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The History of the Highland Clearances
Ross-Shire - Mr. Alexander Mackenzie on the Leckmelm Evictions


This small property, in the Parish of Lochbroom, changed hands in 1879, Mr. A. C. Pirie, paper manufacturer, Aberdeen, having purchased it for £19,000 from Colonel Davidson, now of Tulloch. No sooner did it come into Mr. Pirie's possession than a notice, dated 2nd November, 1879, in the following terms, was issued to all the tenants:-

"I am instructed by Mr. Pirie, proprietor of Leckmelm, to give you notice that the present arrangements by which you hold the cottage, byre, and other buildings, together with lands on that estate, will cease from and after the term of Martinmas, 1880; and further, I am instructed to intimate to you that at the said term of Martinmas, 1880, Mr. Pirie purposes taking the whole arable and pasture lands, but that he is desirous of making arrangements whereby you may continue tenant of the cottage upon terms and conditions yet to be settled upon. I have further to inform you that unless you and the other tenants at once prevent your sheep and other stock from grazing or trespassing upon the enclosures and hill, and other lands now in the occupation or possession of the said Mr. Pirie, he will not, upon any conditions, permit you to remain in the cottage you now occupy, after the said term of Martinmas, 1880, but will clear all off the estate, and take down the cottages."

This notice affected twenty-three families, numbering above one hundred souls. Sixteen tenants paid between them a rent of £96 10s.—ranging from £3 to £12 each per annum. The stock allowed them was 72 head of cattle, 8 horses, and 320 sheep. The arable portion of Leckmelm was about the best tilled and the most productive land in possession of any crofters in the parish. It could all be worked with the plough, now a very uncommon thing in the Highlands; for almost invariably land of that class is in the hands of the proprietors themselves, when not let to sheep farmers or sportsmen. The intention of the new proprietor was strictly carried out. At Martinmas, i88o, he took every inch of land—arable and pastoral—into his own hands, and thus by one cruel stroke, reduced a comfortable tenantry from comparative affluence and independence to the position of mere cottars and day labourers, absolutely dependent for subsistence on his own will and the likes or dislikes of his subordinates, who may perhaps, for a short time, be in a position to supply the remnant that will remain, in their altered circumstances, with such common labour as trenching, draining, fencing, carrying stones, lime and mortar, for the laird's mansion-house and outhouses. With the exception of one, all the tenants who remained are still permitted to live in their old cottages, but they are not permitted to keep a living thing about them—not even a hen. They are existing in a state of abject dependence on. Mr. Pirie's will and that of his servants ; and in a constant state of terror that next they will even be turned out of their cottages. As regards work and the necessaries of life, they have been reduced to that of common navvies. In place of milk, butter, and cheese in fair abundance, they have now to be satisfied with sugar, treacle, or whatever else they can buy, to their porridge and potatoes, and their supply of meat, grown and fed hitherto by themselves, is gone for ever. Two, a man and his wife, if not more, have since been provided for by the Parochial authorities, and, no doubt, that will ultimately be the fate of many more of this once thriving and contented people.

An agitation against Mr. Pirie's conduct was raised at the time, and the advantage which he had taken of his position was universally condemned by the press (excepting the Scotsman, of course), and by the general public voice of the country ; but conscious of his strength, and that the law, made by the landlords in their own interest, was on his side, he relentlessly and persistently carried out his cruel purpose to the bitter end, and evicted from their lands and hill grazings every soul upon his property; but in the meantime allowed them to remain in their cottages, with the exception of Donald Munro, to whose case reference will be made hereafter, and two other persons whose houses were pulled down and themselves evicted.

When the notices of removal were received, the Rev. John MacMillan, Free Church minister of the parish, called public attention to Mr. Pirie's proceedings in the Northern newspapers, and soon the eye of the whole country was directed to this modern evictor—a man, in other respects, reputed considerate and even kind to those under him in his business of paper manufacturing in Aberdeen. People, in their simplicity, for years back, thought that evictions on such a large scale, in the face of a more enlightened public opinion, had become mere unpleasant recollections of a barbarous past; forgetting that the same laws which permitted the clearances of Sutherland and other portions of the Scottish Highlands during the first half of the present century were still in force, ready to be applied by any tyrant who had the courage, for personal ends, to outrage the more advanced and humane public opinion of the present generation.

