[Now we come to the most important events in the history of Rousay. The island underwent a transition from a 'peasant economy' to what was essentially the modern system of farming. The proprietor of the estate had the reputation of being the worst of the Orkney lairds and change was particularly traumatic with crofters and cottars the victims of ruthless improvement. Conflict came with the visit of the Royal Commission whose findings were to lead to the Crofters Act. General Burroughs evicted those tenants who gave evidence to the Commission, and with tensions running high a gunboat was sent to the island to keep the peace. Burroughs would have driven every crofter from his estate had not the Crofters Act prevented him but the crofters challenged the laird’s right to control the social and economic life of Rousay.
What follows is very detailed and drawn out, and there is a great deal of reading from the columns of solid newspaper text.......]
1883 July 24 Glasgow Herald
THE CROFTERS’ COMMISSION. MEETING AT KIRKWALL. (From our special correspondent.) Kirkwall, Monday night.
The Commission held their last meeting in Orkney to-day at Kirkwall. The greater part of the sitting was occupied in hearing delegates from the estate of General Burroughs, in the island of Rousay. The Free Church clergyman of the place submitted a long statement of grievances and hardships suffered by the people. Excessive rack-renting, evictions in which people had been forcibly ejected from their dwellings, and other serious allegations of mal-administration, were charged against the management of the estate. One delegate asked to have the promise of the proprietor that no harm would come to the tenants on account of the evidence they gave before the Commission. General Burroughs was present in the of room, and Lord Napier turned to him evidently expecting that the desired assurance would be given at once. He seemed rather astonished when the gallant officer politely but decidedly declined to enter into any such arrangement. It was pointed out to him that proprietors all through the Western Islands had readily given a similar assurance, but even after a quarter of an hour's persuasive argument on the part of the Chairman and Mr Cameron the General refused to be convinced against his will. The delegates had therefore to go without an assurance, which they seemed to think would have been of some service to them, and to console themselves with the statement of their landlord that he could not regard those who complained with the same friendly feeling as he looked upon others who had nothing to say about the government of his property. There was a large attendance of the public in the court-house during the day. All the commissioners were present, and Lord Napier presided.
The Rev. A. McCallum, 30, Free Church minister, island of Rousay, said he had been requested by a deputation of the crofters to present a statement on their behalf. The island was the property of General Traill Burroughs, C.B. The crofters desired to represent to the Commissioners that they were in a condition of great and increasing poverty, and they were convinced that their present condition was owing to the system of land management in Rousay for the last thirty years, and especially for the last twenty years. During the past forty years the rental of Rousay had increased threefold, while in the same time the population had decreased, and their substance had become less. In 1841 the rental of the whole parish, which included the islands of Rousay, Egilshay, Enhallow, and Wire, was only £1500. Now it was about £3876 I9s 4d. But nearly the whole of that increase had been in Rousay. Egilshay belonged to Dr Baikie, and the rental of that island had not been increased to any extent. The population in 1841 was 1263. Now it was 1118, a decrease which if it had occurred in the nation at large would have caused alarm. That the people had become poorer might be illustrated by this, that in 1841 there were 18 herring boats of 980 tons, while now there were only 4. The main cause of their present state was excessive rack-renting of land, and they had to complain of the taking away of their hill pasture and commons. In 1841 of the former there were 10,440 acres, arid there were 7500 acres of undivided common. These had been taken away by the proprietor for his own use, and the crofters were never in any way compensated for the deprivation. On the contrary the rents had been raised, some rents being even quadrupled. It was an old belief that the people had a right to the hill pastures and commons, and the Commissioners, it was hoped, would make a searching inquiry into these matters and the way in which the old Orkney tenures so favourable to the people had been superseded. They also complained that there had been harsh and needless evictions of large bodies of the people. In or about the years 1842-3 some forty families were ejected from the lands of Quendale and Westside, Rousay. These people settled chiefly on barren or heather land, and after they had built houses at their own expense and reclaimed the land rents were laid upon them. These had since been frequently raised. If such was to be done, they should at least have been paid for their buildings and reclamations. Now these people were mere tenants at will in the houses they had built and on the land they reclaimed. Another case of eviction occurred at Nears, where