The Testimony of Seonaid Nic
Iain MacDonald for this
In response to the article
entitled ' A Balanced View of The Highland Clearances', I would ask that the
following be forwarded to the writer if only to reflect the sense of
'balance' the author experienced?
These are the reminiscences
of my great grandmother Seonaid ( Janet in English ) MhicNeacail, born in
the Crofting Township of Mhealbeag ( Melvaig ) in the spring of 1853 and
died in Torrin ( Isle of Skye ) in November 1949, just a few days before my
She was a wee spritely
sparrow of a woman, about 5ft 1 inch of height, with long grey hair which
came down to her waist, but was normally held up in the form of a bun made
up of two intertwined plaits. She had grey blue eyes which always seemed to
dance and sparkle in the light of the 'Tilley' lamp. She might have been
taller but for the 'bow' legs caused by rickets in her childhood; ( Milk was
difficult to get, due to the landlords ruling that the township people were
not allowed to graze more than ten head of cattle on the common grazings.)
She was the eldest daughter
of a family of five, having one younger sister ( Ishbel ) who died at the
age of 3 of consumption, and three elder brothers, Aonghas the eldest, Calum
and Fionn ( Fingal ). Her Father Aonghas Mor MacNeacail was a corporal in a
Highland regiment who served in the Crimean War, was badly wounded, losing
his left arm to a cannon ball at Sevastopol. Both parents died in an
epidemic in the 1880's.
She could only speak a few
words of English and conversed in Ghaidhlig most of the time. I remember
that she was not in any sense of the word 'Senile' but rather did a full
day's work on the croft, and her mental faculties were sharp right up to the
day she died peacefully in her sleep.
She often used to tell me stories of the great Celtic Hero's and kings, of
battles long past, of maidens wooed and lost, and other stories that held me
spellbound for hours. She used to sing all the beautiful old Ghaidhlig airs,
and at the periodic 'Ceileidhs' could hold her own with the girls, indeed
they often used to come to her to learn the 'Old' songs and airs.
She would sometimes tell me
about the time she and her family were 'Cleared' out of Mhealbeag when she
was about 5 or 6 years old. I am of the opinion that this was an experience
that scarred her for life, because she would often break down in tears at
the recollection of it. My Grandmother translated difficult words to help me
and to the best recollection this is her story...
The Testimony of Seonaid
"When I was about 5 years of
age, just one year after my father came back from the War against the
Russians, the whole township was warned by the factor at the time of paying
the rents, that his 'Lordship' was wanting the people to move away from the
township, in order that his lordship could let out the ground to Shepherds
from the Lowlands. The menfolk did not believe that they would have to move,
as there was plenty of ground where sheep could graze.
However two months later a
notice ( In English ) was posted, requiring the inhabitants to remove
themselves, their goods and chattels, within ONE Month. A Visiting Priest
translated the notice into Ghaidhlig for them, but the Menfolk still did not
believe that his Lordship would cast them out into the depths of winter.
However three months went past without anything being done by the factor,
and the people of the Township relaxed. There had been rumours of 'terrible
doings' elsewhere, of people being turned out and the roof trees of the
houses being destroyed, but this was 'elsewhere'.
Suddenly in the month of
January, the factor turned up, accompanied by a large number of policemen
from Glasgow, Lowlands Estate workers and Sheriffs Officers from Dunedin and
told the people of the township to be out of their homes by dawn the
following day, where they would be taken to Ullapool to be put on board a
ship to the Americas (Nova Scotia). The menfolk were cast down ( in modern
parlance - 'Shattered' ) and only the womenfolk made any protests. A group
of them went to the factor to protest and were beaten up by the policemen's
batons, my Mother amongst them.
The Dawn came, hardly anyone
had moved their possessions and furniture out, we waited to see what would
happen. An hour after dawn, the factor and his men went to the house of
Eachunn MacLeoid, a widower of 86 years of age, thrust him out of his house
and proceeded to throw his chattels out of the door. Then two men with axes
cut through the rooftrees, causing the roof to collapse. They then piled
winter forage inside the door and put a torch to it. Within a few minutes
the pall of smoke had rolled through the township, causing panic as people
raced to save their few things before the factors men arrived.
