Duncan's Testimony

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Duncan's Testimony

Hugh Kirkbride McKenzie is a descendant of the Reiff McKenzie family. His wife Peggy is the family genealogy enthusiast, and has exchanged lots of great info on these people with me. CONTACT INFO.

A year ago Peggy emailed an excerpt from a book called "Go Listen to the Crofters" (SOURCE). That book is based on the testimony of Crofters to a commission assigned to look into the plight of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and the Islands. The Commission was formed in 1883 and interviewed crofters all over Scotland.

The excerpt was fascinating, though far from a complete description of Duncan's testimony. Since then, Alan McKenzie (CONTACT INFO), who as well as being the Clan MacKenzie Canada genealogist and Canadian representative of the Chief of Clan MacKenzie is editor of their newsletter "Cabar Feidh" has forwarded me an article he composed for the newsletter. The article includes a much more complete transcription of Duncan's testimony, and Alan's own comments. With Alan's permission that article is below.

Duncan appears on all the Reiff censuses from 1841 to 1881, you can see his last listing at Reiff 81-22. He was a first cousin of Kirk's ancestor, John McKenzie, who emigrated to Canada in 1837. Duncan's brother, also a John McKenzie, emigrated to Australia in 1848, he was an ancestor of Barbara Kolle in Australia; CONTACT INFO.

Duncan was also a first cousin to Murdoch McKenzie, who was an ancestor of Alistair McLeod, who is not on the internet, Alistair is official Genealogist of the Highland Council Archives Department, and works out of the Inverness Library; CONTACT INFO.

Duncan's testimony touches on the bad harbour at Reiff, and the inadequate boats and gear available to the poor crofters. Four years after Duncan's testimony, a herring boat was lost off Reiff, the dead included two uncles of my gt-grandmother; George and Hugh MacDonald (see Reiff 81-18), and the husband of her aunt, Roderick Ross (see Reiff 81-16), along with Roderick's first cousin, also called Roderick Ross (see Reiff 81-11).

Duncan himself went to a well deserved rest five years after this testimony, 9 March, 1888, age listed as 80 years.

Napier Commission
Part II

Cabar Feidh, June 1999, article by Alan McKenzie

In this issue of Cabar Feidh we continue with another witness of a Mackenzie crofter to the Napier Commission in 1883. The Napier Commission's full title was "Her Majesty's Commissioners of Enquiry into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland".

In this issue we look at the evidence given to the Commission by Duncan Mackenzie, a 76-year-old crofter from Reef in Ross-shire.

Mr.Fraser-Mackintosh: Have you any statement to make?

Duncan MacKenzie: Yes - The Petition of the Crofters residing in Reef, Coigach, in the Parish of Lochbroom, unto the Royal Commissioners, Highlands and Islands, - Humbly sheweth, - That there are about forty young men, residing in Reef, who are experienced fishermen, and are able and willing to work at sea, but who are prohibited from doing so, by want of proper boats and fishing material, and by the want of any suitable local harbour: That there is abundance of fish near the coast, indeed it is believed there is not a better fishing station between Cape Wrath and Gairloch Head: That most of the men are the support of their parents, and are at present bravely striving with their small boats and poor material to keep their parents from becoming a burden on the parish. We therefore most humbly solicit that you will use your influence with Her Majesty's Government so that they would advance to us good substantial boats and fishing material at a stated rate of interest, and giving us a stated time to repay the outlay; and also that a small harbour would be erected so as to enable us to land our fish in safety. By doing so an inestimable benefit would be conferred, not only on the inhabitants of Reef, but also on the inhabitants of the west coast generally.

Commissioner: Were you appointed a delegate by the inhabitants of Reef?

Duncan: Yes.

Commissioner: How many were present at the time you were appointed?

Duncan: About a dozen of them. The people are not at home just now; they are away but they left their mandate with us.

Commissioner: How many crofters are there in the town you represent?

Duncan: About twenty who pay rent.

Commissioner: Any cottars?

Duncan: Four.

Commissioner: Altogether you represent about one hundred people?

Duncan: Yes, probably about one hundred.

Commissioner: Have you any statement to make over and above what is in the paper?

Duncan: What I, as an old man, have to complain of chiefly is, that the rent has been increased, and this in consequence of our own improvements upon the land. Our township paid a rent of sixty pounds, and for the last three years we have been paying eighty pounds. Now I am an old man and I have no family - they have taken wing and flown away - they were not of such a kind as would remain in the place. I kept a horse before the rent was raised, and they made me pay for the horse separately from the rent. Now they have combined the rent of the horse with the rent of the land. I now pay one pound for the grazing of the horse in another place, in Assynt at Knockan, and the factor here compels me to pay one pound on the croft. The place is contracted and is not suitable for grazing a horse in summer.

