Harray and Birsay, Orkney, 21 July 1883 - Rev David Johnston

Rev. DAVID JOHNSTON, Minister of Harray and Birsay (47)—examined.

24013. The Chairman.
—How long have you been settled here"?
—Since 1868.

24014. We may say fifteen years?

24015. Does your family belong to these islands?
—No, I belong to the south.

24016. To Dumfriesshire?
—I am a native of Durham, but my father belonged to Fifeshire.

24017. During the period that you have lived here you have had many opportunities of making yourself acquainted with the condition of different classes—you have the great peculiarity here, that you are minister of a parish which is almost entirely composed of small lairds and freeholders?
—That is so.

24018. Do you consider that is a happy and favourable condition of life?

24019. Do you consider that these small proprietors possess a greater share of satisfaction and welfare, in consequence of their being proprietors of their own lands?
—I do think so.

24020. You think that has a good effect upon their morals and intelligence?
—To a great extent it has.

24021. Does the possession of land, and freedom from the payment of rent, tend to make them careless and indifferent in their cultivation, or does it tend to stimulate their industry?
—To stimulate their industry. I saw a different state of matters in Unst. I was minister there for two or three years before I came here, and I contrasted the state of things in Harray and Unst.

24022. Do you think the superiority of the condition of the people of Harray may be referred in a considerable measure to the fact that the people are proprietors; or does it depend upon the difference of climate and soil— physical circumstances?
—To a great extent to their being proprietors, I should say; there is very little poverty. There is no resident pauper in Harray, and there would be no pauper at all, if it were not that one is south, at the asylum.

24023. You think they are proud of being proprietors'?
—Yes, an honourable pride.

24024. And that they are strongly attached to the soil and their own properties?

24025. During the last fifteen years have you seen a great improvement in the condition of the houses and the cultivation of the fields ?
—A great improvement in the houses, and I believe if we were to go back beyond fifteen years—say thirty years—we would observe a very decided improvement in the cultivation also; and the roads have largely contributed to it.

24026. Docs this class of proprietors intermarry with each other, generally, or do they seek their wives outside, from other places and other classes?
—They intermarry very much.

24027. So that it constitutes a separate self-contained community?
—There are many marriages in neighbouring parishes, because there are small proprietorships there, though not to the same extent —in Sandwick, Birsay, Stennis, and the neighbouring parishes.

24028. But they intermarry in their own order?

24029. Have you made any study of the origin of these families—have you any reason to know that some of them are extremely ancient in their holdings ?
—I believe there are a few udal tenures; but within the memory of the oldest inhabitants there has been a very extensive subdivision of the properties. There are persons living now who can remember when a large part of the parish was held by perhaps two or three, and these properties have been subdivided; perhaps one property may have been divided into six, or one property may have consisted of six or ten different farms, and the tenants bought them when they were for sale, or others bought them.

24030. The subdivision has been caused, not by distribution among
children, but by purchase?
—Generally by purchase, and a few cases of partitioning, but not many.

24031. But have many proprietors who have had large families been obliged to sell to provide for their children?
—No, I don't think so; in general those who sold were not resident in the parish.

24032. You don't think that there is anything to complain of in the way of subdivision by succession?
—No, not as a rule. There have been cases of subdivision. I know a comparatively small property in the parish that was subdivided very much; I think as many as six or seven of a family got a portion, but that is an exception.

24033. But, generally speaking, do you think when there are several members of a family, that there is any arrangement between the children on account of the land being all left to one, or going to one; or do they accept it as the natural order of things that they must go out and seek their fortunes?
—There is not often any arrangement. It sometimes happens that even a younger member of a family stays at home, and the others, I suppose, acquiesce in it as a reasonable arrangement that the younger member should succsed, when they have been put in circumstances for getting well on in life elsewhere. I know of some cases of, perhaps, ill-feeling from the way the land has been left, but not many.

24031. When the several members of a family go abroad to seek their fortunes, leaving one in possession of the soil, do those who go away retain an attachment to their native place, and sometimes come home or correspond with the remaining members ?
—I could name several cases where a man has gone away for several years—perhaps gone to sea, or
Australia, or some other place —and come back and purchased a property in the island.

24035. Do they send money back to their families sometimes ?
—Yes, they do.

24036. Professor Mackinnon.
—Comparing this parish with that of Unst, you are decidedly of opinion that the people are very much more comfortable in this place than they were in Unst when you were there ?

