-- by Alexander MacKenzie
To give a proper account of the Sutherland Clearances would take a bulky volume. Indeed, a large tome of 354 pages has been written and published in their defence by him who was mainly responsible for them, called "An Account of the Sutherland Improvements," by James Loch, at that time Commissioner for the Marchioness of Stafford and heiress of Sutherland.
This was the first account I ever read of these so-called improvements; and it was quite enough to convince me (and it will be sufficient to convince anyone who knows anything of the country) that the improvements of the people, by driving them in the most merciless and cruel manner from the homes of their fathers, was carried out on a huge scale and in the most inconsiderate and heartless manner by those in charge of the Sutherland estates.
But when one reads the other side, MacLeod's "Gloomy Memories." General Stewart of Garth's "Sketches of the Highlanders," and other contemporary publications, one wonders that such iniquities could ever have been permitted in any Christian country, much more so in Great Britain, which has done so much for the amelioration of subject races and the oppressed in every part of the world, while her own brave sons have been persecuted, oppressed and banished without compensation by greedy and cold-blooded proprietors, who owed their position and their lands to the ancestors of the very men they were now treating so cruelly.
The motives of the landlords, generally led by southern factors worse than themselves, were, in most cases, pure self-interest. They pursued their policy of extermination with a recklessness and remorselessness unparalleled anywhere else where the Gospel of peace and charity was preached -- except, perhaps, unhappy Ireland. Generally, law and justice, religion and humanity, were either totally disregarded, or what was worse, in many cases converted into and applied as instruments of oppression.
Every conceivable means, short of the musket and the sword, were used to drive the natives from the land they loved, and to force them to exchange their crofts and homes -- brought originally into cultivation and built by themselves, or by their forefathers -- for wretched patches along the barren rocks on the sea-shore. They had to depend, after losing their cattle and their sheep, and after having their houses burnt about their ears or razed to the ground, on the uncertain produce of the sea for subsistence. The people, in many instances, and especially in Sutherlandshire, were totally unacquainted with a seafaring life, and quite unfitted to contend with its perils.
What was true generally of the Highlands, was in the county of Sutherland carried to the greatest extreme. That unfortunate county, according to an eye-witness, was made another Moscow. The inhabitants were literally burnt out, and every contrivance and ingenious and unrelenting cruelty was eagerly adopted for extirpating the race. Many lives were sacrificed by famine and other hardships and privations.
Hundreds, stripped their all, emigrated to the Canadas and other parts of America. Great numbers, especially of the young and athletic, sought employment in the Lowlands and in England, where, few of them being skilled workmen, they were obliged -- even farmers who had lived in comparative affluence in their own country -- to compete with common labourers, in communities where their language and simple manners rendered them objects of derision and ridicule. The aged and infirm, the widows and orphans, with those of their families who could not think of leaving them alone in their helplessness, and a number, whose attachment to the soil which contained the ashes of their ancestors, were induced to accept of the wretched allotments ordered them on the wild moors and barren rocks.
The mild nature and religious training of the Highlanders prevented a resort to that determined resistance and revenge which has repeatedly set bounds to the rapacity of landlords in Ireland. Their ignorance of the English language, and the want of natural leaders, made it impossible for them to make their grievances known to the outside world. They were, therefore, maltreated with impunity. The ministers generally sided with the oppressing lairds, who had the Church patronage at their disposal for themselves and their sons. The professed ministers of religion sanctioned the iniquity, "the foulest deeds were glossed over, and all the evil which could not be attributed to the natives themselves, such as severe seasons, famines, and consequent disease, was by these pious gentlemen ascribed to Providence, as a punishment for sin."
The system of turning out the ancient inhabitants from their native soil throughout the Highlands during the first half of the nineteenth century has been carried into effect in the country of Sutherland with greater severity and revolting cruelty than in any other part of the Highlands. It was done though the Countess- Marchioness and her husband, the Marquis of Stafford, were by no means devoid of humanity. However atrocious and devoid of human feeling were the acts carried out in their name by heartless underlings, who represented the ancient tenantry to their superiors as lazy and rebellious, though, they maintained everything was being done for their advantage and improvement.
