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Joseph MacLeod - The Rights of the People

Edited by Joseph's great-grandson, Peter Lawrie, ©2019
This undated article appeared in the Peoples Journal

Rights of the People

Oppression by Landlords

by Ex-County Councillor Joseph MacLeod, Sutherlandshire

To begin with, allow me to say that we land reformers in the Highlands owe the "People's Journal" a deep debt of gratitude for the great prominence it has given at all time to the question of the land, as well as other social reforms which are awaiting solution. No one can estimate the value of its columns more than I personally do. I have read it from boyhood, and from my wide knowledge of the Highland counties I can testify to the the valuable and educative influence which for the last twenty years it has imparted to the people of the Highlands. As for the crofter population, it is their constant companion. In a large portion of these glens no other paper is to be found but itself, and for this reason alone I greatly rejoice to see that its columns are to be devoted to a series of articles on the land and other social questions, when at no other time since the "Battle of the Braes" were these questions more eagerly discussed than at the present time. I am exceedingly glad that this is so, as for a considerable time after the passing of the Crofters Act, a good deal of apathy set in, no doubt largely due to the estimable boom secured by the fixity of tenure, which the Crofters Act conferred upon those coming under its scope.

Terror of the Old Days
The terror under which the people lived before this period was one of unquestionable misery; and how could it be otherwise when for one reason and another which had no foundation in fact, they were open to removal at any moment by the landlord and his underlings, and that from the homes and lands which they themselves created from the bleak and boggy moor, during which period they had been subjected to great hardship, while many were deprived of these without any compensation for the labour and money expended on the holdings? Such, then, was the cause of putting to rest much of the vigorous agitation which was so much in evidence before and after the Lord Napier Commission, which commission was the first step towards effecting a rectification of the wrongs under which they laboured. Yet although fixity of tenure had afforded a large measure of relief and contentment, the people never lost sight of the necessity of additional land, which was the real cause of the dicontent which existed. The excessive rents charged on the people's own reclamations and improvements were a source of great injustice, but the holding of the land for sport and such like was the real cause of the widespread discontent.

Scope of the Act
It might not be out of place for me to say here that the Highland crofter has done more than any other class to bring the subject of our unjust land laws to the prominent position it occupies today. The instalment of justice - the earnest of victory - they have won in the Crofters Act encourages them to persevere in a work of beneficence, which will add greater lustre to the Celtic name than all their prowess in war. And yet we cannot forget the regrettable fact that only some 20,000 crofters came within the scope of the Act, while some 30,000 have been excluded from its benefits, because "forsooth", they were under lease, and, as was contended at the time by the landlords and their friends, the inclusion of this section under the Act would be a breach of contract; and so these have been all those years subject to landlord conditions, although they were identical with the former in every respect. They reclaimed their land and created homesteads for themselves in the same way as those who happened to be tenants at will at the passing of the Crofters Act.

Impossible Leases
The extent to which land monopoly existed in the Highlands was accountable for all this condition of things. Every man was anxious to procure shelter and means of subsistence for his family, and the powers that were took advantage of the people in their dire necessity, and got them to sign impossible leases. They were practically forced to "make bricks without straw". As a proof of this we have many of these leaseholders today on many estates compelled to surrender to the landlords and trustees the value of their permanent improvements executed on the holdings so as to meet the arrears of rent which have accumulated year after year through no fault of the leaseholder, but because of the exorbitant rents charged for their holdings. Indeed, within the last year or two, several of these were evicted because they would not comply with the oppressive and impossible conditions attached to the renewal of those leases, and have been accordingly deprived of all that was expended on those holdings by themselves and their predecessors, while on the other hand, if these had the benefits of the Crofters Act, they would have had the right to compensation and security of tenure. This is a most deserving class which, I am hopeful, will be brought within the extended Land Bill, and I hope to see produced within a few weeks.

[Note by PJL - I believe this paragraph helps date Joseph's article to around 1911, as the Small Landholders (Scotland) Act 1911 extended the 1886 Act to the whole of Scotland and replaced the Crofting Commission with the Land Court. All agricultural tenants in Scotland who were already crofters or whose holdings on 1st April 1912 did not exceed 50 in rent or 50 acres in extent and who were resident on or within two miles of their holdings became landholders. ]

A Glaring Case
It is a notorious fact that many of those leaseholders who have been paying 6 per cent per annum for material supplied after it has been paid for three times over its original value, not to mention the fact that the said material has been replaced years ago, as it was completely useless. One very prominent case occurs vividly to me while writing, where the crofter was supplied by the estate with what is so well known as the "Caithness" slates which were at one time very much in use in the Highlands for roofing purposes, and which were purchased at a cheaper price than those in use today. Well, after a period of years these slates were rather heavy for the wood to bear, and consequentlly they had to be removed to prevent the roof giving way and killing the crofter and those who resided with him. Now although these slates are piled at the back of the crofter's house, still the interest continues to be charged, and this is only one among a multitude of such anomalies I could picture, but the foregoing must suffice for the present; while always boasting that "Britons shall never be slaves" we have permitted the landlords to filch our liberties and inherent rights from us.

National Inheritance
The land is the greatest inheritance of the nation, and the just and equitable management of that inheritance on behalf of the community is the first duty of Government. It is a duty that has been almost wholly neglected, and millions of people are today without lot or portion in that inheritance for which their fathers fought and bled and died, while those who toil not have obtained exclusive possession and absolute control of the national inheritance.