three families were turned out of their houses in the depth of winter. A recent case of a similar kind occurred at Hammer, the land being added to a large farm. Being dispossessed of his land, the crofter and his family had been reduced to poverty. The man himself had fallen into bad health and had to be sent to the Edinburgh Infirmary, and his wife and children had been refused parochial relief. Another case was that of the tenant of East Craie, in Sourin, who had at an advanced age reclaimed land and built a dwelling house entirely at his own expense. By the authority of the proprietor a rent was imposed upon him, and that rent had now been increased about fivefold. A special aggravation of wrong in this case was that he had been previously evicted. Another matter was the lack of compensation for improvements - that they did not possess liberty to improve, even when they were willing to do so, except on the proprietors terms, which involved an intolerable and apparently interminable burden of interest, amounting to a permanent increase of rent. The utter insecurity of tenure acted with disheartening effect upon them. They begged that there might be a re-valuation of land, so that a fair rent might be fixed as between proprietor and tenant; that they should have security in their holdings; that their holdings should he increased; and that the question of the hill pasture should be settled in some way - say, by restitution or otherwise. Many of their houses were unfit for human habitation. It was not merely in their substance that they felt the burden and evil effects of the present land system as it was worked in Rousay. The utterly inconsiderate and unrighteous manner in which they were treated tended to produce in their once peaceful and happy community those features of disturbance and outrage which had made another part of the kingdom so much an object of remark. That was the case with them in too great a proportion, and it must increase unless relief was afforded them. The facts with reference to the eviction of the tenants of Hammer alone would account for the disturbance and evil feeling that, they were sorry to know, was arising in their midst. It was said “oppression would make wise men mad.” Ever since that eviction, which was accompanied by a change of the lands of four farms, the district had been in a state of disturbance, and various acts of outrage had been committed. A sheep of one farmer had been made away with, implements of husbandry had been broken at night, and violent scenes had taken place between individuals who had felt themselves aggrieved and injured in their feeling and interest by needless and oppressive changes. It was also mentioned, by way of complaint that the Procurator Fiscal, who had to investigate such cases, was the law agent of General Burroughs. They felt that all the things which they had mentioned were not as they ought to be amongst a free and Christian community, and they humbly begged that the Commissioners might speedily cause a removal of all those evils and hardships that were the source of such a state of affairs. Mr McCallum said he desired to add that the statement which he had read was entirely the crofters' own. So far as he was aware this movement did not originate in consequence of personal feelings against their distinguished proprietor or against his factor. It was a movement entirely against the system and the manner in which they used the powers which the law gave them.
By the Chairman – He wrote the statement which he had read, the facts being supplied to him by James Leonard, the chairman of the crofters' meeting. The document had been dictated almost entirely to him. All he had to do was to put the statement into proper grammar. He substantially agreed with the statement throughout. He thought the larger farms were moderately rented. The rent of the farm of Westness was £500. That farm consisted largely of ground taken from the people who were evicted from Quendale. There were from 90 to 100 holdings on the estate. So far as he was aware no new form of industry had been introduced to account for or justify, the unusually large increase of rental. There had been only a very small increase in the rental on the Egilshay estate, on which the land was if anything better than on the Rousay property. There was a great difference in the physical appearance of the people of the two estates. He could tell an Egilshay man if he met him in the parish by his comfortable appearance. (Laughter.) General Burroughs encouraged many good things on the island in a moral and social way. His example in many respects was a model to proprietors. There was a belief that there was a clause in the treaty which ceded Orkney to Scotland reserving the right of settlement in the islands for the people then in the islands.
But there are Acts of the Scottish Parliament superseding those alleged diplomatic rights? – Yes; but I understand that the people hold that the Scottish Parliament had no right to deal with their property in that manner without consulting them. (Laughter.) They ask who composed the Parliament.
Mr Fraser-Mackintosh – Were there no representatives from Orkney in the Scottish Parliament? – I am sorry to say that they had no great confidence in any representatives even though there were. (Laughter.) It is known that the votes of members of Parliament were bought and sold at the Union. (Laughter.)
