HC Deb 20 March 1891 vol 351 cc1583-96
(9.0.) MR. MUNRO FERGUSON (Leith, &c.)

The Motion which I have placed on the Paper refers to a portion of the group of subjects which are embraced under the head of the crofter difficulty, and I have purposely framed the Motion so as to make it of an entirely non-contentious character. The Motion aims at an object which is quite unpolitical; but the question at issue is one which in the public interest should be dealt with at the earliest possible moment. It will be in the recollection of the House that under the Crofter Act, 1886, very considerable rights were given to the occupiers of land in certain districts of the Highlands. The crofters acquired large proprietary rights in their holdings, and tenants in townships became part owners of the grazings. But, at the same time, no legal status was conferred upon the men entitling them to be represented in Court, to sue or to be sued. While the power of control in regard to the management of common outruns has been taken out of the proprietors' hands, nothing has been put in its place, and the consequence is that in many townships something very like chaos reigns, so far as the common interest in the grazings is concerned. Lord Napier's Committee reported in favour of conferring corporate powers upon crofter townships. In the Act of 1886 this portion of the Committee's Report was disregarded. Unless some plan is found under which tenants can exercise some effective control over the management of outruns, we shall have a continual period of strife, and a very large proportion of the benefit the tenants would otherwise enjoy under the Crofter Act will be lost to them. I have had many letters from crofters in different parts of Ross-shire asking for interference such as I propose. Very great difficulty exists in the Highlands to get a number of tenants to agree about the management of a common stock. The Commission, in fixing the rent, allocated the interest in the commonalty, and attached a portion of the commonalty to each separate croft. Some crofters maintain a larger stock upon the outrun than they are entitled to maintain there, and at the same time pay no rent to the landlord or compensation to the other tenants of the outrun. A simple remedy might be found in giving two-thirds of the township the right to appoint managers, who would be able to exercise certain powers; but I think it would be better the Commission should have the power, where the landlord and crofters or the crofters fail to agree on a system of management, to call upon the tenants or the landlord and the crofters to appoint a managing committee for the township. In case of failure on the part of the tenants and landlord the Commission should have power to appoint managers and frame rules and regulations for their guidance. Managers are wanted, because though the Commission might settle the question of stocking and fencing rights for themselves it would be a very lengthy matter: it would take many years to get over the ground. Besides, managers would be useful in many other ways. It might be one of the duties of managers to adjust the stock each crofter was entitled to have, and to fix the grazing rents for horses, cattle and sheep. The managers would exercise control over the township fences, over the repair of the roads, which now are grievously neglected. They would also control the rights of the crofters in regard to sea-ware. The managers would be empowered to cause extra stock to be paid for or else removed, would pay the rents due for overstock to those who had understock, and generally arrange for the management of the stock on the ground. If the rules were broken, the managers should have power to go to the Sheriff and obtain a writ, which would enable them to sell the surplus stock. In that case the first charge on the sale would be the expenses of the proceedings. I think it would be found that this system might lead to the development of the Club Paid System, which is very desirable in the Highlands. I hope I may claim the favourable consideration by the Government of the proposal I have laid before the House. I ask them either to bring in an amending Bill, or else undertake to support a Bill which I should be very glad to bring in. My proposal does not partake of anything of the nature of a suspiciously reforming character. My object is simply to get the full benefit out of the measures which have previously been passed by the House. I have raised this question by itself, as I know very well that if it were mixed up with other matters there would be very little hope of obtaining a speedy remedy. I shall certainly oppose any attempt which is made to alter the scope of my intentions. On this ground I invite general support of this Resolution, which, however modest in appearance, will, I believe, effect real good, promoting, as it will, peace and the good conduct of affairs in the Highlands.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, the Crofter Act, 1886, should be amended in so far as to confer upon the Commission powers to regulate the conditions and management of Crofters' Common Grazings,"—(Mr. Munro Ferguson,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

*(9.14.) MR. FRASER - MACKINTOSH (Invernessshire)

