Ullapool, 30 July 1883 - Alexander G. Pirie

ALEXANDER GEORGE PIRIE, Proprietor of Leckmelm (47)—examined.

28622. The Chairman.
—Have you any statement which you wish to read ?
—I have a written statement which I should like to read :
—The estate of Leckmelm was purchased by me in 1879. The object in view was to make it residential for about half the year. It had not been so previously. The extent of arable ground is about one hundred acres, the rest being moorland and plantations. The arable was partly cropped as a small farm and partly occupied by crofters, to the number of about fifteen; these subsisted on the produce of the small crofts, and such fishing as fell in their way. Half-a-dozen cottars also resided on the estate. After the purchase was requested by some of the people to provide work to enable the population to eke out their means, as of late years little of that had come in their way. After consideration I found, that the only means of providing work was by taking the whole land into my own hands, making it into a home farm, and sinking in the soil more money than at first ever thought of. The limited area of the arable ground, and the limited number of the crofter population enabled this to be done, much to the benefit of the land and of the population. The change created a great outcry among outside agitators, though not so much among the people chiefly interested. These last would doubtless have preferred both crofts and permanent work and wages; but as this was impracticable, in consequence of the limited extent of the ground, most of them soon saw the impossibility of having both, and realised the benefits likely to accrue to them from the change. I carried out my views in defiance of the outside agitation, and, in place of small crofts of partially worn out land, the people are now in receipt of regular work and wages, with their cottages and potato gardens at a nominal rent, and they have the same opportunities of fishing as before. The old amount of rent paid in lots by the crofters was about £90 a year. The amount of wages they and their families now receive for work done exceeds £800 a year, which is far in excess of any profits possible from the crofts they held, even on the most liberal computation. They are employed at farm work, at gardenwork, at plantation work, as gillies or as yachtsmen. As a proof of the improvement in their circumstances, the population on Leckmelm required no outside help during the past winter, while so many in the Loch Broom district around were raising the cry of destitution. It may be of some practical importance if a few details are given, showing what has been done at Leckmelm by treating worn out or partially worn out land in a proper manner, and what therefore could be done elsewhere. Much has been said by the deputations on the west coast as to the state of destitution having been caused by the land being in a worn out state, and not capable of producing much more than, if as much as, the seed put in, and the only cure proposed by them is to grant the tenants larger holdings. How larger holdings of soil, incapable of even returning the seed put in, can benefit any one, passes comprehension. Such an increased holding would only cause increased work, without giving increased return. The question of putting the present holdings into a more satisfactory state of production by enlightened and scientific treatment is one of a more feasible character. Doubtless there would be many difficulties to be overcome in consequence of very small and divided plots, of old habits, and of the dislike to adopt new ones, natural to a people who have lived very much apart from the world; but a few facts based on practice may have some tangible bearing on the question, and may show what might be done, provided the inherent difficulties could be overcome. It may be assumed, that so-called worn out land means land where the soil is deficient of certain ingredients necessary to the particular kind of plant sown, and that these ingredients are wanting in consequence of their having been absorbed by successive crops and their not having been returned to the ground in some shape or other, such as in proper manure. On taking the land at Leckmelm into my own hands I found much of it worn out or nearly so. That is to say the crops were poor and diminutive. On inquiry I found that it had been cropped for a lengthened period, while the chief or only manure had been sea-ware. This sea-ware is deficient in some of the ingredients necessary to plant life, while it holds others in excess. The consequence, which would naturally be looked for in a soil largely manured by it, would be an ample supply of the ingredients which sea-ware possesses in excess, and a want of those in which it is deficient. A small area of land was treated as a testing ground. No manure was given to it. Grain was sown in one patch and peas in another, both patches being contiguous. The crop of grain was practically nil, while that of the peas was good. It is known that grain requires an ingredient in which sea-ware is deficient, and in which the soil, as I have explained, would therefore also be deficient; while peas, on the contrary, require an ingredient largely supplied by sea-ware, which the soil in consequence held largely. So practice and theory were here at one, and gave me the clue for future working. Upon this I acted and with good results. The system of renovating the land has now been three years at work, and at the end of another three years I hope to find the whole ground in good heart and capable of producing good crops. The cost of renovating the land amounts, irrespective of draining, to about £ 3 per acre per annum. This may seem a large sum, and it might be difficult to get West Highland crofters to bury ready money to this extent; but, though I cannot consider farming in the west of Scotland a very lucrative concern, I can say, from the short experience I have had, that the amounts spent in manures and soil ingredients have been well expended, for the crops each year in excess over those attainable on the unmanured ground more than repay the value of the manures used for renovation. As a proof of this I can quote a crop of twenty- two tons of turnips per acre after treatment and besides this the manurial treatment leaves the land each year in an improved state ; that is in one more capable of yielding permanently good results. In other words a judicious and full treatment spread over six years will, I believe, renovate the land; while the annual outlay during these years will be recouped each year by the excess of crops consequent on this outlay. There are one or two remarks made by Mr M'Millan as to what are called the Leckmelm evictions, but I don't think it is necessary to go into that, because every crofter who was on the estate of Leckmelm is there still with one exception, and that one I evicted for reasons which I am quite prepared to state, but which for the man's sake I would rather not state. I think it better to say as little as possible. There is one point upon which there was a good deal said about that case; I was informed by the newspapers that I turned the man out in a starving state with his wife and family into the streets. As it turns out, I happened to know at the time that he was pretty well-off, but I had no notion he was so well-off as I have ascertained he was. I have a letter in my pocket showing that he was in treaty for a farm from Dundonnel at £30 a year, and was prepared to take over stock to the extent of £400 or £500. Mr Mackenzie of Dundonnel seems to have known as much as I did, and declined to accept the man as tenant. The fact of his offer, however, showed that he was in very flourishing circumstances

