Distress in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 16th December 1936.

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Photo of Mr Malcolm Macmillan Mr Malcolm Macmillan , Na h-Eileanan an Iar

I beg to second the Motion.

I have the very pleasant duty of congratulating my hon. and learned Friend upon his very able speech. He has established himself at once in the confidence and favour of the House, and as an authority on Highland matters which have not, in the past, been sufficiently before the House. I should say, from the effect of his speech alone, that those matters will certainly be brought before the House on many occasions in the future. I am sure that we look forward on all sides with pleasure to hearing him on many occasions.

My temptation is to begin to take the "Road to the Isles," as in the well-known song. I would, unlike the writer of that song, talk rather of the experience of one who remembers the corns and aches suffered by going over those roads on many occasions. We can imagine the discomforts and the very legitimate grievances of the people who have to go over those roads, if they can be called roads at all, every day and, which is worse, every night. Many of those ways are not, properly speaking, roads at all. Recently, in an open letter to the Minister of Transport, which I hope the House read, I said: The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the roads in the Western Islands are not paved at all. I was good enough to give the Minister credit for good intentions, but they do not do much good to the feet of the little children who have to travel not only the legal three miles, but more than the three miles which the law lays down as the limit of the way to school. The roads in the Western Isles are best described by the people of the Western Isles themselves. I have here a petition, from which, with the permission of the House, I will quote. It says: We, the undersigned, would respectfully bring to your notice the following facts and reasons for framing a petition for a Kendebig-Scadabay road in the Isle of Harris.The existing footpath is approximately three and a-half miles in length serving the districts of Kendebig, Meavaig, Ard Meavaig, Kyles Skerribal, Drinnishadder, Plockropore and Scadabay, with a total population of roughly 300 people. This path is an exceedingly rough and stony one: in places but to slip would mean being hurled down a slope of jagged rocks and finding a watery bed in an adjacent loch. Yet at least on one day in every week wives and mothers have to strike this weary trail to carry home on their backs the week's provisions, or to meet a 'bus bringing the wool or yarn necessary for their only means of livelihood, the manufacture of tweed.Our food supply is perforce one which would wreck any constitution—salt fish every day of the week and salted mutton as a special treat on Sunday. We cannot risk ordering fresh meat, as we are entirely dependent on the clemency of the weather for its timely delivery by motorboat from Tarbert.We cannot benefit by the daily mail service and daily 'bus service which have recently become the portion of the more favoured areas, because we are cut off from all access to these privileges.In cases of illness it is at least a matter of hours before the doctor can be brought, and if the patient has to be removed to hospital it means heavy labour for the bearers and unspeakable torture for the sufferer before the road-end can be reached; it might even mean death to the patient through delay of treatment.That such primitive conditions should exist in a civilised country is a disgrace to any self respecting government, and, with all due respect to their good intentions, Members of Parliament who travel by car to meet their constituents at the road-end cannot fully realise the rigours and hardships that these men and women have to endure. Only experience brings realisation. Those facts were placed before the Department of Agriculture 20 years ago, but nothing has been done. So desperate was the need of the people in the Western Isles for roads that they even offered 25 per cent. of their labour free. At first they offered 25 per cent., and it was accepted greedily by the county councils, the Ministry of Transport and the rest; but the demand for labour was increased to 50 per cent. The people did not know what they were giving. The wages were estimated by the county council's engineers at the very lowest possible rate—5d. and 6d. an hour; and the wages paid were 2d. and 2½d., and sometimes even 1½d. an hour, for men working in winter conditions in the worst winter that had been known for many years. It is a disgrace that such conditions should exist. They do not exist in any other part of Great Britain, and, indeed, I hardly think that coolies in the most primitive parts of the British Empire would be asked to work for such wages and under such conditions. An example of the kind of things that happen was quoted by my predecessor in the representation of the Western Isles in this House. One twin was born in the island of Harris, and several hours later the other was born in the town of Stornoway, where the mother had to be carried over rough roads after undergoing a boat journey and being carried on a stretcher up a slippery and dangerous rock. That woman gave birth to the second twin hours later, after all that agony. There is only one district nurse in the Island of Scalpay and no doctor at all; that is the Island where three-quarters of the population—mostly young men—are unemployed. Roads in the Isles are a fundamental necessity for transport, on which will have to be based any prosperity that can be restored or developed there. Without means of transport and communication it is hopeless to try to set up any industry

