DONALD MACDONALD, Crofter, Inchvannie, Heights of Strathpeffer (44)—examined.
40264. The Chairman.
—Have you been elected a delegate by the people of Inchvannie ?
40265. Have you a written statement to make ?
1. In the first place, I shall briefly state the general history of the Strathpeffer crofters for about the last eighty years; and then, in the second place, I shall state my own individual case.
2. The low parts of Strathpeffer were at one time occupied by crofters ; but about eighty years ago these crofters were gradually turned off the low and fertile parts of the Strath to make room for large farms. The crofters received compensation neither for their labour on the land nor yet for their houses. Upon being removed from the low parts of the Strath, the crofters became sub-tenants on a patch of unreclaimed barren soil on the heights of Strathpeffer. At the same time they had the right to about 1000 or 1200 acres of common pasture land for which they paid no rent, and which belonged to the crofters on the heights from time immemorial, and they paid rent for an additional piece of hill grazing. The crofters then built houses on their new patches of uncultivated land. Not only did they receive no help in erecting their houses, but they had actually to go to other estates to purchase the timber they required. Neither did they receive any assistance whatever in reclaiming their barren allotments. All this time they had to pay rents to the large farmers on the low land, who were now in possession of the land and the houses which formerly belonged to the crofters themselves.
3. In about twenty years after the crofters were driven on to the barren heights, say about sixty years ago, the landlord himself took the crofts into his own management. Twenty years of the poor crofters' ceaseless toil had improved the land and increased the value of it, barren as that land was; and the result was that the marches were straightened and rents raised, and crofts were subdivided as the factor thought fit.
4. A little over forty years ago, the crofters were deprived of the hill grazing which they rented. They were also deprived of their common pasture land without any reduction of rent, and this caused great distress and difficulties among them. The whole of this land was let to a sheep farmer. Since that took place, if the crofters on the heights of Strathpeffer were considered worth their living on the face of the earth, their crofts would not bear an additional shilling per acre of rent.
5. But, alas ! twenty-three years ago our rents were again very much raised; in many cases they were fully doubled; the increase being in most instances from 4s. to 8s. per acre more than the real value of the land. At that time we were all promised leases. When a copy of the lease was read to us we found that it contained several unfavourable clauses, but we were told, both in English and in Gaelic, that we were to have only one hour to consider and to decide whether we should accept the conditions of the lease, or leave our crofts at the next Whitsunday term. We decided to accept the conditions of the lease, unfavourable as they were. Five or six of the crofters that could sign their names received their leases at once ; all others were told to go to the estate law agent, Mr Smith, Dingwall, where they got their leases signed, and paid 10s. to him for doing so. Now, although every one paid his 10s. to Mr Smith, not one of them ever received their leases, although they made repeated application for them. I myself have applied for it five times. Whenever I applied to the factor, he referred me to his solicitor in Dingwall; the solicitor again referred me to the factor, and so on. (see Appendix LXXV)
6. Three years ago our rents were again raised. We petitioned against this, so the increase has not yet been exacted, probably because the signs of the land agitation were then becoming very manifest among the crofters in various parts of the country. Still we pay taxes, such as poor rates and road money, on the increased rents of three years ago, and so we have reason to think that the increase has been entered against us in the factor's books, and that we are liable to have it claimed from us at any time in the form of what the factor calls fair rent.
7. Under such circumstances, then, I occupy a croft of a little more than 14½ acres at £ 1 , 1s. 5d. per acre on which I keep two cows, two calves, and one horse. The reclaiming of that croft and the building of houses cost my father and myself £400. In addition to this, my brother sent us £40 from one of the colonies, for the purpose of still further improving the land, so that we might be able to live a little more comfortably. This money wo spent on drains, subsoiling, lime, &c, which considerably improved our croft. From these improvements, however, we received no practical benefit, because the very next year after completing them we were asked to pay an additional £6 of rent, or to quit the place at the next Whitsunday term ; that was twenty-three years ago, so that out of my brother's £40 and the labour of my own hands, the all-devouring landlord has already pocketed £138.