How this was done will be seen in the sequel. South countrymen were introduced and the land given to them for sheep farms over the heads of the native tenantry. These strangers were made Justices of the Peace and armed with all sorts of authority in the county, and thus enabled to act in the most harsh and tyrannical fashion, none making them afraid; while the oppressed natives were placed completely at their mercy. They dare not even complain, for were not their oppressors also the administrators of the law?
The seventeen parish ministers, with the single exception of Rev. Mr. Sage, took the side of the powers that were, exhorting the people to submit and to stifle their cries of distress, telling them that all their sufferings came from the hand of their Heavenly Father as a punishment for their past transgressions. Most of these ministers have since rendered their account, and let us hope they have been forgiven for such cruel and blasphemous conduct. But one cannot help but noting to what horrid uses these men in Sutherlandshire and elsewhere prostituted their sacred office and high calling.
The Sutherland clearances were commenced in a comparatively mild way in 1807, by the ejection of ninety families from Farr and Lairg. These were provided for, some fifteen or seventeen miles distant, with smaller lots to which they were permitted to remove their cattle and plenishing, leaving their crops unprotected, however, in the ground from which they were evicted. They had to pull down their old houses, remove the timber, and build new ones, during which period they had in many cases to sleep under the open canopy of heaven. In that autumn they carried away, with great difficulty, what remained of their crops, but the fatigue incurred cost a few of them their lives, while others contracted diseases which stuck with them during the remainder of their lives, and shortened their days.
In 1809 several hundred were evicted from the parishes of Dornoch, Rogart, Loth, Clyne and Golspie, under circumstances of much greater severity than those already described. Several were driven by various means to leave the country altogether, and to those who could not be induced to do so, patches of moor and bog were offered on Dornoch Moor and Brora Links -- quite unfit for cultivation. This process was carried on annually until, in 1811, the land from which the people were ejected was divided into large farms, and advertised as huge sheep runs.
The country was overrun with strangers who came to look at these extensive tracts. Some of these gentlemen got up a cry that they were afraid of their lives among the evicted tenantry. A trumped- up story was manufactured that one of the interlopers was pursued by some of the natives of Kildonan, and put in bodily fear. The military were sent for from Fort George. The 21st Regiment was marched to Dunrobin Castle, with artillery and cartloads of ammunition. A great farce was performed; the people were sent for by the factors to the Castle at a certain hour. They came peaceably, but the farce must be gone through. The Riot Act was read. A few sheepish, innocent Highlanders were made prisoners, but nothing could be laid to their charge. They were almost immediately set at liberty, while the soldiers were ordered back to Fort George.
The demonstration, however, had the desired effect in cowing and frightening the people into the most absolute submission. They became dismayed and broken-hearted, and quietly submitted to their fate. The clergy all this time were assiduous in preaching that all the misfortunes of the people were "Fore-ordained of God, and denouncing the vengeance of Heaven and eternal damnation on all those who would presume to make the slightest resistance."
At the May term of 1812 large districts of these parishes were cleared in the most peaceable manner, the poor creatures foolishly believing the false teaching of their selfish and dishonest spiritual guides -- save the mark!
The Earl of Selkirk, who went personally to the district, allured many of the evicted people to emigrate to his estates on the Red River in British North America, whither a whole ship-cargo of them went. After a long and otherwise disastrous passage, they found themselves deceived and deserted by the Earl, left to their unhappy fate in an inclement wilderness. They were without any protection from the hordes of red Indian savages by whom the district was infested, and who plundered them of their all on their arrival and finally massacred them. A small remnant who managed to escape travelled through immense difficulties, across trackless forests to Upper Canada.
The notorious Mr. Sellar was at this time sub-factor, and in the spring of 1814 he took a large portion of the parishes of Farr and Kildonan into his own hands. In the month of March the old tenantry received notices to quit at the ensuing May term. A few days after the summonses were served the greater portion of the heath pasture was, by his orders, set on fire.
