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Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland


DD, Page 190.  Letting Lands by Auction, Advertisements, or Private Offers

The excuse for this manner of letting lands by auction is, that landlords cannot otherwise ascertain the value of their property. But are those who are thus called upon to offer the proper value the best judges? They are, in general, either the tenant in possession, distracted with the dread of being turned out, and, therefore, ready to give any rent rather than move from the scene of his past happiness; or it may be a speculator, supported by credit, without property to lose, who will risk any rent, in the expectation that fortune and favourable seasons will enable him to work his way; if he fails, he is. no worse off than before, nay, perhaps, richer, as part of his creditors' money may remain in his hands; or, lastly, it may be a stranger from a distant country, ignorant of the quality of the soil and of its proper management, in an elevated country, and a boisterous uncertain climate. It is said, that while people are ready to take farms, the rent cannot be too high, and the landlord is justifiable in taking the best offer. In the same manner, it has been said, that while there are numberless candidates for army commissions, the pay of subalterns is not too small. That the pay of a subaltern is too small, I well know by years of hard experience, and I believe the numberless candidates are rather urged by a predilection for the profession, and by their want of other employment, than tempted by the sufficiency of military emoluments. From the same cause, and from the same desire of obtaining a settlement, candidates are induced to bid for land at whatever rent. Were it the practice to set up commissions to public sale to the highest bidder, or by secret and rival offers, the money to be paid in annual instalments, like the rents, instead of the whole down, thus affording some hope, that the delay would enable them to pay all, there is no doubt that the price of commissions would quickly augment; but. what would be the consequence? Certain ruin to the unfortunate purchasers, their spirit broken down by poverty, their morals unhinged, and in the hope of retrieving their difficulties, gambling and other practices, discreditable to themselves and their profession resorted to. But, happily for the honour of the army, the destruction of principle consequent on such proceedings was foreseen and guarded against, and all officers are strictly prohibited from giving more than the price established by regulations for their commissions. A different system would quickly ruin the army; and it is no less destructive and subversive of the best principles of the cultivators of the land, who have hitherto been conspicuous for their primitive manners and integrity.

Although all my observations apply to the Highlands only, I may take examples from the Lowlands, and give that of a nobleman whose character adds lustre to his high rank, and who, after having proved himself one of the most illustrious and able commanders of his country, when fighting her battles, has now, when his services in the field are no longer necessary, shown himself equally great, judicious, and generous, in the management of his almost princely estate, to which he succeeded a few years ago. [This was General the late Earl of Hopetoun.] The former leases were let by public advertisement and acceptance of the highest offer; accordingly, great rents were promised, but irregularly paid, and sometimes by sequestrations. Tormented and disgusted with these proceedings, and shocked at the distress and deteriorated character and principles of the tenants, who were resorting to discreditable shifts to meet demands they could not fairly answer, he determined to act agreeably to the dictates of his honourable mind. As the terms of the leases expired, he called for no secret offer, he employed no land valuator or agent, he did not offer his farms by public advertisements; he examined every farm himself, and calculated the produce, and thus was personally able to ascertain how far the former rents were the cause of the failures and defalcations ; he fixed the new rents at a reduction of the old, on an average of thirty per cent., although some were raised. So injudicious were the former rents, that while some were far beyond their value, others were too low. Every tenant obtained his own farm, except two, who, by their offers, were partly the cause of the former injudicious augmentations. The tenants can now bear-up under low prices and taxes, as their moderate rents enable them to meet unfortunate contingencies, and their generous landlord is secured in a regular income, thus making him as independent as he made his tenants.

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