WILLIAM GUNN, Factor on the Cromartie Estate, Strathpeffer (44)—examined.
40582. The Chairman.
—You desire to make some statement in connection with what has been said here to day ?
—I do. I desire to make a few general statements with reference to the crofter holdings in the Strathpeffer district, and afterwards to refer briefly to the leading points in the evidence given by the delegates from that quarter.On the Strathpeffer property of the Duchess of Sutherland and Countess of Cromartie there are eighty-three crofters, paying rents ranging from £2 to £30. Of these there are fifty-seven on the heights or southern slopes of the valley, nine in the township of Park, and seventeen in Gower or Knockfarell. Forty-nine tenants pay rents under £10, twenty-six pay £ 10 and up to £20, and six pay £20 and up to £30. There are six holdings ranging from £30 to £100, six from £100 to £200, three from £200 to £400, and only one above £400 —total rental from crofts, £760. It will, I think be admitted that this regular gradation of holdings gives all classes a chance, and especially the industrious crofter. I believe I am correct in saying that the crofters on the Strathpeffer property hold now every inch of arable ground that they ever possessed. I may here mention that the only improvable ground of any extent was reclaimed by the proprietor between the years 1848 and 1850, viz., what are commonly known as the Knockfarell or Gower allotments, extending to close upon 150 acres, which were reclaimed at an expense to the proprietor of £2868, or as nearly as possible £20 an acre. The intention, I believe, was to provide suitable crofts for some cottars in the village of Achterneed; but it happened that a colony of crofters, who were removed from another estate to the number of eighteen families, applied for this new land, and the Duchess of Sutherland (then Marchioness of Stafford) yielded to their importunities, and gave them possession, granting them leases and materials with which to build houses. It is due to these people to say that, with scarcely an exception, they have proved to be excellent tenants in every respect. They are industrious, and farm systematically and well, and of this we have the best evidence in the fact that they pay their rents regularly, and that within the last few years most of them have substantially improved their houses, four of which have lately been slated. I have looked up the old records, and find that some fifty years ago, and prior to that, the grazing of the southern division of Wyvis were held by the tenants on the Heights of Strathpeffer. I have been unable to trace exactly what the arrangement was, but I believe the tenure was a yearly one, a few of the principal lotters being responsible for the rent, which I find in 1835 was only £25 a year. At that time the rent was returned in the name of Kenneth Maclennan, who, I find, gave up the holding in 1839, leaving the rent in arrear. It has been stated that these people were deprived of this grazing, but my information is that the tenants could not agree among themselves about its management. It is well-known that in these days they were unable to stock all this grazing, and that they were in the habit of taking in horses and cattle from the Black Isle and other places, and summering them on this pasture, in order to enable them to pay even the small rent then exacted. This grazing was subsequently let, in conjunction with Glenskaich proper, to a Mr James Scott, who held it until his death in 1862, when it fell into the hands of the proprietrix. The farm was so held until 1872, when it was left to Messrs Arras, Fodderty, at a rent of £275. Seeing that this grazing was in the proprietrix's own hands for a period of ten years, it does seem strange that no proposal was made by these tenants for re-acquiring it. If they are in earnest now in their wish to have it again, it seems to me that they ought in common fairness and courtesy to have made their wishes known in the usual way instead of bringing it forward here as a grievance. In 1860, seven years before I had anything to do with the management, nineteen years' leases were granted to almost all the tenants in the Heights of Strathpeffer. These leases expired in 1879. It was a stipulation of the lease that the tenant should give six days' labour by himself or substitute, or three days' labour with a horse and cart, each year for making or repairing roads or other useful works. It was. however, found somewhat difficult at times to put this stipulation into practice. It was, therefore, deemed advisable on the expiry of the lease to enter into a different arrangement—the intention being to let the repair of the roads to a contractor, and to add a small sum to the rents in lieu of the stipulated labour. The yearly value of the labour was 15s., but when revising the rents this sum was only imposed in the case of a few of the largest and best lots; while in the case of some twenty tenants there was no rise of any kind asked, while in some instances there was a reduction made. The revised rents, however, have not as yet