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Report on the Leckmelm Eviction Inverness 1882
By Alexander Mackenzie


The Leckmelm Evictions

On Tuesday, 7th February 1882, a meeting was held in the Burgh Court-house, Inverness, of gentlemen favourable to a reform of the Land Laws, to hear a report from Dean of Guild Mackenzie with reference to his recent visit to Leckmelm. About forty persons were present—the Rev. Mr Mactavish presiding. Mr Mackenzie read a long report on the circumstances attending the eviction of the man Munro, and on the present condition of the tenants on Leckmelm generally. Mr Mackenzie stated that the Rev. Mr Macmillan, the Free Church minister of the parish (who was prominent in the former agitation), was not at home when the eviction took place, nor for some days thereafter. All parties concerned in the matter, to say nothing of the public generally, will probably be interested in seeing the side of the question presented by Mr Mackenzie. His report proceeded as follows : —

On Wednesday of last week I received a report from Ullapool of an eviction which had taken place the. previous Friday on the now widely known Leckmelm estate, purchased a few years ago by Mr Pirie, of Aberdeen. A private note accompanied the report, urging me to get it published as early as possible in one of the local newspapers, the writer stating that “all contained therein are true facts which I have personally witnessed.”

From what I knew of the past proceedings on the Leckmelm property since it came into the possession of the present proprietor, I had little doubt that the report sent me would be found substantially correct. At the same time I did not feel justified in sending it for publication without further corroboration of its contents, aud I submitted it to a few of those gentlemen in Inverness who I knew took an interest in such cases. After a consultation between these, I was asked to proceed to Ullapool and make inquiries on the spot, before any use was made of the report which had already reached me, and which, as I have found it, after very careful inquiry, to be quite true, I shall now read to this meeting, adding additional facts which I came into possession of during my inquiries on the spot. It is as follows

“Ullapool, 28th January 1882.

“Sir,—I have travelled far and near, but never witnessed anything to equal the scene I witnessed at Leckmelm on Friday last, the 27th inst. About twelve o’clock, Friday, a carriage drove through the place containing three occupants. On seeing that the attention of the people was drawn so much to said carriage, I inquired of one I met, ‘what was up?’ When I was answered, ‘Och tha na H’earraidean ’dol a chur a mach Murachadh Munro’—sheriff-officers to put out Murdo Munro. ‘Is there any to be put out but Murdo Munro?’ I inquired. ‘No, you ken Murdo stood his ground too well when Pirie came to the place, and he never forgave him for that.’ Seeing the officers now proceeding to Munro’s house, I stopped my journey, which I intended to extend a few miles further on, and watched with keen eye what would go on. In a few minutes they commenced the unpleasant task of throwing poor Murdo’s furniture outside. The news spread through the place like fire. From here and there, there were men and women congregating, some of the men, I was told, losing their half-day’s work to see what was going on. At one time I thought there would be a row: the crowd commenced to shout and yell at the officers, showing their disapproval of their conduct. This was when Mrs Munro was removed outside with a suckling babe, six weeks old, on her arm. So marked was the people’s disapproval at this stage, that the officers got such a fright, that they sent for two policemen from Ullapool. These arrived, but their services were not required, as Murdo strongly urged upon the crowd not to get into trouble for his sake. The furniture about this time was all thrown outside; one or two bags of oatmeal I noticed with nothing to cover them, although there were heavy showers of snow by this time. I also noticed potatoes strewn about which can be of very little use afterwards. After the work of destruction had gone on so far, Murdo, with his family, consisting of his wife and four children, the oldest twelve years of age, the youngest a few weeks old, as already stated, were removed to the outside to shift for themselves as best they could. The fires were put out, the two policemen and one of the officers remaining in charge all night, apparently before the family so cruelly removed would re-enter. I had a look back this morning and saw that the house was a wreck and not a divot left upon it. I inquired of Murdo where the wife was all night, as it was a bitter cold night, with keen S.W. winds, and snow showers all night. He told me she found shelter, with the children, in a barn close by, which was little better than the outside. Now, sir, consider the sufferings of that poor woman who is in an infirm state of health since her recent confinement, the child suffering as well from her infirmities. Both having to put up with such sufferings I am afraid they will never get over. Woe, I say, to the oppressor, that famous PIR1E; woe to the laws which empower the oppressor to inflict such sufferings, and to a country acknowledging a national recognition of Christianity allowing such cruel laws to be in vogue. My own humble opinion is, that a proprietor having the cruel heart to do what I witnessed in Leckmelm would carry said eviction out on the Glencoe scale if law permitted him to do so. He has acted the boa constrictor clean with Murdo Munro. Last year he licked him all over; this year he has devoured him. Last year he got his share of the heifer’s flesh, whisky, bogie roll, and so forth. This year said bounties were denied him, and he has got the outside instead. Poor Murdo Munro did not get a day’s work upon the farm for several months. Not only was he denied work from Mr Pirie’s managers there; but contractors having work there were strictly prohibited from giving him empleyment. Were it not for the poor man’s industry and thriftiness previous to Mr Pine’s coming to Leckmelm, he would now be in a bad position. Murdo Munro is now a specimen of what Mr Pirie would have made the Leckmelm people before now, were it not the agitation got up and brought to bear on him at the time. No plea put forth in his behalf can justify what I witnessed on Friday last, and I hope never to see a recurrence of the same scene.”