28623. I think there was a question asked at the last person who was here as to whether there were any new houses built for the people ?
—There are only two houses in which two people are living. One is occupied by the shepherd who was on the estate before; he occupies his house rent free. It is practically a new house, for though it was the old shooting-lodge, I had to take it down and practically rebuild it. The other house was let to an old crofter, or the son of an old crofter. He is a yachtsman, and gets £ 1 in summer and fifteen shillings a week in winter, and I charge him one shilling a week for rent As to milk, the population before I took the estate had some cows which were supposed to give milk; they gave but a small quantity. When I took everything from them I thought it but proper that I should make arrangements by which I could supply them with milk. I have fifteen cows from which I supply my own house with milk and butter, and in addition I supply the whole of the crofters. I believe I also sell from thirty to fifty pounds' worth at Ullapool after supplying the crofters with all they require. I don't think I have any other remarks that I wish to make; but your Lordship and the other Commissioners may wish to put some questions to me which I shall be glad to answer.

28624. I understood you to say that in taking the arable ground of this small estate into your own hands your principal object was to afford the people profitable work ?
—Yes. I would have had no objection to have the crofters if I could have had ground enough for myself and also have been able to give them work. But the estate is small and I had no opportunity of doing so.

28625. I would just ask you whether you consider it possible, or would have considered it possible, to employ the crofters in improving their own holdings and houses, charging them interest on the outlay incurred in that manner?
—I don't think it would have been practicable, I never could have got the ground into the working state it is in now. The ground was broken up into long narrow stripes and it could not have been ploughed or farmed properly. The first thing I had to do was to take down from one-half to two-thirds of the dykes, and form reasonable fields which could be properly worked.

28626. About remodelling the holdings of the crofters, would not it have been possible to have kept them and to have placed each of them in possession of a small holding of a proper shape ?
—I could have made the whole estate into a co-operative farm, I suppose; but in that case I should never have bought it, because there would have been no possibility of coming here and providing myself with produce, .and also to have continued the crofters. As it is at present the amount of arable ground is too small for me to work profitably. With the staff of horses I have I could work other thirty or forty acres with great comfort and more profit.

28627. Are the tenants of the old houses which still remain gradually dying out and departing. Is their number reduced?
—I should think there are a great many more people on the estate now than there were. I give employment to perhaps a father and two sons. For instance, there was a lad who was coming forward to give evidence just now —I suppose he has left —I don't know whether his father is employed, but I know his brother, who was an ex-policeman, came down here when work was to be got and for two or three years these young men received about £80 a year from me between them. These two could not possibly have worked on the croft along with their father.

28628. Would it have been possible, with a farm of considerable extent in your own hands, to have allowed the crofters to retain as much land as would have supplied each famdy with a cow ?
—But I have not the land; there is not room. I should only have been too happy to have done that if I had had the room. It is not as if I had a large estate, or one on which there could be land brought in. The estate might have been left as it was and turned into a sheep-farm with a non-resident proprietor. If the proprietor is to live upon the estate it is not practicable to work it in the way suggested, unless he means simply to go down for a month or so in August. I shall permanently require on the estate more people than there were of crofters, but, of course, the question is whether they will choose to accept the work. There is plenty of work going on just now, but they like to work as it pleases them. A year or two ago I had to bring a man from the east coast. I wanted a man to take a particular situation on the farm. I only knew of two men who could take it. I offered it to one of them, as I would have much preferred taking one of the people on the place. The wage I offered was seventeen shillings a week and a free house, but the man declined the place because he wished to work when it pleased him. I then offered it to the other, but he said lie would not clean a cow on the Sabbath, and I thought animals required to be cleaned as well as fed.

