Island Clans During Six Centuries
Chapter VIII. -
Employment and Unemployment
ARMYFISHING, GROWING ROOTSTEMPORARY WORK, ROAD MAKINGUNWONTED COMFORTS
CONSUMPTION OF WHISKYSHEEP DISPLACE CATTLELAND GOES OUT OF
CULTIVATIONPEACE DECREASES DEMAND OF MEN FOR THE ARMYFAILURE OF KELP
INDUSTRYCONDITION OF THE PEOPLETHE CLEARANCESTHE POTATO FAMINE.
After the changes described
in the last chapter had taken place, though some of the people had crofts,
most of them depended on finding some work to do, by which they could earn
their daily bread. Down to the end of the eighteenth century the people
still had all the employments open to them which were described in Chapter
IV., the only difference being that, whereas in earlier days they had
received in return for their labour the maintenance of themselves and
their families, they were now being paid wages. Fortunately, we know what
wages workers were then receiving, as these were fixed at a meeting of
Magistrates, held at Sconser, in Skye, in 1788. Farm servants were divided
into two classes
(1) Competent agricultural
(2) Striplings and less skilled men.
Men in Class 1 received £2
a year, and 4 pairs of shoes. Men in Class 2 received £1 a year, and 4
pairs of shoes. Herdsmen in Class 1 received 5 pairs of shoes. Shoes were
valued at 2s 6d a pair.
If a man wished to have
grazing for a cow, the following sums were deducted from his wages:
For a cow, £1.
For a yeld beast, 10s.
For a two-year-old beast, 8s.
For a stirk, 5s.
Common women servants
received 8s a year and 2 pairs of shoes. Dairywomen received 15s, and 3
pairs of shoes. Servants are not to be given warm milk. Probably this
means they were to be given skimmed milk.
Men engaged for the harvest
received 8s, and no shoes. Their work began on the day the corn was cut,
and ended on the day it was stacked. All these classes of servants
received board and lodging, as well as their wages. Casual labourers,
engaged by the day "at their own charges," were paid 8d a day.
No master was allowed to
pay higher wages than those fixed. All servants must behave "mannerly and
obediently" to their masters. Servants, not engaged for a fixed time, must
give 40 days' notice before they leave. As the purchasing price of money
was then about 5½ times what it is now, the wages were really much higher
than they seem to us to have been. When, however, we speak of wages, we
must remember that these were largely, probably entirely, paid in kindin
meal, wool, a cow's grass, possibly in weddens. There was very little
money in the country. There were no shops, and, even if a man had received
his wages in cash, he would have found it very difficult to obtain what he
wanted for his money. At that time the laird's factor used to charter
ships, which brought such articles as tea, sugar, wine, brandy, and
tobacco, and these he used to sell to those who could afford to buy them.
During the eighteenth
century several new employments opened to the people, which greatly
improved the amenities of their lives.
I. Early in the eighteenth
century it had been discovered that the seaweed which grew on the rocks,
and, to a still greater extent, the floating ware cast up by the sea, were
rich in alkalis and iodine. I took the following account of how kelp is
made from an article which appeared in the "Oban Times" some time ago.
The former, which is called
"beach wrack," and grows in great quantities on the eastern shores of the
Long Island, contains iodine. The latter, which is known as "tangle," and
is found on the western shores of the Islands, produces soda and potash.
The collection of the "tangle,"and the cutting of the "beach wrack"
involved much labour, and took a long time. Each year, some time in June,
the people engaged in the industry migrated to sheilings, built in
convenient places on the sea-shore and in these they lived for six weeks
or two months, while the work was in progress. The first job to be done on
arrival was to repair the sheilings, and make them fairly comfortable
abodes during the coming weeks. Then the work began.
At low tide the drift weed
was collected, or the growing weed cut. The latter operation could only be
carried out in the same place once in three years, as the sea ware, after
being cut, took that length of time to grow, before it would yield a full
crop on a further cutting.