The noble conduct of the Rev. Mr. MacMillan, in connection with those evictions, deserves commemoration in a work in which the name of his prototype in Sutherland, the Rev. Mr. Sage, shows to such advantage during the infamous clearances in that county, already described at length. At the urgent request of many friends of the Highland crofters, resident in Inverness, Mr. MacMillan agreed to lay the case of his evicted parishioners before the public. Early in December, 1880, he delivered an address in Inverness to one of the largest and most enthusiastic meetings which has ever been held in that town, and we cannot do better here than quote at considerable length from his instructive eloquent, and rousing appeal on that occasion. Though his remarks do not seem to have influenced Mr. Pirie's conduct, or to have benefited his unfortunate subjects, the Inverness meeting was the real beginning in earnest of the subsequent movement throughout the Highlands in favour of Land Reform, and the curtailment of landlord power over their unfortunate tenants. Mr. Pirie can thus claim to have done our poorer countrymen no small amount of good, though probably, quite contrary to his intentions, by his cruel and high-handed conduct in dealing with the ancient tenants of Leckmelm. He has set the heather on fire, and it is likely to continue burning until such proceedings as those for which he is responsible at Leckmelm will be finally made impossible in Scotland. Mr. MacMillan after informing his audience that Mr. Pirie is now in a fair way of reaching a notoriety which he little dreamt of when he became owner of the Leckmelm estate," proceeds to tell how the harsh proceedings were gone about, and says "As the public are aware, Mr. Pirie's first step after becoming owner of the estate, was to inform the tenantry, by the hands of Mr. Manners, C.E., Inverness, that at Martinmas following they were to deliver their arable land and stock, consisting of sheep and cattle, into his hands, but that some of them, on conditions yet to be revealed, and on showing entire submission to the new regime of things, and, withal, a good certificate of character from his factotum, William Gould, might remain in their cottages to act as serfs or slaves on his farm. On this conditional promise they were to live in the best of hope, for the future and all at the mercy of the absolute master of the situation, with a summum jus at his back to enable him to effect all the purposes of his heart. As a prologue to the drama which was to follow, and to give a sample of what they might expect in the sequel, two acts were presented, or properly speaking, one act in two parts. These were to prepare them for what was to come, reminding us of what we read somewhere in our youth, of a husband who on marrying his fair spouse wished to teach her prompt obedience to all his commands, whatever their character. His first lesson in this direction was one assuredly calculated to strike terror into her tender breast. It was the shooting on the spot of the horse which drew his carriage or conveyance, on showing some slight restiveness. The second lesson was of a similar nature; we can easily imagine that his object was gained. Then, after coming home, he commanded his spouse to untie his boots and shoes, and take them off, and to engage in the most servile acts. Of course prompt obedience was given to all these commands and his end was gained. His wife was obedient to him to the last degree. Of the wisdom and propriety of such a procedure in a husband towards his lawful wife, I shall not here and now wait to enquire, but one thing is plain to us all ; there was a species of earthly and carnal wisdom in it which was entirely overshadowed by its cruelty.

