Sanday, Orkney, 20 July 1883 - Walter Traill Denison

WALTER TRAILL DENISON, Farmer, West Park, Cross (53)—examined.

23393. Mr Cameron.
—We shall be glad to hear any remarks you may wish to make?
—I should say I came here entirely unprepared to make any statement, or I should have been better able to answer any questions which may be put to me. At the same time I don't think the Commissioners have had properly represented to them the state and working of things in former times, so that you can hardly judge of their present condition. From all the evidence you have heard, to day I don't think you have got a proper account of how matters stood say eighty years ago, when the improvement in agriculture began; and that must be taken into account, I think, before you can judge of the conduct of proprietors.

23394. Where is your farm?
—In Cross parish.

23395. What is the size of it?
—Some where about 300 acres.

23396. Is it an arable farm entirely or part pasture and part arable?
—Mixed—grain and cattle.

23397. Is it worked on the five-shift rotation?

23398. What breed of cattle do you keep 1
—Crosses or shorthorn or the old Orkney breed.

23399. How long have you been on the farm?
—Since 1851.

23400. You are a native of this island?
—I am.

23401. And you are well acquainted with the circumstances of the people, both the large and the small farmers?
—I don't know. I am pretty well acquainted with the old system, because from my antiquarian tastes I have given a good deal of attention to the old system in Orkney.

23402. I have no doubt what you could tell us would be very interesting?
—Yes, but that would take too long time.

23403. But the work the Commission has to do is more connected with the present system?
—Yes, but before you can judge of the conduct of proprietors in dealing with crofters, you would require to know something of what they had to do. I don't wish to force it upon you.

23404. As you have been here resident in the island, occupying a large farm since 1851, I am sure you are able and willing to give us what information you have relating to the present system of affairs?
—Yes, I don't believe there is living a man more anxious than I am for the welfare of the Orcadians.

23405. You have been present at our meeting to-day and have heard the evidence given by the delegates of the crofters?
—I have.

23406. Does it occur to you to make any remark, which may arise spontaneously, upon the evidence?
—One remark shocked me very much, but it was more a personal matter, and that was what was said about Dr Traill. It was stated that his conduct was tyrannical, and that I cannot believe from the nature of the man. He is well known as a most mild and generous man by all who know him; and the remark which was made struck me as being the most ridiculous thing I heard. I don't wish to go over the whole of the things that were said.

23407. With regard to the rents of the crofts and the comparisons that have beeu established between the rents paid by the crofters and the rents paid by the large farmers, is it your opinion that the crofters pay as high or higher or lower rents than large farmers do?
—If you will allow me to confine myself to my own district I will gave you facts. My brother and I took the farm of West Burgh in 1851 at £160, and all the land at that time was in a state of cottarage. I don't think you understand that. Colonel Balfour was anxious to improve the labouring classes, and arranged so that they rented from himself instead of holding from the tenant, except in the case of three cottars on our farm. Our land was rented in 1851, and so was that of all the crofters, and their rents where there has been no vacancy and where they have not offered higher rents themselves, are all now what they were then while our rent has been increased from £160 to £220.

23408. So that while your rent has increased from £160 to £220, the rent of the crofters in your immediate neighbourhood has remained stationary?
—Yes, except on those crofts which may have become vacant and the crofters offered a rise themselves.

23409. That is, with the exception of those cases where there were changes in the holdings?
—Yes ; others have remained as they were in 1851.

23410. Have you observed any improvement in the system of agriculture adopted by the crofters in your neighbourhood?
—Most assuredly; and that is one great argument in favour of large farms, that mostly all the improvements have been and will be introduced by large farmers; for instance, the breed of cattle could not have been improved unless by the introduction of shorthorn bulls by the proprietors or large farmers.

23411. The improvement you have noticed in the system of agriculture pursued by the crofters, was, in a great measure, owing to the example given them by large farmers and by the assistance offered to them in improving the breed of cattle?
—Yes. Of course they pay for any assistance they get in that way, but I think the example of the large farmers has done a great deal.

23412. Did they do nothing more than show an example?—Did they give any assistance in the shape of an improved breed of bulls?
—The system I have is that the crofters pay for that.

23413. But they have derived some advantage from the improved breed of cattle introduced by large farmers?
—Most assuredly they have.

23414. In regard to the mode of cultivating their land do you notice any improvement among the crofters since 1851?
—Yes. When we came to our farm in 1851 there were two acres of turnips on it, and I don't know if the crofters—I don't remember —had more than you could plant in a patch in a garden, and now they all have a regular proportion of turnip crop to feed their cattle during winter. They sell some of their cattle, year olds and two-year olds. On our farm we have on an average 40 acres of turnip.