By this cruel proceeding the cattle belonging to the old tenantry were left without food during the spring, and it was impossible to dispose of them at a fair price, the price having fallen after the war. Napoleon was now a prisoner in Elba. The demand for cattle became temporarily dull, and prices were very much reduced. To make matters worse, fodder was unusually scarce this spring. The poor people's cattle depended for subsistence solely on the spring grass which sprouts out among the heather, but which this year had been burnt by the factor who would himself reap the benefit when he came into possession later on.
In May the work of ejectment was again commenced, accompanied by cruelties hitherto unknown, even in the Highlands. Atrocities were perpetrated which I cannot trust myself to describe in my own words. I shall give what is much more valuable -- a description by an eye-witness in his own language. He says:-
"In former removals the tenants had been allowed to carry away the timber of their old dwellings to erect houses on their new allotments, but now a more summary mode was adopted by setting fire to them. The able-bodied men were by this time away after their cattle or otherwise engaged at a distance, so that the immediate sufferers by the general house-burning that now commenced were the aged and infirm, the women and children.
"As the lands were now in the hands of the factor himself, and were to be occupied as sheep farms, and as the people made no resistance, they expected, at least, some indulgence in the way of permission to occupy their houses and other buildings till they could gradually remove, and meanwhile look after their growing crops.
"Their consternation was therefore greater, when immediately after the May term-day, a commencement was made to pull down and set fire to the houses over their heads.
The old people, women and others, then began to preserve the timber which was their very own; but the devastators proceeded with the greatest celerity, demolishing all before them. When they had overthrown all the houses in a large tract of country they set fire to the wreck. Timber, furniture and other article that could not be instantly removed was consumed by fire or otherwise utterly destroyed.
The proceedings were carried on with the greatest rapidity and the most reckless cruelty. The cries of the victims, the confusion, the despair and horror painted on the countenance of the one party, and the exulting ferocity of the other, beggar all description."
At these scenes, Mr. Sellar was present, and apparently, as sworn by several witnesses at his subsequent trial, ordering and directing the whole.
Many deaths ensued from alarm, from fatigue, and cold, the people having been instantly deprived of shelter, and left to the mercies of the elements. Some old men took to the woods and to the rocks, wandering about in a state approaching to, or of absolute, insanity; and several of them in this situation lived only a few days. Pregnant women were taken in premature labour, and several children did not long survive their sufferings.
"To these scenes," says Donald MacLeod (author of `Gloomy Memories'), "I was an eye-witness, and am ready to substantiate the truth of my statements, not only by my own testimony, but by that of many others who were present at the time. In such a scene of general devastation, it is almost useless to particularise the cases of individuals; the suffering was great and universal. I shall, however, notice a few of the extreme cases of which I was myself eye-witness.
John Mackay's wife, Ravigill, in attempting to pull down her house, in the absence of her husband, to preserve the timber, fell through the roof. She was in consequence taken in premature labour, and in that state was exposed to the open air and to the view of all the by-standers.
Donald Munro, Garvott, lying in a fever, was turned out of his house and exposed to the elements.
Donald Macbeath, and infirm and bed-ridden old man, had the house unroofed over him, and was in that state exposed to the wind and rain until death put a period to his sufferings.
"I was present at the pulling down and burning of the house of William Chisholm, Badinlkoskin, in which was lying his wife's mother, an old bed-ridden woman of nearly 100 years of age, none of the family being present. I informed the persons about to set fire to the house of this circumstance, and prevailed on them to wait until Mr. Sellar came. On his arrival, I told him of the poor old woman being in a condition unfit for removal, when he replied, `Damn her, the old witch, she has lived too long -- let her burn.'
"Fire was immediately set to the house, and the blankets in which she was carried out were in flames before she could be got out. She was placed in a little shed, and it was with great difficulty they were prevented from firing it also. The old woman's daughter arrived while the house was on fire and assisted the neighbours in removing her mother out of the flames and smoke, presenting a picture of horror which I shall never forget, but cannot attempt to describe. Within five days she was a corpse."
In 1816 Sellar was charged at Inverness, before the Court of Justiciary, with culpable homicide and fire-raising in connection with these proceedings. Considering all circumstances, it is not at all surprising that he was `honourably' acquitted of the grave charges made against him. Almost immediately after, however, he ceased to be a factor on the Sutherland estates, and Mr. Loch came into power. Evictions were carried out from 1814, down to 1819 and 1820, pretty much of the same character as those already described.
