Second Shetland Truck System Report
by William Guthrie
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Second Shetland Truck System Report

by William Guthrie


Truck - The payment of wages otherwise than in money, the system or practice of such a payment. References/Edinburgh enquiry/book/archives/size of original doc. OED.

The Truck Commission Enquiry, 1872, is a major social history source the Shetland Islands in the 19th century. It followed on from an existing Truck Commission enquiry in 1871, after evidence from Shetland was heard in Edinburgh. 45,125 questions covered the rest of the country, 17,070 for Shetland. Despite this effort, little effect immediately resulted in Shetland from legislation following on the national enquiry.

References George W. Hilton, The Truck System, including a History of the British Truck Acts, 1465-1960, W. Heffer and Sons, Ltd., Cambridge, 1960.

Hance D. Smith, Introduction (to facsimile reprint of the Report of the Commissioners appointed to enquire into the Truck System (Shetland), Sandwick, 1978.

Hance D. Smith, Shetland Life and Trade, 1550-1914, John Donald Publishers Ltd., Edinburgh, 1984, ISBN 0859761037.


The original documents come in a double column, small print format. Since it isn't possible, or even desirable to reproduce that here, some alterations have been made. Page numbers are indicated within square brackets - [Page x]. Tables, which were in even smaller print, have also been altered somewhat where necessary. In particular, Table I-IV in the Report section have been split up for ease of use, and put after, rather than in the middle of the section referring to them. The use of italics has been indicated by means of the following .

The most obvious typographical errors have been removed, but otherwise the text is untouched. However, the spelling of place names and personal names has altered a bit over the years, and the items below cover most of the obvious problems, as well as some misapprehensions and errors.

Blanch- now Blance.

ca'in/caain whales- alternative spellings of the same word - for Pilot Whale, usually.

Clunas- now usually Cluness.

Colafirth- now Collafirth.

Coningsburgh- now Cunningsburgh.

Cumlywick- now Cumlewick.

Cunningster- now Cunnister.

Dalzell- alternatively Dalziel, Dalyell, Deyell, and even Yell.

Dunrosness- now Dunrossness.

Edmonston/Edmonstone- now Edmondston.

Eskerness- probably Eshaness.

Exter, Janet- a misapprehension - actual name unknown but possibly Janet Inkster.

Fetler- now Fetlar.

Fiedeland- now Fethaland.

Flaus/Flawes/Flaws- alternative spellings of the same name now usually Flaws.

Garrioch/Garriock/Garrick- can be alternative spellings of the same name.

ghive/geo/gio- gio - an inlet.

Goudie/Gaudie- now Goudie.

Hancliffe- probably Hangcliff.

Harra- now Herra.

Hildesha- now Hildasay, an island.

Hillyar/Hillyard- probably Heylor.

Humphray/Humphrey/Umphray- can be alternative spellings of the same name.

Jameson/Jamieson- now usually Jamieson.

Lasetter- now Lusetter.

Lebidden- now Leabitten.

Leisk/Leask- alternative spellings of the same name.

Lesslie/Leslie- alternative spellings of the same name.

Lingord- now Lingarth.

Luija- probably Linga, an island.

Malcolmson/Malcomson- now usually Malcolmson.

Manaster- prob. Mangaster.

Mavisgrind- now Mavis Grind.

Nicholson- now usually Nicolson.

North Mavine/Northmaven- now Northmavine.

Rennesta- probably Ringasta.

Roenessvoe- now Ronas Voe.

Satter- now Setter.

scatthold/scattales/scattholes- now scattald.

scaups/scaaps- alternative spellings of the same word, a bed of shellfish on the sea bottom.

Simbister- now Symbister.

Stenness- now Stennes.

Sullem/Sullam- now Sullom.

Thomason/Thomson/Thompson- alternative spellings of the same name.

Trosswick- now Troswick.

Urrafirth- now Urafirth.

Usiness- prob. Ustaness.

Vinsgarth- now Veensgarth.

Waterbru- now Waterbrough.

West Sandwick- now Westsandwick.

Angus Johnson, May, 2001.

[Page 1 rpt.] REPORT.


SIR, THE Report on the Truck System, presented to Parliament in 1871, stated that the Commissioners, Messrs. Bowen and Sellar, had received information from four witnesses with regard to Shetland, 'tending to show that the existence of Truck in an oppressive form is general in the staple trades of the islands'. The Commissioners in their Report call attention to this evidence, and add: 'Time would not allow of a local inquiry at Shetland, nor can an inquiry be adequately conducted into the Truck which is alleged to prevail there otherwise than upon the spot. No opinion accordingly is offered either as to the extent of, or the remedy for, the alleged evils; but the necessity of some investigation by Her Majesty's Government into the condition of these islands seems made out.'

Having been appointed, by a warrant under your hand, dated Dec. 23, 1871, one of the Commissioners under the Truck Commission Act, 1870, in room of Mr. Bowen, I was directed to proceed to Shetland and institute an inquiry there under that Act. I inquired respecting the matters embraced under the instructions of the Act, and I have now to report as follows:-

I went to Shetland at the beginning of the year, a time when the seafaring people of the country are generally at their homes, and I at once began to take evidence with regard to the system of barter or truck which prevails in various trades and industries in these islands. Evidence was taken respecting the hosiery or knitting trade, in which a very large proportion of the women of the country are engaged. Evidence was also taken with regard to the fishing trade, which in its different branches affords employment for part of the year to the whole of the male population, with few exceptions. With regard to the manner in which sales of farm stock and produce are transacted, rents are paid, and land is held in Shetland, information has also been obtained, without which it appeared to be impossible to form a correct idea of the condition of the people, and the way in which barter or truck presents itself as an inseparable element of their daily life and habits. A large amount of evidence was also pressed upon me with regard to the engagement of seamen at Lerwick for sealing and whaling voyages to Greenland and Davis Straits.

Sittings for the purpose of taking evidence were held at Lerwick, Brae (Delting), Hillswick (Northmaven), Mid Yell, Balta Sound (Unst), Boddam (Dunrossness), and Scalloway, in Shetland. I visited Kirkwall, in Orkney, for the purpose of examining certain witnesses now residing there with regard to the condition of Fair Island, which was inaccessible at the time of my journey. Sittings were also held in Edinburgh for the examination of a few witnesses residing there.

Public notice by printed bills was given of all meetings, and circulars were also sent to all clergymen, schoolmasters, and landed proprietors, and to all persons in the fishcuring and hosiery trades. Evidence was received from almost all who tendered it, from a large number of persons suggested or put forward by employers of labour and purchasers of hosiery goods and fish, and from many witnesses who were selected and cited.


The Shetland Islands are upwards of a hundred in number, varying in size from the Mainland, which is about seventy miles in length and thirty at its greatest breadth, to small rocks not even affording pasturage to sheep. The outlines of all the islands, as shown on the accompanying map are very irregular, long bays or voes indenting them so deeply that no point is more than three miles from the sea. The country is hilly, but none of the [Page 2 rpt.] hills are very lofty. Twenty-eight of the islands are inhabited; some of the smaller islands containing only two, or in some cases only one family. The population in 1861 was 31,670, viz. 18,617 females, and 13,053 males. The population in 1871 was 31,605, viz. 18,525 females, and 13,080 males. The census is taken at a time of the year when many men who are sailors in the merchant service are absent from their homes, which they visit once a year or oftener. At the last census there were 6,494 families, 5,740 inhabited houses, 220 vacant houses, and 10 houses building.

The Agricultural Returns for Great Britain for 1871 state the number of occupiers of land in Shetland, from whom returns have been obtained, at 3992, occupying on an average thirteen acres each. The total acreage under all kinds of crops, bare, fallow, and grass, is given as 50,454 acres in 1870, and 50,720 in 1871, of which, in the latter year, 11,626 acres were under corn crops, 3,493 under green crops (2,909 being potatoes), 522 under clover and grasses under rotation, and 33,227 permanent pasture, meadow, or grass not broken up in rotation, exclusive of heath or mountain land. The total number of horses returned to the Statistical Department, as on 25th June 1871, was 5,354; of cattle 21,735; of sheep, 86,834; and of pigs, 5,251.


The 'toons,' or townships, in which the peasantry of Shetland live, are generally situated along the margins of the voes, or far-stretching inland bays which intersect the country; and although in some districts they extend into the valleys running into the interior, they are almost always within a short distance from the sea. It is natural, therefore, that the Shetlander should be a fisherman or a sailor; and for two centuries it appears that he has generally combined the occupations of farming and fishing. The following description of the rural polity of Shetland, taken from Dr. Arthur Edmonstone's View of the Ancient and Present State of the Zetland Islands (2 vols. 8vo, Edin. 1809), is for the most part applicable at the present day.