Commissioner: What is your rent now?

Duncan: Four pounds.

Commissioner: Does that include the pound for the horse?

Duncan: The four pounds includes the horse; and there are rates in addition.

Commissioner: How long have you been a crofter yourself?

Duncan: Nearly fifty years.

Commissioner: When you began what rent were you paying?

Duncan: Two pounds, ten shillings.

Commissioner: Have you got the same land and the same privileges of hill pasture that you had fifty years ago when you began?

Duncan: Yes, but it is a bad place; it is rocky and stony ground, and I expended a great deal of labour upon it blasting the rocks.

Commissioner: Have you been during the last forty years improving and trying to develop the resources of your croft to the utmost?

Duncan: Yes.

Commissioner: And the result has been all added to your rent?

Duncan: Yes, the man that improves best will have his rent increased most.

Commissioner: There seems to have been a rise of rent upon the property; did anybody go about valuing the places?

Duncan: Only our own factors.

Commissioner: They are quite able themselves to raise the rent without calling in other people?

Duncan: Yes, quite; I did not happen to be at home at the time; I was at Caithness fishing when the valuation was made.

Commissioner: Are your houses in pretty good order?

Duncan: They would be none the worse of being better.

Commissioner: Have you kept them up yourself all the time you have been tenant?

Duncan: Yes, it was myself that erected them and kept them up afterwards, I paid for the masons and took some of the timber from Wick and from Inverness and Loch Hourn.

Commissioner: Did you ever get any assistance in the way of money, or timber, or lime from the proprietor?

Duncan: Not a penny.

Commissioner: May your case be called a typical one of the rest of the crofters, or did they get any help?

Duncan: So far as I am aware their condition in that respect is the same; I am not aware that they ever asked any assistance.

Commissioner: When the rent was raised from sixty pounds to eighty pounds on the township three years ago, did you get anything directly or indirectly in the way of extension?

Duncan: Nothing whatever; I would not even get an ounce of powder to blast the rocks. I did not ask the pasture, but what I asked I did not get.

Commissioner: What did you ask?

Duncan: There is no occasion to tell.

Commissioner: Are the cottars a burden to the crofters to some extent?

Duncan: They must needs be. But if they are able to have a cow they will have a cow; and if they can afford to buy a sheep they will have a sheep, and they need potato ground and other conveniences.

Commissioner: Do they pay any rent to the township in money or labour?

Duncan: I am not aware.

Commissioner: Does the township pay poor rates?

Duncan: Yes.

Commissioner: Do I understand that besides paying poor rates they have these four families entirely to support also?

Duncan: They make their livelihood some way. The whole of their livelihood is not by any means dependent on us; if that were the case they would be hungry indeed.

Commissioner: Is there any land near them convenient, which might be added to their ground?

Duncan: There are other tenants coming in between us and the large farm of Baden Tarbet.

Commissioner: In order to make the people comfortable at Reef it would be necessary to transport some of them elsewhere?

Duncan: Yes, that would be necessary, but I am not sure they would be willing to emigrate. The younger ones have to support their parents.

Commissioner: I mean to emigrate to Baden Tarbet there?

Duncan: They would be exceedingly glad to go there; that is suitable land for rearing people, and not ours. Our land is rock and moss.

Commissioner: Can you ever be comfortable in these circumstances as long as you remain in your present crippled and confined state?

Duncan: No; that is the reason why they ask for assistance to enable them to take their livelihood out of the sea.

Sheriff Nicolson: What kind of harbour have you at present?

Duncan: It is a bad harbour in winter.

Commissioner: What wind blows into it?

Duncan: The south-west wind.

Commissioner: Is there no safe creek into which you can take your boats?

Duncan: No.

Commissioner: What do you do with them? Have you to haul them up on the grass?

Duncan: To be sure.

Commissioner: Is there a good place on your shore where a pier or a breakwater could be made?

Duncan: It could be done very well at considerable expense. There are plenty of stones.

Commissioner: Have you not made any kind of little quay for your own conveniences?

Duncan: Yes, there is a sort of quay.

Commissioner: Would it be very expensive to make a better one?

Duncan: That would depend upon the amount of labour which would be expended upon it.

Commissioner: Has every house-holder there got a boat?

Duncan: Almost all of them have.

Commissioner: They have no large boats of the sort they have on the East coast?

Duncan: Yes there are some; one that I had myself is still there, and there is another one.

Commissioner: Where did you get that boat?

Duncan: In Wick.

Commissioner: What did it cost?

Duncan: Eighty pounds.

Commissioner: And did you pay that for the boat yourself?