The weed, which had been
collected or cut, was piled in great heaps upon the shore. Round these
heaps long ropes, made of heather, were bound to prevent the ware from
floating out to sea as the tide rose. The two ends of the rope were
fastened on the shore, and, when the tide was high, the floating piles of
"tangle" or "wrack" were drawn to land.
The weed was then spread
out to dry on the grass; it was turned over from time to time, and treated
in much the same way as hay. This took some time, and its successful
drying depended, to a great extent, on the weather. While the weed was
drying, "athan," or "kilns," were dug in the ground. Each of these was
from 12 to 24 feet long, 2 feet broad, and 2½ feet deep, and would contain
enough weed to make about a ton of kelp.
When the weed was dry, some
burning straw or heather was placed at the bottom of the kiln, and the
weed was piled on the top. It was considered necessary that the burning of
the weed should be slow, and, while it was going on, the kilns were
watched. If any flames appeared this indicated that the process was going
on too quickly, and, in order to slow it down, more weed was flung on the
kiln. The burning took some time, and was continued till the weed ran into
a kind of slag. This was collected, and sent South by sea, generally to
Liverpoool, to be refined and further treated.
Kelp was already being made
in the Orkneys in 1722, but the industry was not introduced into the
Western Isles till a few years later. In 1735 the work began in South Uist,
and in 1748 in Harris. Here the results were very soon seen in the
increased revenue derived from the island. In 1744 Harris was worth £356,
in 1754 it had risen to £544, and in 1769 to £806. In Glenelg, where there
was no kelp, values rose at the same time, but not to the same extent. The
value of Glenelg in 1744 was £373; in 1754, £407; in 1769, £679. The
development of this industry between 1750 and 1820 was amazing. At one
time kelp was worth £22 a ton. This was not maintained for long, but the
average price during the first twenty years of the nineteenth century was
At this period the kelp was
a source of great prosperity in the Long Island, whence between 6000 and
7000 tons were exported annually, bringing in a revenue of £60,000 to
£70,000 to the islands. Owing to the fact that much less floating sea ware
is cast up in Skye, the magnitude of the industry there was insignificant
compared with that in the Long Island. In 1819, 91 tons were exported to
Liverpool from Lochs Dunvegan and Bracadale. The gross value was only
about £800, but, though this was a small sum compared to the revenues
derived from kelp in the Long Island, it was not to be despised.
The industry brought great
wealth to the lairds, specially to those whose property was in the Long
Island. It was also an enormous advantage to the people. The cost of
manufacturing the kelp was about £2 10s a ton, and all this went into the
pockets of the workers. I have not been able to ascertain whether they
were paid by time wages or by piece-work.
II. During the last half of
the eighteenth century large numbers of men were raised in the Highlands
for the army, carrying out the policy which had been originally suggested
by President Forbes, and which was adopted by Pitt. Without careful
research into the military history of the times, it would be difficult to
say how many Highland regiments were embodied during this period. A
battalion was raised to meet some special emergency, disbanded when that
emergency had passed away, and re-embodied when a fresh crisis arose.
Often the names and numbers
of regiments were changed, so the records are very confusing. But it is a
certain fact that many thousands of men from the West Highlands were
fighting with splendid courage and devotion in all parts of the world,
during the long series of wars, which lasted, with short intervals of
peace, from 1760 to 1815. All through this time the calls on the manhood
of the country were incessant. An army on active service must always
suffer heavy losses. These become heavier still when it is operating in a
hot and unhealthy climate. A letter, written by the officer commanding the
Second Battalion of the Black Watch in 1786, is still in existence. This
letter indicates that, of the men who had originally belonged to the
battalion when it came to India in 1781, only enough to form one company
were left. Five years of active service had accounted for the rest, and
their places had been filled by fresh drafts.
These facts are sufficient
to show what an enormous amount of employment the army offered to the
Highlanders, and what magnificent services they rendered to King and
Country in a time of dire need.
III. About the year 1790,
the British Fishery Society founded a fishing village at Stein, in Skye;
provided boats, nets, lines, and all that is necessary for the prosecution
of the industry, and every effort was made to induce the West Highlanders
to pursue fishing as the business of their lives. From the reports of the
Society it appears that this effort met with little success.
