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The Heather on Fire
By Mathilde Blind


I SEEM to hear many a reader ask whether such atrocities as are described in "The Heather on Fire" have indeed been committed within the memory of this generation. Let him be assured that this is no fancy picture; that, on the contrary, the author's aim has been to soften some of the worst features of the heart-rending scenes which were of such frequent occurrence during the Highland Clearances. Many of them are too revolting for the purposes of art ; for the ferocity shown by some of the factors and ground-officers employed by the landlords in evicting their inoffensive tenantry, can only be matched by the brutal excesses of victorious troops on a foreign soil. But even in those cases where no actual violence was resorted to, the uprooting and transplantation of whole communities of Crofters from the straths and glens which they had tilled for so many generations must be regarded in the light of a national crime.

No traveller can have failed to be struck by the solitude and desolation which now constitute the prevalent character of the Scottish Highlands. "Mile after mile," says Macaulay, speaking of Glencoe, "Taveller looks in vain for the smoke of one hut,or for one human form wrapped in a plaid, and listens in vain for the bark of a shepherd's dog, or the bleat of a lamb. Mile after mile, the only sound that indicates life is the faint cry of a bird of prey from some storm-beaten pinnacle of rock." His words might appropriately stand for a description of a great part of the north of Scotland. But it was not always so. The moors and valleys, whose blank silence is only broken by the rush of tumbling streams or the cry of some solitary bird, were once enlivened by the manifold sounds of human industry and made musical with children's voices. The crumbling walls and decaying roof-trees of ruined villages still bear witness to the former populousness of many a deserted glen. Perhaps these humble remains touch our feelings more deeply than the imposing fragments of Greek temples and Roman amphitheatres. For it was but yesterday that they were inhabited by a brave, moral, and industrious peasantry, full of poetic instincts and ardent patriotism, ruthlessly expelled their native land to make way for sporting grounds rented by merchant princes and American millionaires.

During a visit I paid to the Isle of Arran in the summer of 1884, I stood on the site of such a ruined village. All that remained of the once flourishing community was a solitary old Scotchwoman, who well remembered her banished countrymen. Her simple story had a thrilling pathos, told as it was on the melancholy slopes of North Glen Sannox, looking across to the wild broken mountain ridges called "The Old Wife's Steps." Here, she said, and as far as one could see, had dwelt the Glen Sannox people, the largest population then collected in any one spot of the island, and evicted by the Duke of Hamilton in the year 1832. The lives of these crofters became an idyll in her mouth. She dwelt proudly on their patient labour, their simple joys, and the kind, helpful ways of them; and her brown eyes filled with tears as she recalled the day of their expulsion, when the people gathered from all parts of the island to see the last of the Glen Sannox folk ere they went on board the brig that was bound for New Brunswick, in Canada.  "Ah, it was a sore day that," she sighed, "when the old people cast themselves down on the sea-shore and wept."

They were gone, these Crofters, and their dwellings laid low with the hill-side, and their fertile plots of corn overrun with ling and heather; but the stream went rushing on as of old, and as of old the cloven mountain peaks cast their shadow on the valley below whence the once happy people were all gone gone, too, their dwelling-places, and, to use the touching words of a Highland minister, ''There was not a smoke there now." For the progress of civilisation, which has redeemed many a wilderness, and gladdened the solitary places of the world, has come with a curse to these Highland glens, and turned green pastures and golden harvest-fields once more into a desert.

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