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Parish Life in the North of Scotland
Chapter XVI - The Sutherland Clearance of 1819


THE period of my ministry at Achness, however, was drawing fast to its close. 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 head-quarters. 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 t•o 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-Chatta" 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 subtenant, 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 Mr. 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 country 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 Achna-h'uiaghe. 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 award overhung by Robert Gordon's antique, romantic little cottage on an eminence close beside us. The still-flowing waters of the \aver 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-na-h'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 Air. Sellar, the factor and law-agent, had no power to remove.

The middle of the week brought on the day of the Strathnaver Clearance (1819). 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 head-quarters, marchings and counter-marchings 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 personally not 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, Mr. 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 combustile 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-coiIle 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 as we have seen, 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 he 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.

The Strathnaver Clearance of 1819 dissolved my connection with my first congregation, and extinguished a ministerial charge in that part of the Highlands. The Assembly's committee for the Royal Bounty, on being certified of the removal not only of their missionary but of his whole congregation along with him, withdrew the stipend and dissolved the mission. [The Free Church of Scotland sanctioned a regular charge, with an ordained minister, at Altnaharra in Strathnaver, in 1871. The congregation consists of a few shepherds, gamekeepers, and summer visitors.—Ed.]

The space of time intervening between the demission of my charge at Achness and my appointment to the Gaelic Chapel at Aberdeen might have been about three months. The various events which took place during the interval I may briefly record.

During the last year of my ministry at Achness I assisted, along with Mr. David Mackenzie of Farr, at a communion at Thurso. Mr. William Mackintosh, afterwards my father-in-law, was minister of that parish. I preached on the Thursday, and intended to engage in the services of Sabbath and Monday as well. But, late on Saturday evening, an express arrived from Mr. Phin, minister of Wick, who administered the sacrament on the same day, very earnestly craving assistance„as those whom he had engaged to officiate had taken ill.
rode to Wick on Sabbath morning and arrived there to breakfast. After Mr. Phin had, very ably indeed, preached the action sermon I served the tables alternately with him, when he concluded with an exhortation. I preached also on Monday both in the forenoon and afternoon. The services of the Sabbath and week days on that occasion at Wick were conducted in the open air, as the parish church was then in a ruinous state, the foundation having some years before given way, and rents having appeared in several parts of the back wall. The church itself was comparatively new, having been erected, after a long litigation with the heritors, during the incumbency of Mr. Phin's immediate predecessor, Mr. Sutherland. [Mr. W. Sutherland, A.M. (whose father and grandfather were eminent ministers in Ross-shirel, was ordained minister of Wick lot May, 1765. lie got the parish church rebuilt in 1799. He was a man of great tact and unbounded hospitality, but had considerable trouble with obdurate heritore. In public prayer he used to intercede "for the magistrates of Wick, such as they are." He died 23rd June, 1816, in the 79th year of his age and 52nd of his ministry. His son, the Hon. Jas. Sutherland, became judge and member of Council, Bombay, where he lived in princely style. His daughter Elizabeth was married to James miller, Esgre., merchant in Leith and St. Petersburg; their son was the late Sir William Miller, Bart. of Manderton; his daughter Christian was married to Sir. Mackintosh, minister of Thurso. His wife, Catherine Anderson, by whom he had a large family, died 3rd October, 1813.—Ed.] The foundation, however, was unsound, and the building soon gave way. The consequence of which was, that the heritors were under the necessity, very soon thereafter, of erecting a new church at an enormous expense. Mr. Phin was then married and had two of a family, a son and a daughter. [Mr. Robert Phin was ordained assistant and successor to Mr. Sutherland 13th March, 1813. He was a man of energy, and had a hew parish church erected in 1830; he died 22nd March, 1810, aged 63 years. Dr. Kenneth Macleay Phin, minister of Galashiels, who became, latterly, a conspicuous ecclesiastic in the present Established Church of Scotland, was his son.—Ed.] His wife was a daughter of Bailie Macleay of Wick, a native of Invergordon, and in his younger years ferryman there. From this humble sphere he rose rapidly to wealth and distinction, after having emigrated to Caithness. Mr. Phin, his son-in-law, was a popular preacher, and popularity he very much affected. His sermons were very excellent, but the best of them were said to be borrowed; the people of Wick said, ”He's a quid man, oor minister, an' a' the things we hear frae him on the Sawbath we can read in godly authors when we come hame."

Some months before my departure from Achness, a young man, Robert Sutherland, a native of Loth, but then employed in Aberdeen, came north to be married to Evan MacPherson's eldest daughter Christian, an amiable and handsome young woman. They were married by my father at Dalcharn, but as this young man was expressly deputed by the congregation at Aberdeen to make enquiries after me in the prospect of a vacancy occurring, by the appointment of their minister, Mr. Duncan Grant, to the parish of Alves, the young couple came on the Sabbath to hear sermon at Ach-na-h'uaighe. I knew nothing of this at the time, but Robert Sutherland's report was the first stop towards my settlement in Aberdeen in the September following.

