Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine

The following is from Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine:

Highland Destitution

The appalling horrors with which the Irish famine of last season set in, seemed to exceed any similar scene of national affliction that had been witnessed in modern times. It appeared as if the worst tragedies that had been enacted in sieges and shipwrecks were to be realised in the midst of comparative abundance, and within reach of friendly aid. It was right, however, that the clamant demands for relief, uttered by her starving millions, should not stifle the smaller voice of suffering that issued from our Scottish shores. Nor was this the case: the Christian philanthropy of Britain did justice to the cause of patience and fortitude. The fountains of private beneficence were opened, and Scotland was better protected from the miseries of this visitation by individual exertion, than Ireland with all the aid and apparatus of government interference.

Making every abatement for the natural exaggeration incident to such a calamity, no doubt can be entertained as to the general condition of our Highlands and Islands in the early part of the past year. Great distress was almost every where prevalent, and every day that passed was tending to increase it. A large portion of the food of the people had failed, and the remnant of the preceding year's corn crop was their only means of subsistence. That resource could not long be relied on; and the great problem was, in what manner the destitute thousands of our countrymen were to be fed till the returning harvest should visit them with its scanty and precarious bounty. Too many of them were habitually on the verge of starvation, and the crumbling away of the slender support on which alone they stood, brought them at once to the low abyss of wretchedness in which they would have been left if public generosity had not interposed.

The task of those who undertook to distribute the large relief fund subscribed was attended with great difficulty, and involved a solemn responsibility of the highest kind. They appear to us, on a review of their arrangements, to have proceeded with judgment and good feeling; anxious, on the one hand, to alleviate want, and on the other, to avert those moral mischiefs that follow in the wake of gratuitous or indiscriminate liberality. Their object necessarily was, to do as much good and as little harm as the emergency would permit.

Something has recently been said of the great extent to which the distress in those districts was originally over-stated by the individuals who came forward to rouse the benevolence of their countrymen on behalf of the Highlands. We are by no means prepared to join in this view. It is impossible to describe the consequences of a coming famine with mathematical precision. Besides, the destitution is not yet over. And it is at least clear, even as to the past, that except for the exertions of the proprietors, which might or might not have been so largely made, the destitution would have fully borne out the predictions which were uttered. It could not with certainty be assumed that the smaller and less wealthy proprietors, in particular, would have been able to make the great sacrifices which they have so generously submitted to, and without which the people of Wester Ross and Skye, of Islay and Colonsay, and many other places, would have laid on the relief fund a burden far heavier than it has had to bear.

This at least is certain, that the fund has not been dispensed upon any extravagant views of the existence of destitution. The large surplus that remains on hand, demonstrates the caution and economy with which the distribution has been conducted. The money has not been lavished merely because it had been subscribed; and the difficult object has been accomplished, of keeping in check those demands which were likely to become more clamorous and more unreasonable, in proportion as the means existed of satisfying them.

It would serve little purpose to examine in detail the operations of the Relief Board, which are already before the public in the reports which they have published from time to time. It is, perhaps, sufficient to say, that they present, in a great degree, the features which might have been looked for in the working of a scheme devised on the spur of an emergency, and destined to be followed out in remote localities, and under influences partaking, in no ordinary degree, of the taint of human frailty. In some parts of the country, the local committees have done their duty conscientiously and respectably; in others we are afraid they are not entitled to the same praise. Yet, on the whole, things have answered better than could have been expected; and undoubtedly the greatest benefit was derived from the able superintendence of the two general inspectors employed by the board, Captain Eliott and Dr Boyter, whose services to the public in this important duty cannot be too highly commended.

It is quite clear, however, that the local machinery, which was necessarily or allowably resorted to at the outset, ought no longer to be kept up, if further operations are required for the relief of destitution. There must now be a more stringent examination of the claims which may be preferred, and a more rigid enforcement of the proper regulations, than could well be insisted for when the field was new and the urgency irresistible. A continuance of any past laxity would now be inexcusable and eminently mischievous, by tending to perpetuate in the Highlands those social evils and anomalies which the present calamity is naturally calculated to expose and extirpate.

It is almost needless to ask the question, whether the operations of the Relief Board are still necessary. Every one acquainted with the Highlands and Islands is aware that the results of last year's failure of the potato are still at work, and must necessarily prolong the distress for some time to come. The fund which has been subscribed for the relief of that distress must necessarily, therefore, be employed in its legitimate and destined purpose, until that purpose be accomplished or the fund exhausted. Independently of any blight in the present potato crop, great distress will arise from the limited breadth of potatoes that has been planted, and from the fact that the cottars, who, in other years, were allowed ground to plant potatoes for themselves, have been deprived of that resource, from the necessity of retaining the whole arable farms for the direct use of the tenants and crofters. It is believed, also, that the corn crops of this year, though highly favourable in the lower parts of the country, have neither been so early nor so productive in the Islands as was at one time expected.

It is, therefore, with perfect propriety and justice that the Board have determined to retain the balance in their hands, in the mean time, as a sacred deposit for the relief of that continued distress, which both the reports of their own inspectors, and the information of the government officers, establish to be still prevalent. On this point the late report of Sir John F. Burgoyne as to Ireland applies in a smaller degree to a very great part of the Highlands and Islands.

In continuing the system of relief, however, the board must keep in view more closely and constantly than ever the leading principles which originally guided them, and which we believe to be founded on the most solid grounds of humanity and social policy.

