Tragic Highland Clearances, Chapter 4:Sutherland, Strathnaver, Patrick Sellars, Skye and role of the Church

İThe Tragic Highland Clearances

Chapter 4: Strathnaver, Patrick Sellars, Skye, Strathcarron & role of the Church

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

Highland Clearances, Chapter Four

The Strathnaver Clearances

This falls under the larger heading of the Sutherland Clearances due to the fact that the land was owned by the Duke of Sutherland. The Sutherland Lords (who were not even Sutherlands), also cleared Assynt, areas near Caithness, Dornoch, Rogort, Loth, Clyne, Golspie and lower Kildonan leading to the 'rebellion' of the Gunns in the previous chapter.

In 1814 they began in Strathnaver. Their method was reminiscent of the 'Butcher' Cumberland. They ordered the tenants out of their homes and set them ablaze. If anyone was slow getting out or went back for possessions, the fire was started with them inside. All possessions, including furniture were burnt. Women, children, old men and animals stood in huddled, fightened groups whilst the savage work went on. To make the land more suitable for the Sheep, the burned homes were levelled so the Cheviots could browse with ease. This also made it impossible for the tenant to rebuild or take refuge in the remains of their homes. The land was to be devoid of all human habitation as not to intrude upon the grazing sheep.

Last of the Clan
Last of the ClanThe evicted lost all their possessions, their clothes and cooking utensils, not to mention their dignity and sometimes their lives. Now they had no place to go, and nobody thought (or cared) to provide them with one. They were, as was said at the time, "driven out like dogs."

In one incident, a woman of perhaps more than ninety years old, was to old and weak to be moved from her home. The neighbours pleaded for Patrick Sellar, the agent, to show mercy for the old woman. Sellar responded,

"Damn her, the old witch. She has lived too long. Let her burn."

Her house was put to the torch, even the sheets on her bed were set ablaze. Local clansmen and clanswomen tried to rescue her by taking her burned body to a nearby barn, but she died five days later in agony, as surely murdered as anybody could be.

Some of the following eyewitness stories of the horrors of the Sutherland and Strathnaver Clearances come from writings of a clergyman named Donald MacLeod. He had a congregation in Strathnaver and stayed awake days on end during the "Burning Times" to record what he saw. His work initially was disbelieved in Scotland. Finally, 70 years later, it was published by his son, but to late to serve justice upon the guilty. Here are just a few from his book, "Memorbilia".

Said MacLeod,

" I saw the townships set on fire. Grummore with 16 houses and Archmilidh with four. All the houses were burnt with the exception of one. A barn. Few if any of the families knew where to turn their heads or from whom to get their next meal. It was sad, the driving away of these people. The terrible rememberance of the "Burnings" of Strathnaver will live as long as a root of the people remains in this country."

One of those burned out of Grummore was ninety year old William MacKay. He remembered the Jacobite days and had already been evicted once. His wife, Janet, died as a result. When he was evicted again from Grummore he went to the churchyard and stood over her grave and said "Well, Janet, the Countess will never filt (evict) you again." He turned and walked, alone, to Wick where he died alone and unmourned.

MacLeod documents more:

A man named Robert MacKay, whose family was sick with fever, carried his daughters on his back for 25 miles, "first by carrying one and laying her down in the open air, and, returning did the same with the other till he reached the seashore."

Also of Clan MacKay, another elderly man crawled away from the Burnings, and into a ruin of a mill unseen. His dog kept rats away from him and he survived for a few days by licking the dust of meal from the floor. MacLeod added, "To the best of my recollection he died there."

An elderly woman, who was partially paralyzed and in absolute pain if moved or if she tried to walk, was ordered out of her home by Lord Stafford's agent (Sellar). She could only sit in a motionless chair. Sellar told the neighbours she must immediately be removed by her friends or the constables (Lowland sheperds) would be ordered to do it. Her family lifted her from the chair, and four boys of the township cried as they carried her out in a blanket. As she was taken towards the coast,

"...her cries never ceased till within a few miles of her destination, when she fell silent."

