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The History of the Highland Clearances

IT is with great pleasure that I accede to the request that I should write a short introduction to welcome this reprint of so interesting and valuable a book as Mackenzie's Highland Clearances. It has long been out of print, which anyone who recalls its first appearance will easily understand. It was written by a Highlander who commanded in a great measure the esteem of Highlanders, and it collected for the first time the sane and authenticated accounts of the experience of the Highlanders in the great agrarian crisis of their history. It appealed to the race as no book within recent years has done. The Highlander loves his past and his native land with a passionate attachment, and the story of the great wrongs of the days of the clearances is still deeply embedded in his mind. Within the last year or two many accounts, more or less imaginary, have appeared purporting to be true stories of those terrible days in the north, and it is peculiarly appropriate that, when once again men's minds are centred on the great problem of the land in this country as a whole, and specific attention has been directed towards the Highlands, this reprint should now appear. We are all, therefore, under deep obligations to the public spirit and enterprize of the publishers and others who have been good enough to secure in an accessible form a reliable account of the conditions and events which at once intensified the acuteness of the land-hunger in the Highlands and constituted the blackest page in Highland history.

Many evil deeds have been associated with the abuse of the monopoly power of land ownership in this and other countries, but it is safe to say that nowhere within the limits of those islands, or, indeed, anywhere else at any time have blacker or more foul deeds been committed in the sacred name of property than in the Highlands of Scotland in those days. It has always been a matter of astonishment that a brave race should ever have submitted to them. This becomes all the more remarkable, too, when one remembers that during those very years regiments raised in these very districts of the finest soldiers who ever marched to the stirring strains of the bagpipes, were gaining for the empire and for British arms the most noted achievements ever won in the Napoleonic wars and in the colonies. It is true, of course, and it is an eternal discredit, that many of these brave fellows came back wounded and war-scarred to find, not that a grateful country had taken care that the homes and the helpless ones they had left behind were kept sacred and immune from the greed and ruthless savagery of the landlord or his hirelings, but that their hearths and homes were desecrated and destroyed, and every moral law of patriotism and honour had been violated. "Their humble dwellings," says Hugh Miller, "were of their own rearing; it was they themselves who had broken in their little fields from the waste; from time immemorial, far beyond the reach of history, they had possessed their mountain holdings,—they had defended them so well of old that the soil was still virgin ground, in which the invader had found only a grave; and their young men were now in foreign lands fighting at the command of their chieftainess the battles of their country, not in the character of hired soldiers, but of men who regarded these very holdings as their stake in the quarrel." Well has my friend Mackenzie MacBride expressed it:-

"Ye remnant of the brave!
Who charge when the pipes are heard;
Don't think, my lads, that you fight for your own,
'Tis but for the good of the land.

And when the fight is done
And you come back over the foam,
`Well done,' they say, `you are good and true,
But we cannot give you a home.

'For the hill we want for the deer,
And the glen the birds enjoy.
And bad for the game is the smoke of the cot,
And the song of the crofter's boy.'"

The silence with which men of that calibre met these hardships and cruelty might well remain an enigma to one who does not know the Highlands. They knew that for centuries their ancestors had tilled those lands and lived free and untrammelled. By every moral law, if not by the law of the land, they had a right to the soil which had been defended with their own right arm and that of their ancestors. These were the days when they were useful to the chief, who assumed some indefinable right to the land. But the day came after the "Forty-Five" when men were no longer assets to the chief. His territorial jurisdiction was broken. He wanted money, not men, and the lonely silences of the hills instead of merry laughter and prattle of children singing graces by the wayside. And these men bore the change which meant so much to them with patience. Why? The Highlands were permeated then as now with a deep religious sense. They lent a willing ear to the teachings of the ministers of the Gospel, who wielded the power of the iron hand which left its deep impress on the social life and even the literature of the Highlands. They regarded the minister as the stern oracle of truth, and the strict interpreter of the meaning of the ways of God to man. What happened was right. And a perusal of the pages that are to follow will show what a mean use many of these ministers made of the power which their faithful flock believed was vested in them. These men were—with a noble exception or two—in reality the servile tools of the "estate" whose powers they feared, and whose support they received. In their own interests and in those of their earthly lord and master, they assured the people that all their troubles were but part of the punishment inflicted on them by Providence in the course of working out their redemption! This attitude of the ministers had another significance. In many parishes they were the only persons who were educated enough to write, and so able to express the wrongs which their people were called upon to endure. But their voices were silent and their pens were idle, except, indeed, when they were used to ennoble the character, the prestige, and the benevolence of the evicting tyrant!