24037. And you attribute it in a great measure to the fact that they are in possession of their own land? —In a great measure, but of course, the land in Orkney is superior, and that has something to do with it.

24038. Do you think if the people of Unst had the land in their own hands, as the people of this parish have, they would be more comfortable than they were when you were there?
—There were a few, perhaps about twenty, similar to those here, and making allowance for the difference in climate and productiveness, they were about as comfortable as those in Harray.

24039. They were much more comfortable there than their neighbours, the small tenants in Unst?
—Of course, owing to the fact that they were proprietors, and not with reference to the way in which they manage.

24040. And had they in Unst the same feeling of honourable pride in being proprietors, which exists here ?
—Yes, they enjoy the position.

24041. And had they the tendency to restrict themselves in their matrimonial engagements to their own order?
—I can scarcely speak to that.

24042. There were too few of them, perhaps?

24043. But is there such a tendency perceptible in this parish ?
—Yes, there is in this parish.

24044. I suppose we understand it is not an absolute rule that they marry in their own order?
—No, a tenant may marry the daughter of a proprietor or conversely.

24015. There is a large number of very small properties in the parish of Harray ?
—I have a list of the proprietors in Harray, and the number given is 102, but in some cases there are two or three the same. I should think, however, the different proprietors must come to somewhere about ninety at any rate, but I cannot, at this moment, tell the exact number.

24046. Do you think that those down on the valuation roll under, say £5, are in a better position than if they were tenants of somewhat larger holdings ?
—Yes, I should say they are.

24047. What would be the value of the property where the owner of it would be as comfortable and as well off in all his ways as the tenant paying £30 ?
—That is not a very easy thing to give an estimate of, but I could conceive that a proprietor of property worth £15 or £20 a year, would be as well off as a tenant at £30.

24048. The tenant would require to pay about twice as much of rent, as it were, as the rateable value of the proprietor's holding, in order to be equally comfortable ?
—Well, perhaps, there may be a difference of from a half to a third; but I cannot guarantee that answer on that point.

24049. Are the people better educated than the people in your old parish of Unst ?
—I am at a loss to say; I think in both parishes they are very well educated; I do not think there is a great difference.

24050. They are well educated in both parishes ?

24051. Is the education as high under the present arrangement as it was under the old parochial school arrangement?
—I preferred the old school arrangement; I was not one of those who thought the Education Act was a decided advantage to the parishes, but I think the education given in the public schools is very good. I have a very decided opinion as to the drawback connected with the system of uniting parishes, where two parishes are tied together as one. I think that has greatly hindered Harray and Birsay. Each should have a School Board of its own.

24052. Is the education given sufficient to enable members of a family to push their way in the world elsewhere ?
—Many have pushed their way elsewhere from that education. I believe in several instances boys or girls who have got a little advanced may go to Kirkwall or Stromness for the completion of their education. But many have got on, and got on honourably, in the south, with the education which they got in these parishes.

24053. But those who wish to prosecute a higher education can go to Kirkwall or Stromness to finish off?

24054. There are very good schools in these places ?

24055. Especially in Kirkwall ?
—And I believe in Stromness, too.

24056. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Did I understand you to say that there is only one pauper from Harray on the roll ?
—Only one, and that one is a pauper because he is in the asylum.

24057. From what class does that lunatic pauper come—from that of the proprietors or tenants or cottars?
—I think his father was a proprietor, and he has relatives who are proprietors.

24058. He comes from that class ?

24059. What may be the population of the parish of Harray?
—Somewhere between 700 and 800, not including Birsay.

24060. I suppose there is no such thing in Scotland as only one pauper a parish?
—Certainly it is not a very common thing.

24061. I suppose the whole of the people don't belong to the Established Church ?

24062. Is there a fair proportion?
—There is; I don't know the attendance elsewhere, but I think that other denominations have, on the whole, more than the parish church. But still there is a fair proportion.

24063. Such being the case, do you find much difficulty in the payment of your stipend—in recovering it?
—No, I don't at all. I find no difficulty in that respect in Harray. There may be one or two exceptions
over the whole of Harray and Birsay, but I don't complain of that.

24064. You find no dissatisfaction or reluctance to pay the proportion of stipend money among those in Harray who are not members of your congregation?
—Certainly not—not in Harray.

24065. And you have to collect from nearly one hundred, including Birsay ?
—I have to collect from about 150; some of them very small sums, if I chose to exact them.