The Chairman – Well, that is very susceptible of discussion. (Laughter.)
By the Chairman – There was usually an out-house for the cattle. As a rule there was a separate entrance to the dwelling-house. Some of the house were in a very undesirable condition.
Has the officer of public health ever denounced any of the houses? – I don’t know to whom you refer. (Laughter.)
Is there no inspector of nuisances appointed in the parish? - There is an inspector of poor who in a manner holds that office, but he is not a man who possesses in the slightest degree the confidence of the people.
Are the causes of outrage to which you referred peculiar to the island, or are cases of malicious injury not rather a distinctive feature in the limited amount of crime in this part of the country? - The cause that evoked these outrages was the land. The Procurator-Fiscal was law agent to the proprietor. He was informed that that gentleman had great influence in the management of the estate. There was a resident factor on the estate.
The Chairman - There is something rather unsatisfactory in my mind in the language of the memorial on the one side and your personal reference to the proprietor on the other. You said that it is the system that is complained of, and not the character of the proprietor. But in the memorial there is a strong indication of personal mal-administration, with which the law has nothing in the world to do, because the law does not consolidate land, turn out tenants, or prevent a proprietor from giving compensation. The whole memorial seems to be a direct incrimination of the proprietor, while on the other hand you said you did not complain of the proprietor. What do you mean by that?
Witness - I think that there is nothing inconsistent in that. Our complaint is that the laws of the country allow General Burroughs to do such things.
They don't oblige him, or encourage him, to do them? – No; but they allow him, and our complaint is that he does it. The proprietor certainly showed a very good moral example. He discouraged all forms of vice, such as drunkenness, and he took a great interest in educational matters. He was kindly in his manner with the people, but that did not alter at all the facts of the case. There was no resident medical officer in the island.
By Sir Kenneth Mackenzie – The evictions in 1842 were before General Burroughs's time. The people had remonstrated with the proprietor, but no remedy had been provided. There were seven large farms made since 1842, and some of the small tenants had increased their crofts by reclamation.
By Mr Fraser-Mackintosh - He was a native of Glasgow, and had been three years at Rousay. As far as he had observed from is his intercourse with the people, he was disposed to concur in the correctness of the statement he had read from the people. He had nothing to say against General Burroughs' character, but he complained about the laws which enabled a landlord to do such things.
Mr Cameron - If there have been no evictions recently, and if the people are reclaiming more land, would that not indicate that they have no cause for alarm? – Not in my opinion.
By the Chairman - He would he very sorry to say that the overcrowding prevailed to such a degree as to be prejudicial to the morality and decency of the people.
George Leonard (67), crofter, Triplow [Treblo], Rousay, cited his own experience, with the view of showing that the rents were raised in consequence of improvements done by the tenants, and that they were liable to be removed without getting compensation.
Mrs Georgina Inkster (35), wife of Hugh Inkster, crofter, late tenant of Hammer [Wasbister], gave an account of the circumstances under which her husband was turned out of his holding five years ago. Her husband, who had formerly managed his mother's croft, got a new croft of 15 acres at a rent of £15, and the old one was then given up. They held the croft three a years, paying their rents regularly. At the end of three years the land was taken from them and put into a neighbouring farm. They were left in their house, but without any means of subsistence, and they were now entirely destitute.
James Leonard (46), crofter and mason, Digro, Rousay, said he had been requested to ask a promise from the proprietor that no harm would be done to the crofters for giving their evidence before the Commission.
The Chairman - Is the proprietor or the factor present?
General Burroughs - I am the proprietor, and my factor is also present.
The Chairman - Are you prepared to give the promise asked by the tenants on your estate?
General Burroughs – I am not prepared to do so. It is contrary to human nature that I could treat men who treat me so inimically as one or two have done here the same as I could other men who are friendly disposed. Whatever I might say, my feelings could not be the same after they have vilified me in the way they have been doing.
The Chairman - Then you are not prepared to give an assurance of that nature?
General Burroughs - I am not prepared to do l so, my Lord.
The Chairman - You are aware that you will have an opportunity, either in person or through your factor, of making any statement which you please afterwards?