No doubt from the earliest
times the Highlanders had done some desultory fishing, but they had never
done more. In the time of Charles I. fishing was being vigorously
prosecuted on the West Coast of Scotland, but the fishermen were
Englishmen and Dutchmen, not native Highlanders. In the report on Harris,
already referred to, which was dated 1772, the author says that "enormous
shoals of herring regularly visit the coast of the island, and cod and
ling are very plentiful, but practically nothing is done to catch them."
At the present day a few
West Highlanders are earning their living by fishing, and a great many
more fish occasionally, but the important fishing industry, which is being
prosecuted on our western shores, is being carried on by boats which come
from the East Coast, and the effort to make the West Highlanders fishermen
may be said to have failed. It is certain that they have not made a great
and profitable industry of fishing as the Bretons, the Lofoten Islanders,
and the people on the east coast of England and Scotland have done, and it
is equally certain that the opportunity of doing so has not been lacking.
Why have they not done so?
The author of an interesting report on the proceedings of the British
Fishery Society at Stein thinks this failure was caused by the remains of
the feudal system, to which he traces every evil he perceives, Under this
thrice-accursed system, he says, fighting was the only honourable
occupation for men. In the intervals of peace they might, he adds,
condescend to do a little work on the cultivation of the soil, but they
looked on fishing as an ignoble trade, only fit for the deformed and the
weakling. He does not explain how deformed weaklings are going to face the
hardships and bear the toil of a fisherman's life.
He goes on to suggest that
the best way to make the people fish would be to take away their crofts,
and in this way compel them to turn to fishing for a livelihood. Here I
think he probably hits the real reason why Highlanders have never taken
seriously to fishing. The industry is one to which a man must dedicate his
whole life; it is not one which can be treated as supplementary to
another. While the Highlanders retained their crofts they looked on the
cultivation of them as the main business of their lives, and regarded
fishing as a merely occasional occupation, which might be pursued when
It is most unfortunate that
they took that view. A small croft, at the best, can only provide its
owner with a very poor livelihood. A fisherman, though his life is an
arduous one, can earn a fair living. It is probably the attempt to combine
the two trades which has prevented the one, which might have made the
Highlanders happy and prosperous, from being prosecuted with the energy
and zeal, which alone could make it a success.
Possibly the amount of
employment, which was being offered to the people in other and more
congenial directions, may have had something to do with the failure to
engage them in the fishing industry.
IV. For centuries the live
stock in the Islands had been insufficiently fed in winter. Somewhere
about 1760 the attention of the Society for Propagating Christian
Knowledge in Scotland was called to this, and they devoted part of a
legacy of £2000, which had been left them by a Mr Wood, to offering
premiums for raising clover and other artificial grasses for hay, with the
humane idea of minimising the sufferings of the cattle in the winter.
In the regulations of the
Dunvegan Estate, dated 1769, it is provided that each tenant shall sow a
certain quantity both of grass seeds and of turnips every year for
wintering, and prizes of £5 are offered to the tenant who grows the best
crops. This caused a great many farmers to start growing these crops, and
a considerable increase in the amount of labour required on the farms.
V. The prosperity brought
by the kelp industry indirectly greatly benefited the people. The lairds,
enriched by the large profits from kelp, were restoring old castles, or
building new mansion houses, planting woods, and making all sorts of
improvements on their estates, and this gave much employment to the
Between 1770 and 1820 there
was much work being done of a temporary description, which, however, went
on for a good many years, and was of inestimable value to the people. Kail-yards
and arable fields were being fenced, march dykes between the farms were
being put up, and a great deal of land was being drained. As the new
tenants came in, they required better houses than those with which the old
tacksmen had been content. So that building operations called for an
immense amount of labour.