'The enclosed land in Zetland is divided into what are called merks and ures. A merk, it is said, should contain 1600 square fathoms, and an ure is the eighth part of a merk; but the merks are everywhere of unequal dimensions, and scarcely two are of the same size. The oldest rentals state the number of merks to be about 13,500, and those of the present time make them no more. A considerable portion, however, of common has been enclosed and cultivated since the appearance of the first rentals, although not included in them. When a part of the common is enclosed and farmed, the enclosure is called an outset; but the outsets are never included in the numeration of merks of rental land. From these circumstances it is very difficult to ascertain the actual quantity of cultivated ground in Zetland.

'The enclosures are made, generally, in the neighbourhood of the sea, and contain from 4 to 70 merks, which are frequently the property of different heritors, and are always subdivided among several tenants. Such place is called a town or a room, and each has a particular name.

'The uncultivated ground outside of the enclosure is called the scatthold, and is used for general pasture, and to furnish turf for firing. Every tenant may rear as many sheep, cattle, or horses, on the general scatthold attached to the town in which his farm lies as he can. There is no restriction on this head, whether he rent a large or a small farm. If there be no moss in the scatthold contiguous to his farm, the tenant must pay for the privilege to cut peat in some other common, and this payment is called It seldom exceeds 3s. per annum.

'The kelp shores and the pasture islands are seldom or never let to the tenant along with the land; these the landholder retains in his own hands. In some parts of Zetland, particularly in the island of Unst, the proprietor furnishes the tenant, gratis, with a house, barn, and stable, which he also keeps in a state of repair. In other parts of the country this expense is divided between them, but the chief proportion of it always falls on the landholder.

'The quantity of land farmed by a tenant varies from 3 to 12 merks, and sometimes more; but the average number to each may be taken at 5. In a few instances regular leases are granted, and some of them for a great number of years; but these are comparatively rare. In the great majority of cases, nothing more takes place than a verbal agreement on the part of the tenant to occupy a farm under certain conditions, for one year only, at the expiration of which both he and the landholder consider themselves at perfect liberty to enter on a new engagement ....

'The rents are paid in cash and various articles of country produce, such as fish, butter, oil, etc.; and the amount of the rent varies, according as the tenant has the exclusive disposal of his labour or agrees to fish to his landholder. In the former case, the probable profits on the sale of fish and the other articles of produce are estimated, and the lands are let at their full value. In the latter case, or where the tenant fishes to the landholder, he comes under an agreement to deliver to him his fish, butter,* and oil, at a certain price, and then the lands are let at a considerably reduced rate. This system, where there is a reciprocity of profit between the landholder and the tenant, is by far the most general, and the practice is immemorial in Zetland.

'The merks are divided into different classes, such as <six-penny, nine-penny>, and merks. These are arbitrary numbers, employed to designate certain differences in the rents of the merks, according to their size and produce. Thus nine-penny merks should be more valuable than six-penny merks, and twelve-penny more so than nine-penny. But these distinctions, although rounded, no doubt, originally on real differences, are at present very inaccurate measures of the relative value of the different classes of merks; for sometimes happens that a six-penny merk is as large and productive as a twelve-penny one. . .

'The lands in the different towns generally lie, , intimately mingled together, which not only [Page 3 rpt.] creates frequent disputes, but prevents the more industrious tenants from making smaller enclosures...

'The ground is divided into what is called and . The outfield is the land which has been last brought into a state of cultivation, and in most parts the soil is mossy. It is sown generally with oats. The infield, on the contrary, has been long in a state of culture, and it produces barley, called in Zetland bear, and potatoes. The outfield is seldom well drained, although it might be easily done without any additional trouble or expense. Thus, when cutting peat for fuel, which is often done within the dyke, instead of doing this in parallel lines, leaving a considerable space between them to become a future corn-field, the people cut in every direction, disfigure the ground, and very often form reservoirs for water to accumulate in. The outfield is allowed to remain fallow for one, and sometimes two years in succession, but the infield is generally turned over every year.'** [Vol. i p. 147 sqq.]

* This does not accurately describe the present mode of paying rents. The rent is always nominally a money rent, although it may be paid in account, as will afterwards be shown ** It would be out of place to make extensive quotations from this valuable work. But I refer to it as containing discussions the social state of Shetland, showing that many of the questions involved in the present inquiry required an answer seventy years ago. See also Hibbert's <Description of the Shetland Islands> (Edin. 1822)

The enclosed lands were formerly runrig, held by the inhabitants of the township in scattered allotments, at different places within the dyke or enclosing wall,-the allotments being made, apparently, in such a manner as to give the tenants equal shares of the different qualities of land. In late years, however, much progress is said to have been made in dividing the farms and throwing the ground of each tenant into one lot. [J.S. Houston, 9654; W. Stewart, 8992; A. Sandison, 9993.]


The following description of the Shetland hut or cottage is written by Dr. Arthur Mitchell, now one of the Commissioners of Lunacy for Scotland, a very accurate and careful observer (Appendix to the Second Report of the General Board of Commissioners in Lunacy for Scotland, 1860):-

'The Shetland cottage or hut is of the rudest description. It is usually built of undressed stone, with a cement of clay or turf. Over the rafters is laid a covering of pones, divots, or flaas,* and above this again a thatch of straw, bound down with ropes of heather, weighted at the ends with stones, as a protection against the high winds which are so prevalent. Chimneys and windows are rarely to be seen. One or more holes in the roof permit the escape of the smoke, and at the same time admit light. Open doors, the thatched roof, and loose joinings everywhere, insure a certain ventilation, without which the dwellings would often be more unhealthy than many in the lanes of our large cities. To this, there is no doubt, we must attribute the comparative absence of fever, the occasional presence of which, I think, is greatly due to that violation of the plainest law of nature, the box-bed. This evil is often intensified in Shetland by having the beds arranged in tiers one above the other, in ship fashion, with the apertures of access reduced to the smallest possible size.

'Drainage is wholly unattended to, and the dunghill is invariably found at the very door. As the house is entered, the visitor first comes upon that part allotted to the cattle, which in summer are out night and day, but in winter are chiefly within doors. Their dung is frequently allowed to accumulate about them; and I was told that this part of the house is sometimes used by the family in winter as a privy. Passing through the byre, the human habitation is reached. The separation between it and the part for the cattle is ingeniously effected by an arrangement of the furniture, the bed chiefly serving for this purpose. The floor is of clay, and the fire is nearly always in the middle of it ....

'In some respects, however, the Zetland dwellings stand a favourable comparison with those of the Western Islands. There is a bareness and desolation about the misery of a Harris house that is tenfold more depressing. It is a poor house and an empty one - a decaying, mouldy shell, without the pretence of a kernel. Whereas in Zetland there is usually a certain fulness. There are bulky sea-chests, with smaller ones on the top of them; chairs, with generally an effort at an easy one; a wooden bench, a table, beds, spades, fishing-rods, baskets, and a score of other little things, which help, after all, to make it a domus. The very teapot, in Zetland always to be found at the fireside, speaks of home and woman, and reminds one of the sobriety of the people - that very important difference between them and the inhabitants of the Hebridean islands. I think the Zetlanders, too, are more intelligent, and more inclined to be industrious, and give greater evidence of the tendency to accumulate or provide.

'Instead of describing the house occupied by each patient, I have given this general account of the average Zetland dwelling, and then, in my individual reports, I have spoken of the special houses as of, above, or below the average.'

*Different terms signifying varieties of sod.

Since 1860, the dwellings of the people have undergone considerable improvement, especially in the more advanced districts, such as Unst; but the description given of them by Dr. Cowie,* the latest writer on Shetland and himself a Shetlander, and my own observation so far as it went, enables me to state that Dr. Mitchell's description of the average cottage of the fisherman-farmer is still substantially correct. Cottages to which the description exactly applies may be found within a mile of Lerwick. In Lerwick, the capital, the poorer dwellings are, to say the least, not better than those of the same class in other towns of its size. [D. Edmonstone, 10,683; Rev. W. Smith, 10,718; Dr. Cowie, 14,745.]

*<Shetland: Descriptive and Historica>l. By Robert Cowie, M.A., M.D., Aberdeen. 1871. See p. 91. Edmonstone's <View of the Zetland Islands>, vol. ii., p. 48. <New Statistical Account of the Shetland Islands>, p. 138. _____



It is necessary to distinguish the terms which are somewhat loosely used in speaking of the different kinds of fishing carried on in Shetland. The home or summer fishing, when that term is used in its widest sense, includes all the fishing for ling, cod, tusk, [Page 4 rpt.] and seath prosecuted in open boats, whether of six oars, or of a smaller size such as are still used for the seath fishery at Sumburgh. The 'haaf fishery' is, in the greater part of Shetland, synonymous with the home or summer fishery, being distinguished from it only where, as at Sumburgh, seath fishing is prosecuted in summer in the smaller open boats. 'Haaf' is 'the deep sea - the fishing of cod, ling, and tusk.'* This fishery is also generically known as the ling fishing, because, though, considerable quantities of tusk and cod are also caught at the haaf, ling is by far the most important part of its produce. The term 'cod fishing' is sometimes applied to what is usually called the 'Faroe fishing', which is prosecuted in large smacks in the vicinity of the Faroe Islands, and in autumn as far north as Iceland. On the west coast of the mainland, the 'cod fishing'- or 'home cod fishing' as it is called, to distinguish it from the Faroe fishing - is carried on, though now to a comparatively trifling extent, in smacks of a smaller size, at banks to the south-west of Shetland. The 'winter fishing' is prosecuted in small boats of four oars, which belong entirely to the men engaged in it, the fish being generally cured by themselves, or sold to any merchant they please for a price fixed and paid in money or goods at the time.

