76363: Malcolm MacLeod’s evidence to Napier Commission 1883

In his evidence to the Napier Commission at Obbe in 1883, Malcolm MacLeod, who had been elected by the crofters and cottars of Berneray to speak on their behalf, provided an overview of life on the island at that time. With him, he brought two papers, one a plea, the other a statement of events during the preceding years. Written in Gaelic, the following extracts are from the English translation on pages 845 to 849 of volumes 1 and 2 of the report.

‘A Plea from the Island of Bernera, to be laid before the Right Honourable the Royal Commission.

We consider it a great privilege to have the opportunity of pleading for our rights before the noblemen and gentlemen who have undertaken to inquire into the condition of the poor in the Highlands and Western Isles. But every history has its preface, and my preface is that I would not feel at liberty to say anything unless I disregarded the fear of those in authority over us. For if I tell the truth, I shall risk their displeasure; and if I do not, my conscience will condemn me and the people will stoop me.

Now I must go back to the past. In bygone times the people had the land cheap, and they were enabled to pay their rents by the manufacture of kelp from sea-ware, for which they got £2.10s to £3 per ton.

In my grandfather’s days they had islands for grazing their stock upon, as in many places to this day the people have outlying pastures for this purpose. Now it is the poverty of our day that sets us to inquire what is the cause of this, and whether we can find any remedy for it. In those times they had pasture for their stock, and the soil yielded better crops than now. Now we were first of all deprived of the island of Hermadra, which was given to Mr Roderick McGillivray for pasture ground. When he was removed from the north side of Bernera to a piece of ground too small to graze his stock, the factor, Mr Stewart, asked that this island should be given to him on the term day, and we did not get it restored to us to this day. The factor Macdonald kept it in his own hands during his lifetime; and since then the Earl of Dunmore has it.

They also reduced the price of kelp to £2.2s per ton. When Duncan Shaw, who was factor at the time, saw this he resigned his office and Macdonald succeeded. Shortly thereafter he ceased the manufacture of kelp altogether; and when the people were unable to obtain work, they fell in arrear of rent.

The factor gathered together the cattle of the two townships Borv and Rusgary, and deprived the people of the best portion of their stock in lieu of rent. Following thereupon, he deprived them of a good island they had, Sousay, for peats and pasture. He asked for this island only for a month or two; but he retained it till the day of his death, subletting it to any person he pleased.

We were forced to rent from him another island for peats, for which we pay £12. This island belonged to Borv in my father’s boyhood; but it was taken from them to accommodate some of the tenants of Pabbay when it was cleared. Afterwards these went away to Australia, and the island was restored to us, but rent was charged for it.

But the substance of what I said and mean to say, is to inquire how we at the one end of this small island can be raised out of our impoverished condition, and the remedy which I would propose is: —

(1) To restore to us these islands, and to return the rent which we paid for them since they were taken from us.

(2) To reduce the rent to the figure at which it stood in my grandfather’s time. The kelp was the cause of the rent being nearly doubled since my grandfather’s days, and now the kelp has ceased, but no abatement was made in the rent. Now our holdings are so small and bad that we cannot live upon them. We crop them continuously. They are not sufficiently large to allow for a portion being left, untilled and giving it rest, as is necessary. Other portions of our holdings are so rocky that we must carry soil on our backs before we can sow seed in it, and after all our exertions there are twenty crofters in the island who have not ground corn for a twelve-month back. The produce of our crofts could not maintain our family six months — in many cases not four months. We have to get our meal from Glasgow; and with every endeavour to our rents we are unable to do so, we have to buy so much food, for our corn and stock cannot maintain us. If it were not for the manufacture of home tweeds by the women, we could not live at all.

(3) We ask for larger holdings. There is plenty of land on every side of us in the hands of big folk. We think if it was given to us, we would have no cause of complaint.

(4) We wish further to be informed why we are taxed so heavily in addition to our rents.

My father Roderick Macleod pays £7.10s of rent, and he pays taxes -without reason why – 5s for a doctor, in addition to poor and school rates. For the last four years we have paid 10s per annum for road money, though we have no road. We are of opinion that we still pay for the old Harris packet, though we are ourselves without post or packet, unless we provide one and pay for it.