Now this illustrates exactlyhow Mr. Pirie acted towards the people of Leckmelm. To strike terror into their hearts, first of all, two houses were pulled down, I might say about the ears of their respective occupants, without any warning whatever, except a verbal one of the shortest kind. The first was a deaf pauper woman, about middle life, living alone for years in a bothy of her own, altogether apart from the other houses, beside a purling stream, where she had at all seasons pure water to drink if her bread was at times somewhat scanty. After this most cruel eviction no provision was made for the helpless woman, but she was allowed to get shelter elsewhere or anywhere, as best she could. If any of you ever go the way of Leckmelm you can see a gamekeeper's house, the gentry of our land, close to the side of Iseabal Bheag's bothy, and a dog kennel quite in its neighbourhood, or as I said in one of my letters, adorning it. This then is act the first of this drama. Act second comes next. Mrs. Campbell was a widow with two children; after the decease of her husband she tried to support herself and them by serving in gentlemen's families as a servant. Whether she was all the time in Tulloch's family I cannot say, but, at all events, it was from that family she returned to Leckmelm, in failing health, and on getting rather heavy for active service. Of course her father had died since she had left, and the house in which he lived and died, and in which in all likelihood he had reared his family, and in which he was born and bred, was now tenantless. It was empty, the land attached to it being in the hands of another person. Here Widow Campbell turned aside for a while until something else would in kind Providence turn up. But, behold, during her sojourn from her native township, another king arose, who knew not Joseph, and the inexorable edict had gone forth to raze her -habitation to the ground. Her house also was pulled down about her ears. This woman has since gone to America, the asylum of many an evicted family from hearth and home. Such tragedies as I have mentioned roused some of us to remonstrate with the actors engaged in them, and to the best of our ability to expose their conduct, and, furthermore, we have brought them to the bar of public judgment to pass their verdict, which I hope before all is over, will be one of condemnation and condign punishment."

Having referred at some length to the worst classes of evictions throughout the Highlands in the past, and already described in this work, the reverend lecturer proceeded:

"But there is another way, a more gentle, politic, and insinuating way at work which depopulates our country quite as effectually as the wholesale clearances of which we have been speaking and against which we protest, and to which we must draw your attention for a little. There are many proprietors who get the name of being good and kind to their tenants, and who cannot be charged with evicting any of them save for misbehaviour—a deserving cause at all times—who are nevertheless inch by inch secretly and stealthily laying waste the country and undermining the well-being of our people. I have some of these gentlemen before my mind at this moment. When they took possession of their estates all promised fair and well, but by-and-bye the fatal blow was struck, to dispossess the people of their sheep. Mark that first move and resist it to the utmost. As long as tenants have a hold of the hill pasture by sheep, and especially if it be what we term a commonage or club farm, it is impossible to lay it waste in part. But once you snap this tie asunder, you are henceforth at the mercy of the owner to do with you as he pleases. This then is how the business is transacted, and in the most business-like fashion too. To be sure none are to be forcibly evicted from their holdings: - that would be highly impolitic, because it would bring public condemnation on the sacred heads of the evictors, which some of them could in no way confront, for they have a character and a name to sustain, and also because they are more susceptible to the failings common to humanity. They are moving, too, in the choicest circles of society. It would not do that their names should be figuring in every newspaper in the land, as cruel and oppressive landlords, or that the Rev, this and the Rev, that should excommunicate them from society and stigmatise them as tyrants and despots. But all are not so sensitive as this of name and character, as we see abundantly demonstrated, because they have none to lose. You might expose them upon a gibbet before the gaze of an assembled universe and they would hardly blush, "they are harder than the nether mill-stone." But the more sensitive do their work, all the same, after all, and it is done in this fashion. When a tenant dies, or removes otherwise, the order goes forth that his croft or lot is to be laid waste. It is not given to a neighbouring tenant, except in some instances, nor to a stranger, to occupy it. In this inch-by-inch clearance, the work of depopulation is effected in a few years, or in a generation at most, quite as effectually as by the more glaring and reprehensible method. This more secret and insinuating way of depopulating our native land should be as stoutly resisted as the more open and defiant one, the result it produces being the same."

Describing the character of the Highlanders, as shown by their conduct in our Highland regiments, and the impossibility of recruiting from them in future, if harsh evictions are not stopped, the reverend gentlemen continued:-

