Edinburgh, 24 October 1883 - Alexander Robertson / Highlands

ALEXANDER ROBERTSON, Journalist, Edinburgh (58)—examined.

46182. The Chairman
—You have a statement to make?
—The testimony I propose to adduce is founded on personal observations made in different parts of the Highlands, including Easter Ross, the Black Isle, Badenoch, Lochaber, Rannoch, Athole, Strathtay, Strathbraan, Braemar, Breadalbane, and Lochaweside. I have also during the last forty years sought every opportunity of acquiring authentic information from old people belonging to the north, some of them centenarians, whose memories, clear and distinct, reached back to a period close on the Rebellion of 1745. I have had important opportunities of knowing the condition of the land question, not only in this country but in America, where I was editor of the Produce Exchange Bulletin of New York. The result of my inquiries was to satisfy me that the disabilities of the Highlanders originated from three distinct laws, —the game laws, the law of hypothec, and the laws of entail and primogeniture. As your time is short, I shall pass over a variety of matters and go into the exact state of affairs as they stand at present, and the main causes of distress in the Highlands. ' Within the last thirty or at all events fifty years there has been a falling off in the material productions of the entire north country of not less than 50 per cent, with a consequent injury to the population of the Highlands. Instead of improving as other parts of the country has done, the section alluded to has retrograded, and there is now less food and other products raised there than there was at the Rebellion of 1745, or at the commencement of the century. The introduction of the blackfaced breed of sheep about a hundred years ago, and the more recent raising of Cheviots, helped greatly to increase the prosperity of the north country; but these advantages have been more than counterbalanced by the enormous increase of sporting grounds, both for grouse and deer. So far from the Highlands being over-peopled, they are greatly under-stocked, for by the present methods of cultivation there is abundance of room for three times the number of inhabitants now in that country. It is true that in certain centres the number of families on the land has dangerously increased, owing to the people being huddled together in townships where they have heedlessly been allowed to squat, and where they have become utterly demoralised, or at any rate pauperised. Before the Highlanders were removed from their native glens famines were unknown; and they suffered less from deficient harvests than the inhabitants of the low country. This is pretty evident from the large number of stalwart recruits furnished to the army| and the navy; and there were few if indeed any districts in the empire which turned out larger contingents than did the now unfortunate island of Skye. The counties of Sutherland and Ross furnished the rank and file of the 93rd Highlanders—there being only thirty-six out of 1049 not belonging to the country —and this corps was considered the most stalwart of any foot soldiers under the Crown, proving incontestibly that they could not have been reared in a famine-stricken country. It is not then to the natural infertility of the Highlands that the present and former famines are to be attributed, but to unwise arrangements made in regard to the management of the landed estates, more particularly in the Hebrides. Further, there is not the least reason to fear that if more enlightened and more humane counsels prevailed, such calamities as those of last season would again require to call forth public sympathy and benevolence. While great changes for the worse have taken place in the Highlands, it is proper to notice that in one respect there has been quite a change for good, and that too in a very important matter. With but a few exceptions —very few indeed —thirty years ago the landowners and factors were a cruel and heartless race, who cared nothing for the feelings or interests of the people who had been born and bred on their properties, and they drove them away to America or to the large towns as unceremoniously as they did flocks of sheep or herds of black cattle. Now, with the exception of the Duke of Argyll, his factor or chamberlain, and a few others, the landlords enjoy the respect which they certainly deserve of the people, whose destinies are to a certain extent confided to their care. No kinder or more considerate owners of land ever lived in the Highlands or elsewhere than Lady Gordon-Cathcart and Lord Macdonald, and their representatives seem actuated by a like noble spirit. Tormore and Mr M'Donald, Portree, are quite different men from those who had the management of the Breadalbane and other Highland properties since I recollect. Now, the crofters and cottars are treated with becoming consideration and civility; whereas formerly they were generally spoken to as if they were a horde of drunken tinkers squatting on a lawn, and as was stated by one of them in Breadalbane, " we are not thought of so much account as a pheasant or a pointer dog." At the beginning of this century the shooting of moorfowl had not become fashionable, and very small sums were received by proprietors for the privilege of shooting over their heathery wilds. Game preservation in the times of our grandfathers was confined to keeping down foxes, hawks, and eagles; and poaching, excepting in the two royal forests of Glenartney and Benachrombeg since named Glen Tilt, was an unknown offence. While the letting of moors for grouse shooting has enriched landed proprietors all over the Highlands, owing to the abundance of the heather to be found there, without which the grouse cannot thrive, there has been a corresponding and progressive injury to the country. Every sovereign paid by south country sportsmen to Highland lairds is just so much of a premium given for keeping the country desolate, and for crushing down whatever native industry existed among the clansmen of the land of Alban. But for the heath-fowl there are now thousands of fine slopes in the northern counties, and millions of acres lying unproductive comparatively, which would have been planted with the hardy Pinus scotus or the rapidly-growing Swiss larch, so valuable for railroad and other purposes. Such forests would have greatly sheltered the country and sensibly have improved the climate. They would have afforded abundance of employment for the spare time of crofters and cottars, just as the districts of Athole and Breadalbane have done for half a century past, and where in consequence there is to be witnessed as hardy, industrious, and intelligent a population as can be found in any part of the world. On the small estate of Dalguise, as well as on the surrounding properties of Kinnaird, Craig Vinean, Ladywell, Murthly, &c, forests have produced £1 per acre per annum, which, but for said plantations, would not have yielded more than Is. per acre for sporting purposes. Then, but for the grouse, there are millions of acres of heathery wastes which would have been smiling under grass, capable of yielding double the quantity of beef and mutton and wool now sent from the Highlands to southern markets. From an economic point of view, the grouse reared in the north (which cost the country so much) is of no account as an article of food. Such a writer as Adam Smith would not have claimed for the heath-fowl any more protection or consideration than for a wood pigeon or wild duck. The raising of grouse by the artificial