The hon. Member for Leith has done good service in bringing this matter before the attention of the House, though I regret that his Motion is not more comprehensive in its character. One of the most pressing grievances which came before the Crofter Commission of 1883 was that relating to the question of grazing and the stock upon club farms. It was so very pressing that our Chairman, Lord Napier, laid down some very stringent rules with regard to the management of club farms, but the Act of 1886 to a great extent ignored the point. The grievance is this: There may be 20 tenants of one stock farm; the whole of the tenants may not be in the same pecuniary position, the consequence being that the moderately wealthy man puts a larger stock upon the land than he is entitled to do to the detriment of the poorer crofters, who are, however, obliged to pay their proportions of the rent. I do not think the Lord Advocate can for a moment have any objection to the principle involved in this Motion. I am quite aware he and his predecessors have always been indisposed to bring forward Crofter Bills, lest attempts to introduce comprehensive Amendments should be made; but if the right hon. and learned Gentleman can see his way to bring in a Bill, or promise his support to a measure brought in by a private Member, he will do great service, because I can testify that a grievance does here exist which ought to be speedily remedied.

*(9.16.) MR. PARKER SMITH (Lanark, Partick)

It is a question open to argument whether the Crofter Act, 1886, requires any Amendment as regards the relation of crofters and landlords, but into that question I do not propose to enter on the present occasion. The Act, however, is deficient in not defending the crofters from each other. In communities of crofters, rights are so thoroughly and completely interlaced that the comfortable conditions and relations of life depend very much on there being some means of determining and loosening these rights from each other. Such matters as over-stocking, bringing down cattle too soon from the hills to the low districts, the cutting of peat, and drainage, are matters which do not concern the landlord in any way, but upon the settlement of which the happiness and the comfort of the crofters depend. In addition to the common grazings, the ground under crop is held in tiny and unenclosed plots. It is in evidence, for example, that on the Torridon Estate the holding of one man consisted of 43 plots—the whole, I suppose, not amounting to an acre. There is no wonder that difficulties of neighbourship arise when rights relating to ground are mixed up in this way. As a crofter expressively put it in a somewhat complex and involved sentence: "We were not understanding one another amongst ourselves in these matters." Public opinion is, no doubt, very strong on such points, but something further is needed in those exceptional cases in which a man does not regard public opinion. In old times, if a man made himself unpleasant to his neighbours, the proprietor had the right of sending him away. This is now altogether changed. The Crofters' Act contemplates the landlord imposing conditions not only in his own individual interest but for the benefit of the crofters at large. That is occasionally done. I hold in my hands the terms of a lease which provides that, constables having been elected by the crofters of the township with the approval of the proprietor, the constables shall report to the proprietor any breach of certain specified regulations made for the common good. This lease has been in existence for four years, on one of the few estates where the crofters did not go into Court, but had their rents settled by agreement. It is so satisfactory to both parties that, at its expiry next Martinmas, it will probably be continued indefinitely by tacit relocation. But I do not know of another lease in Scotland, and certainly not of one where conditions as to the mutual relations of the crofters are inserted. Such conditions imply active personal interest and continuous residence on the part of the landlord. In general, the crofters have gone into Court to get their rents fixed, but they are at arm's length with the proprietor, and any questions which exist between themselves they are left free to fight out in the best way they can, without the intervention or assistance of the proprietor. Very few landlords in the Highlands now interest themselves in the affairs of the crofters. By your Act you have made them to a great extent rent-chargers, and have put them at arm's length with the crofters. There are good reasons, no doubt, for what you have done, but you must carry through the policy you have initiated. You must fill the place made vacant, by the patriarchal power of the landlord being to some extent superseded. You must rely to a considerable extent on what the Napier Commission relied upon—on the feeling in the minds of the crofters for corporate action by townships, and you must supply the place of the landlord's ground officer by constables to be chosen by the crofters. Mr. Carmichael gave Lord Napier's Commission a very interesting account of the assistance the township constables had been in the Western Hebrides. We can see that to a certain extent that account is idealised and somewhat poetical, but it has a considerable, basis of truth. The system of appointing constables on the estate to which I have already referred, has worked thoroughly and effectually, and has made these small matters go smoothly and easily. It would be well to let the crofters have an opportunity, under the law, of appointing such men to look after common interests. But you must have some kind of sanction. Formerly the sanction was obtained by a visit to the big house, or by means of a formidable letter on the most official-looking foolscap that could be obtained. In the final resort you will have to give power to the Sheriff to fine. I do not see that you can put the power of fining into the hands of these constables, but you can give them the power of reporting to the Sheriff, and give him the power of imposing small fines, or, in the last resort, of putting a man out of his holding. That would very likely mean an increase of the number of sheriff-substitutes, which was called for by the Commission in its Report as a desirable and useful-reform in the Highlands. To a certain extent it might be felt that there is an objection to bringing the Sheriff into these matters. But you are passing from the period of the dominion of custom to that of the dominion of law, and it is necessary to acknowledge that you give some authority to the law in these matters. I believe the power of the law would never have to be called in, and that it would be sufficient to have it there in the background.