The eyewitness stories told of these evictions are blood-curdling. One man tried to save some bits of wood and was caught in the act. The wood was burned so that he would have nothing to cook or keep warm by. Many starved and froze to death where their homes had been. Some died of exposure, disease and fatigue. Starvation was rampant. A callous remark was made by the Countess of Sutherland upon seeing some of the thin Highlanders. She wrote in a letter to a friend in England,

"Scotch people are of happier constitution and do not fatten like the larger breed of animals."

One Mrs. John M'Kay, trying to dismantle her home before the arsonists could get to it, fell through the roof and had premature labour.

Donald McBeath had his roof ripped off and he died of exposure.

The factors and constables seemed to take a perverse pleasure in maltreating the old and the frail -- they were so easy to deal with. One common recurrent theme is the mistreatment of pregnant women -- there were many premature labours as a result, and there was death.

One tenant, Hugh MacBeth, sought an interview with Sellar, and told him that he had to leave for his godmothers funeral. He asked that his house and sick father might be left alone until he came back. Sellar sent him packing. MacBeth partially demolished the cottage before leaving, hoping that this would satisfy the factor. When he came back he found the house destroyed and his sick father lying in the open, to die very soon.

Another incident tells of a house occupied by a young woman named Christy MacKay, described in the "Northern Ensign" as a "harmless, inoffensive but sensible girl." The constables and a factor accused her of giving shelter to an aged evicted pauper. After finding the person in her home, the officers dug a hole in the cold earth and put the old woman in it - still alive --then nailed up Christy's house, leaving her weeping against a dry-stone wall.

Not even animals were spared the barbarity. One account tells how a terrified cat, which tried to escape the flames of a burning croft, was thrown back again and again until it finally perished.

Deserted Glens
Deserted Glens

Homeless people were left destitute in wind and rain, to survive as best they could without food or shelter. The crying of terrified children and the groans of the elderly made an edifying accompaniment to the important work of 'improving' the Duke's estates. Crowds of people, initially, slept on brae hillsides, watching the embers of their homes and hopes extinguish.

Some evicted from Strathnaver were told if they wanted shelter they should take a ship north. There was only one small ship available. One old man, mortified of the sea, turned the oppostie direction and walked to Kildonan, away from the sea he feared. He was not heard of again. The others took to the sloop which was filled with quicklime. It was partially emptied and her master agreed to take some of the evicted to Caithness. Twenty families went aboard. According to Donald MacLeod again,

"They filled the deck, hold and every part of the vessel, many of these persons had not been on the sea before, and when they began to sicken a scene indescribable ensued. To add to their miseries, a storm and contrary winds prevailed so that instead of a day or two, the usual time of passage, it was nine days before they reached Caithness. All this time the poor creatures, almost without necessaries, most of them dying with sickness were either wallowing among the lime and various excrements in the hold, or lying on the deck exposed to the raging elements."

Another account tells of a man, who was recently evicted and homeless. His wife and children had just died of exposure and starvation and he was in the process of burying his family in cheap boxes when the factor's men came in and evicted him in the middle of the funeral service. They drug him away crying.

There are literally hundreds more eyewitness accounts of the atrocities of the first period of the Highland clearances. Many of these recorded, primarily, by minister Donald MacLeod of Strathnaver. He wrote another book in response to a book written about the graciousness of Countess Sutherland several years later. We will be looking at those books in chapter five.

Patrick Sellar Goes to Trial

Surprisingly, given the atmosphere, Patrick Sellar was tried for manslaughter when some elderly tenants were killed whilst being evicted. It was astonishing that he was tried at all because the political climate of the time was one of terror at any activity of the lower classes on the political scene. The French Revolution had raised spectres of bloody rebellion and dispossession.

Liberty was a dangerous word. It was not a word used much in the Highlands, where the people were so remote that they were sheltered from 'dangerous European heresies'. But it had infected England and Lowland Scotland, especially Scotland, where a body of freedom-lovers had previously formed a Society of Friends of the People, whose leader was sentenced to transportation.