General Burroughs - Yes.
The Chairman - But notwithstanding that you are not prepared to give that assurance?
General Burroughs - I cannot have the same feeling towards them. I have tried to do my duty as honourably and as justly as I possibly could all l my life with these tenants as with anybody else, and I really cannot have the same feelings towards men who come forward and state the things that have been stated here. It is contrary to human nature to be so kind towards them as to others who do not make these complaints.
The Chairman – But, General Burroughs, if I may take the liberty of saying so, I have not asked you about the state of your feelings towards them. I have asked you about your intentions towards them.
General Burroughs - They are not slaves. They are free men, and they can go away if they choose. I have between ninety and a hundred tenants, and only one or two are here. Mr McCallum is on the roll of the tenants, but the others are not on the roll at all.
Rev. Mr McCallum - We speak on behalf of all the tenants.
The Chairman - Well, but I want to arrive at an understanding with General Burroughs. I would ask him first to consider this, We are sitting here as a Royal Commission, and our object and duty is to elicit the truth. In other parts of the county we have generally found that the proprietors were willing to assist us by giving an assurance such as is asked here. In that way the Commissioners have had perfect freedom in their inquiry, and the witnesses have had perfect freedom in their statements. The examination in reference to your estate has nearly terminated, but still the absence of an assurance on your part might have the effect of restraining the people from saying what they really feel. I now ask whether on reconsideration you are not able to state that nothing that is said here to-day will influence your actions towards the delegates, whatever your feelings may be?
General Burroughs - I feel perfectly certain that anything I do after this will always be put down to this meeting. The people think they can do what they please. The lease of this delegate's father is just about out, and if I were to remove him now he would say it was on account of what he is doing here, Everything I do will be attributed to this meeting. My hands will not be tied up completely, so that I can do nothing. That is my feeling on the subject. Is the property mine, or is it not mine? If it is mine, surely I can do what I consider best for it. If the people are not contented and happy they can go away.
Mr Cameron - Perhaps it will be sufficient if you say anything you may do on your estate will be done for reasons connected with the proper working of the estate, and not in consequence of anything that might be said here.
General Burroughs – Am I to keep discontented people? There is no satisfying some people. You may do whatever you please, and they will never be happy or contented.
Mr Cameron – What we want you to give us is an assurance that anything you do on your estate would have been done in any case.
General Burroughs – I quite agree with that.
Mr Cameron – And would not be done in consequence of any evidence that might be given here?
General Burroughs – Well, I will say that I will do my duty honourably and justly, as I have hitherto done. My intention was to alter all these little farms into larger holdings and to make labourers of those who are not able to work their farms. That is what I have done in the case of Mrs Inkster. I left her husband in the house which they had.
The Chairman - I understand that General Burroughs has not given a distinct, unambiguous assurance that he will do nothing to anyone in consequence of what may be said here to-day. If that is the case, it remains with the delegate to give evidence or not as he likes.
The Delegate - You see the state of matters now, and you see the necessity for a change. I am happy to see this Commission here to-day.
The Chairman - You are not bound to give any opinion about the Commission.
The Delegate, remarking that he did not mean to be cowed by landlordism, went on to state his own case, which was that his father had improved land from the hill, and had built a house upon the place, and was now paying as high rent for it as a tenant-at-will. He had been asked to state that the people hoped that the Commission would do what it could to remove the reign of terror which the Commissioners could not fail to see existed in the island. To give an instance of what was called unrighteous treatment, he might mention that there was an old woman in the island who had a small croft. She was on her death-bed, and the proprietor told her she would have to leave. She replied that she would never leave it until she went to the house from which no man could remove her. He struck his stick on the ground, and said – “Would you like to buried on this floor?”
By Mr Fraser-Mackintosh – He was not aware of any money which had been laid out by the proprietor for the benefit of small tenants. If there had been, it was charged at 6½ per cent. of interest. They were in earnest in Rousay. It was not sham work there. They had a local despotism which they wished removed.
James Grieve, cottar, Rousay, concurred with the other delegates.