23415. The crofter's holdings are all enclosed by fences?-
— Yes.

23416. Their arable land?

23417. Their pasture land is not enclosed?

23418. We heard that the boundaries of the pasture land were marked off by stones or marks of some kind and not by fences?
—Not by fences.

23419. Is that the cause of any disagreement amongst them?
—Not that I am aware of, because they all tether their cattle. The crofters in my district have also a small park which they rent, but I think they generally tether in it as well.

23420. Do the crofters in your district keep any sheep?
—I think so, but not a large number.

23421. What breed are they?
—Crosses with Leicester and Cheviot, and then they are crossed in and in; perhaps a shepherd would not say that was the proper word.

23422. They work their land on the five-shift rotation?
—Generally they do. Some of us work on the six-shift where there is a large supply of sea-weed, which enables us to take two crops of grass.

23423. With regard to the cottar system, you have heard the evidence given by one of the more recent witnesses that the cottars object to holding land under a large tenant rather than under the landlord, and being compelled to work for the tenant at a fixed rate of wages; does that go on at all in your neighbourhood?
—Oh; Yes.

23424. What is your opinion about it?
—I don't see how the large farms could be well wrought without labourers. The history of that with regard to our farm is this; there are ten or eleven crofters and they were obliged to work to us when we wanted a hand on the large farm; but an they have improved in circumstances and the price of cattle has risen they have nearly all refused to work and we have not enforced it. In 1851 when we came to the place they were all anxious for the work. I have only enforced the work in the case of three who are cottars on my own farm. I distinguish those who hold from the tenant as cottar, and those who hold from the landlord as crofters.

23425. What did you do for labour when these crofters refused to work?
—Did without them, and fell back on my own three. I did not enforce it on them so strictly at first, but when the others refused I fell back on them.

23426. Do you think if the cottars were to hold directly from the landlord without any restriction as to labour, that the farmer and cottar would be able to arrive at a satisfactory understanding between themselves as to the labour and the price to be paid for it ?
—I don't think so, because if the cottar was well off and getting good prices he would refuse to work at a reasonable wage; that is my opinion.

23427. But where else could he get work ?
—He would not need to work if he succeeded other ways.

23428. Are the crofts sufficiently large to maintain a family without anything else ?
—I think most of them are.

23429. What size of crofts are they about you ?
—I really could not say.

23430. What rents do they pay ?
—Some of them £4, but I could not say exactly. Some of them are under £4.

23431. But a crofter could not maintain himself on a croft of that size ?
—That depends on the quantity and quality of the land.

23432. But the land which he could probably occupy for so small a rent, unless it was a very low rent, would hardly enable him to support himself?
—- It Is a very invidious thing to say in a public place; it is regarded a most unneighbourly thing to say your neighbour's land is cheap.

23433. But if a crofter held direct from the landlord, would he not be compelled by force of circumstances to work somewhere? and in that case where would he find work except that of the large tenant who is his neighbour?
—It is a very difficult thing to deal with. I wish there was some other system, for I detest the idea of a man working for me when he is not willing to do it. But weather favourable for working on the large farm is favourable to the crofter. The three cottars on my farm I took on the express understanding that they should work for me —I told them the whole thing—and there is only one of them who has ever quarrelled about it. I threatened to rent him higher, and we had some talk about it. I always said to him. ' Put yourself in my position and see what you would do.'

23434. What did he say to that?
—He did not say what he would do.

23435. Did he decline to put himself in your position?
—He did not say much as far as I remember.

23436. Taking the good side and the bad side of it, what is the impression you have of this system of cottar holdings with forced labour?
—I don't see how the large farmers could get on without it. I cannot imagine how Housebay, for instance, could be worked without labourers being obliged to give work to the farmer.

23437. Is it the custom all over the islands to work in that way?
—I think it is pretty generally the custom.

23438. But not universal?
—Not universal.

23439. Do you know how they manage in those parts where it is not the custom?
—They get through somehow, but I think it must be difficult. Colonel Balfour's crofters in the south part of the parish are not bound to work.

23440. And how do the large tenants get on there?
—I suppose they get on as best they can, but with difficulty I should think.

23441 What is the poor-rate in your parish?
—About Is. 2d. including school rate for the tenant; or it may be Id. more or less.

23442. Does that include the road rate?
—No, the road rate was Is in the £ 1.

23443. And the other two Is. 2d. or Is. 3d?
—Is. 2d. I think, the tenant's share of it, and the people the same, of course.

23444. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Are you a native of Orkney?
—I am.

23445. Do your family belong to it?
—They do.

23446. For a long time?
—I think they came in the 16th century—at least that is the tradition—from Fifeshire.

23447. Do you hold any land of your own?
—None; I have no land right or interest except the farm I hold.

23448. Are you surprised that these cottars and small people who are obliged to give this labour are dissatisfied?
—I don't know exactly how to answer. I am not very much surprised, it is just human nature, I suppose.

