In my essay ∗The Sorrow and the Shame (∗ the link is at end of this piece) I discuss some of the issues that caused and helped protract the infamous Highland Clearances, an attempt at ethnic cleansing in any dictionary, by the systematic removal of peoples and their culture from their land no matter the cost to health or life.
As expected, essay barely published, up popped the usual suspects to claim it was Scot against Scot, implying England and the English had nothing to do with the Clearances, Highland or Lowland, the same suspects who tell Scotland in the same breath our history is bunkum. They employ the same argue over Ireland’s potato famine though Ireland was under British rule. That logic is the reasoning of madmen.
Scots did drive Scots off land they and their forefathers had toiled for centuries, but it was English policies that gave them the motivation and the legal right to do it. Miserable strangers to compassion feel confident telling us English rule in the 19th century had nothing to do with land clearances. The Clearances were passed off by many at the time – and many since – as simple agricultural improvements.
Authenticated evidence is sparse. There are few first-hand records from victims and causalities. Evicted from their homes, herded like cattle away to anywhere, how do you stop for a reflective moment to scribble a recollection, or diary an overheard remark?
The poor had no need nor money for letter writing. A visit to the tiny Croick Free Church in Glencalvie, Sutherland, will offer up a sorrowful solitary line of evidence. Croick Church owes its origins to the 1823 Parliamentary Act for Building Additional Places of Worship in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. This voted the sum of £50,000 to build 40 churches and accompanying manses to standardised designs produced by Thomas Telford. Croick Church was built during the years 1825-1827.
Scratched on a window by a few wretched souls of about eighty people, shepherds, cattlemen, peat diggers, stonemasons, blacksmith and carpenters, their wives and children, there are discernible words. How do we know there were that many souls? Because a Times journalist was in the area and took note of the human catastrophe.
The people were sheltering outside from the cold and rain, barred from inside. They left a few pitiful messages etching on the glass panes of the east window. Inscribed on its diamond-shaped panes, the messages are simple, the resonance powerful and ageless.
“Glencalvie people was in the churchyard here May 24 1845” and most poignantly, “Glencalvie People -the wicked generation Glencalvie”.
The wealthy land owners kept records, usually in account books, conscious of the wealth sheep would bring, wealth much greater than rents from tenants, the dregs and refugees from the orchestrated dispersal of the clan system by English decree. Obtaining those records is difficult for obvious reasons, getting hold of a record of a village clearance almost impossible. Though most Scots could read and write to an extent, and many a Gael could speak English-Scots, life in a farming community wasn’t about keeping a journal, or writing love letters to be read by the recipient and hidden under a flagstone in the floor. We can only guess at the myriad heartaches, terrors, and deaths the Clearances caused.
The best records that exist tend to lie in the courts for those who tried to use that route, and with Customs and Excise at harbours where the homeless poor congregated to board a sailing ship to a life in Canada or the Americas.
By chance and the good direction of a reader, I tracked down a group of letters written by Donald McLeod, a man, wife and children caught up in the Sutherland Clearances. His letters are in the collection of the Library of the University of Toronto. (Canadian and Americans take greater care of our historical artefacts than we do!) Rather than describe the content of the letters, I’ve chosen one indicative of the tragedy when Scotland was subjected to official brutality. It is slightly abbreviated. It speaks for itself.
“On that day a messengers with a party of eight men following entered my dwelling. (I being away about forty miles at work.) My wife, at meal with the children, was seized with a fearful panic at seeing the fulfilment of her worst foreboding about to take place.
The party of men allowed no time for parley, but having put the family out with violence, proceeded to fling out the furniture, bedding and other effects, extinguish the fire, nailed up the door and windows in the face of this helpless woman and children, she with her sucking infant at her breast, the eldest under eight years at her side.