Mr W. T. Norquay (54), banker, South Ronaldshay, stated that the condition of the people generally in the island had considerably improved in recent years. The want of telegraphic communication with the island was felt to be a great inconvenience, and a decided commercial disadvantage.
By Sir Kenneth Mackenzie – There were some small proprietors on the island, and as rule their houses were better than those of the tenants.
By Professor Mackinnon – When one of those small farms of about 15 acres came into the market it was sometimes sold at 30 years' purchase of the rateable value.
Lieut.-General Burroughs, C.B. (52), proprietor of Rousay, said he inherited the island from his grand-uncle, Geo Wm. Traill. He settled on it in the year 1873, after he left the army, and he resided on It except during the winter (three months). He had heard himself that day put in a light which he never knew himself put in before, and he could not believe that what had been stated about him was the opinion of the Rousay people generally. Those present that day, he believed, represented the opinion of Rousay just as the three tailors of Tooley Street represented the people of England on a former occasion. (Laughter.) He did not think that the respectable people of Rousay had mixed 'themselves up in this movement at all. (Sensation.) As to the rents having been increased threefold, he found that between 1840 and 1882 there had been spent £37,405 on the estate. In that was included a sum for the houses he had built, and a sum of £3020 for the support of the poor, as they had no assessment in Rousay. It also included £442 spent on roads, more than he received from the Statute Labour Act. Some of the cases of rise of rent had occurred in this way:- Tenants got improving leases of 21 years to take in common. The first seven years was at a 1s per acre, for the second seven years 2s, and for the third 3s. At that figure they were supposed to improve the land and build a house, and at the end of 21 years it was understood that the place would be valued, and a small rent put upon it. As to the poverty in Rousay, he only wished the Commissioners could have come to the island and satisfied themselves as to the condition of the inhabitants. He had heard that there was half a million of money in the banks of Kirkwall belonging to the Orkney tenants, and of that sum the Rousay people owned a good deal. Regarding the commons, when he was away in the army the people had the hill all to themselves, but he found that the effect of this was that they neglected the cultivation of their crofts. There was about 4000 acres for which he was not getting a penny, and he thought he might as well try and turn an honest penny as well as others. (Laughter.) He therefore had it enclosed and put sheep on it. No tenant, however, was left without any pasture. The people had as much right to the common as he had to their hats and coats. It never belonged to them. It was said that the rents on the Egilshay estate had not been raised, but that was because there had not been much expended by the proprietor, There certainly had been same consolidation of the small farms, which he considered had been to the benefit of the estate. The farms of Quendale and Westside, which formerly brought him £80, now were rented at £600. There had been no needless evictions. If people could not pay their rents they were removed from their crofts to cottages which were built for them, and that he considered had been for their good. He did not think that the rises of rent which had taken place were too high considering the increased value of produce. Forty years ago cattle fetched only £3 a-piece, and sheep 2s 6d. Now they were worth £18 to £30 a-piece. As to the Nearse eviction, he did not know about it. It was in 1842. As to the Hammer case, this man lnkster would not pay his school rates, and when the schoolmaster went to him he was assaulted. The man was not able to cultivate a farm of that sort, and so it was taken from him. He proposed to reduce Inkster to be a labourer, and he left him to occupy the house without the land. He could not say why Mrs Inkster could not get relief, as he was not at home then. It was said that they were not as they should be in a Christian country. Well, he was afraid they were not, and it was a pity it was so. The delegates said they wanted land at a fair rent and fixity of tenure. Well, when he and his wife went to Edinburgh to take a house which they might think highly rented, why should they not to be able to call in someone to have it " fair " rented and to give him a fixity of tenure? If the price of land was to be fixed in the way suggested, why not the price of houses and of coats and hats? Everything, surely. had its market price. About the outrages, he believed that what led to them was a quarrel between two farmers' wives. (Laughter.) One of them threw a basin of dirty water over the other. The case was taken to the Court, and both had partisans, and it was these people that annoyed each other in the way described. As to the Egilshay men being better than those of Rousay, that he could not admit. He could show them a specimen of a Rousay man. Will you stand up, Mr Reid?
Sheriff Nicolson – Who is he?
General Burroughs – The Inspector of Poor.