* Edmonstone's <Etymological Glossary of Orkney and Shetland Dialect> (Edin. 1866.)


The ling and tusk fishery is the oldest of the existing fishing industries of Shetland. It appears in the seventeenth century to have been in the hands of Dutch merchants and shipowners, who supplied the natives with the means of fishing; cured, or at least dried, the fish on the beaches; and carried it to Holland. It is said that the proprietors of Shetland were first induced about the beginning of the eighteenth century to take the ling fishing into their own hands, supplying their tenants with materials, and receiving the fish at a stipulated rate.* The system which grew up after this change is referred to by Dr. Adam Smith,** and appears to have been in full vigour in at least one part of Shetland but a few years ago. It is thus described by a witness, William Stewart, as it existed till 1862 in Whalsay, where he was a tenant of the late Mr. Bruce of Simbister:-

'8978. What rent did you pay there?-The rent I always paid for my ground was 26s.' '8979. Did you fish for Mr. Bruce at that time?-Yes, for the late Mr. William Bruce.' '8980. And you had an account with him at the shop in Whalsay?-Yes.' '8981. How did you pay your rent?-Generally by fishing.' '8982. Was it put into your account?-Yes. The thing was carried on on a very strange system. Our land was put in to us at a low rent, and our fish were taken from us at as low a value. The prices for the fish never varied, either for the spring or summer.' '8983. Do you mean that they were the same every year?-They were. Whatever they might be in the markets, they were all the same to us.' '8984. Had you never the benefit of a rise in the market at all?- Never.' '8985. Did you not object to that?-We had just to content ourselves with it, or leave the place.' '8986. It was part of your bargain for your land, that you were to give your fish at a certain rate?-Yes; there were so much of the fish taken off for the land. That was the first of the fishing. We got 3s. 4d. a cwt. for ling, 2s. 6d. for tusk, and 20d. for cod, and so much of each kind of fish was taken off until the land was paid for; and then the prices were raised to 4s, I think, for ling, 3s. 2d. for tusk, and 2s. 6d. for cod, for all the rest of the summer fishing.' '8987. Did you get these prices for a number of years?-I think for the thirteen years that I was on the station they never varied one halfpenny for the summer fishing. The prices for the winter fishing varied a little. Sometimes we would sell the small cod as low as 2s. 6d, and at other times at 3s.' '8988. Did you sell the winter fishing for payment at the time, or did it go into the account too?-It was never put into the account at all; we just got what we required for it. It was ready payment; but it was very rarely that we got money for the winter fishing.' '8989. Did you know at the time that the prices you were paid at the latter part of the season were lower than the market price of the fish?-We knew that; but it was just the bargain.' '8990. Was that the system with all the tenants in Whalsay at that time?-With every one.' '8991. When did that system cease?-I think it ceased about a year after I came here-about 1863.'

[W. Stewart, 8978; See J.S. Houston, 9727.]

* Edmonstone's <View of the Zetland Islands>, vol. ii., p. 232., Brand's <Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland>, etc., pp. 73, 89, 128, 136, etc. (Edin. 1701). ** , b.i.c. xi.


It is impossible to separate the question of Truck in Shetland from the land question - (1.) Because Truck, in the form in which it chiefly exists, has arisen out of these old relations between landlords and tenants in the times when the landlords were the principal or the only purchasers and curers of fish; and (2.) because, to a very material extent, the relations between the fish-curer and the fishermen are still subservient and ancillary to the landlord's security for his rent.* That this is so will appear from a description of the ling fishery as it now exists.

* General Observations on Shetland, by Lawrence Edmonstone M.D., in <New Statistical Account>, p. 160 (Edin. 1841)


Although the proprietors may originally have had some concern with all the fishing of the year, it is in the ling fishery that they till lately occupied, and in some instances still occupy, the position of the old Dutch traders. In this position they have now, for the most part, been succeeded by merchants, who in some instances are tacksmen (or [Page 5 rpt.] 'tacksmasters,'-, principal lessees or middle-men, having sub-tenants), and in others are merely lessees of a fishing station, with its invariable appendage, a retail shop or store for goods of every kind. There is a regular season for the haaf fishing, lasting from about the 20th of May till the 12th of August. It is carried on chiefly from stations as near as possible to the haaf, where lodges or huts are erected for each boat's crew. The men return to their homes at the end of each week. At each station where the fish are landed, whether that is a temporary station,-such as Feideland, Whalsay Skerries, Stenness, Papa Stour, Spiggie, or Gloup,-or a permanent curing establishment and shop, such as Reawick, Uyea Sound, Quendale, or Hillswick,-factors are employed by the merchants to receive and weigh the fish, and enter the weight in a fish-book. These factors at the temporary stations are entrusted with a small supply of meal, lines, hooks, and other articles likely to be wanted by the fishermen, which they sell to them in the same way as the merchants themselves or their servants do at the permanent shops.

[W. Irvine, p. 85.]


The mode of fishing is similar to the long-line fishing in the North Sea, described in the Report of the Sea Fisheries Commission, 1866, App. p. 6.


A boat is usually divided into six shares, each of the crew having one share; the proceeds of the fish, after deducting the price or hire of the boat and other expenses incurred on account of the crew, for which the crew is responsible as a company, being also divided into six shares. In some rare cases the shares are fewer, and one or two of the men are hired.

It is an invariable rule that a boat's crew delivers all its fish taken during the summer to the same merchant. In a few cases this arises, as it formerly did almost universally, simply from the fact that the men are all tenants of a proprietor or middle-man, who makes it a condition of their holding their crofts that they shall fish for him. In others, it is the subject of an express or tacit arrangement with a particular fish-curer.

When he delivers his fish, the fisherman does not receive payment for it, nor does he know what price it will bring. The arrangement or understanding is, that the price is to be at the current rate at the end of the season. The season ends, so far as the fishing is concerned, at or about August 12; but the sales are not made until September and October, when the process of curing is completed. The settlement of the price does not take place till November, December, or January; and in the case of one merchant, it appears to have been more than once delayed to a considerably later period. When a number of crews deliver their fish to the same merchant, especially if he has a number of stations at different parts of the islands, his settlements are considerably protracted. Each crew, as I have said, has got supplies at the fishing station; it has also got fishing materials, and it may have to pay the hire, or instalments of the price, of its boat. These are all debited to the crew in a ledger account, kept in the name of the skipper and crew, thus -'John Simpson & Co., Stenness.' The sums due for these items being deducted from the total amount of the boat's fishing, the balance is divided into shares, which are carried to the private accounts of the several fishermen; for in almost every case the fisherman and his family obtain, during the year, 'supplies' of goods from the shop of the fish-curer. In the great majority of cases there are no passbooks for such accounts. The private account is read over to the fisherman by the fishcurer, or by his shopkeeper, where he does not personally manage that department of his business; and the fisherman being satisfied as to its correctness, or, as it often happens, trusting to the honesty of the merchant, it is settled, any balance due to the fisherman being paid in cash, any balance against him being carried to his debit in a new account. [See below - SETTLEMENTS AND PASS-BOOKS] THE debit against the fisherman consists-(1.) Of any balance against him in the account of the previous year; (2.) Of goods of various kinds supplied from the store; (3.) Of cash advanced in the course of the year, either to himself personally, or for rent, taxes, or other payments made on his account. It may possibly occur in a bad season, that his share of a balance against the crew with which he has been fishing may increase his indebtedness; but no case of this kind has been brought under my notice. On the other hand, he is credited with the price of his fish at the current rate, and with the price of any cattle or ponies sold by him to the merchant. The smaller farm produce, such as butter and eggs, although very often sold to the same merchant, does not enter the account, having been paid in goods across the counter, rarely in cash, at the time of delivery.

[See below, p. 24.]

[Page 6 rpt.]


It thus appears to be quite possible that fishermen should receive the whole of their earnings in shop goods, and I understand that the truth of the allegation that most of the men actually are so paid, and that they have no option but to take goods for their fish, at prices fixed by the merchant, was intended to be the main subject of this inquiry.