And so it was astonishing that Sellar was sentenced at all. He was, after all, the agent of respectable people of Britain, the landlords. Even so, the trial was delayed for nearly a year. The forty witnesses against him had been interviewed by a sheriff-Substitute M'Kid, but only 15 were called to give evidence. There were nine witnesses on Sellar's behalf, all of them his own men.

The Judge, in summing up to the Jury, lent heavily on the low character of the chief prosecution witness, a tinker, William Chisholm, who had seen his mother-in-law die during the evictions. The middle-class jury brought back a Not Guilty verdict in just 15 minutes. The Jury had been bought; bribed by the rich and powerful Lord and Lady Sutherland, although this could not be proven at the time. The Sheriff-Substitute was driven from office, and even sued by Sellar, and simply disappeared. Sellar was a free man.

No compensation was paid in respect of homes destroyed, far less the personal possessions destroyed. Lord Stafford could have easily cleared his estates in a far more humane way, for his possessions were vast. Perhaps they could have been given the time to resettle on the coasts, although that land might have been useless, at least it would have been an attempt. No attempt appears to have ever been made, one wasn't needed for these savage 'Highland barbarians'. But who was really the savage barbarian here?

Another striking paradox is that all this was occurring a year or two before Waterloo. The sons, brothers and fathers of these defenseless Highlanders were serving with the Duke of Wellington in Britains war against France. Asked what he thought the effect these new "Highlander Regiments" would have upon the enemy, Wellington replied, "I don't know the effect they will have on the enemy, but they scare the hell out of me."

Perhaps this barbaric reputation of the Highlanders, deserved or not, had an effect on the treatment of their relatives back home. These regiments acquired renown, but their families were being treated with all the cruelty one would expect to look for in Romanov Russia of the time. It couldn't have been much worse.

Glengarry (Alisdair MacDonell), Chisholm and the 'Great Lady Sutherland' and her factors Patrick Sellar and James Loch -- these are the infamous names that come to our attention in that first and dreadful period of Highland Clearances (1785-1820). But it got even more insane in the next round of mass evictions. And this time it was all of Highland Scotland that suffered.

The end of the first period of Highland Clearances ends with evictions again in Strathnaver in 1819 and at Kildonan. Then another set of evictions when Hugh Munro of Novar cleared Culrain and Oykel in 1820.

Of all, the Ross, Glengarry, Strathglass, Strathnaver and Sutherland -- the Sutherland clearances are the most notorius -- it is a dubious distinction to have.

The Clearances and the Churches

At one point during the clearances, the desperate people turned to the Church of Scotland for help, but it was the church of the landlords. They told the Highlanders that the evictions were God's Will and a chance for sinners to repent. Many Highlanders broke away from the church to find one that could speak to them; to satisfy their needs for spiritual comfort.

This eventually became the Free Church of Scotland. In retaliation the landlords told the Highlanders that when they were cleared and resettled elsewhere, it would be forbidden to build Free Chruches. They also were forbidden to give a Free Church minister shelter or aid.

According to author John Prebble, with a few noble exceptions, most Presbyterian ministers defended the lairds (the evictors) from whom they had received their Highland parishes, threatening the people with damnation if they did not obey the writs of eviction. The clearances, and the support given them in the name of God, were contributory factors in the great disruption of the kirk. The division between moderates and the Evangelicals, among others, was wide and took years to resolve.

In 1843, Dr. David Welsh, the retiring Moderator refused to constitiute the general assembly. The great Disruption of the kirk was "the most honourable feat for Scotland that it's whole history supplies. It was also is last revolution of conscience", said Lord Cockburn.

The Patronage Act of 1874 restored to the congregations of the Church of Scotland the right to elect their ministers, but there was no immediate reconciliation. Most of the seceding groups were united in 1900, and were further united with the established church in 1929. One hundred and fifty Highland congregations stubbornly refused to accept either union.

According to many in Scotland today, all the churches are strongly to blame for the cultural "ethnic Cleansing" of the Gael. The Free Church, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic are more repressive than ever, it is claimed by some Scots - although the different churches place blame on either each other or on the individuals. This is still a very sensitive issue.