23449. You said to one of the cottars to put himself in your place; I want you to put yourself in his place. Would you be pleased with this state of matters?
—It is the bargain I made. I told the men these were the rules, and he was very glad to get the place, and I would hold that as an honest man he was bound to implement his bargain.

23450. You said that you were not able to get labour elsewhere, and were bound to fall back upon your own three cottars?

23451. Are you very strict on these three people in the number of days?
—One of them thinks so. I don't know that I am very hard. I could not tell you the number of days I employ them in the year; I have never looked into that.

23452. Do you think it is a good system, or can be good, in these modern days when everybody should bring his labour to the dearest market, and that is perfectly understood all over the country, that there should exist a system whereby it is necessary to prop it up artificially in this form ?
—I think it is bad, if we could only find a better. It is a most unpleasant thing to me to ask a man to work who is not willing to do it. But the man who complains was very glad to take the house at the rent he is paying, and but for the work I would get more rent for the cothouse.

23453. Could you get on at all on the farm without this labour, paying a smaller rent ?
—It would be a very difficult thing, especially in the most important time when the turnips have to be thinned —very difficult indeed.

23454. You cannot give me a direct answer ?
—No, because I have never tried it; I don't know. I have no permanent hirers but girls or boys to work at the turnips, unless these cottars.

23455. Unless the proprietor made it compulsory on the small crofters and cottars to give this labour, would the farmer get the labour ?
—I don't think so; I cannot get it.

23456. What is it that makes these small people agree to this onerous condition, to give this labour?
—The desire to have a holding and some land.

23457. It is not to some extent trading upon the wishes and desires of the people to remain in the place where they have been brought up ?
—Very likely.

23458. It is something like a case where their poverty but not their will consents ?
—Very often probably.

23459. Have you ever been able to solve this difficult question of landlord and tenant in a satisfactory manner?
—Except for that one thing of asking people to work who don't want to do it, looking to the whole of Orkney, I don't know a time —and I am pretty certain I know about as much about their affairs as most people do —when labouring people in the country were better off than they are at the present moment. A class for whom I feel, and whose case has not been stated before, is the ploughmen.

23460. Will you state briefly what you wish to say about them ?
—I will tell you what I wish. I wish the proprietors would make it a rule, that whenever there was a croft and house vacant on the estate, the ploughman who had been longest on the property should get the croft. It would be an inducement to the ploughman to take care and lay by something of his wages for an expected croft which he might some time get; whereas now they have no inducement to save, and are apt to be careless in their habits, owing to having no hope of rising.

23461. It is not a common thing for a ploughman to save a little money and take a croft ?
—In some cases it is.

23462. But no such inducement has been held out by proprietors ?
—I don't think it has ever been published as a rule on any estate that I am acquainted with, and that is what I should like it to be. I think it would do a great deal of good to that class.

23463. And a ploughman who has been upon a big farm, is a very likely man to improve a small croft if he got it ?
—I should say so, whereas now he has no inducement and no hope before him of rising out of his own class. He must labour hard ten hours a day, and when he becomes an old man there is very little hope for him.

23464. Except to fall upon the poors-roll?

23465. The training and habits of such a man are just such as would be very important upon a croft?
—I should say the very best.

23466. Have you heard any of them yourself express an opinion upon the subject?
—I dare say in the course of casual conversation I have, but I had no power to do anything.

23467. But your conversation with them led you to believe that they would very much like such a thing ?
—I have no doubt they would. It might be rarely they would get such a chance, but the hope of it would have a most beneficial effect upon them and their families.

23468. Is the whole of this island, or nearly as much of it as can be reclaimed, already taken in ?
—I think the greater part of it. There is a large tract of capital land in the south end given to a lot of crofters by Colonel Balfour for nothing, the ostensible reason being for drying kelp; and I don't see why the delegates don't tell the good side as well as the bad side.

23469. Have we had any delegates from that locality?

23470. What is the district?
—The south end of the island, on Colonel Balfour's property. His crofters have there, I think, from 15 to 25 acres of land for which they pay no rent at all.

23471. Not even Is.?
—I believe not.

23472. How long have they had it ? Did they get it upon an improving lease ?
—I don't think they have any lease.

23473. Would it not be better to give them an improving lease ?
—I think so, decidedly. But when Colonel Balfour came to the property in 1840, it was all lying in the old system, cots lying here and there and everywhere, all through the farm, and no enclosures. He wished to improve his property and he squared off the farms and freed the cottars from the old system of working. They talk about hardships now, they little know what their fathers did. I know a farm where they had to rise in the winter mornings and thresh the whole day, and their wages were nothing —all paid in kind. Colonel Balfour did away with all that system, and some of the crofters who are now complaining thought it was the best thing that could be done for them. Some of them I believe were shifted to poorer ground; some of them have capital land. I am acquainted with crofters on Colonel Balfour's estate —whose crofts if they were put into the market, would bring at once a third more than the rent they are paying.

