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Highland Clearances

Strathnaver before the clearances

The valley of Strathnaver is as green fold of earth, the richest in that part of the country, a narrow twisting glen down which the black water of the River Naver runs from south to north, from the loch of its name to the Atlantic Ocean. The people who lived there in 1814 were Mackays, by name or allegiance, though the Countess was their Lord.

The houses were grouped in a dozen small townships, northward down the strath to the sea and westward along the shore of Loch Naver.

Because of the mission there, Achness was perhaps the most important to the people. It took its Gaelic name, Achadh an Eas, the cornfield by the cascade, from the brown stream that still falls in noisy delight from hills where once the Norsemen buried their dead.

There was Rhifail, the enclosure in a hollow, the smooth dale of Dalvina, Skail the sheiling, and Syre where the young men had been assembled in the spring of 1800 for service with the Sutherland Highlanders.

Along the loch, toward Altnaharra at its finger-tip, were Grummore and Grumbeg. On these fell the evening shadow of Ben Klibreck across the water, and if one stands among the few remaining stones of Grummore today the mountain takes the naked shape of a sleeping woman, the milky smoke of burning heather for her hair, and her head turned away from Strathnaver.

If Strathnaver were not the paradise some exiles believed it to have been when they remembered it in their old age, the words they used spoke of their love and longing for it.

I remember, said Angus Mackay, who was eleven when he was driven from the glen, I remember you would see a mile or half a mile between every town if you were going up the strath. There were four or five families in each of these towns, and bonnie haughs between the towns, and hill pastures for miles, as far as they could wish to go.

The people had plenty of flocks of goats, sheep, horses and cattle, and they were living happy, with flesh and fish and butter, and cheese and fowl and potatoes and kail and milk too. There was no want of anything with them, and they had the Gospel preached to them at both ends of the Strath.

During the clearances

"The sportsman now roams o'er the Sutherland hills
           And down where the Naver runs clear;
       And the land a brave race had for centuries owned
           Is now trod by the sheep and the deer.
       The halls, where our ancestors first saw the light,
           Now blackened in ruins they lie.
       And the moss-covered cairns are all that remain
           Of the once pleasant homes of MacKay.

       Happy homes by an alien's base mandate o'erthrown
           Tender maidens and brave stalwart men
       Were ruthlessly scattered like leaves in a gale
           Far away from their dear native glen.
       Brave clansmen who fought in fair liberty's cause
           In the lowlands of Holland they lie.
       For bravest in battle and second to none
           Has aye been the Clan of MacKay

       Not yet are they silenced through peaceful they lie,
           And though far from the green mountain said,
       They meet in the City of famous renown
           On the banks of the dark flowing Clyde,
       Where hearts still undaunted and beating as true
           As when under a northern sky
       They grasped their claymores when the slogan they heard
           And followed the flag of MacKay.

       Unflinching they bore the proud ensign aloft
           When their foemen the penalty paid;
       And the same noble spirit inspires them to-day
           Their poor broken clansmen to aid.
       The aged and weak they have sworn to protect
           By the "Strong Hand" and kind watchful eye.
       For faithful in friendship and valiant in war
           Has aye been the Clan of MacKay.

       Then flock to the standard and join the roll call!
           Once more the banner's unfurled
       The slogan's been sounded, and kinship been claimed
           By clansmen all over the world.
       Exiled or at home, love of country and clan
           Are feelings we'll never let die;
       Defy and defend, stand true to the end,
           And honour the name of MacKay."
                                      - By Elizabeth MacKay
                                            Bridge of Allan 1889


Rev. Donald Sage wrote about the last Sabbath in Strathnaver before the burnings

"In Strathnaver we assembled, for the last time, at the place of Langdale, where I had frequently preached before, on a beautiful green sward overhung by Robert Gordon's antique, romantic little cottage on an eminence close beside us. The still-flowing waters of the Naver 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 dwelt 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 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."

86 years of age, Kirtomy, Parish of Farr

I am a native of Strathnaver, and saw some of the burnings that took place there. I was born at Sgall, a township with six houses, where I lived till I was sixteen years of age, when the people in the township were driven away and their houses burnt.

Our family was very reluctant to leave this place, and stayed for some time after the summons for evicting was delivered. But Sellar's party came round and set fire to our house at both ends, reducing to ashes whatever remained within the walls. The occupants had, of course, to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their backs. The people then had plenty clothes (home spun), which they made from the wool of their sheep.

The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did not encumber Sellar's domain, the land that was by rights their own. The people were driven away like dogs who deserved no better fate, and that, too, without any reason in the world, but to satisfy the cruel avarice of Sellar.

Here is an incident that I remember in connection with the burning of Sgall. My sister, whose husband was from home, was delivered of a child at Grumb-mhor at this time. Her friends in Sgall, fearing lest her house should be burnt, and she perish in her helpless condition, went to Grumb-mhor and took her with them in very cold weather, weak and feeble as she was. This sudden removal occasioned to her a fever, which left its effects upon her till her dying day.