(9.30.) DR. McDONALD (Ross and Cromarty)

The Mover and Seconder of the Resolution said this was a very small matter indeed, and I quite agree with them. I understand the Government are going to accept the Resolution, and I suppose we must be thankful for very small mercies. I, myself, think that in many instances this proposal will be resented by the crofters, who will say they are able to manage their own affairs. In the village in which I was brought up, it was the custom for the inhabitants to meet and appoint two or three men to look after the interests of the village, and everything had to be done as these men ordered.

(9.32.) Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present,

(9.33.) DR. McDONALD

I know this proposal is regarded as necessary in some places, but I am afraid it will not be received with a very good grace by a great many communities in the Highlands. In a great many districts the people have been very dependent on the estate managers, who have done everything for them, and now they are not able to take such good care of themselves as other communities which have not been so dependent on the estate managers in the past. If the Government think proper to pass an Act specially for this small matter I have no objection, only if they do so, I think they will find it wise not to make it obligatory, as the crofters are perfectly capable of appointing men to manage their affairs for them in their own way. I think, also, as some authorities have said, that the Act already gives this power, if it is required.


It may be advisable at this stage to state the views of the Government on this Motion. The hon. Member who has just spoken has intimated that certain high authorities are of opinion that the existing law is sufficient to meet the specific grievance, clearly and frankly put forward by the hon. Member for Leith. I shall await with interest for the disclosure of their names. What is the grievance which is stated to exist? All who are acquainted with the Highlanders are aware that many of the crofters, in addition to the generally small patch of ground of which they are the sole occupants, have aright of grazing over a common piece of ground. Before the passing of the Crofters' Act the adjustment of the rights inter se of these tenants was determined by the landlord, who assigned to each tenant the degree of use of the common ground to which he should be entitled. Accordingly, by the most direct operation of the contract, any departure from the precise measure of right given to each crofter was certain to be put right by the landlord's power of bringing the contract to an end. I gather, from what has been said in the Debate, that it is one of the consequences of the Crofters Act, that as the power of the landlord in this respect has been taken away, there is no authority now in existence which has power to make regulations as to the number of cattle which each crofter shall be entitled to place upon the common grazing ground, and to prevent abuses of the common right. The question, therefore, is one between the crofters inter se, and does not concern the landlords in any way. The hon. Member for Ross (Dr. McDonald) appeared to think that there was some tribunal that had the power of checking the abuses that have been indicated, but I confess that I do not know of any such tribunal myself. Probably it was an omission from the Crofters Act that no such tribunal was appointed. As far as my knowledge goes, I confirm the statements of the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Munro Ferguson). It is quite true that there are traces in the Crofters Act of a desire to give the power of regulating common use to the Crofters Commission, but they relate to a more limited class of holdings than are referred to in the Motion. I should advise the House to assume that there are deficiencies of controlling power in this matter. I am bound to say I think a remedy is desirable, and I think also there is nothing in the suggestion that has been made, as to the kind of remedy, which is inconsistent with the principles already recognised by the law. We are here to regulate the inequities and anomalies which may arise through want of agreement among joint possessors, and I cannot see anything which is at all opposed to sound principles, either of law or policy, in assigning the consideration of questions of this kind to some administrative Department. Then the next question is how can that be done? The Government are disposed to assent to the Resolution proposed by the hon. Member for Leith, but he will allow me to point out to him that the mode of proceeding requires some care, following in the direction of simplicity and directness rather than by the use of a complex and cumbrous apparatus. The Motion of the hon. Member is in the following terms— That the Crofters Act, 1886, should be amended in so far as to confer upon the Commission powers to regulate the conditions and management of crofters' common grazings. I am prepared to assent to that proposition, and accordingly, when the hon. Member comes, as it will fall to him to do, to offer a Bill on the subject to the House, he will probably start on the assumption that the only call for interference is where there is failure of agreement among those interested. In that I am entirely in accord with the hon. Member for Boss, for I cannot suppose it will be considered desirable that Parliament should thrust upon the Crofters Commission in the first place, and upon Highland communities in the second place, any rigid or Procrustean method, but rather that the proposal should be that the Commission should enter when there is failure of agreement and need of rectification. That will be following practical and useful precedents. In truth, if people were reasonable, there ought to be no need for the intervention of law in the matter; but from the beginning of time joint occupancies have shown a disposition towards discord, and accordingly, as lawyers know, there are rules of common law by which the quarrels of joint possessors are solved in a Court of Law, but only in the case of disagreement is there this intervention. Therefore I trust the suggestion of the hon. Member for Boss will find favour, that there shall be no interference except when