The Maladministration of the Lews 1886

This chapter from the book Lewsiana (1874, 1886) by  W(illiam) Anderson Smith is a contemporary criticism of the administration of the Isle of Lewis under Sir James Matheson – a time of famine and emigration, then relative stability, then land agitation and growing anger. Smith’s harsh opinion appears only in the second edition of the book, after Matheson’s death. His understanding of some of the detail is undoubtedly limited, but his overview raises some interesting points, at least from an economic perspective.  No sentiment for Gaelic and the desire to keep the children on the croft: the solution, according to Smith, is industry, education, robust administration, consultation and farms, and a benevolent proprietor who understands the island and its people much better than Matheson did.  It would be interesting to know if this book was in Leverburgh’s library.

The Lews Administration (W Anderson Smith, 1886)

Of late years considerable changes have taken place in the Lews, and the friction between the estate management and the tenantry, that was more or less apparent to the initiated, has broken out in untoward acts of a hostile nature. On the one hand, there has been great want of sympathetic, judicious, and enlightened control: and this has given openings for the suffering people to give then to their formerly ill-suppressed irritation. This can scarcely be wondered at; for we have always held that the Matheson administration in the Lews has been a failure, conducted on the wrong lines and in a wrong spirit.

Accustomed to the imperious manners of the East, and the exact methods of a commercial life, Mr Matheson entered upon a charge that demanded a very different tone of mind to be approached with success. We acknowledge its extreme difficulty under any circumstances, and to any administrator; we conceive it to have been impossible to him. The people had never been trained to business habits of thought, and they had been always on terms of easy tenure with their chiefs. To most of them, the Curers, who were also generally extensive tacksmen, were of farm more importance than the proprietor. To these middlemen the people fished and laboured for a subsistence; in bad years being tided over what would have been seasons of starvation; and although they were nominally labouring and fishing at a certain rate, as there was practically no competition, the rate was so low that they were generally in debt in the Curer’s books. A large body of the inhabitants might therefore be considered the virtual dependents of these great tacksmen, who belonged to cultivated old families, and who, sympathized to a large extent with their fellow islesmen, treated them on the whole generously, and were looked up to and respected.

Into this slipshod, easy-going world a commercial mind advanced confidently. A people on the confines of a civilisation were to be, at a bound, sent into the centre of the vortex of the world’s affairs. The wild bogs were to be reclaimed and made into farms, roads were made passable for wheeled vehicles throughout the country, a handsome castle and extensive policies overawed Stornoway – the capital – like a feudal keep, and seemed to give a feudal aspect to the mind of the great merchant who created it. Large sums of money were spent – but much was apparently squandered. The imperious system of government permeated the whole management. No doubt this was intended to be the Paternal Government of an autocratic mind; but it resulted in smothering all manifestations contrary to one individual will, and driving all men of originality or individuality either out of the country or into a Cave of Adullam.

All this time the population kept increasing at a rapid rate; several weak efforts were made to induce or enforce emigration, but without important result, and the crofts continued to decrease in area through addition evictions, whilst the mouths increased that were to be filled from them.

The natural crisis – caused by a maximum of poverty and distress – was postponed through various causes. The enterprise and competition of interloping fish-curers made the cod and ling winter fishery more remunerative, and more readily conducted through improved boats. The great development of the herring fishery, in Stornoway and the mainland, enabled the men to make important additions to their means of livelihood during a few weeks’ absence from home; while the naval reserve and the militia helped them still further. At a time when all other agricultural productions threatened to lower in value, the only products of consequence the Lewsmen had to dispose of kept advancing, and they obtained for their little highland cattle, and small hardy breed of ponies, prices such as formerly they never dreamed of.

Meantime, what was the administration about?

Growing up under their care was an important population, now numbering upwards of 25,000 people, without any say in their own government – outside Stornoway. The whole responsibility of their guidance and management was thus upon the shoulders of the Lews executive. Where government is representative much may be shifted upon the electorate, but here we have what was virtually an autocracy with entire responsibility. It was their duty, while manipulating most of the revenue of the country, to provide for its growing life and growing necessities; and if they answer that they were merely men of affairs, and not administrators proper, then they were in a false position. At any rate, in place of gradually expanding their original system, if such they possessed, they have stuck to it until it threatens to strangle and overgrown estate, and make it writhe under errors of omission and commission.

We will endeavour shortly to indicate these.

From the time the original crofter population was allocated allotments [ca 1849] it must have been, and indeed was, foreseen that an advancing population had to be provided for, or arranged about, in some way or other. If, as we ourselves believe, a population entirely crofter is dangerously akin to a pauper population, and such as no wise manager would encourage, then a clear system should have been devised whereby moderate-sized farms should have been interspersed amongst the crofter population, thus providing an outlet for surplus crofter labour, and a reserve of labour for the farmers. When this had been clearly arranged, with such practical wisdom as could be brought to bear upon it, then the administration should have had the courage of its opinions, and stuck firmly and decisively to its arrangement. In place of this they were ever halting between two opinions, allowing squatting here, preventing it there, hustling the people about with imperious indifference, and causing needless irritation. Had there been a distinct plan and system to appeal to, there would have been no just cause for complaint or recrimination, as all the rising generation would have been treated alike.

