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The History of the Highland Clearances
Notable Dicta - The Rev. Dr. Maclachlan


The late Rev. Dr. Maclachlan, Edinburgh, wrote a series of articles in the Witness, during its palmy days under the editorship of Hugh Miller. These were afterwards published in 1849, under the title of "The Depopulation System of the Highlands," in pamphlet form, by Johnston and Hunter. The rev, author visited all the places to which he refers. He says:-

"A complete history of Highland clearances would, we doubt not, both interest and surprise the British public. Men talk of the Sutherland clearings as if they stood alone amidst the atrocities of the system; but those who know fully the facts of the case can speak with as much truth of the Ross-shire clearings, the Inverness-shire clearings, the Perthshire clearings, and, to some extent, the Argyllshire clearings. The earliest of these was the great clearing on the Glengarry estate, towards, we believe, the latter end of the last century. The tradition among the Highlanders is (and some Gaelic poems composed at the time would go to confirm it), that the chief's lady had taken umbrage at the clan. Whatever the cause might have been, the offence was deep, and could only be expiated by the extirpation of the race. Summonses of ejection were served over the whole property, even on families the most closely connected with the chief; and if we now seek for the Highlanders of Glengarry, we must search on the banks of the St. Lawrence.

"To the westward of Glengarry lies the estate of Lochiel —a name to which the imperishable poetry of Campbell has attached much interest. It is the country of the brave clan Cameron, to whom, were there nothing to speak of but their conduct at Waterloo, Britain owes a debt. Many of our readers have passed along Loch Lochy, and they have likely had the mansion of Auchnacarry pointed out to them, and they have been told of the Dark Mile, surpassing, as some say, the Trossachs in romantic beauty; but perhaps they were not aware that beyond lies the wide expanse of Loch Arkaig, whose banks have been the scene of a most extensive clearing. There was a day when three hundred able, active men could have been collected from the shores of this extensive inland loch; but eviction has long ago rooted them out, and nothing is now to be seen but the ruins of their huts, with the occasional bothy of a shepherd, while their lands are held by one or two farmers from the borders.

"Crossing to the south of the great glen, we may begin with Glencoe. How much of its romantic interest does this glen owe to its desolation? Let us remember, however, that the desolation, in a large part of it, is the result of the extrusion of the inhabitants. Travel eastward, and the footprints of the destroyer cannot be lost sight of. Large tracks along the Spean and its tributaries are a wide waste. The southern bank of Loch Lochy is almost without inhabitants, though the symptoms of former occupancy are frequent.

"When we enter the country of the Frasers, the same spectacle presents itself—a desolate land. With the exception of the miserable village of Fort-Augustus the native population is almost extinguished, while those who do remain are left as if, by their squalid misery, to make darkness the more visible. Across the hills, in Stratherrick, the property of Lord Lovat, with the exception of a few large sheep farmers, and a very few tenants, is one wide waste. To the north of Loch Ness, the territory of the Grants, both Glenmoriston and the Earl of Seafield, presents a pleasing feature amidst the sea of desolation. But beyond this, again, let us trace the large rivers of the east coast to their sources.

"Trace the Beauly through all its upper reaches, and how many thousands upon thousands of acres, once peopled, are, as respects human beings, a wide wilderness! The lands of the Chisholm have been stripped of their population down to a mere fragment ; the possessors of those of Lovat have not been behind with their share of the same sad doings. Let us cross to the Conon and its branches, and we will find that the chieftains of the MIackenzies have not been less active in extermination. Breadalbane and Rannoch, in Perthshire, have a similar tale to tell, vast masses of the population having been forcibly expelled. The upper portions of Athole have also suffered, while many of the valleys along the Spey and its tributaries are without an inhabitant, if we except a few shepherds. Sutherland, with all its atrocities, affords but a fraction of the atrocities that have been perpetrated in following out the ejectment system of the Highlands. In truth, of the habitable portion of the whole country but a small part is now really inhabited. We are unwilling to weary our readers by carrying them along the west coast from the Linnhe Loch, northwards; but if they inquire, they will find that the same system has been, in the case of most of the estates, relentlessly pursued.

"These are facts of which, we believe, the British public know little, but they are facts on which the changes should be rung until they have listened to them and seriously considered them. May it not be that part of the guilt is theirs, who might, yet did not, step forward to stop such cruel and unwise proceedings?