Upon this subject the complaints of the men themselves were not loud or frequent. The only cases in which fishermen came forward voluntarily for the purpose of stating grievances, on hearing of the Commission, were those in which they are bound by their tenure to deliver their fish to the proprietor of the ground, or his tacksman. As in all these cases they are also supplied with goods from the landlord's or tacksman's shop, it was necessary to hear fully what the men had to say, even although their complaints appeared to involve a question as to the tenure of land, as well as the payment of wages.


Complaints on this subject were made by tenants on the estates of Sumburgh and Quendale, in the parish of Dunrossness, and on the island of Burra. It also appeared in the evidence of persons cited, that the obligation exists and is enforced on the estate of Lunna, in the parish of Nesting and Lunnasting; on that of Ollaberry, in Northmaven; on those of Mr. Henderson, Mrs. Budge, Messrs. Pole & Hoseason, in Yell; in the island of Whalsay, held by Messrs. Hay & Co. from Mr. Bruce of Simbister; on the Gossaburgh estate, in Yell and Northmaven, held by them from Mrs. Henderson Robertson; and in Skerries, of which Mr. Adie has a tack from Mr. Bruce. On other estates the tenants are nominally free, although it may sometimes be doubtful how far they are able to exercise any choice.

SUMBURGH [Qu. 548 sqq.]

The first witness who came forward to speak of the obligation to deliver the fish to the landlord was Laurence Mail, who was not summoned, and his evidence shows how naturally this grievance is connected with the system of Truck. He says:-

'559. What is the complaint you wish to make?-There is one thing we complain of: that we are bound to deliver our fish, wet or green, to the landlord.' '560. That is, you have to deliver the fish as they are caught?- Yes; of course we have to take out the bowels and cut off the heads: it is the bodies of the fish we give. We think it would be much better if we had liberty to dry the fish ourselves, as we used to do formerly.' '561. To whom are you bound to give your fish?-To Mr. Bruce, our landlord.' '562. Is he a fish-curer or fish-merchant?-Yes.' '563. Is it Mr. Bruce or his son that you are speaking of?-It is young Mr. Bruce. He is the landlord or tack-master. His father is alive; but I think young Mr. Bruce has got power from his father to engage the tenants according to his own pleasure.' '564. Do you pay your rent to young Mr. Bruce?-Yes.' '565. And does he give you a receipt for it in his own name?-We settle once a year with him for our fishing, and for the store goods we have got, and rent and everything together.' '566. Do you get an account for the whole?-He generally gives us a copy of our account. Sometimes, perhaps, he does not do so; but he will give it if we ask for it ....' '568. Is that all you have got to say on the subject of your complaint?-No; I have something more. Of course, as we are bound to fish for Mr. Bruce, a man, unless he has money of his own, is shut up to deal at Mr. Bruce's shop. His credit is gone at every other place, and that binds us to take our goods from his store; and generally the goods there are sold at the highest value.'

In the case of the Sumburgh tenants, who are above two hundred in number, there was a period of freedom, following a general increase of rent; but about 1862 the son of the landlord began business as a fish-merchant, and as a preparation for that obtained a lease of the southern portion of his father's estate. Intimation of the trick was made to the tenants; and it appears to have been intimated at the same time that the tenants must deliver their fish to young Mr. Bruce, the tacksman. Some of the tenants were required to sign an obligation so to deliver their fish. The merchants who had previously had stores on Mr, Bruce's property were removed.

[L. Mail, 625; G. Williamson, 4961; H. Gilbertson, 4575; J. Harper, 4507; G. Leslie, 4612; R. Halcrow, 4646, 4656; L. Smith 4720; A. Tulloch, 468; T. Aitken, 4803-4835; L. Mail, 639]


On the neighbouring estate of Quendale, where about fifty fishermen are employed, a similar statement was made to the tenants when the present proprietor became a fish-merchant. A change upon the previous system is said to have been then made; but one witness, who has lived on the property for at least fifty years, says that during all that period he never had freedom. The proprietor says that his tenants have sat upon the ground subject to that condition for three generations, since it was purchased by his family in 1765. James Flawes, the first witness examined as to this place, says:-

[Page 7 rpt.]

'4913. Is your obligation a written one, or is it part of a verbal lease of your land?-When young Mr. Grierson got the fishing, he read out a statement to his tenantry at large, in the schoolroom at Quendale.' '4914. How long ago was that?-Twelve years ago. That statement which he read gave the tenantry to understand that he was to become their fish-merchant, or the man they were to deliver their fish to; and that they were all bound to give him every tail of their fish from end to end of the season, as long as they held their land under him. If they did not do that, they knew the consequences: they would be turned out.' '4915. Was that all stated to you in the schoolroom on that occasion?-Yes; it was all read off by Mr. Grierson himself.' '4916. Were you present?-Yes.' '4917. Did he state that you would be paid for your fish according to the current price at the time of settlement?-Yes; that was stated also at that time.'

[James Flawes, 4911; G. Goudie, 5034; C. Eunson, 5056; L. Leslie, 5077; J. Burgess, 5099; H. Leslie, 5131; cf. C. Eunson, 5060, L. Leslie, 5087.]


On Lunna estate, about the same time, Mr. Bell, then sheriff-substitute of the county, handed over the estate and fishing to Mr. John Robertson, sen., a merchant in Lerwick, as tacksman, the tenants being told, at a meeting at Lunna House, that they must in future fish for Mr. Robertson if they went to fish at Skerries, the principal fishing station in that part of the country.

[James Hay, 5425, L. Simpson, 13,833; John Robertson, sen., 14,075; John Johnston, 9224; L. Robertson, 13,934; Robert Simpson, 13,983; A. Anderson; 9277; J. Henderson, 5512.]


The men in Whalsay are not under Messrs. Hay & Co. as tacksmen, but they are bound to deliver their fish to them. Particulars were given by Mr. Irvine,. who is a partner of Hay & Co., and factor for the proprietor. No complaints came from this island. It may be remarked that the farms in it are more productive than in some other parts of Shetland, and that it is but lately that the people were emancipated from a very primitive kind of tenure, already described.

[W. Irvine, 3623, and see above, W. Stewart, 8978. See above, Page 4, rpt.]


As soon as I arrived at Lerwick, a complaint was laid before me in writing by the inhabitants of the Burra Islands, part of the trust-estate of the family of Scott of Scalloway. These islands are leased to Messrs. Hay & Co. for a tack duty nearly equal to the gross rental paid to them by the sub-tenants. The tack duty is paid by Messrs. Hay & Co. half-yearly, while they receive their sub-rents at the annual settlement. The chief inducement to Messrs. Hay to hold the lease of the island is that they may obtain the fish of the inhabitants, who are bold and successful fishermen, and are more favourably situated for the haaf fishing than any other people in Shetland.

[W. Irvine, 3623.]

The complaint made by the men of Burra was simply that they were not at liberty to cure their own fish and sell them in the highest market. Fourteen years ago the late Mr. William Hay told them that they must sell to him, and eight years ago a similar intimation was made on the part of the present firm, who wished the men to sign an obligation to deliver all their fish to them. The following is the statement of Walter Williamson, who was the chief spokesman of the Burra men who came to Lerwick:-

'790. Why do you not do it ( cure and sell your own fish)?- Because we would be ejected from the place if we were not to deliver our fish to them.' '791. What is your reason for supposing that?-Because we have been told so.' '792. Was it on the occasion you have mentioned, eight years ago, that you were told so?-It was.' '793. Have you been told since that you would be ejected if you did not deliver your fish to Messrs. Hay & Co.?-I have never since asked anything about it, so that I had no reason to be told so.' '794. Has any person been ejected for selling fish to other merchants than Hay & Co., or for curing his own fish?-I think there have been such cases in Burra. I believe John Leask was ejected for not serving as a fisherman to Messrs. Hay & Co.' '795. How long ago was that?-I think it would be about thirteen years since, or close thereby.'

[W. Williamson, 764, 776; P. Smith, 980; T. Christie, 1064; C. Sinclair, 1109; G. Goodlad, 1208.]

Liberty money was exacted by Messrs. Hay from some of the Burra men some years ago, a payment of 20s., in respect of a tenant or his sons having failed to deliver fish to the lessee. [Peter Smith, 1012.] But in some cases, at least, it appears that this money was repaid. Messrs. Hay & Co. explain that-

'Some years ago, after a time of bad crops and bad fishings, when we had to give them large quantities of meal for their support, and many of them were unable to pay rents, the islands were indebted the best part of 1000. We made an attempt at that time to get the young men to fish to us and assist their parents, and I think in two cases we imposed fines of 20s.; but it had a contrary effect to what we intended, and, so far as I remember, the money was given back.'

