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The History of the Highland Clearances
Sutherland - The Rev. Donald Sage on the Sutherland Clearances


I remained for about a year in the capacity of tutor in the family of Mr. Robert MacKid, Sheriff-Substitute of Sutherland, who lived at Kirkton, in the parish of Golspie. I shall briefly sum up what I remember of this period.

It was a very short time previous to my residence in Mr. MacKid's family that the first "Sutherland Clearance" took place. This consisted in the ejection from their minutely-divided farms of several hundreds of the Sutherlandshire aborigines, who had from time immemorial been in possession of their mountain tenements. This sweeping desolation extended over many parishes, but it fell most heavily on the parish of Kildonan. It was the device of one William Young, a successful corn-dealer and land-improver. He rose from indigence, but was naturally a man of taste, of an ingenious turn of mind, and a shrewd calculator. After realising some hundreds of pounds by corn-dealing, he purchased from Sir Archibald Dunbar of Thundertown a small and valueless property in Morayshire called Inverugie. It lay upon the sea-shore, and, like many properties of more ancient date, it had been completely covered with sea-sand which had drifted upon its surface. For this small and worthless spot he paid a correspondingly small price—about 700—but, tasking his native and vigorous genius for improvement, he set himself at once to better his bargain. Making use of a plough of peculiar construction, he turned the sand down and the rich old soil up, and thus made it one of the most productive properties in the county. This, with other necessary improvements, however, involved him in debt; but, just as it became a question with him how to pay it, his praise in the north as a scientific improver of land reached the ears of the Stafford family, who, in connection with their immense wealth, were racked with the anxiety to improve their Highland estate. As William Young had been so successful on the estate of Inverugie they thought he could not but be equally so on the Sutherland estate. Young introduced the depopulating system into Sutherland. ["Clearances" had, however, been effected in some parts of Sutherland previous to this period, although to a smaller extent. From along the banks of the river Oykell, for instance, many families were evicted, in the year 1780. (Statement by the Rev. Dr. Aird, of Creich).] This system, during his tenure of office as commissioner on the Sutherland property, was just at its commencement. It was first brought to bear on the parish of Kildonan. The whole north and south sides of the Strath, from Kildonan to Caen on the left bank of the river, and from Dalcharn to Marrel on the right bank, were, at one fell sweep, cleared of their inhabitants. The measures for their ejectment had been taken with such promptness, and were so suddenly and brutally carried out, as to excite a tumult among the people. Young had as his associate in the factorship a man of the name of Sellar, who acted in the subordinate capacity of legal agent and accountant on the estate, and who, by his unprincipled recklessness in conducting the process of ejectment, added fuel to the flame. It was said that the people rose almost en masse, that the constables and officials were resisted and their lives threatened, and the combination among the peasantry was represented as assuming at last so alarming an aspect that the Sheriff-Depute of the county was under the necessity of calling in the military to quell the riot. A detachment of soldiers was accordingly sent from Fort-George, a powder magazine was erected at Dornoch, and every preparation made as for the commencement of a civil war. But the chief magistrate of the county, shrewdly suspecting the origin of these reports, ordered back the military, came himself alone among the people, and instituted a cool and impartial enquiry into their proceedings. The result was that the formidable riot, which was reported to have for its objects the murder of Young and Sellar, the expulsion of the store-farmers, and the burning of Dunrobin Castle,  amounted after all only to this, that a certain number of the people had congregated in different places and had given vent to their outraged feelings and sense of oppression in rash and unguarded terms. It could not be proved that a single act of violence was committed. Sellar laboured hard to involve my father and mother in the criminality of these proceedings, but he utterly failed. The peasantry, as fine as any in the world, were treated by the owners of the soil as "good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under feet of men," while the tract of country thus depopulated was divided into two large sheep farms, one of which was given in lease to William Cluness of Cracaig, and the other to a Mr. Reid from Northumberland.