The removal of Mr. Young, the chief factor, and Mr. Sellar from power was hailed with delight by the whole remaining population. Their very names had become a terror. Their appearance in any part of the county caused such alarm as to make women fall into fits. One woman became so terrified that she became insane, and whenever she saw anyone she did not recognize, she invariably cried out in a state of absolute terror -- `Oh! sin Sellar -- Oh! there's Sellar.'
The people, however, soon discovered that the new factors were not much better. Several leases which were current would not expire until 1819 and 1820, so that the evictions were necessary only partial from 1814 down to that period.
The people were reduced to such a state of poverty that even Mr. Loch himself, in his `Sutherland Improvements,' page 76, admits that -- `Their wretchedness was so great that, after pawning everything they possessed to the fishermen on the coast, such as had no cattle were reduced to come down from the hills in hundreds for the purpose of gathering cockles on the shore. Those who lived in the more remote situations of the county were obliged to subsist upon broth made of nettles, thickened with a little oatmeal. Those who had cattle had recourse to the still more wretched expedient of bleeding them, and mixing the blood with oatmeal, which they afterwards cut into slices and fried. Those who had a little money came down and slept all night upon the beach, in order to watch the boats returning from the fishing, that they might be in time to obtain a part of what had been caught.'
Loch, however, omitted to mention the share he and his predecessors had taken in reducing the people to such misery, and the fact that at this very time he had constables stationed at the Little Ferry to prevent the starved tenantry from collecting shellfish in the only place where they could find them.
He prevailed upon the people to sign documents consenting to remove at the next Whitsunday term, promising at the same time to make good provision for them elsewhere. In about a month after, the work of demolition and devastation again commenced, and parts of the parishes of Golspie, Rogart, Farr, and the whole of Kildonan were in a blaze. Strong parties with faggots and other combustible material were set to work. Three hundred houses were given ruthlessly to the flames, and their occupants pushed out into the open air without food or shelter. Macleod, who was present, describes the horrible scene as follows:--
"The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description -- it required to be seen to be believed.
"A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself -- all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition -- whether in or out of the flames -- I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of these days a boat actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing-place by the lurid light of the flames."
The whole of the inhabitants of Kildonan, numbering nearly 2000 souls, except three families, were utterly rooted and burnt out, and the whole parish converted into a solitary wilderness. The suffering was intense. Some lost their reason.
Over a hundred souls took passage to Caithness in a small sloop, the master humanely agreeing to take them in the hold, from which he had just unloaded a cargo of quicklime. A head storm came on, and they were nine days at sea in the most miserable condition -- men, women and helpless children huddled up together, with barely any provisions. Several died in consequence and others became invalids for the rest of their days. One man, Donald Mackay, whose family was suffering from a severe fever, carried two of his children a distance of twenty-five miles to this vessel.
Another old man took shelter in a meal mill, where he was kept from starvation by licking the meal refuse scattered among the dust on the floor, and protected from the rats and other vermin by his faithful collie.
George Munro, the miller at Farr, who had six of his family down with fever, had to remove them in that state to a damp kiln, while his home was given to the flames.
And all this was done in the name of proprietors who could not be considered tyrants in the ordinary sense of the term.
General Stewart of Garth, about a year after the cruelties perpetuated in Sutherland, writes with regret of the unnatural proceedings as the "the delusions practised (by his subordinates) on a generous and public- spirited proprietor, which have been so perseveringly applied, that it would appear as if all feeling of former kindness towards the native tenantry had ceased to exist.
To [these subordinates] any uncultivated spot of moorland, however small, was considered sufficient for the support of a family [of the native tenantry]; while the most lavish encouragement has been given to all the new tenants, on whom, with the erection of buildings, the improvement of lands, roads, bridges, etc., upwards of œ210,000 had been expended since 1808 (in fourteen years).