8. But we may perhaps be told that the increase in the price of cattle justifies the increase of rents. To this I would reply, that if we did not spend more on the rearing of our cattle by artificial foods than we did thirty years ago, there would scarcely be any change in their price. This plea has already been made use of by a certain factor to justify the increase of rents. But the meaning of such an excuse is that the factor thinks the landlord justified in pocketing the increase in the price of cattle, leaving the tenant to pay the increased cost of feeding. It may also be said, with regard to the increasing of rents, that since rackrenting has been carried to such an excess, every experiment has to be made to force crops out of the soil by means of artificial manures, which are very expensive. Now the landlord grasps at the increase (if there is any) in the value of the crops, and leaves the tenant to pay for the increased cost of manuring.
9. Such, then, are a few of our grievances, and the crofters of Strathpeffer, with only three exceptions, unanimously maintain that such grievances demand speedy redress.
' They submit as their opinion, that there ought to be—
(1) a revaluation of the land by competent valuators appointed by Government, and a fixing of rents according to that valuation;
(2) Perpetuity of tenure;
(3) Compensation for improvements. To these views we have not been moved by any outside influence, nor was it recently that we came to entertain them. Twenty years ago we all met together on the heights of Strathpeffer for the purpose of drawing up and submitting to the Duchess of Sutherland a petition stating our grievances and our wishes, but the then factor stood in our way like a flaming sword, so that until this year we have not ventured to give public expression to our grievances. So long, then, we have crouched under the iron heel of the oppressor without a groan. But our case is now before the Crofters' Commission, and we hope that something will speedily be done to remove the crofters' grievances. Under the present rents we cannot improve the land, and under the present land law we will not improve the land. For some of our land that exceeded £26 per acre the reclaiming of it, and the first white crop taken from that land was rented by the then factor at £1 per acre.
40266. The heights of Strathpeffer have during the whole period you have alluded to belonged to the same family ?
40267. The Sutherland family ?
40268. Then you say that the first removal of the people was about eighty years ago ?
—It commenced before eighty years ago, but it was going on gradually.
40269. But about eighty years ago the number of people had been removed from the lower part to the higher part ?
40270. Were these the same people that held the crofts on the good land before ? Were they the same people moved from the good land to the bad land ?
40271. They were not an increase of the old population ? They were the same people taken from one place and put in another?
40272. When they were put into the new ground what was the rent that was charged upon them ?
—I cannot exactly say, because there were no rent books between them. It was a receipt they got from the farmers.
40273. Do you understand it was a nominal rental; I mean were they allowed to sit rent free?
—No, they were not allowed to sit rent free.
40274. There was some rental exacted?
40275. You cannot tell me how much?
40276. They sat uuder the large farmers?
40277. Did they pay the large farmers rent in money or in labour?
—They paid them in both.
40278. Then sixty years ago they were taken under the direct management of the estate ?
40279. What was the rental exacted at that time; about how much per acre?
—Well, some of them were about 12s. per acre.
40280. When an increase of rental was taken, was it taken upon the death of the occupier, or was it taken from all from period to period ?
—It was increased in their lifetime.
40281. We are told that upon the estates of the Duke of Sutherland the system was that the increase was taken on the death of the occupier ?
—That was not the way.
40282. The increase was taken from time to time?
40283. Was it taken upon all at the same time, or was each case treated separately ?
—First it was taken separately, but since twenty-three years it was taken in general.
40284. When was the last increase of rental ?
—Three years ago.
40285. What was the rental per acre before three years ago, and how much was it increased three years ago?
—It was a slight increase three years ago, but the rent before that time was from 15s. to about 26s. per
40286. You say that sixty years ago it was about 12s. per acre. Between sixty years ago and three years ago it had grown up to about 16s. the acre?