there is application to the Commissioners to remedy grievances existing, and which cannot be rectified by common action and in common council. The hon. Member will also probably consider whether it is necessary to set up an elaborate apparatus having some standing and local origin. I gather that the hon. Member for Boss deprecates that, and probably it might be for the House to say whether the setting up of district tribunals with more or less sonorous titles would not draw upon such bodies more envy than respect, and will take into consideration the question whether it is not preferable to adopt the simpler method of making application to the Crofters Commission to lay down regulations on the matter in dispute, and any infringement of the regulation should be matter of application by any one feeling aggrieved to the Judge ordinary of the district. This would be complete, without complexity; and failure to observe those rights could be dealt with in a legal manner, and the remedy would be open to all whose rights were violated. I do not know how far the hon. Member might consider it necessary to go; and this is a matter entirely for the sequel, and not having reference to the Motion itself. The hon. Gentleman will probably consider whether it is desirable to anticipate difficulties, or to deal only with those which are observable. As I understand, the real difficulty arises from the attempt to occupy, by those who have more means or are more powerful than their neighbours, more than their share of the common pasture. There may be other difficulties about, the herdings, but probably it would be wiser, in the meantime, to confine the regulations to the difficulty at hand. I think the House will be well advised in not interfering too much in laying down rules for people in matters they ought to determine for themselves. It would be a very great pity if we were to outstrip the necessities of the time and put these people into leading strings through the Crofter Commission, by means of crofter constables or by other means under any new or oldfangled names. I have said all it behoves me to say in the nature of suggestion, and I trust I have not said anything which at all grates on the feelings of even the most advanced champion of the Crofters Act. We are not now dealing with ulterior views. I understand that the Motion is directed to this specific grievance in connection with the privilege of common grazing. In this spirit I accept the proposition, and I find nothing to take exception to in the Motion, while reserving to the Government full freedom of criticism of any Bill that may be brought in, as to scope, extent, machinery and details. I think I have with sufficient frankness stated the general view with which we accept the Motion.

(9.49.) DR. CLARK (Caithness)

These may be the grievances of which the hon. Member for Leith complains, but these must arise in connection with the new crofters who have come in without signing the old estate regulations. If the hon. Member will look at Subsection 5 of the 1st section of the Crofters Act, he will find that the estate regulations are to continue, and as all the crofters signed these, and as they lay down the proportions of stock each man can put on the grazing land, the only difficulty must be with those who have come into their crofts since the Act was passed five years ago, and, of course, if these have not signed the regulations they are not bound by them. Under the last paragraph of the 12th section of the Act, power is given to the Commissioners to determine all questions relating to fuel-cutting, and the points raised by the hon. Member for the Particle Division. I think also, the last subsection of the 21st section gives power to the Commissioners to determine questions as to grazing. The grievances the hon. Member has alluded to, can only occur on a few estates, where there are no regulations and where those who have acquired their rights to croft have done so since the passing of the Act. In such cases grievances may exist and the landlords may not put themselves to the trouble of interfering; but I think in most cases the regulations which crofters have signed determine the amount of stock each shall put upon the land and the respective rights of crofters. I do not, however, know that there is any power given to the Commissioners to compel obedience to the regulations, and it seems to me that if anything is required it is an extension of the powers of the Commissioners under the 5th sub-section, in addition to the power they now have to prevent violations of the conditions, both as between the crofters and their neighbours and between the crofters and the landlord. I have no objection at all to my hon. Friend bringing in a Bill of this kind, though I do not think this has been much of a grievance. There are very serious grievances we should like to bring before the House, and several of us have made every effort to do so. We have balloted again and again for an opportunity to bring crofters' grievances before the House, but such is the irony of fate, that while we have been unsuccessful an outside Member secures the opportunity to bring this infinitesimal, this homeopathic grievance under notice. Well, it is the chance of the ballot, and we must not complain, though I think we had a right to complain when the opportunity my hon. Friend the Member for Sutherland (Mr. Sutherland) had obtained, was appropriated for Government business. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leith upon being so fortunate as to find this opportunity for his Motion, and to find the Lord Advocate ready to give it such a friendly reception. There are other and much more urgent matters in relation to the Crofters Act—there is that concession the Government have allowed to Irish tenants, and yet deny to crofters, the bringing leasehold tenants under the Act. It engenders the strongest sense of injustice when a man finds his neighbours on either side of him obtaining reductions in their rent from 40 to 75 per cent., while he is compelled to continue paying his old rent. I do not intend to introduce this subject now, but I hope that during the remainder of the Session we may be more successful in the ballot and bring these much more serious grievances before the House.