1. Nothing must be done to relieve of their legal obligations those who are bound by law to support the infirm poor. Wherever a poor law is established, it must, we conceive, be fully and fairly enforced against those liable in relief, to the extent of what is imposed upon them. In no other way will selfish or thoughtless men be taught a due interest in the social condition of their neighbours, and make the necessary exertion to raise or preserve them from a state of pauperism, the effects of which they are themselves to feel in their only sensitive part.

2. It must be a rule, all but inflexible, that the able-bodied, receiving relief, shall give, at the time, or engage to give afterwards, a corresponding amount of labour in return; and that engagement must be strictly enforced. This rule is not necessary merely for the purpose of economising the fund, and benefiting the public by useful employment. It is essential for preserving the destitute both from the feeling, and from the reality, of that degradation which attends on eating the bread of idleness. We believe that much mischief was done, in 1837, by exonerating those who had obtained aid from the obligations of labour which they had undertaken, and which we know, in some districts, broke down all the restraints of self-respect, and implanted a spirit of dependence and mendicity, even in persons of a decent station. The evils of famine itself are great,—its moral no less than its physical effects are fearfully destructive. But the injury done is hardly less when the poor are deprived, by gratuitous and reckless largesses, of those habits of industry, independence, and self-respect, which are their best possessions, and their only means of rightly bearing their lot or raising themselves in the scale of existence.

3. A peculiar portion of the population, consisting chiefly of solitary females unfit for active employment, and yet not sufficiently disabled to be objects of parochial aid, will require a humane and indulgent consideration. The Committees hitherto seem to have advanced them little stores of wool and flax, to enable them to give some return for their support; and a great deal of meritorious exertion has in this way been fostered. We presume that at least to a certain extent this humane system may be continued.

4. Another obvious and incalculable boon will be conferred on the country, if we can bridge over the chasm that has hitherto divided the Highlands and Islands from the labour markets of the south. It was indeed a strange anomaly, that strong men should be lying down to die in the Isles, or even on the mainland of Scotland, and that within two or three hundred miles of their homes, and on Scottish soil, there should be a want of labourers, and the easy means of earning ample wages. This appears to us one of the great objects to be now consulted, and to which the attention of the Board has already been anxiously directed: to remove the obstacles that have existed to a free intercourse between different parts of the country, and more particularly between the Saxon and Celtic districts. There are many causes that combine to fix a Highlander to his home, even in the midst of misery. Among these are ignorance of better things, and that strangeness and helplessness, produced by a change of scene, which half-civilised men are apt to feel with almost the timidity of children. The diversity of the Highland and the Lowland tongue is another impediment, but one which is daily disappearing, and is never so likely to vanish as under the pressure of necessity. The very virtues of the Highland character contribute to keep them where they are, and are assisted in doing so by some of those defects which are akin to their good qualities. Their patient endurance of cold and privation cooperates with the congenial tendency towards indolence, to fix them in a state of miserable inaction, rather than submit to the active exertion that would increase their comforts. Every thing will now combine to overcome these difficulties; the res angusta domi will now be vividly felt, if it can ever be felt at all; while fortunately both the benevolence and the necessities, both the wishes and the interests of their Lowland neighbours, concur in desiring that a new supply should be obtained from that quarter, in aid of what the south itself affords. Not only railways now forming, but also the great amount of draining operations contemplated, or already in progress under recent enactments, must tend in an eminent degree to alleviate the sufferings of the distressed districts, if a free current of labour can be established, so as to redress the inequalities prevailing in different places. The labour market may not be so favourable this year as it was last, but it will still, we hope, be sufficiently so for this purpose.

We have a strong impression that a change of this kind, if prudently brought about without deranging local agriculture, will of itself do a great deal for the permanent relief of those localities where distress now prevails. Labourers thus obtained may in some respects be inferior, from want of skill, and even from want of strength. But our Highland countrymen have recommendations in their sober and orderly habits, which are not to be found in some of their competitors in the labour-market. Even railway contractors, though not likely to be swayed, except by economical views, are beginning to tire of the scenes of disorder and disturbance too frequently exhibited by workmen from other quarters. If the natives of the Scottish Highlands can be fairly roused to exertion, at a distance from home, their characters will be improved, and their views enlarged. They will begin to taste the benefits of better subsistence, and of some command of money; and their frugal habits, as well as their kindly affections, will communicate the advantage and spread the example among their suffering countrymen whom they have left behind.

This resource, then, must be pressed by the Board with the whole force of their influence, upon all the able-bodied in the distressed districts who can with propriety be required to leave their localities; and we should not quarrel with a very strict administration of wholesome compulsion to effect so essential an object.

5. The most difficult and delicate duty which the Relief Board will have to discharge, regards the selection of works to be undertaken or sanctioned by them, as affording employment for those destitute persons whom they must relieve on the spot. It must here be kept in view, on the one hand, that the permanent improvement of the Highlands is no proper or direct object of the subscriptions received. On the other hand, it will clearly be necessary, after every attempt to remove labourers to the south, that some work should be provided in each locality, on which those persons may be employed who cannot be so removed, and who yet stand in need of relief. It would be mischievous and wasteful to relieve such persons without exacting labour from them, and just as reprehensible to employ them in digging holes and filling them up again, or in any other occupation equally useless and unproductive. If their work is to be obtained, it should be directed into some channel that will benefit themselves and the community. Public roads, harbours, piers, breakwaters, and the like, appear an obvious outlet for the labour thus placed at the command of the Board; and we are not even averse, within certain limits, to admitting their exertions in the improvement of their own crofts, provided, at least, the benefit thence arising be secured to the occupant by some reasonable tenure, and that no continuance is thus effected of an improper system of occupation. It seems no objection to such operations that proprietors will indirectly benefit by them. It is impossible to devise any local work that is not open to the same objection, which would indeed be insuperable, if it were proposed to expend the money on local improvements as a direct and substantive object. But where the relief must be given, and the work is only to be taken to the extent of the relief, and as a return for it, we think almost any employment better than none, as we know no evil that can outweigh the moral mischief arising from gratuitous distribution. At the same time, the Board must require the co-operation of proprietors where-ever they can, and must insist for such terms as the circumstances of each case may recommend.

