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Selkirk on Emigration (II)
Selkirk on Emigration (II)
Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk
On Emigration and the State of the Highlands (1805)
Chapter IV: Situation and circumstances of the old tenantry; choice of resources when dispossessed of their farms; Emigration preferred; for what reasons; limited in extent.
THIS great change in the system of management throughout the Highlands branches into various and complicated effects. In order to give a clear view of its unavoidable consequences, it will be proper first to enter into some details as to the situation and mode of life of the people, such as we actually find them, where the old system still remains. From this it will be easy to deduce the immediate effects which the change must produce on their circumstances; and it will thus appear that emigration is the line of conduct which the occasion leads them most naturally to pursue. After considering this consequence, as it affects the interest of the public, the same details will enable us to appreciate how far it may be obviated or modified by legislative wisdom; and this will lead to a discussion of all the resources which have been proposed as remedies for preventing emigration.
In consequence of the extensive distribution of landed possessions arising from the feudal manners, combined with the small progress that has been made in the arts of life and division of labour, the people of the Highlands are not separated into distinct classes of farmers, labourers, and mechanics: they are all more or less engaged in agriculture. There are no markets where provisions can be purchased, so that every man must be a farmer, at least so far as to raise provisions for his own family. Whatever additional employment a man may follow, he must occupy a small spot of land; and any one who cannot procure such a possession, cannot live in the country.
The farms occupied by the common tenantry, are hamlets or petty townships, held by six or eight partners, sometimes by many more. The shares appear to have been originally equal; but by the subdivision of some, and the accumulation, in other cases, of several in the same hand, it is now frequently found that one man has a third or a fourth part of a farm, while his neighbour has but a fifteenth or a twentieth part.
These farms consist, in general, of a portion of a valley, to which is annexed a tract of mountain pasture, often stretching to the. distance of many miles. The habitations are collected in a little village, in the midst of the richest and best: of the arable lands, which are used as crofts in constant tillage. The less fertile of the arable lands on the outskirts, termed outfield, are only occasionally cultivated, and every part of them is in its turn left in grass. The lands in tillage, are sometimes cultivated in common, but are more usually distributed among the tenants in proportion to their shares; seldom, however, in a permanent manner, but from year to year. The produce of the tillage land rarely affords a superfluity beyond the maintenance of the tenants and their families. Their riches consist of cattle, chiefly breeding cows, and the young stock produced from them, which are maintained on the farm till of a proper age for the market; and by the sale of these the tenants are enabled to pay their rent. The number which each farm or toun is capable of maintaining, is ascertained by antient usage, and may be, in general, from thirty to eighty cows, besides other cattle. The total amount is divided among the occupiers according to their respective shares, no one being allowed to keep more than his regulated proportion.
The joint occupiers of such farms are termed small tenants, to distinguish them from the tacksmen, who hold entire farms, and who are in general of the rank of gentry, each of them tracing himself to some antient proprietor of the estate, who has allotted the farm as a provision for a cadet of his family.
Upon the farms of the tacksrnen, are a number of subtenants or cotters, under which general term may be included various local denominations of crofters, mailers, &c. &c. These people hold their possessions under various conditions: sometimes they differ from the tenants in little else than the diminutive scale of their possessions; but in general they have a greater or less amount of labour to perform as a part of their rent. Frequently they are absolute servants to their immediate superior, having the command only of a small share of their own time to cultivate the land allowed them for maintaining their families. Sometimes the tacksman allows a portion of his own tillage field for his cotter; sometimes a small separate croft is laid off for him; and he is likewise allowed, in general, to pasture a cow, or perhaps two, along with the cattle of the farm.
Cotters are not confined to the farms of the tacksmen -- they are also intermixed with the small tenants. Two or three are generally employed on every farm, as servants of the whole partnership, for herding their cattle, or preventing the trespasses of others. There are also a few people who exercise the trades of black-smiths, weavers, taylors, shoemakers, &c. and who bargain with one or other of the tenants for a portion of his land. Sometimes persons who have been dispossessed of their own farms, and are unable to procure a share of one elsewhere, will secure a temporary residence in the country by taking subsets of this kind: sometimes individuals, connected by relationship with the tenants of a farm, and who have no other resource,. are permitted, from mere charity, to occupy some corner of waste land, where, by raising crops of potatoes, they contrive to work out a miserable subsistence.
