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The History of the Highland Clearances
The Hebrides - Boreraig and Suisinish, Isle of Skye


His lordship's position in regard to the proceedings was most unfortunate. Donald Ross, writing as an eyewitness of these evictions, says:-

"Some years ago Lord Macdonald incurred debts on his property to the extent of 200,000 sterling, and his lands being entailed, his creditors could not dispose of them, but they placed a trustee over them in order to intercept certain portions of the rent in payment of the debt. Lord Macdonald, of course, continues to have an interest and a surveillance over the property in the matter of removals, the letting of the fishings and shootings, and the general improvement of his estates. The trustee and the local factor under him have no particular interest in the property, nor in the people thereon, beyond collecting their quota of the rents for the creditors ; consequently the property is mismanaged, and the crofter and cottar population are greatly neglected. The tenants of Suisinish and Boreraig were the descendants of a long line of peasantry on the Macdonald estates, and were remarkable for their patience, loyalty, and general good conduct."

The only plea made at the time for evicting them was that of over-population. Ten families received the usual summonses, and passages were secured for them in the Hercules, an unfortunate ship which sailed with a cargo of passengers under the auspices of a body calling itself "The Highland and Island Emigration Society." A deadly fever broke out among the passengers, the ship was detained at Cork in consequence, and a large number of the passengers died of the epidemic. After the sad fate of so many of those previously cleared out, in the ill-fated ship, it was generally thought that some compassion would be shown for those who had been still permitted to remain. Not so, however. On the 4th of April, 1853, they were all warned out of their holdings. They petitioned and pleaded with his lordship to no purpose. They were ordered to remove their cattle from the pasture, and themselves from their houses and lands. They again petitioned his lordship for his merciful consideration. For a time no reply was forthcoming. Subsequently, however, they were informed that they would get land on another part of the estate—portions of a barren moor, quite unfit for cultivation.

In the middle of September following, Lord Macdonald's ground officer, with a body of constables, arrived, and at once proceeded to eject in the most heartless manner the whole population, numbering thirty-two families, and that at a period when the able-bodied male members of the families were away from home trying to earn something by which to pay their rents, and help to carry their families through the coming winter. In spite of the wailing of the helpless women and children, the cruel work was proceeded with as rapidly as possible, and without the slightest apparent compunction. The furniture was thrown out in what had now become the orthodox fashion. The aged and infirm, some of them so frail that they could not move, were pushed or carried out. "The scene was truly heart-rending. The women and children went about tearing their hair, and rending the heavens with their cries. Mothers with tender infants at the breast looked helplessly on, while their effects and their aged and infirm relatives, were cast out, and the doors of their houses locked in their faces." The young children, poor, helpless, little creatures, gathered in groups, gave vent to their feelings in loud and bitter wailings. " No mercy was shown to age or sex, all were indiscriminately thrust out and left to perish on the hills." Untold cruelties were perpetrated on this occasion on the helpless creatures during the absence of their husbands and other principal bread-winners.

Donald Ross in his pamphlet, "Real Scottish Grievances," published in 1854, and who not only was an eye-witness, but generously supplied the people with a great quantity of food and clothing, describes several of the cases. I can only find room here, however, for his first.

Flora Robertson or Matheson, a widow, aged ninety-six years, then residing with her son, Alexander Matheson, who had a small lot of land in Suisinish. Her son was a widower, with four children; and shortly before the time for evicting the people arrived, he went away to labour at harvest in the south, taking his oldest boy with him. The grandmother and the other three children were left in the house. "When the evicting officers and factor arrived, the poor old woman was sitting on a couch outside the house. The day being fine, her grandchildren lifted her out of her bed and brought her to the door. She was very frail; and it would have gladdened any heart to have seen how the two youngest of her grandchildren helped her along; how they seated her where there was most shelter; and then, how they brought her some clothing and clad her, and endeavoured to make her comfortable. The gratitude of the old woman was unbounded at these little acts of kindness and compassion; and the poor children, on the other hand, felt highly pleased at finding their services so well appreciated. The sun was shining beautifully, the air was refreshing, the gentle breeze wafted across the hills, and, mollified by passing over the waters of Loch Slapin, brought great relief and vigour to poor old Flora. Often with eyes directed towards heaven, and with uplifted hands, did she invoke the blessings of the God of Jacob on the young children who were ministering so faithfully to her bodily wants.