I have omitted some of the stronger passages in the above communication.

When Mr Pirie came into possession Munro obtained work from him like the other tenants on the property. Soon after, however, a dispute arose between Paterson, Mr Pirie’s first grieve, about sheep belonging to Munro and some others of the tenants, which bad been impounded by Paterson on the plea that the sheep suffered from scab and ought to be separated from tho others. Munro was indignant, and used strong language to Paterson, telling him that he was ignorant, that he knew nothing about sheep, and offering to submit the sheep to any competent judge in the district. This proved the commencement of his troubles. Paterson afterwards admitted his error in reference to the sheep, but Munro meanwhile became a marked man among the local managers. Contractors were told not to give him employment. He, however, obtained work on hill drains, and afterwards worked with Roderick Fraser, one of the contractors, until near Martinmas 1880. During the winter be secured contracts of dykes and drains from the new grieve, which lasted until the beginning of 1881. Since then he received no employment from Mr Pirie’s agents.

You will naturally ask why this man should have been treated so differently to the other tenants, and you may possibly conclude that the convictions against him thirteen years ago, and which Mr Manners referred to in last Saturday's Courier, was the real reason. That could not havo been so, for it is clear from Mr Manners’s own letters that there was no intention in October 1879 to treat Munro different from the other tenants. On the 2nd of that month, he wrote Monro as follows:—

“I am instructed by Mr Pirie, proprietor of Leckmelin, to give you notice that the present arrangements by which you hold the cottage, byre, and other buildings, together with lands on that estate, will cease from and after the term of Martinmas 1880: and further, I am instructed to intimate to you tbat at the said term of Martinmas 1880 Mr Pirie purposes taking the whole arable and pasture lands, but that he is desirous of making arrangements whereby you may continue tenant of the cottage upon terms and conditions yet to be settled upon. 1 have further to inform you that unless you and the other tenants at once prevent your sheep and other stock from grazing or trespassing upon the enclosures and hill and other lands now in the occupation or possession of the said Mr Pirie, he will not, upon any conditions, permit you to remain in the cottage you now occupy, after the said term of Martinmas 1880, but will clear all off the estate, and take down the cottages.

“I therefore hope that in your own interests you will pay particular attention to this notice and not do anything likely to be offensive, and so far as you are able will also prevent others doing so.”

The italics are mine. I am informed that each of the tenants received a similar letter, and it is clear from the above that no intention existed at that date to punish Munro for his conduct thirteen years previously, and for which he at the time suffered the full penalty of the law.

In the following year arrangements were made to take over the sheep stock of the tenants at valuation, an<i a dispute arose regarding the tenants’ valuator, into the details of which it is just now unnecessary to go, beyond stating that the gentleman arranged to represent the tenants was unable to attend on the short notice given him by Mr Manners, who suggested another in bis place. The tenants, led by Munro, at first objected to the new man thus thrust upon them. All, however, agreed to accept the new valuator on his arrival except Munro, who refused, and wanted the valuation put off until their own man could attend. He gave expression to bis feelings on that occasion also in unmistakeable language, but he was finally prevailed upon to sign the conditions, with the others, and the valuation was proceeded with.

On the 30th of August 1880, Mr Manners writes to confirm his notice of 2nd October 1879, but adds that Mr Pirie is ‘to take your house [Munro’s] and lands, &c., into his own hands,’ at Martinmas following.

It will not be difficult to discover the real reason of the proceedings against Munro, and his ultimate eviction, in the light of these facts.

It was now determined that he must go, and that determination having once been arrived at, it must, in fairness, be admitted that Mr Pirie’s conduct appears on the whole to have been considerate, except in the final act. Mr Pirie apparently decided that Munro was not to be allowed to continue on his property. Munro understood this, and he tried to remain as long as possible, and get the best terms he could. All the subsequent proceedings and correspondence must be considered in this light, and so long as the present law is unrepealed, and so long as the laws of the land permit men like Mr Pirie to drive from the soil, without compensation, the men who, by their labour and money, made their properties what they are, it must be admitted that he is acting within his legal rights, however much we may deplore the manner in which he has chosen to exercise them. We have to deal more with the system which allows him to act thus, than with the special reasons which he considers sufficient to justify his proceedings; and if his conduct in Leckmelm will, as I trust it may, hasten on a change in our land legislation, the hardships endured by the luckless people who had the misfortune to come under his unfeeling yoke, and his ideas of moral right and wrong, will be more than counterbalanced by the benefits which will in consequence ultimately accrue to the people at large. This is why I, and, I believe, you, take such an interest in this question of the evictions at Leckmelm. You will, therefore, expect me to go into fuller detail as to the position and the feeling which exists among the other tenants on the property and the people in the neighbourhood.

