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The Northern Highlands in the Nineteenth Century
Appendix 3


THE HIGHLANDS IN 1791.

A REPORT BY THE S.P.C.K.

In course of looking over the volumes of the “Courier” we came on traces of a report on the condition of the Highlands in 1791, issued by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. Through the courtesy of Mr Nisbet, W.S., secretary to the Highland Education Trust (the successor of the S.P.C.K.), we have obtained a copy of this report, and give it below. It will interest many readers as an authentic document, issued at a time when social changes were going forward in the Highlands. Although not complimentary to landlords, it does not hesitate to lay a finger on the economic side of the question. Remedies were proposed in a hopeful spirit, but we can see now that they had no chance of success.

The origin of the Report is given as follows in the proceedings of the Society from September 1790 to November 1791. “The remote Western Highlands and Islands, of all the counties of Scotland, were the least know to the Society, and of all those to which then attention is called by their patents, had least experienced the benefit of their institution. It was resolved that the secretary should visit these distant and widely extended districts, enquire into the state of religion, literature, and industry among their inhabitants, and report to the Society such plans as should appear most likely to promote their improvement. A general outline of a tour for this purpose was agreed upon by the directors in concert with the secretary; and he was instructed to begin his journey as soon after the anniversary meeting in June as possible.”

Tho secretary at the time was the Rev. Dr John Kemp, collegiate minister of Tol-booth Church, Edinburgh. He had been translated to that church from Trinity Gask in 1779, and in 1789 was elected to the office of secretary to the S.P.C.K. The notice given of him in Scott’s Fasti says—“His able and successful exertions in favour of the above-mentioned Society well merited their respect and gratitude. The tours which were continued by him for successive years were essentially useful in producing a body of information respecting their schools and missions in the highlands.” Among his publications is mentioned an Account of the Society, published in 1796. Dr Kemp died in 1805, in the 61st year of his age and the 36th of his ministry.

Subjoined is the report: —

Excerpt from the Report of the Directors of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge for the year to November 1791: —

A variety of causes have contributed to produce that rage for emigration to America, which now obtains, in many parts of the Highlands and Islands. Among these are to be numbered, it is true, the causes commonly assigned, viz., the dispeopling in great measure of large tracts of country in order to make room for sheep —the conversion of small into great farms, to the exclusion of the inferior order of tenants—the prejudice, almost invincible, which many Highland proprietors entertain against granting any leases, or leases of a sufficient length to encourage the tenant’s to improve their farms—the eagerness with which some landholders raise their rents, while they furnish neither the means nor instruction as to the manner by which the tenants may be enabled to pay them ; the non-residence of the proprietors, and their total want of tenderness for, or attention to their people, in consequence of which the ancient confidence and affection subsisting between chiefs and their clans are greatly weakened, in some parts of the country totally annihilated. Add to these the claims of affection and kindred vehemently urged, by those who have already emigrated, on their friends and neighbours at homo to induce them to follow their example; and the flattering, perhaps insidious, representations of agents, employed by purchasers of land in America, to engage settlers to remove to their estates; add likewise the contagion of example and the infectious spirit of wandering which often, without reason from the immediate pressure of grievances felt, seizes upon a body of people, and you have a list of the commonly assigned, and in part true causes of emigration. At the same time, an attentive and general observation of the present state of the Highlands and Islands, it is imagined, will fully warrant the assertion that the great and most universally operating cause of emigration is that in comparison of the means of subsistence which they afford, these counties are greatly overstocked with inhabitants.

Intestine wars and feuds, by which numbers of them in former ages were cut off, have for many years been unknown. No drains for the supply of the army and navy have of late been made. Add to this that the people are prolific to an uncommon degree. Want and misery staring them in the face, prevent not, among these simple uncorrupted people, the early marriage of both sexes; and the children seldom fail to be numerous.

The climate in these countries is generally unfriendly to the growth of corn. Rains prevail through a great part of the year; seed-time and harvest are late, and the scanty crop is with difficulty got in, seldom without injury from the weather. Oats and barley, or rather bear, both of an inferior kind, are almost the only species of grain raised in these countries. Oats at an average yield only about three, and bear about six returns. The expense of raising even these poor crops in comparison of their value is immense. From these various causes many most intelligent observers of the state of these countries are of opinion that the raising of corn ought seldom comparatively to be attempted in the Western Highlands and Islands, and that the attention of farmers ought to be confined to the improvement of their pasture lands, and the cultivation of potatoes and other green crops. Were the odious and unproductive tax upon coals to be abolished, and the malt laws so amended or explained that that essential commodity might be furnished in abundance to the people for the curing of their fish for home-consumption, their condition would be amended to an astonishing degree. But to the complete improvement of the country and the situation of its inhabitants the introduction of manufactures is Indispensably necessary. Of these they are ignorant to a degree, almost inconceivable by people who live only a hundred miles from them.

