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The Island Clans During Six Centuries
Chapter IX. - A West Highland Estate During Four Centuries


In earlier chapters I have dealt with many subjects which relate to the land. In Chapters II. and III. I discussed the conditions under which it was owned by the Chiefs, and occupied by the Chieftains, and in Chapter IV. I described the methods of cultivating the soil which were employed in ancient times, the crops which were grown on the arable ground, and the live stock which found a home among the hills.

In the present chapter I shall endeavour to obtain some idea of the gross value of the land in the Islands at different periods, and of the burdens which it had to bear.

Though most of my information is derived from papers in the Dunvegan charter-chest, and applies to a single estate, conditions were similar all over the country; and I believe that the records of what happened on that one estate will give an idea of what was taking place throughout the whole of the Island Lord's dominions, and make clear to the reader's mind the great changes which have brought the Highlands to the condition in which we know them.

All the values in ancient documents are given in Scots money. I shall reduce all these to equivalent values in sterling money, but the following tables of the money, and of the weights and measures, which were used in Scotland up to quite a late period, may be interesting:—

The boll weighed a little over 156 pounds, as against the boll of 140 lbs. now in use.

A boll of oats was the amount which would make a boll of meal, and is usually reckoned at 5 firlots.

The stones used in weighing butter and cheese were the trone stones, which weighed 24 lbs.

There can be no doubt that in very early days there were rentals in existence which indicated the value of the land in different districts, and it is probable that the officials, who drew up the charters which were granted to the Island Chiefs during the closing years of the 15th century, had these in their hands. The old rentals are lost, but many of the charters have been preserved, and from them we can obtain some idea of the value of land at an early period.

In these charters a given number of unciates are granted. An unciate is land the yearly rent of which is equivalent to one ounce of silver. This was valued at 2 13s 4d Scots, or 4s 5d sterling money.

In Glenelg, which was granted to MacLeod at a much earlier date, the term davoch is used. The Davoch in the Lowlands=4: ploughgates, and 1 ploughgate=8 oxgangs, or 100 acres Scots. In the Highlands, MacBain says a davoch is land which will graze 60 cows, and Skene says it is the same as the unciate. It is sometimes called the tirunga, Gaelic for ounce land. The term is used in Glenelg, which contained 12 davochs. Here it is certainly equivalent to the unciate.

On this value of the unciate or davoch "the old valuation " is based. As the same values are given for Glenelg, which was granted in 1342, and for the Island estate, which were granted in 1498, it is probable that this old valuation had been in force for a long time. Probably early in the 16th century a "new valuation was made four times as great as the old one." In this the value of the unciate or davoch was 10 13s 4d Scots, or 17s 8 1/3d sterling money. I think that probably the old valuation gives us the value of land about the middle of the 14th century, and the new valuation fixes its value in the early sixteenth century.

In these valuations due consideration was given to the fertility of the soil in the different islands. In fertile Islay there are only 1560 acres in the unciate, in Mull there are 4532 acres, in rugged Harris there are 6900 acres, in Skye, where the splendid but barren Coolins cover so much of the ground, there are 8224 acres. This makes it quite clear that the unciate was a measure of value, and not a measure of extent, and probably, whatever its value may have been at different periods, that value was approximately the same in all the islands.

As silver was weighed by troy weight, in which there are 20 dwt. to the ounce, an unciate, or davoch, of land was divided into 20 penny lands, each of which was worth, in the first valuations, 2s 8d Scots, 2|d sterling. It must be clearly understood that a penny land is not land worth a penny, but land worth the twentieth part of the sum an unciate is worth at any given time.

In some charters, in which smaller areas of land are granted, two other terms are used, the "pound land," which was worth 1 Scots, or 1s 8d sterling, and the merkland, which was worth 13s 4d Scots, or 1s 1 1/3d sterling.

In Skye the valuation of farms is given in penny lands. In Islay the unit was the merkland, which contained five penny lands. For purposes of comparison I shall in all my calculations employ the merkland as the unit, dividing the unciates by 4, and multiplying the penny lands by five.

The earliest record of actual values, which I have been able to find, is contained in a legal document which is preserved at Dunvegan. This is dated in 1527, and in it Lord Lovat values the 14 merklands he owned in Glenelg at 40 Scots a year, or 3 6s 8d sterling. The value of the merkland is 4s 8d sterling.