VI. More important than any
of these was the work which was being done on the highways. The
improvement of the roads was at that period engaging the attention of
people in all parts of the country. They certainly needed it. Even in the
neighbourhood of London a few years earlier they had been in a shocking
condition. Vanbrugh, describing the adventures of a newly-elected M.P. on
his way to London, says:"All the exertions of six horses, two of which
had been taken from the plough, could not save the family coach from being
embedded in a quagmire." A little earlier, Prince George of Denmark,
travelling to Petworth, had only been able to come nine miles in six
hours. If this was the case near London, we need not wonder that the
remote islands of the West were almost completely cut off from the outer
world in the 18th century.
It is difficult for us in
these days to imagine the isolation in which our forefathers lived. In the
early years of the century there was no post office in Skye, neither were
there any mails. There was an official at Dunvegan called "Macleod's
post." It was his duty to take "expresses" to any place to which he was
sent. He received a regular wage of fifteen shillings a year, and fifteen
shillings for a journey to Edinburgh. This seems very little, but it was
equivalent to £9 in our own days.
As early as 1742 MacLeod
says in a letter that he will write again by the next post, from which I
assume that a mail was then being sent to the Western Isles. But the only
post office in Skye was at Dunvegan, and people, who lived in all parts of
the island, had to send there for their letters. The authorities would not
allow a bag to be dropped by the postman at Sconser, and in 1753 Lady
Margaret MacDonald wrote several letters, bitterly complaining of this,
and asking that a post office should be opened either at Portree or
The outer islands were
served by a packet which sailed from Dunvegan once a fortnight. Stornoway
had a fortnightly packet sailing from Poolewe.
In Skye there were a few
old roads of a somewhat primitive description. All able-bodied men were
bound to give six days' labour every year on the roads. At the meeting of
Magistrates in 1788, already referred to, each gentleman tacksman was to
furnish a list of all such within his bounds, but it was provided that in
future labour should be commuted for two shillings and sixpence a head,
and that tacksmen should pay twopence in the pound on their rent in lieu
of their personal attendance.
This was probably the first
germ of the system of rates in the Highlands. Poor rates, school rates,
County Assessments were all unknown. Local government was certainly cheap
in those days, and I believe it was also effective.
Though a highway committee
was appointed in 1788, and instructed to obtain the services of a
contractor to carry out the proposed schemes, very little was done for
some years. But after the beginning of the 19th century, the making of
roads was being vigorously pushed forward. About 1805, the Commissioners
for Highland Roads and Bridges, acting with the county authorities, turned
their attention to Skye. A road was planned from Stein to Sconser, which
was estimated to cost £6433. This was afterwards increased to £10,746.
About 1814, Telford, the famous engineer, was called in, and he pronounced
even the second estimate to be entirely inadequate. The actual cost of
this road was somewhere about £40,000. The Commissioners found half the
money required out of the proceeds of estates which had been forfeited
after the '45 ; the tenants paid an amount of road money in addition to
their rents, which amounted to about £2100; the crofters gave some labour
free of charge; and the owners of the land gave £15,000. Besides the main
arteries of communication, many small local highways were made, and the
expenditure on roads and bridges throughout the country must have been
very large. No doubt the same work was being pushed forward all over the
In all these different ways
the people certainly had more work to do than they ever had before, or
than they have ever had since. Seeing that a sufficiency of employment is
the greatest blessing which a community can possess, this period was a
very prosperous one in the history of the West Highlanders, specially in
the Long Island, where the kelp industry was in such a flourishing
This period of prosperity
brought about some changes in the habits of the people, which deserve to
be noticed. To some extent the people began to use such articles as tea,
tobacco, and other imported luxuries, but only, I think, when such goods
were smuggled into the country. Duties were then very high. About 1740,
tea, which had paid duty, cost 28s a pound, sugar 4s a pound. Some old
accounts show that even the wealthier classes bought tea by the ounce, and
only used it very occasionally. About 1780 tea cost 6s a pound, and sugar
1s. These prices were far beyond the means of the poorer classes, and,
even had they possessed the money, it would have been difficult to get the
It is also probable that at
this time a good deal of whisky began to be distilled and drunk. In a
previous chapter I expressed the opinion that, in early days, whatever the
lairds and tacksmen may have been, the masses of the people were very
abstemious, and that, as Martin says, " their drink was water." But in
Badenoch, according to Miss Grant, considerable quantities of whisky were
being consumed at this time, specially at funerals and weddings, and I
think it probable that, during this period, in the Western Isles also
whisky became the drink of the people.