When I speak of roads, I include piers and harbours, because, in an island, the pier and harbour are the beginning and the end of the roads. If there are not proper piers and harbours, ships cannot come in. In their present state of decay, owing to the neglect of the county councils and the Government, they do not even admit of fishing as they should. The white fishing used to be an additional source of food supply and of employment for the people, but in many districts there is now no white fishing at all, and the poverty of the people is all the greater. I ask that this question may be considered, not only by the Secretary of State for Scotland, but by the Minister of Transport, because it really involves the whole Government and almost every Government Department. Regarding wages on our roads, the people of the Western Isles have as much right to decent wages, and as much need for them, as the people in any other parts of Great Britain. We want roads; but not at such a great sacrifice as is represented by wages of per hour, with deductions for insurance contributions arid so on. For generations road petitions have been coming in to Members of Parliament, and still nothing worth talking about has been done. A five-year plan with 100 per cent. grants has been talked about for something like a year, but I think the expression "five years" must mean that there is to be five years delay before the plan is begun. Nothing substantial has happened as yet; we are still waiting. I am not going to criticise that plan in all fairness until I know exactly what the plan is to be.

Turning to population problems, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, the position in the Western Isles has given rise to depopulation at an alarming rate and to an alarming extent. On the basis of figures given by the late Secretary of State for Scotland, I estimate that al; the present rate of depopulation there will in three or four generations be no one left in Ross and Cromarty at all. The population of Ross and Cromarty, in round figures, in 1920 was 71,000; after 15 years, in 1935, it was down to 62,000, a decrease of something like one-seventh. The number of children in the primary and secondary schools in the Island of Lewis was 5,524 in 1920; in 1935 it was down to 4,550, a decrease of nearly 1,000 in 15 years. Emigration has been suggested as a solution, but to my mind emigration is a cowardly solution, the last refuge of ignoble minds that have not only failed to struggle, but have even failed to try. Emigration is not only cowardly, but at this particular time it is suicidal, because, if carried to its logical conclusion, it would mean the evacuation, not only of the Western Isles, but of the whole British Isles. With the present slump in the birth rate, which is going down much more steeply than it has for many years, and with the present position of the death rate, we shall soon reach a position in which only old people will inhabit the Western Isles, and there will be no children there at all. The figures I have given show that there would have been a still greater decrease in population but for the abnormal rise in the birth rate which took place immediately after the War, and in normal times we may expect the slump in population to be greater than it has been hitherto. We cannot afford depopulation of this kind, and, if it comes to the last calamity of a war, no one will be more anxious than the Government to discover more population, and not to give further cause for depopulation in. the Western Isles and everywhere else.

I maintain, and other authorities better equipped than myself maintain, that not only can the Isles maintain their own population, but a much greater population, and they have done so in past generations. In those times the people in the Highlands lived more prosperously relatively to the prosperity of other parts of the country, than they are doing now. The standard of life in the Highlands relatively to the standard of the rest of the country has gone down tremendously. If local wealth were developed, if such home industries were restored as can be economically restored, and if more modern and economic methods of crofting and. marketing were introduced, we are confident that the Highlands could maintain a larger population. We are not asking for charity for the Highlands, but only for a fair deal. We want them to be self-supporting. A people without endeavour becomes a degenerate people. We are only asking that they be given a fair chance to make the best of things for themselves, and to make things better for their children.

As regards their position in connection with unemployment insurance—and I would bring under the same category contributory pensions—the Acts were framed for places where it was possible to have regular employment, with regular payment of contributions. In the Western Isles to-day, apart from the towns, the only insurable employment for the crofters, who have to supplement their income, which is almost nil, is in road-making and work of that kind, and the only guarantee of regular work to which the Acts can apply in the Western Isles is in the fishing industry. That, however, is seasonal, and is at the mercy of every freak of nature. In one year there may be fish, and in the next year there may be none; in one week there may be fish, and the next there may be none; in one week there may be employment, and in the next there may be none. That applies to the women as well as to the men, and it applies right round the coast. Wherever they go in following their own insurable occupation, they Are at the mercy of the tides, the herring and all sorts of circumstances.