And Mr. Irvine says in his examination, 'The object of the fine was to compel the sons to assist the fathers.' The written obligation itself has not been recovered, and neither Mr. Irvine, of Hay & Co., nor other witnesses, have a very clear recollection of its contents. I am inclined to believe, however, although Mr. Irvine appears to have a different impression, that the obligation it sought to impose was wide enough in its terms to include the Faroe fishing, in which Messrs. Hay & Co. are engaged very extensively. There is some evidence that constraint or compulsion, or rather influence, such as a landlord can exercise over his tenants, has been used in Burra and elsewhere, in order to get [Page 8 rpt.] Faroe fishing-smacks well manned. But so far as Burra is concerned, that influence seems not to have been applied in late years, and it is not general elsewhere.

[W. Irvine, 3623, 3754 sqq.; Peter Smith, 1041; C. Sinclair, 1135, 1143; W. Irvine, 3920, W. Williamson, 923; Peter Smith, 1012, 1057; C. Sinclair, 1118; J.L. Pole, 9370.]


The tenants on the estate of Gossaburgh, in South Yell and Northmaven, about 120 in number, are also bound to deliver their fish, both in summer and winter, to Messrs. Hay & Co., as tacksmen of the property, if they engage in the ling fishing. In the Northmaven portion of the estate (North Roe), thirty-three out of fifty-six tenants actually fished for the tacksmen last year; three fished by sufferance to other curers, two were at Faroe, and two or three were sailing south; others were employed by the lessees as curers and tradesmen, and probably a few were unfit for fishing. The average rent paid by the tenants on this part of the estate is 3, 3s. It seems that the profit of Messrs. Hay & Co. on their tack consists, as it does in the case of Burra, almost entirely in the power it gives them over the fishermen tenants.

[J. Pottinger, 13,540; W. Robertson, 13, 628; W. Irvine, 3818; D. Greig, 7116-7131; W. Irvine, 3623, 3624, 3811; Andrew Ratter, 7404 sqq.]


The tenants on the estate of Burravoe, in the south of Yell, belonging to Mr. Henderson, are bound to fish to their landlord. Both Mr. Henderson and his son were unable to attend the sitting at Mid Yell, in consequence of the state of their health; but I saw Mr. George Henderson at his place of business, examined his books, and obtained a full return from him. Mr. Henderson had thirty men fishing for him last year, but these were not all tenants of his own. On this estate, as on some others, it appears to be the rule, subject perhaps to exceptions, that a tenant who cannot or does not fish must quit his farm, or pay a higher rent.

[R. Smith, 9121, 9123 sqq.; D. More, 9639.]


The tenants on the Out Skerries, north-east of Whalsay, forming six boats' crews, are obliged to fish to Mr. Adie, who holds a tack of the islands from Mr. Bruce of Simbister. Mr. Adie says:-

'5767. Is the rent which you pay for Skerries calculated so as to allow you a profit upon the rents of the sub-tenants?-No; I pay 110 of tack duty, and the gross rental from the tenants is only 68. I virtually pay the difference just for the station that is, station rent for the store and premises which are put up there.' '5768. Is it not also for the privilege of having these fishermen to fish for you?-I believe I could make more of these lands if I had them as grazing ground, without any fishermen there at all. There is only one of the Skerries I hold now; one of them has been sold to the Lighthouse Commissioners.' '5769. If you could make more of the island as grazing ground, why don't you turn it into that?-If I were to do so, what could I make of the men? There are fourteen families, and if I turned them adrift it would be a fearful thing.' '5770. Is it difficult for men to get land in Shetland?-It is very difficult now; there are so many requiring it, that almost every place is taken up. I have boats that go from the mainland to fish at the Skerries with the natives.' '5771. Then it is useful as a station for them?-Yes.'

[T. Hutchison, 12,622; P. Henderson, 12,734; D. Anderson, 12,774; A. Humphray, 12,802.]


The tenants on certain scattered properties in Yell. and the Mainland belonging to Mr. Pole, held in tack by him, or for which he is factor, are bound, if he requires them, to fish to the firm of Pole, Hoseason, & Co.; and this obligation extends to the Faroe fishing also.

[W. Pole, 5936; J.L. Pole, 9369.]


The tenants on the Ollaberry property in Northmaven parish are obliged to fish to a firm, of which the principal member is Mr. John Anderson, Hillswick, brother of the proprietor and tacksman of the estate. There are fifty or sixty tenants on this estate. There is some evidence that in this place the bound men or tenants get a lower price for their fish than those who are 'free.'

[John Anderson, 6592; W. Blance, 6014, 6026, 6048; A. Johnson, 14,890, 14,908, 14,947.]


I have still to mention the latest case of this exercise of the patrimonial right of disposing of a tenant's fish, which is an instructive instance of the submissive way in which the right is accepted are Shetland. The tenants on the small property of Seafield, on Reafirth or Mid Yell Voe, twenty-one or twenty-two in number, had been in use to sell their fish in summer to Laurence Williamson, a fish-curer and merchant on the opposite side of the voe. There was, however, a shop at Seafield, the tenant of which had been carrying on business not very successfully. He had resolved to leave the place, and the business premises were likely to be shut up. In this state of matters, the law-agent for the proprietor wrote the following letter to a leading man among the tenants, William Stewart:-

', 22 Nov. 1870. 'WILLIAM,-I now write, as I promised, to explain what I expect the Seafield tenants to do in regard to fishing, that you may communicate the same to them. The business premises at Seafield cannot be allowed to remain vacant, and consequently unprofitable, while it is clear they must do so unless the tenants fish to the tenant of these premises. The Seafield tenants, therefore, must fish to Mr. Thomas Williamson upon fair and reasonable terms, and I understand he is quite prepared to meet them on such terms. I believe he will, in every respect, do you justice; and so long as [Page 9 rpt.] he does so, you have no reason to complain. But should it happen that he fails to treat you fairly and honourably (of which I have no fear), you can let me know, and matters will soon be put right. You and the tenants, however, must not act towards Mr. Williamson in a selfish or hard way either, for it is quite as possible for you to do so to him as it is for him to do so to you. Both he and you all must work together heartily and agreeably; and if you do so, I have no fear, humanly speaking, that the result will be success to both.- I am, yours faithfully, W. SIEVWRIGHT 'William Stewart, Kirkabister, Seafield, Mid Yell.'

[W. Stewart, 8917]

Mr. Sievwright made a statement with regard to this letter, which adds nothing to what appears in it, except the fact that most of the tenants were in arrear for rent. It is stated also by Thomas Williamson (who was put into business apparently by Mr. Leask, a very extensive merchant in Lerwick), that he did not 'want any of the men to fish for him;' that 'scarcely any man could keep the premises there and carry on business in them without the privilege of having the men to fish for him.' Twelve men of the Seafield tenants, forming two boats' crews, had entered into a written agreement to fish to Laurence Williamson in 1871; but they were obliged to leave him and he says 'I slightly objected to it but of course I could not help it .... Of they had to leave me because they knew, or at least they believed, they would be differently dealt with if they did not leave.'

[W. Sievwright, 15,118; T. Williamson, 9493; W. Robertson, 13,660; L. Williamson, 9003, 9005.]

In short, it has been so much a habit of the Shetlander's life to fish for his landlord, that he is only now discovering that there is anything strange or anomalous in it. This man, William Stewart, to whom Mr. Sievwright wrote, had lived in Whalsay, as I have already shown, under what appears to have been a still more disadvantageous and servile tenure. He is a fair specimen of the average peasant of such a district as Yell. It is evident that men who have been brought up in such habits, and with the tradition among them of a still more subservient time in the past, are prepared not only to submit to extreme oppression on the part of their proprietors, or those to whom their proprietors hand them over, but also to become easily subjected to the influence of merchants who possess no avowed control over them.


An instance of the abuse to which the system is liable in the hands of an unscrupulous tacksman, is afforded by the case of Robert Mouat, who held, until two years ago, a tack of the estate of Mr. Bruce of Simbister, in Sandwick parish. A number of witnesses came forward to testify to the thraldom of the tenantry, and the injustice which they had suffered under his rule. The evidence against Mouat was certainly given with such freedom, I might say with such an earnestness of hatred, as was not displayed towards any merchant or tacksman who is still in the country. After making allowance for exaggeration, it is certain that the state of Coningsburgh during the seventeen years of his rule must have been very distressing. Every tenant on the ground was bound to sell to him not only his fish, but all the saleable produce of his farm. Money could not be got from him, according to one witness, either at settlement or during the season. The witness John Halcrow, who is much less vehement in his language than some others, says:

'13,089. Were they bound to deal with him for shop goods?-The fishermen were. They were required to go to him with all their produce, meal, ponies, and eggs, as well as with their fish.' '13,090. But they were not bound to buy their goods from him?- No; but they had to do so, because he received all their produce, and they could not go anywhere else. They had no money.' '13,091. Would he not give them money for their produce?-Yes, for such as cattle he would. But it was very few of them who had any money to get from him.' '13,092. Why?-Because they were bound to fish for him, and he received all their fish.' '13,093. But if he received all their fish he would have to pay them money for them?-It was very hard to get it from him.' '13,094. Did he prefer to give them the price in goods?-Yes, if they would take it.' '13,095. And did they take it in goods?-Not very much.' '13,096. Why?-Because they were not very good.' '13,097. Then they would have money to get at the end of the year if they did not take very much in goods?-Yes.' '13,098. Did they get the money at the end of the year?-No. He said he did not have it to give them.' '13,099. Then they did not get their money at all?-In some cases they got it.' '13,100. But some of them did not get it?-Yes.' '13,101. And some of them did not get goods either?-Yes; they would not take his goods.' '13,102 Then did they go without either money or goods?-Yes.' '13,103. Was that often?-I have had to do it myself.' '13,104. When was that?-In 1870. He said he had no money to give me.' '13,105. Was that at settlement?-Yes. He had the tack for two years more at that time, and he gave me a receipt for the rent of 1871. Then he failed; and I had to pay my rent for 1871 over again to Mr. William Irvine.'