I shall now give a short account of the island as a whole: –

(1) It is about 3 miles long by 2 broad. A native of Uist who lives in Uist rents much more than the half of it. On our portion of it there are sixty-five families. Of these thirty-five are cottars, without a foot of land.

(2) The ground officer at the factor’s order has reported on the amount of stock in the island. We were annoyed at this, for very many of the people have some of their stock pledged for meal — some who have got meal from Glasgow on credit till the market day, others who got an advance from the bank till the same time, upon the security of a man having a deposit in the bank, and who relieves many in this way — in this way our stock is not our own, but a great part of it belongs really to others.

(3) The reason why so many cottars are in this part of the island. When the crofters were removed from the other portion of it, some of them came to this end. Again when the families grow up, and marry, and have families, they have no room on their father’s land to make a livelihood, and so they must seek for their maintenance on the sea, many of them at lobster fishing — a work of danger on our rocky and stormy shore.

(4) In the last place, I have to say that we do not blame our proprietor for what we have endured and still endure. We blame the factors and the bad managers whom they employed. Our proprietor granted all our requests but one — and he promised to grant this, our last request to him also. — MALCOLM MCLEOD, Bernera.’

He continued with a written statement on behalf of the cottars:-

‘The Grievances of the cottars of Bernera.

I must now fulfil my promise to the cottars of Bernera, and lay their case before the Right Honourable the Commission.

We are in Bernera forty-eight families, who have not as much as a turf of land to maintain ourselves and our families. Many of us formerly had land, and this makes us feel the want of it more now. Our land was taken from us, and every head of sheep and cattle which we possessed, and no crofter on the other end of the island was allowed to give us a foot of land to till. We began to fish lobsters to maintain our families, and at once the factor Macdonald sent the ground officer to stop us, he being angry with us because we were not going to Australia.

Some of us then came to this end of the island, where we now are, along with the crofters and others, still in Borv. I am ashamed to tell you the manner in which some of the people lived at that time. They lived on shell-fish – limpets. Those who had boats went out to the rocks once or twice a day when the ebb occurred at forenoon and evening.

All this occurred because of the clearings of Borv to give it to William McNeill.

Mr John Macdonald, Newton, Uist, rents the place now and were it not for his liberality in giving us ground, we would have nothing at all, for there are thirty cottars of us getting benefit from his land and fourteen of the crofters from the other end of the island. And although he is as kind to us as any whom we have ever known, we are tired of asking him continually.

We fish lobsters summer and winter, and still we are unable to provide ourselves with food and clothing. From want of nets, we cannot go to fish herrings, though the lochs on either side of us were full of them. Every year we think we can fish out of the Atlantic what will buy nets for us, but because we have our wages pledged for food before the fishing begins, we must deny ourselves many things in order to keep up our credit.

In order to deliver us out of this womb of poverty in which we are enclosed, we, beg of your honours to assist us in getting the land, of which there is plenty in the island, restored to us; for it is unseemly tbat the big sheep should die eating the fatness of the land at one side, and we banished from our fathers’ land which ought to be ours, and forced to brave the dangers of the sea in order to obtain food; and if we had Borv at its present rent, when we occupied it, I believe we were still there, unless we would be removed for debt. Now of the cottars living in both ends of the island, twenty-six could take up land if they had it as the rent the present tenant pays for it, if once they get stock on it; and we are of opinion that if we had it at its present rent that no one would hear us complain.’

Following the submission of the written evidence Malcolm MacLeod was further interviewed. On being asked why he had written his evidence in Gaelic, he replied ‘I felt more sure, in writing Gaelic that I would not put down anything I could not stand to.’

He clarified that, when the rights to graze the islands of Hermetray and Susay were taken from the crofters, there had been no reductions in rent. He was asked about the relative sizes of the Ruisgarry and Borve ends of the island. Borve, held by tacksman John MacDonald, was the larger half, with the better soil. The crofter’s soil in Ruisgarry ‘has grown so weak that it gives bad crops.’ The islanders would not ask for the return of the tack: ‘We were suffering many things, and we were willing to suffer in case we should lose the more by what we would get.’

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