It may be easily conceived, that the line between these two classes, the small tenants and the cotters, is not always very accurately defined; some of the more opulent of the cotters being as well provided as the lowest of the tenants. Upon the whole, however, there is a great difference in the amount of. their property, and in the views they may entertain, when, by the progress of sheep-farming, they are dispossessed of their tenements. Among the more opulent, it is not uncommon for one man to have twelve, fifteen, or even twenty cows, but in general the small tenant, according to his share of the farm, may have from three or four, to six or eight cows, and always with a proportionate number of young cattle. He has also horses, a few small sheep, implements of agriculture, and various household articles to dispose of; and, from the sale of all these he is enabled to embark in undertakings which cannot be thought of by the cotter, and which are not within the reach of the peasantry even in the more improved and richer parts of the kingdom.
There the labouring poor, though earning very considerable wages, are seldom possessed of much permanent property. Their daily or weekly wages are expended in the market as fast as they arise, for the immediate supply of their families. In the Highlands, there are few of the lower class who have the means of living nearly so well as an English labourer, but many who have property of much greater value. In the. Agricultural Survey of the Northern Counties, details are given of the economy of a farmer of about 30 acres of arable land, whose diet and habitation appear to be of the lowest kind, the total value of his buildings not exceeding 10/-, and the annual consumption of provisions for his own family and three servants amounting to about 15/-.; yet his capital is estimated at 116/-.; and by the advance in the price of cattle since the date of that publication, it must now be considerably more.
Of this description of people it has often happened that 30 or 40 families have been dispossessed all at once, to make way for a great sheep-farm : -- and those who have attended to the preceding details will easily understand the dilemma to which every one of these people must be reduced. The country affords no means of living without a possession of land, and how is that to be procured? The farms that are not already in the hands of the graziers, are all full of inhabitants, themselves perhaps in dread of the same fate, and at any rate too crowded to make room for him. Should he, in spite of every difficulty, resolve to earn his bread as a labourer, he can expect no employment in a neighbourhood, where every spot is occupied by many more people than are necessary for its own work; and if any casual opportunity of employment occur, it is too uncertain to be depended upon. Let his industrious dispositions be ever so great, he must, in the total want of manufacturing employment in his own neighbourhood, quit his native spot; and, if he does not leave the kingdom altogether, must resort to some of those situations where the increasing demand for labour affords a prospect of employment.
When a great number are dispossessed at once, and the land is to be applied, to purposes that afford little or no employment, as in a sheep-walk, the conclusion is so evident as to require no illustration: but the case is not essentially altered when these people are dismissed in a gradual and continued progress one after another. In this way, indeed, the circumstance does not excite so much attention; but the effects on the state of the country are the same: and to the individual who is dispossessed, it makes no other difference than that he has fewer companions to. share his misfortune. It is equally impossible for him to find resources in his native spot, and he is equally under the necessity of removing to a different situation.
Sheep-farming, though it is the most prominent occasion, is not the radical cause of the difficulties to which the peasantry of the Highlands are reduced, the disposition to extend farms by throwing several possessions into one, in the manner that has already been alluded to, must produce the same effect, in whatever mode the land is afterwards to be managed.
To the dispossessed tenantry, as well as to the cotters, who by the same progress of things are deprived of their situation and livelihood, two different resources present themselves. They know that in the, Low Country of Scotland, and particularly in the manufacturing towns, labour will procure them good wages, they know likewise that in America the wages of labour are still higher, and that from the moderate price of land they may expect to obtain, not only their possession of a farm, but an absolute property.
Of these alternatives, every one who is acquainted with the country must admit that Emigration is by far the most likely to suit the inclination and habits of the Highlanders. It requires a great momentary effort; but holds out a speedy prospect of a situation and mode of life similar to that in which they have been educated. Accustomed to possess land, to derive from it all the cornforts they enjoy, they naturally consider it as indispensable, and can form no idea of happiness without such a possession. No prospect of an accommodation of this kind can enter into the views of any one who seeks for employment as a day labourer, still less of those who resort to a manufacturing town.
