HC Deb 16 March 1852 vol 119 cc1159-71

rose to move a resolution as to the expediency of assistance being afforded by Parliament and the Government to facilitate the intercourse and traffic between the Western Highlands and the southern parts of the Kingdom. He would remind the House that last year the late Chancellor of the Exchequer had consented to a grant of public money to be employed in the relief of an extensive and populous district of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland by facilitating emigration. The benevolent intentions of the late Government had, however, from peculiar circumstances, failed, and hence the application he now made. His object was, by a judicious application of public money—not in the shape of an eleemosynary grant, but an advance to complete a public work, which would amply repay the expenditure—to develop the resources of a district the inhabitants of which, from their remote situation, were unable to apply their industry with due advantage to themselves and the rest of the empire. The nature of the work proposed was the construction of a railway to communicate between Glasgow and the whole system of railways in the southern part of the Kingdom, and the port of Oban, in the most central and convenient part of the western coast of the Highlands of Scotland. By the construction of that railway the whole of the western part of Scotland, from Cape Wrath to the southern part of Argyllshire, and the whole of the Western Isles, comprising in the islands alone 100,000 inhabitants, would have its traffic, after being brought to Oban, conveyed thence to all parts of the Empire. By this means the present long and dangerous navigation would be superseded, and a great benefit conferred upon the district. The Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, very disinterested witnesses, addressed a memorial to the late Chancellor of the Exchequer on the subject, in which it was stated that— It would be difficult to conceive a more legitimate application of public money than towards the completion of this desirable undertaking, namely, a railway from Glasgow to Oban; and from the memorialists' local knowledge they feel satisfied that the formation of the intended railway would have a most beneficial and permanent effect on the well-being of the Highlands of Scotland, the resources of which are now lying dormant from want of frequent and speedy access to the southern markets. The condition of the people of this district was now most deplorable, and deserving of sympathy, and it was strongly felt by the proprietors and others that if its resources were developed they would not require to apply to Parliament for aid. Last summer Sir John M'Neill made minute inquiry into the condition of the people of the Western Highlands and Islands, and in the report published by him it was stated as the opinion of the principal proprietors and others competent to judge, that there was an absolute necessity for measures being taken to afford immediate relief to the suffering inhabitants, and ultimately to assist them in the way of emigration. The first of these recommendations was stated to be indispensable, and the latter necessary to put an end to the lamentable and humiliating state of things that rendered necessary such repeated appeals for public aid. Now, his object was to redeem that part of the county from this humiliating position, by constructing a railway of eighty miles through the district. He begged, therefore, to direct the attention of the Government to a mode of relief involving no outlay of public money without sufficient security, and calculated to produce the greatest advantages. The development of the re- sources of remote districts by facilitating communications was a system which had been to a certain extent adopted with respect to the very country of which he was now speaking, as evidenced by the military roads constructed in the Highlands of Scotland. The country at that time was remote from civilisation, and in a turbulent and disturbed state; but now it presented no appearance of turbulence, and a people more patient and silent in the midst of starvation never existed. The principle on which he asked the Government to act had been recognised by the proceedings of Parliament above a century ago, when military roads were constructed in Scotland, under the superintendence of General Wade; but, in the present day, they must bear in mind that if they would carry out that principle, which had before been acted upon with success, it was no longer by means of ordinary roads that traffic was to be conducted. A system of railway communication must be introduced. The House had already extended its assistance to Scotch railways, but not to any connected with the Western Highlands or the Islands. In 1847, when Lord George Bentinck brought before the House his wise and benevolent measure for improving Ireland, by applying public money to the construction of railways in that country, he (Mr. J. Stuart) remembered that the noble Lord, in order to show that such an investment would not only improve the condition of the country, but also be safe, referred to the railway from Arbroath to a neighbouring district, which could not have been constructed without public money, and which within a few years entirely repaid the advance. This principle had also been extended, with safety to the public, to other parts of Scotland less requiring assistance than the district in behalf of which he now spoke. Again, in regard to the