and legislative inventions has then become a most serious injury to home colonisation, and the restrictions so placed on the natural development of the soil by the heath-fowl mania has had the effect of banishing many of the most worthy and patriotic sons of Caledonia to Canada, Australia, and the United States, to seek homes in place of those denied to them in the land of their birth—a land which had been fertilised with the blood of their ancestors poured out like funeral wine in its defence, and which they too would have been so willing and able, if necessary, to protect with their claymores. So far from any one being able to speak a single word on behalf of the legislative cultivation or development of the heathfowl, it ought to be condemned strongly as a cruel and heartless means of inflicting unnecessary pain and torture on the lower orders of creation. The Cockney who fires at the centre of a covey of grouse, wounding a greater number than he can kill, is much more deserving of fine or imprisonment than the Gilmerton carter who overworks his horse seeking to procure an income for the support of his family. As Lord Denrnan observed in the House of Lords, when the Pigeon Shooting Penalties Bill was being discussed on the 17th August last, that the said sport was less cruel than a grouse drive. It cannot be pleaded on behalf of this grovelling and unmanly occupation, totally unworthy of the name of sport, that like fox hunting in encourages brave and resolute action or invigorating exercise. There is literally no excitement in grouse slaughtering, any more at least than there would be in firing into a flock of geese or other barn-door fowls. In shooting the tiger or in wounding a bear there is the excitement created by danger, and the same feeling is raised in the breast of the lion hunter, but the grouse devotee has nothing enlivening or exciting in his role, any more than a butcher has in taking the life of an innocent bleating lamb just removed from its dam. Another objection to the development of heath-fowl in the Highlands is the low, degrading, and demoralising manners it develops among young watchers and gamekeepers, who as part of their profession endeavour to entrap their neighbours into breaches of the highly injurious legislation for the protection of game. These novitiates are educated to become suspicious, lazy, and quarrelsome, and the only advantage they are to the State is the duty they pay to the revenue in the shape of whisky duty—that is when they cannot procure their favourite beverage from such a smuggling bothy as William Black describes as having been operated by big Murdoch near Ault-nam-Baà. The encouragement given by Government to the growth of heather in the Highlands —a plant all but worthless to man, has another disadvantage by no means unworthy of attention. In the higher glens, which are usually late in their harvests, the grouse very frequently " pack" on the stooks of the crofters and farmers, and destroy not a little of the grain which they have been at so much pains to get brought to maturity in face of the steepness of the fields they have often to cultivate, the severities of a fickle and tempestuous climate, as well as from forcing their crops from a soil not usually very deep nor naturally fertile. From the special inducements held out by Government for the extension of sporting estates, as they are called, the prosperity of the population has been heavily handicapped, as from the mountainous nature of the country, the constituents of the rocks—mostly Lawrentian in character —the game law presses with unequalled severity upon the north country; and so long as this arbitrary and iniquitous legislation is allowed to defile the statute book, anything in the shape of remedial measures cannot fail to be of a disappointing description, as " fixity of tenure," " valuations for improvements," &c, will have no meaning where the cultivators of the soil are forced to leave their straths and their glens to make room for the feathered denizens of the mountain and fell. Had the Highlander and his natural enemy been left alone to fight out their struggle for bare existence, the landowners would have been forced, as they certainly should be forthwith, to spend their energies and invest their capital in the endeavour to obtain returns in a legitimate manner. They would have had to drain the mosses, and to irrigate the bare ridges, as the people in Switzerland have long done even under greater disadvantages. But for the highly injurious effect of the game law there could now be a million of sheep raised in the Highlands in addition to the number now maintained; and besides, there could certainly be more thau a million of acres uuder thriving plantations yielding timber to the value of £1 per acre and more south of the watershed, after paying all the expenses of planting the seed, making roads through the woods, and building dykes for protecting the plants. Were the heather burned, rich grasses like Poa alpina could be sown, and doubtless some of the varieties recently discovered in the Himalayas and other foreign countries would be found most suitable for transplantation to the Grampians. Landed proprietors should be compelled to turn their lands to account, or suffer them to be operated upon by the State or by other hands. The English statute called interdict of waste could be most advantageously introduced into the Highlands. Those having any doubt as to the suitableness of the Highlands for growing fine timber need only examine the natural woods of Strathspey, Rannoch, Braemav, Murthly, and Strathdulnan (or Duthil) to come to the conclusion that enterprise could do much to assist nature. Birch grows wild high on Benvenue, Birnam, and many other high hills, so where it can be seen in a thriving condition timber of a more valuable description could be successfully grown. In fine, what between arboriculture and sheep grazing, the products of the Highlands could be reasonably expected to be increased two million pounds sterling in annual value, while giving employment to a vast number of people, all by the abolition of the game law or laws, which are at present the source of much injustice and misery. With regard to deer forests, at the commencement of the century there were only a few thousand acres under deer, as no one was at liberty to have a forest, chase, or park without a charter from the Crown. Anciently there were courts specially constituted for the trial of persons offending against the forest laws, and I knew one trespasser who was fined £5 for shooting a deer, by the keeper of one of the royal forests, Benachrombeg, now forming a part of the Glen Tilt sporting ground. These forest laws have, it is believed, fallen into desuetude, and their penalties could not now be enforced. Whether red deer are royal game now is a question regarding which there is a good deal of room for dispute, and also whether there is any law in existence which could be applied for their protection. The right of unauthorised landowners erecting forests is also one which claims consideration, as many lawyers are of opinion that the royal authority is still necessary for legalising the throwing of lands waste for this purpose. In ancient times, even when moors were of little or no agricultural value, there was a strong feeling against apportioning land for sporting purposes; and the qualification for shooting all kinds was the ownership of a ploughgate of land, whatever that meant. In other words, the ownership of an estate gave no special privilege for sporting upon it. I knew a gentleman who, in travelling from the south of England to Lochaber, shot over all the ground where he could find game, and he was only once challenged, and then he was not put to any trouble. Our ancestors were very chary as to sanctioning the appropriation of lands, or misappropriation rather, for such useless purposes as deer shooting; and the sooner public attention is drawn to the erection system the better, as the land devoted to this purpose is wholly lost to the nation. Forests certainly do not more than repay the current outlays for wages to keepers, and for feeding stuffs such as hay during winter. Their flesh is of no commercial value in our markets, and the sole reason for the maintenance of these vast preserves is the gratification certain people receive from witnessing the destruction and death struggles of the antlered monarch of the glen. The same sort of pleasure could be obtained in any abbatoir at no cost to the highly refined observer, while no loss would thereby be caused to the nation. The case was different formerly, when stalking was in fashion, and when the shooting of a stag, say in Glen Tilt, half a century ago, was an event of considerable importance in the locality, and when leading statesmen triumphed in such an achievement. In centuries gone by red deer were to be found straying all over Scotland ; and so far as the Highlands are concerned, even if the supposed legal protection were withdrawn, there would still be found no inconsiderable number roaming over the mountain fastnesses, yielding far more sport in their capture than is now enjoyed by the present so-called sportsmen of the Winans type. Indeed, so cruel and wanton is the present mode of deer-slaying, that those engaged in it should be criminally prosecuted for cruelty to animals. The American millionaire is a typical deer-slayer, who pays some £20,000 per annum as rent for forests, and while sitting in an easy chair he has droves of deer driven past him, at which he fires off his rifle, which has been loaded to his hand.