been levied; whether they will be or not I am unable to say. These rents average under £ 1 per acre, which considering the situation, the quality of much of the land, proximity to a railway station and to good markets, cannot be regarded as other than reasonable. I may add that at Strathpeffer, now so largely frequented during the Spa season, there is almost an unlimited demand for dairy produce, poultry, and eggs, and while there are some who do take advantage of this ready market, there are many who do not. While there are some industrious, good tenants, we have, I am sorry to say, some quite the reverse. There is the case of Alexander Gray, mason and crofter. I mention this case in connection with the position this man took up as chairman of a meeting of a few of the tenants and some outsiders, called to discuss the tenants' so-called grievances. Alexander Gray became tenant at Martinmas 1862. He came from another estate, when his offer of £ 10 for a ten acre croft was accepted. He paid the first half year's rent, but not another penny until 1868, when he paid other £5, leaving five years' rent —£50, 15s.—' in arrears. Upon representing this matter to the Duchess of Sutherland and her advisers, I was instructed to write off this sum of £50, upon giving an assurance that he would pay up afterwards. How he has kept that promise may best be judged from the fact that at this moment he owes over three years rent. He is a mason to trade, and has a fair croft of ten acres arable and slated house for £ 10 a year. I ask is there another proprietor in Scotland who would have shown the same indulgence? Some reference has been made to myself personally in the course of statements made by the delegates. In the first instance, I would refer to the statements of Donald Macdonald. He occupies a croft containing 15 acres 2 roods 7 poles of old arable, at a rent of £14, 13s. 7d. There was an increase of something more than a pound proposed to be put on. It is very fair land, with a southern exposure, accessible to good roads, and within a few hundred yards of a railway station. This delegate admitted that sixty years ago this land was worth 12s. per acre. I submit that a rise of 8s. per acre in sixty years is not unreasonable in the circumstances. This, and the other delegate, John Rose, in the statements they have made, have principally dwelt upon things which they say happened eighty years ago. These statements which they have now brought forward as grievances I have heard to-day for the first time, and I do think it would only have been fair and reasonable that if they really felt aggrieved they should in common fairness have acquainted us of this and asked for redress. They did nothing of the kind. They said a great deal in disparagement of the late factor, Mr Scott. I venture to say that Mr Scott was a just and honourable man, who held his responsible position for a period of very near half a century with the entire confidence of his constituents —the late Cromartie and his daughter, the present Duchess of Sutherland—and I venture to say that neither Cromartie nor the Duchess of Sutherland would keep in their service any factor who would do an unjust or unkind thing to any of their tenants. Slight reference has been made to myself in this matter, which induces me to ask you to allow me to read a short petition signed by these people in 1879:
—"Heights of Strathpeffer, 26th September 1879.
—William Gunn, Esq., Strathpeffer.
—We beg respectfully to approach, through you, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland on the subject of the proposed increase on our rents, which you informed us was to begin at the last term. While we have found that in prosperous times, when crops and prices were good, it was sometimes a difficult matter to gather our rents, we think you will agree with us in thinking that the present year is anything but promising for bearing additional burdens. With a succession of bad harvests, and falling prices for stock and grain, and with no immediate prospects of matters mending; and when we hear that other landed proprietors are allowing deductions off their present rents, we trust that our own noble proprietrix will take the matter into consideration, and will, at least, postpone laying on the new rents at present. We beg to add that from your past courtesy and kindness to us, we have every confidence that you will only recommend what is fair and right in submitting the matter to their Graces, and hoping to have a favourable reply to our application." Here follow the names of thirty tenants. Now I beg respectfully to say that I think this at least is a certificate from those people that prior to the year 1879 I have treated them with courtesy and kindness. I would ask them if by anything I have done since 1879 I have lost their confidence. I am always accessible. I see them frequently. I am not aware of ever turning a man away without listening to his complaint, if he had one. I have always striven honestly and conscientiously, if there was a grievance, to do my best to redress it, or at any rate to represent it.