To supply these newly-felt
needs many illicit stills were working all over the Highlands, and in so
wild and desolate a country the Revenue officers found it very difficult
to discover the stills. Many vessels also were engaged in smuggling
dutiable goods into the Islands, and, such was the courage and address of
these skippers, they more often than not succeeded in eluding the cruisers
which were trying to capture them.
An old story relates that
on one occasion a Revenue cutter in chase of a smuggler succeeded in
driving her into Loch Dunvegan. The officer in command of the cutter
fancied that he had his prize safe in the land-locked waters of the bay.
But between the northern end of the island which lies in the mouth of the
loch and the promontory of Fiochaid, there is a passage, through which a
small vessel can reach the open sea. It is full of rocks, and only a man
who knows the channel can venture into it. To the amazement and disgust of
the Revenue officer, the smuggling skipper, who knew every rock on the
coast, made for this passage and effected his escape, while the King's
officer, who was not so well informed, did not dare to follow him.
The Customs and Excise
duties being at this time very high, both the illicit stills on shore and
the smugglers at sea flourished exceedingly. It appears that the smuggled
goods found their way, not only into the houses of the poor, but into the
homes of the wealthier classes. A meeting of Magistrates was held at
Portree on August 15, 1744, to concert plans for suppressing the "fair
trade." From the minutes of this meeting it appears that all the
Magistrates were able to do was to solemnly promise that they would
abstain from drinking smuggled tea themselves, and, "if it was humanly
possible, to restrain their wives and daughters from doing so," but they
appear to have been very doubtful whether it would be "humanly possible"
to do this.
Unhappily, during the first
30 years of the 19th century, all these sources of employment were dried
up. First, the work available on the farms was much diminished. The cattle
were removed, and sheep became the principal stock on the land. I have not
been able to fix the exact date when this change began to be made, but it
is probably safe to say that it was being carried out during the first 20
years of the century.
In some letters written in
1771 I find the substitution of sheep for cattle suggested because in that
year a most destructive cattle plague had broken out. The writer
describes, in the darkest possible terms, the miserable condition to which
all classes in the community had been reduced, and thought that any
change, which would minimise the chance of such a disaster recurring in
the future, must be a change for the better. Some of the older ones among
them may have remembered that the same thing had happened in 1717.
This reason for making the
change may have been in the minds of some of the lairds and tacksmen who
carried it into effect, but I am under the impression that other
considerations weighed much more heavily with all the parties concerned.
Elaborate estimates had been drawn up. In these were clearly shown the
amount of capital required to stock land with sheep or with cattle, the
working expenses which must be incurred when the different kinds of stock
were on the ground, and the profits which might be expected under the two
systems. These figures convinced the landowners and the tacksmen that
sheep farming would be infinitely more profitable than cattle farming had
ever been. Consequently, about the year 1811, on many estates tenants were
found ready to offer three times the amount of rent previously paid, and,
in the same year, the purchaser of Glenelg was willing to give a sum
amounting to 50 years' purchase of the net rental in 1810.
It was soon found, however,
that in these estimates several important factors had been left out of
account, and some serious drawbacks not realised or foreseen. These I
(1) If cattle are liable to
occasional outbreaks of cattle plague, sheep are subject to the mysterious
and constantly recurring disease called braxy, and the death-rate from
braxy on some farms is very high. It attacks sheep very suddenly, and
kills them very quickly. So far, no preventive of the disease has been
discovered, though inoculation has been tried with some measure of
(2) For some unknown reason
the death-rate from braxy is higher among home-wintered sheep than among
sheep wintered in the low country. For this reason, though excellent crops
of roots can be grown in the West Highlands, farmers send a great many
sheep to be wintered in the South at a very heavy cost.