The next piece of evidence is a rental of Kintire and Islay, which is printed in the appendix to Vol. 2 of "The Clan Donald," by Doctors MacDonald, of Killearnan and Kiltarlity. This I copy from that work:—

In the rental, which is copied in column 1, a great many mistakes in calculating the amounts and value of produce appear. These I have corrected in column 2.

The prices of produce in 1542 are worth noting. Meal was twopence a boll, a mart two shillings and twopence, a sheep was twopence; you could have bought three geese or six chickens for a penny. The number of stones in a boll varied in different counties, and even in different parts of the same county. At Campbelltown, in Kintire, it was ten stones, and I have made my calculations on that basis.

I do not know the number of merklands in Kintire. In Islay there were 360. It is probable that the Chief kept 59 in his own hands, and that the remaining 301 were in the hands of the tenants. South Kintire was worth 273 14s 8d; North Kintire, 468 7s 8d; Islay, 818 10s 11d. The total value was 1560 13s 3d Scots, or 130 0s 11d sterling. The value of the merkland in Islay was 2 14s 5d Scots, or about 4s 6d sterling. Considering how closely the new valuation and the values in Glenelg and Islay agree, we may be fairly certain that the value of the merkland in the early 16th century was about 4s 6d. A much lower percentage of the rent was paid in money in Islay than in Kintire. The reason probably was that the Chief's castle was in Islay, and that he wanted larger supplies of food for the maintenance of his household.

At Dunvegan are two discharges, dated 1571, from Alexander Bayne of Tulloch for monies paid to him on account of the "terce" owned by his wife as the widow of one of the MacLeod Chiefs. These make it clear that a considerable rise had taken place, and I think that the value of the merkland was then about 9s.

Much information is given as to values in the report on the Islands, written between 1577 and 1595 for the information of the King, but I am convinced that this report is entirely without any value. A clause in it makes it clear that the writer had never visited the Islands he pretended to describe, and his account of them is amazingly inaccurate. For instance, he says that "Skye is 40 miles long, and 40 broad, and almost round." The figures, moreover, which he gives cannot be correct. According to him the amount of different kinds of produce paid as rent in Islay is from 14 to 56 times what it had been in 1542. We know from other sources that the King held most exaggerated ideas concerning the value of land in the Islands, and the rents he might exact for them. Probably these notions were based on such reports as this, which were very likely furnished to him by unscrupulous persons, who wished to give him information which would be pleasing to him. For these reasons I reject this report as valueless.

In 1610, the Dunvegan Chief bought 12 merklands in Waternish from Lord Kintail, paying 9000 merks for them, or 500 sterling. Land then changed hands at 20 years' purchase. Therefore, we may assume that the annual value was 25. If this is correct, the value of the merkland had risen to 2 1s 8d sterling.
This calculation is to some extent verified by the evidence of a tack, the terms of which were given in an earlier chapter. This tack is dated 1625. In it Clan Ranald lets 4 merklands. Allowing for the grassum which was to be paid, I calculate the rent at 180 merks, or 10 0s 0d sterling. The value of the merkland is 2 4s 4d, a slight increase on the value I calculated for 1610. I think that these two values confirm each other.

The increased values in 1610 and 1625 show that even in the earlier year the West Highlands were beginning to settle down, and that the beneficent effects of the agreements reached at Iona in the preceding year were beginning to be felt.

In 1644 the first Valuation Roll was made for the Sheriffdom of Inverness, including Ross. Up to this date, except in the rental of 1542, we have had no definite figures to go on, and all our values have been obtained by inference and deduction, but in 1644 we are on firmer ground. This valuation shows that an amazing increase on the rents in 1625 had taken place. In that year the merkland had been worth 2 4s 4d. In 1644 it had risen to 9 12s 4d ; in other words, land was worth more than four times what had been its value twenty years earlier, and even this may be under the mark. We do not know whether any deductions on the gross rent were allowed, whether or not payments for cess and teinds were included, or whether any grassums had been paid, and the rent reduced in consequence. For these reasons the real value may have been materially higher; it cannot well have been lower.

This valuation, and one made in 1691, will be found in "Antiquarian Notes," by Fraser-Mackintosh. From it I take the value of the estates held by the Western Chiefs in the Sheriffdom; some also owned property in other countries. I have reduced Scots money to sterling.