And the witness produced documents to show that he had actually paid rent in advance to Mouat in June 1871, which, according to the law of Scotland, does not discharge the tenant; and that he had afterwards paid it to Mr. Irvine, as factor for Mr. Bruce. While it may be taken for granted that the condition of tenants under Mr. Mouat was at no time enviable, some of the statements about his conduct ought probably to be accepted as literally true only with regard to the period of struggling circumstances immediately preceding his bankruptcy.

[John Leask, 1284; Gavin Colvin, 1382; M. Malcolmson, 2978; W. Manson, 3018; H. Sinclair, 5312; W. Irvine, 3948.]

[Page 10 rpt.]


In all the cases where tenants are bound to fish for the landlord, there is a firm conviction that the penalty of disobedience is eviction, or payment of 'liberty money.' 'We knew quite well,' said James Flawes (4964), a tenant on Quendale, 'from the statement which was made to us before, that, if any one transgressed the rule, the penalty would just be our forty days' warning.' And cases of threatened removal for this cause, and payment of liberty money or fines, though not common, have yet been sufficiently numerous to keep alive a wholesome apprehension, and prevent widespread disobedience. Eviction to a Shetlander is a serious matter, especially when it is for such a cause as this. A new farm is always difficult to get. 'In the south,' says one witness, 'a man can shift from town to town and get employment; but here, if he leaves his house and farm, he has no place to go to except Lerwick, and there is no room to be got there, either for love or money.'

[W. Irvine, 3625, 3755; L. Smith, 4486; J. Flawes, 4956; C. Eunson, 5069; J. Johnston, 9238; J. Hutchison, 12,693; Peter Smith, 1012; M. Malcolmson, 2994; W. Manson, 3025; W. Goudie, 4274, 4385, etc.; H. Sinclair, 5320; John Johnston, 9423; T.M. Adie, 5770.]

There is an impression, not perhaps always correct in a region where the excessive subdivision of land is ascribed to the desire of landlords to increase the number of their fishing tenants, that a man who is independent enough to differ from his landlord with regard to the terms of his lease is not likely to find favour in the eyes of other proprietors. A witness, speaking of another condition of his holding, says:-

'801. Are you not at liberty to make your own bargain about the land, the same as any other tenant in Scotland is?-I am not aware of that.' '802. Suppose you were to object to make such a bargain, could you not leave the land and get a holding elsewhere?-It is not likely we would get a holding elsewhere.' '803. Why?-We would very likely be deprecated as not being legal subjects, and the heritors would all know that we were not convenient parties to give land to. That is one reason; and another reason is, that places are sometimes not very easily got.' '804. Do the same conditions exist on other properties in Shetland?-So far as I know, they prevail all over the country, or nearly so.' 805. You think that, if you were trying to move, you would not get free of a condition of that sort?-We might get free of it for a time, but by next year the parties to whose ground we had removed might bind us down to the same thing.' 806. But supposing all the men were united in refusing to agree to such conditions, there could be no compulsion upon them?-They have not the courage, I expect, to make such an agreement among themselves.'

[Walter Williamson, 801.]


It is proper to call attention here to the fact that in agricultural subjects held from Martinmas to Martinmas on a yearly tack, the forty days' warning to remove, which is held sufficient by the law of Scotland, is objected to, with some reason, as too short. A crofter witness makes the following statement:-

'4688. Is there anything else you wish to say?-There is only forty days' warning given before Martinmas. No doubt that may be well enough for tenants town like Lerwick, who hold nothing except a room to live in, but it is very disagreeable for a tenant holding a small piece of land as we do. As soon as our crop is taken in, we must start work immediately, and prepare the land for next season. We have to make provision for manure, and collect our peats, and prepare stuff for thatching our houses, and perhaps by Martinmas we have expended from 6 worth of labour and expense on our little farms. In that case, it is a very hard thing for us to be turned out of our holdings after receiving only forty days' notice, and perhaps only getting 1 or 2 for all that labour. Now what I would suggest is, that instead of that short notice we should be entitled to receive a longer notice, perhaps six or nine months before the term, that we are to be turned out.' '4689. Do you think you would be more at liberty to dispose of your fish, and to deal at any shop you pleased, if you were entitled to that longer warning?-I don't think the warning would alter anything with regard to that; but if I knew that I was to be turned out at Martinmas, I would probably start fishing earlier, and I might have a larger price to get for them, instead of working upon my land.' '4690. But you can be punished more easily by your landlord for selling your fish to another man, when he can turn you out on forty days' warning, than if he could only do it on six or eight months' warning?-I think it would be much the same with regard to that.' '4691. You don't think that would make any difference as to the fishing?-It might make a little difference, because if I received my warning in March, and knew that I was to leave at Martinmas, if I saw that I was to have a better price for my fish from another, I would not fish to my landlord at all; but I would go to any man I would get the best price from.'

[R. Halcrow, 4688.]

The same view is taken by the Rev. James Fraser, who gave very valuable information, both at the sitting held at Brae, and in a subsequent letter, printed in the evidence.

[R. Fraser, 8054 sqq.]


It is unnecessary to refer in detail to mere admissions on the part of landlords and tacksmen, that such obligations exist on the estates under their control. Such admissions were made in all the cases already referred to, as will be seen from the references on the margin. In some cases, however, arguments were stated in justification of the practice. Mr. Irvine perhaps put the case lower than any of this class of witnesses for he simply said in regard to Burra, that the tack had been held for a very long time by his firm, and that when it expired many of the people owed debts, some of which would [Page 11 rpt.] not have been recovered if the island had passed to another fish-merchant as tacksman. He assumed that here, as in other cases, the landlord in Shetland must depend on the fishing for payment of his rents. Mr. Bruce, younger, of Sumburgh thus states his views:-

'The tenants on the property in this parish managed by me are at liberty to go to sea to the Greenland or Faroe fishing, or to pursue any land occupation as they please; but if they remain at home and go to the home fishing, they are expected to deliver their fish to me, and receive for it the full market value. This is one of the conditions on which they hold their farms, and is, I consider, a beneficial rule for the fishermen. They must fish to some merchant, and as I give them as high a price as they could get from another, they are no losers, while I provide suitable curing and fishing stations, and these stations of mine are the most convenient places for them to deliver their fish .... This, I will endeavour to show, is no grievance at all, but an advantage to the fishermen.'

'In looking over the whole of Shetland, it will be found that the most prosperous districts are those under the direct management of the landlords.'

'Many of the fishermen in this country (as, indeed, many of the poorer classes everywhere) are unable, from want of thrift and care, to manage their own matters in a satisfactory manner, and require to be thought for and acted for, and generally treated like children, and are much better off under the management of a landlord who has an interest in their welfare, than they would be if in the hands of a merchant whose only object was to make a profit out of them.'

'A merchant who has no control over the fishermen, may, in some cases, wish to get them and keep them in his debt, in order to secure their custom; but the case of a landlord also a merchant is quite different. It is his interest to have a prosperous, thrifty, and independent tenantry; and he will use his utmost endeavour to keep them out of debt, and to encourage saving habits.'

'I can see no reason why the fact of a man being a landlord should prevent him from being also a merchant and fish-curer; and if so, why he should not secure a lot of good fishermen by making it one of the conditions of occupancy by his tenants, that if fishermen they shall fish to him.'

'The very fact of a landlord being a fish-curer would lead up to this, for tenants would naturally wish to stand well with their landlord, and, other conditions being equal, would prefer to give him their fish ....'

'There are, no doubt, many things in the Shetland system of trade which might be improved; but the system has been of long growth, and is so engrained in the minds of the people, that any change must be very gradual: a sudden and sweeping change to complete free-trade principles and ready-money payments would not suit the people, but would produce endless confusion, hardship, and increased pauperism.'

'Under the present system, with our small rentals and large population, our poor-rates are very high. But the landlords support a great many families which would otherwise be thrown on the rates.'