These Acts cannot possibly apply in conditions to which they are not adapted, for which they were not framed, and which were not visualised by those who framed them. It is true that they permit certain modifications for seasonal workers, but, as I have pointed out before to the Minister of Labour, they are not suitable to the conditions of the Western Isles, and under them many injustices against the people there are being perpetrated by the Ministry of Labour and the Unemployment Assistance Board. Many of them have their benefit disallowed when people in less favourable positions from the point of view of justice are allowed benefit. Many people are denied unemployment insurance who would have qualified had they been in a particular place in a particular season according to arbitrary rules set out by the Ministry of Labour and the Unemployment Assistance Board. People who have worked far more in a particular area are denied unemployment benefit, and many other benefits to which they ought to have been entitled if the Acts had been properly framed for the district, while others who have worked far less are allowed the full advantages of benefits under the Acts.

The same thing applies to contributory pensions. I have had cases before the Minister of Pensions and the Secretary of State where people have had work for several weeks but cannot be employed for a sufficiently long period to enable them to qualify. That state of affairs should be remedied. Where the injustice is manifest and obvious, there is no party or Minister which can with any sense of self-respect oppose these alterations. The whole responsibility for the delay, which is a criminal responsibility, lies on the Government, and they have been guilty of it for a long time. It applies also to the unemployment position.

Fundamentally, the prosperity of the Hebrides is the fishing. On the prosperity of the fishing, regular work for the fishing girls—their age does not matter; we call them all girls—and men depends. The only opportunity for the average fishermen and fisherwomen of qualifying under the Unemployment Insurance Act is that there will be seasonal employment, which is the only employment there is, of a regular nature. When that fails, there is nothing left. When the herring fails, poverty prevails as far as the Hebrides are concerned. The Government found the fishermen very useful in 1914, when the fishing fleet became the backbone of British naval defence, but our people remember the refusals and delays of the Government ever since 1918, and they are becoming very cynical about patriotism and other things about which we may hold different opinions. We came to these people in the time of national crisis. This is the time of their national crisis, and who is going to help them? If it is a case of one good turn deserving another, it is time the nation turned to help the fishermen.

One immediate way in which the Government can help them is by at least an extension of the trawling limits. The least we can demand is extension of the 3-mile limit to 13 miles. The best we ask for is that the Minch should be closed to trawlers altogether. There is a bitterness under the quarrel between the herring fishing and the trawl fishing. There need be no such conflict and clash of interests at all. The Government should view the whole thing properly as a national fishing industry and tackle it as such. Along with this important and fundamental basis of the economic life of the Highlands, the herring fishing and crofting, there is the possibility of developing many other industries. For instance, a new industry called "Cefoil" has been established in the Orkneys and Shetlands, but there are many places in the Western Isles where a far better sea-weeds supply is available. Again, the best lobster grounds in Europe are in the Western Isles. They are not properly developed. Certainly they are not developed, as they might be, for the benefit of the lobster fishers and crofters.

Crofting by itself does not provide a sufficient income upon which to keep a family in these days when we expect a better standard of living than our forefathers had unless it is supplemented by regular guaranteed work and a proper income. That is what we are demanding. The crofts must be brought up to modern standards. They must be made more economic. There is no reason why poultry should not be developed, as an additional food supply against a time of crisis and in normal times, and there is a commission working at the possibilities of it elsewhere. There is no reason why sheep should not be bred to a much larger extent on land which is now given over to deer. If you realise what 10s. means to a crofter, any little effort on their behalf would be appreciated. If the Government only realised what a difference the old age pension made, they would recognise how very welcome any little effort on their part would be.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) is regarded as a demigod on the strength of the old age pensions. I should like to see the Secretary of State regarded as a demigod. I should be pleased to worship at his shrine if he would throw us some of these little concessions. A poverty prevails there which cannot be equalled in any other part of Great Britain. Wages are paid which are the lowest in the British Empire. There is no regular work. The Unemployment Insurance and Contributory Pensions Acts do not apply and do not work there. Fishing is in decay. White fishing is abandoned. There are no piers and harbours worth talking about except under the Stornoway Harbour Trust. The deer forests are detrimental to the interests of the people and landlordism is detrimental to the tourist interest, which is one of the hopeful sources of income and prosperity. If landlordism is against that source of prosperity, it is against the people of the Western Isles, and for that reason we are against landlordism.