Guarded by some such principles of action, we anticipate that the relief operations in Scotland will, on the whole, be attended with no small degree of moral as well as of physical benefit.

The subject of Emigration is too large and complicated to be now discussed. That remedy is perhaps essential to the thorough cure of the social disorders prevailing in the Highlands. But it must not be rashly resorted to; nor can it ever be safe or effectual without the cordial co-operation of the government.

The operation and effects of the calamity with which so large a portion of Scotland has now been visited, cannot be suffered to pass away without an effort to extract from them a moral law and a moral lesson for our future guidance.

It is obvious that the suffering which has been felt, arises from the social system being in so great a degree based upon the potato culture. The dependence of the great bulk of the destitute population on a plant which, though more productive of mere sustenance than any other, yet stands lowest in the scale of all our articles of food, is demonstrated by the distress that has been occasioned by the failure of that crop, and is indeed implied in all the exertions that have been made to give relief. This is obviously an unsound foundation for social life. It places the labouring classes on the very border of starvation, and leaves no margin whatever for any contingencies. On the failure of the potato, the ground can only be applied to the cultivation of other produce, which on the same space would yield a far inferior quantity of food, and thus a large portion of the year is left unprovided for.

It is impossible to exclude from consideration at this time the important question of the state of the Scotch Poor Law. On this momentous subject we beg leave explicitly to decline at present any announcement of opinion; and we confess that we do not think a season of calamity is at all the proper period for legislating on a matter which involves so much feeling, and which yet requires such grave consideration, and so much cautious arrangement. It cannot, however, be denied, that the events which we have lately witnessed afford important elements and examples which must influence any opinion that we may form, and which should be treasured up as materials for ultimately arriving at a sound conclusion.

No one desirous of making up his mind on this point will fail to consult, on one side of this question, the very able "Observations"* which have just appeared from the pen of Dr Alison, and to which, without adopting all the writer's views, we have great pleasure in directing attention, as to a most powerful and temperate argument in favour of an able-bodied Poor Law. If talents of a very high order, if an enlarged and enlightened experience, and a long consideration of the subject,—if a life passed, whether professionally or in private, in the exercise of the most active and disinterested benevolence,—if these qualifications entitle a witness to be heard in such a cause, Dr Alison may well claim for his opinions the greatest deference and respect: and the logical precision, and clear and candid statement, which this essay exhibits, will secure even from his opponents a ready and cordial approbation. Again we say, that we do not wish to adopt his arguments as our own, but we willingly contribute to embody them in a more permanent form, and to offer them to the attention of our readers, that they may prevail, if they cannot be answered, or may receive an answer, if an answer can be given.

The general nature of Dr Alison's views will be understood by quoting his table of contents, which contains a synopsis of his argument:

"All questions regarding Poverty and Destitution are inseparably connected with the Theory of Population, i. e., the observation of the conditions by which Population is regulated;—the best system of Management of the Poor being that under which there is least redundancy of population.

"The unequivocal tests of a population being redundant, are Pestilence and Famine; these taking effect on such a population much more than on any other; and the experience of both, within the last few years in this country, proves unequivocally, that it is in those portions of it where there is no effective legal provision for the poor—not in those where there is such provision—that the population is redundant.

"The peculiar Fever of 1843, as well as ordinary Typhus, now prevail much more extensively among the destitute Irish, hitherto unprotected by law, than among any others—and the effect of all other predisposing causes, in favouring their diffusion, is trifling in comparison with Destitution, and its inseparable concomitant, crowding in ill-ventilated rooms.

"The Famine of 1846-7, consequent on the failure of the Potato Crop, (i. e. of the cheapest and poorest food on which life can be supported,) clearly reveals the parts of the country where the population is redundant; and this is throughout Ireland, until very lately absolutely without provision, and in 106 districts of Scotland, where, without exception, there has been no assessment and a nearly illusory legal provision for the poor.

"These facts not only prove incontestably that an effective Poor Law does not foster redundant population, but justify the belief, that the absence of a legal provision against Destitution is a great and general predisposing cause, with which others have no doubt concurred, in producing such redundancy; and that the presence of such a provision greatly favours the checks upon it.

"This it may be distinctly observed to do in two ways—1. By keeping up the standard of comfort among the poor themselves; 2. By giving every proprietor of land a direct and obvious interest in constantly watching and habitually checking the growth of a parasite population, for whose labour there is no demand, on his property.

"The statement that the English Poor Rate increases more rapidly than the wealth and population of the country, and threatens to absorb that wealth, is statistically proved to be erroneous.

"The other accusation brought against an effective legal provision, that it injures the character of a people, and depresses the industry, and checks the improvement of a country, is equally opposed to statistical facts.

"The lower orders of the Highlanders and Irish—whose resource when destitute is mendicity, are much more disposed to idleness than the English labouring men.

"Yet this disposition among the Highlanders has been greatly exaggerated.

"Where it is most offensive, it is amongst those who have been most impoverished and neglected.

"The inquiries of the agents of the Relief Committees, as well as those of the Royal Commissioners on the Poor Laws, have proved,—

"1. That there has been a great deficiency in the application of capital and skill to develop the resources of the Highlands and Islands.

