Edinburgh, 22 October 1883 - Peter Mclaren / Landreform

PETER L. M'LAREN, Clerk, Secretary to the Edinburgh Highland Land Law Reform Association (25)—examined.

45475. The Chairman.
—Do you appear as a delegate from the Land Law Reform Association ?
—No ; I simply appear as secretary to read a short statement prepared by the association.

45476. Therefore it is on behalf of the association ?
—On behalf of the association

45477. Would you kindly inform me of the nature, character, and numbers of the association?
—The association is for the reform of the land laws ; it consists of two secretaries and a committee, which is called the executive of the association. I cannot give you the exact number of members, some hundreds; but the executive numbers about twenty.

45478. Are they at all directly or closely associated with the question of crofters and cottars—the small tenantry in the Highlands ?
—They have been in communication with numbers of people throughout the country. The aim of the association is to ameliorate the condition of the crofter people generally.

45479. Specifically the crofter and cottar population?

45480. Very well, will you kindly read your statement?
—' Statement submitted by the Edinburgh Highland Land Law Reform Association to the Royal Commission on the Crofter Question.
—The executive of the Highland Land Law Reform Association beg most respectfully to submit to the Royal Commission the views which, in common with kindred bodies throughout the country, their association holds, concerning certain questions with which the Commission has been appointed to deal. They are of opinion that, together with the evidence given before the Commission of evils at present existing, it may be useful to the Commissioners to know the views held by at least a large section of the Scottish nation regarding the remedies that with advantage may be applied. It is unnecessary to emphasise the present critical state of matters in the Highlands; that is sufficiently evidenced by the appointment of the Commission, and the facts which its inquiries have brought to light. It is enough to say that the present state of things is one which cannot possibly endure, even although the interests of justice, good government, and the public peace did not demand its speedy termination. If the evidence led before the Commission shows anything at all, it shows, in the first place, that the landowners in the Highlands virtually claim absolute and unlimited power to do with the soil of the Highlands as they please; and secondly, that the peasantry are as a rule in so miserable a condition that they have no material inducements to remain in their native land, or improve their condition there. "With these two points in their order, the executive in their statement propose to deal. The claim which in substance if not in form has been thus put forward by the landowners of the Highlands is one which is in principle unsound, and in practice dangerous in the last degree. Whatever individual rights of property in land may have grown up in the course of ages in this county as in every ether, the community is the ultimate owner of the soil That the interests of agriculture can be best promoted, and the general good most thoroughly advanced by the concession of qualified proprietary rights to individual citizens, there is little room for doubt. But property has its duties as well as its rights, and property in land especially is not to be treated merely as a means of aggrandising or otherwise benefiting the individual proprietor, but also as means of benefiting the community at large. The case of the deer forests is one very much to the point Deer forests exist simply because they fetch large rentals to the persons to whom they belong. It is not pretended that they are in any appreciable degree an utilisation of the productive powers of the soil. In many instances, the land under deer would afford fine pasturage for sheep, and parts of it might be cultivated with advantage. Landowners, however, claim the right to convert arable and pasture land alike into a vast wilderness, if only to do so be made worth their while. If this claim be well founded in one instance, it is in all, and there is accordingly no reason why the last native inhabitant of the Highlands should not be expatriated, and the whole country put under deer, if only a sufficient demand for forests were to arise. Looked at it in this way that the unsoundness of the landowner's claim is very apparent, and the fallacy on which it proceeds is brought to light. What the exact rights of a landowner ought to be, is not a matter on which the executive desire to pronounce. They are merely concerned to point out the absurdity of the claim that has been put forward, and to urge the necessity for making it clear that only such rights can exist as may be exercised consistently with the general good. As the land at present stands the rights of proprietors are virtually absolute, and the investigations of the Commission have shown the urgent present need for such changes in the law as will bring it into harmony with common sense and the principles on which society is based. Whether or not the peasantry, until comparatively recent times, considered themselves joint proprietors with the chiefs, and were treated by them as such, is a matter on which much has been said. In the view of the executive, however, it is enough for their purpose that there is at present a Highland peasantry, and that their condition is such that a Royal Commission has been appointed to inquire into it. The Commissioners have had opportunities of seeing the peasantry for themselves, and of hearing from their own lips the grievances of which they complain. It is a fair enough thing to say that if these people are wretched they should go away to America or the colonies, and seek to better their condition, though the exponents of this view are usually supposed to be actuated with a regard to the interests of other parties rather than of those for whose welfare they profess to be concerned. So far as regards the peasantry, it is difficult to believe that were they to go away their lot could fail to be better than it is. But the executive have little hesitation in, saying that it would not be for the general advantage that the Highland population should remove themselves beyond the sea, even though their places were supplied by sheep and deer. And accordingly they are concerned rather to show how it is possible to retain fellow-countrymen of whom they are proud, and by improving their condition to put the soil of the Highlands to those uses for which they believe the earth was created and given to man. The grievance first in importance of which the witnesses before the Commission complained seems to be the smallness of holdings, and it is natural that' this should be so. It is of little use to a man that he have secure tenure of a patch too small to afford him remunerative employment, or that he pay but a small rent for what is scarcely worth rent at all. For the smallness of their holdings the peasantry are not to blame. Subdivision of crofts has rarely taken place with their consent, but has often been forced upon them by the factor or laird. And the executive would respectfully suggest the necessity of securing that a man who wishes for a larger holding should be entitled to obtain it, so long as there is land in his neighbourhood capable of cultivation. This might be done in a variety of ways, but the view of the executive is, that where there is uncultivated land, and men ready to bring it under cultivation, such men should be entitled so to do. This will be done, of course, only if they have some guarantee that they and not another will reap the benefit of their own exertions; and those who have crofts will improve them only if they are similarly secured both against removal and the raising of their rents. The executive would accordingly venture to suggest that something in the shape of fixity of tenure for a definite period—say nineteen years—along with compensation for all improvements he has made, should be conceded to the crofter. Such a change would, of course, only work gradually. It would be by degrees that the crofters could extend and improve their holdings and acquire stock for the hill pasture, over which it is indispensable they should have grazing rights. Capital might, indeed, be advanced to them by individuals or companies, as has been done elsewhere, on the security of that value in their holdings, which would then belong to them; but it is to their own exertions they must look for success. Such changes might not, of course, prove so lucrative to the landowners as if they were able to convert their lands into deer forests, and the deer forest mania to endure. But in the view of the executive an improper and unnatural use of the soil cannot be placed against its proper and natural use. It is possible, too, that this mania may pass away, and it can hardly be argued that the contingent profits to the landowners, which depend on the chance of its endurance, should be allowed to outweigh all other considerations. But it seems very clear that the state of things here sketched will prove fully as lucrative to the landowners as sheep farmers—the only other apparent means of utilising the soil; and it is important to observe that if the crofter be thus secure against removal or the raising of his rent at the laird's or factor's pleasure, he will be independent of them and their underlings, and that factor domination, which has proved such a curse to the Highlands, will be virtually at an end. On the question of fisheries and improved harbour accommodation the executive do not desire to speak, as there can be little doubt as to the expediency of fostering and improving these in every possible way. They desire, however, in conclusion, to allude to a matter which they think it is desirable to notice. Along with this statement a paper is handed to the Commissioners, entitled " Points on which Evidence is desired." This paper the association circulated as widely over the Highlands and Islands as possible. Their sole desire was to assist the simple peasantry by every means in their power to arrange and lay before the Commissioners the facts which they knew and the grievances of which they complain. The footnote at the end of the paper will show the spirit in which the association went to work, and the spirit, too, in which they are glad to believe the testimony of the people, as a rule, was given. The association knew well how readily persons evil disposed to the peasantry would seize hold of any rash or reckless statement that might be made ; and the Commissioners will observe the emphasis laid in the footnote on absolute and painstaking accuracy of statement on the part of all desirous of tendering evidence on any point. The executive axe satisfied that the Commissioners will view this matter in the spirit of fairness which has characterised their proceedings throughout; but having regard to the unscrupulous statements made in influential quarters, the executive consider it important that the Commissioners should be placed in the best position to judge for themselves.
—Signed on behalf of the Edinburgh Highland Land Law Reform Association, DUGALD COWAN, P. L. M'LAREN, Joint Secretaries. Edinburgh, 20th October 1883.'

