Tragic Highland Clearances, Chapter 3:Glengarry, Strathglass, Sutherland

The Tragic Highland Clearances

İ Chapter 3 - Proscription Act, Clearances: Glengarry, Strathglass, Sutherland

by Robert M Gunnİ
All Rights Reserved, by all international copyright law exclusively to the author and İSkye-Net, RM Gunn

Chapter Three

It is not realistic to hope to give a full account of the Clearances in a few or even a half-dozen chapters. All one can do is to cover the major events, include as much reason, cause and effect as possible, and document some of the atrocities. This is what this look at the Highland Clearances will do, not a full history of the tragic episode.

Chiefs no longer protected the clans, no longer had pride and importance from the number of loyal clansmen who would have followed him into battle - and Scottish history had plenty of battles. And the clansmen, from all of the evidence, were equally proud to be called and to die gloriously if necessary. But now the chief no longer commanded the unquestioning loyalty he once had from their clansmen and women. Instead, by turning over the land to sheep-farming, or indeed crops, they acquired wealth in the form of cash and this naturally gave the power-starved chiefs a taste for the good living. This generally afforded them a lavish life-style. But if they still could not afford this life-style, they mortgaged their lands to to others who would work them. Many willing lenders were not Highlanders, some were not even Scottish.

Life for the tenants (in the Highlands they were known a crofters) and cottars (farm workers) became more and more harsh and uncertain in these conditions.

The Highlander, although he'd always paid tribute to the chief, whether in cash or service, regarded the land as his own. It was not. Chieftains and underlings, tacksmen, or factors, who held leases on acres of land; paid rent to the laird and took rent from the peasants. When the tacksmen's rents were raised, the increase was passed down the line, and if there were any problems, the tacksmen's leases could be ended. And the tacksmen too had their social positions to maintain. But, the laird lost nothing in losing the tacksman. There were others who could and would pay better rents; Lowland sheep farmers. Slowly, insidiously, the glens began to be emptied of humans and populated with Cheviot sheep. Some of them left quietly, turning to crofting in the wilder parts. Some went to the cities where the boom of the industrial revolution was creating a need for workmen in factories. Some emigrated to the Colonies or left for other parts. But many, unaccustomed to any other way of life than that which their ancestors had lived for 1,000 years, did not go away so quietly.

Those that emigrated at first, although forced, they were not yet 'evicted' Highlanders -- not at this point. Some emigrated willingly. From 1772-1791, nearly 7,000 Scots emigrated from Inverness and Ross alone. The numbers of evicted tenants that would be forced to emigrate later on, would be as high as 40,000, as in the Skye clearances.

In the first stages of forcible evictions, men were not driven from Scotland -- not right away. They moved to miserable little plots on the rocky coastlines to scrape a living from miserable small holdings and fishings -- and quite often died.

Deserted Coastlines of Scotland

Deserted Coastlines
Even on the rocky shorelines, the peasant was not to be his own man. There was the matter of kelp, the flourishing seaweed among the rocks, and at times it was even more profitable than sheep. The lairds, naturally, assumed ownership of it. During the brief season in April and May, the peasants gathered it, for poverty wages.

One irony was that the kelp-gathering needed a hugh labour force whilst the people were constantly being reduced in number. As one laird commented, "If the country has any inhabitants at all, they must be expelled."

Some contemporaries blamed the ordinary Highlander for his own plight. They claimed that his old loyalty (to the chief) was so deeply ingrained, and although he might willingly attack outsiders at the chief's order, he could or would not attack or rebel against the chief himself. He submitted to the callousness of the laird.

Of course, this is a rather harsh view to explain one's own greed -- to blame the problem of the landless Highlander on himself. It is reminiscent of a remark made by a former US president who claimed that many homeless were homesless because "they preferred to sleep under the stars." It is always easier for the oppressor to find the oppressed deserving of their fate by belittling them.

Unfortunately, very often the Highlander did think they could be helped by their former chiefs or new landlords. Many believed they had hereditary rights to the land. The new laws didn't allow for clan system hereditary rights. The landlords were insistent and brought in the military, sheriffs and their officials to forcibly evict them. Their homes were burnt down, often over their heads, and they were driven off the land.

If they fled, they were pursued and if caught taken to ships for transportation to the colonies. " The people were terrorized, utterly impoverished....the litany of their sufferings would fill volumes." [E.Richards, The Highland Clearances].