Islay contained 360 merklands; 301 merklands were let, and dealt with in the rent roll. The Skye estate only contained 76 merklands, all of which were let. Allowing for this, we first notice the vast increase in the amount of the produce paid to the landowner. In 1542, 1 mutton or wedder, 1 stone of cheese, and less than a boll of meal were paid for each merkland; in 1664, nearly 4 wedders, 5 stones of cheese and butter, and 4 bolls of meal were paid for each merkland.

Prices also had greatly increased in 1664. Meal now was more than five times what it had been in 1542, wedders 13 times, cheese 5 times and marts 9 times.

These increases in the amount and the value of produce caused an enormous rise in the value of land. The total value of the Islay estate in 1664 was probably over 4600 a year, compared with 68 4s 3d in 1542.

The early rent rolls are documents of great interest. Some are called judicial rentals because they were made by the Baron Court, not because they were made by any outside body. The proceedings at the meetings of the Baron Court are fully described. The names of the tenants are given, and the extent of their farms is added in penny lands.

The rentals were ruled in columns, one for each head of payment. The first four require some explanation. Though a large percentage of the rent was nominally paid in money, probably none of it was really so paid. Every year a large drove of cattle, with possibly some other exports, was sent to market from the estate. Each tenant sent his stock to go south with the drove; the factor credited him with the stock he sent, sold them at the market, retained what was due to the landlord, paying it over to the laird's "doer" in Edinburgh, and handed over the balance to the tenant.

Cess was the land tax due to the Government. I think from the amount of cess paid by the tenants that they paid half the cess to the landlord, leaving him to pay it over with his own half to the commissioners of supply for the county, who in their turn paid it over to the Government.

Teinds are the payments known as tithes in England. The tenants paid the whole of these. The Scottish law of teinds is most complicated, and I shall only attempt to explain the appearance of a column for teinds on the credit side in these rent rolls.

Under an Act of Parliament, passed in 1590, the teinds had been fixed at 20 per cent. of the rent. Till a "decree of locality" was obtained, this 20 per cent. was payable, varying with the amount of the rent. It will be observed that in this rental the amount given for teinds is almost exactly 20 per cent. of the money rent. When a "decree of locality" was obtained, the rent at the date of this decree was taken as the basis, and the teinds were fixed at 20 per cent. of that amount for all time coming. On this estate the decree was obtained in 1753.

The teinds were divided into two parts. In the seventeenth century one-third of the teinds in the Diocese of the Isles, and one-fourth in the Diocese of Argyle, belonged to the bishop, but this third or fourth was charged with the maintenance of the churches, the building and upkeep of the manses, and with the provision of the elements used at the Holy Communion. This share of the teinds passed in 1690 to the Synod of Argyle, and ultimately to the Crown. The landowners generally held these teinds under tacks from the bishop, and later on from the Synod of Argyle and the Crown, paying a tack duty and fulfilling the obligations. The earliest tack of teinds at Dunvegan is dated in 1621. The tack duty was 2 10s 0d.

On this estate, the proprietor being "patron and titular" of the benefices on the property, the remaining two-thirds belonged to him; but these teinds were charged with payments to the clergy, the amount of which was fixed from time to time by the Court of Session. This explains the reason why payments for teinds were included in the rental.

As has been explained in an earlier chapter, the marts were beasts which were killed in autumn, and salted down for use in winter. When a farm was not large enough to pay a mart, some "mart money" was payable. Of the payments in kind little need be said. In early days when the Chiefs maintained large establishments of retainers in their castles, they required enormous quantities of food. In the 1542 rental 95 per cent. of the total rent was paid in kind. But as time went on smaller households were maintained, less food was wanted, and a larger proportion of the rent was nominally paid in money.

An old rental, exhaustive as it seems, does not necessarily give the full values of the land at the time. It was the custom that grassums, which were sums of money paid on the renewal of a lease, should be paid. Long as were the periods of time for which tacks were then granted, the grassums must have very materially decreased the rent of the farms. I have before me a tack of Strond, in Harris, in the year 1657. In this the grassum paid is 500 merks, the period is "all the days of his life and of his lawful sone's life, and 19 years after;" the rent was 80 merks money, 12 bolls victual, 16 stones half-cheese, half-butter, 6 custom wedders, and one custom mart. This lease for two lives and nineteen years had fallen in by 1698, for I find Strond rented in that year at 140 merks.