46183. I think you had better not descant or enlarge too much upon an individual case. Mr Winans is not here, and we have no opportunity of correcting any errors into which you may fall ?
—Very well. In order to arrive at some idea of the national resources altogether wasted for the grovelling excitement of deer slaughtering, reference may be made to the Black Mount forest belonging to Lord Breadalbane, which covers over 80,000 acres. A census was taken some years ago of deer roaming over it, and there were found to be 18,000 in all. Allowing six sheep for a deer, this would show grazing for 108,000 sheep. In former times the sheep from this now unproductive region " topped " the market at Falkirk Tryst. Glen Tilt, or what is now called the forest by that name, was stated in evidence by the late proprietor —so-called —as covering 100,000 acres. It must be borne in mind, however, that only a small part of the glen has forest rights, viz., Benachrombeg, and of which forest the Duke of Athole is but hereditary keeper. This lovely and fertile strath formerly maintained some 800 of a population; but the people were evicted, because they would not compel their youth to enlist in the Athole volunteers, a fencible regiment designed for seven years' service at home, and to be thereafter disposed of to the East India Company, by which corporation the regiment numbered the 77th was regularly purchased. Over and above the stock kept in Glen Tilt at present, which is one of the most fertile pasturages in Britain, a large stock of cattle and sheep could be fattened for markets in the south ; the exact number it would be somewhat difficult to name, but farmers in the north maintain that Glen Tilt could graze a stock of 90,000 sheep over and above its present number. Not a small part of the waste ground is well suited for plantation, and owing to the fertility of the soil, land so utilised would, if judiciously managed, yield from £2 to £3 per acre while under crop, besides all expenses. Many of the forests are not so well suited for pasturage or plantation as Tiltside ; but, wherever deer can find subsistence, the hardy blackfaced wedder can thrive; and were wind-breaks reared on suitable spots, the grazing would be much more valuable. A great improvement could be introduced by the north country proprietors into their pastures by the erection of stells, i.e., wooden shades for sheltering the sheep, particularly ewes at lambing time, and for storing hay and corn meal for feeding when pasture was not to be had owing to the depth of snow. Ensilage too would prove more beneficial in the Highlands than anywhere in Britain, owing to the drenching rains washing the substance out of the coils of cut grass. The opening up of grouse and deer forest lands to the magical influences of capital, enterprise, and industry would not only extend a hundredfold whatever remains of commerce there may still be left in the north, but an enormous addition would take place in the supply of wool and skins, the graziers receiving large quantities of smearing materials per contra. Farmers in the lowlands of the counties of Perth, Stirling, and Forfar would benefit largely by an increased demand for winterings, and the enterprising agriculturists of the Lothians could then depend upon obtaining supplies of wedders for fattening on their turnips, of which at present there is a marked deficiency. Taking a moderate calculation, probably the land now lying waste under deer could carry a stock of 2,000,000 sheep—including equivalents, as cattle, ponies, &c.; this would yield an outcome of say 650,000 sheep, which would form no inconsiderable addition to our food supplies. Then again their skins would be worth say 2s. 6d. each, which would extend the trade of skinneries in Edinburgh and other places. Altogether the loss which is now suffered by the country by deer might be safely enough set down at £1,000,000 per annum. Although this may not appear a great find or gain to the nation at large, the abolition of the legal protection to deer forests in the north would entirely revolutionise the Highlands, and that in a very few years. Large tracts of moorland now lying utterly desolate would soon be waving with a rich foliage, and other wilds would again become resonant with the bleating of sheep. I come now to the law of primogeniture and entail, in regard to which my sentiments are exactly in accord with those of your Lordship as stated before the Social Science Congress in 1872.