Repeal of the Proscription Act

In 1782 the Proscription act banning Highland dress, language, customs and traditions was repealed. But it was not done to please the suffering Highlanders. The law was repealed partly because the rest of Britain was discovering the Highlanders were a romantic group. Books by Sir Walter Scott (and others) confirmed this in such glorified and best-selling novels as "Rob Roy MacGregor", making him a Highland hero practically overnight. Well-bred Lowlanders began acquiring the habit of tracing some Highland ancestry, however remote, and wearing Kilts to show their family connections.

One tragic result of the Proscription Act which also banned Gaelic, was that with the generation or two that lapsed between the Proscription (ban) and the repeal, Gaelic had not been taught to an entire generation of Highlanders who were mostly now illiterate. When it was allowed again, most could not write or teach the language of their ancestors, having been brought up speaking English or Scots-English. Even those who still spoke it were unaccustomed to writing it. They were told speaking of "Irish" (as the English and Lowlanders called Gaelic) was an inferior language and made the speaker an inferior person. Unfortunately, many Highlanders believed it and in some areas of Scotland this notion still exists.

The Glengarry Clearances

The Clearances proper, or the forced evictions, began in earnest in 1785, where one of the better known chiefs, MacDonell of Glengarry, allowed his wife Marjorie to evict 500 tenants from Glen Quoich to make room for a sheep-walk. (Keep this woman's name in mind as she figures again in this story).

Voluntary emigrations gave way to legal evictions. Marjorie continued to evict Glengarry tenants in 1787 and 1788, when her docile husband Duncan finally died.

He was succeeded as heir to the Glengarry lands by his son Alisdair Ranaldson MacDonell, whose portrait in Highland dress by Raeburn is one of the most famous and seems to epitomize the proud, honourable father of a Highland clan. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Alisdair played at being a Highland Chief and his games were quite convincing to even Sir Walter Scott, to whom Alisdair conveyed on Scott some of his least accurate ideas on Highlanders. For a start he killed Flora MacDonald's grandson in a duel, but was able to get himself aquitted at his trial. He strutted proudly in full Highland dress, including broadsword, dirk and pistols, and was followed by his 'tail' of henchmen, bard, piper and bodyguard.

But his expensive play-acting life-style made him short of cash. So he leased more and more land, very profitably, to southern sheepmen. To do so, of course, he had to evict more and more of his clansmen to make way for the Cheviots.

The earlier and previously true portrait of a Highland chief, as a man who from self-interest as much as self-preservation, was genuinely concerned about the welfare of his clansmen, gives way now to the self-indulgent chief who felt no sense of responsibility to anyone but himself. There were no longer dangerous neighbours to rob him if he didn't have the loyal and faithful clan to protect him. The law now protected him.

It is significant that Walter Scott admired Alisdair Ranaldson MacDonell enormously and that Robert Burns called him a cold-hearted tyrant.

MacDonell's whole life is astonishong. He evicted his own clansmen, then was furious when he learned they were emigrating! What he expected them to do isn't clear. He sold his lands to sheepmen to get rich, then he detested the sheepmen. He despised the new 'Caledonian Canal' being constructed to link three lochs of the Great Glen, making it possible to sail from Inverness to Fort William. So he stole timber and bricks from the construction area, and when confronted, he made the barbed remark that a Highland gentleman was not accustomed to making a fuss over a few scraps! He was involved in numerous court cases, but always managed to pry himself from the hands of justice.

He died in hugh debt. Within a generation of his death, there were no Glengarry clansmen left on Glengarry lands.

I've made mention of the Cheviot sheep previously. But it was not until 1790 that the new and hardy strain of Cheviot sheep were introduced into the Highlands, thus replacing the older sheep. They were so hardy and successful in the cold, harsh Highlands they could bring quite a profit, and thus wealth to the owners. But one first had to get rid of the people. Glengarry, for one, had shown the way.

The Strathglass Clearances

In 1801, William, the 24th Chisholm, whose wife was the daughter of Marjorie MacDonell of Glengarry (mentioned earlier) began the clearances in Strathglass. In one years time, half of the clans were evicted and many sailed for Canada and Nova Scotia.

After William's death, his son was still a minor; but his wife Elizabeth continued the evictions with a single-minded purpose: to pay for her son's (the future 25th Chisholm) education at Cambridge.

She had promised to the tenants, who went to her for help, to come up with a solution - but if she never did, even if her intentions were real. It continued with that Cambridge educated son, her heir, the 25th Chisholm, Alexander. He followed in his parents footsteps and totally depopulated Strathglass. It was said that only one Chisholm remained. Bard and poet in the old Gael tradition, Donald Chisholm, wrote these words:

"Our chief is losing his kin! He prefers sheep in the glens, and his young men away in the camp of the army!!"