"2. That the skilful application, even of a moderate capital, to various undertakings requiring labour, opens a prospect of great improvement in the country. These resources existing, the inference is inevitable, that if the higher ranks in the Highlands are bound to support their poor, they can and will, in general, find "remunerative employment" for them rather than maintain them in idleness.

"And the observations of the agents of the Committees, dispensing a voluntary fund, but guarding it—as a well-regulated relief would be guarded,—by the 'Labour Test' therefore affording an earnest of what maybe expected from the habitual operation of such a Law,—have shewn that, under its influence, the 'aboriginal idleness' of the Highlanders rapidly disappears.

"The principle that an effective legal provision against all kinds of destitution is useful to a country, as a wholesome stimulus both to capitalists and labourers, is clearly stated by Sir Robert Peel, and now recognised and acted on in reference to Ireland.

"The evidence of the resources of Ireland, in the absence of that stimulus, having been very imperfectly developed,—from the Report of the Committee on the occupation of lands, and other sources,—is just similar to that in the Highlands.

"And the effect of an incipient Poor-Rate in forcing on profitable improvements, as well as in equalising the burden imposed on the higher ranks by the destitution of the lower, begins to show itself in Ireland unequivocally.

"There are probably some districts both in the Highlands and in Ireland, where 'profitable investments of labour' cannot be found, which can only be effectually relieved by emigration and colonisation.

"To which purpose, in the case of the Highlands, the surplus funds in the hands of the Relief Committee, and even an additional subscription, may be very properly applied, provided that the districts requiring it are pointed out by their own agents, and that the wholesome stimulus of an effective Poor Law, embracing the case of destitution from want of employment, now existing in all other parts of her Majesty's dominions, be extended to Scotland."

We make no apology for the copiousness of the extracts which we are now to make, and which, we think, will sufficiently explain themselves without much commentary from us.

Nothing can be fairer than the footing on which Dr Alison places his argument at the outset.

"Very little reflection appears to be sufficient to show, that the best system of management of the poor (ceteris paribus) must be that which gives the least encouragement to redundancy of population. I have always regarded, therefore, the doctrine of Malthus—by which all such questions are held to be inseparably connected with the theory of population—to be the true basis of all speculative inquiry on this subject; and I cannot help saying again, that in consequence of some hasty expressions which he used, and of the great practical error, which, as I believe, and as he himself evidently suspected in the latter part of his life, he had committed in the application of his principle, justice has not yet been generally done to the truth and importance of that fundamental principle itself. In the present state of this country, and indeed of every civilised country, and with a view to the happiness of the human race upon earth, it seems hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of any inquiries which promise to indicate the conditions by which the relation of the population to the demand for labour, and the means of subsistence there existing, is determined, and may be regulated.

"We cannot indeed expect, that so striking results can follow from this or any other principle in political science, as have already rewarded the labour of man in investigating the laws of the material world. The beautiful expressions of Cicero, in describing the power which man has acquired over Nature, are more applicable to the present age, than to any one that has preceded it. 'Nos campis, nos montibus fruimur; nostri sunt amnes, nostri lacus; nos fruges serimus, nos arbores; nos aquarum inductionibus terris fecunditatem damus; nos flumina arcemus, dirigimus, avertimus; nostris denique manibus in rerum naturâ quasi alteram naturam efficere conamur.' We can hardly anticipate, that science shall acquire a similar power of regulating the condition of human society or the progress of human affairs. In regard to the changes which these affairs undergo in the progress of time, we are all of us agents, rather than contrivers. 'L'homme avance dans l'exécution d'un plan qu'il n'a point conçu, qu'il ne connoit même pas; il est l'ouvrier intelligent et libre d'une œuvre qui n'est pas la sienne; il ne la reconnoit, ne la comprend que plus tard, lorsqu'elle se manifeste au dehors et dans les realités, et même alors il ne la comprend que très incomplètement."—(Guizot.) Still we may observe, that in all applications of science, moral and political, as well as physical, to the good of mankind, the same principle holds true, 'Natura non vincitur nisi parendo;' and that even in those cases where man is the agent, he may likewise be the interpreter and the minister of Nature. It is only by acquiring a knowledge of the natural laws of motion, of heat, of chemical action, that we acquire that power, "quasi alteram naturam efficere," which Cicero describes; and those events which are due to the agency of free, and intelligent, and responsible human beings, although liable to the influence of a greater number of disturbing forces, and therefore requiring careful investigation, are still subject to laws, which are imposed on the constitution of the human race, and which may be ascertained by observations belonging to the department of statistical science.

"That the natural tendency of the human race is to increase on any given portion, or on the whole of the earth's surface, in a much more rapid ratio than the means of subsistence can be made to increase, I apprehend to be an undeniable fact. I am aware of various objections which have been stated to this principle, but shall not enter on these objections farther than to state, that two considerations appear to me to have been overlooked by those who have advanced them. First, That the term 'means of subsistence,' is not to be restricted to the raising from the land of articles of food, but applies to the extraction from the earth's surface, and the preparation for the use of man, of all productions of Nature, which are either necessary to human existence or adapted for human comfort, and which have, therefore, an exchangeable value;—secondly, that the question regarding these, which concerns us in this inquiry, is not how much a given number of men may raise, but how much a given portion of the earth's surface can supply; and what relation this quantity bears to the power of reproduction granted to the human race. When these considerations are kept in view, it does not appear to me that the objections to the general principle laid down by Malthus are of any weight; and the truth of the principle appears to be strongly illustrated by the care taken by Nature to have a certain number of carnivorous genera, in every order of animals, and among the animated inhabitants of every portion of the earth's surface, whereby the tendency to excess in every class of animals is continually checked and repressed. And although it is certain that the causes of human suffering of all sorts, as of human diseases, are very generally complex, yet we may certainly assert, that this principle is essentially concerned, as a great and permanent predisposing cause, in all those sufferings which result from poverty, and must be carefully kept in view in all wise regulations for their relief.

