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The History of the Highland Clearances
Sutherland - Mr. James Loch on Sutherland Improvements


[An Account of the Improvements on the Estates of the Marquis of Stafford, by James Kinloch, General Agent of the Sutherland Estates. London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Ovine & Brown, 1820).]

No country of Europe at any period of its history ever presented more formidable obstacles to the improvement of a people arising out of the prejudices and feelings of the people themselves. To the tacksman, it is clear, from what has already been stated, such a change could not be agreeable. Its effect being to alter his condition, and remove him from a state of idle independence, in habits almost of equality with his chief, to a situation, although fully, if not more respectable, yet one in which his livelihood was to be obtained by his exertions and industry, and in many instances by an application to pursuits, which were by him considered as beneath the occupation of a gentleman, although leading to real independence and wealth, to a degree he never could arrive at in his original condition. Nor could it be agreeable to him to lose that command and influence, which he had hitherto exercised without control, over his sub-tenants and dependants; while it was at variance with every feeling and prejudice in which he had been brought up and educated. It required minds of no ordinary cast to rise superior to these feelings: and men of no common understanding and vigour of intellect were required, to shake off habits so opposed to active industry and exertion. Jrom a certain set of this class, therefore, a real and determined opposition to any change was to be looked for. This expectation has not been disappointed ; and it is from individuals of this class, and persons connected with them, that those false and malignant representations have proceeded, which have been so loudly and extensively circulated. Actuated by motives of a mere personal nature, regardless of the happiness of the people, whose improvement it was the great object of the landlord to effect, they attempted to make an appeal in favour of a set of people who were never before the objects of their commiseration, in order that they might, if possible, reduce them, for their own selfish purposes, to that state of degradation from which they had been just emancipated. This was, however, by no means true of the whole, or of the greater part of this class of gentlemen; for the bulk of the most active improvers of Sutherland are natives, who, both as sheep farmers, and as skilful and enterprising agriculturists, are equal to any to be met with in the kingdom. They have, with an intelligence and liberality of feeling which reflects upon them the highest honour, embraced with alacrity the new scene of active exertion presented for their adoption; seconding the views of the landlords with the utmost zeal, marked with much foresight and prudence. Out of the twenty-nine principal tacksmen on the estate, seventeen are natives of Sutherland, four are Northumbrians, two are from the county of Moray, two from Roxburghshire, two from Caithness, one from Midlothian, and one from the Merse.

So strong, however, were the prejudices of the people, that, even to those who were subjected to the power and control of the tacksmen, this mode of life had charms which attached them strongly to it. He extended, in some degree, to the more respectable of those who were placed under him, the same familiarity which he received from the chief. The burden of the outdoor work was cast upon the females. The men deemed such an occupation unworthy of them, continued labour of any sort being most adverse to their habits. They were contented with the most simple and the poorest fare. Like all mountaineers, accustomed to a life of irregular exertion, with intervals of sloth, they were attached with a degree of enthusiasm, only felt by the natives of a poor country, to their own glen and mountainside, adhering in the strongest manner to the habits and homes of their fathers. They deemed no comfort worth the possessing, which was to be purchased at the price of regular industry; no improvement worthy of adoption, if it was to be obtained at the expense of sacrificing the customs, or leaving the homes of their ancestors. So strongly did these feelings operate, that it cost them nearly the same effort to remove from the spot in which they were born and brought up, though the place of their new dwelling was situated on the sea-shore at the mouth of their native strath, or even in a neighbouring glen, as it cost them to make an exertion equal to transporting themselves across the Atlantic.

The cattle which they reared on the mountains, and from the sale of which they depended for the payment of their rents, were of the poorest description. During summer they procured a scanty sustenance, with much toil and labour, by roaming over the mountains; while in winter they died in numbers for the want of support; notwithstanding a practice, which they universally adopted, of killing every second calf, on account of the want of winter keep. To such an extent did this calamity at times amount, that, in the spring of 1807, there died in the parish of Kildonan alone, two hundred cows, five hundred head of cattle, and more than two hundred small horses.

