It would require a closer acquaintance with the recent history of Sutherlandshire than I am able to communicate, and better abilities than mine, to convey to the reader an adequate idea of the mournful contrast between the former comfortable and independent state of the people and that presented in my last. They were now generally speaking, become a race of paupers, trembling at the very looks of their oppressors, objects of derision and mockery to the basest underlings, and fed by the scanty hand of those who had been the means of reducing them to their present state! To their capability of endurance must, in a great measure, be ascribed their surviving in any considerable numbers, the manifold inflictions they had to encounter. During the spring and summer many of the young and robust of both sexes left the country in quest of employment; some to the neighbouring county of Caithness, but most of them went to the Lowlands, and even into England, to serve as cattle drivers, labourers and in other menial occupations. No drudgery was too low for their acceptance, nor any means left untried, by which they could sustain life in the most frugal manner, and anything earned above this was carefully transmitted to their suffering relations at home. When the harvest commenced they were rather better employed, and then the object was to save a little to pay the rent at the approaching term; but there was another use they had never thought of, to which their hard and scanty earnings had to be applied.
Not long after the termination of the Duchess’ visit (during which the address given in my last was presented), I think just about two months after, the people were astonished at seeing placards posted up in all public places, warning them to prepare to pay their rents, and also the meal, potatoes, and seed oats and barley they had got during the spring and summer! This was done in the name of the Duchess, by the orders of Mr. Loch and his under-factors. Ground-officers were dispatched in all directions to explain and enforce this edict, and to inform the small tenants that their rents would not be received till the accounts for the provisions were first settled. This was news indeed! – astonishing intelligence this – that the pitiful mite of relief, obtained with so much labour and ceremony, and doled out by pampered underlings with more than the usual insolence of charity, was after all to be paid for! After government aid and private charity, so effectually afforded to other Highland districts, had been intercepted by ostentatious promises of ample relief from the bounty of her Grace; after the clergy had lauded the Almighty, and her Grace no less, for that bounty; the poor creatures were to be concussed into paying for it, and at a rate too, considerably above the current prices. I know this, to persons unacquainted with Highland tyranny, extortion and oppression, will appear incredible; but I am able to substantiate its truth by clouds of living witnesses.
The plan adopted deserves particular notice. The people were told, “their rents would not be received till the provisions were first paid for.” By this time those who had procured a little money by labouring elsewhere, were returning with their savings to enable their relatives to meet the rents and this was thought a good time to get the “charity” paid up. Accordingly when the people, as usual, waited upon the factor with the rent, they were told distinctly that the meal, &c., must be paid first, and that if any lenity was shown, it would be for the rent, but none for the provisions! The meaning of this scheme seems to be, that by securing payment for the provisions in the first instance, they would avoid the odium of pursuing for what was given as charity, knowing that they could at any time enforce payment of the rent, by the usual summary means to which they were in the habit of resorting. Some laid down their money at once, and the price of all they had got was then deducted, and a receipt handed to them for the balance, in part of their rent. Others seeing this, remonstrated and insisted on paying their rent first, and the provisions afterwards, if they must be paid; but their pleading went for nothing, their money was taken in the same manner, (no receipts in any case being given for the payment of the “charity,” and they were driven contemptuously from the counting-table.
A few refused to pay, especially unless receipts were granted for the “charity,” and returned home with the money, but most of them were induced by the terror of their families to carry it back and submit like the rest. A smaller portion, however, still continued refactory, and alternate threats and wheedlings were used by the underlings to make these comply; so that gradually all were made to pay the last shilling it was possible for them to raise. Some who had got certificates of destitution being unable, from age or illness, to undergo the fatigue of waiting on the factors for their portion, or of carrying it home, had to obtain the charitable assistance of some of their abler fellow sufferers for that purpose, but when there was any difficulty about the payment, the carriers were made accountable the same as if they had been the receivers! Hitherto, the money collected at the church doors, had been divided among the poor, but this year it was withheld; in one parish to my personal knowledge (and as far as my information goes the refusal was general), the parish minister telling them that they could not expect to get meal and money both, signifying that the deficient payments for the provisions had to be made up from the church collections. Whether this was the truth or not, it served for a pretext to deprive the poor of this slender resource; for, ever since – now four years – they have got nothing. This is one among many subjects of enquiry… A rev. gentleman from the west, whose failing it was to transgress the ten commandments, had, through some special favour, obtained a parish in Sutherlandshire, and thinking probably that charity should begin at home, had rather misapplied the poor’s money which was left in his hand, for on his removal to another parish, there was none of it forthcoming. The elders of his new parish being aware of this, refused to entrust him with the treasurership, and had the collection-money kept in a locked box in the church, but when it amounted to some pounds, the box was broken up and the money was taken out. The minister had the key of the church.
Owing to the complete exhaustion of the poor people’s means in the manner I have been describing, the succeeding year (1838) found them in circumstances little better than its predecessor. What any of them owed in Caithness and elsewhere, they had been unable to pay, and consequently their credit was at an end, and they were obliged to live from hand to mouth; besides, this year was unproductive in the fishing, as the years since have also been.
In the earlier part of this correspondence, I have treated of the large sums said to have been laid out on improvements, (roads, bridges, inns, churches, manses, and mansions for the new tenants); but I have yet to mention a poll-tax called road money, amounting to 4s. on every male of 18 years and upwards, which was laid on about the year 1810, most rigorously exacted, and continues to be levied on each individual in the most summary way, by seizure of any kind of moveables in or about the dwelling till the money is paid. To some poor families this tax came to £1 and upwards every year, and be it observed that the capitalist possessing 50,000 acres, only pays in the same proportion, and his shepherds are entirely exempt! Those of the small tenantry or their families, who may have been absent for two or three years, on their return are obliged to pay up their arrears of this tax, the same as if they had been all the time at home; and payment is enforced by seizure of the goods of any house in which they may reside. The reader will perceive that the laws of Sutherlandshire are different, and differently administered, from what they are in other parts of the country – in fact those in authority do just what they please, whether legal or otherwise, none daring to question what they do. Notwithstanding this burdensome tax, the roads, as far as the small tenants’ interests are concerned, are shamefully neglected, while every attention is paid to suit the convenience and pleasure of the ruling parties and the new tenantry, by bringing roads to their very doors.