STATEMENT regarding Deer Forests in the Highlands. By Rev RODERICK MORISON, Minister of the Established Church, Kintail, Ross-shire.
KINTAIL MANSE, 10th, October 1883.
Having obtained the permission of the Royal Commissioners to lay before them a statement of my views in regard to the present system of converting land into deer forests, I beg to submit the following remarks, in the hope that the importance of the subject and the paucity of evidence in regard to it laid before them hitherto, may excuse a somewhat lengthy communication. It seems to be matter for regret that the attention of the Commission has not been drawn more than it has to this matter. What is being done at present and what may be looked for in the future, is at least as important as what took place from thirty to fifty years ago, in regard to which masses of evidence have been adduced.
No one feels more than I do the evil that has been wrought in the way of evictions and oppression of all kinds throughout the Highlands in days gone by. But most of it is irreparable now, and we shall do well to consider what is going on around us, and to see if anything can be done to arrest what nearly all Highlanders believe to be a great and growing evil.
The question at issue is simply whether the Highlands of Scotland are to be permitted to advance in civilisation and prosperity, like the rest of the world, or are to be forced back into a condition little better than barbarism, in order to satisfy the craving for what is called sport of one class, and the craving for money of another.
I.—EXTENT OF FORESTS.
Nothing is more difficult than to arrive at accurate statistics as to the extent of land which has been turned into forests. To do so would require an amount of local knowledge which no one person possesses, and it is further almost impossible to distinguish in the valuation rolls lands which are wholly forest from those which are let both as grazings and shootings.
Looking, however, at the maps of the Highland counties, and forming as good an estimate as one can of the amount of waste land, it seems safe to say that an area equal to the two largest counties in Scotland has been laid waste. This would mean a good deal more than four millions and a half imperial acres, or about eight hundred thousand acres more than the whole of Yorkshire. If this is regarded as an exaggeration, I may add that one individual holds an amount that has been estimated at 200,000 acres. There are perhaps others who have as much, and certainly this person does not hold a twentieth part of the deer forests of Scotland. If, as is more likely, he does not hold more than a thirtieth part of them, and his holding is properly estimated, it will be seen that the figures given are not at all too large.
We are told by people who know the country that one can travel over forest land almost in a straight line from Loch Broom, on the confines of Sutherland to Fort William in one direction, and to within a short distance of the town of Forfar in another ; and a reference to the map will show that the statement is nearly, if not quite, accurate. Some of the largest forests in Scotland are north and west of this tract, and fall to be added to it.
Now this land is wholly withdrawn from contributing to the supply of any of the needs of the human race, except the need of Highland lairds for cash. The venison produced is not worth speaking of, and is indeed often, if not generally, left to rot on the ground or thrown to dogs. And though no doubt wages are paid to keepers, gillies, watchers, & c , none of these men are productive labourers, and they are as completely withdrawn from the industrial population as the land on which they live from the food-producing resources of the country.
Further, it is well known that the life these men lead is demoralising in the extreme, and soon renders the majority of them useless for any purpose except that for which they are trained, so that when thrown out of employment they become simply an incubus on society.
Removed, as most of them are, from all the influences of religion, education, and social and family life, it is difficult to foretell what they may become. They are not unlikely to prove, in course of time, a very troublesome and difficult element in the social fabric.
It is constantly said by the defenders of the forest system that the effects produced by it in the way of depopulation are not appreciable, and that the cry raised against it on this ground is without foundation. This is not true, and many instances might be adduced of townships cleared away, or deprived of their lands to such an extent that the people found it their interest to leave, and so clearances have been effected without exciting much public attention or causing any great outcry. We have, however, recently seen an attempt to evict from one forest a large number of people, and if that attempt had proved, or should hereafter prove, successful, it would no doubt be the signal for many similar proceedings throughout the country. N o doubt much of the land taken up as forests was cleared of its inhabitants long ago to make sheep farms, and there has therefore been no need to clear it now. As far, however as it was necessary, this has been done, and there is beyond doubt a constant draining away of the industrious population in progress, which cannot fail to have the worst effect on the country. Every one who knows the Highlands will, we think, agree that the shepherd class was and is about the most comfortable and contented among the labouring population, and forms one of the most valuable sections of it in every way. No other class raises such large and healthy families, or contributed, in proportion to their numbers, so many members to the domestic and other industries of the country. Now this class is being surely and rapidly exterminated. Glen after glen is being cleared of its shepherd families, who are replaced by one or two solitary game watchers, or ' stoppers’ as they are popularly called, who are usually the idlest of people pretending to earn a living, and the best customers of the adjacent public houses and smugglers.
But we know that the evil does not stop here. There are many ways in which a farm helps the people near it to live, employing them as labourers, drovers, assistant shepherds, & c , while the forest usually does nothing to help. The few hands employed are, for obvious reasons, brought from a distance in most cases. The consequence is that the people must remove to towns or emigrate, and thus their numbers are being steadily diminished, though we are spared such spectacles as disgraced the last generation, and of which such harrowing accounts have been laid before the Commission.
And let it be observed that the process of depletion is being carried out, not in densely populated districts, where it might perhaps be well for all parties if some reduction in numbers were made, but in places where the number of people is small, as many of us think far too small, already.
While I consider that sheep farms are intinitely preferable to forests as regards the welfare of the country and the people, I am by no means of opinion that the system of large farms is the perfection of land management. I am convinced that the true wisdom of proprietors, and the true interest of the country is to have holdings of moderate and varying size, to suit the requirements of different tenants, and so to maintain a comfortable, contented, and self-sustaining population, which can be done without detriment to any one, and to the manifest benefit of the country at large.
