It has often been said, and with truth, that of all parts of the crofting area, that portion which presents the most difficult questions is the Island of Lewis. Not but that some at least of the problems existing there, are to be found elsewhere; but in Lewis they are more pressing, as they affect a wider area and a denser population. The
observations already made tend to prove that these questions and problems have existed for a great length of time; but while of significance from a historical point of view, we think they ought also to be made to lead up to some practical conclusions for the future. Our inquiry as to the Lewis of the past proves that the inhabitants of that Island are worthy of all the attention they have received. Although they occupy a remote, and in some respects sterile Island, they are men of strong physical development, of tough moral fibre, and of undoubted intellectual capacity. The defects now to be found in the Lewisman are mainly those of insufficient education, and of too limited experience of the world—— not defects of character or mind. In short, the Island of Lewis forms a most valuable part of the United Kingdom. An Island which could produce the ancestors of Lord Macaulay, as also Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the Arctic Explorer, from whom the Mackenzie River in North—West Canada takes its name, and Colonel Colin Mackenzie Surveyor—General of India, cannot fail to compel attentive regard. The physical of and moral strength of the Lewisman is partly due to his surroundings. These compel simplicity of life, and foster powers of endurance. They nerve him to face privations before which men brought up under more favourable circumstances would succumb. The cynical critic might indeed urge that Lewis is an earthly paradise, for there is to be found an exceptionally high birth-rate, an exceptionally low death—rate, and, notwithstanding insanitary conditions, a striking immunity from many complaints. If in these important respects the peat hags of Lewis compare favourably with the rich alluvial plains of the East of Ross—shire, is it necessary, such a critic might ask, to make any special efforts on its behalf?
But little argument is needed to show that, despite these facts, Lewis is still far behind the condition of development to be found among the better class of crofters in most quarters of the Highlands, notwithstanding the efforts made for their amelioration in recent years. Thus, to take only one example, in the matter of housing and sanitation, Lewis may be said to stand alone. It is the sole place left where the custom of only one byre-cleaning in the year prevails.
In answer to the question, what has been done in the past, and with what results, it is here only necessary to summarise. For a considerable period after the passing of the Education Act, thirty years ago, the progress of education in Lewis was slow and unsatisfactory. This was due to causes which have already been discussed. But soon after the issue of the Departmental Minute of 21st December 1888 a great change for the better became apparent. Exceptional relief was afforded to the Lewis ratepayer; the schools throughout the Island were much more largely and regularly attended, and educational matters generally were placed on a sound and progressive footing. It would be difficult to mention any of the public grants in Scotland during the last quarter of a century which have operated more beneficially than this one in the direct promotion of the public weal and the mental development of a community.
But further, twenty years ago, almost exactly, loud calls were made in Lewis, as elsewhere, for State intervention on the land question. 'The demands made were for more land to crofters, fair rents, security of tenure, and, above all, that cottars, or squatters, should be removed, or transferred, from crofting townships, and provided with suitable holdings elsewhere. In a few years afterwards, the passing of the Crofters Act operated as a substantial response by the Legislature to these urgings; for it gave security of tenure and the means of obtaining fair rents and of dealing with arrears; but as to the important question of more land, while it has accomplished much elsewhere, it has done practically nothing in Lewis. True enough, crofters have in some few instances received enlargement of holdings by arrangement with the Estate Management; but the sections of the Act which deal with enlargement of holdings have in Lewis remained almost a dead letter. This is not the fault of the Act, but is due to the circumstances of the case. The Act was of the utmost benefit as far as it went, but it did not deal, and perhaps at the time could not deal, with the demands made in Lewis for more land to cottars, or squatters, and these persons remain to this day a serious burden on every, or almost every, crofting township in the Island. So very large a proportion of it is already occupied by crofters that the question of obtaining land for the landless in Lewis is attended with the greatest difficulty.
In addition to the benefits conferred on Lewis in recent times by the passing of the Acts of 1872 and 1886, the Island has profited materially in the matter of rates and taxation by the annual grants provided by the Legislature. The effect of these has been to reduce greatly the local burdens, which were becoming much too heavy to shoulder, as well as to make education free. But not only have the annual grants referred to been made, but Parliament has also provided special grants for the purpose of developing the resources of the Island and improving the condition of the people. The outlays thus made on roads and footpaths, on piers and landing—stages, and on the extension of the postal and telegraphic services, have been in nearly every case of a highly beneficial kind.
