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THE HIGHLAND CROFTERS.
THE Highland Crofters are cottier tenants, but they must not be confounded with the still inferior and hardly less numerous class known in the Highlands as Cottars. The Highland cottar is not a tenant. He occupies no land and he pays no rent. He builds a hut somewhere by sufferance, and once he has built it, he is considered, according to the recognized custom of the country, as in a sense its proprietor, because it is the fruit of his own labour. He may of course be removed, but he may take his house with him; and he always does take the only permanent and valuable materials in its composition—viz., its rafters and stick-work—unless indeed he is granted compensation for them, as was done, Mr. Loch tells us, in the case of the Sutherland Clearances. He is simply a labourer in a country where labour is in very low and irregular demand; and he has no other resource. He has no cow, he has not even a pig, for the old Highland prejudice against that thrifty animal still reigns so much, that in Lewis, for example, where there are more than four thousand families, they have only a hundred and fifty pigs among them. The crofters however, like the Irish cottiers, are occupiers of land, though not of enough, under the system of husbandry at present practised npon it, to provide subsistence for a family for more than six months. But while the Irish cottiers only sometimes, the Highland crofters invariably, have an auxiliary occupation. They are generally fishermen. Out of 1,780 occupants of land in Skye, not more than sixty live by farming alone. This combination of agricultural with other employment produces in many countries a most comfortable and prosperous class of peasantry, especially where the land is held by some sort of permanent tenure that induces the holder to lavish npon it the attention of his spare hours, and where the secondary occupation is one that furnishes regular work through the winter and in bad weather at other seasons. But the crofters possess neither of these advantages. They hold their land by the most discouraging of all tenures—cottier tenure; and their auxiliary occupation gives them little employment in winter, and interferes to some extent with the efficiency of their agricultural labour in summer. Fishing and agriculture have each their seasons, and these seasons in some ways overlap. The Highland fishermen are proverbial on the East Coast for coming ten days too late and leaving ten days too early. They lose in this way about a third of a fishing season, which is brief at the best. Their peats, or their harvest, or some other necessary part of farm work, requires them home. With spade husbandry, continuous attention, and a choice of crop suitable to climate and mar*ket, they might, in the opinion of many good judges, earn a comfortable livelihood even on a £4 croft; and if they gave themselves up regularly to fishing, they might do even better, for fishing, though very precarious for those who only pursue it for six weeks in the year, is very profitable to those who keep at it all the year round. But as at present situated, the crofters cannot adopt either of these alternatives, and though they have two strings to their bow, they are almost as ill off as if they had only one.
A hundred years ago the Highland peasantry comprised, besides the cottars and crofters, a class of a higher grade—then, perhaps, more numerous than either, but now, unfortunately, almost entirely extinct—the small tenants. The crofters were at that time usually not tenants of the laird, but sub-tenants on the farms of the tacksmen. They occupied a few detached acres of arable, with keep for a cow or two, and the arable they had in many cases brought into cultivation for themselves. Such a detached piece of new brought-in land is what was oiiginally meant by a croft. Croft is simply cropped, that is, cleared land, and what was known in the Highlands as the crofting system was the system of improving waste ground by encouraging labourers to squat upon it, to build a house, and take into cultivation as much of the surrounding land as they could efficiently work, on condition of sitting rent free for a certain number of years. Now, the crofters of a century ago were either the original clearers or the subsequent holders of such detached plots of cultivated land. But the small tenants were the old hereditary tenantry of the estate. They were always located in groups as joint occupants of club-farms, and these club-farms were just the old townships or village communities of primitive times. They still retained the essential features of their mediaeval organization; they still practised the rude mediaeval system of common husbandry. They managed their affairs under the presidency of a headman, one of themselves, called the constable, the mayor, or the just one, who was invested with authority from the proprietor, was sworn in as a valuator by a magistrate, and summoned courts of the tenants on the village knoll for the trial of offences against the bye-laws, or the discussion of common village concerns. They paid the proprietor a slump rent, for which they were jointly and severally liable, and they assessed it upon themselves in the proportion of their shares in the land. They allocated the arable on the runrig principle of equalized assortments, distributing a third of it by lot every year. Those communities of small tenants possessed important privileges which were quite wanting to the crofters. They had in some places a lease, and everywhere a tenure practically as secure as if they had, and they had always a hill-grazing of considerable extent—the old hill-grazing that the township had occupied from time immemorial. They often had crofters under them on their farms, they always had cottars, whose labour they hired; and there can be no doubt that, as things then went, they were an exceedingly comfortable class of people. Sir John M'Neill, in his Report on the Highlands in 1851, describes the whole population as existing at the time of the division of the crofts, say a hundred years ago, "in rude abundance, with little labour." It is difficult to see, however, how the cottars and crofters of those days can have been any better off than the cottars and crofters of to-day. Kelp-making gave them employment for only a few months in summer, and they probably make as much from the fishing now as they did from kelp then. But with the small tenants the case was quite different. They produced from their arable food enough at least for their own families; perhaps even more, for there is good evidence to show that besides possessing a larger average acreage than the present crofters, they produced twice, and indeed thrice, as much per acre. Their Highland cattle were then in good demand; and they raised their own wool, spun it at home, and caught their own fish, just as they dug their own fuel. They had shown themselves, too, open to adopt profitable improvements in agriculture. They had introduced a new product—lint—and had found remunerative employment, not only in growing it, but in dressing it for the market. Marshall, the eminent agriculturist, who reported upon the Highlands at that period for the Board of Agriculture, says: "Indeed, in the management of the flax crop throughout, the Highlands may be said to excel. Its culture is altogether modern; the best mode of management was therefore the more easily introduced, as there were no prejudices to be got rid of." Their management of stock and of their corn crops he found to be as bad as bad could be. In the oat fields of 1793, " the proportion of produce," he says, "must have been greatly on the side of the weeds;" but this flax crop was "weeded with great care by women on their knees and haunches picking out every weed." The small tenantry were therefore thriving and showing possibilities of progressive development.