The reckless lordly proprietors had resolved upon the expulsion of their long-standing and much-attached tenantry from their widely-extended estates, and the Sutherland Clearance of 1819 was not only the climax of their system of oppression for many years before, but the extinction of the last remnant of the ancient Highland peasantry in the north. As violent tempests send out before them many a deep and sullen roar, so did the advancing storm give notice of its approach by various single acts of oppression. I can yet recall to memory the deep and thrilling sensation which I experienced, as I sat at the fireside in my rude, little parlour at Achness, when the tidings of the meditated removal of my poor flock first reached me from headquarters. It might be about the beginning of October, 1818. A tenant from the middle of the Strath had been to Rhives, the residence of Mr. Young, the commissioner, paying his rent. He was informed, and authorised to tell his neighbours, that the rent for the half-year, ending in May, 1819, would not be demanded, as it was determined to lay the districts of Strathnaver and Upper Kildonan under sheep. This intelligence when first announced was indignantly discredited by the people. Notwithstanding their knowledge of former clearances they clung to the hope that the "Ban-mhorair Chataibh" (the Duchess of Sutherland) would not give her consent to the warning as issued by her subordinates, and thus deprive herself of her people, as truly a part of her noble inheritance as were her broad acres. But the course of a few weeks soon undeceived them. Summonses of ejectment were issued and despatched all over the district. These must have amounted to upwards of a thousand, as the population of the Mission alone was 1600 souls, and many more than those of the Mission were ejected. The summonses were distributed with the utmost preciseness. They were handed in at every house and hovel alike, be the occupiers of them who or what they might—minister, catechist, or elder, tenant, or sub-tenant, out-servant, or cottar—all were made to feel the irresponsible power of the proprietor. The enormous amount of citations might also be accounted for by the fact that Air. Peter Sellar had a threefold personal interest in the whole matter. He was, in the first place, factor on the Sutherland estate at the time ; then, he was law agent -for the proprietors; and, lastly, the lessee or tacksman of more than a third of the county to be cleared of its inhabitants. It may easily be conceived how such a three-plied cord of worldly interest would bind him over to greater rigour, and even atrocity, in executing the orders of his superiors on the wretched people among whom he was thus let loose like a beast of prey. But the effects produced by these decided measures I now distinctly remember. Having myself, in common with the rest of my people, received one of these notices, I resolved that, at the ensuing term of Martinmas, I would remove from Achness, and go once more permanently to reside under my father's roof, although I would at the same time continue the punctual discharge of my pastoral duties among the people till they also should be removed. I could not but regard the summoning of the minister as tantamount to the putting down of the ministration of the Word and ordinances of religion in that part of the country. And, indeed, it is a fact, that, although this desolate district is still occupied by shepherds, no provision has, since that time, been made for their spiritual wants. I left Achness, therefore, about the middle of November, 1818, sold my cow at the Ardgay market, and got my furniture conveyed to Kildonan by my father's horses and my own. The people received the legal warning to leave for ever the homes of their fathers with a sort of stupor—that apparent indifference which is often the external aspect of intense feeling. As they began, however, to awaken from the stunning effects of this first intimation, their feelings found vent, and I was much struck with the different ways in which they expressed their sentiments. The truly pious acknowledged the mighty hand of God in the matter. In their prayers and religious conferences not a solitary expression could be heard indicative of anger or vindictiveness, but in the sight of God they humbled themselves, and received the chastisement at His hand. Those, however, who were strangers to such exalted and ennobling impressions of the Gospel breathed deep and muttered curses on the heads of the persons who subjected them to such treatment. The more reckless portion of them fully realised the character of the impenitent in all ages, and indulged in the most culpable excesses, even while this divine punishment was still suspended over them. These last, however, were very few in number—not more than a dozen. To my poor and defenceless flock the dark hour of trial came at last in right earnest. It was in the month of April, and about the middle of it, that they were all—man, woman, and child--from the heights of Farr to the mouth of the Naver, on one day, to quit their tenements and go—many of them knew not whither. For a few, some miserable patches of ground along the shores were doled out as lots, without aught in the shape of the poorest hut to shelter them. Upon these lots it was intended that they should build houses at their own expense, and cultivate the ground, at the same time occupying themselves as fishermen, although the great majority of them had never set foot on a boat in their lives. Thither, therefore, they were driven at a week's warning. As for the rest most of them knew not whither to go, unless their neighbours on the shore provided them with a temporary shelter; for, on the day of their removal, they would not be allowed to remain, even on the bleakest moor, and in the open air, for a distance of twenty miles around.