Dublin and Kingstown Railway—of the greatest importance to the resources of Ireland—public money had been advanced, and every farthing repaid. Though Lord George Bentinck's proposal with respect to Ireland failed, yet he need not remind the House that the Government, who voted against it, before the end of the Session were obliged to act on the principle themselves, and an Act of Parliament was passed empowering the Treasury to charge the Consolidated Fund to the amount of 620,000l. to facilitate the construction of three Irish railways; and no less a sum than 480,000l. was advanced towards the Midland and Great Western Railway of Ireland alone. The Earl of Clarendon, the late Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a few months ago, while assisting at the festival by which the opening of the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland, which was one of those three lines, had been celebrated, congratulated himself on the aid he had been able to give to the promoters of the undertaking, and expressed his satisfaction at its perfect success. No one could doubt that the money was wisely laid out, and had contributed to the development of the resources of the country. He found that the principle of advancing public money for public works was carried, under grants, some annual, some by special Acts of Parliament, to an enormous extent. A Parliamentary return of last Session, relative to the expenditure on public works, showed that there had been expended, during the period comprehended within the return, for Great Britain, 8,041,000l., and for Ireland, 2,450,000l., making a total of 10,491,000l. Yet upon the Islands of Scotland—a district with undeveloped resources—not one farthing of this public money had been expended. A stronger claim for the Western Islands was made out by the tact that a great deal of the money he had just mentioned had been expended for the construction of railways—no less than 973,000l. in Ireland, the greater part of which had been returned, and the whole of which would, no doubt, be ultimately repaid. In 1846 the House passed an Act the object of which was to facilitate the construction of a railway from Oban in communication with Glasgow; but that Act contemplated an incomplete communication, because the railway was not to be extended through the whole distance, but only forty-five or forty-six miles from Oban to the head of Loch Lomond (an inland sea about twenty-four miles in length), along which it was proposed to carry the traffic by steamboat. He needed not to say that this was a defective proposal, and failed. It was computed that the cost of these forty-five miles of railway would have been 265,000l.; but what was wanted was an undertaking that would require an outlay of nearly 500,000l., and that sum was beyond the resources of the Western Highlands. What was within their resources was the scheme of proportion adopted in other cases, whereby they would provide two-fifths, if the other three-fifths were advanced by the Government as a loan on the security of the undertaking. Considering some of the grants made for the completion of other undertakings, this appeared to him to be a modest demand on the part of this wide and populous district. He pressed this matter on the attention of the House, because he had been waited on during the last vacation by a number of proprietors and occupiers of land in the Western Highlands, who represented that the assistance he now asked from the Government would be more effectual than public charity or grants for emigration. They stated that they were content to have the case considered simply according to its merits, and they would be ready to abide by the result; and, with a view to obtain that fair consideration, he now solicited the House to accede to the resolution which he had placed on the paper. He did not, however, press for a hasty decision, nor ask the House at once to pledge itself to a grant of public money without being fully satisfied of its propriety. Let it be ascertained by an engineer, or some other man of skill appointed by authority—and this might be done at a very trifling outlay—whether the representations made in the memorials addressed to the Government on this subject were true or not, and consequently, he should be content, in moving his resolution, to let the consideration of it stand over until the Government were satisfied that they could reasonably entertain the proposition. Never was there a people better entitled to the favourable consideration of the House than the inhabitants of the Western Highlands and Isles. They were never troublesome, and, though poor, this remarkable fact was mentioned in the report of Sir John M'Neill, that from the Isle of Skye a revenue of 10,000l. a year was derived from one article alone. Yet this district, poor as it was, had had little or nothing done for it by the Government. Hon. Members might have seen a list of individuals who had risen to high rank in the Army and Navy, the sons of tenant-farmers from one island of the Hebrides, and he ventured to notice that circumstance, because he was most anxious to recommend this matter to the attention of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That it is expedient that assistance be afforded by Parliament and the Government, to facilitate the intercourse and traffic between the Western Highlands and Isles and the southern parts of the Kingdom, by the construction of a Railway from the town and harbour of Oban, in Argyllshire, to Glasgow.