So much, then, for the recent past. And it is of consequence to observe that the result of this generous and considerate policy has been, that when we compare the present state of matters with that which prevailed in the Island twenty years ago, a gratifying improvement is to be discerned. Till a comparatively late date a visitor to the Island on successive occasions through long years, would have found no visible improvement. He would have recognised conditions prevailing similar to those which existed at the beginning of last century; except perhaps that in the time of Sir James Matheson the Island was opened up by roads and some little advance made in the matter of education. But during the years to which we have referred a marked improvement has been made in every department of life, and it is no exaggeration to say that the social and individual advancement has been greater during these years than for more than a century before. It is indeed only those who have known the Island in the past, and have re-visited it within the last very few years, who can fully realise and appreciate the nature and extent of the progress made.
But what of the future? Much has been done, but still much remains to do, and not only does the advancement already made lend strong encouragement to further efforts, but the density of the population and the ignorance which still prevails may well likewise induce a continuance of the policy which has been so steadily pursued. A region with the numerous and ever—increasing population of Lewis might at any time become a grave source of danger from epidemic disease, or a scene of misery from lack of food. The object of the public benefactor will therefore naturally be, on the one hand, not in any way injuriously to affect or deteriorate those physical and moral qualities which a life of simplicity and rigour has served to educe, and, on the other, to carry out such additional improvements as will further ameliorate their physical condition and qualify them better for the times in which they live.
As already seen, only two industries of importance are to be found in the Island ——viz., that connected with the occupation of land, and that with the prosecution of these fishing. Thus, there are two classes of small tenants to be found——those who derive their livelihood from the cultivation of the soil and from rearing stock, and those who trust to the harvest of the sea. The difiiculty connected with the occupation of the soil is two—fold. In the first place, crofts, originally somewhat small, though possibly large enough, in View of local circumstances and conditions, have in course of years been subdivided by the occupants. Gradually the Estate Management have too often found them selves obliged to recognise this sub—division in the estate books, and deal with the sub-divided croft as consisting of two and sometimes three separate crofters’ holdings. One effect of this has been to embolden those who had not sub—divided, but who had desired to do so, to carry out such sub-division. Another effect has been indefinitely to multiply the number of holdings which are much too small. For those sub—divided crofter holdings which have been recognised by the Estate Management as separate holdings there is no remedy under the law as it stands. The only remedy is vigorously to carry on the improved system of education which has been so well commenced, with the conviction that as knowledge spreads among the occupants of these narrow home limits they will more and more desire to quit those limits and boldly face the issues of life in the outer world.
But we have said that the difficulty is two—fold. The other part of it is that both on crofts which have not been sub-divided, and on those which have, numerous cottars and squatters are to be found. These occupants have no title, and pay no rent. They have no land, save what they illegally appropriate, or obtain by the tolerance of their crofter neighbours and the Estate Management. If they have stock—and many of them gather stock—such stock grazes on the common pastures of the crofters, to the serious detriment of the crofters’ stock, as while these pastures can graze adequately animals carefully adjusted in numbers to the area and capacity of the ground, they cannot also support stock unwarrantably thrust upon them. What, then, ought to be done for these cottars and squatters? Were they themselves asked the question their answer would be, “Break down the remaining farms in Lewis, and take certain of the lower-lying parts of the deer forests; divide these into individual holdings with an assigned area of common pasture for each new township, and many of us will then have sufficient elbow—room.” Very true, and we are of opinion that this course might with advantage be adopted, at least to a reasonable extent; but even then not all those who should, if possible, be accommodated would get holdings, and if they did, the remedy would be merely a temporary palliative, not a permanent adjustment.
We think, however, there are further answers. In the first place, there ought to be much more rigorous enforcement of the provisions of the Crofters Act against the sub—division and the sub-letting of holdings, and, in the second, we are strongly in favour of establishing and fostering technical instruction in Lewis for the teaching of trades an(l handicrafts, and the elements of scientific avocations. It is probably unnecessary here to enter upon minute details. These it will not be difficult to adjust. We admit that this idea is not new, but it appears to us deserving
of consideration. Whether these or other means of improvement be adopted, we are glad to have had the opportunity afforded us of submitting this Report, and we trust that it may be found useful in furthering the development and improvement of the Island to which it refers.
P. B. MACINTYRE
WILLIAM MACKENZIE, Secretary and Principal Clerk
EDINBURGH, 31st March 1902.