On the Sabbath, a fortnight previous to the fated day, I preached my valedictory sermon in Achness, and the Sabbath thereafter at Ach-na-h-uaigh. Both occasions were felt by myself and by the people from the oldest to the youngest, to be among the bitterest and most overwhelming experiences of our lives. In Strathnaver we assembled, for the last time, at the place of Langdale, where I had frequently preached before, on a beautiful green sward overhung by Robert Gordon's antique, romantic little cottage on an eminence close beside us. The still-flowing waters of the Laver swept past us a few yards to the eastward. The Sabbath morning was unusually fine, and mountain, hill, and dale, water and woodland, among which we had so long dwelt, and with which all our associations of " home " and " native land " were so fondly linked, appeared to unite their attractions to bid us farewell. My preparations for the pulpit had always cost me much anxiety, but in view of this sore scene of parting, they caused me pain almost beyond endurance. I selected a text which had a pointed reference to the peculiarity of our circumstances, but my difficulty was how to restrain my feelings till I should illustrate and enforce the great truths which it involved with reference to eternity. The service began. The very aspect of the congregation was of itself a sermon, and a most impressive one. Old Achoul sat right opposite to me. As my eye fell upon his venerable countenance, bearing the impress of eighty-seven winters, I was deeply affected, and could scarcely articulate the psalm. I preached and the people listened, but every sentence uttered and heard was in opposition to the tide of our natural feelings, which, setting in against us, mounted at every step of our progress higher and higher. At last all restraints were compelled to give way. The preacher ceased to speak, the people to listen. All lifted up their voices, and wept, mingling their tears together. It was indeed the place of parting, and the hour. The greater number parted never again to behold each other in the land of the living. My adieu to the people of Ach-nah-uaighe was scarcely less affecting, although somewhat alleviated by the consideration that I had the prospect of ministering still to those among them who had leases of their farms, and whom Mr. Sellar, the factor and law agent, had no power to remove.

The middle of the week brought on the day of the Strathnaver Clearance (i819). It was a Tuesday. At an early hour of that day Mr. Sellar, accompanied by the Fiscal, and escorted by a strong body of constables, sheriff-officers and others, commenced work at Grummore, the first inhabited township to the west of the Achness district. Their plan of operations was to clear the cottages of their inmates, giving them about half-an-hour to pack up and carry off their furniture, and then set the cottages on fire. To this plan they ruthlessly adhered, without the slightest regard to any obstacle that might arise while carrying it into execution.