24066. Mr Cameron.
—Do you know anything about the crofters in the parish of Birsay ?
—I know some of them.

24067. Have you any information respecting their condition which you wish to give us ?
—I think, as a general rule, they are very well off.

24068. Do you think their rents are satisfactory? have you heard any complaints about that ?
—No, I do not hear much complaint

24069. Are they a small class of crofters, or do they pay, for crofters, good rents?
—They vary. There are not many large farms in Birsay; Lord Zetland's farms are generally smaller farms.

24070. Are they what may be called medium-sized farms?
—I would say they are small farms.

24071. Not small crofts?
—No, I would not say they are called crofters; I would not call them crofters, but small farmers.

24072. What is the lowest rent?
—£6 to £ 15 or £ 20; but of course there are farms above that.

24073. £ 6 is about the lowest?
—There may be some as low as £ 3.

24074. In point of fact, then, there are all sizes?

24075. Are they tolerably comfortable well to-do people?
—There is more poverty than in Harray, but on the whole, they are fairly comfortable.

24076. Is the land equally good in Birsay as in Harray?
—Yes. Perhaps better in some parts; the crops are sooner ready. I had once the whole of Harray and Birsay —they were united in one parish under one minister.

24077. You have not that now?
—Not the whole of Birsay, but I had once.

24078. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie.
—You were asked about the character of the agriculture, and you compared it with the character of the agriculture in Unst. But comparing the agriculture of the proprietors here with that of the tenant farmers in Birsay how would you say it stands?
—Much the same between here and Birsay, only there are some larger farms in Birsay than in Harray.

24079. On these larger farms is the agriculture of a higher order ?
—Fully, I should say. There are the farms of Boodhouse and Swanie conducted on a higher scale than the generality of farms.

24080. Is the stock a better kind of stock?
—No, I don't think so.

24081. You think the proprietors in this parish have as good stock as the tenants and large farmers in the neighbouring parish?
—I think so.

24082. Stock which brings as high prices in the market?
—I think so, but I do not know much about that.

24083. Is the cultivation here as good as in the neighbouring parish of
—Yes, and immensely improved within the memory of the oldest inhabitants; it was very poor before.

24084. The Chairman.
—Do you desire to make a statement about the evils attached to united parishes?
—I should like, if that point is within the competency of the Commission, to call attention to it. So far as I can understand, the parishes were united long ago, simply because there were not enough people in each parish to support a minister. That was a purely ecclesiastical matter, but it has brought very inconvenient civil consequences along with it. I suppose any remarks I make are not to be limited to Harray and Birsay. I could mention islands where one has quite an independent interest from another, and where it is forced into connection with the other, so that it must be under the same School Board and the same Parochial Board. I could name the island of Flotta, which is connected with the island of Walls, and which, at present, has no representative in the School Board. I believe it pays school rates to Walls, and gets no rate back; and I know of other cases in Orkney and in Shetland of the same nature, where islaud parishes are tied together in a way that is very inconvenient. I see no reason why Harray and Birsay should be tied together in the way they are; and I believe many of the people think the same thing. I have often wished to suggest in the proper quarter that it should, at any rate, be competent in the case of united parishes, where one of the parishes can show reasons for being disunited, that it should be so. For instance, a bill at the door there quotes an Act of Parliament, and the way in which the thing is done is often in the interpretation clause—in the Education Act of 1872 it is the tenth section which provides for it—which states that the word ' parish' includes united parish; and however strong a reason may be offered why an island such as Flotta or North Ronaldshay should have a separate Parochial Board or School Board, it is still bound to another. In the island of Bressay they are compelled to be in union with a part of the mainland of Shetland and with an island on the other side of the mainland of Shetland, merely because the old arrangement has been adhered to. Now, in almost every other old arrangement, when that arrangement is inconvenient, legislation provides a remedy, but it has not been so in this instance.

24085. There ought to be discretionary power to disunite united parishes, where their civil interests render it desirable ?
—Yes, perhaps by petition to the sheriff, or some other way.

24086. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—I am afraid the sheriff is not strong enough to do it. Is there not a process in the Court of Sessiou for that?
—Ecclesiastically, but not civilly.

24087. You don't mean to say that there should be half a dozen separate boards and jurisdictions in one parish. You mean to disunite and reconstitute the parish which once was a parish?
—Yes, where there was sufficient reason for it; and that every Act of Parliament referring to Scotland should not tie down all future parishes in that way to be together. I am afraid it would require an Act of Parliament to disunite them—it would need legislation.

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