I have made the most careful and complete inquiry possible among Mr Pirie’s servants, the tenants, and the. people of Ullapool. Mr Pirie’s local manager, after I informed him of my object, and put him on his guard as to the use which I might make of his answers, informed me that he never had any fault to find with Munro, that he always found him quite civil, and that he had nothing to say against him. The tenants, without exception, spoke of him as a good neighbour, against whom nothing could be said since his conviction before the Sheriff many years ago. The people of Ullapool, without exception, so far as I could discover, after inquiries from the leading men in every section of tbe_ community, speak well of him and condemn Mr Pirie. Munro is universally spoken of as one of the best and most industrious workmen in the whole parish, and, by his industry and sobriety, he has been able to save a little money in Leckmelm’ where he was able to keep a fairly good stock on his small farm, and worked steadily with a horse and cart. The stock handed over by him to Mr Pirie consisted of 1 bull, 2 cows, 1 stilt, 1 Highland pony, and about 40 sheep, which represented a considerable saving. Several of the other tenants had a similar stock, and some of them had even more, all of which they had to dispense with under the new arrangements, and consequently lose the annual income in money and produce available therefrom. We all know that the sum received for this stock cannot last long, and cannot be advantageouslv invested in anything else. The people must now live on their small capital, instead of what it produced, so long as it lasts, after which they are sure to be helpless, and many of them chargeable to the parish. Indeed, some of the people have already become a burden on the Parochial Board.

The system of petty tyranny which prevails at Leckmelm is scarcely credible. Contractors have been told not to employ Munro. For this I have the authority of some of the contractors themselves. The sheriff-officer declared, in the presence of fifty or sixty people, while in the act of evicting Munro, that three others were marked out for ejection almost immediately. Local employers of labour were requested not to employ any longer people who had gone to look on among the crowd, while Munro’s family, goods, and furniture, were being turned out. Letters were received by others complaining of the same thing from higher quarters, and threatening ulterior consequences. Of all this I have the most complete evidence, but in the interests of those involved I shall mention no names, except in Court, where I challenge Mr Pirie and his subordinates to the proof if they deny it.

The people on the estate are in a state of constant fearof being turned out. They have been reduced from an excellent position as some of the best and most comfortable of the West Coast crofters to a position of abject dependence on the will of Mr Pirie or his subordinates ; and as regards work and the necessaries of life, to that of common navvies. In place of milk, butter, and cheese in fair abundance, they are reduced to sugar and treacle to their porridge and potatoes, and their supply of meat, grown and fed by themselves, is forever lost to them.

In almost all tho letters sent to Munro, offering him money, and giving him extension of time, it is made a condition that he behaves himself and gives no trouble. That this applied to his behaviour in reference to the present management of the property and the evictions, and has no reference to his conviction 13 years ago, is quite clear from the letters themselves. The following, from Mr Manners to Mr John Macrae, solicitor, Dingwall, who has written in Munro’s behalf, dated 23rd of November 1881, gives Mr Manners’s version, and, in my opinion, conclusively proves this view as regards Munro’s behaviour :—

Copy Letter C. R. Manners, Esq., Inverness, to John Macrae, solicitor, Dtngwall.

“Inverness, 23rd November 1881.

“Dear Sir,—I am in receipt of yours of 22nd inst., as to Murdo Munro. This man has given us a great deal of trouble and annoyance, and is not in any way deserving of consideration. Perhaps you are not aware that some time ago he got Mr A. Macrae, solicitor, Dingwall, to intercede for him, and I then offered to let him remain till next Whitsunday, and give him ten pounds (£10) when he left, providing he would give a written undertaking that he would leave at that term without further warning or trouble on our part, or, in case of his unbehaving in any way, that he would leave before that term if he were told so to do. This he refused to do, and when I talked to him and tried to show him he was very wrong, and acting against his own interests, as, in case of refusal, no sum would be given him, he used threats of courts of law, and sticking to the place until the roof were taken off, and such like nonsense. I tried all in my power to get him to act in a reasonable way, but it was no use.