Sheriff Nicolson (sotto voce) – The minion of a bloated aristocracy.
General Burroughs, continuing, said he did not see why the Rousay people should not go out into the world like others. There were no families in any station of life who all remained at home. One explanation of the diminution of the number of fishing boats was perhaps this, that he had discouraged men being both fishers and farmers, as they could not succeed at both. He was very much surprised at the abuse which had been heaped on him that day. His wife and he had tried to do their best for the people. His wife took great interest in the houses of the small tenants, and gave a prize yearly for the best-kept cottage. It was very difficult work getting some of them to keep their houses clean. As to what had been said about the Inspector of Poor, that he did not possess the confidence of the people, he could only reply that the inspector was a hard-working, trustworthy, honest man, whom he though all respected. What were the acts of oppression which he (General Burroughs) had committed he really was not aware. But the people were not slaves, and if they did not like the place then they could go away. Many of them did go away to better themselves.
Mr Fraser-Mackintosh - Suppose you gave them encouragement to remain?
Witness replied that he did so to the best of his ability. He could not make the land larger than it was. But he had expended largely on public works connected with the estate. Formerly every man made his own improvements, and got back about one-third of the rental for what he did. But that did not answer. Improvements were begun, but never finished. Now he did all the necessary improvements himself and charged the tenants interest. Not a few of the crofters had leases, but he did not give leases to those paying less than £4 or £5 rent. There had been no cases of what could be called eviction on his estate. If a man had to leave one place he had always tried to provide him with another. Over all, his land was not rented at more than 10s an acre. In some cases it was as high as £1 an acre. He had been a good deal through the world, and he did not know any people so well off as those in Orkney. They were well housed, they were well clad, and at all times they could go to sea, and in a few hours catch as many fish as would keep a family for a week. (“Oh,"' and laughter.) As to Leonard, the mason, he had never seen him at work on his croft, and that was perhaps why it was unproductive. He was always away at other work. As to the story of the old woman, Mrs Cooper, he did not remember anything about it.
Mr McCallum (interposing) – I had it from her own lips.
General Burroughs – I don’t remember it.
Mr Fraser Mackintosh – Don’t you wish to make some expression regarding it now after what Mr McCallum had said?
General Burroughs said he would be very sorry to believe he said such a thing. His wife and he were very kind to the old woman, and he did not believe he did say it. There was a quarrel between her and her son about the croft, and something that he had said must have been twisted to give it that meaning. As to Mr Leonard, his personal expenditure must be considerable. He saw his family all at church, dressed in the latest fashion. (Laughter.) He (General Burroughs) had been told by a Kirkwall merchant that at the Lammas Fair he turned over £500 in one week in flowers for women's bonnets, which had been bought by farmers' daughters and . their servants. (Laughter.)
Rev. Mr McCallum asked leave to make an explanation. Notwithstanding what Gen. Burroughs had said he still adhered to his former statements as to the poor’s assessment. The reason why there was not such an assessment was that the tenant paid all the road money and the proprietor paid the poor-rates.
Mr Leonard said that as regarded the grown-up members of his family what they bought was paid for by their own industry. His young children were certainly not dressed in Paris fashions, and there were many on the island who could not go to church at all for want of clothes.
The examination of General Burroughs was continued by Mr Fraser Mackintosh – About £17,000 was spent on his own mansion-house. That left £20,000.
Do you think that that is a large expenditure on the estate. £20,000 in forty years is only £500 a year? – Yes, he thought it considerable.
You think that the rental in these circumstances has not been unduly increased? – No. The acreage of the island was about 12,000 acres. 2000 of these were in the hands of one tenant. Most of the larger farms were in the hands of Rousay people who had risen from being in a smaller way.
What do you think is the reason of the dissatisfaction which has brought these delegates here today? - They have got wrong ideas. They expect to get a great deal. They want to be like the Irish and have revised rents and fixity of tenure, and all that sort of thing.
Why do you think delegates have not come from South Ronaldshay? - Perhaps the Rousay thought I would not come back yet from Germany.
Are you prepared to say that these people have no cause for complaint? – I don't believe they have. That is my firm conviction.