40583. I did not understand there was any imputation made against you personally for want of kindness or accessibility?
—Some of the statements made by the delegate Rose certainly implied that. I am very glad to hear that your Lordship thinks otherwise, because that was my impression.
40584. The point upon which I would rather consult you is the general question of the rise of rent upon improvements made by small tenants. The general statement made to us was this, that at a remote period certain parties were moved from a more fertile and favoured part of the estate and carried gradually up to the higher ground, where I think for a space of about twenty years they remained as sub-tenants at the will or at the orders of the large farmer; that about sixty years ago those tenants had been placed in direct relations with the landlord, and at that time their rents had been fixed in money at a sort of average of about 12s. an acre ; that this rental had remained unaltered for a good number of years; that it had then been increased to 16s. an acre ; that it had stood for a long time also at that rent, and that very recently an additional rise of 3s. an acre had been imposed, which, however, had not yet been exacted. We understood also, from the examination of particular witnesses, that the rental at the present moment upon arable ground among these small tenants was from 16s. to £1 per acre. Well, now, is that a pretty correct statement of the course by which the arable property held by small tenants has been formed ?
—It would seem to me that their statements have gone back for a period of eighty years. My connection with this property has only extended over fifteen or sixteen years. It is impossible for me to say what might have occurred sixty or eighty years ago. I believe that the statements made by them are open to question, but I am not prepared at this moment to state distinctly to what extent that is so. I believe that the then proprietor of the Cromartie estate, Mr John Hay Mackenzie, was not the man to have disturbed tenants and removed them on to a barren moor without taking the matter into consideration and dealing kindly by them.
40585. But without having a very accurate knowledge of what occurred sixty or eighty years ago, you must have a general impression from the traditions of the country as to whether these arable lands upon the higher part of the country have been formed by the labour of the people, or whether they have been formed by co-operation or by the expenditure of the landlord ?
—I am quite prepared to admit that it is extremely likely that these crofts have at some remote period been improved by the ancestors of the present tenantry.
40586. Are you able to inform me whether in the course of reclamation the small tenantry were under any regulations by which they were assisted in any particular points by the proprietor—whether the proprietor contributed in any specific manner to the erection of houses, the improvement of land, the creation of fences and roads, or in any other way ?
—I am not aware that anything but the course usual in such circumstances was adopted, and that was to charge a nominal rent, giving the improver time, and assisting him by giving him materials for his buildings.
40587. Can you state that materials were given for buildings ? We have heard for instance that rough wood has been given. Can you state that any other description of assistance, with reference to lime or with reference to stone, or at the erection of the buildings, was given ?
—Of recent years assistance has been given in the shape of timber and slate, the slate to be repaid at interest, 4 per cent, being charged for the use of it.
40588. But, practically speaking, I suppose as you say, in conformity with what was the custom very generally in the country, these waste lands were reclaimed under a nominal rental by the people themselves ?
40589. Well, at the termination of the first lease, or, where there was no lease, at the termination of a life, or of a long period, an increase of rental is imposed. How have those increases of rental on this estate been imposed? Have they been imposed by an amicable or arbitrary arrangement between the tenant and proprietor, or by valuation, or at the discretion of the proprietor alone?
—I am unable to answer exactly what the arrangement was when the leases to which I refer in my statement were entered into, whether there was a regular valuation by an experienced valuator or not,—but I was not aware there was any grievance felt as to the amount charged on that occasion till I heard it here to-day.
40590. I suppose I may assume that on this property—as I daresay in some others—the increased rental has in reality been imposed at the discretion of the proprietor and his agents?
—Yes, but with the concurrence of the tenants.
40591. That is to say, if the tenant did not agree, he was at liberty to go away ?
—Quite so ; but as a matter of fact they never had occasion to leave.