—Yes, and some paid up to 26s.
40287. From 16s. to 26s. ?
40288. Then how much was it raised three years ago?
—About Is. 6d. per acre, I daresay.
40289. How was this increase three years ago effected ? Was there a valuator sent round to revalue the land?
40290. There was no valuator. It was simply done by the factor ?
—Simply done by the factor.
40291. What do you think is the average rental of arable ground now upon these heights of Strathpeffer ?
—It ranges between 12s. per acre and 26s. per acre, according to the way the crofts are situated.
40292. In the course of all this time from sixty years ago, when the crofts were taken into the direct management of the proprietor, what has the proprietor done to assist the tenants in the course of their improvements? What has he done first with reference to houses?
—Nothing at all ; but since about thirty years back they were supplied with rough timber from the wood.
40293. They have not been supplied with lime or slates or anything of that sort ?
40294. They have no assistance except the rough timber in improving their houses ?
40295. Have they received any assistance towards fencing or draining ?
—Nothing of the sort.
40296. Have they received any assistance in making roads to the crofts from the public road ?
—There was a bit of a road built twenty-three years ago perhaps about two miles long. That was all that was done.
40297. Then you state that practically the whole work of improving the land has been done by the tenants ?
—I say so.
40298. Have they any security whatever for compensation ?
—Nothing of the kind.
40299. They have no leases whatever?
—Not a day's lease.
40300. Have they ever asked for leases ?
—Some have, and were refused.
40301. Is there much land still unimproved and still in heather about the place ?
—Yes, some patches in heather.
40302. Is there any encouragement given to you in any form to increase the cultivation ?
40303. You say that your remedies are revaluation and perpetuity of tenure and compensation. What do you mean by revaluation? Whom would you desire to see employed to make the valuation ?
—Suitable men that had thorough knowledge both of the land and of the climate.
40304. Would you be satisfied if the small tenants appointed a valuator and the proprietor appointed a valuator, with the power of choosing an oversman ?
—Well, I think the Government should appoint the valuators.
40305. But do you think that a man appointed by the Government to value would have as much knowledge of the climate and the soil on your particular crofts as a man appointed by yourselves and another man appointed by the landlord ?
—Well, they might be appointed to value the land no further from where they live than, say, ten or twelve miles on each side of them. They would have knowledge of the land there.
40306. You think the Government should appoint local valuators, valuators belonging to the place or near the place ?
40307. What do you understand by perpetuity of tenure? Do you mean that they should have a long lease, and that the land should be revalued ?
—I want the land to be revalued first, and fix fair rents according to that valuation. I mean by perpetuity that as long as I paid that fair rent, I could not be turned out or evicted.
40308. Do you mean the land is always to be under the first valuation, or do you think it ought to be revalued at some subsequent time?
—Well, it might be for so many years at the same valuation.
40309. How many years do you think ?
—Well, it might be nineteen years, or fifteen years, or so.
40310. And as to compensation, how do you think compensation ought to be settled ?
—Well, I know if I could claim my improvements at the time my rent was increased, I would sooner have my improvements and go away than go in for £6 more rent that the land was not worth.
40311. You would rather take the value of your improvements and go away to some other place ?
—Yes, if I could claim them.
40312. Where would you go to? Would you emigrate?
—Perhaps I might emigrate.
40313. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—How long is it since you yourself signed this lease which you cannot get hold of ?
—I did not sign it. It was my mother that signed it. She could not sign it, but she paid for signing it twenty-three years ago.
40314. And those that could not sign it but had to go to a notary public had to pay the cost of that ?
40315. To whom did they pay the 10s. ?
—To Mr Smith, law agent in Dingwall.
40316. When they paid the money why did they not take the lease with them ?
—He told them that they would be supplied at the next collection of rents.
40317. You mentioned that three years ago your rents were raised, and the rise of rent was not exacted, but you are taxed upon it ?