Having settled decisively as to the existing adult population, capable or desirous of crofting as a business, or means of subsistence, the efforts of such a strong, and at that time wealthy, administration, should have been directed towards finding outlets, so far as possible, for the surplus labour. Crofters should have been crofters, and obliged to work their crofts properly, not allowed to hulk about on the produce of their half-starved stock, as they frequently did. They provision should have been made for the steadily growing fishing community, by giving such cottages and garden ground, and nothing more. but fishermen and crofters were all mixed up, none knew to what extent; sometimes the fishermen living with the crofter, sometimes squatting on his ground; and most frequently the combined crofter and fisherman being neither one nor other to any rational or satisfactory extent. Both trades consequently suffered, and the wailing of the proprietor ws echoed back from the counting house of the fish-curers.

It must soon have been apparent to the most indifferent spectator, that the population was threatening to advance beyond the capacity of the Lewis – or its fisheries in their then development – to sustain it; but except the well-meant – if futile – efforts at encouraging emigration already referred to, no prescience was exhibited. The bulk of the population knew not English, nor were encouraged to acquire it; while their parents – weakly affectionate – were the last to desire them to learn it, lest it should prove a strong pinion to bear them from the nest that their hardly young should have been thrust out of.

Had education been assiduously and persistently encouraged, and a knowledge of English made imperative in the young – as could readily have been done at one time – a natural exit would have taken place, and the growing plethora of population greatly relieved. But education, like everything else in the Lews, was approached with a timidity that was fatal to success. The proprietor looked upon his meagre expenditure in this direction as a gift to the people, in place of being a cheap and effective emigration fund.

So the rising generations grew up, with their natural disinclination to leave the parental roof aggravated by their ignorance of the language of the ‘foreigners’ amongst whom they had to go. The result of this also has been most disastrous, and not to be remedied by ridiculously extravagant school boards at the eleventh hour.

In forsaking our former reticence, and discussing the Lews administration, we do so for the distinct purpose of preventing misconception, and that no false conclusions may be drawn from a distorted view of the facts. To many it may seem absurd to suggest that a man of Sir James Matheson’s known capacity for affairs should have mismanaged his extensive island tenantry, and even failed to appreciate the industrial capabilities of his estate. but it must be remembered that a man may have eminent commercial and organising powers, without necessarily having an eye for the possibilities of an estate, or administrative capacity of a high order. And more especially may this be the case when his training and instincts are alike alien to the people he has elected to govern.

Mr Matheson, therefore, of his own free will chose to assume a position of the gravest difficulty, demanding sympathy, patience, administrative capacity of a high order, appreciation of the advancing spirit of the time, and ability to forestall as well as to foresee the necessary changes in the circumstances of his exceptionally-situated property. He sought to solve all difficulties by a lavish expenditure, and imperious councils followed by timid execution. The extravagance was followed by keen economy; the timidity was generally preceded by the recklessness of ignorance. No doubt the instruments he employed were frequently worse than useless, but he was nevertheless responsible for having used them. His eastern habit of mind, his impatience of adverse views or adverse criticism, prevented any wholesome discussion of his measures, or any public opinion being brought to bear upon his administration. The care taken to prevent the growth or expression of public opinion – outside the influence of the castle-walls or the Chamberlain’s office – was really childish, and showed that the management was not based on confidence in its wisdom and public utility. In fact, having apparently no clear principle or a system to guide him, he could not possibly have the courage of his convictions.

It must not therefore be supposed that the Lews administration was immaculate in its wisdom, or even very wise in its best considered efforts. for we should be sorry believe, or allow others to believe, that there is not a great future for the Lews as a fishing centre. The £500 spent for the improvement of Ness harbour was scarcely an adequate appreciation of the importance of the subject; and the jealously always displayed towards what was considered and imperium in imperio – the curing trade – was unworthy of a strong mind. It must be acknowledged, however, that his honest efforts to stimulate fisheries were not happy at the outset.

Again, the various efforts at encouraging the growth of trees were wholly inadequate, and anything but well chosen. There are stretches of ground in Lews where the peat is merely a skin, and plantations of sufficient extent would have every reasonable prospect of succeeding. but petty experiments, badly conducted and devised, were allowed to decide this vital question. Only around the Castle was the effort persevered in to any extent.

The Commercial Magnate who became possessed of the Lews nevertheless left the country far more progressive than he found it. He endeavoured honestly to improve his estate, and he undoubtedly improved it. He made great efforts to overcome its isolation, for the public advantage, often at great personal cost; and he vastly improved its means of internal communication. But the task he undertook was beyond his powers apparently – he never rose to the height of the great argument; he never appreciated the real fact that he ought to have been a sympathetic, large-minded, constitutional monarch, calling out the best capabilities of his people and their land. to the end, he remained a wealthy merchant, managing land of which he knew little, and managing it badly, in marked contrast to the success of his relative of Ardross.

To his successors he has left a legacy that seems to be equally beyond their administrative capacity; aggravated as the position has naturally become it itself, and still more by the internal progress of education, and the external stimulus of interested outsiders. These latter are still more ignorant of the problem to be solved, and less anxious to master it; but viewing the struggles of the community to relieve itself of its helpless offspring, they would, in their obstetric self-confidence, destroy the mother in order to save the child!

We trust in the amiability and good guidance of the Lews people to prevent a continually increasing friction, and hope this will be met in a liberal and intelligent spirit by the management. The days of non-possums have gone bye.

The jurisdiction and powers of the burgh of Stornoway might be advantageously extended; and we should like to see a growth of intelligence and wealth, sufficient to entitle Ness, as well as Carloway, Uig and Lochs, to claim, and claim effectively, Charters of a similar character. It is even advisable to foster a growth of this kind. And if by any means a few public-spirited proprietors, or feuars of substance, could be added, installed around the coast, we might look hopefully to this great buffer against the Atlantic entering more fully and intimately into the national life.