said, that in principle he was certainly opposed to granting public money for the purpose of constructing any public works whatever; but he thought there were circumstances connected with the Western Islands of Scotland which, if fairly and impartially considered, ought to attract a large share of the attention of that House and of the country. They found, that whenever money was required for Ireland, weighty interests were brought to bear in order to procure the grant that was asked for. Ireland had not only Her Majesty's representative, the Lord Lieutenant, but also a Secretary of State, to represent the real or alleged grievances and wants of that country. He did not complain of that country being unduly favoured, because it had been for along time unduly oppressed. But Scotland, on the other hand, was never properly represented in the Government, and rarely obtained any assistance from the public purse. There is a Lord Advocate, it is true, who is supposed to attend to Scottish affairs; but while he is an advocate at the bar of Scotland, he passes a great part of the time in the Courts of the Parliament House at Edinburgh, which, in justice to Scotland, he should pass in the House of Commons. And yet three-fourths of the whole revenue collected in Scotland went into the Treasury of Great Britain, and one-fourth was found to be sufficient to pay for the whole military and civil expenditure of that portion of the Kingdom, including the expense of collecting the revenue. With respect to the particular case pointed out by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newark, he (Mr. Macgregor) believed that Government might with great safety make an advance upon that undertaking. It was one to which the landlords in the west of Scotland would all contribute as far as possible; and he believed that the passenger traffic of the railway, if once completed, would, especially in the summer and autumn seasons, be as great as that of the London and Brighton Railroad. The industry of the Western Highlands would be greatly increased by the opening of such a line, communicating with Glasgow, and consequently with all the other large towns in the Kingdom. He, therefore, begged to support the Motion of his hon. and learned Friend, as he thought that the subject was one well worthy of the consideration of the Government. At the same time he would not give his un- qualified assent to the proposition of his hon. and learned Friend until the whole plan should he laid before the House.


