STATEMENT by J. M'GILCHRIST ROSS, Distiller and Farmer, Teaninich, Alness, Ross-shire
I have to thank you for allowing me to bring before you certain suggestions which I wish to make for remedying the painful state of matters which now exists in the Highlands, and with which the public are so familiar through your labours. As I go about a good deal, and come in contact with many people of all classes, I may allude—though it is well known to you—to the present state of excitement which prevails throughout the country on the land question. I don't speak of agitation carried on by unprincipled demagogues ; but it is a fact that good men and true, throughout the country, are feeling that something is far wrong, and that something must be done by and by for the public safety. Up till recent years the upper classes—mostly acting in the capacity of landlords—were looked on as representatives and guardians of the public interest; and the instinctive feeling, that every man has, or should have, a right to a " local habitation," was considered as enjoyed through them. But a social revolution Is taking place: the people are becoming more self-reliant through the spread of education and the more general diffusion of wealth ; and successive inroads are being made on the ancient privileges of the governing classes, inherited or purchased, which are now culminating in the question being raised whether, in the interests of the community, any individual should have an intrinsic right of property in the limited solum of our native country ?
Trenchant works insisting on the rights of the people are in wide circulation. I am not ashamed to say that I have read some of them, and I think that their influence consists in their containing a great deal of truth. I need not describe to you such works as George on Progress and Poverty, and A. R. Wallace on the Nationalization of the Land. Such works as these are leavening the people. I sincerely regret that Mr. Wallace (who has an eminent position in the scientific world), after showing the evil, in such a masterly style, which cannot fail to bring home conviction to the reader, and even inspire him with feelings of indignation, should lend the sanction of his great name to the proposal of an unjust and Impracticable remedy. It is a fact that property in land ia recognised by the law equally with property in other things. The law says a man can do with his own what he likes, consistent with the interests of the community ; and we know, from the painful results of the inquiries of this Commission, that the law permits —nay, enforces—many deeds of moral injustice and oppression. I therefore say that any legal rights should not be taken from proprietors, even in the public interest, without compensation. I say also that the universal demand made by the delegates, that they should have fixity of tenure, irrespective of compensation to proprietors, is not just. Nevertheless I say further, that not even fixity of tenure, but absolute negotiable tenantright for the cultivator—in fact, everything but the solum of the land—must be given before the land question is satisfactorily settled. Now I by no means propose that this should be universally done and at once. It is impracticable without a revolution, which God forbid. But much can be done gradually and partially—the worst cases of dislocation of the old system, say in the Highlands, being taken up first. Now the question is, how is this to be carried out without injustice to the proprietors ? I admit there are great difficulties ; but I venture to submit a scheme for your consideration which may fairly solve the problem. I propose that a Land Court—having, in the meantime, a jurisdiction limited to that part of Scotland which lies north of the Caledonian Canal —should be instituted, armed with comprehensive powers by Act of Parliament. And think that a better Land Court could not be sought than this Commission. In order to lighten its labours, salaried inspectors would require to be appointed in certain districts. Powers would also have to be conferred upon the Commissioners of Woods and Forests to administer the financial part of the scheme. I would give a right to the people of a discontented district to petition the Court to send an inspector to inquire into the state of matters as between them and their landlord. They must show that within a circumscribed area, formerly cultivated and pastured, they can divide the land among themselves and stock it, each family having a sufficient lot to live on, the extent to be decided by the Court,—say a minimum of seven acres arable with pasture, or thirty acres arable without pasture. Some must emigrate ; and I may say here, that I am sure great assistance would be given by well-doing Highlanders, and other friends abroad and in the large towns,—who keenly sympathize with the crofters,—In the carrying out of the arrangement in most cases where required. The Court being satisfied, from the report of their inspector, that arrangements would be made to comply with these requirements, the marked-off land would be fenced, and purchased by compulsory valuation from the proprietor, by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, with national money. No great demand would at any time be made on the Exchequer for this purpose—I mean, not as much as would affect the money market. I am aware, if such were the case, much opposition might be expected to the scheme from certain quarters. After acquiring the land, the Commissioners would divide the value thereof into two parts. One part—the solum value—to be held as permanent State property, the rent or tax on which would be preferable to all other burdens. It would be the duty of the inspectors of the Court to see that land so acquired, Is held rigidly under the regulations, namely, that it must be cultivated by the occupier and those in his employ, who must also reside on it, but it must never be let. It may be sold, and must be sold if the land tax is not paid punctually. Any holding may be subdivided or added to, but not above or below a certain extent prescribed. The other part into which the values of the land is proposed to be divided—that is, the amount paid to the proprietor after the deduction of the solum value, and which I call tenant-right—must be acquired by the holder. This might be done either by paying the whole of the money at once to the Commissioners, or it could be paid in instalments, principal and interest, in a certain number of years—4 per cent, on the tenant-right value would pay it in forty years, or 6½ per cent, in twenty-five years, as in the case of Government money lent for drainage. This would be a second preferable claim on the cultivator ; and should it not be paid regularly, he must sell out his interest. It will be observed that the cultivator's paid-up interest in the tenant-right, which is nil at first, becomes more valuable year by year, thus increasing the security of the loan by the State. The Court would have no difficulty in determining the districts to which the scheme should be applied in the first place, having before it the disclosures made at some of the sittings of this Commission ; and public opinion would not long allow the districts which have been depopulated and are fit for human habitation, to be overlooked. The Court, on the other hand, would not give encouragement to the occupation if places where climate, and altitude will not admit of the means of subsistence ; the clamour against the legitimate purposes of sport, to which many parts of the Highlands are devoted, and for which they are alone suited, would thus cease.
Now many incidents connected with this scheme,—some favourable, others unfavourable,—will occur to you, but I hope the former will preponderate. What will the proprietors say to it? No doubt in many cases they will not like the idea of their properties being cut up, even though they get compensation. But then the public good is to be considered in the first place. It is a grave question for consideration, whether it will not be better to remove a clamant grievance, and so enlist the sympathies of all good and true men on the side of existing authority, rather than allow an agitation perilous to the commonwealth, to go on, all the more formidable because it has, to a great extent, a benevolent and patriotic object. The incubus of the close monoply of land accompanied by landlord patronage and factor tyranny, demoralizing alike to all concerned, is becoming more and more felt as the masses are acquiring enlightenment and feelings of selfrespect. I say the monopoly ; for I hold that, under the present state of the land laws, it is practically impossible for any but a minute fraction of the population to obtain, what every human heart naturally yearns for,—a right to occupy and enjoy, irrespective of the sweet will of any superior, a portion, however small, of the soil of his country. I repeat, that the present system is a monoply, and as such I attack it. I don't deny that in presenting this scheme to the Commission, I do so with the hope of its more extensive adoption. I do not aim at the abolition of landlordism. I wish to see another system side by side with it. If a man, having the choice of being a freeman in his native country, prefers to take the use of a landlord's capital, and pay him a just rent therefor, he may do so. Such a relation, being free on both sides, will be a cordial one, and of a very different character from that which now so extensively and so unhappily prevails between landlord and tenant, and which it should be the aim of every right-thinking man to ameliorate.
J. M'GlLCHRIST ROSS.
COUL COTTAGE, BY ALNESS,
6th Nov. 1883.