40592. I would like to have your opinion upon this system. We have heard a very general expression of opinion here and elsewhere, that it seems a hard thing that people should expend the labour of a lifetime in forming a real value upon property and then at the end of a period—it may be a long period—the value of the land should be estimated, and that they should be charged a rental just as if they had had no share in the improvement of the ground. What do you think yourself would be an equitable system? Do you thiuk the system that has hitherto obtained is equitable, or do you think that at the expiration of an improving lease there should be some kind of valuation by disinterested parties as estimating the value of the improvements by the tenants ?
—Most decidedly. I think that is only fair and right with respect to any improvements made by the tenant, if he can show he has not derived the full value of them; but if he has during a long period of years held the land at a low or comparatively nominal rent, I hold that during that period he has been recouped for his outlays, and really there must be a limit to the period of time when a tenant can claim meliorations for his improvements.
40593. Wc shall all agree that there must be a limit of time, but the question is whether there must not also be a limit of degree. Are you aware that in any cases improving leases of that kind in this country have been granted, with the provision that if the tenant leaves at the end of the lease he shall be reimbursed for improvement in the soil by a certain amount per acre ?
—I am not aware of any such.
40594. I think I have seen the draft of such leases in this county, and I think also such a lease was mentioned to us at Bonar Bridge.
—I think it is only quite proper, if a tenant can show, on entering on a lease or when he is leaving, that he has really left any value, —anything that has enhanced the value of the subject,—and that he has not derived the full advantage of his improvements, he ought to get the benefit in some shape or form.
40595. But might it not be very difficult at the end of a long lease at a low rental, having reference to ground originally waste, —might it not be very difficult for the tenant to show in how far he has been reimbursed, aud in how far he has not been reimbursed for a long series of years, I mean, might there not be a sort of friendly view of the subject ?
—Quite so. That is quite the best view to take of it, and we have never had any difficulty hitherto that I have heard of till to-day.
40596. Have you ever in any case assessed and paid unexhausted improvements to a small tenant ?
—No, we have hardly ever had a change. Reference was made to one instance in which there was a change, and that is the case of a man named Sutherland. This man, I believe I am correct in saying, was grieve on one of the best holdings in the neighbourhood, lie ought to be a competent judge of the subject. He saw it. He could judge for himself. He made an offer for it, which was accepted. That offer was £ 3 or £4 above the rent paid by the outgoing tenant.
40597. Had you several offers for that farm ?
—We had only one offer. I believe it was not advertised. Indeed I don't recollect of any instance in which we advertised crofter holdings. We rarely have a change.
40598. How do you deal with buildings ? Has compensation in any case been given for unexhausted improvements in buildings ?
—I cannot recollect any case where such a thing was called for.
40599. In fact, there have been very few changes ?
—Very few changes. The rent is exacted for the land, not for the buildings, but I certainly say that if any application was made by a tenant who could show that he had really of recent years improved his buildings and left anything material in their value, that would be considered.
40600. Will you tell me, if I may be allowed to ask it, what motive was there for the recent projected increase of rental intended about three years ago ? Were the times particularly favourable for imposing an increase of rental on that farm ?
—It was simply this. As you are aware, these holdings were held under lease, and at the expiry of the lease it is usual to have a rearrangement. In this case it was one of the stipulations of their lease that the people were to give so many days' service for the repairing aud improving of a road which was made for their own accommodation at the expense of the proprietor.
40601. And the projected increase of rental three years ago was entirely for the purpose of commuting services ?
—To a very great extent it was. But in answer to the petition which was made, and in consideration of
the fact that that particular season was a very bad one, this small increase, on an average not quite 15s. on each holding, was remitted.
40602. Was the projected increase wholly in the way of commutation for services, or was there some clear increase?
—The whole holdings were revised, and, as I mentioned, in some cases there was no increase whatever. In these this labour charge was remitted entirely; and in other cases there may have been a slight increase, but more to equalise rents. In some instances there was a reduction from the original rent under the lease.
40603. So virtually, in your opinion, there was no increase ?
—I don't consider there was.
40604. How has it been with farms of another character ?
—If they had happened to be out of lease three years ago, would there have been a diminution or an increase?