said, the resolution of the hon. and learned Member (Mr. J. Stuart) appeared to him to mean this—that a railroad to the extent of eighty miles was to be made from Oban to Glasgow, but that it would cost so much money that it would not pay any private undertakers to do it, therefore it ought to be paid for out of the public purse. It was to protest against that pinciple that he rose. They might tell him that private property in the Highlands of Scotland would be greatly improved by the expenditure, but they must show him how it was justifiable so to apply the public money. The hon. and learned Gentleman had stated that in a short time not less than 10,000,000l. had been paid out of the public purse to advance private interests. [Mr. J. STUART: NO!] He (Sir G. Strickland) supposed the advance was for railroads or draining. Now, to that system he objected. He possessed private property, and he should think it was totally unjustifiable to ask for an advance of public money for such a purpose. It might be said that the money was secured by-mortgage, to be repaid in a certain number of years; but what was that to him? He might live only ten years, and the money might not be repaid for thirty or forty years. Lord George Bentinck had asked for a large sum of money for railroads in Ireland, and if ever a country deserved a grant of public money to advance the national interests, it was Ireland; but the House had had the honesty to resist so false a principle, and he hoped the House would do the same in this instance.


Sir, I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Newark that he has not mistaken the feeling of the House and of the country, when he says there is considerable sympathy with the people of the Western Highlands of Scotland; and, if I saw that there was any means by which advantages could be secured to that part of Her Majesty's dominions, I would be the last to throw any obstacle in the way of such a proposition. But when we consider the question upon which my hon. and learned Friend has spoken—a question raised by a gentleman connected with that part of the United Kingdom, and who, from that circumstance, as well as from the position he holds in this House, is entitled to the highest consideration—and compare that question with the facts adduced, I am bound to say he has not established that position which, in setting out, he promised he would do. I do not approach the subject with any prejudice. I do not acknowledge the principle that the State should never assist private persons for the promotion of great and useful works; nor, notwithstanding what has been said, can I think the country has suffered by these advances. I cannot agree with what has fallen from the hon. Baronet (Sir G. Strickland). That hon. Member seemed to have forgotten that the repayment of the money advanced under the Drainage Act was secured by a charge upon the land, and that the country received ample interest for the advance. I could go a step further, and point out instances where loans similar to that proposed might be attended with great advantage. I am perfectly aware of that; but, at the same time, great caution must be used in making such advances, and they must never be applied unless under certain conditions. With such precautions, I repeat, there may be instances in which such advances would not only be expedient, but may be justified upon principles of science. I will not now stop to enter at any length into the discussion of the celebrated proposition once made in this House—made by one whose loss I shall always deplore. But that was not to be looked upon as a mere statistical proposition; it was a proposal, brought forward in a moment of great emergency, by Lord George Bentinck, to relieve a country under circumstances entirely exceptional. But, even if we take that celebrated measure, to which, right or wrong, I gave my warm and sincere support to my lamented Friend, that scheme was different, in many important features, from that of my hon. and learned Friend on the present occasion. In the case of the Irish railway scheme, put forward by Lord George Bentinck, a large advance of public money was, it is true, proposed; but there was this important condition annexed, that, in all such advances by the Government, there should be previsiously a considerable outlay of private capital. One third of the capital, if I remewber rightly, was to be laid out before the State made any loan. I cannot ascertain that in the case now put before the House, either from the speech of my hon. and learned Friend, or from the me- morial that has been officially presented to me in the course of the day, that there has been any previous outlay whatever, nor any existing guarantee that the public money should be repaid. The House is now really asked to make a grant of the public money for the purpose of constructing a railway—


The proposition made as to this railway was, that there should be an outlay of two-fifths before one farthing was asked from the Government.


When the proprietary have laid out two-fifths of the capital, they will be in a position to come to this House and state their case. I cannot say that I can recommend the grant sought for upon an hypothetical investment of money by certain persons in certain parts of the kingdom. If there had been a considerable outlay of capital—if the work had been one of great magnitude—and if a fair prospect of remuneration offered—these are circumstances under which it is possible the Government would be justified in coming forward; but in this case no money has been expended. It is avowed that nothing has been done, and I believe that even a survey has not been made. The hon. Member for Glasgow said that there were no maps or plans—


begged to say that he had not stated any such thing, for an actual survey had been made, and what he wished the Government to do was to complete the survey of that part of the line of railway not contemplated at the time of the former survey.


I always listen with pleasure to the statements of the hon. Member for Glagow, and it is possible it may have been his intention so to represent himself, but, at all events, it is usual in these cases that there should he a complete survey of the whole line along which the railway was to pass before any advance of public money is made by Parliament. I must repeat, that if I saw any proposition which I could fairly believe would advance the interests of the suffering community, I would receive it with the greatest consideration; but I cannot look upon the present proposal as having any such tendency. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Macgregor), from his official experience, must be aware of the fact that there is an annual Vote by Parliament legitimately applicable to undertakings of this character. The Loan Commissioners under the Public Works have a fund which may be thus applied if the security is legitimate, and the object a proper one. If the scheme for making the railroad from Glasgow to Oban be as important as the hon. Member states—if it be of the character which my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. J. Stuart) states—if that be so, and if they put themselves in a legitimate position, and apply to the Loan Commissioners of Public Works, I have no doubt but that they will receive that very assistance which they now ask by means of a grant of the House of Commons. I have no doubt but the construction of a railway in this district would be useful, but the House of Commons must have regard to general principles, which must not be lightly departed from. It gives me pain to oppose any proposal emanating from my hon. and learned Friend. I can only say that I will receive any memorial from the projectors of this railway, and give it every consideration in my power. I believe if the project be carried into effect it would be productive of beneficial results, and whatever machinery may be at the command of the Government will be cheerfully placed at their disposal.


said, he was not connected with any railroad in that part of the United Kingdom to which this proposition referred, but he conceived it was the duty of the Government to assist such a district as he believed that to be through which this railroad would run, in order to develop the resources of the country, and he thought that in no way could those resources be so effectually developed as by the construction of railways.


thought the grant asked for was not to benefit private proprietors. Some proprietors would undoubtedly benefit by it, if made; but the greatest benefit would accrue, not only to the particular district through which the railway was to pass, but to all the contiguous districts. He thought the objections, therefore, fell to the ground.


