Obituary: Sir Matthew Campbell

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE LAST Secretary of the old Department of Agriculture for Scotland who became the first head in 1962 of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Matthew Campbell was an austere and extremely competent civil servant. However, his claim to lasting fame was his work from 1951 to 1954 as Secretary of the Taylor Committee which created the Crofters' Commission.

Campbell worked well with Sir Thomas Murray Taylor, at that time the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Aberdeen University, a distinguished King's Counsel who had been asked by James Stuart, Churchill's incoming Secretary of State for Scotland, to chair an enquiry whose terms of reference were

to review crofting conditions in the Highlands and Islands with special reference to the secure establishment of a smallholding population, making full use of agricultural resources and deriving the maximum economic benefit therefrom.

In a position of considerable power from 1953 until he retired in 1968, Campbell did more than anybody else to implement the recommendations of the Crofter's Commission which transformed the Highlands.

Matthew Campbell was born in High Blantyre into a family of teachers. He went to Hamilton Academy, then a famous scholarly school specialising in Classics, and on to Glasgow University. Entering the Civil Service in 1928, he went first to the Inland Revenue and after a short spell at the Admiralty to the Department of Agriculture, which he was to serve for the next third of a century.

Taylor and Campbell realised that the crofters were members of their own community and that apart from special difficulties shared to the full the general disabilities which afflicted so disastrously the remote communities in the Highlands and Islands. All were affected by the "evil results" which flowed from the wasteful exploitation of natural resources by land and sea, from deforestation and soil erosion, from years of neglect and improvident management. All suffered a lack of employment with resulting depopulation, from poor communications and the terrible cost of every form of transport.

These conditions were not likely to be dissipated by any magical remedy or in a short space of time. If the process of decay was to be arrested and reversed it would require a serious political decision that these crofting communities should not be allowed to perish and a settled policy well conceived and resolutely maintained for many years. Above all Campbell, both at the time of the report and later as head of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, faced up to the fact that a substantial expenditure of public money was required.

As a young MP, I marvelled at how skilful the Department of Agriculture was at getting a huge share of public money out of my first three Secretaries of State: Jack Mackay, Michael Noble and Willie Ross. If anybody could get money it was Campbell. Sir Alec Cairncross, one of the Government's most important post-war economic advisers, recalls his competence as a committee secretary and his subtle sense of humour. I believe it was an astute tolerance of the ridiculous that helped the somewhat formidable no- nonsense Campbell to deal so effectively with the Highlanders, with whose real problems he had an innate sympathy.

The Taylor Committee found a great diversity of conditions:

Certain problems are common to all crofting communities, but outside this common area there are surprising differences between one district and another, and even between one adjacent island and another. At one end of the scale there are the moribund

communities of the north-western seaboard, at the other the new and prosperous holdings in the Black Isle.

In some parts of the west the old people, sole survivors of a once flourishing township, passed their declining years watching the tilled land going back to reeds and rushes, while in Orkney the virgin soil is being brought back under the plough at the rate of eight to nine hundred acres every year, and in Shetland young men back from the whalefishing in the Antarctic look in vain for holdings in which they can marry and settle down.

There is the island of Lewis, with poor peaty soil covering the Archaean Gneiss, with a crowded, lively, vivid community, and the vast empty island of Mull with much better land and great areas of understocked pasture.

Campbell wrote beautifully. The recommendations were constructive - a Crofters' Commission, responsible to the Secretary of State and endowed with adequate financial and executive powers; active use of land settlement powers in the crofting counties; the promotion of land settlement schemes to come within the purview of the commission; notification of all vacancies in crofts and power for the commission to ensure that crofts then vacant and crofts falling vacant in the future were relet in a way

best calculated to promote the interests of the crofting community; discretionary power to terminate the tenancy of any crofting tenant who did not ordinarily reside on or within two miles of the holding; dispossession of an absentee tenant; houses occupied by old people who had few charters excused the valuation role; and power for the Crofters' Commission to frame a scheme for the reorganisation of any township which had fallen into decay.

Campbell's memorial is a Scottish Highlands with a new life breathed into it.

Matthew Campbell, civil servant: born High Blantyre, Lanarkshire 23 May 1907; Principal, Department of Agriculture for Scotland 1938-43, Assistant Secretary 1943-53, Under-Secretary 1953-58, Secretary 1958-62, Secretary, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland 1962-68; CB 1959; KBE 1963; married 1939 Isabella Wilson (died 1977; two sons); died Edinburgh 7 March 1998.