Grassums were very often exacted. One was payable under Clanranald's tack in 1625, and over 4000 was paid in grassums in 1754.

There is yet another reason for doubting whether a rent roll gives the full value of the estate at the time. It was the custom to give charters for life of land to the widow of a deceased Chief in payment of her jointure, and to his younger children in payment of their portions, and this land in liferent was not included in the rental. In 1644, out of the 15,000 Scots which the MacLeod estate was then worth, over 4000 was in life-rent, and this would not have been included in a rent-roll.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century there was a. drop both in prices and in rents, but about 1740 both began to rise. In 1754 the rental of the MacLeod estate was close on 3000, in 1769 it was over 4000. After this large parts of the estate were sold, and I can only estimate values on the whole estate. During the closing years of the 18th century both prices and rents were rising very fast. I estimate the rental about 1800 at about 7000. In 1811, for reasons which I have explained in an earlier chapter, it leapt up to 21,000; in 1825 it dropped to 15,000. In 1860 it had risen to 18,000; in 1881, when rents had reached their zenith, it was nearly 26,000, and the value of the merkland was 192 14s 6d.

When we remember that in early days the value of the merkland was 1s 1 1/3d, and that the value of the estate had been 6 15s 0d a year, it is indeed an amazing rise.

The reasons for this rise are manifold. The increase which took place between 1610 and 1664 is accounted for by the fact that in the interval clan feuds had ceased, trade had revived, and the tackmen, having been released from rendering onerous services, were able to pay a higher rent.

The increase which took place between the beginning of the 18th century and the end of the 19th was mainly caused by the remarkable increase in prices which then occurred. After carefully going through a great number of old bills and accounts, I have arrived at the conclusion that, in 1701, the purchasing power of money was 12 times as great as it was in 1881 ; about 1750 7 times as great; about 1770 5 times. If we multiply the rental of the MacLeod estate at three times by the factors named, we shall get a fairly constant result, about 20 per cent. less than the value in 1881.

I conclude therefore that about 80 per cent. of the increase was caused by the rise in prices.

Other reasons contributed to cause the increase. Up to 1811 the farms, houses and buildings belonged to the tenants. Now the landlord has to provide them and keep them in repair. A farm, with a house and farm buildings, naturally commands a higher rent than one which has none. Much draining and fencing have been done, roads have been made, steamers have begun to ply, communications have greatly improved, and shooting tenants pay high rents, which naturally swell the gross value of a property, though they may not greatly increase its net value. These account for the 20 per cent. of the increase which was not caused by the rise in prices.

In England also there has been a remarkable rise in the value of land. I know of one estate in Northumberland which was sold for 100 about 1520, the gross rental of which is now about 1800 a year. I give some particulars concerning another estate in the same county which show the same thing.
Two inquisitiones post mortem relating to the owners of the Manor of Ulgham give interesting information as to the value of land in Northumberland in 1436 and 1517. The manor extends to 2675 acres. In 1436 only 380 acres, in 1517 1070 acres were cultivated, the rest was waste land. The rental in 1436 was 8 3s 4d, in 1517 18 13s 4d. In 1436 arable land was rented at 6 pence an acre, in 1517 at 1s an acre. In 1436 pasture land was rented at 2 2/5d per acre, in 1517 at 1s 3d an acre. Cottages at both periods were rented at 2s a year.

Common land, not mentioned in 1436, was valued in 1517 at d per 20 acres. The rental in 1861 was 2662, an increase of 334 times from 1436, and an increase of 121 times from 1517. Ulgham Grange, extending to 703 acres, belonged to Newminster Abbey. In 1541 its value was 13 6s 8d; in 1861 807, an increase of 60 times. The smaller increase in the value of a monastic estate emphasises the fact that the monks cultivated their estates better than the lay owners of land did.


In the old days of the Norse occupation these were nil. Later on they were limited to the payments which had to be made to the superior Lord under the feudal system, the maintenance of the ships for the King's service, the payment of a fine on succession (the germ of the death duties), of another on marriage, and the rights of wardship during a minority. These last meant that, after the maintenance and education of the heir were provided for, all the profits of the estate went to the superior Lord. These were called the nomentries, and were often sold by the King, as those of the Dunvegan estate were in 1585. In a charter dated 1611 they were commuted for an annual payment of 8 10s 0d, and the fine on marriage fixed at 25.