Spinning on the wheel, the simplest branch of female industry, is in many parts of the country almost unknown. The coarse cloths used for home consumption, “both linen and woollen, are spun by the women on the distaff, chiefly while engaged in attending the cattle or in the labours of the field, a great part of the drudgery of which is performed by them while the men are either idle or engaged in fishing. Women carry seaweed to the kelp kilns and! manure to the fields on their backs, and in many respects are used as beasts of burden. To almost all the arts of female industry within doors 'they are strangers, so that the greatest part of the winter months they spend in absolute idleness, subsist long with the rest of the families to they belong upon two meals of the coarsest fare in the 24 hours; and happy would the bulk of the people in these countries deem themselves if even, of 6uch fare, they had twice in the day what would satisfy the demands of nature.

The introduction of manufactures into these countries of all expedients is the best adapted for their improvement. This is a proposition too obvious to require proof or illustration. Difficulties as may be naturally supposed must attend the accomplishment of this object; but were proprietors to pay that attention to it, which its importance to their own interest as well as the happiness of their people demand, it is imagined that these difficulties would soon be found not only not unsurmountable but easy to be overcome.

Among the causes which contributed to prevent the success of former attempts for the introduction of manufactures into the Highlands, may be reckoned the very great expense in buildings, salaries of agents, factors, etc., with which they were conducted, and their aiming at too high objects at the outset.

To begin with the simplest principles; to make the people employed feel the immediate and full benefit of their own industry and to proceed gradually, suffering the manufacture to support itself, or nearly so, in its various progressive stages, seems to be the most probable, as it 6urely is the least hazardous mode of ensuring success.

The spinning of flax, hemp, cotton, or wool is the first step towards the introduction of the manufactures best adapted to the Highlands and Islands. Different opinions are entertained as to which of them the preference is due. The argument in favour of wool, the raw material being the produce of the country, is unquestionably strong. But if inclination, convenience, or interest, should lead to a preference of any of the rest, why should not the experiment be made? Let but the spirit of the habits and profits of industry be introduced among the people, and one species of manufacture will be found by no means to interfere with another. It will rather excite an emulation favourable to all. Habits of application and industry when once formed may easily be directed into that channel which experience shall teach to be most advantageous.

Indolence is commonly considered as the most predominant feature in the character of the Highlanders. Nothing can be a greater mistake. No people are more quick-sighted in discerning their own interest, when placed within the sphere of their observation, or more patient or persevering in its pursuit If, indeed, when but half-fed and half-clothed, their 6pirit broken by oppression, and they forced to labour, not for themselves or their families, but for others, their exertions are but feeble it is not to be wondered. But whenever the Highlanders enjoy the common advantages which free Britons^ do in other parts of the kingdom, experience and observation warrant the assertion that they are excelled by none in quickness of apprehension or alertness of execution. Their spirit and activity in the army and navy are well known and have been the subject of many eulogiums from persons of the most distinguished character. Their sobriety, regularity, and steadiness in common life are no less highly celebrated by all who have occasion to employ them as labourers or artisans in works in which use has taught them skill and dexterity.

How much then will it be a subject of regret, if a body of people possessing such natural capacities of usefulness shall in consequence of the spirit of . emigration to America, which now prevails, Be for ever lost to their own country! However unconcerned many proprietors may be as to this point; however they may coldly and unfeelingly think, and declare, that whatever loss the public may sustain, emigration is of advantage to them by relieving their estates of a useless incumbrance; be me gentlemen of extensive fortune and influence more liberal and extensive in their views have manifested a laudable zeal for the prevention of so great ;an evil to their country, and the patriotic exertions of some private citizens who have of late distinguished themselves by the wise and prudent plans they have devised for this purpose will not, it is hoped, fail of success.

The secretary was assured upon authority, which appeared to him conclusive, that since the year 1772 no less than sixteen vessels full of emigrants have sailed from the western parts of the counties of Inverness and Ross alone, containing, it is supposed, 6400 souls, and carrying with them, in specie, at least £38,400 sterling.

Administration, it is scarcely to be doubted, will take this matter into serious consideration and adopt such measures as in a consistency with the liberties and genius of a free people, and united with the efforts of individuals and private societies may induce the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands still to retain their wonted preference of their native country above every foreign dime.

To introduce and give encouragement to manufactures among them it has already been stated is one of the most obvious and easy to be accomplished methods which can be followed for this purpose ; and to the attainment of this object the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge will not be wanting by 6uch measures as, upon mature investigation, shall appear to be best adapted to the end. Of these one of the simplest, as well as most congenial, to their institution and practices is the appointment of persons properly qualified to teach the first rudiments of industry and manufacture to a rude and ignorant people. But they will naturally look for, and insist upon, the countenance and co-operation of the proprietors of those estates into which these improvements are proposed to be introduced.


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