How shall I describe the horrors of that scene? Wind, rain and sleet were ushering in a night of extraordinary darkness. My wife and children, after remaining motionless a while in mute astonishment at the ruin that had overtaken them so suddenly, were compelled to seek refuge for the night under a neighbour’s roof, but they found every door shut against them.
Messengers had sent warnings to all around of the perils of affording shelter, or assistance, to my wife, my children or animal belonging to me. The poor people were aware of the vigour such edicts were carried into execution, and so durst not afford my distressed family any assistance as much as an enemy’s dog.
After a fruitless time seeking shelter from any hovel, my wife returned to collect some of our scattered furniture, and erect with her own hands a temporary shelter against the walls of our residence, but this proved in vain. The gale wind dispersed her possessions so fast she could not gather them back. She was obliged to bide the pelting of the pitiless storm with no covering but the frowning heavens., and the cries of her starving children in her ears.
Death seem to be staring them in the face for by remaining where they were until the morning it was next to impossible even the strongest of them would survive, or if seeking safety not fall off a precipice or into sea in the dark.
My family were driven from our home on a pretended debt, for which I paid and held the receipt in payment. The factor was both pursuer and judge.
The only means left to my wife and children were to perish where they lay or make some perilous attempt to reach distant habitation where she might hope for shelter. Buckling up her children, including the one she held to her breast, she left them in the charge of the eldest, and prepared to take the road to Caithness fifteen miles away, leaving them such victuals as she could. And for a long while she held the cries of her children of whom she had slender hopes of seeing alive again sounding in her ears. This was too much to bear. No wonder she has never been the same woman again.
She had not proceeded many miles when she met with a good Samaritan of the name of Donald MacDonald, who disregarded the danger he incurred from the Sheriff’s men and the factor, opened his door to her, refreshed her with drink, and then accompanied her to the dwelling of William Innes, of Sandside, Caithness, and through his influence, that gentleman took her under his protection, and gave her permission to occupy an empty house at his Armidale sheep farm only a few miles from the dwelling, though it was owned by the Duke of Sutherland. There she took some rest notwithstanding her deep concern for the fate of her children.
At this time I was working in Wick and was full of unease and apprehension of something wrong, so I set out for my home, and there, to my agreeable surprise I found my children still alive. The eldest in pursuance of his mother’s instructions had made great exertions to keep his brothers and sister warm by the light of a small fire and some kindling. My children took hold of my eldest by the kilt and with me this way they travelled to a place of safety in darkness, in rough and smooth, bog and mire, till they arrived at a grand-aunt’s house, and finding the door unbolted took the infant to her.
Relating my narrative, my experience of this terrible event, should be a future warning to Highland tyrants of the resolve of good people to survive the injustice imposed upon them.
The extracts taken from this letter illustrate two things: raids on homes were planned carefully when factor’s henchmen were certain husbands were not at home or were abroad. (As they are in my Highland Clearance screenplay, Gruinard, the men abroad fighting in the Crimean War.) It was the women who held the fort, so to speak, in so many homes and villages. Secondly, forced eviction was often carried out by faking debts, and paying drunken lawyers to draw up false papers. Readers can compare that tactic with the false promises made in the VOW, powers promised if Scotland chose to surrender its birthright. And to state the obvious, not all clearances had a relatively happy ending like MacLeod’s family. It was a living hell for the majority who survived.
If MacLeod’s experience is anything to go by, the resolve of Scots to govern their land once more chimes loud and clear with modern times, and reminds us that when that day comes, we had better have our land held fast in public ownership no matter who is given approval to use it or to till its soil. The land belongs to us all, each and every one of us.
NOTE: The Duke of Sutherland was an English politician, diplomat, and patron of the arts, a member of the Leveson-Gower family. He was educated at Westminster and Oxford, the eldest son of the Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Marquess of Stafford. He was the wealthiest man in Britain during the latter part of his life, a great deal of his wealth accruing from his Sutherland estates.
This is a companion piece to The Sorrow and the Shame: https://wp.me/p4fd9j-mxZ