Nothing could exceed the beauty of the scene. The sea was glittering with millions of little waves and globules, and looked like a lake of silver, gently agitated. The hills, with the heather in full bloom, and with the wild flowers in their beauty, had assumed all the colours of the rainbow, and were most pleasant to the eye to look upon. The crops of corn in the neighbourhood were beginning to get yellow for the harvest; the small patches of potatoes were under flower, and promised well; the sheep and cattle, as if tired of feeding, had lain down to rest on the face of the hills ; and the dogs, as if satisfied their services were not required for a time, chose for themselves pleasant, well-sheltered spots and lay basking at full length in the sun. Even the little boats on the loch, though their sails were spread, made no progress, but lay at rest, reflecting their own tiny shadows on the bosom of the deep and still waters. The scene was most enchanting ; and, although old Flora's eyes were getting dim with age, she looked on the objects before her with great delight. Her grandchildren brought her a cup of warm milk and some bread from a neighbour's house, and tried to feed her as if she had been a pet bird; but the old woman could not take much, although she was greatly invigorated by the change of air. Nature seemed to take repose. A white fleecy cloud now and then ascended, but the sun soon dispelled it; thin wreaths of cottage smoke went up and along, but there was no wind to move them, and they floated on the air; and, indeed, with the exception of a stream which passed near the house, and made a continuous noise in its progress over rocks and stones, there was nothing above or around to disturb the eye or the ear for one moment. While the old woman was thus enjoying the benefit of the fresh air, admiring the beauty of the landscape, and just when the poor children had entered the house to prepare a frugal meal for themselves, and their aged charge, a sudden barking of dogs gave signal intimation of the approach of strangers. The native inquisitiveness of the young ones was immediately set on edge, and off they set across the fields, and over fences, after the dogs. They soon returned, however, with horror depicted in their countenances; they had a fearful tale to unfold. The furniture and other effects of their nearest neighbours, just across the hill, they saw thrown out; they heard the children screaming, and they saw the factor's men putting bars and locks on the doors. This was enough. The heart of the old woman, so recently revived and invigorated, was now like to break within her. What was she to do? What could she do? Absolutely nothing! The poor children, in the plenitude of their knowledge of the humanity of lords and factors, thought that if they could only get their aged grannie inside before the evicting officers arrived, that would be safe,—as no one, they thought, would interfere with an old creature of ninety-six, especially when her son was not there to take charge of her; and, acting upon this supposition, they began to remove their grandmother into the house. The officers, however, arrived before they could get this accomplished ; and in place of letting the old woman in, they threw out before the door every article that was inside the house, and then they placed large bars and padlocks on the door! The grandchildren were horror-struck at this procedure—and no wonder. Here they were, shut out of house and home, their father and elder brother several hundred miles away from them, their mother dead, and their grandmother, now aged, frail, and unable to move, sitting before them, quite unfit to help herself,---and with no other shelter than the broad canopy of heaven. Here, then, was a crisis, a predicament, that would have twisted the strongest nerve and tried the stoutest heart and healthiest frame,—with nothing but helpless infancy and old age and infirmities to meet it. W'Ve cannot comprehend the feelings of the poor children on this occasion ; and cannot find language sufficiently strong to express condemnation of those who rendered them houseless. Shall we call them savages? That would be paying them too high a compliment, for among savages conduct such as theirs is unknown. But let us proceed. After the grandchildren had cried until they were hoarse, and after their little eyes had emptied themselves of the tears which anguish, sorrow, and terror had accumulated within them, and when they had exhausted their strength in the general wail, along with the other children of the district, as house after house was swept of its furniture, the inmates evicted, and the doors locked,—they returned to their poor old grandmother, and began to exchange sorrows and consolations with her. But what could the poor children do? The shades of evening were closing in, and the air, which at mid-day was fresh and balmy, was now cold and freezing. The neighbours were all locked out, and could give no shelter, and the old woman was unable to travel to where lodgings for the night could be got. What were they to do? We may rest satisfied that their minds were fully occupied with their unfortunate condition, and that they had serious consultations as to future action. The first consideration, however, was shelter for the first night, and a sheep-cot being near, the children prepared to remove the old woman to it. True, it was small and damp, and it had no door, no fire-place, no window, no bed,—but then, it was better than exposure to the night air; and this they represented to their grandmother, backing it with all the other little bits of arguments they could advance, and with professions of sincere attachment which, coming from such a quarter, and at such a period, gladdened her old heart. There was a difficulty, however, which they at first overlooked. The grandmother could not walk, and the distance was some hundreds of yards, and they could get no assistance, for all the neighbours were similarly situated, and were weeping and wailing for the distress which had come upon them. Here was a dilemma; but the children helped the poor woman to creep along, sometimes she walked a few yards, at other times she crawled on her hands and knees, and in this way, and most materially aided by her grandchildren, she at last reached the cot.