"Neither is it incumbent on those who acquiesce in this general principle, to assert that the natural checks on this tendency to excessive reproduction in the human race have been well named or fully expounded by Malthus. But the great distinction which he pointed out, of the positive and the preventive checks on population, is undoubtedly of extreme importance. And in regard to the positive checks, by which it is easy to see that the progress of the human race upon earth has been hitherto rendered so very different from what might have been expected from its powers of reproduction,—when we reflect on the effects of War, of Disease of all kinds, and especially of Pestilence, of Famine, of Vice, of Polygamy, of Tyranny, and misgovernment of all kinds,—while we can easily perceive that all these may be ultimately instruments of good in the hands of Him who can 'make even the wrath of man to praise Him,'—yet we must acknowledge that all, if not properly ranked together under the general name of Misery, are yet causes of human suffering,—so general, and so great, that the most meritorious of all exertions of the human mind are those, which are directed to the object of counteracting and limiting the action of these positive checks on population; and on this consideration it is wise for us to reflect deeply, because it is thus only that we can judge of the value of the great preventive check of Moral Restraint, by which alone the human race can be duly proportioned to the means of subsistence provided for it, without suffering the evils which are involved in the operation of the different positive checks above enumerated.

"I consider, therefore, the general principles of Malthus as not only true, but so important, that the exposition and illustration of them is a real and lasting benefit to mankind. The real error of Malthus lay simply in his supposing, that moral restraint is necessarily or generally weakened by a legal provision against destitution; and this is no part of his general theory, but was, as I maintain, a hypothetical assumption, by which he thought that his theory was made applicable in practice. His argument against Poor Laws was this syllogism: Whatever weakens the moral restraint on population must ultimately injure a people; but a legal protection against destitution weakens that moral restraint; therefore Poor Laws, giving that legal protection, must ultimately injure any people among whom they are enforced. The answer, as I conceive, is simply 'Negatur minor.' How do you know that a legal protection against destitution must necessarily weaken moral restraint? The only answer that I have ever seen, amounts only to an assertion or conjecture, that more young persons will marry, when they know that they may claim from the law protection against death by cold and hunger, than when they have no such protection. But this is only an opinion, supported perhaps by reference to a few individual cases, but resting on no foundation of statistical facts. Where are the facts to prove that early marriages are more frequent, and that population becomes more redundant, among those who have a legal provision against destitution, than among those who have none? I have never seen any such facts, on such a scale as is obviously necessary to avoid the fallacies attending individual observations; and the facts to which I have now to advert, are on a scale, the extent of which we must all deplore, and all tending, like many others formerly stated, to prove that the greatest redundancy of population in her Majesty's dominions exists among those portions of her subjects who have hitherto enjoyed no legal protection, against destitution. As it is generally avowed that it is for the sake of the poor themselves,—with a view to their ultimate preservation from the evils of destitution,—that the law giving them protection in the meantime is opposed, these facts must be regarded as decisive of the question."

It will not generally be disputed that a correct view of the main cause of distress is contained in what follows:—

"The famine, consequent on the failure of the potato crop in 1846, considered independently of disease, presents a still more remarkable collection of facts, the proper view of which appears to me to be this. The potato is an article of diet throughout the whole of this country, particularly useful to the working classes, and its importance to them seems to be fully illustrated by the pretty frequent occurrence of scurvy in many places, where it had been unknown for more than a century, since the beginning of the winter 1846-7,—that is, since the use of the potato has been necessarily nearly abandoned.

"But it is only in certain districts that the people have been absolutely dependent on the potato, and been reduced to absolute destitution by its failure; and the reason obviously is, that the potato, although much less desirable, as the chief article of diet, than many others, is that by which the greatest number of persons may be fed from a given quantity of land in this climate. When we find a population, therefore, living chiefly on potatoes, and reduced to absolute destitution, unable to purchase other food, when the potato crop fails,—we have at once disclosed to us the undeniable fact, that that population is redundant. It is greater than can be maintained in that district, otherwise than on the poorest diet by which life can be supported, and greater than the labour usually done in that district demands. Now I formerly stated, that such a redundant population, living, as a foreign author expresses it, 'en parasite,' on the working people of the country, exists most remarkably in Scotland, in districts where no poor-law is enforced; and I have now only to show how amply that statement is confirmed by the facts which the present famine in some parts of Scotland has brought to light."

Whatever be its merits, the argument for a comprehensive Poor Law is placed on its true basis in the following passages:—

"If it be still said, that there is a difficulty in perceiving how the natural increase of population should be restrained,—implying that marriages should in general be rendered later and less productive,—by laws which give protection against destitution, I can only repeat what I formerly stated, that in order to understand this, it is only necessary to suppose, what is quite in accordance with individual observation, that human conduct, and particularly the conduct of young persons, is more generally influenced by hope than by fear,—that more are deterred from early and imprudent marriages by the hope and prospect of maintaining and bettering their condition in life, than by the fear of absolute destitution. The examples of the Highlands and of Ireland are more than enough to show, that this last is not a motive on which the legislator can place reliance, as influencing the conduct of young persons in extreme poverty. No legislation can take from them the resource of mendicity, of one kind or another, as a safeguard, in ordinary circumstances, against death by famine; and experience shows that those who are brought up in habits of mendicity, or of continued association with mendicants, will trust to this resource, and marry and rear families, where no other prospect of their maintenance can be perceived; whereas those who have been brought up in habits of comparative comfort, and accustomed to artificial wants, will look to bettering their condition, and be influenced by the preventive check of moral restraint, to a degree, as Mr Farr—judging from the general results of the registration of marriages in England—expresses it, which 'will hardly be credited when stated in figures.'