It has been said that by depopulating the country we are weakening our means of national defence, and the reply to this has been that the Highlands are of little or no value as a recruiting ground, and that all our soldiers are got from the towns. But it is welt known that many of the recruits there obtained are natives of the Highlands, who enlist much more readily when away from home, and are originally drawn from the crofter and labouring population of the north. It is equally w ell known that the contributions to the militia and naval reserve, made by the people of the Highlands and Islands are very valuable, and could be ill dispensed with And while it is no doubt true that men should be preserved in the country for higher and nobler ends than to be on occasion ahedders of blood, or ' food for powder/ we know that no country can afford to despise the risks of war and invasion, and that while there are men, there is always the raw material of an army to be drawn upon in case of emergency, either by voluntary enlistment, or if need be, as in other countries, by conscription. On this point, however, I have no desire to enlarge, and therefore pass to the next branch of the subject.
III.—THE GENERAL EFFECT ON THE COUNTRY.
The general effect on the Highlands of the forest system I believe to be in a very great degree an evil one We hear no doubt much from time to time of the immense amount of money brought into the country by sportsmen—the shower of gold' that annually falls on the Highlands, and so on. It is of course impossible that all the money lavished on this form of sport could be spent without benefiting some people in the districts in which it is expended. But it is very evident that the benefit done to the country and its inhabitants is much more apparent than real. The large sums paid as rent are chiefly taken away from the Highlands and expended in London and elsewhere, a very small portion being spent on local improvements or works likely to give employment to the people. And most of what is paid to the persons employed about forests goes, as I have already pointed out, to train them not to honest industry, but to habits of idleness and laziness.
A much smaller amount of money given for the real useful products of the soil and the labour of the people would be of infinitely more benefit to the country. As it is the land is being denuded of all capital, skill, industry, stock, and everything that gives it true value, and if any change of circumstances or of fashions should make it lose its present artificial value for the purposes of sport it would for a !ong period be almost valueless to the owners.
Again, under this system everything like a 'middle class' is rapidly disappearing. The better class of farmers will apparently soon cease to exist, and no one will be left except a few poor people at the seaside, the keepers and watchers, and the estate officials. The sporting tenants are only in the country for a few weeks in each year, and as a rule take no interest in public matters or in the state of the people, who have thus no one to turn to in any difficulty for counsel or aid, and are consequently becoming more helpless every day.
It is also matter for serious consideration how far the food supply of the country in general is likely to be affected by the desolation of all the best grazing lands. Myriads of sheep and thousands of cattle were sent to market in former years from lands which now produce nothing whatever. No doubt the large importations from abroad have hitherto made this less felt than it would otherwise have been. But it seems likely that the countries from which our chief supplies are drawn will in time consume their own produce more largely and export it less, and there is always the contingency that war may interfere with our commerce and stop importation for a time at least. The day is probably not distant, if indeed it has not already arrived, when our hard-working population throughout Great Britain will pay heavily in the form of increased prices for meat for the sport of the wealthy few and the increased rents of our landlords. Forests are further most pernicious to such farms as adjoin them, and go far to render them untenable. No amount of herding will prevent sheep from wandering on to land which is so tempting from the abundant grass on it, and when they enter the forest the shepherds are not allowed to follow them. The men who drive them out, when they take the trouble to do so, are usually quite reckless in their usage of them, and drive them over rocks and into rivers, so that many are lost. Many also wander away into the depths of the forests and are never heard of. In some cases fences are put up to prevent this, but it is found in practice almost impossible to maintain those fences on high lands, as the sliding down of the snow tears them up and makes them useless. Many of them are practically destroyed the first winter after their erection, so that fencing, which it has been proposed to make compulsory, is really no sufficient remedy. Again, forests are nurseries of vermin of all kinds, but especially foxes, which have of late increased vastly in number. On one farm, known to the writer, upwards of thirty sheep and fifty lambs are known to have been destroyed in one season by foxes from the adjoining forests, and this source of injury is likely to increase. Thus farm after farm is given up in despair and added to the wilderness, and so the evil propagates itself and will probably do so unless checked, until from sea to sea we shall have one vast desert, sacred to the slayer of deer, and not to be encroached on by tourist, botanist, geologist, or any other who has not the pass of the autocrat at whose feet the land and its liberties have been cast by the lord of the soil.
IV .—THE REMEDY.
On this part of the subject I cannot venture to speak without some diffidence. None of the remedies proposed appear to me likely to be adopted, or to have much effect if they were. It has been proposed to tax forests heavily. But most of those who indulge in the sport seem careless how much they spend on it, and would not be deterred by any taxation. Indeed, one of the chief pleasures of the so-called sport seems to be the opportunity it affords of flaunting wealth in the faces of the poor and those of moderate means, so that a slight increase of expense could have no practical effect.
If a remedy is ever found it will probably be a very heroic one, such as is needed for an evil so deep seated.
As far as I can see it can only come through a radical change in the game and trespass laws, such as would concede to everyone the right to traverse waste lands. If land is turned into a wilderness (it may perhaps some day be said) let the laws that apply to the wilderness in other parts of the world apply to it here also. Let it be free to every man to travel over it, and let every animal found on it be the property of the man who can capture it. If land is made available for the use of man, let it by all means have the protection of the law, and let the
stock on it be as sacred as any other property. But it is at least open to question if people have any right to make use of laws framed for the civilisation and settlement of a country, for the purpose of devastating it for the supposed benefit of one or two individuals in a large district. It will no doubt be said that to interfere with the rights of property is to undermine the very foundations of society. To me it appears that those who endanger those rights are those who make them intolerable by a free and enlightened community.
It may I think be boldly said that all rights, customs, monopolies, and privileges that tend to the manifest injury of a country and its inhabitants, must and ought to—and eventually shall—fall before the increasing intelligence and advancing power of the people.