The sheep-cot was a most wretched habitation, quite unfit for human beings, yet here the widow was compelled to remain until the month of December following. When her son came home from the harvest in the south, lie was amazed at the treatment his aged mother and his children had received. He was then in good health; but in a few weeks the cold and damp of the sheep-cot had a most deadly effect upon his health, for he was seized with violent cramps, then with cough; at last his limbs and body swelled, and then he died! When dead, his corpse lay across the floor, his feet at the opposite wall, and his head being at the door, the wind waved his long black hair to and fro until he was placed in his coffin.
The inspector of poor, who, be it remembered, was ground officer to Lord Macdonald, and also acted as the chief officer in the evictions, at last appeared, and removed the old woman to another house; not, however, until he was threatened with a prosecution for neglect of duty. The grandchildren were also removed from the sheep-cot, for they were ill; Peggy and William were seriously so, but Sandy, although ill, could walk a little. The inspector for the poor gave the children, during their illness, only 14 lbs. of meal and 3 lbs. of rice, as aliment for three weeks, and nothing else. To the grandmother he allowed two shillings and sixpence per month, but made no provision for fuel, lodgings, nutritious diet, or cordials—all of which this old woman much required.

When I visited the house where old Flora Matheson and her grandchildren reside, I found her lying on a miserable pallet of straw, which, with a few rags of clothing, are on the bare floor. She is reduced to a skeleton, and from her own statement to me, in presence of witnesses, coupled with other inquiries and examinations, I have no hesitation in declaring that she was then actually starving. She had no nourishment, no cordials, nothing whatever in the way of food but a few wet potatoes and two or three shell-fish. The picture she presented, as she lay on her wretched pallet of black rags and brown straw, with her mutch as black as soot, and her long arms thrown across, with nothing on them but the skin, was a most lamentable one—and one that reflects the deepest discredit on the parochial authorities of Strath. There was no one to attend to the wants or infirmities of this aged pauper but her grandchild, a young girl, ten years of age. Surely in a country boasting of its humanity, liberty, and Christianity, such conduct should not be any longer tolerated in dealing with the infirm and helpless poor. The pittance of 2s. 6d. a month is but a mockery of the claims of this old woman ; it is insulting to the commonsense and every-day experience of people of feeling, and it is a shameful evasion of the law. But for accidental charity, and that from a distance, Widow Matheson would long ere this have perished of starvation.

Three men were afterwards charged with deforcing the officers of the law before the Court of Justiciary at Inverness. They were first imprisoned at Portree, and afterwards marched on foot to Inverness, a distance of over a hundred miles, where they arrived two days before the date of their trial. The factor and sheriff-officers came in their conveyances, at the public expense, and lived right loyally, never dreaming but they would obtain a victory, and get the three men sent to the Penitentiary, to wear hoddy, break stones, or pick oakum for at least twelve months. The accused, through the influence of charitable friends, secured the services of Mr. Rennie, solicitor, Inverness, who was able to show to the jury the unfounded and farcical nature of the charges made against them. His eloquent and able address to the jury in their behalf was irresistible, and we cannot better explain the nature of the proceedings than by quoting it in part from the report given of it, at the time, in the Inverness Advertiser:-