40318. What is the rent you are actually paying?
—I pay £14, 13s. 9d.
40319. You pay that for 14£ acres?
40320. Then, £ 1 , Is. 5d. per acre means the increased rent and not the present rent?
40321. Which you have not yet begun to pay?
40322. This increased rent was not fixed by valuation ?
—No, it was fixed by the factor.
40323. He valued it himself ?
40324. If you had perpetuity of tenure, when do you expect you should have compensation for improvements?
—As long as the improvements were good.
40325. But when would you receive it? You make certain improvements, and you have perpetuity of tenure; when should you ask the landlord for compensation for improvements ?
—Before I leave my place.
40326. But if you have perpetuity of tenure you don't leave your place ?
—If I and the factor failed to agree the land court would be called upon, and if the land court said that the land was worth what the factor was wanting for the land, and if I knew that the land was not worth that, I would go, and then I would claim my compensation.
40327. In that case the factor would not necessarily accept the valuation of the land court. He might ask a higher rent and pay you compensation. Do you contemplate that the factor need not necessarily accept the valuation put on by the Government valuator ? He might ask a higher rent, and pay you compensation for your improvements ?
—No, I don't mean that. If he would not put the rent higher, I would not expect compensation for my improvements as long as the land was left with me at a fair rent.
40328. But you ask three things in your paper—for a revaluation of the land, as you have explained it, by a Government valuator; and for perpetuity of tenure; and for compensation for improvements. ow, if you have perpetuity of tenure when do you expect to get compensation for improvements ?
—When my land is over-rented.
40329. But you also ask for a revaluation by a Government valuator ?
40330. You ask for all three ?
40331. Therefore, your land cannot be over-rented, and you cannot be removed, and when are you to get compensation ?
—I can be removed if I decline to pay a fair rent.
40332. Then if you decline to pay a fair rent the landlord is to be bound to compensate you ?
40333. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—You are paying upon an average about £ 1 , Is. per acre?
—That is the rent fixed three years ago.
40334. Have you got any outrun ?
40335. Do you know what the tenants on the low parts of Strathpeffer are paying per acre ?
—Some of them are paying about 25s. per acre.
40336. That is the large farms down below ?
40337. Do you think those large farmers built their houses at their own cost as you did ?
—Not one of them.
40338. Or did they build their dykes and fences?
—No, they did not.
40339. How many people do you represent to-day ? Do you represent a particular township on the heights of Strathpeffer ?
—Just the whole of the heights of Strathpeffer.
40340. How many crofters may there be on the heights of Strathpeffer altogether?
—I think the number is about forty-eight, but I am not exactly sure of the number.
40341. And they all concur except three. You say in your paper that three do not concur?
—Yes, only three.
40342. Why do these not concur, do you know?
—With regard to the three exceptions referred to in my statement, the first one of them is a man who got the last croft that was in the market in the year 1881. This croft consists of forty-one acres of the best soil on the Heights of Keppoch, and the rent is only 16s. 8d. per acre, and there is a slated dwelling house and square. This we call a fair rent. As compared with him, I myself have only fourteen and a half acres of poorer soil further up the brae, and I pay 4s. 9d. more per acre for it. The second exception is a man who has already got a fair reduction of the increased rent of 1860. And the third exception is a man who is now reaping the benefit of the gifts his mother used to present to the then factor twenty-four years ago. He is paying the rent his neighbours paid before 1860. It may thus be seen why he is not among those that complain, and he has even tried to prevent his neighbours from taking part in the present agitation.
40343. There was some land reclaimed some years ago. Do you represent the Knockfarrel crofters?
—I am on the other side. I do not represent them.
40344. Is that paper which you have read to-day prepared by yourself?
40345. It is your own composition ?
40346. Do you do any work except labouring your own land ? Have you any other occupation?
—Sometimes when I get carting to do or anything of that sort.