"I have repeatedly stated likewise, that I consider an efficient poor law, extending to all forms of destitution, as affording a salutary preventive check on early marriages and excessive population in another way, which is easily illustrated by statistical facts, viz. by making it obviously the interest of landed proprietors always to throw obstacles in the way of such marriages among persons who are likely to become burdensome on the poor rates, i. e. among all who have no clear prospect of profitable employment. The number of crofters, and still more of cotters, living en parasite on the occupiers of the soil in the Highlands, is the theme of continual lamentation; but the question seldom occurs to those who make this complaint,—would such a population be allowed to settle on the lands of an English proprietor, who is familiar with the operation of the poor-rate?"

The following remarks also are well deserving of attention:—

"But, setting aside the argument of Malthus against effective Poor Laws, the chief resource of the opponents of such laws has of late years been the assertion, that a legal provision against destitution leads naturally to relaxation of industry; that idleness, if not improvidence, is thus fostered among the poor, and that in this manner, the improvement of a country, necessarily dependent on the industry of its lower orders, is retarded. I have always maintained, that this assertion likewise is distinctly refuted, and not only that it is refuted, but the very contrary established, by statistical facts; that it is indeed made in face of the demonstrable fact, that the nations most celebrated for industry have long enjoyed a legal protection against destitution; that the people of England, speaking generally, are probably, to use the words of Lord Abinger,—'the most trustworthy and effective labourers in the world,' and that the greatest degree of idleness to be seen on the face of the earth exists among people who have no such protection; whose only resource, therefore, when destitute, is mendicity."

Dr Alison endeavours to show that wherever the labour test is applied, an able-bodied Poor Law is disarmed of its apparent dangers.

"Where the bounty dispensed by Dr Boyter and Captain Eliott has been combined with 'strict attention to the rules laid down by the Central Relief Board,' (which are exactly similar to those which would be adopted by any experienced official Board dispensing legal relief to the able-bodied under the safeguard of the labour test,) its effects in stimulating the industry of the people, and improving the prospects of the country, appear to have been uniform and decided. And when it is remembered that, notwithstanding the failure of the potato crop, and consequent destitution of so large a population in the Highlands, the Relief Committees have been not only able to prevent any death by famine, but to open in so many places a fair prospect of improvement of the country, and of reformation of the manners of the people, at an expense in all not exceeding £100,000, it is surely not unreasonable to expect, that in ordinary seasons, and after some further assistance shall have been given them for the purpose of emigration, the proprietors of the Highlands and Islands will be perfectly able to bear a similar burden to that which the legislature has now imposed on Ireland.

"I observe with the utmost satisfaction that the principle of a Poor Law, skilfully imposed and judiciously regulated, and extending to all kinds of destitution, being a useful stimulus, both to the industry of the people, and to the exertions of the landlords and other capitalists of a country, (and a reasonable security to others assisting them,) has now been fairly recognised and acted on, in reference to Ireland. It is distinctly avowed in the following extract from Sir Robert Peel's speech at Tamworth, 1st June 1847. 'We have experience of the evils of periodical returns of destitution in Ireland; we see periodically a million or a million and a half of people absolutely in a starving state,—in a state which is disgraceful, while it is dangerous to the security of life and property. I believe it is a great point to give security to those people that they shall not starve,—that they shall have a demand upon the land. I believe it is necessary to give a new stimulus to industry,—to impress upon the proprietors and the occupying tenants, that they must look on the cultivation of the land in a new light; and that the demands of poverty will not be so great when all persons do all that they can to lighten the pressure.'

We shall quote only a part of Dr Alison's observations on Ireland, but they contain information of some interest.

"In proof that the natural resources of Ireland, in the absence of this stimulus, have been equally neglected as those of the Highlands, I may quote a few sentences from the official Report of the Commission on the Occupation of Lands in Ireland. 'The general tenor of the evidence before the Commissioners goes to prove, that the agricultural practice throughout Ireland is defective in the highest degree, and furnishes the most encouraging proofs, that where judicious exertions have been made to improve the condition and texture of the soil, and introduce a better selection and rotation of crops, these exertions have been attended with the most striking success and profit.' 'The lands in almost every district require drainage; drainage and deep moving of the lands have proved most remunerative operations wherever they have been applied, but as yet they have been introduced only to a very limited extent; and the most valuable crops, and most profitable rotations, cannot be adopted in wet lands.' (See Report of that Commission in London newspapers, Sept. 3, 1847.)

"The Commission above mentioned stated as their opinion, that the potato may perhaps be regarded as the main cause of that inertia of the Irish character, which prevents the development of the resources of the country; but with all deference to that opinion, I would observe, that in this case, as in the Highlands, the fundamental evil appears to be, the existence of a population, such as nothing but the potato can support, who 'cannot find employment,' as these commissioners themselves state, 'during several months of the year,' and therefore cannot afford to purchase any other food, and whose only resource, when they cannot find employment, is beggary; and that it is the absence of skill and capital to give them work, rather than the presence of the potato to keep them alive, which ought chiefly to fix the attention of those who wish to see the resources of the country developed. And without giving any opinion on the political question, how far it is just or expedient for Great Britain to give farther assistance by advances of money, to aid the improvement of Ireland, we may at least repeat here what was stated as to the Highlands, that when it becomes the clear and obvious interest of every proprietor in a country, to introduce capital into it, with the specific object of employing the poor, as well as improving his property, we may expect, either that such improvements as will prove 'profitable investments of labour,' will be prosecuted, or else, that the land will pass into other hands, more capable of 'developing its resources.'"

