One could argue the infamous Clearances, driving people off their land without a care where they go or what happens to them, began as soon as an overweight 23-year-old Butcher Cumberland was desperate to raise his reputation after losing the Battle of Fontenoy against the French. He found it soon enough by taking revenge on the Scots, and in particular, their alliance with the French.
The Marquess of Berkhampstead, Viscount Trematon and Earl of Kennington, son of King George II and his wife Caroline of Anspach, Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, knew his destiny. He found the moment: stopping Prince Edward Stewart’s claim to the throne, and snuffing out the Jacobite rebellion’s series of battle wins, including one at Prestonpans.
The brutal campaign to pacify an entire nation did not end on the blood red grass of Culloden. Like a secretary of state working from his office away from the reality he detests – let the Scots know, there shall be no referendum! – Cumberland gave orders from his headquarters to take no prisoners, to pusue the wounded and the fleeing from Culloden, sending out several contingents of troops with sword and bayonet to do their worst. Like the massacre of Glencoe, the Scots needed another lesson in who was the ultimate boss of their nation.
The instruction was simple, destroy any semblance of life in the Highlands, in what was nothing less than genocide – if it moved, kill it – played out by Royal soldiers. They set alight to homes, murdering, imprisoning and raping as they carried out their instructions.
This barbaric methodical approach to wiping out the Jacobite cause extended to the economy, soldiers rounding up over 20,000 cattle which sustained the community, and moving them south. These clinical tactics made sure that the Highland community was effectively crushed physically, economically and spiritually. This has been England’s way to keep possession of Scotland ever since, right down the ages but without the need for bloody battles. Battles were on European lands in the early twentieth century, and then arid dry deserts in the late part of the century. That kept our men and youth busy, until Margaret Thatcher reaped her kind of war on Scotland by devastating our heavy industry. London heaps invasions and battles of a different sort on Scotland in modern times. And there are Scots here to welcome them.
Divide and rule
Divide and rule was the strategy of the day as it is today. The barbarous tactics whilst vilified in the Highlands by the populace as the stories of atrocities past one to another, were better received elsewhere, particularly in the Lowlands where there was no love lost for the Jacobites. Instead, the people of the Lowlands sought to reward Cumberland for bringing the rebellion to an end, offering him the Chancellorship of Aberdeen and St Andrew’s University.
An age-old tactic: create supporters by dint of bribes or debts, and then claim you were invited in by your ‘many’ supporters (just as many silent but counted as not), to quell dissidents, and create ‘peace’. Do it by invasion, onerous taxes, harsh laws, and allegience as a means of subduing the population. The English monarchy has a long list of attacks on Scotland’s rights, the most recent a whisper to a group of journalists that people should ‘think very carefully’ about how they will vote in an independence referendum. (As opposecd to voting in a silly, jokey, abandoned way.)
The lie that England’s royal family are strictly divorced from everyday politics was emphasised by Cumberland, as it is today witnessing Gordon Brown’s cosy chat with Prince William, heir to the throne, on ways to derail Scotland’s wish for genuine democracy. By tradesman’s side-door method, it can be denied HM Queen Elizabeth took part in any regressive discussions.
The assault on the Highlands
And so it came to pass, that the alien designation of ‘landlord’ and ‘tenant’ were foreceably imported into the Highlands, largely a pastoral and agricultural society. Until the Clearances, a clan and its septs were loyal to the Clan chief, the ‘father’ of the clan. They tilled the soil and tended the cattle and hunted the fish in the river.
Separated from their land by an alien Act of Parliament, clan chiefs had no choice but to supply human fodder for English regiments, infantry for foreign wars. They cared little for whatever quarrel England had with its European neighbours; the impoverished clan chief had to sustain the clan one way or another, part of the solution was accepting reward from London for his devotion to the British Crown.
Highlanders knew little English, a crime in the eyes of England’s parliament; they had no way of perceiving their land had been handed over to their chief and overnight they had become serfs. Very soon senior soldiers in the Highland regiments – now effectively English regiments, moved up the social scale. They disdained to cut an inferior status to the ‘poor, sodden peasants’, and felt thoroughly entitled as the new elite. In short measure, an ersatz English class system permeated Scottish life.
The conversations heard in posh Edinburgh houses boasting a hundred candles in silver sconces and in the regimental forts was one of superiority. Highland riff-raff had to be shifted to make way for the new economy, sheep a great part of it.
As the factor of Glen Garry said, “The poor of the land can go to America or Canada where the land is rich in resources. They love their own land, so what? They starve here? They defy our advice! They will not leave peacefully. The rights of property must be respected. Leave this to me. I know how to break their stubborn spirit.”
This last remark is one that can be heard in any corridor of Westminster or the House of Lords. That English entitlement has never managed to break Scotland’s right to an independence of mind in over three hundred years, yet it does not trouble the colonial mind.
The clearing of Glen Garry
Glen Garry’s factor duly ordered the people of the glen to emigrate to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or Canada. They received nothing in writing, few could read English, they were warned verbally. Those who took no notice or pleaded for leniency saw their furniture thrown out in the fields, their house burned to the ground. Many were beaten, humiliated, and driven to depair. Suicides were not uncommon among those who had given up hope, and thought God had given up on them.