said, that this was one of those cases which were so often brought before Parliament, but which were extremely difficult for a Government to deal with. It was easy to ask for public money, and difficult to resist the application when a case of distress was made out. Some years ago there was a very great amount of distress in the Highlands of Scotland, and he had hoped that it would have been alleviated, if not entirely removed, by this time. As regarded the islands, nothing but emigration could afford permanent relief. He, at one time, felt inclined to advocate the grant of a sum of public money hi order to assist in removing them, their distress having in a great measure been occasioned by the change in our fiscal arrangements. He did not think a fixed rule should be laid down that public money ought never to be advanced, but at the same time he did not think the present case was one calling for assistance from the public funds. He did see how the proposed railway could benefit the islands; and, with regard to the prospects of its being a paying concern, he had the greatest possible doubts. The canal, which was made some years ago, from Oban to Glasgow, had been undertaken by the Government because its original promoters—the country gentlemen of the district—had failed to complete it, and because the Government wished to relieve the district from great distress. The canal was not profitable, and he could not discover what advantage would be derived from a railway. There was no traffic to support it. He should certainly advise the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make further inquiry, before recommending the grant of any sum by the Exchequer Loan Commissioners. The rules did not allow any sum to be advanced, except where the sum so advanced was likely to prove productive.


was totally opposed to all grants of this nature from the public funds; and he could not understand how any free-trader could support them, for they involved the worst features of a system of protection, which consisted in affording artificial encouragement to enterprises that ought to be left to depend on self-support. If, however, the principle was not objectionable, and the Government had plenty of loose cash at its disposal, he thought there were many public works more deserving of the assistance of the State than any railway scheme for the Highlands of Scotland. He did not recommend the outlay of public money in such undertakings, but he might cite as an example that a railway along the south coast of England, from Portsmouth to Plymouth, had a stronger claim on the attention of the House than the present proposition, from its connection with the now much talked of subject of the defences of the country.


said, it was plain from the blue books on this subject, that the people of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland were suffering under great distress, and that it was impossible for unaided private enterprise to afford them effectual relief. The proprietors of the district had already made the most laudable efforts to support the population, and, therefore, without inquiring whether the particular scheme of railway now proposed was the best that could be devised for the district, he was ready to advocate the advance of money suggested by the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Stuart) from the public funds.


said, it appeared to him that the right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer had overlooked one very important consideration—namely, that there was extreme distress existing in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. He did think that it was an object of the first consideration with a parental Government to afford profitable industrial employment to the people, without the necessity of their transporting themselves from the shores of their native country. He thought the hon. and learned Member for Newark was entitled to the best thanks of the House for the able and lucid statement he had put before them. As to the want of traffic on the contemplated line, experience showed that a railway, once constructed, created traffic. He himself knew an instance of a line which had been formed in a mountainous district, where previously the passenger traffic had scarcely employed a single coach, yet, since the formation of the railway, the passenger traffic had risen in amount to 15,000l. per annum. He should like to have the assurance of the Government that they would be prepared to consider the matter in the event of the parties themselves raising a portion of the capital. He understood the inhabitants had offered to defray two-fifths of the expenses of the preliminary survey.


said, he had also hoped that the right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer would have afforded more countenance than he had done to this scheme, because he thought the case brought forward by the hon. and learned Member for Newark a very peculiar one, not only with regard to the extent of the distress Which prevailed among the Highland population, but also with regard to the extent of the country whose resources would be developed by the projected railway. He thought the case had not been properly considered by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had himself thrown out some suggestions showing that the subject required further elucidation; and for that reason he would now move that the debate be adjourned till that day fortnight.


seconded the Amendment.


regarded the establishment of lines of communication between the extreme points of a country as of great importance, both in a military and commercial point of view. Every one must feel anxious that this interesting population should not be compelled to fly their native shores; but he suggested whether the hon. and learned Gentlemen (Mr. J. Stuart) would not best advance his case by laying a more matured plan before the right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer. He believed that it would be quite impossible to raise local subscriptions without there was a promise of ulterior assistance from the Government; but with that he thought that an advance of public money might prove of national as well as local benefit.

Debate adjourned till Tuesday, 30th March.