"When we read and reflect on these

statements, I think it must occur to every one, that whatever other auxiliary measures may be devised, the greatest boon that has been conferred on Ireland in our time, is the Law which has not only given a security, never known before, for the lives of the poor, but has made that motive to exertion, and to the application of capital to 'profitable investments of industry,' which is here distinctly avowed, equally operative on the proprietors of land in every Poor Law union in that country, and in all time coming; and I believe I may add, that the individual to whom Ireland is chiefly indebted for this inestimable boon, is one whose name we do not find connected with any of the questions of religion or of party politics, which have caused so much useless excitement; but who has distinctly perceived the root of the evil,—the absence of any security, either for the lives of the poor, or for the useful application of capital to the employment of labour, and has applied himself patiently and steadily to the legitimate remedy—viz. Mr Poulett Scrope.

"It is true that we have many representations, from Poor Law unions in Ireland, of the utter inability of the proprietors and occupiers of the soil to bear the burden which the new Poor Law has imposed upon them; and I give no opinion on the questions, whether they have a claim in equity on further assistance from England, or whether the rate has been imposed in the most judicious way. But when it is said, that they are utterly unable to support the poor of Ireland by a rate, the question presents itself—How do they propose that those poor are to be supported without a rate? I apprehend it can only be by begging; and of whom are they to beg? It can only be from the occupiers of the soil, and other inhabitants of the country. Now, will the ability of those inhabitants to bear this burden be lessened by a law which will, in one way or other, compel the landlords (often absentees) to share it along with them?—and will, at the same time, make it the obvious interest of the landlords to introduce capital into the country, and expend it there in 'remunerative employment?'

"On the present state of Ireland I can speak with some confidence, because I can give the opinion of a friend, the Count de Strzelicki, who is well entitled to judge, because he was previously thoroughly acquainted with agriculture, and because he nobly undertook the painful office of dispensing the bounty of the London Association in the very worst district of Ireland, during the worst period of the famine; and who expresses himself thus:—The real evil and curse of Ireland is neither religious nor political, but lies simply in so many of the landlords being bankrupts, and so many of those who are well off being absentees; others again, equally well off, resident, judicious, benevolent, and far-sighted, being unsupported in their efforts, and isolated in their action upon the masses, who, long since cast away by the proprietary, have been dragging their miserable existence in recklessness, distrust, and rancour. It is this dislocation—even antagonism—of social interests and relations, combined with the irresponsibility of the property for its poverty, that constitutes the 'circus viciosus,' the source of all the evils of this unfortunate and interesting country.

"'But now, in consequence of the new Poor Law, and other new enactments of Parliament, those who have a real interest in the preservation of their property, will be forced to look, as they never did before, to the improvement of their tenantry. Those who are insolvent must part with the nominal tenure of land, and leave their estates to capitalists who can better discharge the duty of landlords; and lastly, the masses, who hitherto had been abandoned to themselves and to their brutal instinct for self-preservation, will find henceforth their interest linked with that of the landlord, and will find advice, help, encouragement, and, in extreme cases, a legal support.

"'Every real friend of Ireland, and particularly those who, like myself, have had an insight into the many excellent intellectual and moral qualities of their character, while sympathising with the hardships which at first will be felt by many from the new system, cannot but acknowledge that it is only now that its society is being placed on its proper basis, and in a fair way to amelioration and prosperity.'

"This opinion was given in a letter to a common friend, and without reference to any speculation of mine as to the management of the poor. In a subsequent letter to myself he adds, 'It is only since I came to Ireland that I have become conscious of the real value of a legal provision for the poor, and of the demoralising effect of private alms. Already we see some good symptoms of the action of the new Poor Law. It is by the provision made to employ men, and not by feeding them, that the operation of the law begins. The out-door relief will, I am sure, act not as a premium to idleness, but as a stimulus to landlords to supply labour, and thus prevent the people from falling on it.'"

On the absolute or eventual necessity of emigration, Dr Alison's views seem to be sound and satisfactory.

