Monday, 24 May 2010

Napier Commission in St Kilda

On August 29th this year, it will be 80 years ago since the people of St Kilda left their native isle, never to return (to live there). They had requested to be removed as life there had become untenable. It is perhaps noteworthy to read the submissions to the Napier Commission, which visited St Kilda in June 1883. The replies by the three people who were called to give evidence have been transcribed into separate postings on the blog. Read the entries first, then return here, I ask.

In order to get an idea of the attitude of the “have’s” versus the “have-nots” of the day, I copy a few lines from a submission from the factor for St Kilda, in effect the landowner’s manager of the islands. John T. Mackenzie was not a bad man, as he did not pressurise any people if they could not pay the rent. Others in his position  would have their tenants evicted in case of default.
[...] the ” land question” to a great extent is in the hands of educated people, who know the danger of breaking the law, and who are responsible for their own actions. The crofter grievance is the ” land question ” in another form, but in the hands of a class who, fancying they have some hardships, know not what to do, but who are under the guidance and advice of irresponsible and, I am afraid in many cases, of thoughtless leaders, eager to gain notoriety through the simplicity and credulity of their followers
If you feel anger when seeing condescension and arrogance at such a breathtaking degree, stop for a minute and reflect upon the era we’re talking about. In the Great Britain of 1883, there was a gaping divide between classes in society. St Kilda people were regarded as “noble savages”, who could not look after themselves, and needed the benevolent hand of an educated and munificent landowner to guide their ignorant ways. Looking at this from a 21st century perspective, it is in fact the landowners who contributed in no mean proportion to the plight of their tenants - as the Napier Commission was finding out in 1883. Not all lairds were bad and evil, and neither were all their agents.

I can tell you that I have found the attitude, stated in the blockquote from John T. Mackenzie above, echoed to this day in certain quarters of those studying the social history of the Highlands and Islands. I am still angry at the Scottish First Minister who hailed the achievements of the emigrant Highlanders overseas, without making reference to the fact that many of them were kicked out under the most excruciating circumstances. Achievements that certainly deserve to be acknowledged - but why were they not allowed to make them at home.

I’ll get off my high horse now.

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