Now, the change that has taken place in the economic position of the Highland peasantry may be described as the conversion of this class of small tenants into crofters. The effects of that conversion have been merely the ordinary and inevitable effects known to be produced by cottier tenancy everywhere—competition or nominal rents, hanging arrears, hopeless and therefore indolent and inefficient labour, deterioration of the art of husbandry, exhaustion of the soil, periodical famine. The causes of the change are not difficult to trace. They are—first, the original division of the common arable of the club farms into separate holdings, which was done at the instance of the proprietor with the concurrence of the tenants, and was meant to be, and indeed might have been, the beginning of a reformed and progressive agriculture; second, the subsequent subdivision of these holdings by the occupiers themselves to provide for their children, which took place without the sanction of the proprietor, but without his opposition, and which unhappily still continues; and third, the abstraction from the townships of their old hill-grazings in order to incorporate them in adjoining sheep-farms, a process which also unhappily continues still, and indeed is the primary cause of every one of the present disturbances in Skye and Barra.
The division of the common arable into separate holdings was identical with the enclosure of the common fields in England, and was hailed as the indispensable condition to any improvement in the agriculture and general state of the Highland people. The prejudices of individuals could be more easily overcome than the customs of a community, and, besides, these customs were absurd and pernicious in the extreme. The runrig system wasted ground and wasted time. It is the same system with that known in Ireland as rundale, and indeed its full Scotch designation is runrig rundale, minced in ordinary speech into rig and rennel. Rigs were then, in all truth, ridges, and furrows dales. The rigs were gathered up to such a height in the middle that two men sitting in the furrows between them would not be able to see one another. The intervening furrows, or baulks, were three feet wide, and the soil was all scraped from them to heighten the crown of the rig. Moreover, a rig was comparatively short. There might be several of them in the length of a field, and these were separated by cross baulks of the same width as the main ones. A corn field with the crop on it was thus intersected by a network of lanes, and it is to them the allusion is in the songs, " Comin' thro' the Rye/' and " Amang the Rigs o' Barley." But, however interesting from a romantic point of view, these lanes constituted commercially an extensive waste of ground; it is said they amounted to about a fourth of the arable. To abolish this practice of building the lofty ridge at the expense of the lowly baulk was not a necessary effect of the separation of holdings, but it was expected as an accompaniment of it, and it actually did accompany it, with the natural result of a substantially increased production from a substantially increased producing surface. But the chief objection to the runrig husbandry was, that it broke up the farm into numberless patches. The joint tenants were to run rig run dale, to share and share alike in good land and bad. Fields of different crops and soils of different qualities were each divided into as many shares as there were shares in the tenancy of the farm, and these shares were then distributed among the tenants by lot. This wasted a great deal of time in the process of partition, and still more in the process of cultivation. The Duke of Argyll states that he is owner of a farm which, within his own memory, was cultivated by eighteen tenants, each of whom had more than a hundred separate bits of land, which changed hands every year. "In this way," he adds, "about eighty-six arable acres were cut up into above 2,000 fragments, many of which were not larger than sufficed to carry a single 'stook' of corn."
Great expectations were justly enough entertained from the abolition of this most ridiculous and inconvenient system by the separation of holdings. "This first step towards individualism," says the Duke, "is the first step towards the possibility of improvement." And so it might have been, had it been accompanied by a satisfactory leasehold tenure, and by adequate instruction by precept and, still better, by example, in the methods of good and progressive husbandry, from a knowledge of which the people were excluded at once by the remoteness of their situation and by the difference of their language. But, as it actually proved, the first step to the possibility of improvement has been the first step to gradual and uninterrupted decline. Every subsequent step has been a step downwards, and it will probably now be as difficult to raise the people to the economic position in which they stood a century ago as it would then have been to launch them securely on an improving career. Individualism will indeed work wonders, but only on condition that the individual sees his way to profiting by his labour, and cottier tenants are not in a position to see this. Being ignorant, they cannot be expected to adopt an improvement till it is made plain before their eyes as being profitable to men of their own clas3; and having no security of tenure, they will not move even then, because they are paralyzed by the fear that the fruits of their labour will not be left to their own enjoyment, but made an occasion for raising their rent. The Highland peasantry, therefore, never gained the advantages of individualism, and they lost the advantages of co-operation, which conferred upon small tenant-farmers without leases an invalu