On the 8th day of June, 1819, Mr. Cook and my sister Elizabeth were married at Kildonan. I performed the marriage rite. It was in the nether bedroom, where my beloved stepmother lay. She was then very low, but at her special request the ceremony was performed in her presence. Mr. Cook arrived at Kildonan on the evening of the preceding day, accompanied by Robert Sutherland from Scoriclate, an eminently pious man, and extremely attached to Mr. Cook, his minister. Mr. Cook and my sister were married about 3 o'clock, p.m., my father and mother and the servants only being present. The married pair remained at Kildonan that night, and next day set off "through the hill" to their residence at Dirlot. The parting between my sister and her stepmother was deeply affecting. "God bless you, my dear Betty," said she, "I shall never see you more." I accompanied them till about two miles to the north of Cnoc-an-Eireanaich. In other circumstances I would certainly have gone all the way with them; but I had, about three weeks previously, received a call from the congregation at Aberdeen to preach as a candidate on the ensuing Sabbath, and I was under the necessity of setting out by the mail-coach from Inverness that same week. I had therefore only a day or two to remain at Kildonan before my departure for the south, and this very limited time I can never forget. My stepmother was sinking fast. She often called for me, and her distress seemed alleviated when she knew I was there. The bitter moment at last came when I was to part with her, never again to behold her. With my heart like lead within me I dragged myself to her bedside. Awaking out of a feverish slumber, she looked up at me. That look and the pallid countenance are at this moment, after the lapse of twenty-six years, before me. "Farewell, my dear mother, for the present," I said, "I hope very soon to see you again." "No, no," said she, "I shall never see you more, my dear Donald; this is the parting hour on the earth; farewell, may we meet in that place of rest where there is no separation!" I was completely overwhelmed; I bent over her, and bathed her pallid face with my tears, then tore myself away, and rushed out of the room.

I arrived in Aberdeen on Saturday morning. I found my friend Robert Sutherland waiting my arrival at the inn where the coach stopped in Union Street, together with a few other members of the Gaelic congregation. They conducted me to lodgings in Frederick Street. I called upon my predecessor, Mr. Grant, and found him engaged in packing up his furniture and arranging his secular matters previous to his departure for his new charge at Alves. He told me that he was to preach his valedictory sermon in Gaelic in the forenoon of the ensuing day, and, from the general conversation which we had respecting the congregation, it seemed to me that he and his flock had quarrelled, and were to part in something like a huff. The event justified my suspicions. On the Sabbath he preached as he had intended, and his sermon, particularly the practical part of it, was one of the most perfect scolds I ever heard. He was naturally a warm-hearted man, but very choleric; besides that, he was at the time afflicted with a stomach complaint which affected his nervous system, and fomented his irascibility. [Mr. Grant usually preached in English on Sabbath evenings in the Gaelic Chapel, which, on some occasions, was crowded by Aberdeen people. At their request, he proposed that the afternoon service should be conducted in the some language. This the Highlanders strongly opposed. They appealed to the Presbytery, which gave them a constitution according to their wishes. This occurred in 1819. .air. Grant, who knew Gaelic imperfectly, was a powerful and popular English preacher. He was translated front Alves to Forres 27th September, 1827, and in 1843 became minister of the Free Church congregation of that town. He died 17th March, 1866, in the 76th year of his age and 62nd of his ministry.—Ed.] I preached in Gaelic in the afternoon, and in English in the evening at six o'clock, to most attentive audiences. During the course of the week my election and call as minister were harmoniously entered into by the congregation. Returning to my lodgings one evening I found a letter on the table addressed in my father's handwriting. My heart bounded between hope and fear. I eagerly snatched it up and looked at the seal. It was large and black. I anticipated its contents. My poor mother was no more. My letter communicated the sad intelligence that, after a short but severe struggle, she had departed this life on the 25th of June, eight days after I had parted from her. 'These heavy tidings completely stunned me. The congregation entreated of me to remain for two Sabbaths more, but I could not, so, after preaching on the Sabbath following, I returned home by the coach on the Monday. The north mail-coach had not previously run further than Tain. But by an arrangement entered into between the Postmaster-General and the proprietors of Sutherland and Caithness, it had been agreed to continue it all the way to Thurso, round by Wick. On my return from Aberdeen I was one of the passengers with the first mail from Tain to Thurso. I took my seat only to Helmisdale. It was rather a dangerous mode of travelling, the danger arising, however, not from the state of the roads, but solely from the welcome given to the newly-started conveyance by all the proprietors, tacksmen, towns and villages on the line of road by which the coach passed. Every one of them must treat the passengers, guard and drivers, with glasses of whisky, with which the drivers in particular so regaled themselves as at length to be totally unfit to manage the horses. The coach at different times therefore made many hairbreadth escapes from being overturned.

I rode from HeImisdale to Kildonan, and instead of taking the short road through the township to the manse, I went round by the churchyard. There, behind the church wall to the north, a new-made grave smote upon my eye. It was my beloved stepmother's. I sat by it for a while overwhelmed by emotion. I then went up to the manse, where my widowed father met me at the threshold, and we mingled our tears together. Not feeling very well next day, I mentioned it to my father, when he replied, "She lies low who would have cured you." The words so penetrated my heart that I welt the whole night. My dear father, from the day of his wife's death to his own, lived the life of a hermit. All his family had left him, and the township, and indeed the whole parish of Kildonan, were depopulated, so that, except his own servants, male and female, the schoolmaster George MacLeod and his family, and Muckle Donald and his wife, he had not a human being to converse with for many miles around. My stepmother died in her 64th year, and he survived her about six years.

Before I returned to my charge at Aberdeen I paid a visit to my friends at Dirlot, accompanied by Muckle Donald. We set out early in the morning, and, after a tedious ride across the hills by Morven and Strathmore, we arrived at my brother-in-law's at seven in the evening.

I returned to Kildonan from Dirlot after a stay of two days, and on the succeeding Sabbath I attempted, but with much pain and anxiety, to preach the funeral sermon from the words, "Enter thou into thy chamber." I met with some individuals of my former congregation from the heights of the parish during the time I remained at Kildonan, among others poor old Breacachadb, who shed tears at parting with me.

Having gifted my furniture at Achness to my sister at Dirlot, and left my faithful dun pony to be sold to any one who would take care of him, and having taken an affectionate leave of my only surviving parent, I went to Aberdeen about the latter end of July to enter on the duties of my new charge.


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