order, it would he considered as too great a degradation.

The same may, perhaps, be said of the fisheries, which seem, next to the cultivation of waste lands, the most important resource that is open to the Highlanders in their own country. The extent to which they may be carried, will probably fall far short of any expectations formed upon the romantic ideas, which some authors have given of the incredible abundance of fish. Without listening to these exaggerations, it is unquestionable that several stations are very productive, and a great extent of coast sufficiently so to afford an adequate reward for the labour of the industrious fisherman, and to employ a considerable number of people. It is also certain, that this employment is more congenial to the habits and inclinations of the people, than almost any other that can be proposed, and. without any very extraordinary encouragement this branch of business may be carried as far as natural circumstances, and the extent of the market will permit.

The obstacles arising from the salt-laws, &c., are illustrated in so many publications, that it is unnecessary here to dwell upon them; but it may not be superfluous to observe, that the general change, in the management of Highland estates, is likely to remove the greatest of all impediments to the progress of the fisheries on the Western coast and Isles: I mean the connection between fishing and the cultivation of land. The opinion of practical men, as to the absolute incompatibility of these ernployments, is uniform; and experience has also proved, that a very trifling possession of land, by distracting the attention of a fisherman, will lead him to neglect opportunities of more important profits in his own business. The minute division of farms, which was the result of the feudal state, precluded entirely the separation of these employments. The natural remedy to this lies in the rise of the value of land, and its accumulation in the hands of active and intelligent farmers. When land becomes dear, some of those who cannot procure it, will be under the necessity of betaking themselves to fishing as their only employment. The success which may justly be expected to attend those who first apply to it with steady and unremitting industry, is the only bounty which will be necessary to induce others to follow their example.

It is to be regretted that the establishments of the British Society for the Encouragement of Fisheries have not, in this respect, been conducted on just principles, and. have counteracted, instead of aiding, the natural progress of the country. In the villages where those gentlemen proposed to fix the head quarters of the Highland fisheries, they have annexed to the building lots, portions of arable and meadow land at low rents, with a right of common for the pasture of a cow or horse. These patches of land, though they afford but a miserable subsistence, are yet a sufficient resource for men, whose rooted habits require. the stimulus of absolute necessity, to bring them to a life of regular and persevering industry. Accordingly the .villages of Tobermory and Steen, on which very large sums of money have been expended, are scarcely possessed of a fishing-boat, their inhabitants are sunk in inactivity, and consist in general of the refuse of the population of the country.

The custom so universally established in the Highlands and Western Isles, that every person whatever should have some portion of land large or small, has tended to render fishing an entirely subordinate employment, followed in an irregular manner, only as it suits the intervals, of leisure from business on shore. It is a natural consequence, that the fishing boats and apparatus are in general extremely bad; nor is it surprising, that from these combined circumstances, an idea should prevail among the peasantry, that it is impossible by fishing alone to earn a livelihood. Instances are quoted, where the proprietors have been anxious to employ in fishing the tenants who were dispossessed of their lands; and have with this view made liberal offers of supplying boats, nets, and every requisite material, which have been rejected under that idea. To establish fishing. as a separate employment can only perhaps be brought about in a gradual manner, by encouraging individuals to pay a greater share of attention to it, previous to their being totally deprived of land though this may not succeed with those who have property, there is no doubt that, among. those who are too poor to have much land, many may be found who would pursue the business with activity, if they were assisted with credit for the purchase of the necessry materials, and if arrangements were made for securing them as advantageous a market as possible.

It is with pleasure I learn that; the practicability of this suggestion has been ascertained by experimental proof in a village on Loch Fyne, established by Mr. Maclachlan of Maclachlan. That gentleman, finding himself a number of years ago under a necessity of thinning the population on several of his farms, selected ten or twelve families of the poorest cotters, men, however, whom he knew to be capable of laborious exertion. These he fixed in a situation on the shore, where he furnished them with two substantial fishing boats of the best construction, with all their apparatus, on condition that their cost should be repaid to him from the produce of their industry. Anxiety to discharge their debt stimulated these: men to exertion, and a season or two of successful fishing left them free proprietors of the boats they had been furnished with. The proprietor was sensible that, from the habits of these people, they.would think it impossible to live without some land; and that in fact, from the want of markets for purchasing provisions, such an accommodation was to a certain degree indispensable in the present state of the country. He therefore laid out a part of a farm for them, and, to avoid disheartening them, allowed them to possess it for a year or two at an inadequate rent. By degrees, however, he raised it to its full value, so that the possessors cannot trust to the land for their support, having no means to pay their rent unless they are industrious in their fishing. Other inhabitants have likewise been brought to the village, and the original portions of land subdivided, so as to become to every individual a mere accommodation, and an object entirely subordinate. When the further progress of the country towards a cornmercial state leads to the establishment of markets for provisions, these people, being already brought to such a degree of advancement may be entirely deprived of land without any fear of their being disconcerted by the change. The success of the first fishermen has been such, that they have fitted out a number of additional boats, of’ the best construction, at their own charge, and several of them have accumulated considerable sums of money.

