JOHN FOWLER, Crofter, Braefindon (60)—examined.
40505. The Chairman.
—Will you make your statement to us?
—Evidence by John Fowler, Braefindon, for crofters situated on the estate of Major M'Kenzie of Findon, Black Isle. The estate of Findon is situated in the eastern extremity of the parish of Urquhart. The lower portion of it, bordering on the Cromarty Firth, consists mainly of farms of a medium size ; whilst the higher part, bordering on the summit of the Mulbuie, is studded over with small crofts, and may be called the crofter district. Those for whom I act as delegate are situated there in the districts of Greenleonock, Braefindon, and Upper Badrain—a strip of land measuring from west to east about a mile and a half, and averaging about a mile in breadth. This strip contains at present about twenty-four small allotments, ranging from eight acres up to twenty acres each. Sixty years ago there would have been in this district barely forty acres of cultivated land, and I am requested specially to point out that the additional improvements, consisting of the cultivation of about 250 acres, has been effected altogether by the crofters themselves, and entirely at their own expenditure; and that with one or two exceptions it has been effected either by the present occupiers or by their forefathers. The general grievance I have to state is that the landlord makes no compensation for these improvements, whilst at the expiry of a lease they are rented upon them to an extent that would be exorbitant even supposing they had been effected at the proprietor's own cost. To illustrate this I shall state a case—my father's —which in the main agrees also with the o there. About sixty years ago he received a piece of land eight acres in extent. It was then part of the heathery moor, with no house upon it, and no part of it cultivated. He got it for the first five years free of rent, during which time he cultivated a portion of it, and built as much of a house as would do for present accommodation. Thereafter he got it for twenty-five years at the rate of 30s. a year, during which time he continued cultivating and improving, and at the expiry of which he received a lease of it for nineteen years at the rate of five guineas per annum. Before the end of this period he brought the whole under cultivation, and he is at present undergoing another lease of nineteen years at a rental of £8 per annum, being 20s. per acre. I may also state that he has also now got a further addition of seven acres, three of which had been then cultivated, and for which he pays an annual rental of £ 3 : but in pointing out the injustice there is of receiving no compensation for improvements I shall confine myself to the first lot of eight acres. At the rate of £15 per acre, which is not in the least extravagant, the labour expended in reclaiming this lot equals the handsome sum of £130, and to require the individual whose rightful property the fruit of this labour is, to compete for it at the end of a lease against one who may not have the slighest interest at stake, is altogether unjust. But such, however, is the case as matters now stand : and my father, for instance, now pays rent for the abovementioned lot to the same extent any other person would. This grievance, moreover, is carried to an extreme when those who reclaim the land are made to part with the fruit of their labour without compensation, whenever the proprietor sees it proper to unite a number of small holdings in order to form a larger one. The evils which follow this way of doing are manifold. The proprietor may to some extent benefit by it, or he may not, but the iudustrious peasantry who are turned out are very often launched into poverty and misery. I can point to a district which, thirty years ago, was divided into twenty-four small allotments. These had been united to form one large holding, and the result has been that not many years after the greater number of those removed became the objects of parochial relief. I have to mention that crofters complain not a little of extra burdens put upon them by the proprietor, such as the granting each year of so many days of labour —for crofters as a rule three days ; and also their having to supply each year at rent time a hen—or as it is now put, hen money. This is of minor importance relatively, but I am requested to state it, however, as a grievance. The three days' labour is meant for the repairing of roads, &c, but the roads notwithstanding are in such bad repair that the crofters can with difficulty take half a load at a time from their houses to the nearest county road. I have further to state that rents as at present are much too high, and that a considerable reduction will have to be made to allow the crofters to make a comfortable living. In short, I have to state that in general they want such a reform of the land laws as will entitle them to a full compensation for all improvements effected by them, and will fix the land at a price sufficiently reasonable to enable them to make a good living out of it.
40506. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh
—Did the proprietor of Findon ever do anything for the improvement of the lands or houses?
40507. Are you entirely upon what was once the commonty of Mulbuie?
40508. Was any land taken in before the commonty was divided ?
—I don't think there was—very little, if any.
40509. Before the commonty was divided many of the crofters were lower down ?
40510. What estate was your father on before he went up?
—On the Barne estate, but lower down.
40511. Who has got the land lower down that the people were upon of old?
—The farmer, William Jack, Braefindon farm.
40512. Is it a large farm?
—About 100 acres.
40513. You complain that your crofts are rather small; that is one of the grievances ?
—They do not say small. They cannot get them larger. It is planted all round nearly, and the land is nearly taken in, all that is left unplanted.
40514. Is the plantation come to that state that it is nearly ready for cutting?
—Yes, they are cutting it.
40515. Is it land that would reclaim ?
—Some parts would, and some would not.
40516. Have you or the other tenants had any benefit of the grazing in the woods ?
—Not unless we paid for it.
40517. Then unless you got some extension by getting the place where the wood now stands, as it is cut down, there is nothing else on the estate for you ?
—Yes, I understand the proprietor is going to cut down a farm and make it into crofts again —one of the crofts that five or six crofters were turned out of. I understand the proprietor is going to make it into crofts again.
40518. What is the name of that farm that is proposed to be cut down ?
40519. Is it his intention, do you suppose, to accommodate his present crofters and not to take in new ones ?
—I think it is to accommodate the present ones, and perhaps to take in some new ones. He spoke to my father about taking part of it,
40520. And I suppose you are willing to do so upon reasonable terms ?
—I don't know. We are sorry for the farmer going out of it. He is going out through not being able to carry on with it.