At Grumbeg lived a soldier's widow, Henny Munro. She had followed her husband in all his campaigns, marches, and battles, in Sicily and in Spain. Whether his death was on the field of battle, or the result of fever or fatigue, I forget; but his faithful helpmeet attended him to his last hour, and, when his spirit fled, closed his eyes, and followed his remains to their last resting-place. After his death she returned to Grumbeg, the place of her nativity, and, as she was utterly destitute of any means of support, she was affectionately received by her friends, who built her a small cottage and gave her a cow and grass for it. The din of arms, orders, and counter-orders from headquarters, marchings and countermarchings and pitched battles, retreats and advances, were the leading and nearly unceasing subjects of her winter evening conversations. She was a joyous, cheery old creature; so inoffensive, moreover, and so contented, and brimful of good-will that all who got acquainted with old Henny Munro could only desire to do her a good turn, were it merely for the warm and hearty expressions of gratitude with which it was received. Surely the factor and his followers did not personally know old Henny, or they could not have treated her as they did. After the cottages at Grummore were emptied of their inmates, and roofs and rafters had been lighted up into one red blaze, Air. Sellar and his iron-hearted attendants approached the residence of the soldier's widow. Henny stood up to plead for her furniture--the coarsest and most valueless that well could be, but still her earthly all. She first asked that, as her neighbours were so occupied with their own furniture, hers might be allowed to remain till they should be free to remove it for her. This request was curtly refused. She then besought them to allow a shepherd who was present and offered his services for that purpose, to remove the furniture to his own residence on the opposite shore of the loch, to remain there till she could carry it away. This also was refused, and she was told, with an oath, that if she did not take her trumpery off within half-an-hour it would be burned. The poor widow had only to task the remains of her bodily strength, and address herself to the work of dragging her chests, beds, presses, and stools out at the door, and placing them at the gable of her cottage. No sooner was her task accomplished than the torch was applied, the widow's hut, built of very combustible material, speedily ignited, and there rose up rapidly, first a dense cloud of smoke, and soon thereafter a bright red flame. The wind unfortunately blew in the direction of the furniture, and the flame, lighting upon it, speedily reduced it to ashes.

In their progress down the Strath, Ceann-na-coille was the next township reached by the fire-raising evictors. An aged widow lived there who, by infirmity, had been reduced to such a state of bodily weakness that she could neither walk nor lie in bed. She could only, night and day, sit in her chair ; and having been confined for many years in that posture, her limbs had become so stiff that any attempt to move her was attended with acute pain. She was the mother-in-law of Samuel Matheson, and had, with her family, been removed by Mr. Sellar from Rhimisdale some time before. His treatment of her and others on that occasion had brought Mr. Sellar into trouble, but now, in the Providence of God, she was once more in his power. "Bean Raomasdail," or "the good wife of Rhimisdale," as she was called, was much revered. In her house I have held diets of catechising and meetings for prayer, and been signally refreshed by her Christian converse. When the evicting party commenced their operations in her township, the aged widow's house was among the very first that was to be consigned to the flames. Her family and neighbours represented the widow's strong claims on their compassion, and the imminent danger to her life of removing her to such a distance as the lower end of the Strath, at least ten miles off, without suitable means of conveyance. They implored that she might be allowed to remain for only two days till a conveyance could be provided for her. They were told that they should have thought on that before, and that she must immediately be removed by her friends, or the constables would be ordered to do it. The good wife of Rhimisdale was, therefore, raised by her weeping family, from her chair and laid on a blanket, the corners of which were held up by four of the strongest youths in the place. All this she bore with meekness, and while the eyes of her attendants were streaming with tears, her pale and gentle countenance was suffused with a smile. The change of posture and the rapid motion of the bearers, however, awakened the most intense pain, and her cries never ceased till within a few miles of her destination, when she fell asleep. A burning fever supervened, of which she died a few months later.

During these proceedings, I was resident at my father's house, but I had occasion on the week immediately ensuing to visit the manse of Tongue. On my way thither, I passed through the scene of the campaign of burning. The spectacle presented was hideous and ghastly! The banks of the lake and the river, formerly studded with cottages, now met the eye as a scene of desolation. Of all the houses, the thatched roofs were gone, but the walls, built of alternate layers of turf and stone, remained. The flames of the preceding week still slumbered in their ruins, and sent up into the air spiral columns of smoke; whilst here a gable, and there a long side-wall, undermined by the fire burning within them, might be seen tumbling to the ground, from which a cloud of smoke, and then a dusky flame, slowly sprang up. The sooty rafters of the cottages, as they were being consumed, filled the air with a heavy and most offensive odour. In short, nothing could more vividly represent the horrors of grinding oppression, and the extent to which one man, dressed up in a "little brief authority," will exercise that power, without feeling or restraint, to the injury of his fellow-creatures.


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