45481. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—How does your society propose that persons should select land? What right of selection should they have ?
—I am not authorised by the association to answer any questions, but should any of the Commissioners wish to put any questions, I shall take a note of them, and we shall post the answer either to-night or to-morrow. [The following reply by witness, on behalf of the association, was subsequently received :
—'Edinburgh Highland Land Law Reform Association, Edinburgh, 23rd October 1883.
—Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, Bart, of Gairloch.
With reference to the question you were good enough to put to me yesterday, I am directed by the executive to indicate their views very briefly in reply. They consider that where land capable of cultivation in neighbourhood of any township is at present uncultivated, the crofters in the township should be encouraged to reclaim this and add it to their holdings; and where there is no adjoining land capable of being so reclaimed, the executive would desire to see set on foot a judicious system of migration to fertile land at present under sheep or deer—large tracts of which were formerly under cultivation —and the crofts of the persons so migrating utilised for the extension of the holdings of those who remain. —I have the honour to be, sir, your most obedient servant, P. L. M'LAREN.']

45482. Mr Cameron.
—Would you kindly make a note of one question and post me an answer. In the beginning of your statement you recommend that the land should be the property of the whole community rather than of the landlord. In the middle of your statement you would appear to be satisfied with a lease of nineteen years. There is a considerable jump between these two theories ; would you kindly explain which of the two really contains the view of the society ?
—[The following reply by witness, on behalf of this association, was subsequently received :
—' Edinburgh Highland Land Law Reform Association, Edinburgh, 23rd October 1883.
—Donald Cameron, Esq., M.P., &c, &c. Sir, with reference to the question you were good enough to put yesterday regarding the statement which I had the honour of reading before the Royal Commission, I am instructed by the executive to point out, that the position taken up in the first part of the statement is merely a denial of the absolute power of a landowner to do what he pleases with the soil of the country, and that no opinion was ever expressed regarding any scheme for the " nationalisation " of land. Towards the end of the statement, it was urged that fixity of tenure for a definite period, say nineteen years, was one of the changes most urgently required in the land system of the Highlands. The executive regret that in the hurried reading of their statement, it appeared to you that these two positions were inconsistent, but they believe that if you will have the kindness to refer to the statement now in the hands of the Commission, you will see that the arguments in favour of the second largely depend on the assertion of the first.
—I have the honour to be, sir, your most obedient servant, P. L. M'LAREN.']

45483. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—I observe you issued a circular at an early period to a number of people, of which you have handed in a copy; but you have not given us the purport of the answers you have received from those to whom you issued it. Did you not receive a number of answers ?
—We did not ask answers.

45484. You issued it simply to instruct the people ?
—That was the purpose.

45485. The Chairman.
—I recognise your association now, because I remember the paper you had the goodness to put in our hand, and which I admit to have contained very judicious and valuable matter. I am sorry you are not prepared to give viva voce and immediate answers to questions, because I am afraid, so far as I am concerned, I shall not be able to put questions to you otherwise; and in the circumstances in which we are placed, I can only ask you to retire at present.

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