Alexander Carmicheal, author of the "Carmina Gadelica", bears out this religious persecution of the Gaelic language and Celtic heritage. Gaels were made to feel, by the churches and institutions, speaking Gaelic was not only inferior but barbaric. Thanks to this work, "Carmina Gadelica", if requested, the author can give actual quotes of Highlanders during and after the clearances extoling the virtues of the Church and ridiculing their own Gaelic language, Celtic traditions and past. It has worked remarkably well. The quotes show how easily a people can be enticed into forgetting or denying their old traditional ways and lay blame on the old ways for the troubles that happened to them prior to adopting the newer church dogma - thus losing the way of the Gael.

This, of course, will be hotly denied and disagreed with by supporters of the church, but the fact that the Gael's life-style almost died out and then the Gael blamed himself, at the insistence of the kirk, for his troubles is damning testimony. It was the testimony of the Church. This author expects to get some negative feedback from this conclusion - therefore it should be known in advance that I will not get into debate over this. If you are offended by this, perhaps taking a hard look at the evidence will help resolve the issue.

But this essay is on the Highland clearances so we shan't be getting into religious debate here.

More Church Controversy

The blows that first came from their own clan chiefs - betrayal - and then from their own churches weren't over yet. It was discovered that their own spiritual advisors had been accepting large sums of money from American slave-owners. It was known that the Highlanders were forcibly evicted, and sometimes sold into slavery and indentured servitude -- but now they found out the Church itself took some of this slavery money and they were betrayed again.

The people of Scotland, good and descent people, detested slavery. But unfortunaltely cash had gone to the religious institutions from the very act of slavery. All of the people of Scotland were shocked and appalled. Cries of "send the money back!" were heard in every corner of Scotland.

After some very clever or very deceptive thinking, the Free Chruch declared that:

"Neither Jesus nor his Holy Apostles regarded Slaveholding as a sin."

They kept the money and the whole episode slowly faded away.

Yet this rather shocking statement from the Church and apparent admission of guilt by the Church has been obscured over time and very few sources even mention this incident at all. Whether or not this is a deliberate cover-up or just a fascinating historical detail, lost through the passage of time, one cannot say. One suspects many reading this part of the Clearances will not believe what they've just read and will, of course, try to discredit the implication of Church involvement in slave-trade monies. But I stand by these accounts and so does author Steve Blairmes, internationally known author on Scottish and Celtic history. It certainly is a disturbing thought and not one I am proud to report.

British Press Coverage

They severity of the Highland clearances began to reach the southern press in Britain. It was simply not believed at first. It was widely reported in some of the press at the time, sometimes in great detail. But all that resulted, aside from the general comment that is was a terrible thing, was that a few well-intentioned gentlefolk in the south began to raise charitable funds for the relief of the destitute. It simply wasn't enough and it was probably too late.

The Clearances Next Wave (1842-1854)

It was the Great Potato Famine of the 1840's, the Potato Blight that devasted Ireland, that started the emptying of the Highlands again, this time all of the Highlands. Now the tenants were starving and they became a liability once again to the landlords.

To make things worse, during the 'slow-down' (1820-1840) at the height of the English aristocracy's love for all things Highland -- the romanticised version -- deer hunting had become popular with the southern transplants (especially the gentry) in Highland Scotland.

Soon, even sheep were being cleared (although not entirely) to make room for deer to be hunted by dandy gentry folk of the noble aristocratic classes. To compound this, by the mid-1800's the price of wool had dropped sharply, and deer were seen as an alternative source of income to the landlords. By 1912, one-fifth of the entire country of Scotland, some 3.5 million acres, was under deer forest. This would lead to a clearing of deer and sheep (to some extent) in the 20th century for the newest invasion -- the new hydro-electric stations.

