A Letter from the Clearances

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The Glencalvie Clearance, from the hand of one, etched on chapel glass

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.

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A typical Highland turf house, the family milk cow was usually kept at one end

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 bother 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

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18 Responses to A Letter from the Clearances

  1. Mairi Hull says:

    Excellent piece with thorough research. Shared with a fellow teacher who is teaching the Highland Clearances to her P.5 class.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Many thanks, Mairi. One of those letters you read with a lump in your throat.

  3. Hugh Taylor says:

    Nigel Tranter covered a very similar tale to this one about the Strathnaver clearances. there are also court records concerning the same clearances as the factor faced a sham trial in Glasgow.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    It’s a great pity Tranter’s historical novels are overlooked by the media in general. They did him a disservice, but then you can put a lot of Scotland’s writers into the category ‘ignored’.

  5. I wrote this a while back but it seems appropriate here.

    The Clearances

    Let me tell ye a story, o’ cruelty an ‘ shame
    O’ a people doontrodden, an’ forced fae their hame
    It’s been telt doon the years, fae faither tae son
    O’ the cruelty inflicted, o’ the wrangs that were done

    The lairds held the pooer, their factors were cruel
    An they thocht mair o’ sheep, they thocht mair o’ wool
    So the folk had tae go, they hadnae a choice
    Tae protest wis futile, for they hadnae a voice

    An’ the kirk didnae help, this wis payment for sin
    Noo that’s whit they telt, tae oor ain kith an’ kin
    So they emptied the straths, an’ they emptied the glens
    O’ the auld an’ the weans, the women an’ men

    Their hooses wir torched, they wir razed tae the grun
    The auld and the sick wha had naewhar tae turn
    Jist burnt in their beds, an’ deid whar they lay
    There wis never nae justice, naebody tae pay

    Ower the hills thro the mire, in wind snaw an’ rain
    Awa’ fae their land, ne’er tae see it again
    Tae the coast they wir sent, tae fish or pick kelp
    Wi’ naebody tae care. nor naebody tae help

    Some taen tae the ships, an’ left oor fair shore
    Wi tears in their een, an’ herts that wir sore
    Hoo cruel men can be, an’ a’ for some sheep
    But the lairds needed sillar, their lifestyle tae keep

    As they sat in their castles, enjoying their fill
    Did they think o’ the clachans, noo silent an’ still
    Did they think o’ their tenants, as they supped oan their booze
    Naw they jist thocht o’ sheep, their tups an’ their ewes

    Margaret

  6. Great article, GB, and the one linked to it. I found the McLeod letter very moving – and to think this family was one of the lucky ones. I wonder how many who were treated like that simply perished from exposure/ill-treatment/hunger etc. II hadn’t heard about these false debt pretexts before. The sheer brutality of such conduct is hard to imagine.

  7. Alan Gordon says:

    Thank you GB. From stories passed down it does indeed seem to be a strategy employed by the laird’s flunkies, that of execute the plan when the men folk were away. The MacDonalds in Waternis, Skye, have similar stories held against them.

  8. Grouse Beater says:

    There’s more letters from him, Gordon, as he recounts his desperate travails trying to get his children into safe homes.

  9. A Gaelic poem about the Duke of Sutherland’s massive statue dominating the hilltop and skyline seen from Dornoch. For those lacking the language, the last three lines might be roughly rendered in English (with final line in italics):

    “You boast a lightning-spike like a wick on your skull
    which will one day make of you a memorial candle.

    Your vainglorious effigy will yet be earthed!”
    – – –
    AIR TRÀIGH DHÒRNAICH

    Ceann slìom ròin
    gu h-obann os cionn nan tonn

    ach chan ann idir cho fìor àrd ri bathais
    ìomhaigh mhòir sian-lìomhte Diùc Cataibh

    air a’ chnoc chian ud mar fhamhair ri faire
    le sùilean-cloiche spìocach gun aithreachas.

    A-nuas sròn chrom leòmach a’ dùr-amharc
    ris an tìr seo a mhion-phronn a dhòrn teann,

    ri lìonmhorachd nan ìochdaran bochda
    air na rinn e dìmeas, gun iochd a nochdadh

    ach le crathadh-guaille reasgach gan sgapadh
    mar ghainmheach sa ghaillean ga greasad

    mar na mìltean de ghràinean nan sìoban
    a chì mi ag èirigh a-nis mu mo chasan

    gan sìor thogail gun chiall às an àite
    gan sìor leagail gun rian san t-seòl-mhara.

    Ach tha spìc-dealanaich mar bhuaic air do chlaiginn
    a nì coinneal-cuimhne dhìot là dhe na làithean.

    Thèid d’ ìomhaigh rìomhach a thalmhachadh fhathast!

  10. Grouse Beater says:

    Thank you. 🙂

  11. Incredible read. Scotland’s long hard history, since the failed Roman invasions and earlier, has all been terribly traduced, airbrushed and lied about by unionists and Brits. The worst are still at it today, look at the sneaky creep that is Neil Oliver.
    Keep it coming!
    Heedtracker.

  12. Grouse Beater says:

    Oliver is an archaeologist by training, not an historian. That might account for the reason he can’t see a dividing line between the political rights of the dead and the living.

  13. Douglas Deans says:

    Thank you GB.

    I think maybe you are being a bit too charitable about the reason for such a shortage of evidence. Sure, the victims would have had more pressing concerns than recording the details but the criminals also had a strong motive for covering things up.

    It is no accident that so little of this is taught (or done in a ‘sanitised’, ‘agricultural improvements’ way). I’m glad to hear that at least some children are hearing about it in school and will get a chance to make up their own minds about it.

  14. Grouse Beater says:

    I believe you’re right in that assumption, that records were destroyed, but unless one can get hold of such a thing, even just one copy, we can only guess. The Sutherland estate won’t give up their records. And at the time of this reply, September 2018, the statue to the criminal is still standing.

  15. A worthy bookshelf addition on this broad topic is Michael Newton’s bilingual compilation of Canadian Gaelic sources related to the Clearances:

    ‘Seanchaidh na Coille/ Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada’, Edited by Michael Newton, Cape Breton University Press, Sydney, Nova Scotia, 2015.

    One remarkable statistic he gives:

    “[R]ecent research has revealed that Scottish Gaelic was the third-most spoken European language at the time of (Canadian) Confederation.”

    A review of the book can be read on Bella Caledonia here:
    https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2016/11/14/canadian-gaeldom-faded-footprint-redefined/

  16. Thank you GB….a harrowing reminder of the criminal treatment meted out by the landowners and corrupt officials to the people of Scotland…we must increasingly teach this in our schools, and never let it be forgotten.

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