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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XVII. - The Breadalbane Evictions


As second Marquis, "the son of his father," contrary to all prognostications, became, as soon as expiring leases permitted it, an evicting landlord on a large scale, and he continued to pursue the policy of joining farm to farm, and turning out native people, to the end of his twenty-eight years' reign. But like the first spout of the haggis, his first spout of evicting energy was the hottest. I saw with childish sorrow, impotent wrath, and awful wonder at man's inhumanity to man, the harsh and sweep- ing Roro and Morenish clearances, and heard much talk about others which were said to be as bad if not worse. A comparison of the census returns for 1831 with those of 1861 will show how the second Marquis reduced the rural population on his large estates, while the inhabitants of certain villages were allowed, or, as at Aberfeldy, encouraged to increase. When such a loud and long-continued outcry took place about the Sutherland clearances, it seems at first sight strange that such small notice was taken by the Press, authors, and contemporary politicians, of the Breadalbaue evictions, and that the only set attack on the Marquis should have been left to the vainglorious, blundering, Dunkeld coal-merchant, who added the chief-like word "Dunalastair" to his designation. One reason perchance the chief one for the Marquis's immunity was the prominent manner in which he associated himself with the Nonintrusionists, and his subsequently becoming an elder and a liberal benefactor of the Free Church. He had a Presbyterian upbringing, and lived in accordance with that upbringing. His Free Church zeal may therefore have been as genuine as he wished it to be believed; but whether simply real or partly simulated, it covered as with a saintly cloak his eviction proceedings in the eyes of those who would have been his loud denouncers and scourging critics had he been an Episcopalian or remained in the Church of Scotland. The people he evicted, and all of them, young and old, who were witnesses of the clearances, could not give him much credit for any good in what seemed to us the purely hard and commercial spirit of the policy which he carried out as the owner of a princely Highland property. Such of the witnesses of the clearances as have lived to see the present desolation of rural baronies on the Breadalbane estates can now charitably assume that had he foreseen what his land-management policy was to lead up to, he would, at least, have gone about his thinning out business in a more cautious, kindly, and considerate manner, and not rudely cut, as he did, the precious ties of hereditary mutual sympathy and reliance which had long existed between the lords and the native Highland people of Breadalbane.

It is quite true that in 1834 the population on the Breadalbane estate needed thinning. The old Marquis had made a great mistake in dividing holdings which were too small before, in order to make room for Fencible soldiers who were not, as eldest sons, heirs to existing holdings. In twenty years congestion to an alarming extent was the natural result of the old man's mistaken kindness.

There was indeed a good deal of congestion before that mistake was committed, although migration and emigration helped to keep it within some limits. Emigration would have proceeded briskly from 1760 onwards had it not been discouraged by landlords who found the fighting manhood on their estates a valuable asset; and when not positively prohibited, emigration was impeded in various ways by the Government, now alive to the value of Highlands and Isles as a nursery of soldiers and sailors. Although discouraged and impeded, emigration was never wholly stopped, and after Waterloo, Glenylon, Fortingall and Breadalbane, Rannoch, Strathearn and Balquidder, sent off swarms to Canada, the United States, and the West Indies. A large swarm from Breadalbane, Lochearnhead, and Balquidder went off to Nova Scotia about 1828, and got Gaelic-speaking ministers to follow them. In 1829 a great number of Skyemen from Lord Maconald's estate went to Cape Breton, where Gaelic is the language of the people, pulpit, and the "Mactalla" newspaper to this day. The second Marquis of Breadalbane would have won for himself lasting glory and honour, and done his race and country valuable service, if he had chosen to place himself at the head of an emigration scheme for his surplus people, instead of merely driving them away, and further trampling on their feelings by letting the big farms he made by clearing out the native population to strangers in race, language, and sympathies. He was rich, childless, and gifted, and he utterly missed his vocation, or grand chance for gaining lasting fame among the children of the Gael.

At a later period of my life than this of which I am now writing, I looked into many kirk-session books, and found that those of the parishes of Kenmore and Killin indicated a worse state of matters in Breadalbane than existed in any of the neighbouring parishes. Pauperism was increasing at a rapid rate, although it was a notorious fact that rents there were lower than on other Highland estates. The old Marquis was never a rack-renter. Other proprietors, when leases terminated, took more advantage than he did of a chance to raise rents, and when once raised they strove ever afterwards to keep them up. But I do not wonder that his son thought that if things were allowed to go on as he found them on succeeding to titles and estates, a general bankruptcy would soon be the result. Without ceasing to regret and detest his methods, I learned to see the reasonableness of the second Marquis's view of the alarming situation. The population had simply outgrown the means of decent subsistence from the carefully cultivated small holdings which were the general rule. Had it not been for the frugality and self- helpfulness of the people, the crisis of general poverty would have come when the inflated war prices ceased, or at least in the short-crop year of 1826, when the corn raised in Breadalbane, although the hillsides were cultivated as far up as any cereal crop could be expected to ripen in the most favourable season, did not supply meal enough for two-thirds of the people. But the "calanas" of the women, especially as long as flax-spinning continued in a flourishing condition, brought in a good deal of money; and for many years "Calum a Mhuilin" (Calum of the Mill), otherwise Malcolm Campbell, road contractor, Killin, led out a host of young men to make roads in various parts of the country, and these returned with their earnings to spend the winter at home. These sources of profit were beginning to dry up when the old Marquis died.

What came of the dispersed? The least adventurous or poorest of them slipped away into the nearest manufacturing town, or mining districts where there was a demand for unskilled labourers. There some of them flourished, but not a few of them foundered. The larger portion of them emigrated to Canada, mainly to the London district of Ontario, where they cleared forest farms, cherished their Gaelic language and traditions, prospered, and hated the Marquis more, perhaps, than he rightly deserved when things were looked at from his own hard political-economy point of view.


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