If they were thus comparatively passive in their "white-washing," there were others openly active. In Hugh Miller's words. "Ever since the planning of the fatal experience which ruined Sutherland, the noble family through which it was originated and carried on, had betrayed the utmost jealousy in having its real result made public. Volumes of special pleading have been written on the subject. Pamphlets have been published, laboured articles have been inserted in widely-spread reviews—statistical accounts have been watched over with the utmost surveillance. If the misrepresentations of the press could have altered the matter of fact, famine would not now be gnawing the vitals of Sutherland in a year a little less abundant than its predecessors, nor would the dejected and oppressed people be feeding their discontent amid present misery, with the recollections of a happier past. If a singularly well-conditioned and wholesome district of country has been converted into one wide ulcer of wretchedness and woe, it must be confessed that the sore has been carefully bandaged up from the public eye that if there has been little done for its cure, there has at least been much done for its concealment." And then he goes on to say, "It has been said that the Gaelic language removed a district more effectually from the influence of English opinion than an ocean of three thousand miles, and that the British public know better what is doing in New York than what is doing in Lewis or Skye." And so the House of Sutherland inveigles Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, fresh from her literary triumphs in the American environment of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," with no knowledge of the Gaelic language which "separated so effectually the district in which it was spoken" from English public opinion, but in which language alone grievances were likely to be expressed, to write a grovelling apology. This she does, forsooth, in "Sunny Memories," when the hearts and the spirits of the people outside the circle in which she was receiving well-merited, if short, hospitality were broken! Readers of the "Clearances" will notice how completely Donald M'Leod, whose name every lover of nobility of character, courage, and justice will ever honour, demolishes her insipid table-talk. An even worse type of white-washer was James Loch, who is now put forward as an unbiassed and disinterested observer of the gracious benevolence and marvellous generosity of the House of Sutherland. It was not mentioned that he was the factor for the then Duke!

The most notorious of all the evictions were the Sutherlandshire ones, and though there are many accounts of them in this volume, the gruesomeness of which has become a bye-word, they do not tell the whole tale. Since this question was revived during these last few months, I have had letters from descendants of the evicted from all over the colonies with new and conclusive proofs of the recklessness and severity which characterised them. A factor visited a township in western Sutherland, and went towards the house of the great grandmother of one correspondent. He met her as she was returning from milking the cows carrying a wooden vessel of milk. Brutally he snatched it from her, and to use his words, "drowned for ever the fire of her hearth with it," and then drove her and her children to search through great privation for some foothold on rugged ground beside the western sea. When this factor died, his body was carried through another township. The sympathy of the people was but slight, for they remembered his cruelty. An old woman expressed the general, but hitherto suppressed, feeling of the community when she said, "Cha deach am maor riamh troimh na bhaile cho samhach sa chaidh e an duigh " ("The factor never went through this township so peacefully as he went to-day").

If, as Hugh Miller says, there has been no lack of proessional white-washers, there has equally been no lack of testimony, straight and true, from the hearts of the people, in bitter lamentation over the cruelty that befel the race at the hands of mercenary landlords. This testimony does not come from one class nor from one county. I have shown in another place how even Dr. Johnson, who loved neither the Scots nor their traditions, found himself "full of the old Highland spirit, and was dissatisfied at hearing of rack rents and emigration," and was compelled to remark, "A rapacious chief would make a wilderness of his estate ; " how unprejudiced writers like Mrs. Grant of Laggan bemoaned the rapacity of those who drove away the descendants of men whom their fathers led ; and how bitterly a scholar like Professor Blackie viewed the depopulated glens where once heroes lived and fought. The bitterest note of all, as well as the truest, is sung by the Gaelic bards. They were of the people, and lived among them. They knew their feelings, none better, and it was their right to express that feeling with truth and with fearlessness in the language of the people. And I know of no bard in any county in the Highlands who has not vigorously denounced in some way the cruelty to which his people were arbitrarily subjected. It was a blow to them to find that chiefs of the old school had departed, that a change—in Gaelic, change is the best word for death—had taken place from the spirit of the chief who said, "I would rather drink punch in the house of my people than be enabled by their hardships to drink claret in my own." Well might a good Celt of a later day have written of the new type of so-called chief:

"See See that you kindly use them, O man
To whom God giveth
Stewardship over them in thy short span,
Not for thy pleasure;
Woe be to them who choose for a clan
Four-footed people."

