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Inquiry into Living Conditions of Crofters

Inquiry into Living Conditions of Crofters

Extracts from the Scotsman newspaper concerning an Inquiry into the living conditions of crofters in 1888

January 9, 1888 - Mr Malcolm MacNeill and Sherriff Fraser are conducting an inquiry into alleged destitution in Lewis. Meetings, private, have been arranged in the four parishes with the purpose of ascertaining the localities where destitution exists. Special attention is being given to Lochs which seems always to have been in a poverty stricken state. Park Deer Forest occupies a large part of it. The enquiry will show that the failure of the fishing industry contributed greatly to the distress of the West Highland crofters and cottars.

January 11, 1888 - Mr MacNeill, of the Board of Supervision, is continuing his inquiries as to the extent of the destitution in Lewis.

January 12, 1888 - In reply to inquiries Mr MacNeill has been informed that there were some cases of actual destitution in the Barvas district, and that unless something was done immediately, then as the spring advanced matters would worsen - not only among the cottars but among the crofters themselves.

January 13, 1888 - Mr MacNeill visited Luerbost, using HMS Jackal. There are long, narrow strips or rigs of arable land between the road and the sea, with moorland above it. The houses are built along the lower side of the road and so get the benefit of water from the moorland above. Each croft has 3 or 4 acres of arable land, rented at 2..10/-, with the right to graze a cow and 3 or 4 sheep on the common pasture for each crofter. The houses are all self-built; windows and chimneys are few in number. There is an absence of any attempt at comfort which can hardly be matched anywhere, except in Barra. There is no separate steading for cattle. Humans and animals used the same door. They occupy opposite ends of the house. There is no partition between the humans and the animals. There is an imaginary line between the sitting-room and the byre. The cattle appreciate the additional warmth from the mid-floor fire. Dense masses of smoke drift through the house, before making their way through the door or the hole in the roof: a roigh, a chest or two, a barrel and sometimes a bed formed the furniture of the sitting-room. Most houses had an inner room, roughly partitioned off, a sleeping compartment containing one or two beds, a settle and a meal barrel and potato heap. There was extraordinary overcrowding.

According to the valuation roll, there are 61 tenants but that is not the half of the number of families that live there. The 60 odd families, whose names do not appear on the valuation roll are mere squatters. Surgeon Roper of the Jackal carried his medical kit with him, and made full use of it.

John Morrison (Iain Sheorais) was a middle-aged squatter on his brother's croft, cultivating a third of it. He had 4 children, 1 cow and 1 stirk. He formerly had a share in a boat; now he cured fish in the summer. He had no meal this winter except a couple of stones from the Destitution Fund. They lived on potatoes of which there were 4 or 5 barrels still left. All were poorly clad so couldn't go to church. He hadn't a new suit for 10 years; depending on the clothing he got from his brother, a minister.

Thomas Macleod was the next case visited. He was a young cottar, living in a small house down near the shore. He squatted on his mother's croft. He had one room 12 feet by 10 feet and had a wife and children. He had a quarter share as had his other cottars. He owned 1 calf, 1 sheep and 1 lamb which also lived in the one-roomed house. He had one bed with one blanket on it. Seven weeks earlier, a daughter aged 4 or 5, fell into the fire and was severely burned so the rest of the family had to sleep by the fire under a piece of canvas lent by a neighbour. The child was still suffered and confined to bed. Her wounds were dressed by Surgeon Roper.

Macleod was a fisherman but hadn't been to the east coast for 5 years, as he had no money to take him there. He had been in the habit of working, along with 5 others, on the system of hiring a boat from a curer, and paying him a seventh share of the proceeds. Last year he made only enough to keep him alive. All his potatoes were now eaten, the only food he had now was a boll of Destitution meal, got from the Destitution Fund through the minister. There are 16 boats in the township, with 20 foot keels: six men share the boats.

Malcolm Macleod's was the next home visited. He paid 25/- for rent and taxes, sharing a croft with 3 sisters who lived in a house of their own. The croft produced 30 barrels of potatoes but there were only 2 stones left now. There was a stone of meal in the house but no prospect of anything more. He had fished last summer and kept his family, a wife and 3 children, but except while fishing he had no credit with the merchants. His wife has been ill for 7 years and bedridden for 2. The surgeon confirmed that she was suffering from want of food and weakness.

Murdo Morrison had a whole croft to himself. His condition seemed no better than that of the others interviewed. His rates and taxes wee 5 but he had not paid any for 5 years. The house was poor, the wife sickly and there were 5 children who went to school when the weather was not too cold. They depended that day on a bowl of meal from a neighbour's wife. He would need to eat his seed potatoes. He had a stack of corn from which he expected to get a boll of meal: he did not go to the east coast fishing for 7 years because if ill health and lack of money.

Widow Macritchie occupied a very small cot in a corner of the road, and cultivated 6 small lazy beds. She had been a widow for 13 years but now had only one daughter staying with her who could carry home the peats - 1 1/2 miles across the moor. She had no stock and had had a boll of meal from the Destitution Fund. She also had 3 creels of potatoes. Previous to receiving the destitution meal, she had been without meal since August last. She had nothing but potatoes to live on, but had taken 2d worth of eggs to a merchant the other day and been given some tea for them. She had been getting parochial relief of 4/- a month until last Martinmas. It was then stopped: she knew not why, but some time previously she had taken her relief ticket to a local merchant and got some goods in advance, on the credit of this allowance. The merchant had allowed her 4/- worth of goods on the credit of this allowance from the Board, and when the allowance was stopped, he had not been able to get his money. Large families were common with 4 or 5 children sleeping in one room. The Royal Navy Reserve was a God-send.