There are several other industries that could be developed. They have the raw materials for the Harris tweed industry at their doors. It has only to be manufactured. But a market has to be found, and again the possibilities of co-operative marketing can be investigated by the Secretary of State, who is an authority on the subject and who would find it very easy to control the industry on the same lines as he has succeeded in organising others. This industry must be restored for the crofters themselves.

There are holdings needed in the Western Isles. There are about 1,000 squatters in Lewis alone waiting for holdings, and thousands of others in the Highlands waiting for holdings on land that is occupied by deer. The first thing to be done is to satisfy that demand. The second is to consider the position of those whom the Department has already settled. The very necessities of life are denied to the people who are living in houses for which they are paying far too high rates of interest and have other liabilities. With the exception of a couple of towns there is no communal sanitary system at all for 40,000 people in Lewis and Harris. It would be a disgraceful, unthinkable thing in any other part of the British Isles. Yet this is the state generally in the Western Isles. Outside Stornoway and Tarbert and the few smaller towns in the Hebrides there is no such thing as a communal water supply. Many hon. Members who have come from the distressed areas, and have talked about them here, will begin to think that they are living in our Celtic dream of paradise if they compare it with the Western Isles as they actually exist. Without water supplies the problem of sanitation can never be solved. It is fundamentally necessary, if you are to have proper sanitation, to have a water supply. Rupert Brooke praised "The benison of hot water." In most parts of Great Britain we grumble if we do not have hot water, but in the Western Isles they are denied the benison of cold water. Here I wish to quote a letter which I have received from North Uist: The following facts we beg to lay before you. In regard to water supplies, our domestic supply is obtained from shallow surface wells. These in many cases are merely dip hole wells and are unprotected by either wall or fence, so that it is impossible to keep such wells free from the contamination of animals or from refuse thrown about by the wind. In winter during heavy rains the water falls into them carrying impurities of all sorts, and the surrounding soil being of a soft nature soon turns into mud with the tramping of people and cattle. In summer these wells, not having their source from springs, soon dry up, and on this happening we are compelled to use loch water which in itself is merely a shallow stagnant pool, and these lochs are the common drinking places of cattle. Surrounding them are the houses of crofters with their steadings and conveniences, and their drainage with all impurities naturally fall into these basins of filth, so that it is quite obvious to anyone that our condition is worthy of due consideration"— that is putting it very mildly— and we earnestly appeal to you to give your support in altering our grievances. They have been very patient up to now, and they are patient still, but that is no reason whatever for continuing these grievances, and for continuing to neglect remedying all these grievances, which are legitimate. They are not asking for luxuries, but for fundamental necessities —things like water supply, roads and decent houses. It is regrettable that these conditions should be allowed to exist whatever Government is in power. I cannot but think that the Secretary of State for Scotland will give us that for which we ask—a new deal for the Highlands. I cannot but think that, knowing these facts for himself, and, no doubt, sympathising with the condition of the people who are enduring these grievances, he will give very earnest consideration to these problems and give of the very best in his position to remedy them, and give us something better in the Western Isles than has obtained up to the present. The people in the Western Isles never ask for very much themselves, but they are determined now, especially when they have begun to see with the light of political enlightenment which, until very recently, was denied to them. I am not boasting at all, but now they begin to see the position because they are able to visit the towns, and, in isolated cases, to send their sons to the universities. They say that if the minister and the doctor can send their sons to the university why cannot they do so, as they keep the minister and the doctor? The Government keep the doctor, too, by perpetuating these conditions of ill-health and the lack of sanitation, water supplies, by-roads and so on, and by not tackling these problems.

These people have been patient up to the present, but they are getting very impatient now, and I am encouraging them. There was once a famous rising in connection with the Land League, and the Government, unless something is done, may have to tackle another such rising again. We are not so very unlike the Irish to which an hon. and learned Friend referred some time ago. It will be remembered that the Irish rose up and challenged, not only the Government, but the whole British Empire. And Ireland won! I am not asking for methods of violence, and I am not threatening, as one Irish Member is said to have done, "with an awful countenance." I am sure that the Secretary of State for Scotland can beat me with his countenance, with all respect to him; but we must persist in retaining the rights for which our forefathers fought, and we intend to retain those rights. We intend to put up a pretty good struggle before we stop pestering the Secretary of State and Governments. But I do hope that he is going to give us new hope and a new deal, and that we do not appeal to-night in vain.