In concluding this Report, it is desirable to anticipate an objection to our recommendations, based upon general principles of public policy, which might be urged on the part of that school of economists, who, in dealing with social distresses, prefer to contemplate the operation of natural causes and tendencies, rather than the action of artificial remedies. It may be asked, on what grounds do we justify a complex system of interference on behalf of a class in the community which is not numerous, which does not contribute a preponderant share to the aggregate sum of national wealth, and which does, after all that has been said, possess, in ordinary times, conditions of welfare and happiness unknown to some other orders of the people, for instance, to the poorer sort of rural day labourers in England, or to those who depend on casual employment in great cities ? If the Highland crofter, it may be said, can maintain his footing under the laws affecting landed property, common to the whole country, and against the forces which contemporary science and commerce bring to bear upon his situation, let him do so; if not, do not prop up his position by curious expedients, which may merely prolong his decay, and prevent the timely transfer of his powers to more congenial scenes and means of labour and subsistence. The small tenancies of the Highlands would not be the only interest abandoned to irresistible innovations. The hand-loom of the cottage, the sailing craft along the shore, the yeoman's freehold, are gone, or doomed to disappear. It is perhaps in the same order of necessity that the crofter should be extinguished. To these objections we would thus reply:—
The crofters and cottars with w m o m we are here concerned are, in truth, of no great significance in respect to mere numbers. All told, they probably do not comprise more than 40,000 families or 200,000 souls, the population of a single manufacturing town of the first class. They do, however, possess in their occupations and capabilities certain distinctive features which, in the opinion of many, entitle them to such exceptional attention and protection as has been granted to other special interests. These people take a considerable part in the fishing industry, a branch of national production, not of the first magnitude, but still of material value, and which should not be allowed to pass into other hands. This industry has hitherto depended more on the hardy breeding, hereditary aptitudes, and spontaneous association of the common people acting with the help of local traders, and less on the direction and support of the large capitalist, than any other department of labour and traffic in the country. It is susceptible of more perfect organisation and of immense extension, but these developments must be the results of time, study, intelligent direction, and financial aid. Meanwhile, the dispersion of the fishing population, the indispensable instruments of the craft, would be a loss that could scarcely be repaired. It would be difficult to replace them by another race of equal ability and worth.
It is not only in regard to fishing that the crofting and cottar population have a peculiar value. They constitute a natural basis for the naval defence of the country, a sort of defence which cannot be extemporised, and the value of which, in possible emergencies, can hardly be overrated. The seafaring people of the Highlands and Islands contribute at this moment 4431 men to the Royal Naval Reserve, a number equivalent to the crews of seven armoured war steamers of the first class, and which with commensurate inducements could be greatly increased. It may be added, that most of the men incorporated in the corps of militia and volunteers would be able to serve ashore and afloat with equal efficiency. The severance of the labouring classes from the benefits and enjoyments of property (certainly one of the elements of civilisation, morality, and public order), and their precarious and dangerous condition as dependants on capital and mere recipients of wages, is a question which engages the reflections of those who reason and of those who govern. There is a general desire that the labouring man in every sphere of activity should be invested with a greater share of substantial possession, and be attached by deeper and more durable ties to the soil of his country. This great object is being partly realised in Scotland among the elite of those workmen who are engaged in urban industries by the regulated purchase of their habitations, but the mass of dwellers and labourers in the country have still no permanent interest in the land either as occupiers or owners. It is in the Highlands and Islands that a partial exception to this rule is chiefly found, in respect to occupancy ; and it is here that occupancy may perhaps be most readily converted into property. The connection between the crofter and his holding is indeed of an unsubstantial character, but the kindly custom of the country in many cases gives a practical security of tenure, while the cultivator is endowed with some of the simpler objects and adjuncts of personal possession; furniture, such as it is; live stock; boats; the implements of two pursuits, husbandry and fishing; some knowledge of pastoral and agricultural processes, habits of trade, the practice of purchase and of sale. Men thus equipped are, in some degree, prepared to become substantial occupiers of small holdings under lease, or to be the managers of land belonging to themselves. While the people are in this way apt for a change of condition, there are, in the present division of agricultural areas in the north, greater facilities for bringing that change to pass than exist in other quarters. To suffer the crofting class to be obliterated, or to leave them in their present depressed circumstances, if by any justifiable contrivance their condition can be improved, would be to cast away the agencies and opportunities for a social experiment connected with the land of no common interest.