28629. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Are you quite satisfied with all you have done ?

28630. Do you think the reducing of the crofters from the status of crofters to labourers dependent upon you is for their benefit ?
—Certainly, because I think a man who is able to work and make his own livelihood is in a far nobler position than a crofter who every five or six years has to go and cry out ' I am destitute and want help.'

28631. There is no question you have taken away everything from them except the house and a quarter of an acre of land ?
—None whatever. At the same time, I am not objecting to the crofter system if it is worked properly and if it is suitable for the estate. I am only speaking for myself, and I am satisfied with what I have done on my estate; there was nothing else that could have been done practically.

28632. Will those people who have been reduced from the position of crofters ever be satisfied with their lot now ?
—I don't see why they should not. I have not the slightest reason to think they are not.

28633. You think they are?
—Perfectly, they are in a far better condition financially, and, I believe, physically, than they were before.

28634. You heard, did you not, the examination of the only person from your estate ?

28635. Did he express the opinion you do now ?
—Not altogether, for this reason that under the old regime, before I bought the estate, he held a double
croft. He was farm manager and worked for Mr Davidson on the farm, and I suppose was chief lord and king there; and naturally, now that he is no longer the chief man, he does not like it.

28636. I presume these people did not want to give up their lands?
—Certainly not, if they could have got work and wages besides.

28637. They did not give them up voluntarily ?
—Certainly not, because they expected work and wages as well as the land.

28638. You say the land was taken from them against their will —then so far as the crofters and their lands are concerned, with regard to yours may it not be said that it was a case of veni, vidi, evict ?
—Of course.

28639. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Do you really think a man is. in a nobler position who is working for day's wages to another, than a man who has a bit of land on which, if he is industrious, he feels that he occupies a position of some little importance in the country, and holds up his head with a little more dignity ?
—If he is in the position of a small farmer who can tide over bad times, I quite agree with you; but if he has a small bit of ground and requires to appeal to the south for help, I think he is living on charity, which I think has a bad effect on the moral character. .

28640. Did you, in fact, find all the people in the condition of being unable to support themselves in a creditable manner?
—I will not say that they were not able to support themselves in a creditable manner, but I say they are in a far better position now, and are far better off than they ever were before.

28641. I think it is quite possible their physical condition may be improved, but I only speak of it as a matter of dignity and status ?
—It is a matter of sentiment, and I can quite understand the feeling of sentiment. I happen to come from the east coast, where that sentiment is not quite so extreme. I don't see it in the light of sentiment when it is a question of subsistence.

28642. Are there any old people who are unable to work ?
—Yes, there is one. I was not aware there were four people on the poors' roll, which there seems to be, and who, the roll shows, were there before I came, but I know one old man who gets something from the poors' roll, and he gets something from me now and then. He exists really, and that is all.

28643. You must recognise that that is a very sad thing for a man who formerly kept several cows ?
—I think he was quite incapable of that. He had an acre and a half which he was unable to farm, and his wife is dead and he has no relatives.

28644. What is his name ?
—Black Donald.

28645. There is an old man of the name of MacLeod ; is not he in that position ?
—My impression was that there was only one man on the property who really has no relatives to depend upon and nobody to look to him.

28646. In the case of a man who falls into that position, I suppose when he dies his house will just be swept away ?
—Well, there have been one or two swept away, because they were inclined to sweep themselves away. When the shepherd and his father went into the new house, their house being rather better than others, a family removed into their old house. The worst houses are always taken down as any change is made.

28647. Do you propose by-and-bye to remove the people from the present houses to a barrack ?
—That is my idea. It may or may not be a barrack. It is a castle in the air in the meantime, and may or may not come about.

28648. But that was the idea in building the place ?

28649. That the people should all live together?
—In one block of buildings, so many cottages entering from the outside and so many from the inside, but the houses being perfectly separate otherwise. In spending the money, I have laid it out with that view, but whether that may come about is another question.

28650. I presume the people would prefer to remain in their houses in the meantime ?
—The first idea on going to a new house is that it is very bare and clean and disagreeable, but six month's occupation alters all that.

28651. The Chairman.
—What is the nature of this common lodging you project ?
—Simply a block of eight cottages in two rows, one storey below and one above, making sixteen houses in all.