"That there are some parts of the Highlands which may be relieved more rapidly and effectually by aid of some form of emigration than in any other way, I have no doubt. In many such cases it is probably unnecessary to remove the people farther than to those parts of the low country, where, by a little well directed inquiry, employment may be found for them, as was done by the Glasgow 'Committee on Employment;' but in others it is quite certain that emigration to the colonies may be safely and beneficially managed. And the importance of this subject becomes much greater when we consider, that so large a surplus remains of the sum raised for the relief of distress there, the disposal of which is at this moment a question of difficulty. I am so much impressed with the truth of the last observation of Dr Boyter, as applicable to certain districts of the Highlands, that I should think it highly advisable to apply the greater part, or even the whole, of this surplus of £115,000 to this salutary drainage of the population. An equal sum might be advanced by Government, to be gradually repaid, just as in the case of assistance given to proprietors by the Drainage Act; and the whole sum might be expended in aiding emigration and such colonisation as Dr Boyter describes. Nay, I am persuaded that few of the subscribers to the Highland Destitution Fund would scruple to renew their subscriptions, provided they had any security that the Highland proprietors, thus relieved of a portion of their population, would really exert themselves to develop the resources now known to exist in their country, and so maintain the remainder without farther claims on the rest of the community. But I cannot think it reasonable or right, that while we have periodical returns of destitution in the Highlands, demanding aid from all parts of the country and from the colonies, to prevent many deaths by famine, a Highland proprietor should be enabled to advertise a property for sale, at the upset price of £48,000, and to state as an inducement to purchasers, that the whole public burdens are £40 a-year. (See advertisement of sale of lands in Skye, Edinburgh Courant, Sept. 16, 1847.) I should think it highly imprudent for the Committee intrusted with that money for the benefit of the poor in the Highlands, to part with it for any kind of emigration, excepting on two express conditions: 1. That agents appointed by the Committee, unprejudiced and disinterested, (and probably better judges on the point than Captain Eliott and Dr Boyter cannot be found,) shall report on the localities in which this remedy should be applied, in consequence of "profitable investments of industry" not existing at home; and, 2. That application be made to the Legislature for a measure, which should place the remaining portion of the Highlanders under the circumstances which are known by experience to be most favourable to the development of the resources of a country, and at the same time to the action of the preventive check on excessive population, i. e., under the operation of an effective and judicious Legal Provision for the Poor."

The following sentences form an impressive conclusion to this valuable, dissertation.

"I have only to add, that being firmly convinced that a well-regulated Poor Law is really, as stated by Sir Robert Peel, a wholesome stimulus to enterprise and industry, and a check upon extravagance and improvidence, I have written this paper to prove,—by evidence on so large a scale, that it excludes all fallacies attending individual cases, and ought to command conviction,—that it is only in those parts of this country where this salutary precaution has been neglected, that such periodical returns of destitution and famine, as he describes, have been suffered or are to be apprehended. But, as it is obviously essential to this beneficial effect of a Poor Law, that it should secure relief to destitution from want of work, the practical result of all that has been stated is, to confirm the arguments which I formerly adduced in favour of the extension of a legal right to relief to the able-bodied in Scotland, when destitute from that cause;—guarded of course by the exaction of work in return for it when there are no means of applying, or when such exaction is thought better than applying, the workhouse test. And notwithstanding the strong feeling of distrust (or prejudice, as I believe it) which still exists among many respectable persons on this point, I confidently expect that this right—now granted to the inhabitants of every other part of her Majesty's European dominions, and soon to be accompanied, as I hope, in all parts, by an improved law of settlement i. e., by combinations or unions instead of parishes,—cannot be much longer withheld from the inhabitants of Scotland."

Nor can I doubt that the intelligent people of this country, seriously reflecting on the lessons which have been taught them by those two appalling but instructive visitations of Providence,—pestilence and famine—will soon perceive, whether it is by the aid or without the aid of an effective legal provision against destitution, that the sacred duty of charity is most effectually performed; and what are the consequences to all ranks of society which follow from its being neglected.

Magna est veritas et prævalebit.

It is right that views so important and so ably stated, and which are obviously prompted by so pure a spirit of philanthropy and true piety, should receive the full weight that they are entitled to; and should be canvassed and considered by all who feel an interest in the question.

On the other hand, there are obvious considerations of an opposite kind which should be fairly weighed. Independently of the general arguments against an able-bodied Poor Law, with which political economists are familiar, the special question arises, whether the Highlands of Scotland have not been brought into their existing condition partly by the peculiarities of national character, and partly by the transition that is now in progress from a system of ancient vassalage to more modern ideas of calculation and independence. The patriarchal state which prevailed under the old habits of clanship is now at an end, so far as regards the proprietors, who are unable to maintain or govern their retainers as of old, while the population generally continue in their former condition of helpless tutelage, and must now be taught to act and provide for themselves. The Lowlands of Scotland, though not possessing an able-bodied Poor Law, are free from those evils by which the Highlands are afflicted, and the population are scarcely, if at all, in an inferior state to the corresponding portion of the English nation.

Further, there arises the very grave consideration, that whatever may be the abstract or original merits of an able-bodied Poor Law, the introduction of such a system in an advanced state of society is a matter of great delicacy, and may, from the very novelty of its operation, often lead to utter idleness on the one hand, and confiscation on the other. It ought not, in any view, to be attempted, without being accompanied by some well digested plan of public colonisation, to relieve the pressure which might otherwise over-power the resources of all who are to be burdened.

We would say, in conclusion, that whatever may be the state of this argument, it lies in a great degree with the proprietors in the Highlands and Islands to avert the threatened evil, if they consider it as such, by a gradual but entire change in the system of the occupation of land. The great argument we have seen for an able-bodied Poor Law is, that it compels the proprietary classes to keep down the population by a feeling of self-interest. This object must, in some way or other, be attained. Without harshness, without any sudden removals, every opportunity must be sought of remodelling the plan of small possessions, and the principle must be laid down and enforced, that no one shall continue in the condition of a tenant who does not occupy enough of ground to raise, at least, an ample corn crop for the support of his family. If the potato system continues,—if, after the present calamity passes away, its lessons are forgotten, it is not probable that the benevolence of the public would again be equally liberal as it has now been, where the visitation was so sudden and unexpected, and no clear or unequivocal warning of its approach had previously been received.

We hope, however, for better things; and trust that the present crisis will be duly improved, and will form a new era of prosperity and increased civilisation and happiness for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

* Observations on the Famine of 1846-7 in the Highlands of Scotland, and in Ireland, as illustrating the connexion of the principle of population, with the management of the poor. By W. P. Alison, M.D., &c.

Lament for Macrimmon


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