Later on other taxation was imposed, though these former claims continued.

I shall deal with the outgoings under five heads: 1, Cess; 2, Payments to Ministers; 3, Schools; 4, Charity; 5, Management. N.B.—All the payments which follow are given in sterling money.

1. The Cess, or Land Tax. This, I think, was imposed early in the seventeenth century. The earliest receipt at Dunvegan for cess is dated 1617. Cess was payable quarterly, at Candlemas in February, Whitsuntide in May, at Lammas in August, and at Martinmas in November; but only 2 months' cess was exacted each quarter: probably a rough method of allowing deductions on the gross value. Interest was payable on overdue cess. Failure to pay led to a troop of horse being quartered on the delinquent till he paid up.

I cannot give the amount of the charges until 1640. In that year it was 18 per cent. of the assessed value. Between 1660 and 1690 it averaged about 21 per cent. In that year the cess was fixed on a permanent footing. The then value of the land was taken as the basis of assessment, and no change has been made since, although the value of the land has much increased.

The idea was that cess should be levied at the rate of four shillings in the pound, but I find that the actual payments were generally considerably less. Possibly the old custom of only calling for 2 months' cess each quarter may have continued, but I have also found a note that in some years the commissioners of supply for the county, who managed the business, did not find it necessary to call for more than eight months' cess, or in some years for more than six months' cess. I do not understand the reason for this.

Very occasionally they found it necessary to make increased demands on the taxpayers. In 1779 an extra 6 per cent. was called for.

Besides this regular taxation, Parliament occasionally made grants to the King for special purposes. In 1617 such a grant was made for "the reparation of His Majesties buildings in Scotland"; in 1648 for the maintenance of "a garisone at Inverlochy"; in 1679 2 months' cess was granted "to make up the defect of the Excyse." Several times payments were demanded for the repair of bridges in different parts of Scotland which had been swept away by floods.

2. Payments of the Clergy. As we have seen, a landowner, who was "patron and titular" of the benefices on his estate, and held a tack from the bishop of the latter's share of the teinds, owned all the teinds, but out of them he had heavy payments to make. He had to keep the churches in repair, to provide and keep in repair the manses, to supply the elements for the Holy Communion, and to make such payments as were ordered by the Court of Session to the ministers.

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the ministers received 50 a year each. Besides this they received some meal and wedders, which were probably teinds on the rent paid in kind; and in addition each of them, then as now, had a glebe. In Harris the minister received 8 6s 8d in lieu of a manse and glebe. Thus the clergy were better paid then than now. Assuming that, in 1750, the purchasing power of money was seven times what it now is, a minister was receiving the equivalent of 350 a year, instead of the much smaller sums most Highland ministers now receive. At that time probably a landowner was making some profit out of the teinds. I estimate his total outgoings under this head at 12 per cent. to 15 per cent. of the gross rentals, and the teinds he received were 20 per cent.; but, as time went on, the Court of Session raised the amount of stipend payable to ministers, till all the teinds were absorbed. Then all the landowner's profit from the teinds came to an end. But if he had obtained a "decree of locality" the teinds, instead of rising, as they would otherwise have done, with the increased rent, remained a fixed sum, which was an ever-decreasing percentage of the rentals.

On some estates, where such a decree was not obtained, the burden of teinds has been a very heavy one indeed, especially in recent years. But landlords who obtained a decree of locality cannot be blamed because the arrangement then made has turned out favourably to them. Had rents fallen instead of rising, it would have been a bad arrangement for them, and in the 17th and 18th centuries no one foresaw the amazing rise which has actually taken place.

3. Payments to Schoolmasters. From the beginning of the 18th century there were schools on each of the estates. They cost the landlords about 5 sterling each. Later on each cost about 11.

In addition to these sums, found by the estate, there was a subscription for this purpose by the tenants; it must not be assumed that these sums were the whole salary teachers received.