This experiment was made in one respect under favourable circumstances; as the situation, from the vicinity of the richer parts of Scotland, has the advantage of a constant and ready market for fish. In the remoter parts of the Highland coast, and Hebrides, the people can scarcely get any price for fish in small quantities; and in the establishment of a village there, it would be of essential consequence to obviate the difficulty by proper arrangements. But if, with a due attention to this point, experiments were made on the same principles in each of the capital fishing stations in the distant Hebrides, a race of people exclusively fishermen would by degrees be formed, and would spread to every part of the coast that is adapted to the purpose.

The success of a few poor people in each of these, supported in the manner that has been alluded to, "would overcome the prevailing prejudices, and encourage others to embark in the business on their own capital. It is not likely indeed that any of the middling or more opulent of the tenants could be brought to this; nor is there any reason to be anxious on that account; as there are certainly among the cotters a great many more people than there is any prospect of employing in the fisheries of the Western coast and Isles, though conducted in the best manner; and to the utmost extent which the established demand of the market will admit.

Manufactures are another resource, frequently pointed out as capable of affording maintenance for all the people in the Highlands who must be deprived of their lands. This idea does not appear to be well founded. Manufactures may perhaps be carried on to a small extent in the Highlands in a domestic way by the families of men engaged in other pursuits; but a large establishment would not succeed under so many natural disadvantages of situation. In fact, though much has been said on the subject by speculative writers, and every disposition has appeared on the part of the land-holders to encourage it, no practical manufacturer has ever shown the least inclination to make the attempt.

The mechanical improvements that have been introduced of late years, into so many. branches. of manufacture, leave but very few which, like the linen, manufacture of Ireland, can be carried on to advantage by a scattered population. A manufactory in which machinery is much employed, is seldom so profitable on a small as on a large scale; and, on the smallest, requires a greater accumulation of people than can be found in many situations in the Highlands. There are indeed two or three villages where the population would supply bands enough for a small establishment; but other difficulties arise from the remoteness of the: situation, and the infant state of the country as to every improvement in the arts. Mechanical artists of various kinds, are always at hand in the great centres of commercial industry, and their assistance, must frequently be resorted to. The want of this accommodation is a great inconvenience to a manufactory in an insulated situation. An inconsiderable breakage of machinery, which in a great town might perhaps, be repaired in a few hours, will there be sufficient to interrupt the whole business for a long period. To this inconvenience is to be added the want of regular and speedy conveyance for goods, and the tediousness of the posts.

All these difficulties might be obviated, were there any great advantage on the other hand, or any great profit to be the reward of success; but there is no prospect of the kind. The temporary superabundance of population and consequent low rate of wages, is the only favourable circumstance that can be named, and this is more than counterbalanced by the total want of skill, and of habits of regular industry, in the people. These could not be introduced without much assiduity and patience, and perhaps some loss to the manufacturer who should undertake an establishment; and should he after all succeed in effecting this reform, it cannot be disguised that, as soon as he has rendered the situation desirable, other adventurers will follow him to it, and raise the price of labour by their competition.

All the permanent advantage arising from the establishment, would rest with the proprietors of the adjacent lands, and if the difficulties attending the attempt are to be overcome, the burthen also must rest with them. The exertions which may be made with a view to this improvement must be considered laudable; but the object is of no national importance, and is of a totally different nature from the other resources which have been alluded to as fit employment for the superabundant population. By the improvement of waste land, or the extension of the fisheries, a nett and absolute addition is made to the production of national wealth, a new supply is procured of human subsistence, which would otherwise be lost. But the success of a manufacturing establishment in the Highlands would have no further effect, than to fix the seat of a certain portion of industry in one part of the kingdom, instead of another. Manufacturing enterprises: are limited by the extent of the market, as well as by the supply of hands. In either of these respects, a manufactory established in the Highlands, with much pains and expense, could only occupy the place of one, which would of itself, have grown up in those parts of the kingdom, where the undertaking is not subject to the same natural and political disadvantages, and where the Highlanders may find the employment they are in want of.

The establishment of manufactures in the Highlands, might thus affect the migrations of those classes who now seek employment in the old established seats of industry but to the small tenants, the same objections which occur against a manufactory in the South would apply equally to a similar employment, in a situation a little nearer home. There is no probability therefore, that such establishments could have any effect on those who are inclined, to emigrate to America.


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