The crofting and cottar population of the Highlands and Islands, small though it be, is a nursery of good workers and good citizens for the whole empire. In this respect the stock is exceptionally valuable. By sound physical constitution, native intelligence, and good moral training, it is particularly fitted to recruit the people of our industrial centres, who without such help from wholesome sources in rural districts would degenerate under the influences of bad lodging, unhealthy occupations, and enervating habits. It cannot be indifferent to the whole nation, constituted as the nation now is, to possess within its borders a people, hardy, skilful, intelligent, and prolific, as an ever-flowing fountain of renovating life. The claim of the crofter is, however, based not only on his qualities, but on his necessities. The crofter is not in his average condition poor compared with the profounder poverty that exists elsewhere, but he is exposed to unusual risks and vicissitudes. A good harvest or a good haul may make him comfortable for a season. A blight, an early frost, a wet autumn, a long winter, a gale of wind, a wayward movement of the herring, may deprive him of food for his family, funds for his rent, and seed for his ground. In such emergencies he has heretofore appealed to his fellow countrymen for relief, or others have made the appeal on his behalf.
The relief has been granted, yet not always without anxiety and doubt. A transitory and humiliating assistance thus bestowed is but a poor substitute for permanent and honourable encouragements, which might eventually enable the crofter and cottar to support the strain of temporary misfortune.
The last argument which we shall adduce in support of our views on this subject, is the argument of public expediency. The Highlands and Islands have recently been at some points the scene of agitation, and even of disturbance. Acts of violence have occurred on the occasion of the delivery of legal summonses regarding the occupancy of land, and the enforcement of lawful claims on the part of the proprietors have been delayed or impeded by apprehensions of opposition. We do not palliate the dangers attached to this condition of affairs. There are circumstances under which it is the plain duty of Government to carry out the prescriptions of the law at all risks, and by every means at their disposal. But collisions between proprietary rights and popular demands are to be deprecated, for they leave behind them lasting traces of resentment and alienation. The mere vindication of authority and repression of resistance would not establish the relations of mutual confidence between landlord and tenant, in the absence of which the country would not be truly at peace, and all our inquiries and counsels would be expended in vain.
The aspect of the present and the future, calmly considered, presents the following features:—
The dissatisfaction of the small tenants in regard to their position is of native origin, but it is fomented by external influences. The land movement in the Highlands, even if it were not spontaneously maintained by the people themselves, would be aroused to further action by other forces: it is impelled by the democratic and social aspirations prevalent among various classes at home, and will probably enlist the sympathies of Highlanders in all parts of the world. There is a larger, richer, more active and more enthusiastic Celtic community beyond the limits of the Celtic region of Scotland than there is within it, und it is one of the results of increasing knowledge and expanding facilities of intercourse, that men who have forsaken the seats of their birth and early associations continue, communicate, and transmit the affections and passions of their race with even greater warmth than those who remain behind. Endowed with native vitality and fostered by such auxiliary powers, the land agitation of the Highlands is not likely to pass away without some adjustment of the claims of occupiers acceptable to the greater number who are not yet possessed with extravagant expectations. Only then may it be expected that the crofters, restored to tranquillity, confidence, and the exercise of their natural good sense, will fully avail themselves of the important benefits which may be extended to them in connection with the other remedial measures which we have proposed. In submitting the opinions enunciated above, we do not mean to imply that the claims of the crofting people to legislative protection are of an exclusive character. Special legislation has been found necessary for the benefit of workers in plantations, in mines, in factories, and in ships. It may be invoked for other industries with equal justice. The case of the crofters and cottars of the Highlands and Islands is the special matter consigned to our consideration by Your Majesty's commands. In the recommendations embodied in the present report we have endeavoured to suggest appropriate provisions for their satisfaction and relief, and thus, in the measure of our humble ability, to give effect to Your Majesty's gracious solicitude for a deserving class of your Scottish subjects.
All which we humbly submit to your Majesty's consideration.
NAPIER AND ETTRICK.
KENNETH S. MACKENZIE.