(3) It is found that when
strange sheep are put on any given farm, large numbers of them die until
they get acclimatised. Thus the first tenants who introduced sheep
suffered very considerable loss. To recoup them for this loss, a system
was devised under which an outgoing tenant receives a price for his stock
largely in excess of its market value. This means that the amount of
capital required to stock a sheep farm is considerably increased, and high
capitalisation is always a drawback to any industry.
(4) Many farms in the
Islands are bounded on one side, sometimes even on two or three sides, by
lofty precipices, which rise hundreds of feet above the sea. On these are
many ledges covered with soil on which the rich grass fed by the salt
spray, which sheep love, freely grows. Cattle rarely fall over these
precipices, but sheep frequently jump down on a ledge a little below the
summit, attracted by the sweet pasture growing upon it. Unless a shepherd
comes by and rescues him, that sheep's fate is sealed. He soon consumes
all the grass on the ledge, he cannot jump back, and he finally dies of
starvation, and falls into the sea. This is called the "black death," and
causes immense losses on many farms.
(5) On many hillsides in
the West Highlands the soil is so poor that it produces nothing but rough
bent grass. Cattle will eat this grass, and thrive upon it. Sheep will not
touch it. Therefore an enormous quantity of grass, which had previously
been utilised, was wasted. Some compensation was found for this loss in
another direction, which had been foreseen, and made the most of, as an
argument in favour of the change of system. Sheep were able to get at and
consume grass growing in numerous and remote corries among the mountains,
which cattle had been unable to reach. But probably the loss was much
greater than the gain.
(6) There can be no doubt
that cattle manure land better than sheep do. As I have before remarked,
Dean Monro gives glowing accounts concerning the fertility of many islands
in the Hebrides, which a modern farmer would scarcely endorse, and it is
quite possible that, during the last hundred years, the soil has become
less productive than it was in the old days when cattle were on the
ground. I do not suppose that it is possible to arrive at any definite
conclusion as to whether this is really the case or not.
(7) The plague of bracken
which now covers so many once fertile hillsides in the country may be due
to the introduction of sheep. It is extremely probable that they carry the
seed in their wool, and so spread the bracken broadcast.
The effects of these
drawbacks soon began to be felt. In 1825 the rents fixed in 1811 had to be
reduced by nearly 50 per cent., and about the same time the purchaser of
Glenelg re-sold the property for a much smaller sum than he had given. The
fall may have been partly due to the economic condition into which the
country had fallen after the peace of 1815, but the fact that no important
recovery took place till about 1860 strengthens my opinion that it was
mainly due to the causes I have mentioned.
The question whether the
change from cattle to sheep was financially a success or a failure is a
very difficult one to answer. On the one hand, in 1825 rents were still
double what they had been in 1810; on the other hand, they would certainly
have risen in 1811, even if the cattle had remained on the land, but we
have no idea what the amount of that rise would have been. I rather
incline to the opinion that it has made very little difference, but if I
am right in the last two reasons I have given, the introduction of sheep
may have done a great deal of mischief.
Whether the substitution of
sheep for cattle was economically a wise measure or not, to the masses of
the people it was a great misfortune. Some landowners foresaw that it
would be so, and to their honour be it said, refused to sanction a change
which, though it might be favourable to themselves, would do an injury to
their clansmen. The harm done to the working classes was both material and
sentimental. It was material because it decreased the amount of available
employment on the farms, it was sentimental because it destroyed old
customs and habits which had been practised for centuries.
A few shepherds can attend
to great numbers of sheep, and, even when the sheep are being clipped,
only a small number of men are required. On the other hand, it is quite
certain that the care of the cattle, the milking of the cows morning and
evening, and the making of butter and cheese, had given the people a great
deal of employment. This was now lost.