40347. Are the rents of the crofters in Strathpeffer pretty well paid?
— Well, I suppose some of them are not.
40348. There are some arrears?
—Yes, there are.
40349. With regard to this lease that you say you want, is it worth the while asking for it now ?
—No, the time has expired ; but still when we paid the money they are ours, and we should have them,
40350. But the time has expired ?
40351. Are you complaining of game?
—Greatly—some of us—the highest crofters.
40352. What kind of game?
—Grouse and deer and mountain hares.
40353. Where do the deer come from?
—-From the neighbouring estates—Tulloch and Wyvis.
40354. Is this matter of the grouse serious in a late season?
—Yes, it is sometimes not worth while cutting the corn.
40355. Do they disturb it at all?
—Yes, and sometimes it cannot be cut at all from the way the grouse tramp it under them and take away the seed.
40356. Then they hurt the corn even before it is put into the stook?
40357. I am speaking of grouse just now ?
40358. Are you complaiuing of rabbits ?
—The highest crofters are.
40359. Are they allowed to destroy them, or do they destroy them?
—Oh, they are not allowed to destroy them.
40360. Don't you know the law allows them to destroy rabbits?
—Yes, but where we are we have not a lease, and we can be turned out any time we meddle with them.
40361. Are you prepared to state that that Act of Parliament which was passed in favour of tenants is a dead letter upon the estate of Castle Leod ?
—Yes, quite a dead letter to us crofters.
40362. That is to say, you fear that if you exercise the right you will be removed ?
40363. Mr Cameron.
—You stated you wished to have nineteen years' leases?
—Yes. They wish to have perpetuity of tenure.
40364. But the tenants asked for nineteen years leases and very nearly got them. Did they not wish to have nineteen years leases twenty-three years ago ?
—Yes, that was promised.
40365. And at the time you wished to have nineteen years leases ?
—We did wish to have them, but we did not get them.
40366. And you stated, in answer to the Chairman, that you would like a revaluation of your lands every year by a Government official ?
40367. Now, the rise of rent took place forty years ago, did it not ?
—Twenty-three years ago.
40368. There was a rise of rent forty years ago and another sixty years ago ?
—It was more so sixty years ago than forty years ago. About forty years ago the hill pasture was all taken from us, and there was no rise then.
40369. But, confining ourselves to the rise of rent, there was a rise of rent sixty years ago ?
40370. The rent was raised again forty years ago?
—I did not say that,
40371. When was the next rise?
—Twenty-three years ago.
40372. Then there was no rise between sixty years ago and twenty-three years ago ?
—If there was not a rise of rent there was a reduction of land.
40373. Then putting it in the most disadvantageous way to the crofters, there was a rise sixty years ago and a diminution of their ground forty years ago, which was tantamount to a rise of rent ?
40374 Then there was another rise twenty-three years ago?
40375. And another slight rise three years ago ?
40376. Well, the difference in the number of years between each of those periods is rather more than nineteen years ?
—About twenty years.
40377. If you had a nineteen years' lease, and if there was a revaluation every nineteen years, you would be rather in a worse position than you have been from sixty years ago till now. Your rent would be liable to be raised every nineteen years if you had a lease, whereas as the matter stands your rent has been raised at intervals of twenty years ? Is it probable that the land is increasing in value every twenty years ?
—Our land is worse to-day than it was thirty years ago, and our crofts do not produce so much crop.
40378. I quite understand you think you are too high rented, and very likely you are, but what I am talking of from the tenants' point of view is a nineteen years' lease—whether on the whole the tenants would not be as well if they had no leases, and if they were tenants at will, subject to these revaluations you have described. I suppose what you really complain of is that the rise has been too much —that the rent put upon the land has been too high ?
40379. And the remedy you want for that is, that instead of the rent being fixed arbitrarily by the landlord, you wish it to be put upon you by some independent and impartial official ?