With this proof of unprecedented liberality, it cannot be sufficiently lamented that an estimate of the character of these poor people was taken from the misrepresentation of persons [interested in their own profit who failed (or refused) to recognize or acknowledge the worthy character of the native tenantry].
[Their judgment was not based on] the conduct of the same men when brought into the world where they obtained a name and character which have secured the esteem and approbation of men high in honour and rank. From their talents and experience, [it would seem they were] perfectly capable of judging with correctness.
With such proofs of capability and with such materials for carrying on the improvements and maintaining the permanent prosperity of the county, [it could be done] when occupied by a hardy, abstentious race, easily led on to a full exertion of their faculties by a proper management.
Instead of placing them, as has been done, in situations bearing too near a resemblance to the potato-gardens of Ireland, they [could be] permitted to remain as cultivators of the soil, receiving a moderate share of the vast sums lavished on their richer successors. Such a humane and considerate regard to the prosperity of a whole people would undoubtedly have answered every good purpose."
He then goes on to show that, when the valleys and higher grounds were let to sheep farmers, the whole native population was driven to the sea shore. There they were crowded on small lots of land to earn subsistence by labour and sea-fishing, the latter so little congenial to their former habits and experience. "And these one or two acre lots are represented as improvements!!
He then asks how in a country, without regular employment or manufactories, a family is to be supported on one or two acres? The thing was impossible. The consequence is that "over the whole of this district, where the sea-shore is accessible, the coast is thickly studded with thatched cottages, crowded with starving inhabitants," while strangers, with capital, usurp the land and dispossess the swain.
Ancient respectable tenants, who passed the greater part of their lives in the enjoyment of abundance and in the exercise of hospitality and charity, possessing stocks of ten, twenty and thirty breeding cows, with the usual proportion of other stock, are now pining on one or two acres of bad land, with one or two starved cows. For this accommodation a calculation is made, that they must support their families and pay the rents of their lots, not from the produce but from the sea.
When the herring fishery succeeds, they generally satisfy the landlords, whatever privations they may suffer. When the fishing fails, they fall in arrears and are sequestrated and their stocks sold to pay the rents, their lots given to others, and they and their families turned adrift on the world. In these trying circumstances, he concludes, "We cannot sufficiently admire their meek and patient spirit, supported by the powerful influence of moral and religious principle.
The beautiful Strathnaver, containing a population equal to Kildonan, had been cleared in the same heartless manner.
In 1828, Donald Macleod, after a considerable absence, returned to his native Kildonan, where he attended divine service in the parish church, which he found attended by a congregation consisting of eight shepherds and their dogs -- numbering between twenty and thirty -- the minister, and three members of his family. Macleod came in too late for the first psalm, but at the conclusion of the service the fine old tune Bangor was given out, "when the four- footed hearers became excited, got up on their seats, and raised a most infernal chorus of howling. Their masters attacked them with their crooks, which only made matters worse; the yelping and howling continued to the end of the service." And Donald Macleod retired to contemplate the painful and shameful scene, and contrast it with what he had previously experienced as a member, for many years, of the large and devout congregation that worshipped formerly in the parish church of his native valley.
The Parish Church of Farr was no longer in existence; the fine population of Strathnaver was rooted and burnt out during the general conflagration, and presented a similar aspect to his own native parish. The church, no longer found necessary, was razed to the ground, and its timbers conveyed to construct one of the Sutherland "improvements" -- the Inn at Altnaharra, while the minister's house was converted into a dwelling for a foxhunter.
A woman, well-known in the parish, travelling through the desolated Strath next year after the evictions, was asked on her return home for her news. She replied -- "O, chan eil ach sgiala bronach! sgiala bronach!" "Oh, only sad news, sad news! I have seen the timber of our well attended kirk covering the inn at Altnaharra; I have seen the kirk-yard where our friends are mouldering filled with tarry sheep, and Mr. Sage's study turned into a kennel for Robert Gunn's dogs, and I have seen a crow's nest in James Gordon's chimney head;" after which she fell into a paroxysm of grief.
Mackenzie's Pamphlet, 1881
by Alexander MacKenzie, F.S.A., Scot.
Edited by Janet MacKay, B.R.E.,B.Sc.