Duncan: Yes.

Commissioner: How did you make the money?

Duncan: By the sea, not by the land.

Commissioner: If all these forty young men and their successors at Reef had good boats and sufficient gear, do you think they could live by the fishing?

Duncan: They would try whatever.

Commissioner: Do you think they could do it without the land?

Duncan: I am not sure. The land is for the old people and the sea for the young men.

Commissioner: I suppose they could not get on well unless they had milk to give their children, for which one cow at least is necessary?

Duncan: They would be the better of that.

Commissioner: And they would rather raise their own potatoes than be buying them?

Duncan: Surely.

Commissioner: Are they able to raise potatoes enough just now to support their families?

Duncan: Not by any means.

Commissioner: Was there a total failure of your crop last year?

Duncan: The wind swept away the crops, and the storm destroyed the potatoes.

Commissioner: Are your own circumstances worse just now than they were when you were young?

Duncan: Yes, as my family left me - that is the reason of it; and my strength ebbed away.

Commissioner: Where have they all gone away to?

Duncan: Some of them died, and the females married.

Commissioner: Are you able to get enough out of your own croft to support you?

Duncan: No, it is by the horse I am taking home the peats, I am not able to carry any burden.

Commissioner: Does your ground supply you with food enough?

Duncan: No.

Commissioner: How are you able to pay for the meal and the things you buy?

Duncan: It is by the stock, and by the credit this year.

Commissioner: What can you make by selling beasts in a good year?

Duncan: I get five pounds or six pounds for a good beast.

Commissioner: Is that the most?

Duncan: This year eight pounds if it is a good beast.

Commissioner: Have you any sheep?

Duncan: Yes.

Commissioner: How many?

Duncan: Indeed I have not many sheep.

Commissioner: Perhaps you do not know how many?

Duncan: I know fine.

Commissioner: How many?

Duncan: Between five and ten.

Commissioner: Do you sell any of them?

Duncan: Yes, I sold three this year.

Commissioner: What did you get for them?

Duncan: One pound for the three.

Commissioner: What kind were they, black-faced?

Duncan: Just that.

Commissioner: Do you sell wool also?

Duncan: I sold the wool with them.

Commissioner: Do you ever in your place make clothes out of your own wool?

Duncan: Yes.

Commissioner: Do a good many of them do that?

Duncan: Yes, a good many.

Commissioner: Have you weavers?

Duncan: Very rarely now.

Commissioner: Had the people better clothes when you were young, or worse?

Duncan: The young people will get good clothes.

Commissioner: But are the people generally better clothed than when you were young?

Duncan: They are.

Commissioner: I suppose when you were young a good many of the men would go bare-footed?

Duncan: Very few.

Commissioner: Do you think the clothes they buy are as good as those they made?

Duncan: I think not.

Commissioner: Are the children better clothed than they used to be.

Duncan: I don't know that.

Commissioner: Are any of them so poorly clothed that they have some delicacy or difficulty in going to school?

Duncan: Indeed, yes.

Commissioner: But I hope there are not many of your people in that condition?

Duncan: I know some of the children that were kept from school last examination for a fortnight for want of clothes.

The Chairman: Do you remember the time before the first great potato disease?

Duncan: Yes, quite well.

Commissioner: Were the potatoes very much better before that, than they are now?

Duncan: Yes, very much better. We had a kind of potatoes then, that I don't see at all now.

Commissioner: Was that a great advantage to the people then, and have they suffered much in consequence of the disease?

Duncan: The people at that time lived more upon potatoes than they do now; even supposing they had potatoes now, they would not consider it a good diet.

Commissioner: In those days did the people have potatoes enough sometimes to last a whole year?

Duncan: Yes, when I first remember.

Commissioner: How long will they last now?

Duncan: Usually till seed time, but they give the potatoes away to the cattle more now.

Comments: One gets a strong impression from the old crofter's evidence that he was getting tired of the commissioners' questions and at time was somewhat reticent in giving answers to their personal questions. Old Duncan Mackenzie comes across as a shrewd and intelligent highlander. He would have been born around 1807.

The Oxford dictionary describes a croft as a small agricultural holding worked by a peasant tenant.

A Cottar is a peasant who occupies a cottage belonging to a farm as a sort of out-servant.

Both the cottars and crofters of the Highlands were probably the most impoverished people in Great Britain at a time when the country ruled a massive empire. The state of these people became such a disgrace that the Government Commission of Enquiry was set up.

In future issues we shall continue with more evidence from other Mackenzies.

This file, and others dealing with history and genealogy of Coigach, links from my homepage at:


Any suggestions for additions or edits please feel free to email me,

Donald MacDonald-Ross, at:

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