Victim of 'Improvement'

But back in 1840, red deer were abundant so it would seem that the Highlanders should be able to get food for the famine relief, right? Not so. The tenants and estate workers weren't allowed to hunt the deer no matter how desperate they might be. This was reserved solely for the landowners and thus the aristocracy. Some incidents of defiance took place on the Isle of Lewis in 1887, known as "Ruaig an Fherd" - the Pairc deer raid. (Deer park raid). Lewis men hunted and slaughtered the deer to feed their families only to be attacked by police and British military gunboats. It seemed the Gael was simply supposed to lay down and die for the English and southern lords. They survived, but barely.

Some landlords did try to help, including the second Duke of Sutherland (yes, the heir of the Duke and Duchess). He gave nearly 80,000 pounds - no doubt some of this was due to guilt of the previous Sutherland Lords. But it still wasn't enough. Tragically, whilst food was being distributed in meagre amounts to the Highland tenants, food was actually being exported from the Eastern Highlands going south. The locals on some occassions physically prevented ships at ports like MacDuff and Banff from being loaded with grain bound for the south.

But there were fewer and fewer of them to protest. Even before the famine, in 1831, 58,000 people emigrated to the New World. A year later, 60,000.

The Government, which had once tried to find ways of preventing the depopulation of the Highlands, now wanted the area emptied, and all its troubles off its hands.

Although some chiefs and landlords tried to halt the evictions, once started, the policy of 'Improvement', as outlined in the book by James Loch on the "Great Improvements" (a book written about the landlords, to justify their actions), could not be halted, and few of the chiefs and lairds believed it could be imposed without removal of what James Loch admitted was the "ancient population of the country".

Clearances of Glencalvie in Strathcarron

In 1842, the large scale evictions started again. The London Times suddenly became aware of them. The editor of the "Thunderer", Delane, saw an ad submitted to the paper by a Scottish solicitor, declaring that 90 peasants in Ross-shire had been driven from their homes and might have to take up refuge in a local churchyard without shelter. A Times reporter was sent north to report on the miseries of the cottagers of Glencalvie.

William Robertson of Kindeace authorised the removal of all tenants of Glencalvie in Strathcarron. When the Times reporter arrived, the people were indeed in the churchyard, and they included 23 children, several of them sick. All of them simply disappeared from history after the reporters left.

And soon, the London papers were more concerned with war against Russia than the mundane problems of the Highlanders.

In 1849, by which time the Castle Balmoral tradition had begun to take root with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, there were clearances in Glenelg, and Lord MacDonald ordered clearances at Sollas in South Uist.

The Skye Clearances

Burned and Destroyed Homes of the Highlands
Burned and Destroyed Homes
Between 1840-1880 over 40,000 people were cleared from the Isle of Skye alone. It became worse in 1851 and by 1853 ships were placed at the disposal of the Skye Emigration Society (formerly the Highlands and Island Emigration Society), who had issued this public statement, telling the people that immigrants who were peaceable, orderly, moral and hardworking would be welcome in Australia and Canada. It also told them the Highlands could no longer offer them either employment or subsistence.

"That you should feel pain in leaving your own country is natural, and proceeds from a praiseworthy sentiment; but is the sacrifice of this feeling which emigration demands peculiar to you? Remember the families that were most respected in this country twenty years ago. How many of them have gone abroad? It is harder for you to leave your native land than it was for them. They have subdued the feeling of pain, and so ought you, for you have stronger reasons for emigrating than they did."

It reads like a subtle form of brainwashing - or of a lecture to a small and ignorant child.

Tragically and ironically, NO ONE district made a greater contribution of men to the regiments than the Isle of Skye. Four thousand men were recruited there between 1793 and 1805. Figures show that by 1837, over 10,000 Skye men had joined the regiments. Skye had also provided the country with four Colonial Governors, one Governor General, a Chief Baron of England, and a Judge of the Supreme court of Scotland.

Their relatives were treated like vermin to be removed at all costs.

Next, in chapter 5, the stunning conclusion, we shall look at the most shocking incident - the slaughter of the Ross women and more clearances, and the results of it. A continuation (even today) of the clearances mentality will be examined, as well as the summary and conclusion - Is there a cover-up?

  • Next: Chapter 5 - Tragic Highland Clearances - conclusion.

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