46184. I cannot allow a general discussion of the law of primogeniture and entail to be read aloud. If there is any particular passage that has reference to the condition of the crofters or cottars I shall not exclude that, even at this hour ?
—' Well, I wish to call your attention to the consolidation of estates in the Highlands by the operation of the law of primogeniture and entail, as shown by the following list :
—The Sinclair estates, 78,000 acres; the Menzies estates, 68,000 acres ; the Ramsden estates, 69,000 acres; Huntly estates, 85,000 acres; Glengarry (Ellice) estates, 99,000 acres; Lochiel estates, 126,000acres; Chisholm estates, 113,000 acres; Evan Bailie's estates, 165,000 acres; Gordon Cluny estates, 112,000 acres; Invercauld estates, 109,000 acres; Lovat estates, 161,000 acres; Macdonald (Lord) estates, 129,000 acres; M'Intosh estates, 124,000 'acres; MLeod estates, 143,000 acres; Gairloch estates, 164,000 acres; Poltallochestates, 84,000 acres; Matheson (M.P.) estates, 220,000 acres; Matheson (trustees) estates, 406,000 acres ; Richmond and Gordon estates, 286,000 acres; Seafield estates, 305,000 acres; Balnagowan estates, 166,000 acres; Argyll estates, 175,000 acres; Athole estates, 194,000 acres; Fife estates, 257,000 acres; Sutherland estates, 1,358,545 acres.