As soon as the works, undertaken under the direction of the Parliamentary Commissioners, opened a prospect of removing successfully the obstacles which stood in the way of the improvements of the people, steps were taken to new model and arrange these extensive possessions. The utmost caution and deliberation was used in doing so, and plans were never more maturely weighed, nor executed with more anxiety and tenderness. To aid the further arrangement of these matters, application was made to William Young, Esq., of Inverugie, in the county of Elgin, whose active mind and indefatigable industry had been exhibited in what he had done upon his own estate. This gentleman superintended the commencement of those vast improvements which were undertaken on the estate of Sutherland. The success of the measures carried into effect under his direction, combined with the difficulties he had to contend with, must always be the best proof of the ability and indefatigable zeal with which he executed the charge of which he had taken the direction, and which he performed so much to his own credit and the advantage of the country. It is only doing justice to his merits to say, that the rapidity of the earlier improvements was owing in a principal degree to the impulse and action inspired by his intelligent and enterprising mind. Mr. Young resigned his superintendence in 1816, when the local management of the estate of Sutherland was entrusted to the present factor, Mr. Francis Suther, whose good temper and judicious conduct in the immediate management at Trentham, recommended him to the situation he now holds. These expectations have been fully justified by the manner he has executed the details of the late arrangements, in which he received the most cordial and able assistance from Captain John Mackay, late of the 26th Foot, the factor of Strathnaver, and from Lieutenant George Gunn, of the Royal Marines, Chief of the clan Gunn, factor of Assynt.

These gentlemen deserve equal credit for the manner in which they have enforced and promoted the plans which were laid down for the extension of the fisheries and the cultivation of the coast side, as for their kind and careful conduct towards the people. Mr. Suther's exertions in promoting and carrying into effect every arrangement which was made for the encouragement and the success of the fishing station and village of Helms-dale, requires particular commendation.

It is well known that the borders of the two kingdoms were inhabited by a numerous population, who, in their pursuits, manners, and general structure of society, bore a considerable resemblance to that which existed in the Highlands of Scotland. When the union of the crowns, and those subsequent transactions which arose out of that event, rendered the maintenance of that irregular population not only unnecessary, but a burden to the proprietor to whom the land belonged, the people were removed, and the mountains were covered with sheep. So that it had been for a length of time proved by the experience of the stock farmers of those mountain tracts, which comprise the northern districts of England, and the southern parts of Scotland, that such situations were peculiarly suited for the maintenance of this species of stock. Taking this example as their guide, experience had still further proved, that the central and western Highlands of Scotland were equally well calculated for the same end.

Reasoning from this success, and observing that the climate of Sutherland, owing to its vicinity to the ocean, and to its being considerably intersected by arms of the sea, was much more moderate than this latter district, it was fairly concluded that this county was even better fitted for this system of management, than the heights of Perthshire and Inverness-shire. The inferior elevation of its mountains contributed still further to this effect, and held out every encouragement to adopt the same course which had been pursued with such success in both parts of the kingdom.

The succession of those Alpine plants, which are common to the Cheviot Hills, when they are put under sheep, being also the natural herbage of the mountains of Sutherland, renders them still more suitable to this mode of occupation.

On the first melting of the snow, the cotton grass is found to have been growing rapidly; it forms a healthy and an abundant food for sheep, until about the beginning of May, at which time it is in seed; when, after a short interval, the deer hair takes its place, starting up almost instantaneously, and forming, in the course of one week (if the ground has been recently burnt, and the weather be favourable, a green cover to the mountains. This plant grows with several varieties of bents, until the end of July, when the cotton grass again begins to spring, and with the pry moss, comes a second time into flower, in September, after which the heather and more heating plants continue until the frosts of winter. Nor is there any part of these mountains, over which the sheep cannot roam with ease, in search of food, rendering the whole available and profitable.

As there was every reason therefore for concluding, that the mountainous parts of the estate and indeed of the county of Sutherland, were as much calculated for the maintenance of stock as they were unfit for the habitation of man, there could be no doubt as to the propriety of converting them into sheep walks, provided the people could be at the same time settled in situations, where, by the exercise of their honest industry, they could obtain a decent livelihood, and add to the general mass of national wealth, and where they should not be exposed to the recurrence of those privations, which so frequently and so terribly afflicted them, when situated among the mountains. It was a matter of important consideration, to determine how this was to be accomplished. The local peculiarities of the county presented none of those advantages in disposing of, and absorbing the surplus population, which the borders of the two kingdoms, and the southern and eastern highlands had enjoyed. Besides it had made no approximation to the state in which the rest of Scotland was placed, when those changes were carried into effect. It had stood still in the midst of that career of improvement which had so remarkably and so splendidly distinguished the rest of the kingdom ; and remained separated by its habits, prejudices, and language, from all around.

It had long been known, that the coast of Sutherland abounded with many different kinds of fish, not only sufficient for the consumption of the country, but affording also a supply to any extent, for more distant markets or for exportation, when cured and salted. Besides the regular and continual supply of white fish, with which the shores thus abound, the coast of Sutherland is annually visited by one of those vast shoals of herrings, which frequent the coast of Scotland. It seemed as if it had been pointed out by Nature, that the system for this remote district, in order that it might bear its suitable importance in contributing its share to the general stock of the country, was, to convert the mountainous districts into sheep walks, and to remove the inhabitants to the coast, or to the valleys near the sea.

