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Land Seizures In Scotland

Volume 41: debated on Thursday 5 August 1920

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rose to ask His Majesty's Government what policy they propose to adopt in regard to the illegal land seizures that have been taking place in the north and west of Scotland, and whether they consider the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act, recently passed, is adequately fulfilling its purpose.

The noble Duke said: My Lords, there are two points in regard to which I desire to question His Majesty's Government, and both are regarded as of considerable importance, especially in Scotland, where at the present moment there is a good deal of feeling respecting the progress of land settlement. Firstly, I wish to ask what is the policy of the Government regarding the illegal land seizures which are taking place in the North and West of Scotland; and secondly, whether the Government are satisfied with the progress of the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act. A Report of the Board of Agriculture for Scotland, which has just, been issued, is a most disappointing document. It states that the seizures will probably increase in number and spread at a more rapid rate unless more progress can he made than is now possible. The Board do not give us any clear line of policy to be adopted either by them or by the Government to avoid this condition of affairs.

I desire to know whether the Government view this probability of further trouble and the great increase that is bound to occur in land seizures and general lawlessness with complacency. The greatest danger at the present moment is to allow things to drift. We have a very good object lesson to-day in the condition of Ireland. If the matter had been taken up in Ireland a few years ago probably the present situation there would be a very different one. That is why I ant so anxious that Scotland should not be allowed to drift into anything approaching the state in which Ireland is to-day. If the Bolsheviks are stirring up trouble in Ireland you may be sure that they will do the same thing in Scotland if an opportunity arises, and it is the duty of His Majesty's Government to see that that opportunity does not arise.

At present Scotland is not Bolshevik. Its people are loyal to a man. Perhaps in the great industrial centres there are cases here and there of disloyal people, but in the rural areas, where the serious trouble has been taking place; the people are most patriotic and loyal, and most of the men served in the war, and served well. Lawlessness of this kind must, of course, be suppressed with the utmost rigour of the law. It can be avoided altogether by other means, particularly by setting up the machinery of settlement, and thus satisfying the claims—the very good claims—of very many of these ex-Service men. In 1919 the seizures and raids were confined almost exclusively to the Island of Lewis and the Hebrides, but this year, and quite recently, the raids have spread to the mainland, and the tendency to spread further and further is mentioned in the Report of the Board of Agriculture which has just been issued. This tendency can easily be checked if it is taken in hand at the present moment, but if nothing is done it may go on until a certain point is reached at winch it will be very difficult indeed to check.

In view of the helplessness displayed in the Report of the Board of Agriculture, I am very anxious to know what the policy of the Government is. It is to the Government that the Board of Agriculture is responsible, and it seems to me that it is incumbent on the Board of Agriculture to meet and overcome these difficulties instead of making no suggestions whatever for remedying the present state of affairs. I will not weary your Lordships by quoting from the Report of the Board. It is all in the same strain—hopelessness and an utter lack of the realisation of their responsibility in the matter. I fully realise that there are great difficulties, but those difficulties can be overcome if they arc properly faced and if the Board is supported by the Government, on the right lines.

I am very glad that my Question has come up on the day on which a debate is to take place on Ireland. I consider that all this unrest, whether it be in Scotland or India, or elsewhere within the Empire, arises from causes that are closely akin and is part of the same danger that must be faced unflinchingly and dealt with in such a way as to ensure that it will not recur. If every case where land has been seized either on the islands or on the mainland had been dealt with efficiently by the Board at the time of the seizure the whole thing would have been over and satisfactorily settled by now; instead of which the Board did nothing, I am informed, but write long letters on abstruse legal points.

I make no personal attack on the members of the Board of Agriculture themselves. I am sure they are all excellent people, but collectively their efforts have been singularly unsuccessful, at all events as regards land settlement. Let me take one instance, the case of Portskerra, in Sutherland, which formerly belonged to me. My agent offered it to the Board three or four times, and they refused each time definitely to take it over or to say whether they would go on with the scheme. On account of this I sold the property to another owner, who is now having all the difficulties which might have been avoided had the Board dealt with me in the first place. The present impasse which has arisen there and the land seizure trouble would then never have come to a head.

In the Report of the Board I see it is stated that the staff has been increased from 189 to 300 and the salaries from £57,000 to £100,000. I should imagine that at least double the amount of the work would be done but, instead of that, it seems to me that less and less is done and fewer arrangements have been made since the war than might have been made with the former staff before the war. In 1919 there were 3,395 applications for new holdings, but only 282 were settled, of which 201 were for ex-Service men. In 1920, up to the end of June, 12,500 applications were received and of these only 1,621 have been settled. No wonder the Board fear extensions of lawlessness and land seizures when they view these figures, which speak for themselves. Nobody has a greater respect than I have for the Secretary for Scotland. I think he has done conscientious and hard work in the cause of Scotland, but in this matter of land settlement he has been badly let down by his own subordinates. He made a clear statement in the House of Commons yesterday in which he said that he was himself prepared to grapple with the matter at close quarters and he was going to the islands and the other places where agitation has taken place to see what could be done. I am very glad indeed to hear that he is personally taking the matter up and I feel sure that this will contribute very much to a definite and amicable settlement of the matter without loss of time. His statement, none the less, does not remove blame from the Board of Agriculture who are responsible for the utter helplessness displayed in their Report recently issued.

