Am Bratach No. 224
June 2010

History file
by Malcolm Bangor-Jones

The combination of the potato disease, the low price of cattle and stagnation in the her ring trade brought considerable hardship. By the early 1850s, the Duke of Sutherland considered that the situation on the west coast appeared to be very similar to parts of Skye and the Western Isles.

The factor, Evander McIver, was not so pessimistic, especially in view of the significant expenditure on relief work by the duke. However, McIver was anxious not to allow the situation to get out of control, with arrears of rent mounting and a poverty-stricken population continuing to grow and place pressure on resources.

The duke felt it was essential to have someone of McIver’s “judgement & talent” and the factor made huge efforts to ensure that the small tenant townships remained in a manageable condition. His aim, not necessarily achieved, was to remove non-payers of rent and to reduce gradually the number of small tenants. He tried to encourage people to improve their holdings and to raise their living standards.

His correspondence is particularly revealing of his views, methods, and bluntness — as demonstrated by some letters written by him in 1858. The first was addressed to Euphemia Mackenzie, a cottar in Achnacarnin who had asked for permission for build a house.

“This application should have been made by your husband, but he spoke so foolishly and so improperly to me in December last at Loch Inver that he knew any request of his was not likely to be agreed to. It is contrary to the rules of this Estate to give a Site to any person who has no land — and no means of support. Your own note contains sufficient to prevent my agreeing to your request.

“You say you have nothing to support you — but what you get from friends and acquaintances. How could you thus erect a house? and how Could you live in Assynt? Your husband Cannot get regular employment there. He should go to Ross shire or Caithness where labour is abundant — and you should accompany him. In Assynt you are in poverty because there is no regular work to be procured there. In these Counties you might be in Comparative Comfort if your husband Continued in health and was industrious.”

“There are too many already in Assynt who have houses and no land — and it is necessary to prevent the increase of families who have not the means of Supporting themselves. I sympathize with you in your troubles — and wish much you had thought well before you married a man who has not a house to shelter you or the means or the industry to Support you & your Children.”

McIver wrote to Neil Lamont in Inverkirkaig after he had asked him several times to improve his house. Lamont was well paid by Hutchison, the operator of the steamer service which called at Lochinver, and McIver thought he should be able to “spend a little in making your habitation more Comfortable. If you begin I will give you some Lime and glass and Cabbers [small timbers] from the Wood — altho’ you are not a Tenant.”

McIver told Neil’s brother, Angus, a merchant in Lochinver, that the house was a disgrace. “I have asked you before to get your Brother Neil to improve his House. You will oblige me if you Can prevail with him — if he does not make the house better he must be removed from Inverkirkaig — Let him set to instantly.”

The Ground Officer had reported that John McDonald, the school teacher at Stoer, was keeping too many horses, had failed to build a retaining wall, and was “keeping a Pig going at liberty.” McIver pointed out to Macdonald “It is not to be wondered at that the lotters [crofters] would disobey rules if they see a person in your position showing them this example.

“I have the strongest opinion that no Teacher should have a lot of Land — as it is very apt to withdraw his attention from his duties to his pupils. It will be necessary to take your lot from you if you do not at once Comply with the regulations of the Estate — and I shall not hesitate to represent your Conduct if you do not at once do what the Ground officer points out.”

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