It will be seen, that the object to be obtained by this arrangement, was two-fold: it was, in the first place, to render this mountainous district contributory, as far as it was possible, to the general wealth and industry of the country, and in the manner most suitable to its situation and peculiar circumstances. This was to be effected by making it produce a large supply of wool, for the staple manufactory of England. While, at the same time, it should support as numerous, and a far more laborious and useful population, than it hitherto had done at home: and, in the second place, to convert the inhabitants of those districts to the habits of regular and continued industry, and to enable them to bring to market a very considerable surplus quantity of provisions, for the supply of the large towns in the southern parts of the island, or for the purpose of exportation.

A policy well calculated to raise the importance, and increase the happiness of the individuals themselves, who were the objects of the change, to benefit those to whom these extensive but hitherto unproductive possessions belonged, and to promote the general prosperity of the nation. Such was the system which was adopted. In carrying it into effect, every care was taken to explain the object proposed to be accomplished, to those who were to be removed, and to point out to them, the ultimate advantages that would necessarily accrue to them, from their completion.

These communications were made to the people by the factor personally, or by written statements, communicated to them by the ground officers. That nothing might be omitted in this respect, the different ministers, and the principal tacksmen connected with the districts which were to be newly arranged, were written to, explaining to them, fully and explicitly, the intentions of the proprietors in adopting them. It was particularly requested of these gentlemen, that they would impress upon the minds of the people, the propriety of agreeing to them, and of explaining, that the motives which dictated this step, arose out of a real regard for their interests and prosperity, as well as for the general improvement of the estate.

It was distinctly admitted, that it was not to be expected, that the people should be immediately reconciled to them. Such was to expect more than it was possible to hope for. But it was represented, that if this was so fully felt, and so clearly admitted, that the landlords must have been strongly and conscientiously impressed with the necessity and propriety of the measures adopted, as tending directly to the happiness of those placed under their protection. These representations had the desired effect, and nothing can be more praiseworthy, or deserve more to be applauded, than the conduct of the people on quitting their original habitations; for although they left them with much regret, they did so in the most quiet, orderly, and peaceable manner.

If, upon one occasion, in the earlier years of these arrangements, a momentary feeling of a contrary nature was exhibited, it arose entirely from the misconduct of persons whose duty it was to have recommended and enforced obedience to the laws, in place of infusing into the minds of the people, feelings of a contrary description. As soon, however, as the interference of these persons was withdrawn, the poor people returned to their usual state of quietness and repose. All the statements, giving a different account of their conduct, are absolutely false, and a libel upon their good conduct and peaceable character.

These arrangements commenced in 1807, and have been carried on from that period, as the different tacks expired, and afforded an opportunity of doing so. Bad years, and the failure of crops continuing to produce the same miserable effects they had constantly occasioned to that portion of the population, which still continued to reside among the mountains. This calamity fell with great severity upon them in the seasons of 1812-13 and 1816-17.

During the latter period they suffered the extremes of want and of human misery, notwithstanding every aid that could be given to them, through the bounty of their landlords. Their wretchedness was so great, that after pawning everything they were possessed of, to the fishermen on the coast, such as had no cattle were reduced to come down from the hills in hundreds, for the purpose of gathering cockles on the shore. Those who lived in the more remote situations of the country were obliged to subsist upon broth made of nettles, thickened with a little oatmeal. Those who had cattle had recourse to the still more wretched expedient of bleeding them, and mixing the blood with oatmeal, which they afterwards cut into slices and fried. Those who had a little money came down and slept all night upon the beach, in order to watch the boat returning from the fishing, that they might be in time to obtain a part of what had been caught.

In order to alleviate this misery, every exertion was made by Lord Stafford. To those who had cattle he advanced money to the amount of above three thousand pounds.

To supply those who had no cattle, he sent meal into the country to the amount of nearly nine thousand pounds. Besides which, Lady Stafford distributed money to each parish on the estate : in order that no pains nor consideration might be wanting, it was arranged that the gentleman who is at the head of his Lordship's affairs, the writer of this statement, should go to Dunrobin to settle with the local management and the clergymen, what was the best and most effectual way of distributing his Lordship's relief. Similar means were taken by Lord Reay, to alleviate the distresses of his people. While such was the distress of those who still remained among the hills, it was hardly felt by those who had been settled upon the coast. Their new occupation, as fishermen, rendered them not only independent of that which produced the misery of their neighbours, but enabled them at the same time, in some degree, to become contributors towards their support, both by the fish they were able to sell to them, and also by the regular payment of their rents. While it need hardly be stated, that these wretched sufferers not only required to be relieved, but failed entirely in the payment of what they owed the landlord.


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