And this was not all. The
cattle had been the main object of interest in their lives. The summer
migrations to the shielings had been delightful holidays. They varied the
monotony of life. They were eagerly looked forward to for months before
they took place, and they filled the winters which followed with pleasant
recollections. The material loss to the people was bad enough, but the
feeling that the centre of their lives had been knocked out was much
That feeling was strong at
the time, and it remains even to the present day. Not very long ago I met
an old fisherman at Mallaig. He told me that his parents had lived in
Skye. He dwelt upon the happy lives they had lived in the old days when
the island was full of black cattle, and a hundred years after they had
been removed, he was still deploring their loss.
It is difficult to
exaggerate the magnitude of the misfortune which fell on the masses of the
people in the West Highlands when sheep took the place of cattle as the
main stock on the land.
About the same time much of
the land, on which cereals had been grown from time immemorial, went out
of cultivation, and this was a hardly less serious blow to the people, for
yet another source of employment was dried up. This was not due, as is
often supposed, to a decrease in population: neither was it caused by the
crofters diminishing the amount of corn which they grew for their own use.
The real reason was that the tacksmen ceased to grow corn because it no
longer paid them to do so, and because it had ceased to be necessary.
improved, the conditions, which had made it so difficult at an earlier
period to bring cereals from other parts of the country, had changed, and
it was now possible to import corn at a cheaper rate than it could be
grown at home. The natural consequence was that much land went out of
cultivation. For the same reason a great deal of land in England during
the last fifty years has been laid away to grass, with the same
unfortunate results to the agricultural labourers.
This change, however, was
inevitable. It is impossible in the West Highland climate and on West
Highland soil to grow corn which can compete, either in quality or price,
with that grown in the more favoured South.
In 1815 the Napoleonic wars
came to an end. To the nation at large this was a great blessing; to the
West Highlanders it was a great misfortune. For more than sixty years vast
numbers of them had found the employment, which was more congenial to them
than any other, in the army, and they had covered themselves with glory in
scores of arduous campaigns. Now regiments were disbanded, the call for
men to fill up the ranks which had been depleted by heavy losses ceased,
and thousands of men came home to compete for work in the already
congested labour market. No doubt some West Highlanders continued to serve
under the colours, but the number was greatly reduced, and few of us now
realise what a crushing blow to our countrymen the peace of 1815 really
Between 1826 and 1828 came
an utterly unexpected disaster in the collapse of the kelp industry.
To some extent this may
have been due to chemical discoveries, which provided substitutes for the
alkali obtained from kelp, but it was mainly due to the removal of the
duties on pot pearl, black ash, sulphur, and barilla. The kelp-owners
petitioned the Government that the duties might be reimposed, but they
petitioned in vain, and I believe that in 1830 the value of kelp at
Liverpool was not much over £2, a price at which it was impossible to
One or two efforts were
made to resuscitate the industry, which met with some temporary success,
and a little kelp is still made in the Long Island, but it is hardly an
exaggeration to say that about 1828 kelp ceased to be a source of profit
to the Islanders. On all the islands this was a loss; in the Long Island
it was a disaster, which reduced the people to a state of terrible
poverty, and completely ruined some of the lairds. Now, in 1929, I
understand there is some prospect of a revival in the industry.
Naturally the temporary
work, which I referred to above, also ceased. The landlords, crippled by
the loss of revenues derived from kelp, were no longer able to carry out
improvements on their estates. By 1829 most of the roads were finished,
most of the draining, planting and fencing was completed, and most of the
new houses were built. The number of people who lost their employment at
this time, and with it their means of living, was very large.
As, one after another, all
these varied sources of employment were dried up, the condition of the
West Highlanders became more and more pitiable. They were rapidly
increasing in numbers (see Chapter III.).
The old system, under which
their maintenance had been guaranteed to them, had passed away for ever.
Most of them were cottars, and occupied no land at all; the holdings of
those who had crofts were very small, and, in a great many cases, a
crofter's relations had built themselves houses on his land, and five or
six families were living on a single small holding.
A few shepherds and farm
servants were still required. Some of the people found work in the
households of the lairds and tacksmen; the women earned something by
knitting socks and stockings; some men may have made their way to the
South and found work there; but, as steamers had not begun to run, this
must have been very difficult. Sportsmen and tourists had not begun to
bring money into the country, and probably the years between 1830 and 1850
were the saddest and the darkest through which the masses of the people in
the West Highlands have ever passed.