The manners of a town, the practice of sedentary labour under the roof of a manufactory, present to the Highlander a most irksome contrast to his former life. The independance and irregularity to which he is accustomed, approach to that of the savage: his activity is occasionally called forth to the utmost stretch, in conducting his boat through boisterous waves, or in traversing the wildest mountains amidst the storms of winter. But these efforts are succeeded by intervals of indolence equally extreme. He is accustomed to occasional exertions of agricultural labour, but without any habits of regular and steady industry; and he has not the least experience of sedentary employrnents, for which, most frequently, the prejudices of his infancy have taught him to entertain a contempt.
To a person of such habits, the business of a manufactory can have no attraction except in a case of necessity; it can never be his choice, when any resource can be found more congenial to his native habits and disposition. The occupations of an agricultural labourer, though very different, would not be so great a contrast to his former life; but the limited demand for labour leaves him little prospect of employment in this line. Both in this, and in manufacturing establishments, every desirable situation is pre-occupied by men of much greater skill than the untutored Highlander. He has therefore little chance of finding employment; but in works of the lowest drudgery.
To this it is to be added, that the situation of a mere day-labourer, is one which must appear degrading to a person who has been accustomed to consider himself as in the rank of a farmer, and has been the possessor even of a small portion of land. In America, on the contrary, he has a prospect of superior rank; of holding his land on a permanent tenure, instead of a temporary, precarious, and dependant possession. It is not to be, forgotten, that every motive of this nature has a peculiar degree of force on the minds of the Highland peasantry. The pride, which formerly pervaded even the lowest classes, has always been a prominent feature of their national character: and this feeling is deeply wounded by the distant behaviour they now experience from their chieftains -- a mortifying contrast to the cordiality that subsisted in the feudal times.
It has sometimes been alleged, that these motives of preference have been enhanced by the ignorance of the people, and their expectation of procuring in America lands like those of Britain, fit for immediate cultivation. That such ideas may have been entertained, and even that individuals who knew better may have been unprincipled enough to circulate such falsehoods, is not impossible: but certainly there is no need of recurring to delusions of this kind, for an explanation of the universal preference of the Highlanders for America. I know, indeed, from personal communication with them, that they are aware of the laborious process that is necessary for bringing the forest lands into a productive state. But this is not sufficient to deter men of vigorous minds, when they are incited by such powerful motives to encounter the difficulty.
It is indeed very probable, that the fashion, being once set, may influence some who are under no absolute necessity of emigrating. That this cause, however, has any very, extensive operation, I can see no ground for believing. Those who represent the ernigrations as arising from capricious and inadequate motives, argue from the circumstance of tenants having occasionally relinquished advantageous leases several years before their expiration, in order to go to America. This, I believe to be fact, though a very rare occurrence; but were it ever so common, it would afford no proof in favour of the argument which it is brought to support.
Do the gentlemen who urge this argument, suppose the tenantry so blind as to perceive no danger till they are overwhelmed? The fate of their friends and neighbours is a sufficient warning of that which they must sooner or later expect. It is surely with good reason they are convinced that they cannot long continue to retain the possessions they now hold; and under this conviction the simplest dictates of prudence would lead them to anticipate the evil day, if they meet any uncommonly favourable opportunity for executing the plans to which sooner or later they must have recourse.
The price of cattle has of late years been so fluctuating, and at some periods so extremely high, that opportunities have occurred for tenants to sell off their stock at two or three times their usual and average value. Those who availed themselves of this advantage have acquired so great an increase of capital, that a few remaining years of an expiring lease could be no object when put in comparison. Such instances, so far from implying capricious levity in the people, are rather a proof of the deep impression which the circumstances of the country have made on their minds, and of the deliberate foresight with which their determinations are formed.
If there were no other proof that emigration arises from radical and peculiar causes in the circumstances of the country, it might be strongly presumed from the fact, that while this spirit is so prevalent in the Highlands, it has made no impression, or a very inconsiderable and transient impression, in the adjoining Lowlands. The labourer in the South may occasionally feel the stimulus of ambition; but this affects comparatively few the great mass of people go on in the track to which they have been accustomed; none but those of peculiarly ardent minds can bring themselves, for the sake of a distant object, to make the exertion, which emigration requires.
