The Condition of the Poor in the Highlands
reported in "The Times" newspaper, 1845
(These extracts from "The Times" of London, kindly provided by a friend, are reproduced here for the benefit of research into Tongue Parish history.)
Among many others, Mr ROBERT HORSBURGH, Factor to the Sutherland Estate, gave
evidence in 1844 to The Parliamentary Inquiry into the Administration and
Practical Operation of the Poor Laws of Scotland. He made claims of idleness in
the so-called new "Fishing Villages" which aroused much public resentment. (This
was a time of hardship and unemployment prior to the potato famine, which
reached Tongue in 1846.)
In response, "The Times of London" sent a correspondent, "Our Own Commissioner" round the Highlands. During 1845-1846 his findings were published in twelve articles entitled "The Condition of the Poor in the Highlands of Scotland". The extracts reproduced below relate particularly to the area of Tongue Parish.
The residents of Braetongue, including James Mackay, Isabella Campbell and Ann Mackay named below, were visited by the Factor during the summer of 1845. His view of their situation can be read here.
LAIRG, Sutherland—Saturday, May 24 1845
EXTRACT—The evidence of Mr Robert Horseburgh, the factor of the Tongue management, is less general and therefore more valuable. The class of tenants is better ascertained under it. It appears that there are in the district 674 tenants who are mere cotters under 5 shillings rental; tenants at will too who can barely live. From 5s to 15s there are 51 tenants; some of these will be householders of the villages, the rest can only be the very smallest class of farmers—men who must be dependent, and in a measure helpless. Of the class of yeomen—of the class from which spring the men of intelligence and enterprise and independence of spirit—from 20s up to a rental of 250s there are just 5. Then come the large sheep farmers—men who are making money and who are satisfied with things as they are.
LAIRG, Sutherland—Wednesday, May 28 1845
EXTRACT—In evidence of the Rev Hugh McKay McKenzie, minister since 1806 of Tongue, he says, speaking of several widows on the poor's roll—"Some of their husbands died in the south country, whither they went in search of employment there being scarcely any employment for day labourers in this part of Sutherland." Here again is evidence of industrious habits, as well as of the cause of idleness—namely want of employment arising from the absurd and short-sighted policy of turning the whole county into a sheep-farm. Further on the same minister says, speaking of the people, "I consider they are very active and industrious when they can get work. … There is no want of will on their part to work, but remunerating employment is not to be obtained."
Speaking of an assessment, the same witness says—"It is a very delicate question indeed as to whether able-bodied persons out of employment should be relieved by an assessment. I would rather by far that they got work, and were supplied with the necessaries of life in this manner; but I do not know what they are to do, there is no work in this country; there is no adequate remuneration for those who go to the south, and what are the people to do?" Enough cause surely for "apathy and indolence".
And this is the result—this the triumph—of destroying the yeomanry and peasantry to make vast sheep farmers. This is the end of the much-vaunted Sutherlandshire "improvements". The Rev. Mr. McKenzie of Tongue, in speaking of the change from the old system to sheep farming, says— "I am very positive and have not the slightest doubt that the condition of the people has been much deteriorated by the change. There is more money going about us now, but there is much more poverty, and not the same, substantial comfort as formerly." Are the people to blame for this change? Further on the same gentleman says—"I would only wish to remark that an erroneous inference as to the state of this country might be drawn from the fact that the cottages built within the last 20 years are superior to the cottages formerly inhabited by tenants in this country. The cottages are certainly now far superior, if you look to the outside only; but if you consider what the old cottages contained inside, as compared with the new cottages, the advantage in favour of the old cottages is great. They used to be well supplied with articles of bed-furniture; they used to have chests full of blankets, and no Highland gentleman would have been afraid formerly to sleep in one of those tenants' houses. That is not the case now. Tenants are very ill supplied with bedding and the blankets which they have, they keep so long that they are frequently very filthy."
TONGUE, Sutherland—Friday, May 30 1845
EXTRACT—From Lairg to this place is about 40 miles due north. The road passes over wild barren heaths. The glens were formerly peopled. All have been "cleared" out. In that 40 miles of country I did not see six houses, and not six people. There was scarcely a tree, or a stone wall, or anything to see on all sides as far as the eye could reach but the barren heath, over which sheep and lambs were running about. Its loneliness may be judged of from the fact that I saw 20 wild red deer in the course of the day. The land formerly arable and green pasture from the labour of small tenants is now getting like the adjacent heath—ull of bogs and wire grass and is scarcely now distinguishable from the heath. This is the result of the "clearance improvements".
In this parish—the parish of Tongue—the population in 1841 was 2,041; in 1842, 89 paupers were relieved, there are now 67 paupers on the roll and there are 200 poor families quite badly off, many of whom have been long trying to get on the roll. The food of the people is almost entirely potatoes which they grow on patches of land near their cottages when they have the land or beg from their poor neighbours and cockles which they gather on the sea-shore. Occasionally some of those better off among them get a little meal and sometimes milk. Nearly the whole population has gone over to the Free Church.
This is one of the places to which the people from the interior of the country have been driven to get a living on the coast as they can. The best off among the cotters have five acres of land, part of it arable and a right of common on the adjacent hill. The land made arable is on a steep hill-side and so full of stones that a decent house might be built from the stones, some of them too large to be moved, scattered over and embedded in any one field. Those best off among the tenants contrive to maintain a couple of cows and about a dozen sheep on this land, out of the produce of which they live. The tenants' houses are small stone built cottages, and much superior in appearance outside to the mud huts of the country. Inside however they are quite as filthy and as wretched as the mud huts. A mud floor; a peat fire upon it, a table, a rush chair and a bed, with two or three plates, form their usual appearance and furniture; all within looking poverty-stricken, wretched and filthy. The people seem too broken-spirited and abject to be clean.