—In the immediate neighbourhood, separated from the holding of one of the delegates who appeared here to-day, there is the farm of Keppoch. That was let at a considerable increase of rent; —in fact, the rent is very nearly £ 2 per acre for land just simply separated by a hedge from land held by tenants at 23s. or 24s. or less.
40605. Are you able to state, then, with reference to arable ground considered apart, that the rent of the arable ground in the larger farms is decidedly higher ?
—Yes ; and it is right it should be higher. It has many circumstances in its favour. It is lower, it is richer soil ; and during a long series of years it has been better farmed and manured. And then there is another consideration, that on the farm there are extensive buildings, and I am quite free to admit that the crofter who pays £ 1 or £ 1 , Is. per acre really puts as much into the proprietor's pocket as the larger tenant who pays the larger rent.
40606. Is there any waste ground now in course of being taken up by the tenants ?
—Not at this moment, but I may mention that there are pitches of waste land attached to most of those crofts on the slopes of the Strath, extending in all to about one hundred and fifty acres. There has been no let or hindrance to these people. They could have reclaimed that land, but I believe they find it very useful as pasture outrun. That goes in with the arable area.
40607. Mr Cameron.
—With regard to the difficulty of ascertaining how far a tenant has been reimbursed for his outlay, and what period should be fixed after which he should not be credited any more for outlay, would not, in your opinion, the most satisfactory way of meeting the difficulty be a free arrangement by way of a lease contracted between the parties, which should be fixed upon at the beginning of the tenancy, and which should come to an end in the natural course of events ?
—Clearly ; I think that is quite a feasible and good arrangement.
40608. That would meet the difficulty as to the period after which the tenant's interest in his improvements should be considered to have been exhausted?
—Yes. I have an explanation to give with regard to the leases, which I omitted before. A statement was made that certain of the tenants paid 10s. for a lease which they never obtained. Now, Mr Fraser Mackintosh hit upon the explanation. Those leases had to be signed before notaries, and the charge was made by those two notaries, with whom the estate had nothing whatever to do. I believe the originals of all these leases are in the estate office. What has become of the duplicates I am unable to say. I will say, however, for Mr Andrew Smith, the Duke's agent, that I feel sure he is not the man to take any man's money without giving him value for it, and I feel surprised that the 10s. should have been paid by those people without getting their leases. Why they have not got them I am unable to say.
40609. To return to the question I have just asked ; supposing the subject to be dealt with by the tenant was a peculiarly difficult one, and one the outlay on which could not be fairly reimbursed to him in an ordinary period of nineteen years, might it not be competent for the landlord and tenant, instead of nineteen years, to enter into still longer leases, such as thirty years ?
40610. So it would remain for the tenant, when he saw the subject on which he was to work, to say, ' I cannot enter on so short a lease as nineteen years ; I shall require a longer period than that.' In any it not be the subject of agreement between the two ?
—Yes, and I may remark that I think the statement was made by the delegates that they had asked renewals of their leases and had been refused. I am here to say that that is not the case. One of these delegates. Rose, did ask for a lease. He afterwards came and said he had a difficulty with his partner, who was an old man, in coming to an arrangement, and that for the present he would like the matter deferred. I have repeatedly told those tenants who had a great deal of land to reclaim that we were willing to enter into a new lease with them and give them as long a lease as was desired, provided that this land would be reclaimed.
40611. In regard to the general condition of the tenantry on the Strathpeffer estate, what is your experience of their general condition as compared with tenants in a similar position on neighbouring estates ?
—I may say I am pretty well acquainted with the neighbouring estates, and I am bound to say I have heard it repeatedly said by managers who have come here that they do not know any class of tenantry anywhere who have such an appearance of comfort as they have.
40612. Have you any difficulty as to arrears of rent ? Have the tenants been at all backward in paying their rent?
—Upon the whole, we have very little difficulty. There is considerable arrear just now, because we have no desire to be harsh in times which have lately been not good ; but as a rule these arrears are standing in the names of some of the tenants who, as I said, are not so industrious as they might be.