The Highlander who is dispossessed of his land is forced to this species of exertion: it is utterly impossible for him to go on in the path he has been accustomed to tread. Whether he emigrate to America, or remove to the Low Country of Scotland, the scene is equally new to him; his habits are broken through; he must in either case form himself to an entirely new mode of life. Forced to a change, it is comparatively of little consequence whether he undertake an exertion of greater or less amount. To move his family from the Highlands to Glasgow or Paisley, is not to be done without an effort, and, to a. poor man, a very considerable effort: and if the result is, that, after all, he must enter upon a mode of life to which all his habits render him averse, which all his prejudices teach him to consider as degrading, it is surely to be expected that he will be ready to carry his effort something further, in order to attain a more desirable situation.
Though the Highlanders are certainly very inferior to their Southern neighbours in the habits of regular and steady industry, yet, for a temporary effort, there are few people equal to them; none who will submit to greater hardships and privations, where there is a great object to be accomplished. Any one who resolves on braving the difficulties of an American settlement, may look forward to a situation so much superior to that of a day-labourer, and, particularly, so much more consonant to his habits and former mode of life, that no tenant, who loses his farm in the Highlands, can hesitate between these resources, unless. overruling circumstances counteract his preference.
Accordingly, with a very few exceptions, we find the choice of the Highlanders has been entirely regulated by their ability or inability to afford the :expenses of their passage to America; and among those whose poverty has forced them to go into the manufacturing towns, some of the most remarkable exertions of industry have been prompted, only by the desire of accumulating as much money as might enable them to join their friends beyond the Atlantic.
From the peculiar circumstances of the Highlands, the proportion of the peasantry whose property is sufficient to carry them to America, is much greater than in other parts of the kingdom.
The excessive division of land arising from the feudal manners, has confounded and intermixed the characters of farmer and labourer; and, while it has reduced to a very low standard the rank of the individual farmer, has diffused the agricultural capital of the Country among a great number of hands. The small tenants form a very considerable proportion of the population of the Highlands. Few, even of. the lowest of this class, are, in ordinary, times, unable to pay their passage to America: in most instances they have carried with them some money to begin with in their new situations.
The cotters, on the contrary, have not, in general, had property adequate to the expense of the passage, and few of them have ever been able to emigrate. There have been instances of young unmarried men binding themselves by indenture to a number of years service in return for their passage; but this has been very rare. From Ireland, there has been a greater proportion of these redemptioners (as they are called): they are generally, however, young men who go to seek their fortunes, careless, perhaps, whether they ever again meet their relations. The more social and systematic plan which the Highlanders have always followed in going to America, is inconsistent with the obligations of a redemptioner; and to men with families, this resource is wholly inapplicable. The emigrants have, therefore, been almost entirely of the class of tenants. while the cotters, whom the same change of agricultural system has deprived of their situation and means of livelihood, have in general removed into the manufacturing districts of the South of ScotIand.
Some expectations have been entertained, that the great public works which have lately been set on foot in the North of Scotland, the Caledonjan canal, and the improvement of the roads, may prevent emigration by the employment they will afford. But this is,more than problematical. Their great and permanent national utility is a sufficient ground of praise for these noble undertakings, without ascribing to them effects to which they are altogether inadequate.
These works may give a temporary relief to some of the peasantry, but will not alter the essential circumstances of the Country. They bring employment a. little nearer to the people, and prevent the necessity of going so many miles to procure it: still, however, any one who does not live in the immediate vicinity must quit his present residence to derive any advantage. In removing his family he cannot forget that the employment will only be temporary, and this reflection will strongly counteract the preference which the situation would otherwise command. No one will be disposed to form permanent arrangements on such a foundation.
Except in point of situation, the employment afforded by these public works has no advantage over that which the Highlanders have long been in the habit of seeking in the Low Country of Scotland, The small tenant who is deprived of his land has still the same question to ask himself as formerly, -- whether he will remove into a different part of the country to earn his subsistence as a labourer, or go to America to obtain land: -- and the motives which have hitherto determined his preference for emigration will in no respect be altered.