I went into two or three of the tenants' houses and this is a fair description of the best of them. They usually pay 2 and a half guineas rent for their five acres. I entered the cottage of one old man named Robert Mackie, who is not on the roll. His condition is not considered wretched enough to entitle him to be so. His son is one of the small five acre tenants having a large family of his own and out of his portion he lets the old man have a perch of land about a third of an acre in extent on part of which he grows potatoes for himself and wife to live upon and on the rest contrives to keep a cow. This old man is 81 years of age, his wife is 77 and lives with him. The old woman was on her knees in the potato patch picking weeds out of the land. She was dressed in rags. The old man was peeling potatoes in his mud hut for their dinner, that was their usual food. On the fire was an iron pot, boiling chaff and weeds and straw pickings for the cow. Their neighbours gave them the chaff. The cow was tethered on the bit of land which was eaten so bare that it had almost lost the colour of grass. The cow had calved a fortnight ago and gave them a little milk. I asked what he had done with the calf. He said he had killed it when it was three days old and given it among the neighbours who had helped to keep his cow as he wanted the milk to live on. The mud hut or hovel in which this man and his wife live is inconceivably wretched. One room with uneven mud floor, full of holes; peat fire in the middle on the floor, the smoke going out at the door; potatoes in one corner, the bed in another, a wood stool and two or three dishes and pans in another - all however, begrimed with peat smoke or covered with the dirt of the unswept mud floor. The old man was dressed in the coarse woollen cloth of the country, but was without shirt or linen. I thought this filth and wretchedness could not be surpassed, but I was mistaken. I went next to some huts on the hill side occupied by paupers on the roll, having no real means of subsistence whatever. I entered the cottage of Isabella Campbell who has a daughter subject to fits. The whole subsistence of the two besides begging is 8s a year from the Kirk Session. Another pauper Ann Mackie in a cottage adjoining has 2s 6d a year allowed and lives by begging. The cottages of some of these people were so utterly filthy and wretched and full of peat smoke that after being in two or three of them I was obliged to escape into the open air. These were paupers' cottages. This is the result of philosophical calculation clearances.
The Rev. Hugh McKenzie, the former minister of the parish, in his evidence before the commissioners says—"They used to eat no vegetables. They had a few spots of oats and bear, but they bought very little meal. Potatoes were only introduced when I was a child and now it is a general food." This was the food that made fine men and gallant soldiers. They are not however, now to be seen. The people now are a thin meagre, half-starved-looking and stunted race. The worst sign they exhibit however is their abject apathy. The fact is, they are starved down, and kept in such perpetual terror of losing their crofts, their only livelihood, that they are spirit-broken and hopeless. I saw a school of some 20 children today. I do not think in any by-alley in London in the most impure and confined atmosphere you could see 20 children with such pallid faces and thin half-fed forms as these poor children, living on a hillside facing the sea. Now what are the chief features of the population of this place? The total absence of a middle class—there is no middle class and a starving poor. It may fairly be asked, is not this a natural consequence of such a state of society. I think there can be no question of it. There is, close to the shore here, an exhaustless supply of fish—cod, ling, herrings, haddocks, lobsters. Smacks from London fish off the coast. The owners make money by it, or they would not do it. But the owners of these smacks are enterprising middle-class men who employ the poorer class. There is no middle class man here (in Tongue) to employ the poor. What is the result? There is not a single fishing boat at this place. The sheep farmers see it, and the minister sees it and the factor sees it, and they say "Look at these lazy people—clear them out." Why? What can they do? Did the lowest class of poor in England ever project and carry through any enterprise? And whoever doubts the industry—the proverbial industry—of Englishmen?
Scourie, Sutherland—Thursday, June 5 1845
EXTRACT—On leaving Tongue for Scowrie, a large ferry boat conveyed my horse and gig over the Kyle of Tongue, an arm of the sea of no great depth, but at the mouth of which there are quantities of what is termed gray-fish, cods, haddocks and ling. Tongue is one of the "fishing villages" but the fishing is confined to cockle gathering. From one end of the Kyle of Tongue to the other I did not see one single fishing boat.
"The Times" Tuesday May 27, 1845 article 5 of 10
Re: "The Times" article 7 of 10—Thursday June 26,
Mr Loch—On The Poor Of Sutherland.
EXTRACT—Mr James Loch, member of Parliament for the Wick Burghs has made a speech in the House of Commons on the condition of the poor in the county of Sutherland. It was a glowing eulogium on the prosperity produced by his management ... Mr Loch denies the statements of the commissioner of The Times etc—calling them "most amazing misstatements" etc .
Re: "The Times" article 8 of 10—Tuesday
July 1, 1845—The Desolation In Sutherland (From Our
The Desolation In Sutherland.
Helmsdale, Sutherlandshire June 21
EXTRACT—In my last letter from Wick I found it necessary to quote official returns and evidence given on oath before Her Majesty's Commissioners to rebut the cool assurance of Mr Lock in terming my description of the actual condition of the poor of Sutherland "amazing misstatements' the official documents which I quoted and which are accessible to everybody, sufficiently proved that every sentence of his speech in the house of Commons was directly contrary to fact etc ...
END OF EXTRACTS