23474. Is not the reason for that, not that the croft really could afford that rent but that there is a demand for a small quantity of ground?
—Some of them could afford it, and some of them, where the people have offered so much themselves, are rented at full value, I think.

23475. The Chairman.
—Reasoning from your own personal observations and your researches into the history of the past, do you think the labouring classes in this island now, are better off all round than they have ever been at any period ?
—Most assuredly they are; there never was a time when Orcadians were better clad, better fed or better housed. If you were only to go 400 yards with me, I could show you a sample of the old houses; and if you had time to go through the island I could show you an old and a new house in juxtaposition, so that you could compare them. And the people know all that perfectly well. A labouring man formerly had no such thing as a leather boot or shoe, only rivellings, and they walked through wet and dry with these. I have heard them tell their hardships and they were enough to make one sick.

23476. Do you think the working hours of the labouring classes are now shorter and easier than they were in former times?
—Yes. Now they work the regular ten hours; then they had to rise—I don't say it was universal—but in winter, I know they rose in one place at four o'clock and wrought in a hot barn threshing, and an overseer was present to see that the threshing was well done. They then went home and took breakfast, and when it was light, they had to go back to the farm and work as long as it was daylight, which was a little after three o'clock.

23477. What were a ploughman's wages in 1851?
—£3, 10s. and £3, 15s. was what we paid; and we had a barn man--that is a man to superintend in the barn, and he got £4, which was considered the highest wages at the time.

23478. £4 in money?
—Yes, in the six months, and 4 stones of meal in the month, and a pint of new milk.

23479. Had he any cow's grass?

23480. But take the case of a married ploughman?
—The first man we had, had £8. I cannot tell when that was, but I think it was sometime in 1856.

23481. House rent free?
—House rent free, which they count for nothing at all.

23482. How much milk?
—A pint milk per diem.

23483. What potatoes?
—It was so much setting—60 chains as a rule—and he provided the seed himself.

23484. How many bolls of meal?
—Half a boll a month—6 bolls in the year; and two tons of coals a year.

23485. Do you think that is all?
—I think so.

23486. What does he get at this moment?
—I give you an average; I pay on an average £19, 10s. in money.

23487. And a house rent free?

23488. Is it a better house, or the same?
—The same. Of course I keep the houses in repair, at least I should do it.

23489. How much milk?
—The same —a pint.

23490. How many potatoes?
—The same of potatoes.

23491. And the same number of bolls of meal and the same quantity of coals?

23492. Then the advantage is that the money wage has been more than doubled ?

23493. From £8 to £19, 10s.?
—With me that is so.

23494. So that he gets £11, 10s. more than he did in money. Are the expenses of a labouring man's life much increased? are the commodities he uses much dearer than they were in 1856?
—I don't think so. During the time of the American war cotton was much up in price; but otherwise,
I don't think the commodities were dearer. I am not aware of anything that has risen in value.
[See Appendix A, LIX]

23495. Is the daily pint of milk imperial measure or what?
—The Scotch pint.

23496. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—It was you who told Mr Brims about bowmen?
—That is my idea of the derivation of the word. But I should tell you that a much greater authority, Hill Burton, derived it from the old Scotch word boll. But we had in Orkney, in old times what they called oncalls as well, which was a different kind of service, Bowmen were exactly the same as old ploughmen. In 1706 the bowmen's wages were ten pounds Scots, and half a cow's hide for what we call shodding instead of boots or shoes, and meal and bere. The oncalls were men at the call of the farmer or proprietor. At that time proprietors in Orkney lived very much on their properties, and the system of oncalls was continued till the present century, and the oncalls had to come when there was extra work at the farm, such as taking in a stack. There was no such thing then as carting in a stack; they had all to be brought in on people's backs. And if there was any extra push in taking up sea-weed, and additional hands were required, oncalls would be called in.

23497. The Chairman.
—If there is any information you would like to give as to the ancient state of the county you would oblige us by giving it us by letter?
—If I had had time I would have done it before.

23498. But you might still do it and send it to us?
—I am sure I am most anxious for the benefit of my county; I am proud of my county. I don't know any county in Great Britain which has improved so much as Orkney has within the last fifty years. I am proud to see such a church as we are now assembled in, although I do not belong to the denomination.

23499. Was this church built by local subscription?
—Mostly; I think so at least. I know four-fifths of the congregation are crofters and farm servants; and it shows that the people are willing to pay for their principles.

23500. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—And pay for the land too if they could get it ?

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