40521. You mean his present rent is too high?
40522. You complain also that your present rents are too high?
40523. When were they raised last ?
—About nine years ago.
40524. Was there a large increase made then ?
—Yes; my father was only paying £5, 5s. and it rose to £8.
40525. Without anything additional being given to him ?
—No, nothing whatever.
40526. Is that increase something analogous to what was done to all the other crofters ?
40527. Would you consider the rent it was nine years ago a fair rent now ?
—The rents then were rather too high to make a living off them.
40528. Do you do any other work except on the farm ?
—No, I just do the work for my father. He is an old man, and not able to do it.
40529. Are you able to make a living out of it?
40530. Then how do you manage ?
—I happen to be fortunate enough to have a little money made in my younger days, which I am spending there now.
40531. And were it not for that external assistance, what would have been the case ?
—My father would have been like a good many of the rest—he would have been in the poorhouse or getting parochial relief.
40532. How many people may there be altogether on the Findon estate that you represent ?
—Twenty-five heads of families.
40533. All paying rent ?
—No; there are three families not paying rent, and two paupers.
40534. Are the people upon the adjoining estates complaining in the same way ?
40535. Are they represented here to-day ?
40536. Is their story much the same as yours?
—Well, I think their story is perhaps better than mine—some of them at any rate.
40537. Findon was once part of the property of Sir James Mackenzie of Scatwell ?
40538. What was the rent when your father first went into the place ?
—He got the first five years of it free, and at the end of that he was charged 30s. He got twenty-fiye years of it at 30s. a year for the whole.
40539. What state are your buildings in ?
40540. Are they all your own?
40541. If you require any repairs on your buildings do you get wood ?
—We get it by buying it.
40542. Nothing given you gratuitously ?
40543. Is that the general case upon the other estates ?
—Yes, the general run for the twenty-four crofters I have mentioned, and upon the whole estate I may say it is the same.
40544. Are the younger members of the families of people like yourself obliged to go abroad to earn their livelihood ?
—Yes, and some of them very young. I had to go when I was about nine years of age.
40545. Do such as go away in that way generally contribute something to the assistance of their parents ?
—Generally they do.
40546. Am I safe in saying that without that assistance they would be hardly able to pull through ?
—They would be hardly able to pull through.
40547. What you point to then is this, that there should be such a size of croft as to enable the occupant to make a living out of it without any other occupation ?
40548. There has been a great deal of reclamation in what is called the Black Islo district during these last sixty years, has there not?
—Yes, a great deal.
40549. Gradually done ?
40550. Very much done, I presume, also by what may be called the crofter classes ?
40551. Was there much drainage done upon what may be called Mulbuie ?
—Yes, all of it done by the crofters themselves.
40552. But by drainage money from Government ?
—Not much, I think.
40553. What is the extent of the plantation done on Findon estate that you refer to ?
—I could not say; it will be over 200 acres, I think.
40554. Then supposing the wood has come to maturity and can be cut down, that would be a great relief to the people if they got a share of it ?
—Very little. It is bad land.
40555. Was that why it was planted ?
—I believe it was.
40556. Are you complaining of game in your part ?
—Not very much up where we are, but down at the shore they are complaining of rabbits, but it is such a poor place up at Mulbuie that rabbits will not live on it.
40557. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—Were these improvements made by your father, under a lease in virtue of an agreement ?
40558. When he took the lease it was understood he was to make these improvements?
40559. Did he expect when the thirty years were out —five years free and twenty-five years at 30s.—to have to pay something more?
—He expected to have to pay a little more, but not so much as £5, 5s.
40560. On what principle do you think the rise should take place in a case of that kind at the end of the lease, where there is an agreement that certain improvements shall be effected? To what extent would it have been fair to make a rise, in your opinion ?
—About the double, I think—£3 would have been plenty.
40561. Because he made the improvements himself ?
40562. But he made them under agreement. I suppose when he made the agreement, he thought it would pay him to have it for twenty-five years at the reduced rent ?
40563. Even if he had to leave it afterwards?
—Yes, very likely he did.
40564. And you think it did not pay him ?
—No, it never did.
40565. If the improvement cost, as you said, £15 an acre, that is £120, and if he had it for twenty-five years for 30s. when it would have let to anybody else for £8, then the improvement must have paid him in that time?
40566. Perhaps it is not worth £8 ?
40567. But somebody else would give £8 if he gave it up now?
40568. And therefore the proprietor was sacrificing during that time rent to the value of £6, 10s. for twenty-five years?
40569. And that would come to more than £120?
40570. The Chairman.
—You were asked how the increase of rent in your opinion ought to be made. You allow that your father took this ground first of all for no rent, and afterwards for a low rent for a certain term of years, and that he expected that at the end of the term there would have been some rise ?
40571. In your opinion, how do you think under those circumstances the rise ought to be arranged ?
—I think, if they had only doubled it, and put on £3 instead of £5, 5s.
40572. That is your personal opinion as to the amount it ought to have been raised to, but I don't ask you that. I ask you how the question should be settled, —what ought the proprietor to do to settle it ?
—I don't know.
40573. Do you think it would be a good thing that there should be a valuator appointed ?
—Yes, I certainly think so.
40574. How should the valuation be made?
—If my father was to put a man there and the laird another—two practical men who know the nature of the ground.
40575. And suppose they disagreed?
—Get a thirdsman in then.
40576. Who should name the thirdsman ? Should they agree about the thirdsman, or should he be named by somebody else ?
—I think he should be named by the landlord.
40577. Then the landlord in that case would have two men ?
—Yes, but if he was a just man he would show no favour.