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The Testimony of Seonaid Nic Neacail
Thanks to Iain MacDonald for this account


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 5th birthday.

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 Nic Neacail

"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 Coinneach.

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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