"Let us leave the past, however" he continues, "and consider the present. And it is a melancholy reflection that the year 1849 has added its long list to the roll of Highland ejectments. While the law is banishing its tens for terms of seven or fourteen years, as the penalty of deep-dyed crimes, irresponsible and infatuated power is banishing its thousands for life for no crime whatever. This year brings forward, as leader in the work of expatriation, the Duke of Argyll. Is it possible that his vast possessions are over-densely peopled? "Credat Judceus appelles." And the Highland Destitution Committee co-operate. We had understood that the large sums of money at their disposal had been given them for the purpose of relieving, and not of banishing, the destitute. Next we have Mr. Bailie of Glenelg, professedly at their own request, sending five hundred souls off to America. Their native glen must have been made not a little uncomfortable for these poor people, ere they could have petitioned for so sore a favour. Then we have Colonel Gordon expelling upwards of eighteen hundred souls from South Uist; Lord Macdonald follows with a sentence of banishment against six or seven hundred of the people of North Uist, with a threat, as we learn, that three thousand are to be driven from Skye next season; and Mr. Lillingston of Lochalsh, Maclean of Ardgour, and Lochiel, bring up the rear of the black catalogue, a large body of people having left the estates of the two latter, who, after a heart-rending scene of parting with their native land, are now on the wide sea on their way to Australia. Thus, within the last three or four months' considerably upwards of three thousand of the most moral and loyal of our people—people who, even in the most trying circumstances, never required a soldier, seldom a policeman, among them, to maintain the peace—are driven forcibly away to seek subsistence on a foreign soil."

Writing in 1850, on more "Recent Highland Evictions," the same author says "The moral responsibility for these transactions lies in a measure with the nation, and not merely with the individuals immediately concerned in them. Some years ago the fearful scenes that attended the slave trade were depicted in colours that finally roused the national conscience, and the nation gave its loud, indignant, and effective testimony against them. The tearing of human beings, with hearts as warm, and affections as strong as dwell in the bosom of the white man, from their beloved homes and families—the packing them into the holds of over-crowded vessels, in the burning heat of the tropics—the stifling atmosphere, the clanking chain, the pestilence, the bodies of the dead corrupting in the midst of the living—presented a picture which deeply moved the national mind; and there was felt to be guilt, deep-dyed guilt, and the nation relieved itself by abolishing the traffic. And is the nation free of guilt in this kind of white-slave traffic that is now going on—this tearing of men whether they will or not, from their country and kindred—this crowding them into often foul and unwholesome vessels with the accompanying deaths of hundreds whose eyes never rest on the land to which they are driven. Men may say that they have rights in the one case that they have not in the other. Then we say that they are rights into whose nature and fruits we would do well to enquire, lest it be found that the rude and lawless barbarism of Africa, and the high and boasted civilisation of Britain, land us in the same final results. . . . It is to British legislation that the people of the Highlands owe the relative position in which they stand to their chiefs. There was a time when they were strangers to the feudal system which prevailed in the rest of the kingdom. Every man among them sat as free as his chief. But by degrees the power of the latter, assisted by Saxon legislation, encroached upon the liberty of the former. Highland chiefs became feudal lards—the people were robbed to increase their power—and now we are reaping the fruits of this in recent evictions."

At a meeting of the Inverness, Ross, and Nairn Club, in Edinburgh, in 1877, the venerable Doctor referred to the same sad subject amid applause and expressions of regret. We extract the following from a report of the meeting which appeared at the time in the Inverness Courier:-

"The current that ran against their language seemed to be rising against the people themselves. The cry seemed to be, Do away with the people: this is the shorthand way of doing away with the language. He reminded them of the saying of a queen, that she would turn Scotland into a hunting field, and of the reply of a Duke of Argyll it is time for me to make my hounds ready, and said he did not know whether there was now an Argyll who would make the same reply. But there were other folks—less folks than queens—who had gone pretty deep in the direction indicated by this queen. He would not say it was not a desirable thing to see Highlanders scattered over the earth—they were greatly indebted to them in their cities and the colonies; but he wished to preserve their Highland homes, from which the colonies and large cities derived their very best blood. Drive off the Highlander and destroy his home, and you destroy that which had produced some of the best and noblest men who filled important positions throughout the empire. In the interests of great cities, as a citizen of Edinburgh, he desired to keep the Highlanders in their own country, and to make them as comfortable as possible. He only wished that some of the Highland proprietors could see their way to offer sections of the land for improvement by the people, who were quite as able to improve the land in their own country as to improve the great forests of Canada. He himself would rather to-morrow begin to cultivate an acre in any habitable part of the Highlands of Scotland than to begin to cultivate land such as that on which he had seen thousands of them working in the forests of Canada. What had all this to do with Celtic Literature? Dr. Maclachlan replied that the whole interest which Celtic Literature had to him was connected with the Celtic people, and if they destroyed the Celtic people, his entire interest in their literature perished. They had been told the other day that this was sentiment, and that there were cases in which sentiment was not desirable. He agreed with this so far; but he believed that when sentiment was driven out of a Highlander the best part of him was driven out, for it ever had a strong place among mountain people.

He himself had a warm patriotic feeling, and he grieved whenever he saw a ruined house in any of their mountain glens. And ruined homes and ruined villages he, alas! had seen—villages on fire the hills red with burning homes. He never wished to see this sorry sight again. It was a sad, a lamentable sight, for he was convinced the country had not a nobler class of people than the Highland people, or a set of people better worth preserving.


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