Our house was next, my mother
tried to stop the men entering the door, they called us 'Irish filth' and
one of them floored her with a mighty punch to the head and laid her out
senseless on the floor. My father tried to protect her, despite having one
arm, but he was punched and kicked senseless by four of the policemen. My
brothers and I managed to drag our parents out of the house, and by the time
we had got them outside, the axemen had already cut through the rooftrees.
They then set fire to the house and went next to the house of my Uncle
I remembered that my doll was
on our bed, it was a precious thing, that my father had brought back from
the war. A rag body with a lovely china head, which my mother had sewn
clothes for; I ran into the house to get it, through choking smoke, but I
could not find it. Aonghas beag came after me and took me outside.
It was like the picture of
Hell I once saw in the Ministers bible, smoke and flames everywhere, you
could hardly see in front of your face. My Mother was kneeling by my father,
cradling his bloodstained head and sobbing for the thing that had befallen
her family and the loss of her few precious things.
Some terrible things occurred
after this, the policemen and factors men were reeking of whisky before they
started, and when they found the whisky from Uncle Coinneach's 'Poit Dubh',
the Evil got worse. They took a delight in smashing some of the chattels
which had been salvaged, and at the house of Eibhlin and Aoirig MhicNeacail
( Unmarried orphaned Cousins of my Father ) - the two girls, only 14 and 17
were forcibly taken by some of the policemen, who did not spare their tender
years and ravished them.
Their screams brought many of
the menfolk to their aid, but by this time the policemen were the devils
themselves because of the whisky, and they laid into the menfolk with their
batons and clubs. One man who tried to stop them by firing at them with a
fowling piece, was clubbed to the ground senseless, then bound hand and foot
after which they kicked him for ages. All the time they were screaming
insults like 'pig shit Irish bastard's'. Poor man he died that night from an
efflux of blood from the mouth.
After this the spirit went
from us, and the menfolk were saying that this was a visitation upon us by
the Almighty in punishment of our sins, and that we should not resist
further. During the night Eibhlin and Aoirig hanged themselves for the shame
of what had been done to them and the bodies were buried in the vegetable
plot without a Minister present and even then the Policemen showed their
loathing of us by passing water on the girls bodies.
By Noon the Devil had done
his work, and the factors men rounded us up like beasts and we were made to
walk to Ullapool, carrying what we could , and driving our few beasts before
us. It took us two days to get there, I had no shoes and my feet were very
sore. We were all Cold and wet from the icy wind and smirr. We were all
hungry as we did not have any food. Some people in a nearby township took
pity on us and tried to give us food, but the factor warned them, that
anyone who did aid us would have the same treatment and a passage to
America. We got no food.
At Night we took what shelter
we could, behind walls, with blankets for a tent, but it was bitterly cold,
and we could not sleep. A woman gave birth before her time and the baby was
born dead and a three weeks old baby died of cold and the bodies were put in
the ground without a christian burial or marker.
At last we got to Ullapool,
to find the emigrant ship moored in the roads, with boats waiting at the
stone wharf. The factor then took all the beasts and the few possessions
which the people had got with them, as 'Payment' for our passage. Each
person was given a bag of 'Sowans' (Husked oatmeal) to last us the voyage
and we were told to be ready to embark the following day. The policemen
guarded us all that night, but there was no sleep for us, for the lamenting
and sorrow would not let us go by.
Before dawn, my father
noticed a fishing boat approaching the wharf and recognised one of the crew
as cousin Domhnull from PuirtRigh ( Portree ). Domhnull persuaded the owner
to come alongside the wharf, and we got in quickly before the policemen
noticed. The boat pulled away, and the policemen called out to the Boats
crew to return to the wharf, but as they called out in the English tongue
which no one understood, we left them shouting and cursing us.
It took two days to row to
PuirtRigh, we sheltered one night in the lee of Raasay and at last came to
the house of my fathers cousin, where we were made welcome. They were poor
like us, but their home was our home. My Father found a small place in the
south at Torrin and my Mother found employment in service to the local
minister, indeed I went into service for Him too when I was twelve.
Some years later we learned
that the ship had arrived in Nova Scotia, but that half the People had not
survived the voyage. Cholera and typhus had carried them off and their grave
was the sea, with only the fish to know their resting place and the keening
of the seabirds their only lament. I cannot forgive the cruelty of that
awful day, what had we done that we should have been judged so harshly?"
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