How many of your tenants do you think have money in the bank? - He had known several cases. He incidentally heard of one of his own tenants who was always out at the elbows, and whom, if one met on the street, one would be inclined to offer a shilling to, who offered for a £1200 farm on another estate, the officials on which had satisfied themselves as to his means.
By the Chairman – He had always tried to live on the best terms with his tenants – in fact he always thought he was until that day. The valuations were generally made by factors and lawyers.
Don’t you think that factors and lawyers are more identified with the feelings and interests of the proprietors than the tenants? - I have always found them on the side of the tenants.
By Professor Mackinnon – His experience was that the tenants were better able to protect themselves than the landlords, and he thought a law should be made to protect the landlords rather than the tenants. (Laughter.) In one form or other the rental of the estate had been trebled, but it was only nominal, as the money did not come into his pocket. The most of the work done on the estate was executed by local labour.
By Sheriff Nicolson - He was aware that a meeting of tenants on his property was held last Saturday. He would be surprised to learn that it was attended by a large number of people, many of whom had come long distances. He would rather like to get rid of his tenants if they were discontented.
Alex. Williamson, crofter, West Puldrite, complained that he had been removed from a holding which he had taken in from the commonty. It was on the property of Mr Heddle. He estimated the moneys he had spent and the labour he had given to the place at £175.
John Brown (54), crofter, Kelton, Kirkwall, complained that the people in his locality were prohibited from taking the sea-weed from the shore near their holdings.
Benjamin Swanson, factor and ground officer, North Ronaldshay, said the tenants had no complaints there, and he believed it was as happy a district as could be found in Orkney. The island was occupied by small tenants, whose rents ranged from £2 to £39 10s. Dr Traill was the sole proprietor. Mr Muir, who spoke about Ronaldshay at the meeting in Sanday, was not appointed a delegate to represent them. He did not believe Mr Muir was ever in the island, and he thought he did more harm than any man he knew in sending goods there. The landlord was quite willing to grant leases, but the tenants did not want them. The young people were too much addicted to staying on the island, but sub-division was prevented as much as possible.
Mr John Campbell Mellis, Sheriff-Substitute of Orkney, in reply to the Chairman, said he understood that the law did not allow people to take away seaweed or sand without the consent of the riparian proprietor. He desired to guard himself against legal opinions on questions which might arise in the islands. The learned Sheriff remarked that comparing the Orkneys with the Western Islands, where there was a strong desire on the part of the people to remain at home in the land of their fathers, he had been impressed with the difference of the Orkney people in this respect. While they hold to their native place as warmly as others, and were fond of coming back to it, they did not stick to it simply because they happened to be born in it. They had great enterprise, and went out to make their way in the world.
The Commissioners rose at six o'clock, to meet to-morrow on the mainland at Bettyhill, Sutherlandshire.
1883 July 25 Sunderland Daily Echo
THE HIGHLAND CROFTERS. “A REAL DESPOTISM.” – Lord Napier and his colleagues on the Crofters Commission have concluded their investigation of the grievances of the Orkney tenants. A remarkable scene occurred at Kirkwall on Monday. The tenants of Rousay, an island of which General Burroughs, C.B., is the proprietor, laid before the Commissioners a memorial strongly complaining of the treatment to which they had been subjected, and by which they had been reduced to poverty. They complain of excessive rackrenting, the deprivation of hill pastures and commons, “harsh and needless evictions of large bodies of the people,” and that the building of houses and the reclamation of land and other improvements by the tenants had been made the occasion for raising the rents. One of the crofters, before giving evidence in support of the memorial, asked that a promise should be given by the proprietor that no injury would be done to him for appearing before the Commission. The “proprietor” refused, notwithstanding the earnest and pointed appeal of the Chairman to give the assurance the tenant requested. The gallant General complained in his turn that the tenants on Rousay were “getting wrong ideas in their heads, like the Irish,” and he suggested that if they were not “happy” on his property the way was open to them to go elsewhere. He would not hear that they were over-rented, or were not, in fact, living in a sort of Arcadia. His expenditure on his mansion had amounted to £17,000, and during the forty years of his proprietorship he had spent £20,000, or £500 a year, on the estate. This latter item, he thought, was a “considerable one.” Also he had something to say about the way in which the wives and daughters of his tenants were dressed. One of the witnesses grimly said that they were in earnest in Rousay – it was a “real despotism,” and not a sham there.