"Before proceeding to comment on the evidence in this case, he would call attention to its general. features. It was one of a fearful series of ejectments now being carried through in the Highlands; and it really became a matter of serious reflection, how far the pound of flesh allowed by law was to be permitted to be extracted from the bodies of the Highlanders. Here were thirty-two families, averaging four members each, or from 130 to 150 in all, driven out from their houses and happy homes, and for what? For a tenant who, he believed, was not yet found. But it was the will of Lord Macdonald and of Messrs. Brown and Ballingal, that they should be ejected; and the civil law having failed them, the criminal law with all its terrors, is called in to overwhelm these unhappy people. But, thank God, it has come before a jury—before you, who are sworn to return, and will return, an impartial verdict ; and which verdict will, I trust, be one that will stamp out with ignominy the cruel actors in it. The Duke of Newcastle had querulously asked, 'Could he not do as he liked with his own?' but a greater man had answered, that 'property had its duties as well as its rights,' and the concurrent opinion of an admiring age testified to this truth. Had the factor here done his duty? No! He had driven the miserable inhabitants out to the barren heaths and wet mosses. He had come with the force of the civil power to dispossess them, and make way for sheep and cattle. But had he provided adequate refuge? The evictions in Knoydart, which had lately occupied the attention of the press and all thinking men, were cruel enough ; but there a refuge was provided for a portion of the evicted, and ships for their conveyance to a distant land. Would such a state of matters be tolerated in a country where a single spark of Highland spirit existed ? No! Their verdict that day would proclaim, over the length and breadth of the land, an indignant denial. Approaching the present case more minutely, he would observe that the prosecutor, by deleting from this libel the charge of obstruction, which was passive, had cut away the ground from under his feet. The remaining charge of deforcement being active, pushing, shoving, or striking, was essential. But he would ask, What was the character of the village, and the household of Macinnes? There were mutual remonstrances ; but was force used? The only things the officer, Macdonald, seized were carried out. A spade and creel were talked of as being taken from him, but in this he was unsupported. The charge against the panel, Macinnes, only applied to what took place inside his house. As to the other panels, John Macrae was merely present. He had a right to be there ; but he touched neither man nor thing, and he at any rate must be acquitted. Even with regard to Duncan Macrae, the evidence quoad him was contemptible. According to Allison, in order to constitute the crime of deforcement, there must be such violence as to intimidate a person of ordinary firmness of character. Now, there was no violence here, they did not even speak aloud, they merely stood in the door; that might be obstruction, it was certainly not deforcement. Had Macdonald, who it appeared combined in his single person the triple offices of sheriff-officer, ground-officer, and inspector of poor, known anything of his business, and gone about it in a proper and regular manner, the present case would never have been heard of. As an instance of his irregularity, whilst his execution of deforcement bore that he read his warrants, he by his own mouth, stated that he only read part of them. Something was attempted to be made of the fact of Duncan Macrae seizing one of the constables and pulling him away ; but this was done in a good-natured manner, and the constable admitted he feared no violence. In short, it would be a farce to call this a case of deforcement. As to the general character of the panels, it was unreproached and irreproachable, and their behaviour on that day was their best certificate."

The jury immediately returned a verdict of "Not guilty," and the poor Skyemen were dismissed from the bar, amid the cheers of an Inverness crowd. The families of these men were at the next Christmas evicted in the most spiteful and cruel manner, delicate mothers, half-dressed, and recently-born infants, having been pushed out into the drifting snow. Their few bits of furniture, blankets and other clothing lay for days under the snow, while they found shelter themselves as best they could in broken-down, dilapidated out-houses and barns. These latter proceedings were afterwards found to have been illegal, the original summonses, on which the second proceedings were taken, having been exhausted in the previous evictions, when the. MIacinneses and the Macraes were unsuccessfully charged with deforcing the sheriff-officers. The proceedings were universally condemned by every right-thinking person who knew the district, as quite uncalled for, most unjustifiable and improper, as well as for "the reckless cruelty and inhumanity with which they were carried through." Yet, the factor issued a circular in defence of such horrid work in which he coolly informed the public that these evictions were "prompted by motives of benevolence, piety, and humanity," and that the cause for them all was "because they (the people) were too far from Church." Oh God! what crimes have been committed in Thy name, and in that of religion! Preserve us from such piety and humanity as were exhibited by Lord Macdonald and his factor on this and other occasions.


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