40613. Have they given you any reason for their being in arrears from any special misfortunes that have happened to them ?
—I cannot recollect any case in which any such reason has been given.
40614. With reference to the smaller class of crofters on this estate, what opportunities have they for maintaining themselves and their families otherwise than by the proceeds of their croft ? How is it in regard to labour ?
—I am very glad you have asked that question. Ever since I have had to do with the property, a very large sum has been expended upon estate improvements, and as a rule the people living on the property always have the first chance of that labour when they are disposed to do it. So that for the last dozen years very large sums have been expended, and a great deal of that money has gone into the pockets of the residenters on the property,
40615. But is there much demand for labour outside the bounds of the property, in the surrounding district ? Is there any scarcity of labour ?
—There is great scarcity of labour ; indeed the large farmers complain of the great difficulty they have in getting labour at harvest and other busy times.
40616. Is there much building going on in the neighbourhood ?
—Yes, a very considerable extent of building in Strathpeffer; it is a growing place.
40617. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—You hear of the case of a tenant on your estate who was paying £6 of rent and was living in a state of great misery in regard to his bedding; now your attention is drawn to that case, I suppose you will look into it ?
—Most decidedly. I was extremely surprised to hear that statement, and I should like to know who the party is. I am pretty well acquainted with every tenant on the property. We had a meeting of the Parochial Board the other day, and it seems extraordinary that such a case could occur without my knowledge, and it seems still more strange that the man who came to make the statement should not have acquainted me with it.
40618. But this person is not on the Parochial Board ?
—Then it is still more surprising.
40619. The Chairman.
—If the delegate is here he is at perfect liberty, as far as I am concerned and with due respect to the feelings of the crofter, to state the name.
—Well, I can only say I am very much inclined to disbelieve the statement
40620. I don't wish you to say anything of that kind. You would have no difficulty in finding it out in a benevolent manner privately?
—Quite so. I shall make inquiries.
40621. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—I just want to ask two or three questions about game on the estate. One of the delegates stated here that the Hares and Rabbits Act is a dead letter on the estate as far as the crofting population is concerned, and stated the reason why. Was his belief well founded, that if they protected themselves they were liable to be evicted at next term?
—I think, on further inquiry by the Chairman, he elicited the information that no one was harshly dealt with in connection with the game, and I am prepared to confirm the statement that in no case within my knowledge has any tenant been visited in any unkindly way in connection with game.
40622. But the point I refer to is this, that the delegate states that, in point of fact, they did not protect themselves from game as they would under the Act of Parliament, because they were afraid they would be evicted. Can you give an assurance on the part of the proprietrix that if they do exercise such power as they have under the Act of Parliament it will not be to their prejudice ?
—Certainly; they are quite at liberty to exercise any powers they have under the Act of Parliament, without prejudice.
40623. That being so, I will refer to one or two cases which I am told have occurred in times past. On any occasion have you taken any steps against any of the tenants for scaring away the game that were committing depredations upon their corn ?
—I am not aware of any.
40624. Did you not upon one occasion, or more than one occasion, fine two men two guineas, as I am informed, for scaring deer from Ben Wyvis deer forest ?
—I have no recollection of the circumstance.
40625. Do you recollect fining a young man £ 1 , Is. who was found in possession of an old pistol for the purpose of scaring away game?
—I have no recollection of the circumstance. It might have been. If the man was guilty of poaching, it is very likely his case may have been taken up.
40626. I understand the cases I am referring to were acts upon your own part in your factorial capacity, and not sitting in a regular court. You can surely recollect whether it is so or not ?
—I have no recollection of the circumstance you have referred to. It might have been done by the lessee of the shootings, but I have no recollection of doing it by authority of the proprietrix.
40627. Did they all come from one estate, those people the Duchess kindly took on ?
—Yes, I believe they did.
40628. What estate was it ?
—I would rather not mention names. It is a matter that is well known.