4. Charity. In those days there were no poor rates. The people were extremely independent, and took a pride in maintaining their own poor relations ; but there were always a few in receipt of "pensions" from the proprietor. These payments, though nominally voluntary, were really compulsory, and must be looked on as charges on the estate. Schoolmasters and charity together did not cost more than 2 per cent. of the rental.

5. Management. On each estate there was a factor, though sometimes the Skye and Harris factorships were combined. The Harris factor was called the "Chalmerlayne," and received a salary of 12 10s. The Skye factor received 33 6s 8d. The Glenelg factor received 27 15s 6d. They collected the rents, arranged for the sale of rents in kind, made all the local payments, rendered their accounts of charge and discharge, and paid over the balance either to the proprietor himself or his Edinburgh "doer."

In the 18th century the factor was generally one of the gentlemen tacksmen on the estate. I give a summary of an old paper in which his duties are defined.

He should frequently visit the farms, and observe the methods followed by the tenants, correcting their errors, and encouraging their improvements. No sub-letting of land is to be allowed to sons or sons-in-law. No more horses shall be kept than the cultivation of the land requires. Dykes must be built of stone, and not of turf. Peats may only be cut in places indicated by the ground officer. Soil is not to be doubled over on the riggs. The keeping of goats is forbidden on account of the harm they do to trees. The factor is to deal with disputes about marches, and is to take steps to prevent poaching: the gentlemen tacksmen can get leave to shoot.

Under the factor were ground officers, one in each district. Up to 1750 their salaries were 2 4s 5d a year. In that year they were raised to 3 3s 4d.

Besides these local officials was a man of business in Edinburgh, called a "doer," who received a regular salary, and managed all the affairs of the Chief. Before 1697 the doer's salary was only about 13 a year. In that year it was raised to 50, at which it remained through the 18th century.

I calculate outgoings under the head of management at about 7 per cent., growing rather less as rents rose.

Highland landlords in early days knew nothing of the charges which affect their successors so grievously. Up to the beginning of the 19th century the farmhouses were the property of the tenants; and the only repairs the proprietor had to pay for were those on his own house, the manses, and the mills, which had been built about 1730, and were sources of revenue to the estate. County assessments for "rogue money," the quaint term applied to money spent on the administration of justice, and "contingencies," which mainly meant the salaries of county officials, do not appear till early in the 19th century.

Payments for roads first appear in the late 18th century. Poor rates were not imposed till 1845, education rates till 1872.

On the other hand, rents being still low, the fixed charges of cess and teinds were much heavier burdens on an early proprietor than on his successors. Late in the 18th century, and early in the 19th century, there was a short period during which, rents having risen, and the fresh charges not having been yet imposed, the percentage required for outgoings was very low; but, since then, it has been steadily rising, and has now reached a level which in many cases leaves no margin at all.

I have not been able to estimate outgoings before 1645. The following table gives the percentages of the gross rent, which were absorbed by outgoings at the times named:—

In this table I have only included the outgoings mentioned above. Early in the 19th century new burdens, such as county assessments and "meliorations," began to be felt. This last is the word employed to describe expenses incurred for the building and repair of farm houses and steadings. For this reason the outgoings during the later years mentioned in the table were undoubtedly heavier than the percentages given. If we include expenditure on roads, fencing, draining, and other improvements, they were very much heavier.

Since 1825 poor rates, education and highway rates have been imposed, and in Scotland the landlords pay half the rates. Buildings have become a heavy drain, and probably now a Highland proprietor's outgoings amount to something like 70 or 80 per cent. of his gross rent, and on the balance he has to pay income tax. But these and the many other events affecting the land which have taken place during the last hundred years are outside the scope of this chapter.

The ownership of the foreshores is a question which vitally affects all the owners of Scotch estates which lie on the sea. The foreshores comprise the land which lies between the high and low water-marks; their owner has several valuable privileges. He can build a pier on them, and collect dues from the ships which use that pier; he can cut the sea-ware that grows on the foreshores; he can erect a weir for the purpose of catching fish ; he is entitled to any wreckage which may be cast up on the shore.

In England the foreshores belong to the Crown, and the authorities in Scotland are always claiming them in that country also.

There is no doubt that the foreshores belong to the owner of the adjoining soil when they are specially granted in the charters under which the land is held, or when the owner's estate forms part of what was a free barony; but it is a moot point whether, under Scottish law, they belong to proprietors who cannot claim them on one or other of these grounds.

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