Take the Islay bard. He seeks to arouse our indignation because of glens and hillsides reft of men to work and fight and of children who might sing to Nature and her God. Clearly his patriotic soul is sorely burdened: the cold iron that has entered into it has made his soul terribly bitter. "Bacit indignatio versus." When he looks around and thinks of the days that were, his spirit is that of blood and carnage. He describes the hills that he loves with wonderful grace of diction; he hears a song or two—shieling songs—of marvellous beauty, and "shieling songs contain many soft, siren strains, which were believed to have their source in fairyland," for their airs came from the good folk of the hills. But these things do not tempt him long; he is soon back again to the point that was sorest of all to him—the desolate glens and the hillsides "left to be garrisoned by the lonely shepherd." Some of the poets were sportsmen like Duncan M'Intyre. Their grievance was always against the sheep, and the lowland shepherds, who desecrated for filthy lucre the hills which were their birthright and who spoke an alien tongue which frightened even the echoes!

Deer and sporting rights (after game laws were enacted) soon became more profitable than sheep, and it is amusing to find controversialists of to-day attempting to show that evictions never took place on account of deer forests. It was not the fault of the landlords that they did not. Evictions took place for the object that was at the moment most profitable. The Napoleonic wars made sheep runs temporarily more profitable; but the moment there was more profit to be obtained from sport and deer forests, then deer forests were to a large extent substituted for sheep runs. To-day there are over three million acres in Northern Scotland alone devoted to these preserves; and in 1892 the Deer Forest Commission scheduled over one million seven hundred thousand acres as being fit for small-holding purposes. The casual reader must beware, and must notice that this vast number of acres includes grazing lands also, otherwise critics who "avowedly represent the landlord interests" may feel aggrieved. But it will also be remembered that evictions primarily took place for grazing purposes; and further, that a small holding in Scotland is not quite the same as a small holding in England. In England it consists of a number of acres which are under cultivation; in Scotland, I am referring, of course, to the deer forest country, it consists of some acres of cultivated land with very often a very large common outrun in moorland and hills for the township. So that when the uninitiated see pictures of deer forests that are said to be fit for small-holding purposes, they will now understand and suppress a smile. If only men could realise what can be produced out of what might appear to be the most impossible places! It has been said that if you give a man the secure possession of a rock, he will turn it into a garden, and one has only got to visit the Highlands to see how a hard-working and industrious peasantry have sought in this way with success to fight against the ills with which they were confronted by an ungrateful landlordism. One of the worst features of the "Clearances" was the method in which they were perpetrated. Examples will be found in these pages of sick people being carried out of their houses, and left on the wayside when their houses were in flames, and the present locations of some of the crofters are grim reminders of the extreme privations suffered by the people who settled in them. Perched on the rocks and moorlands, these people were driven from the inland valleys, and had to build themselves shelters from the turf and stones of the hillside, and carve out of barren land with enormous industry, and under the constant menace of famine, the miserable patches of land which remain today as evidence of their labours. The others were forced to emigrate, and the sufferings of those who survived well-nigh baffle description. The horrors of the small emigrant sailing ships of these days, and particularly on these occasions when people were packed together regardless of comfort and the decencies of life, and without sufficient food, were equalled only by the terrible privations and struggle for existence that awaited those who landed on the frozen lands of the north of Canada, to be assailed by hostile Indians, the rigours of the weather, and the desolation of an unfriendly country. It is altogether a tale of barbarous action unequalled in the annals of agrarian crime.

And need I do more than add what one who will never be regarded other than as a typical Tory, has written: "In too many instances the Highlands have been drained, not of their superfluity of population, but of the whole mass of the inhabitants, dispossessed by an unrelenting avarice, which will one day be found to have been as shortsighted as it is selfish and unjust. Meantime, the Highlands may become the fairy ground for romance and poetry, or the subject of experiment for the professors of speculation, historical and economical. But, if the hour of need should come, the pibroch may sound through the deserted region, but the summons will remain unanswered." These are the words of Sir Walter Scott.


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