Thinking men, who realised
the conditions, were racking their brains to find some remedy for the
evil. Efforts were again made to prosecute the fishing industry; the
making of bricks was inaugurated in Skye, where there was some clay; one
or two lairds bought small sailing vessels, and endeavoured to create some
trade with foreign countries. Sir James Matheson carried out vast
improvements in Lewis, giving a great deal of employment to his people,
and similar efforts were made in other parts of the country. But all of
them were only local and transitory, and the best friends of the humbler
classes began, slowly and reluctantly, to realise that emigration on a
large scale was the only real and permanent remedy for their troubles.
But the idea was not at all
palatable to the people. Fifty years earlier they had been ready enough to
accompany the gentlemen tacksmen, who were themselves leaving the old
country, but it was one thing to go with old and trusted friends who they
knew would take care of them, and quite another thing to face a long
voyage with no one to guide them to a distant land of which they knew
nothing, where they had no friends, and where they would have to begin a
new life amongst strangers, who did not speak their language. No wonder
that they shrank from facing such an ordeal, and it became abundantly
clear that they would not go willingly.
The owners of some estates
in the West Highlands, rightly or wrongly, made up their minds that, as
the people would not emigrate willingly, they were justified in compelling
them to do so. These lairds evicted the people from their holdings, and
forced them to seek new homes beyond the seas.
For doing this they have
been denounced in very strong language. It has been said that their
motives were purely selfish ones, and that they made these "clearances,"
as they were called, because they believed that their estates would yield
higher rents if they were under sheep or deer than would be possible if
they were in the hands of crofters.
There is ample evidence
that some of the lairds were not actuated by such miserable and
contemptible motives as these, that they were filled with pity for their
unfortunate people, who were in such a state of acute suffering, and
honestly believed that emigration was the only remedy by which their
condition could be improved.
But, after all, it was only
a few lairds who acted in this manner. The bulk of the people remained in
their homes, and lived for another fifteen years under conditions which it
is very sad to contemplate. A competent observer, now long since passed to
her rest, told me that she had never heard of any cases of actual
starvation among them, and that they were marvellously contented with
their lot, hard though it was. But they were desperately poor, they had
lost the few comforts which they had possessed in happier times, and seem
to have forgotten that they had ever enjoyed them.
The following story was
told me by one of the people in Skye. The wife of an island laird gave a
pound of tea to the wife of the joiner on her husband's estate about the
year 1840. The good lady called her friends together to partake of the
unwonted luxury. She soaked the tea leaves in hot water, poured off the
liquid, and gave her friends the tea leaves to be eaten with a spoon.
In 1846 came the great and
crowning disaster of the potato famine. I have heard many accounts of this
appalling misfortune from the lips of people who were living in the
country at the time, and I have had access to a number of letters and to
many contemporary reports and newspaper articles.
Only one who has studied
such documents can realise the magnitude of the disaster. It is no
exaggeration to say that during this awful time thousands of people were
face to face with starvation. In my History of the MacLeods I have related
at length the story of what the Chief of that clan did to save his people,
and I need not repeat it here. But his efforts were only local, and no one
man could cope with such a tremendous disaster. Charitable funds were
opened in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and, before the end of the year 1849,
over £210,000 had been raised and spent in relieving the distress, which
was so desperately acute all over the West Highlands.
The most important result
of the potato famine was that something like half the population, forced
by stern necessity, emigrated, and, since then, the population of the West
Highlands has been steadily falling. In 1845 the population of Skye was
estimated at 29,500; in 1881 it was 16,889; in 1911 it was 13,319; in 1921
it was 11,031. Since 1845 not very far short of two-thirds of the
population have left their homes. The only consolation is that they have
done exceedingly well in the land of their adoption, and we must hope and
trust that the measures, which the Government have adopted in recent
years, will enable those who remain to do equally well in the land of
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