“It is not, however, either Mr Pirie’s or my wish to act in any way harshly, and, under the circumstances you relate, I will yet try what can be done for him, providing he gives a full and unconditional written undertaking that, if allowed to remain, he will flit himself and all his belongings at Whitsunday without any further notice or warning from us, and that if we have any cause for suspicion that he is not behaving himself in a quiet and satisfactory manner, he will, with his belongings, quit the place at a month’s warning during any of the intermediate periods. He has, of course, by his obstinacy, lost the gratuity, and without the undertaking 1 have mentioned he will be ejected. J recognise no legal term of Whitsunday in his case. He got full and proper legal warning long since, and has only been allowed to remain so far on.

“Upon receipt of the written undertaking I have mentioned, I will see what can be done, but, understand, I make no promise at present. I expect to pass through Dingwall to-morrow (Thursday) by the evening train, and if you wish to see me I shall'have pleasure in meeting you.—I remain, yours faithfully,

(Signed) “C. R. Manners.”

Mark the portions which I have placed in italics "and that if we had any cause of suspicion that he is not behaving himself in a quiet and satisfactory manner, &c., &c.” There was to be no proof, only mere suspicion, and the man was expected to sign conditions of removal on terms like that! and Mr Manners was only going to see what would be done after Munro would sign himself out of bis holding. The reason now stated by Mr Manners is clearly an afterthought, and to give it now, for the first time, no one will consider creditable. Further, in Mr Pirie’s last letter to Munro, dated 30th November last, he concludes—“If Mr Manners has taken legal proceedings against you now it is entirely in consequence of your own behaviour.” In the face of all this, it is somewhat cool for Mr Manners, to give the reason which he now for the first time does for Munro’s eviction.

The threats charged against Munro, I am informed, were, that he would open up the question of the Sheriff’s order of removal, granted in absence on the 21st October last, and in terms of which he has now been evicted. In this most people will, I think, consider him fully justified. Mr John Macrae, solicitor, Dingwall (who, in consequence of some misunderstanding, received no specific instructions to put in an appearance for Munro), writes him on the 16th of November 1881, as follows:—“Mr Pirie has obtained decree against you in the action of removing. The decree can now only be opened up by a deposit of £5, to cover, among other things, Mr Pirie’s expenses. After its being opened up, you would require to find caution for violent profits, that is, for whatever sums the subjects you occupy would yield in the way of rental during the year of your possession. . . . . I think you could have resisted decree being got against you before Whitsunday if you had entered appearance timeously.”

The extract in the action of removal was signed only on the 24th of January last in Dingwall. On the following day the charge is dated, and two days after, on the 27th of January, the eviction is complete.

When I visited the scene on Friday morning I found a substantially built cottage, and a stable at the end of it, unroofed to within three feet of the top on either side, and the whole surroundings a perfect scene of desolation; the thatch, and part of the furniture, including portions of broken bedsteads, tubs, basins, teapots, and various other articles, strewn outside. The cross-beams, couples, and cabars were still there, a portion of the latter bought from Mr Pirie’s manager, and paid for within the last three years. The sheriffofficers had placed a padlock on the door, but I made my way to the inside of the house through one of the windows from which the frame and glass had been removed. I found that the house, before the partitions had been removed, consisted of two good sized rooms and a closet, with a fire-place and chimney in each gable, the crook still hanging in one of them, the officer having apparently been unable to remove it after a considerable amount of wrenching. The kitchen window, containing eight panes of glass, was still whole, but the closet window, with four panes, had been smashed; while the one in the “ ben” end of the house had been removed. The cottage, as crofters’ houses go, must have been fairly comfortable. Indeed, all the cottages in Leckmelm are altogether superior to the usual run of crofter’s houses on the West Coast, and the tenants are allowed to have been the most comfortable in all respects in the parish, before the land was taken from them. They are certainly not the poor, miserable creatures, badly housed, which Mr Pirie and his friends led the public to believe within the last two years.

The barn, in which the wife and infant had to remain all night, had the upper part of both gables blown out by the recent storm, and the door was scarcely any protection from the weather. The potatoes, which had been thrown out in showers of snow, were still there, gathered, and a little earth put over them by the friendly neighbours.

The mother and children wept piteously during the eviction, and many of the neighbours, afraid to succour or shelter them, were visibly affected to tears; and the whole scene was such that, if Mr Pirie could have seen it, I feel sure that he would never consent to be held responsible for another. His humanity would soon drive his stern ideas of legal right out of his head, and we would hear no more of evictions at Leckmelm.

--------

The meeting cordially thanked Mr Mackenzie for his report. They also resolved that it should be published, and that a copy be sent to Mr Fraser-Mackintosh, with a request that a question be put to her Majesty’s Government with respect to the matter. A committee was also appointed to consider the propriety of establishing a Land Law Reform Association, and to report to an early meeting. Mr John Macdonald, Exchange, Inverness, agreed to act as Convener of the Committee.


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