Those among us today who laud the blessings of the Union, tell us the Highlands (and a great swathe of the Lowlands) had to give way to ‘progress’. Of course, progress did not include consulting the people who lived off the land, which was most Scots in those days, only about eight percent living in towns.
Among those who refused to leave the land he thought he owned, and his father had cultivated, and his father before him, was one John Mackinnon, a cottar, aged 44, with a wife and six children. The record sets the events that followed in detail.
Mackinnon spent three nights burrowed down among a shallow rock cave from the worst of the elements. Only when he thought the factor and his men had left the area did he leave his shoreline improvised dwelling and return to his cottage. What he saw was the roof removed and only a ruin left. The men had demolished the building to such an extent rescue was impossible. However, the chapel was nearby and still had part of the roof remaining. He and his family moved nettles aside, propped cabers onto the inside of the gable wall, threw cotton sales over the top, and spread bedding underneath on the grass. There they kindled a fire, added a pot of water to it, and boiled some potatoes, their first meal in days.
Mackinnon’s wife, in poor health and deeply stressed, had a premature birth and contracted consumption. The scene must have seemed hopless, lying on clumps of damp straw almost open to the elements, where only a dying fox would take shelter.
The House of God was no santuary. The manager of Knoyart and his cudgel swinging minions returned and proceeded to wreck the basic dwelling Mackinnon had constructed. His chair, stool, table were thrown outside and broken up. They hay bales he had used as bedding was set alight, and the lean-to roofing taken away. The officers told Mackinnon they would be back next day and do the same if he had not left the area.
One officer of conscience reported, “The children looked at me as if I had been a wolf; they crept behind their father, and stared wildly, dreading I was a law officer. The sight was most painful. The very idea that in Christian Scotland, those tender infants should be subjected to such gross treatment refelcts strongly upon ouir humanity and civilisation. Had they been suffering from the ravages of famine, or pestilence, or war, I could understand it and account for it, but suffering to benefit the ambition of some unfeeling speculator, I think it most unwarranted, and demanding the emphatic condemnation of every Christian man. Had Mackinnon been in arrears of rent, which he was not, even this would not justify the harsh, cruel and inhuman conduct persued towards himself and his family. No language of mind can describe the condition of this poor family – exaggeration is impossible.”
In Strathglas, Kintail, Glenelg, Outer Hebrides, Borcraig, and Suishinish, South Uist, and Barra too, the same scene was enacted and reinacted about family and home, one after the other. And one after another they were hered up and marched to a sailing ship to take them to a far off land, people totally unfit for a long sea voyage. Nutrition onboard was terrible, scurvy rampant. Women often refused to deficate watched by others on the crowded ships. Consequently, pestilence broke out. Many passengers never reach the ‘promised land of riches’. They finished their lives committed to the sea. When the waves folded over them they were free at last from the assaults of their masters, from the stinging whip of English power, and the cares of this world.
But from every human-made tragedy there arises art and story and poetry. The clearing of the glens bred a tougher Highlander, each glen producing a poet and a philosopher and a damn good fiddle player. We sang the songs they composed and spoke the poetry the penned, passing the stories of our forefathers from son to daughter and down the generations. And those men who will great hill climbers and moutaineers proved better soldiers for the English regiments than any Englishman had as a companion.
“A seal would lift its head, and a basking-shark its sail, but today in the sea-sound a submarine lifts its turret and its black sleek back threatening the thing that would make dross of wood, of meadows and of rocks, that would leave Screapadal without beauty, just as it was left without people.” The Raasay Clearance, by Sorley MacLean
And yet, we stop to ponder – these events would never have taken place had Scotland not shut down its Parliament. What a wonderous thing is a people’s palace. The earls and the lawyers and the clergy who signed the Treaty of Union were criminals twice over, accountable for the all the later deaths of their kith and kin.
Kings of Croesus
And what of the modern Croesuses? The Queen and her family have Balmoral, the spoils of invasion, there to be used when London seems jaded and boring. And new-age landowners have their deer hills and grouse moors, and ghillies and gamekeepers to keep the rest of us ‘aff the chook’s grund!” No peasant can come between the Highland homes of the wealthy and their nobility. They have enough Scots subjugated to protect them and a Scottish parliament fearful of radical social change, about as courageous as a bird on the nose of a crocodile.
No surprise then, that now, in the twenty-first century, when two immigrants, late to renew their visas, living and working in the community for years, were rescued in Pollokshields from England’s deportation officials by an angry crowd of local Scots who knew right from wrong. Some of those good people can trace their ancestry back to the Highlands.
Westminster parliamentarians and Scotland’s colonials should understand, we Scots carry the scar of a terrible injustice than squats deep in our psyche. There shall be no clearances in Scotland, street, village or Highlands ever again – and we bloody mean it.
The Duke of Cumberland died at the youthful age of 44, of a heart attack, overweight, gouty, but not burdened by a conscience.
‘The Highland Clearances’ by Alexander MacKenzie. Eviction Records, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh. ‘How Scotland Lost its Parliament’, Charles Waddie.