My argument goes to show that all these estates are so largely consolidated by the law of entail and primogeniture that they are injurious to the public, and dangerous to the liberty of the citizen; that they restrict all manner of production in respect of many of the landlords being heavily burdened already, and incapable of supplying the capital necessary for their development; and that it is impossible to suppose that any remedy your Lordship and the Commissioners can devise can be of any avail so long as this process of consolidation goes on. In conclusion, as no part of the British empire has suffered so much from the effects of feudal institutions for the last hundred years, it is now full time that the Legislature should devise measures for, as far as it is possible, correcting the errors of the past. While much undoubtedly maybe accomplished by building harbours on the northern and western coasts, no real prosperity need be hoped for so long as the great class laws of primogeniture and entail are allowed to remain in force; and the same may be affirmed concerning the statutes protecting grouse and deer to the great detriment of the country —for, as Lord Brougham said, these feudalistic institutions spoil one class and degrade all others. To attempt any minor remedial measures for improving the condition of the Highlands and Islands, without in the first place removing these great stumbling-blocks, would be like pulling down a wall with the right hand, and trying to build it up with the left.

46185. I want to ask you one question with reference to the matter of grouse moors; can you give me any opinion on this point, whether there are any moors used and let for shooting grouse, from which live stock is entirely excluded for the purpose of encouraging shooting ?
—There is no grouse ground that I know of in all the Highlands from which stock is excluded entirely.

46186. Then do you know any cases in which a smaller stock is studiously kept for the purpose of encouraging grouse shooting ?
—I do not know of any grouse moor in the Highlands where a contrary law operates; in other words, I do not know of any grouse moor but would be immensely increased in production but for the rearing of grouse.

46187. That is not exactly an answer to my question. Do you know any moor on which, for instance, a half stock is kept, in order to increase the number of grouse or the value of the shooting ?
—Not exactly shooting, but deer forest.

46188. I asked in reference to grouse?
—There is none that I know.

46189. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—Do I understand you to say that Lord Breadalbane's forest, the Blackmount, would carry 108,000 sheep?

46190. It contains upwards of 80,000 acres ?
—Upwards of 80,000 acres.

46191. That is to say, it is ground of such quality as will carry one sheep and one-third to the acre ?
—I have obtained statistics showing that there were 18,000 deer counted, and I take six sheep for one deer (though some would make it seven), and on that calculation, and from information I have received from graziers in that part, I believe the Blackmount would carry a stock of 100,000 sheep; and I may tell you further that there are various farms there which are calculated to produce the finest blackfaced mutton in the Highlands.

46192. Then practically you take one sheep and a quarter or one sheep and one-third to the acre ?
—That is so.

46193. Have you made calculations regarding other forests on the same basis ?
—Glen Tilt I have calculated on the same basis.

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