"Let me give you words more eloquent than mine on this point, which will show the infatuation of our Government in allowing her bravest soldiers to be driven to foreign lands and to be crushed and oppressed by the tyrant's rod. After having asked, What have these people done against the State, when they were so remorselessly driven from their native shores, year by year in batches of thousands? What class have they wronged that they should suffer a penalty so dreadful? this writer [Major W. S. Butler in MacMillan's Magazine for May, 1878.] gives the answer:--They have done no wrong. Yearly they have sent forth their thousands from their glens to follow the battle flag of Britain wherever it flew. It was a Highland rearlorn hope that followed the broken wreck of Cumberland's army after the disastrous day at Fontenoy, when more British soldiers lay dead upon the field than fell at Waterloo itself. It was another Highland regiment that scaled the rock-face over the. St. Lawrence, and first formed a line in the September dawn on the level sward of Abraham. It was a Highland line that broke the power of the Alaharatta hordes and gave Wellington his maiden victory at Assaye. Thirty-four battalions marched from these glens to fight in America, Germany, and India ere the 18th century had run its course; and yet, while abroad over the earth, Highlanders were the first in assault and the last in retreat, their lowly homes in far away glens were being dragged down, and the wail of women and the cry of children went out on the same breeze that bore too upon its wings the scent of heather, the freshness of gorse blossom, and the myriad sweets that made the lowly life of Scotland's peasantry blest with health and happiness. These are crimes done in the dark hours of strife, and amid the blaze of man's passions, that sometimes make the blood run cold as we read them; but they are not so terrible in their red-handed vengeance as the cold malignity of a civilized law, which permits a brave and noble race to disappear by the operation of its legalised injustice. To convert the Highland glens into vast wastes untenanted by human beings; to drive forth to distant and inhospitable shores men whose forefathers had held their own among these hills, despite Roman legion, Saxon archer, or Norman chivalry, men whose sons died freely for England's honour through those wide dominions their bravery had won for her. Such was the work of laws formed in a cruel mockery of name by the Commons of England. Thus it was, that about the year 1808 the stream of Highland soldiery, which had been gradually ebbing, gave symptoms of running completely dry. Recruits for Highland regiments could not be obtained for the simple reason that the Highlands had been depopulated. Six regiments which from the date of their foundation had worn the kilt and bonnet were ordered to lay aside their distinctive uniform and henceforth became merged into the ordinary line corps. From the mainland the work of destruction passed rapidly to the isles. These remote resting-places of the Celt were quickly cleared, during the first ten years of the great war, Skye had given 4000 of its sons to the army. It has been computed that 1600 Skyemen stood in the ranks at Waterloo. To-day in Skye, far as the eye can reach, nothing but a bare brown waste is to be seen, where still the mounds and ruined gables rise over the melancholy landscapes, sole vestiges of a soldier race for ever passed away.'"

In January, 1882, news had reached Inverness that Murdo Munro, one of the most comfortable tenants on the I,eckmelm property, had been turned out, with his wife and young family, in the snow; whereupon the writer started to enquire into the facts, and spent a whole day among the people. What he had seen proved to be as bad as any of the evictions of the past, except that it applied in this instance only to one family. Murdo Munro was too independent for the local managers, and to some extent led the people in their opposition to Mr. Pirie's proceedings: he was first persecuted and afterwards evicted in the most cruel fashion. Other reasons were afterwards given for the manner in which this poor man and his family were treated, but it has been shown conclusively, in a report published at the time, that these reasons were an afterthought. [See pamphlet published at the time entitled Report on the Leckmelm Evictions, by Alexander Mackenzie, F.S.A., Scot., Editor of the "Celtic Magazine," and Dean of Guild of Inverness.] From this report we shall quote a few extracts:-

"So long as the laws of the land permit men like Mr. Pirie to drive from the soil, without compensation, the men who, by their labour and money, made their properties what they are, it must be admitted that he is acting within his legal rights, however much we may deplore the manner in which he has chosen to exercise them. We have to deal more with the system which allows him to act thus, than with the special reasons which he considers sufficient to justify his proceedings; and if his conduct in Leckmelm will, as I trust it may, hasten on a change in our land legislation, the hardships endured by the luckless people who had the misfortune to come under his unfeeling yoke and his ideas of moral right and wrong, will be more than counterbalanced by the benefits which will ultimately accrue to the people at large. This is why I, and I believe the public, take such an interest in this question of the evictions at Leckmelm.