28652. With separate doors for each family ?
—Yes, an entirely separate entrance for each.

28653. With lots of ground ?
—Well, the ground cannot be exactly at the cottage. It will have to be about a hundred yards away; the ground will not adjoin the cottages.

28654. What is the object of consolidating the dwellings of the labouring people ?
—First, because I want the place as a residence for myself in the meantime, and, secondly, because it is a more economical way to build.

28655. How many would their be in each block ?
—There are two rows, and six in each row and two at the end. Of course it is simply carrying out the principle that I have seen adopted in county districts on the east coast of Scotland ; on a farm with which I am connected there are a great many on the same principle.

28656. Is it not more common to make a block of two dwellings ?
—Two or four; there are generally four, I think.

28657. Sheriff Nicolson.
—Is there a store on the property for the supply of goods ?
—There has been a shop and there is a shop. The owner of the shop came to grief ; he became bankrupt, and his father and brother are taking it over.

28658. Is it intended for the use of your work people ?
—I have nothing to do with it. It is entirely for the crofters to choose whether they will purchase there or not.

28659. Professor Mackinnon.
—I think you stated, as one of the reasons for converting this crofting population into a labouring population, that it was to prevent periodic destitution amongst the people?
—No, I did not say to prevent that, because I did not at that time know of the periodic destitution ; I had not the experience of this last winter.

28660. I did not take down the statement, but if I remember you mentioned in your evidence that there was periodic destitution in the district every four or five years ?
—I mentioned it as a fact. I said that I thought it a more noble position for a man to earn his daily bread by labour, rather than to farm a piece of ground on which he could not exist.

28661. Have you found that these people have had to apply to the public for charity every four or five years ?
—I cannot say.

28662. I understand you to say that ?
—No ; my explanation was that I had no opportunity of giving them work without taking the land into
my own hands.

28663. You stated that one of them was worth £400 or £500 ?
—The one who was put out.

28664. The man who was examined a little ago seems a substantial man ?
—I believe he is ; but he knows best himself.

28665. So that it would appear that these people were rather prosperous?
—Yes, but I think these two had much the largest stock.

28666. You gave us a general opinion with respect to the population on the west coast, and said ' How larger holdings of soil, incapable of even returning the seed put in, can benefit any one passes comprehension?
—That, of course, I take from the public newspapers.

28667. Have not you found yourself that it was necessary to enlarge these holdings in order to improve them —to put them under one management?
—I have put the whole property into one.

28668. In order to improve it ?

28669. And don't you think those people on the west coast, if they could manage to consolidate a croft would do the same ?
—Not unless they put manure into it ; you have no chance of getting a west Highland crofter to manure his land as I have done.

28670. What portion of the west Highlands are you best acquainted with ?
—I don't know them except from going along the coast and from travelling through the west Highlands. I know nothing of the Highlands practically, as Mr Fowler does.

28671. Would you be surprised to find three or four acre crofts with crops to beat the large farmers in the district ?
—Yes, as I am speaking from; the evidence which has been given to the Commission of the state of matters which has necessitated this Commission.

28672. These people ask for larger holdings in order to make them better which is the very thing you have done yourself?
—I have no objection to give them larger holdings. I think it is an admirable system; but I say that is of no use unless they improve the lands.

28673. It is for that purpose they want the land ?
—Then why don't they improve their small holdings ?

28674. This was stated in your paper as a reason for not giving them larger holdings ?
—The latter part of my paper was to show what I have done and what the land can produce when properly worked. It has nothing to do with the question of crofters at all.

28675. But you are not aware if any west Highland crofts are worked with advantage ?
—No ; but I have no great experience.

28676. And you don't think if the crofts were made larger they would be made better?
—Most decidedly, if you doubled the croft and the people worked it properly.

28677. But don't you think it would be more easy for them to work the croft properly if it was doubled?
—No; I can't say that.

28678. If it was trebled ?
—Not even trebled, an ordinary croft. I mean that if you have a croft of three acres and put in a certain proportion of seed, and that croft gives out about the same quantity of seed as was put on, I don't see how a crofter can be benefited but the opposite by having three times the amount of land. He gets nothing more out of the land and he has three times the work,

28679. Don't you think he could clear away the dykes and straighten the banks and work a shift rotation as you are doing—if he had a larger area ?
—Not unless he manured it properly.

28680. Could not he manure it properly too ?
—Yes, if you teach him how to do it

28681. That is what the crofters say they could do, if they had a larger area?
—I don't know that.

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