One cannot feel but impressed with the need for a speedy settlement of the land question when so many are eagerly waiting for the power to secure the creation of new homes, where our robust and healthy youth woukd find scope for their energies other than seeking a miserable pittance in the large towns where already much distress is rampant. I hope, in any settlement of this great land question, it will be always born in mind that the Crofters Act recognised the inherent and historic rights of the people to their native soil. The plea of some in favour of land purchase would deprive them of these rights, and would, if adopted, acknowledge the landlord as the rightful owner. I hope to be able to deal at another time with this phase of the question, as well as the necessary amendments to the Crofters Act, which would put the people in a position of comfort and prosperity, and yet the landlords would realise more for their estates than they presently do from deer and sport.

The Coming Reckoning
The security of tenure obtained under the Crofters Act is as secure as proprietorship. In Uist, where the purchase scheme was carried out, the proprietor, Sir Arthur Orde, agreed to give the land to admit the tenants under the Crofters Act, and to have the rent fixed by the Crofters Commission. Now if other landlords would do likewise, the settlers could very well start with less than a tenth of the obligations on their backs, and would be absolutely certain to succeed. The many exponents of land purchase overlook the fact that land reformers have by their continuous agitation convinced the world that the Highland Clearances were a mistake and a crime. The landlords now foreseeing what is coming on are anxious to clear out, knowing that every day the hour of reckoning is coming nearer.

It is now a question with them how much they can get. They well know that every day they delay the less they will get, and it must be kept in mind that for all practical purposes the land and the price of the land are to the landlord now the same thing. The extension of the franchise and the Crofters Act has taken away part of the control which the ownership before that gave to the landlords over the lives and destinies of the people. Parliament has taken away that power from them. Now, therefore there is nothing but the rent, the money value, and that is rapidly falling, so the landlord's idea is to run away from the position his misdeeds in the past have made, and yet to have the full price in his pocket, and to leave the descendants of the already wronged people in the lurch with all this money to pay for getting back what belonged to their fathers before them, and for which they were never paid.

The Purchase Scheme I am certain no well-wisher of our Highland people would like to see a land purchase scheme begun with conditions which would eventually end in failure. The tenant has to pay interest on the purchase price at nothing less than 3.5 per cent, instalments of repayment of principal, outlays on buildings, fences, drains, roads, stock, &c., together, remember, with double rates, while under the Crofters Act the people would be as secure as if they became their own proprietor, and yet the purchase money would be saved and also the double rates would be avoided, and the teinds for the upkeep of the church as well, for on becoming proprietor of a holding this burden of the teinds also falls on the crofter, as can be seen in the case of the Strathnaver crofters, which demand sheets I had the privilege and curiosity of looking into last year when visiting that memorable strath.

Compulsory Powers Wanted
If under the Crofters Act things did not turn out well, the Crofters Commission would, of course, reduce the rent, while purchasers who fall into arrears could not expect the same consideration and sympathy, and indeed would be sure not to receive it at the hands of the Treasury, while in the case of crofters under the Crofters Act they can demand readjustment from time to time. I often fear the eager desire to have the land will make the people not look at the terms on which it may be offered, but that thoughtlessly they will undertake obligations and responsibilities which they cannot carry through. Surely if the people have waited for 90 years or more for restoration of the land, they should not rush into conditions of purchase many of which have already well nigh failed because of the exorbitant price charged, and which have placed a burden on the crofters which is yearly crushing them down with no bright future before them other than leave all, making their latter state worse than their first, having in the case of some to seek pastures new. The united tale of those who are now working under the purchase scheme "is that the lines have not fallen to them in pleasant places", all of whom, let me say, are capable agriculturalists and able-bodied workers. My contention, therefore, is that compulsory power to acquire land at a fair rent, with security of tenure and compensation for improvements conferred under the Crofters Act, the size of the holding to be sufficient to maintain the crofter and his family with a degree of comfort, is in my opinion the best and real solution of the land settlement.

Not to be Trifled with
In view of the promised land legislation by the Government, one often hears much about the landlords rights being confiscated under compulsory powers; but why all this cry? I personally can never look at the existence of landlordism from any other than an historical point of view, namely, that they possessed the lands on conditions that they fulfilled certain obligations, which obligations, never let it be forgotten, have been removed to the shoulders of the people, and yet landlordism enjoys the same benefits as when these conditions were carried out. Where, then, does confiscation come in? It is all the other way about. They reap where they have not sown. But let me say that the land question in the Highlands cannot any longer be trifled with, and the present Liberal Goverment knows this full well, and intend to deal effectually with it at the earliest possible moment. Indeed the mind and conscience of the nation will not much longer consent to have things remain as they are. Landowners must be compelled to supply suitable land at a fair rent, in quantity sufficient to enable a family by honest industry to acquire a comfortable livelihood. Of course, it is asserted by those who prefer sport to human beings that the people are not able to take the land even if they got it. Is it any wonder if such be the case? These good people who passed the greater part of their lives in the enjoyment of abundance, and in the exercise of hospitality and charity, possessing stocks of 10, 20 and 30 breeding cows, with the usual proportion of other stock, are now pining on one or two acres of the bleakest land, with one or two starved cows, and for this accommodation a calculation is made that they must support their family and pay the rent of their lots, not, mind you, from the produce, but from the sea.

Men Better than Sheep
No wonder therefore if their financial position is inadequate to the stocking of new and larger holdings, when landlord oppression and tyranny drove the people from their possessions, where abundance was theirs, into destitution and exile. Now that this state of matters has been brought about by the Principalities and Powers that were, it is surely not an unreasonable proceeding that the Government should come forward and aid the people in retaking the land. The Highlands at present are represented by men to whom they can look for support and sympathy with their grievances and who can properly and persistently represent them in Parliament, along with the fact that the country has discovered beyond any question that the people are in earnest and mean to look after themselves. The people are now beginning to find a new meaning in the old question: "Is not a man better than a sheep?".