(9.55.) MR. A. SUTHERLAND (Sutherland)

I am glad to find the Lord Advocate offers no opposition to this Motion. The right hon. Gentleman seems to express a preference for the Sheriff's Court over the Crofter Commission.


No; what I said was, I thought the duty of laying down regulations might properly, and to a large extent, be left to the Commission; but that violations of these regulations should be dealt with by the ordinary tribunals as breaches of contract.


Yes, that there should be an appeal from the order of the Commission to the Sheriff's Court. Bat I should prefer to see any such power left with the Commission entirely rather than to have the power vested in the Sheriff's Court. I also wish to say in regard to the difficulties expressed by the hon. Member for the Partick Division, that, although I have had considerable experience of these matters in the Highlands, these difficulties between individual crofters are entirely new to me. I support with pleasure the Resolution of my hon. Friend the Member for Leith. I have no exception to take to the manner in which the Lord Advocate has expressed his view, and I hope that When legislative proposals are made they will find acceptance in an equally kindly spirit.

(9.56.) SIR G. TREVELYAN (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

This has been the most carefully circumscribed Debate we have had for a long time. The issue is so narrow that the most fertile imaginations have not carried speakers beyond it, and every hon. Member who has spoken has kept well within the limit the hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Atkinson) laid down in his Bill for the limitation of the duration of speeches. There is not a word in the speech of the Lord Advocate to which I can take exception, and I think he suggested a very good Amendment to the proposal when he recommended that the services of the Commissioners should only be called in when wanted. That is a condition of legislation I should like to see more of in the House. I have read the section upon which my hon. Friend the Member for Ross seemed to rely for his suggestion that the Commissioners already have this power, and as to which the Lord Advocate does not take a similar view. It appears to me that the section applies to grazing in connection with enlargement of holdings under the Act, and we know, therefore, that the section will not have a very wide application at present. My hon. Friend brought forward this Motion with the hope that, being accepted by the Government, it would be met by a Bill from the Government Bench. That, it seems, is not to be the case, but we are far from complaining of the suggestion of the Lord Advocate that the difficulty should be met by a Bill from this side of the House. This Debate has been limited because the Resolution is limited in its terms; but when a Bill is brought forward from this side of the House, I know from private conversations with my hon. Friends on this subject, that the Bill will not be so limited; it will be of a very different nature, and I earnestly trust that our legislative proposals will be accepted in as amicable, reasonable, and statesmanlike a manner as this Resolution has to-night been received.

(9.58.) MR. J. P. B. ROBERTSON

The right hon. Gentleman will allow me to say—for I do not wish him to be under misapprehension—that my offer of friendly consideration had reference solely to a Bill exclusively directed to the definite subject alluded to in the Resolution.


I understand that entirely.

Question put, and negatived.

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to. Resolved, That, in the opinion of this House the Crofter Act, 1886, should be amended in so far as to confer upon the Commission powers to regulate the conditions and management of Crofters' Common Grazings. Resolved, That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee of Supply.—(Mr. Sidney Herbert.)

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."

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