'It is no uncommon thing, where a family is deprived of its breadwinner, for the landlord to support the family till the younger members grow up, and are abler to provide for themselves, and repay the landlord's advances.'

'Abolish the present system suddenly, and I am afraid our poor-rates would become unbearable, and nothing would save the country but depopulation.'

[W. Irvine, 3623, 3625, 3920, 3974, etc.; P.M. Sandison, 5211; W. Pole, 5936; J. Anderson, 6573, 6592; D. Greig, 7111, 7215; J.L. Pole, 9370; T. Williamson, 9466, 9493, 9520; W. Robertson, 10,858, 13,667; L.F.U. Garriock, 12,299; G. Irvine, 13,130; John Bruce, jun., p. 330a; A.J. Grierson, 15,061; John Robertson, sen., 14,075; W. Rivine, 3916, 3920 sqq.]

And Mr. A.J. Grierson of Quendale speaks still more forcibly to the same effect.

[A.J. Grierson, 15,062, 15,078.]

In almost every case, however, except those of Mr. Bruce and Mr. Grierson, the condition as to fishing is spoken of by those in whose favour it is imposed, in apologetic terms. It is plain that the right to have men bound to give fish is regarded as a valuable one, since tacksmen so shrewd as Messrs. Hay & Co. are willing to pay for it a rent equal to the full amount of the sub-rents, and to manage and uphold the property besides.

[D. Greig, 7110; W. Irvine, 3816, 3929.]


Although the custom of delivering fish to the landlord or his lessee, as merchant and curer, has become less common, that custom has left its traces in the arrangement by which it has been superseded. [W. Irvine, 3962.] The merchants who receive fish from the tenants have still no small concern with their rent; and it may be said that even now the final cause of the existing system of settlements and agreements with fishermen is to give security to the landlord for his rent. Mr. Gifford, factor on the largest estate in Shetland (Busta), says that there is now no understanding with the merchants who have establishments on that property that they shall be responsible for the rents of the men.

'There is not a single tenant on the Busta estate, out of the whole 480 on it, or out of the 530 with whom I have to do, that any of the merchants is liable for, even as a cautioner. That used to be the case some time before, but it has not been so for a long time.'

It does not follow, however, that the merchant has nothing to do with the payment of the rent. Everywhere, without any exception, rents are paid only once a year, at on about Martinmas. It was a frequent practice, when the rent day arrived before the tenants had received their money for fish, that they should get 'lines' from the curer, the stated sums in which were placed to their credit by the landlord. The sum-total of these lines was sent with a list to the curer, who returned a cheque for the amount. A witness, [J.S. Houston, 9657.] who speaks of the practice as it existed when he collected Major Cameron's rents in Yell, says that there was an understanding between Major Cameron and Sandison Brothers, then the chief curers there, that -

'Any of Major Cameron's tenants who were what might be called reckless or careless, should not be allowed to overdraw their earnings, but that something should be left for their rent.'

[Page 12 rpt.]

'9661. Was Mr. Sandison a tenant of Major Cameron's in his fish-curing premises?-Yes.' '9662. Were these lines always in the same form?-Generally they were the same. I have plenty of them at home.' '9663. Are you aware of a similar practice having existed on any other estate?-I believe it has existed; but I cannot speak so positively about it on other estates. I may say that similar lines have also been given to Major Cameron and myself from another curer in North Yell, Mr. William Pole, jun., before he became a partner of the Mossbank firm.' '9664. Had he premises from Major Cameron also?-No; he had his father's premises. With regard to these lines, I may state that, although there was no understanding on the subject, Major Cameron made it a practice not to come to his tenants asking for their rents until he was pretty sure that everything was nearly cut-and-dry for him.' '9665. Do you think it is a general practice in Shetland for the landlord to fix his rent day so as to be convenient for the fishermen?-I think it is. They fix it after settlement. Mr. Walker, the first year he was factor for Major Cameron, came nearly close to his time, 11th November, but since then he has not done so.' '9666. You are not aware whether that practice of giving lines exists in Yell now?-It does exist. I myself have paid rents by orders for cattle bought from Major Cameron's tenants.'

In these and similar cases the curers are not formally tacksmen, nor indeed do they formally guarantee to the proprietors the rents of the tenants who deliver their fish to them; but it may be said that there is a custom having almost the force of a legal obligation, which makes it unusual for a merchant to refuse an advance for payment of rent even to a man who is indebted to him. An extreme example of this custom as it prevailed in Unst is thus described by a very intelligent merchant, Mr. Sandison:-

'I have here a letter which I wrote in 1860, and which represents my views on that subject, and I may as well read an extract from it:-"If we don't give unlimited advances, we are told the fishermen will be taken from us. I have now been nearly twelve months in this place (that was after I came first to Uyea), and have closely watched the system pursued by proprietors and others, and certainly agree with you that it is a bad one; but I know I have no right to make any remarks or trouble you with my views on that subject, further than to state that I cannot see any good that will result from burdening the tenants with debt to the fish-curers. It has been my desire, ever since I knew anything about Shetland tenantry, to see them raised in the social scale, and made thoroughly independent both of proprietors, fish-curers, and others, and I have felt deeply interested in the — properties, no doubt from being more in contact with them; but when the poor among them are in terror of the proprietors alike, and bound by forced advances to different fish-curers, alas for liberty! and more offered to any fish-curer who will advance more on them. This is not calculated to raise any tenant in self-respect." '10,025. You speak in that letter of "forced advances:" what were these?-What I meant by that was this: the proprietor's ground officer or agent in the island, for the time being, told the tenant that he might fish for me this year. I found that he had only 2 or 3 to get; and the ground officer told that tenant that if he did not go to me and get an advance for his rent, he would take him from me and give him to any other man who would advance the rent. That looked very like forced advances.' '10,026. That, however, was in 1860?-Yes.' '10,027. Was that a common practice in those times?-I believe that thirteen years ago truck existed ten times as much as it does now.' '10,028. But in 1860 was it a common thing for a proprietor's ground officer to threaten to remove a tenant unless he could get his rent from the fish-curer?-Yes; to threaten to remove him from the ground unless he could pay his rent, or to move him from a fish-curer who would not give him an advance for that purpose, to some other fish-curer who would do so.' '10,029. Have you known instances of fishermen who were treated in that way?-Yes. I was referring to cases of that kind when I was writing that letter. It was my own experience at the time when I was at Uyeasound as a fish-curer, trying to engage any men who came to me. Many came to me and fell into debt, because I found that many of them required more from the shop than their fishing amounted to; and then I advanced rent after rent, until I saw that I was advancing to my own ruin.' '10,030. After advancing rent in that way, have you been informed that they were to be transferred to another fish-curer unless their rent was still advanced by you?-Yes; in more cases than one.' '10,031. Were you so informed by the landlord or by his factor?- It was generally by the tenant himself, when he came seeking the money.' '10,032. Were you ever informed of it by the landlord, or any one representing him?-No.' '10,033. Had you any reason to believe the story which the fishermen told you?-Yes. I believed them, because I knew of the men being taken away sometimes.' '10,034. Was that after they had made such statements to you, and although they were in your debt?-Yes.' '10,035. Were you able in these cases to make any arrangement with the new employer to pay up their debt?-In some cases we did that, but in other cases we did not; oftener we made no arrangement ....' '10,039. Have you, within the last twelve years, met with cases of that sort, in which the proprietor endeavoured to coerce you to pay his rent?-Yes. I have had cases where the tenants came asking me for money, and I told them I could not advance them any further. They would then go away, and come back and tell me that the proprietor's agent or ground-officer had informed them that they must get their rent, and that I must pay it; and that if I did not do that, they would not be allowed to fish for me.' '10,040. Did that system continue until 1868?-No; it prevailed principally under the ground-officership of Mr. Sinclair, who acted for Mrs. Mouat, in Unst.'

[C. Nicholson, 11,912-11,933; T. Tulloch, 13,008; J. Smith, 13,047-13,055; W. Robertson, 13,689; John Laurenson, 9849; M. Henderson, 9925; J. Walker, 15,984; Andrew Tulloch, 488; L. Williamson, 9065; A. Sandison, 10,024.]

Mr. David Edmonstone, once a fish-merchant and tacksman, now a farmer and factor on the Buness estate in Unst, states that the want of cash payments is the reason why this arrangement with the curer is desired by the proprietor.

'10,640. Is it usual for the proprietor to enter into any arrangement with the fish-curer for the payment of his rents?-We do that on the Buness estate, and I should like to explain the reason of it. The tenants have all been told that they are at perfect liberty to fish to whom they like; but after they have engaged to fish to a certain curer, we wish them to bring a guarantee from their curer or curers for the rent of the year on which they have entered, and during which they are to fish. Our reason for that-in fact the only reason-is, that the men do not get money payments, and therefore a great number of them will be [Page 13 rpt.] induced to run a heavy account at the shop, and when we collect the rents at Martinmas we would have nothing to get. If the men were paid in money, daily or weekly or fortnightly, then we would make no such arrangement, but would collect the rents directly from the men.' '10,641. Then, in fact, that arrangement is made in order to limit the credit which the fish-merchant gives to his men?-Yes; and to secure that we are to get part of that money.' '10,642. But it has the effect of limiting their credit?-Yes.'


