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The History of the Highland Clearances
Argyllshire - Ardnamurchan


[Compiled partly from evidence submitted to Deer Forest Commission of 1892 (see Minute of Evidence, vol, 11., pp. 884-5 and pp. 912-3), and partly from notes of conversations which the Editor has had with actual witnesses of the incidents described.]

"Uaine gu'm mullach" (green to their tops!). So Dr. Norman Macleod described the bens of Ardnamurchan in his inimitable sketch, the "Emigrant Ship," and so they appear even to this day. Their beautiful slopes show scarcely a vestige of heather, but an abundance of rich, sweet grass of a quality eminently suitable for pasturage.

As the steamboat passenger sails northward through the Sound of Mull, he sees straight ahead, and stretching at right angles across his course, a long range of low hills culminating in a finely-shaped mass which seems to rise abruptly from the edge of the sea. The hills are those of Ardnamurchan, and the dominating pile is Ben Hiant, 1729 feet in height, and "green to its top." Around the base of the mountain and for miles in every direction the land is fair, fertile, and well adapted either for arable or grazing purposes. It comprises the farm of Mingary, and, to-day, is wholly under deer.

Down to the second decade of last century it supported about twenty-six families, which were distributed over the component townships of Coire-mhuilinn, Skinid, Buarblaig, and Tornamona. At one sweep, the whole place was cleared, and the grounds added to the adjacent sheep farm of Mingary. The evictions were carried out in 1828, the process being attended with many acts of heartless cruelty on the part of the laird's representatives. In one case a half-witted woman who flatly refused to flit, was locked up in her cottage, the door being barricaded on the outside by mason-work. She was visited every morning to see if she had arrived at a tractable frame of mind, but for days she held out. It was not until her slender store of food was exhausted that she ceased to argue with the inevitable and decided to capitulate. It is to cases of this character that Dr. John MacLachlan, the Sweet Singer of Rahoy, referred in the lines

"An dall, an seann duine san oinid
Toirt am mallachd air do bhuaireas."

(The blind, the aged, and the imbecile calling curses on thy greed.) The proprietor at whose instance these "removals" were carried out was Sir James Mules Riddell, Bart. Of the dislodged families a few were given small patches of waste land, some were given holdings in various townships on the estate—the crofts of which were sub-divided for their accommodation—and some were forced to seek sanctuary beyond the Atlantic.

Additional clearances were effected on the Ardnamurchan estate in 1853, when Swordle-chaol, Swordlemhor, and Swordle-chorrach, with an aggregate area of about 3000 acres, were divested of their crofting population, and thrown into a single sheep farm. Swordlechaol was occupied by four tenants, Swordle-mhor by six, and Swordle-chorrach by six. Five years previous to the evictions, all the crofters came under a written obligation to the proprietor to build new dwelling-houses. The walls were to be of stone and lime, 40 ft. long, 17½ ft, wide, and 71 ft. high. The houses, two-gabled, were to have each two rooms and a kitchen, with wooden ceiling and floors, the kitchen alone to be floored with flags. By the end of 1851 all the tenants had faithfully implemented their promise, and the work of building was quite completed. Tradesmen had been employed in every case, and the cost averaged from £45 to X50. When the people were ejected, two years later, they received no compensation whatever for their labours and outlays. They were not even permitted to remove a door, a window, or a fixed cupboard. Some of the houses are still intact in this year of grace, 1914, one being occupied by a shepherd on Swordle farm, and another used as a byre. They compare favourably as regards size, design, and workmanship with the best and most modern crofter houses in the Ardnamurchan district. The Swordle tenants were among the best-to-do on the estate, and not one of them owed the proprietor a shilling in the way of arrears of rent. When cast adrift, the majority of them were assigned "holdings" of one acre or so in the rough lands of Sanna and Portuairk, where they had to start to reclaim peatbogs and to build for themselves houses and steadings. Sir James Miles Riddell was the proprietor responsible for clearing the Swordles as well as the Ben Hiant townships.

Other places which he divested of people and placed under sheep were Laga, held by eight tenants, and Tarbert, which was in the hands of four.

About sixteen years ago Ben Hiant, or Mingary, as well as the Swordles, Laga, Tarbert, and other farms, was swept clean of sheep and Converted into a deer forest, the preserve having a total area of 22,000 acres. The woolly ruminants met with a retribution, direful and complete, and the native people viewed the change with mild amusement. Sheep had been the means of ruining their forefathers, whereas deer had never done them or their kinsfolk the smallest injury.

The highest hill on the estate of Ardnamurchan is Ben Hiant, the altitude of which is 1729 feet. It may be described as an isolated peak. It forms no part of any definite mountain range, although, when viewed from the sea, it seems to blend with Ben an Leathaid and other local eminences. For the most part, the elevation of the area embraced in the Ardnamurchan deer forest varies from 600 feet or 700 feet to sea-level.


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