My Lords, as your Lordships are aware, this is not the first occasion on which this problem of illegal land seizures in Scotland has been before us. There was a recrudescence of the raiding in 1918 when several cases occurred in Barra, North and South Uist, in Tiree, and in Sutherlandshire. This was to be attributed to the suspension of the various land settlement schemes which occurred during the war, arid the raiders, for this most part, were applicants to the Board for small holdings who were disappointed by the stoppage of the Board's work in this direction. They attempted to justify themselves at this time by founding a case on the necessity for increasing home-produced food.

There are indications of a similar unrest in the Highlands and islands now. Following the return to their homes of men demobilised from the Army and Navy after the cessation of hostilities, the position has become more acute. To some extent the discontent was allayed by the prospect of fresh legislation and fresh funds for land settlement. The Land Settlement (Scotland) Bill, which was passed in December last year, provided large additional funds and considerably assisted procedure for the acquisition of land by the Board and for the settlement of holders on private estates. The Board pressed on the acquisition of land throughout the country, and already their activity has resulted in a situation where a few more land settlement schemes will entirely exhaust, or earmark for adaptation purposes, the whole of the funds provided under the 1919 Act. Meanwhile, discontent with the progress of land settlement, though that progress was never more rapid than during last year and this year, has grown. Raiders remain in unlawful occupation of certain lands in the islands, while recently forcible possession was taken of the farm of Kirkton, in Sutherlandshire. Elsewhere raids are threatened by applicants, including ex-Service men of the Army and Navy.

The noble Duke complained that the Government had not done anything to put a stop to this raiding, but, according to the law of Scotland, the remedy for illegal occupation of land is to be found by way of interdict in the civil Courts at the instance of the parties aggrieved. When such proceedings are taken and the resultant decrees are put in force it is the duty of the Government, as responsible for law and order, to see that any necessary support and protection are given to the officers of the Court. But the Government cannot themselves initiate such proceedings.

In the second part of the noble Duke's Question he asks whether the Government consider that the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act, recently passed, is adequately fulfilling its purpose. In regard to this it is necessary to remember that the Act has been operative for only seven months. Already practically the whole funds provided by the Act have been expended in acquiring properties in various parts of the country, or have been earmarked for expenditure in the conversion of these properties into small holdings. Considerable difficulties in effecting speedy settlement are experienced. The difficulty that confronts not only the Board but all Departments and local authorities as well as private people is that of securing the erection of buildings. Apart from the question of the very heavy cost of buildings there is also the shortage of material and labour. The Board are making every effort to overcome these difficulties, though they have been further increased by the recent joiners' strike.

Another obstacle, not readily overcome, arises from the lease system in Scotland. Few properties at the time of purchase are free from current leases. The Board must await the expiration of these leases if they are not to deplete their funds by large payments for tenants' compensation. There is often an initial delay even when vacant possession of farms is finally obtained. Cropping may have to be re-arranged to suit the proposed sub-division. Accommodation has to be provided, and fences, roads, and water supplies put in before the holders can get entry. This may mean that the Board may have to engage servants and stock and crop the farm for a year while preparing the ground for settlement. The Board have acquired seventy-nine properties throughout the country, extending to an acreage of 238,181 acres and including approximately 40,000 acres of arable land. On these, 239 new holdings and fourteen enlargements have been formed, and the balance will provide for 594 new holdings and 212 enlargements.

Schemes under the Small Landholders (Scotland) Act, 1911, as amended by Part 11 of the 1919 Act, have also been put into operation. Since the Armistice 161 new holdings and 128 enlargements were formed under the Small Landholders Act. Other schemes, both by way of purchase and under the Small Landholders Act, will be undertaken, but the funds at the Board's disposal will not permit Of more than a few carefully selected undertakings. There remain, however, 5,405 applicants who have been approved as suitable by the Board and for whom the schemes in hand will not provide; there are also 5,402 applicants still to be introduced, a great number of whom, no doubt, would be suitable. The question whether additional funds can be furnished is engaging the attention of the Government at present. The experience of the short period during which the 1919 Act has been in operation is hardly sufficient to enable its success to be fully estimated, but the progress already made tends to show that, within the limits of the funds provided and leaving apart the temporary difficulties that accompany all undertakings at the present day, the Act is an efficient instrument.