"I have made the most careful and complete inquiry possible among Mr. Pirie's servants, the tenants, and the people of Ullapool. Mr. Pirie's local manager, after I had informed him of my object, and put him on his guard as to the use which I might make of his answers, informed me that he never had any fault to find with Munro, that he always found him quite civil, and that he had nothing to say against him. The tenants, without exception, spoke of him as a good neighbour. The people of Ullapool, without exception, so far as I could discover, after enquiries from the leading men in every section of the community, speak well of him, and condemn Mr. Pirie. Munro is universally spoken of as one of the best and most industrious workmen in the whole parish, and, by his industry and sobriety, he has been able to save a little money in Leckmelm, where he was able to keep a fairly good stock on his small farm, and worked steadily with a horse and cart. The stock handed over by him to Mr. Pirie consisted of 1 bull, 2 cows, 1 stirk, 1 Highland pony, and about 40 sheep, which represented a considerable saving. Several of the other tenants had a similar stock, and some of them had even more, all of which they had to dispense with under the new arrangements, and consequently lost the annual income in money and produce available therefrom. We all know that the sum received for this stock cannot last long, and cannot be advantageously invested in anything else. The people must now live on their small capital, instead of what it produced, so long as it lasts, after which they are sure to be helpless, and many of them become chargeable to the parish.

"The system of petty tyranny which prevails at Leckmelm is scarcely credible. Contractors have been told not to employ Munro. For this I have the authority of some of the contractors themselves. Local employers of labour were requested not to employ any longer people who had gone to look on among the crowd, while Munro's family, goods, and furniture, were being turned out. Letters were received by others complaining of the same thing from higher quarters, and threatening ulterior consequences. Of all this I have the most complete evidence, but in the interests of those involved, I shall mention no names, except in Court, where I challenge Mr. Pirie and his subordinates to the proof if they deny it.

" The extract in the action of removal was signed only on the 24th of January last in Dingwall. On the following day the charge is dated, and two days after, on the 27th of January, the eviction is complete. When I visited the scene on Friday morning, I found a substantially built cottage, and a stable at the end of it, unroofed to within three feet of the top on either side, and the whole surroundings a perfect scene of desolation; the thatch, and part of the furniture, including portions of broken bedsteads, tubs, basins, teapots, and various other articles, strewn outside. The cross-beams, couples, and cabars were still there, a portion of the latter brought from Mr. Pine's manager, and paid for within the last three years. The Sheriff officers had placed a padlock on the door, but I made my way to the inside of the house through one of the windows from which the frame and glass had been removed. I found that the house, before the partitions had been removed, consisted of two good-sized rooms and a closet, with fireplace and chimney in each gable, the crook still hanging in one of them, the officer having apparently been unable to remove it after a considerable amount of wrenching. The kitchen window, containing eight panes of glass, was still whole, but the closet window, with four panes, had been smashed; while the one in the "ben" end of the house had been removed. The cottage, as crofters' houses go, must have been fairly comfortable. Indeed, the cottages in Leckmelm are altogether superior to the usual run of crofters' houses on the West Coast, and the tenants are allowed to have been the most comfortable in all respects in the parish, before the land was taken from them. They are certainly not the poor, miserable creatures, badly housed, which Mr. Pirie and his friends led the public to believe within the last two years.

"The barn in which the wife and infant had to remain all night had the upper part of both gables blown out by the recent storm, and the door was scarcely any protection from the weather. The potatoes, which had been thrown out in showers of snow, were still there, gathered and a little earth put over them by the friendly neighbours, "The mother and children wept piteously during the eviction, and many of the neighbours, afraid to succour or shelter them, were visibly affected to tears; and the whole scene was such that, if Mr. Pirie could have seen it, I feel sure that he would never consent to be held responsible for another. His humanity would soon drive his stern ideas of legal right out of his head, and we would hear no more of evictions at Leckmelm."

Those of the tenants who are still at Leckmelm are permitted to remain in their cottages as half-yearly tenants on payment of 12s. per annum, but liable to be removed at any moment that their absolute lord may take it into his head to evict them; or, what is much more precarious, when they may give the slightest offence to any of his meanest subordinates.


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