Since November 1868 Mr. Sandison's present firm of Spence & Co. have been responsible as tacksmen for the rents of the fishermen tenants of Major Cameron's estate in Unst. At that time they obtained a tack of the estate for twelve years, which was formerly described by Mr. Walker*, and is in some respects peculiar. Spence & Co., as lessees of the greater part of the estate, which includes nearly half of the island, pay a fixed sum of rent (1100), and are bound to expend, or to get the sub-tenants to expend, a certain annual sum on improvements at the sight of the proprietor. Regulations for the cultivation of the small farms are annexed to the lease, and are to form conditions of the sub-leases to be granted by Spence & Co. The effect of these regulations and of the lease is thus explained by Mr. Sandison: [Comp. J. Walker, 15,977.]

* Truck Commission Evidence, qu. 44,450 sq. Appx.

'10,159. Any tenants not complying with these regulations may be removed by you?-Yes; they will get their leases unless they comply with them, and we can remove them at any time ....' '10,161. How many of the tenants have adopted these regulations?-I should say that, to a greater or less extent, they have all made a fair commencement in the improvements and rotation of cropping.' '10,162. But you have absolute power to remove them if they do not comply with that?-We have. The property is absolutely let to us, and we can absolutely turn them out if they do not comply with the regulations. The lease is clear enough upon that point.' '10,163. Have you had occasion to exercise that power?-Not in any case.' '10,164. Have you threatened to do so?-Not so far as is known to me.' '10,165. There is no obligation on the tenants, under this lease, either to fish for you or to sell the produce of their farms to your firm?-No; it is long since I read the lease, but I don't think there is anything of that sort in it.' '10,166. In point of fact, is there any understanding on the part of the tenants that they are bound to do so?- No.' '10,167. You have told them that they are under no such obligation?-Yes.' '10,168. But, in point of fact, most of them do sell their fish to you?-They do.' '10,169. And, in point of fact, most of them do sell their eggs and butter to you?-I think the great bulk of them do, but I cannot tell so well about the butter and eggs. We buy fully as much now at Uyea Sound we did in any season before the company commenced.' '10,170. And a number of the tenants also run accounts for shop goods with your shops?-Yes; I think most of them do so ....' '10,174. But although this lease does not contain an express condition that the tenants are to fish for you, it gives you a power of ejecting them?-Of course it does.' '10,175. And the tenants are aware of that?-Yes.' '10,176. And of course they may feel a little more unwilling to deal with another party or to fish for him in consequence? -That may be. I don't know what their private feelings may be, but the lease gives us a stronger power than that: it reserves the peats, and what could they do without peats? We have absolute power in that respect, if we choose to put it in force, but I hope never to see that done. We can refuse them peats altogether and scattald altogether, and we can shut them up altogether, but I hope I will never live to see that day.' '10,177. In short, you can do anything you please with the tenants, except deprive any one of his holding who complies with these rules and regulations?-Yes.' '10,178. The only security he has is to comply with them?-Yes.' '10,179. As to the peats and scattalds, he has no security at all?- None.'

The rental annexed to the leases contains a list of 170 tenants, paying 834, 19s. 4d., exclusive of certain farms which do not fall under the lease until the expiry of current tacks. The surplus rent paid by Spence & Co. is understood to be for the scattalds.

Mr. Spence, the senior partner of the firm of Spence & Co., speaks of this liability of the curer for rent as a serious obstacle to the introduction of a system of cash payments, which he and his partners desire; but it is obvious that if payments were made in cash, no such guarantees could reasonably be asked from the curers. [J. Spence, 10,580 f.n.]

The evidence of Mr. Sandison above quoted, the belief which the men themselves entertain, and the statements of Mr. Walker, the factor on the estate, show that the tenants on this property can hardly decline to fish for Spence & Co., even if there were other large merchants in Unst who could furnish them with materials and supplies, and purchase their fish. If they are not bound to sell their fish to Spence & Co., they have no opportunity and no liberty to sell them to any one else. [J. Harper, 10,404; J. Walker, 15,999.]


A limitation of the freedom of the fishermen arises in some districts where they are nominally free, from the beaches and fishing stations being let to particular curers, so that other merchants are excluded from the market; and even it would seem the fishermen are disabled, by the want of a suitable beach for drying their fish, from curing for themselves. There is not much evidence on this matter, which was brought under my notice at a late period of the inquiry by a statement made with regard to the fishermen at Spiggie and Ireland, in Dunrossness. The Act 29 Geo. II. c. 23 gives fishermen ample [Page 14 rpt.] powers to erect all apparatus and booths necessary for curing their fish on waste land within a hundred yards of high-water mark; but perhaps it could not be held as Mr. J. Harrison seems to think, to prevent a proprietor from enclosing and letting any part of his land adjacent to the sea for the purposes of a curing establishment.

[R. Henderson, 12,841; A. Irvine, 13,501; R. Mullay, 15,144; John Robertson, jun., 15,159; John Harrison, 16,470; T.M. Adie, 5762; Jas. Robertson, 8466; G. Gaunson, 8863; A. Sandison, ; J. Spence, ; John Harrison, 16,470.]


The existing Truck Act (as well as the Bill now before Parliament) prohibits the payment of wages in goods in the various trades to which it applies. Even, therefore, if fishermen formed one of the classes of workmen falling under the Act, they would not be protected by it, because they do not receive wages, but are paid a price for their fish. One result of this is, that Truck, as it exists in Shetland, is without disguise or concealment. No machinery has been contrived for evading the law; and almost all the masters, and even some of the fishermen, regard the system which prevails, as wholesome, natural, and indeed inevitable.

I have already explained that the price of the fish is ascertained and settled only for once in the year. But fishermen, as Adam Smith remarks, have been poor since the days of Theocritus; and in Shetland the Truck system begins when, his farm produce failing to support the family, the fisherman farmer finds it necessary to obtain from the 'merchant' supplies or advances before the time of settlement, and, it may be, a boat, fishing materials, and provisions, to enable him to prosecute his calling. In Shetland the merchant needs to use no influence or compulsion to bring the fisherman to his shop. He has no black-list, and has to enforce no penalties for 'sloping.' As the laws against Truck do not apply to him, even remotely, he scarcely ever seeks to conceal the fact that the earnings of those whom he employs are paid to a large extent, in goods, and he is even prepared with arguments in vindication of the practice. The man whose farm cannot keep his family until settlement, comes, as a matter of course, to the fish-curer's store; and even the thriving and prosperous man, who has money in the bank, 'almost invariably' has an account at the shop. In the great majority cases there is a mutual understanding, that when a merchant buys your fish, you ought in fairness to get at least a part of your goods at his shop.

[Andrew Tulloch, 509; L. Mail, 568; W. Williamson, 855; P.M. Sandison, 5146; Rev. D. Miller, 5998; J. Brown, 7986, 7997; T.M. Adie, 5633; 5735; A. Tulloch, 5472, 5501; John Anderson, 6546; G. Robertson, 9311; G. Gilbertson, 9557; J. Laurenson, 9837; M. Henderson, 9830-1; J. Harper, 10,387; C. Nicolson, 11,939; A. Abernethy, 12,268; L. Garriock, p. 303a etc., 12,347, 12,356, 12,360, 12,388 sq.; T. Hutchison, 12,686; L. Henderson, 12,744; J. Halcrow, 13,090; R. Simpson, 13,980; John Robertson, jun., 15169.]

'There is a tacit understanding' says the Rev D. Miller, 'at least that they must do that; but I believe that is induced by the circumstance, that for a large portion of the year their money is in the merchants' hands, and that again affords the kind of facility for running into debt which I have spoken of.' '5999. Do you think that makes them incur larger debts than they otherwise would do?-I think so.' '6000. Can you suggest any remedy for this state of things?-The remedy I would suggest is this: that the payments be as prompt as possible and that they be cash payments. I am quite ready to state how I think the cash payments would operate. At present the fisherman's money is all in the merchant's hands; but he is requiring goods in the meantime and he has money to procure them with, and therefore he goes to the merchant and procures his goods. The merchant is under no constraint,-he can put his own price on the articles which he sells; and of course, where there is a credit system like the present, there are a large number of defaulters. These defaulters do not pay their own debts; but the merchant must live notwithstanding, and therefore the honest men have to pay for the defaulters. The merchant could not carry on his business unless that were done. He must have his losses covered; and a system of that sort tells very heavily upon the public, because the merchant must charge a large margin of profit.'

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