My Lords, every one who is interested in the welfare of the northern Highlands will be much indebted to the noble Duke for having raised this very important question. Nothing, perhaps, that fell from him was more important than his remark that whatever you do you must not allow this question to drift; you must put a stop to the illegal acts which are being carried out at the present time. I have listened to the reply of the noble Lord who represents the Government. I perfectly understand, and can quite follow, the difficulties which are encountered in rapidly putting into force the desire entertained by the Government for a large creation of small holdings, not only in England but in other parts of the United Kingdom. There is, however, one thing to be borne in mind with regard to the attempt to establish a great number of crofters in the north of Scotland. The conditions under which they can be carried out successfully must always be carefully considered, because there so much depends upon the climate.

It was My privilege in days gone by for several months each year over a period of many years to reside in northern districts, in the county of Sutherland and elsewhere, and I am going to give a single example from my own experience showing what sometimes befalls the crofters there. I had a forest in the centre of the county of Sutherland for several years, and at the end of the season, when the deerstalking was over, I used to go from there to Dun-robin, which was thirty miles from the land of which I was tenant. About half way between my shooting place and Dunrobin there was a whole colony of crofters who had been established for many years. It is a positive fact that owing to the extremely wet season which had prevailed for three years in succession not once were their crops harvested at all. That is a fact which I have never forgotten.

It is from no wish on my part to oppose the establishment of small holdings wherever possible that I offer these observations, and I may say this, that I was the first Member of Parliament ever to introduce an Act containing the principle of compulsion for the creation of small holdings. The Bill which I introduced, and finally carried successfully, established the system of small holdings upon the basis of ownership. Ownership is the real secret of success if you want the small holders in this country to do the best for themselves. They do not want to be the tenants of some local authority, who would Drove in too many cases, I am afraid. much harsher landlords than the owner of an estate. What they want is absolute security of ownership, and in those conditions these colonies will grow up with great success. That Bill was pronounced to be a great failure, and why? I admit to a certain extent it did fail, but it failed because the Government of that day very shortly afterwards went out of power, and the succeeding Liberal Government thought it much more desirable to create small holdings on the principle of tenancy. But during the very few months in which that Act was put into operation under the Government which introduced it a certain number of colonies were established. My authority is the hook written by Mr. Jesse Collings, who was the greatest. exponent of this question, and who preached the gospel of small holdings for years. You will find in his book that the four or five different colonies then established under that Act are flourishing and enjoying great prosperity up to the present day, and in nearly all of them either the same people or their descendants are in possession.

I have given you an instance of what may possibly happen in the north. If you want small holdings to be successful you must have certain favourable con- ditions. One of them is that the land must he naturally good land. Another is that you must have the means of a ready market. The third is that you must have a favourable climate and a part of the country naturally adapted to the purpose. When people are disappointed that the number of small holdings is not much larger, they forget that where the requisite conditions exist a large number of small holdings are already in existence.

I cannot conclude these remarks without repeating the warning I began with— namely, as to the unwisdom of spending large sums of money in the North of Scotland in creating small holdings, or crofts as they are called there, when from the very nature of things the conditions requisite for success cannot possibly exist as they do in more favoured portions of the country. Notwithstanding this, my Lords, I am entirely in favour of measures being taken without any delay for the purpose of putting a stop to the iniquities which are being practised at the present time, to the raids which are made by people who are taking forcible possession of land; and, above all, for the reason that you have before you, as the noble Duke pointed out, the example of Ireland.

I have closely followed the position in Ireland since 1869. I have watched every proceeding in that country from that year to the present time, and I venture to say that the condition of Ireland is appallingly worse than it ever was at any period in my political career. Why? Because it has been allowed to drift into that position. I should be embarking upon a debate which is yet to come; otherwise there is much that I could have said to you on this point. There have been two policies pursued—a policy of concession and surrender, and a policy of resolute government. When it is said to me, What can you do? I point to the example of fifteen years of resolute government under a Conservative Administration and the results which followed upon it. After those fifteen years the Liberal party came into power, and Mr. Birrell was sent to Ireland. He got all the information, all the Reports, and everything that could be told him, and his verdict to the House of Commons (which I heard myself) was—
"I am delighted to be able to tell the House of Commons that I find Ireland more prosperous, more tranquil, more thoroughly contented than it has been for 600 years."
It is an intolerable crime to allow matters like those we are discussing in the Highlands to-day to drift, to go from bad to worse, because no effective steps are taken to maintain the law. It is for this reason that I hope and trust that this Government will take every measure within their power to prevent in the North of Scotland what has been allowed to grow up in Ireland; otherwise the time will come when we shall see this Government overtaken by the doom of all Governments that cannot make up their minds to be resolute and firm until it is too late.