Over 10,000 Strathglass clansmen were evicted or emigrated from 1801-1809.

Another man, Bishop Chisholm had earlier pleaded with the wife of the 24th Chisholm to end the evictions in Strathglass. He said,

"...Oh! Madam, you would really feel if you only heard the pangs and saw the oozing tears by which I am surrounded in this once happy but now devasted valley of Strathglass, looking out all anxiously for a home without forsaking their dear valley; but it will not do, the must emigrate!"

It was having an effect on her until her hired factors, callous and greedy men named Thomas Gillespie and William MacKenzie, urged the old woman to continue her 'improvements' to the land. Her descendant did.

A man of the time described Alexander the 25th Chisholm (the Cambridge educated son), now a man, as wanting nothing so much as to replace all his people, "his family from the beginning of time", with sheep. And, unfortunately, it was true.

Dunvegan Castle

Dunvegan Castle
There were bright, shining stars as well during this terrible time of dark greed. The best example, and also the most noteable exception to the rule, were the chiefs of the MacLeods, who went to enormous lengths to improve the lives of their clanspeople in Skye by opening up the chiefs private coffers and rationing out the money. Some clansmen and women were even allowed to take shelter in Dunvegan Castle until suitable crofts could be built.

They were in dazzling contrast to the land 'improvers'.

The Sutherland Clearances

The greatest 'improver' of them all was undoubtedly the Englishman George Granville Leveson-Gower, Marquess of Stafford, born in 1758. He was the richest landowner in Britain, holding vast estates in England. His wife was Elizabeth Gordon, who inherited the title Countess of Sutherland (although she was a Gordon, not a Sutherland). She was very financially set in her own right, owning 2/3 of the lands of Sutherland and parts of Caithness. It was this lovely duo then, that made the brutality and cruel savagery a Highland Clearance trademark for future 'improvers'.

She used both titles, (Countess of Sutherland and Lady Stafford - later Duchess Sutherland), and was enamoured of riches and the good life, having little to no regard for her subjects. She spent most of her time in England. She hired two factors to do her dirty work and they, especially one of them, became infamous.

Patrick Sellar and James Loch were ruthless but efficient buisnessmen. The name of Patrick Sellar is perhaps the most hated name in this woeful tale. Sellar wrote of Lord and Lady Stafford:

"Lord and Lady Stafford were pleased humanely to order the new arrangement of this country. That the interior should be possessed by Cheviot sheperds, and the people brought down to the coast and placed in lots of less than three acres, sufficient for the maintenance of an industrious family, pinched enough to cause them to turn their attention to the fishing. [of herring] A most benevolent action, to put these barbarous Highlanders into a position where they could better associate together, apply themsleves to industry, educate their children, and advance in civilisation."

In 1807, the Most Noble Marquess began evicting his Scottish Highland tenants beginning with a trifling ninety families: men, women and children. This number, under the guiding hand of Patrick Sellar, and the full endorsement of the future Duke and Duchess of Sutherland (also Lord and Lady Stafford) would reach a figure of 2,000 families per day. The Duke's aim was one of 'improving' his land. Improving the lives of the people in it, was not a concern.

The Beginnings of Revolt

In the book, "The Highland Clearances" by author John Prebble, he tells of the rebellion of a clan early on in the Sutherland Clearances. It is paraphrased below in the next several paragraphs.

The Sutherland clearances really began when William Young (Lord Stafford's first commissioner) arrived. He soon had an active and enthusiastic recruit for his factor, Patrick Sellar. Sellar obviously loved his work. Their goal was to ship all the tenants, to the sea-coast, so that the interior would be open for the sheep. Wool and mutton for English consumption was the plan. Young was a believer in colonisation as well so he really had no problem with this idea. It belonged to England and the government now, and these barbarous Highlanders would have to make do with fishing from the coasts. This was, of course, unrealistic, but they didn't really care what happened to the displaced Highlanders.

Young and Sellar first secured the support of tacksmen and ministers who advised their people to go without protest, warning that if it were the wish of the "Great Lady of Sutherland" they should obey her agents in all things. They turned their attention from Assynt to the parish of Kildonan, and it was here that resistance was first met.

Never had the parish seen so many Lowlanders and English riding up and down the banks of the Kildonan, taking notes and making records. This valley near Caithness was the home of dour and hard clan Gunn. More Norse than Gael, and noted for their warlike ferocity, they had been extremely uneasy about all the foreigners patrolling their glens. Their reaction to strangers in these glens was abrupt and angry, and soon news travelled to London.

