Norman Morrison’s Testimony

On 4 June 1883 the Napier Commission, chaired by Lord Napier, was in Miavaig to take evidence from crofters and others on issues surround land management and tenancy.  Among those interviewed was Norman Morrison, crofter and fisherman at Brenish, aged 61, who stated he had two milk cows, three young beasts, between fifteen and twenty sheep, and no horse, on a croft which he shared with his brother, who kept similar stock.  The following is slightly abridged.

Have you been fairly elected a delgate by the people of Brenish? Yes

How many people were present when you were elected? All the male population of the town.

Have you any statement to make on behalf of the people? I would say, in the first place, that they are crowded so much together that they have no way of living.  Our places were crowded first when the neighbouring township of Mealista was cleared [in 1838].  Six families of that township were thrown in among us; the rest were hounded away to Australia and America, and I think I hear the cry of the children till this day.  There were others came from various townships since at different times as these were being cleared, and I instance various examples – one from one place and one from another – and not one was placed in among us in that way, but accommodation was provided for him by subdividing the lots that were in the place.  We were deprived of the old rights of the township moorland pasture.  The half of the island of Mealista belong in the time of my grandfather to our township and a neighbouring township – we were deprived of that.  We got no abatement of rent when we were deprived of that but when Cameron lotted out the township the rent was increased by £30.

As you are sixty-one years of age, can you perhaps remember how many families there were in Brenish before the township was cleared and the people taken to Brenish? Between twelve and sixteen.

How many are there now? Forty-three.

How many of those are crofters paying rent to the proprietor? There are twenty-nine names on the rent roll.

And the rest are cottars? There are some of them who pay from 5s to 10s.

Then the number of the families has increased from sixteen to forty-three.  How many of that number do you think have come in from the outside and how many are the natural increase of the place? Seven came from the outside.  We also consider we have a grievance with respect to the herd of the march.  It is fourteen years since a herd was set apart for ourselves and the neighbouring tacksman, and we are quite willing to pay the half of the wages of that shepherd, but we have always had the idea that the neighbouring tacksman marching with us ought to pay the other half.  We are also complaining about the dyke that was build about thirty-four years ago.  It was built in the time of the destitution, and the people were paid for the building of it by so much Indian meal.  Four shillings or five shillings additional rent was placed upone every one that was on the rent roll at that date for this dyke, and we were under the impression that when the expense of putting up the fence was paid this 4s or 5s would be taken away.

What good is the dyke? It was never of much service.  It was meant to enclose the arable ground, but being only a turf dyke it stood only two or three years, and it never was repaired either by landlord or tenant.  We are also complaining of the fank that was set up in Mealista after it was cleared.  It was only about 20 feet long by 12 feet broad.  All the sheep sink down into it down halfway to the belly.

You have disputes with the tacksmen about sheep? Yes; I have seen the blankets taken off the beds to pay for poinding money, and I have seen the plaids of the women taken away for the same purpose.

Did you get benefit by your sheep running upon the tacksman’s land? No, we would not allow them there, but we cannot keep them off.  They are none the better of going there at all; once they are caught they are confined.

If you got back half the island that was taken from you, would you be willing to pay rent for it? I did not take the opinion of the people of the township on this matter, but I should think it would be a great benefit to them to enable them to pay their rent.  What I understood to be the feeling of the people was that they wished to plead for the old rights of the township.

I understand that to be that they should get it back without any rent? Yes, that is the feeling of the people, that they ought to get it back according to the old rights of the place without any additional rent.

What was your individual rent before it was raised? The rent of the township was raised when I got possession of my croft, and it was raised at the very time the crofts were lotted out, so I cannot tell the former rent.  I already stated the rent to be £5 of bare rent and £2 of assessments.  The croft is divided between myself and my brother.

What do these assessments consist of? There is 4s or 5s for the dyke fence I spoke of.  Then there is 4s or 5s for moorland grazing.  Then there is a school rate and the poor rate, and the doctor’s money, and 1s for hen money.

What is the moor pasture you speak of? The moorland ground is summer pasture.  At the end of the summer the cattle graze upon it for four to six weeks.  We don’t send sheep there – only the cattle.

Whed did you get that pasture, or did you always have it? In my grandfather’s time or before that.

Did you pay the 5s then, or was it included int he rest of your rent? This 5s was added to our rent in Sir James’s time.  I never hear of it before that.

How near is the school to you at Brenish? About 100 yards from the nearest house.

How far are you from the church? We are about eight miles from this one.

And how far from the Free Church? Ten.

And how far is the doctor from you? Abut thirty miles by land, and about eighteen by water taking advantage of the ferry.

Is it a grievance to be so far from the doctor? Very great.  When we come down to take advantage of the ferry we have to get a boat from some other person.

Where is the land near you that could be added to you? Once you pass Valtos, there is not a crofter between that and my own house – a stretch of ten miles – and every foot of that is available.

In whose hands are these ten miles? Two tacksmen – John Macrae and Alexander Macrae – and Mr Mackay.  It is not more than ten years since they were removed from one of these townships [Mangersta], but it is a large number of years since they were removed from the others.

Is there very good land on these farms? That was garden of Uig for both crops and pasture.

Are you and your neighbours worse off in your circumstances that your grandfathers were? Very much worse.  My father never earned one penny out of the island of Lewis, and he was not a penny in arrears when he died.  Neither did my grandfather earn a penny out of the island.

It was not necessary? No.  My great-grandfather marked thirty-six black lambs of his own in one year, in addition to the white ones at Mealista.  Then they had horses, cattle, and sheep in addition; and we have no doubt whatever it was the crowding upon us of other people, and the subdivision of the lots, and the land being taken from us, that has reduced us to our present state.  We have no hope of being improved in our condition except by getting enlargemed holdings.

See also the testimony of Murdo Maclean and Donald Matheson.