1883 August 17 Glasgow Herald
General Burroughs and party shot over Rousay moors on the 13th, and bagged 15 brace of grouse and a number of snipe, golden plovers, and hares. The birds were irregular in size, some being well grown, while several cheepers were seen.
1883 August 21 Aberdeen Journal
On Trumbland moors on Rousay Island, Orkney, on the 15th, General Burroughs, Colonel Macpherson, and Major Macgregor bagged eight brace snipe and some golden plover and other extras, and the following day the two latter gentlemen killed in a few hours 16½ brace grouse, 2 brace snipe, and 3 hares. Good fishing is also being enjoyed on the Rousay lochs, and Mr Cameron landing 54 trout in a few hours.
1883 August 25 Dundee Courier
There is in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland at least one crofter who does not blame his landlord for the misfortunes of the crofters. At a meeting of farmers just held in the Island of Rousay, Mr John Gibson, farmer, Langskaill, in proposing the health of General Burroughs, the proprietor, referred to the complaints which had recently been made of rises of rent on the General’s estate, and for which he had been held responsible. This candid crofter would appear to have the unusual habit in the Highlands of looking facts in the face. He could not help thinking and saying that it was very unkind to blame General Burroughs for accepting the highest rent offered for his crofts. General Burroughs, said Mr Gibson, wished all his tenants to live comfortably; but no sooner was there a vacant farm to let than there were a dozen competitors for it, each trying to outbid his neighbour. The deduction of this very candid Highlander was that the men who came mobbing the General and trying to beggar their neighbour were entirely to blame. As a natural result, remarked Mr Gibson, some farms did get rented above their actual value. “But,” went on this outspoken islander, “no unprejudiced person would think of blaming the General for a result brought about in many cases by the tenant themselves.”
This farmer of Rousay will not be popular among the crofter class, for the inference of his remarks is – a truth which we have frequently expressed – that these islands can only support a certain population, and that one cause of the miserable condition of so many of the crofters is that not a few of the islands, and some parts of the Highland mainland, are over-populated. This shrewd islander, Mr Gibson, has been able to grasp the significance of the fact of crowds of rivals gathering round General Burroughs, trying to outbid one another for his farms. While there are doubtless many grievances which the Highland crofters generally have a right to complain of, and which ought to be redressed, it can only do harm to fly in the face of facts and ignore the truth that two cannot live well on an area designed but for one.
1883 August 25 Orkney Herald
THREATENING GENERAL BURROUGHS. – A considerable amount of talk was occasioned in town last week by a report that became current that General Burroughs, C.B., of Rousay and Veira, had received some two or three threatening letters or post-cards. On Thursday the gunboat Firm, with Mr Thoms, Sheriff of the County; Mr Mellis, Sheriff Substitute; Mr Macrae, Procurator Fiscal; and Mr Grant, Superintendent of Police, on board, proceeded to Rousay – the gunboat being on the way to Shetland – with the view of making some enquiries. We understand that, from the handwriting and other circumstances, it was suspected that certain parties had had something to do with the matter, and some investigations were made at the school as to the copy books, and a young lad was examined regarding his handwriting. Another young man, at present engaged in the herring fishing at Stronsay, was suspected, and on Friday Mr Grant proceeded to the island and brought him to town. On Saturday he was brought up to the County Buildings, and was under examination before Sheriff Thoms for about a couple of hours, and after emitting a declaration was allowed his liberty. We understand that he denied all knowledge of the threatening letters, and that a considerable part of his examination was in reference to the land meetings held in Rousay. It is understood that the case will, in the ordinary course, be remitted to Crown Council, with whom it rests to decide whether there is sufficient cause shown whether the case should be proceeded with further. The general impression in town is that the whole affair is a practical joke, and that whatever Orkneymen may think regarding real or supposed grievances, they are not a law-breaking class, and that to resort to violence would never enter their thoughts.
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