Lady Stafford (Countess Sutherland), Elizabeth Gordon -- the 'Great Lady of Sutherland' -- wrote to an English friend:

"I hope to be in Scotland this summer (she was in England) but at present I am uneasy about a sort of mutiny that has broken out in one part of Sutherland,....The people who are refractory on this occassion are part of the Clan Gunn, so oftened mentioned by Robert Gordon [who was instrumental in having the Gunn lands taken away and moving them to other areas of Scotland], who live by distilling whisky and are unwilling to quit that occupation for a life of industry of a different sort which was proposed to them."

The trouble occurred in March 1813, when an agent went to Kildonan taking notes and asking questions. He returned early. He claimed he had been attacked by a mob of men and women and feared for his life. According to author Donald MacLeod, the factors played on this trumped-up story and swore in 60-100 retainers and constables armed with cannon from Dunrobin Castle.

The alarm raised by Young and Sellar scared the people of Golspie (south of the clans lands) sufficiently, many of them being newcomers from the south; they had the townsmen's old dread of Highlanders in arms.

Rumour had convinced the people and the castle that the Clan Gunn were marching down the coast towards Golspie, threatening to hang Young and Sellar, expell all the sheepfarmers, and burn Dunrobin Castle to the ground. Obviously, this was a partially trumped up charge to scare the citizens and the castle. The conspirators likely didn't believe their own story, but they knew if the Gunn's gathered to protest against the coming evictions there might well be serious trouble when the Sheriff's officers arrived in Kildonan with writs of removal.

Young sent a message to the Gunns inviting them to air their grievances. It was a trick. Young and Sellar intended to flush the Gunns into the open and frighten them with the power of law and order.

Clan Archer
[Clan Archer]
The Gunn's were six miles from Dunrobin when they received a warning from a sympathiser in Golspie. The warning told them that constables were waiting for them behind the castle walls and the agents intended to arrest and charge them with threats against the agent's life. Most of the clan wisely decided to remain where they were, but some were more courageous (or desperate) and marched on. They waited outside an inn at Golspie for someone to hear their grievances. Finally came a commissioner, factor and sheriff at top gallop from Dunrobin, followed by a band of armed constables. The sheriff proceeded to tell the clan that those discovered of 'attacking' the agent previously (A Mr. Reid - and probably a trumped-up charge as well) would soon be discovered and punished, and that they should disperse. They were then scolded by the very ministers they had counted on in the past. They threatened:

"The vengeance of Heaven and eternal Damnation on those who should presume to make resistance."

It is little wonder that the poor Highlander quailed under such influence. Fearing that punishment from the above might not be enough, the sheriff began to read aloud the Riot Act. Since this was in English, it was gibberish to most of the Gunns. They drifted away, more confused than afraid.

They went back to Kildonan, now followed by a powerful detachment of 21st Foot, some artillery, and wagons loaded with cartridge and ball. They pursued the Gunns all the way to their homes. The presence of the 21st in this area of the Highlands was no accident.

There is a cumulative secrecy to be got from using one racial minority for the suppression of another, and although the 21st was nominally a Scots regiment (The Royal Scots Fusiliers) the men in its ranks were mostly Irish, pressed into service by force of famine. They had bitter memories of the Rebellion of '98, in whch a fencible regiment from Sutherland (including many Gunns) had helped to defeat them earlier. They marched northward after the clan Gunn telling all who would listen, or could understand, that they would have their revenge for Irish blood which Scots had spilled on Vinegar Hill. The Gunns, seeing "nothing but enemies on every side" didn't resist (something of a rarity for the clan) and went back to their glen knowing that shortly they would be evicted from Kildonan. There was precious little they could do about it now. And so ends the first real rebellion of the Sutherland Clearances.

During the next 20 years, whilst living in the princely splendor of Dunrobin Castle, the Duke and Dutchess of Sutherland (Lord and Lady Stafford) "cleared" hugh areas of northen Scotland. Lady Stafford waxed sentimental over 'her' clansmen, always from a safe distance. She was good at 'playing' a Highlander too, but she was no Highlander. She was more English in her attitude and outlook and, although she had a fanciful Gaelic title, which meant "Great Lady of Sutherland", she spoke not a word of the language of her people.
But in Chapter 4, the Sutherland and Strathnaver Clearances get Sellars, on Lord and Lady Stafford's (Duke and Duchess of Sutherland) orders, began the burning and killing times of the clearances. The next two and final chapters will be, perhaps, the most important and tragic of all.

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