Sutherland Clearances: Donald MacLeod

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Donald MacLeod was born at Rossal, Strathnaver, the son of William MacLeod, a farmer and stonemason under whom he also served his apprenticeship. Donald was about twenty years of age when Rossal was cleared. At 11 o'clock that night he climbed a hill and counted:

250 blazing houses. Many of the owners were my relatives and all of whom I personally knew; but whose present condition, whether in or out of the flames, I could not tell. The fire lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of those days a boat lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore; but at night she was enabled to reach a landing place by the light of the flames.

The family were later removed to Strathy Point, and Donald had to move again at the insistence of Sellar's successor. He moved southward, keeping as long as he could within Sutherland, but finally went to Edinburgh where he found access to the press.

Donald MacLeod was a born journalist; however, was unable to get his writings published. In his memory, his notes, and his correspondence with Highlanders whom he dared not name, he stored a great arsenal of ammunition. By 1840 public opinion began to change, and the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle published 21 of his letters which he later expanded into his "History of the Destitution of Sutherlandshire."

From then on, he wrote and wrote of the removals and persecutions in all parts of the Highlands -=- always returning to the events of his people, to Bliadhna an Losgaidh, the Year of the Burnings, when Patrick Sellar came to Strathnaver.

[Cairn] Memorial to Donald MacLeod: Click to enlarge [jpeg:10K]
A Memorial Cairn to Donald MacLeod is by the roadside in Strathnaver. Behind it, across the River Naver, is the village of Rossal, preserved as it was following the clearances. (Look for green fields.) Other villages cleared at that time are now covered by trees, a reforestation project in recent years. The sheep are still there.
Janet MacKay Photo: Copyright 1983

Such an `agitator' was not likely to receive much encouragement in the city of "law and order". Although his writings were rarely subjective, his own suffering was great. He was hounded by the Stafford agents and the persecution of his wife reduced her to incurable madness.

Donald MacLeod and his family went to Woodstock, Ontario (Canada) where he ended his days. In the end, he became an exile like his kin and friends.

After a visit to Dunrobin Castle, Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin") wrote "Sunny Memories" of Sutherlandshire. Donald MacLeod in Woodstock wrote his refutation, "Gloomy Memories" which was published in Toronto in 1857.

Donald MacLeod was courageous and incorruptible, and his writing was never dull. No one who reads "Gloomy Memories" and considers the author's environments and opportunities, can fail to observe the marked ability with which he states his facts, and the firmness displayed at a time when his sentiments could find but little support and scanty approval.

Despite the attempts of Mrs. Beecher Stowe, Commissioner James Loch, M.P. and many others to whitewash the Sutherland escutcheon, and the various efforts of the Sellar family to vindicate the memory of their father, the statements made by Donald MacLeod have never been overturned or refuted -=- indeed they have in these latter days been fully substantiated.

Copyright (C) Janet MacKay; 1985

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