Most of the people put their trust in Providence, and all had a notion that something ought to be done for them. One man said that if there wasn't, there would be another outbreak. What was striking was how little apparent anxiety people had at the prospect of running out of food. It was also noticeable that outside the few months when the men fished out of Stornoway or on the east coast, there was no appearance of anything being done by them except the precarious fishing round their shores. One complained of having been removed from his lot by the Chamberlain and being impoverished for 3 days.

January 17, 1888 - There is little from Lewis but a tale of poverty and distress. Yesterday Mr MacNeill visited Balallan and Ranish, where conditions were found to be worse than those in Luerbost. The lots had been sub-divided, but cases were met of men who had been comfortably off some years ago, who were now deprived of the means of subsistence by the failure of the fishing, and this has meant, in every household, distress.

Crossbost and Ranish visited. The situation there is badly adapted for crofting. The ground is rocky and uneven, especially in Ranish.

In Crossbost there are 30 holdings, but twice that number of families. Crossbost village was formed about 44 years ago, having previously been a tack, and the people sent thither had been removed from other townships to enlarge the deer forest of Park. The men fish in summer. There are 4 or 5 large boats in the township, with 6 or 7 of a crew apiece. They are mostly hired from curers, with the crew paying the cost from the catch. With these boats they fish in Stornoway during the summer and fish in winter and spring for cod and ling outside their own lochs, chiefly from small boats and taking their catch to Stornoway.

A Donald Mackenzie was visited in Crossbost, a crofter, paying 1 of rent. He was an old and sickly ragged man with 5 young children. The house was miserable and uncared for. For the household of seven he had 2 beds, 4 sleeping in one and 3 in the other. He had 7 or 8 bolls of potatoes left out of 20; a cow, a heifer and 4 sheep - all of which entered the house by the same door. There was no partition between the animals and the humans. He lost a cow and a stirk through starvation last winter. He spent 3 months last summer at the fishing but just kept himself. The family was suffering from lack of food.

January 18, 1888 - Mr MacNeill visited Gravir and Marvig where the circumstances were similar to those in Crossbost and Ranish. The failure of the east coast herring fishing was the chief cause of the poverty combined with the sub-division of lots.

Mr MacNeill visited the house of Donald Macmillan, Crossbost, one of the men on trial for the Deer Raid. He lived in a cot at the back of his father's house, formerly used as a barn. It was very poorly furnished, even for that district. There were five small children in one bed, with one blanket. 3 of the children slept out with a neighbour. Macmillan cultivated half his father's croft and had a cow. He was a fisherman with a share in a 41 foot boat, but at the Barra fishing last summer he had made nothing. His wife had got a boll of meal from the Destitution Fund, but besides that, she had only 2 barrels of potatoes. Previous to their getting that meal, they had lived exclusively on potatoes. She stated that when her husband went out on the Deer Raid, there was only a barrel of potatoes, but since then she had fallen back on the seed.

In Gravir, widow Chisholm's rent was 2, 6/-. Of this 5/- was in the name of road money and 1/- for hen money. It was the custom once to levy "kaim hen" as part of the rent, but about 30 years ago, this was committed for money. She had not paid any rent for 4 years.

January 19, 1888 - Mr MacNeill found plenty of evidence in Keose and Laxay of poverty. There was no money, no credit and no store of provisions. The misery is aggravated by an epidemic of measles.

January 21, 1888 - Mr MacNeill and Sheriff Fraser have concluded their inquiry into conditions on the island as regards destitution. Mr MacNeill has visited the parish of Lochs, Sheriff Fraser Shawbost and tomorrow Back district. The conditions in Shawbost are similar to those in Lochs, or perhaps worse.

Mr Ross, the headmaster, says it is worse than he has ever seen it, and ascribed it to the failure of the long line fishing, the overcrowding of the population due to the subdivision of holdings and the people expelled from elsewhere, from various parts of Uig. The township of Shawbost has 900 souls who live in an area of 1 1/2 miles square, which includes their arable land and their portion of pasture as well.

Formerly a large number of boats fished from the village but now there is poverty with the boat owners in debt to the fishcurers who would not land boats to the Shawbost men. The number of boats were reduced to 5 and now, after a severe storm, to 2. The tenants are now unable to equip them selves with boats. The provision made by the Government for that purpose was, to them, valueless, as they could not raise the proportion required of the boat's value, or find inadequate security. The Royal Commission of 1885 recommended a pier to be built in Shawbost. To improve conditions in the township, Mr Ross proposed the return of those evicted from Uig to their former homes or scheme of Government - aided emigration.

The Commissioners Report is expected next week, in which the situation in Lewis will be represented as very grave. In Lochs, the supply of food is not sufficient to last more than 2 months, in some cases 2 weeks or less. The people are without money, without credit, without employment, and have no prospect till the commencement of the fishing season, which, last year, only just kept the fishermen. Sheriff Fraser found the people at Back better off than those in Shawbost or Lochs, owing to the ready sale of Broad Bay fish in Stornoway.


Title: Inquiry into Living Conditions of Crofters
Record Type: Stories, Reports and Traditions
Type: Newspaper Article
Date: 1888
Record Maintained By: CECL
Subject Id: 60866