Strathy, regarding Rhinnirie
I was about seven years of age when the township was burnt. When Sellar's men arrived, my father and mother happened to be in Caithness-shire, laying down the crops in Latheron, which was to be their future home. An old woman, my aunt, remained with me and my sister at Strathnaver.

We began early in the day to remove our effects to the hill-side, in anticipation of their visit; but, before we had finished, they were upon us, and set fire, first, to the byre which was attached to the dwelling-house.

This made us redouble our efforts, as the flames were making rapid progress. I remember we encountered serious difficulty when we came to remove the meal-chest. To ask the assistance of Sellar's men would be absurd; but we succeeded at last by removing the meal in small quantities to the hill-side on blankets.

We then made a ring of the furniture and took our station inside, from which we viewed the flames. Here we slept all night, wrapped in woolen blankets, of which we had plenty; and I remember very vividly the volumes of flames issuing from our dwelling-house, and the crackling sounds when the flames seized upon the fir couples and timber supporting the roof of turf. At the same time, also the three remaining houses in the township were fired.

80 years of age, crofter, Airdneskich, Farr
I was born at Ridsary on Strathnaver, and was about 10 years of age when that part of the Strath where my father lived was depopulated, and our habitations burnt to the ground. I saw these four townships all in flames on the same day:-

* Ceann-na-coille, with 7 houses
* Syre, with 13 houses
* Kidsary, with 2 houses
* Langall, with 8 houses

I saw in all thirty houses burning at the same time.

When this was taking place, I was leading two horses up the Strath, to carry from Kidsary some of our furniture, which was left by my father near the place, when we were evicted from our home a few days previous to this. As the houses were all covered with dry thatch, dwelling places and steadings, the crackling noise as well as the fire and smoke were awful.

I noticed one house at Langall, having a good stack of peats beside it, which the burning party, on coming round, put to the same fate as the houses, and if any other thing remained in or near the premises it was at once consigned to the flames.

It may be mentioned that the inhabitants left these houses a day or two before they were set on fire, being ordered off the ground by Sellar. It was heartrending to hear the cries of the women and children when leaving their happy homes and turning their faces they knew not whether.

The most of our cattle died the first winter, as we had no provision for them. We got no compensation for our burnt houses, not any aid to build new ones, or trench land.

80 years of age, army pensioner and crofter, Achina, Farr
I am a native of Rossal on Strathnaver, and now living at Achina. One morning in May, when I was about twelve years of age, I went up to Achcaoilnaborgin to see Sellar's party putting the houses in that township on fire, as I, like a child, thought it grand fun to see the houses burning. The burning party was under the leadership of one Branders. When I reached the place the houses were ablaze, and I waited till they were all burnt to the ground, six in number. Then I accompanied the burners to Achinlochy, were six more houses were reduced to ashes.

In one of these houses I saw an old man, Donald Mackay (MacWilliam), who was over 100 years of age, lying in bed. Branders and his men, on coming to this house, glanced at the old man in bed, and then set fire to the house in two or three places, and the poor man, who could not escape, was left by them to the tender mercies of the flames.

The cries of the sufferer attracted the attention of his friends, who, at their own peril, ran in and rescued him from a painful death. It can be said with certainty that the terror and the effect of the fire on his person tended to hasten the man's death.

I may state that I have travelled a large portion of the four quarters of the globe, lived among heathens and barbarians where I saw many cruel scenes, but never witnessed such revolting cruelty as I did on Strathnaver, except one case in the rebellion of Canada.

I knew Donald Macleod, the author of "The Gloomy Memoirs of Sutherland", to be honest and truthful, and what I read in this book was nothing but the simple truth.

89 years of age, crofter, Leadnagiullan, Farr

I spent twenty-three years on Strathnaver, in my birthplace Ceann-na-coille, and I am confident they were the happiest days I ever spent. We were very happy and comfortable on the Strath.

There were seven houses in Ceann-na-coille, which I, with a sad heart, saw burnt to the ground. I saw Rossal, with upwards of twenty houses, also burnt. Sellar's orders to the people were to have their furniture, and whatever else they wished to bring with them, removed from these townships before a certain day.

My friends, and several of the townspeople endeavored to obey this cruel summons, and carried their effects down to the river's side. Here they formed a kind of raft, whereon was placed all their furniture, farm implements, clothes, etc., in fact all their wordly possessions, except their cattle. Then they took shelter, and anxiously awaited the rising of the river to enable them to float the raft down the stream towards their new home.

Soon, however, the furious burners came, and in spite of the poor people's entreaties and promises, the raft was easily set on fire, and before the party left the ground it was all in ashes along the banks of the river.

Nor did the ruthless work of Sellar's party end here. They now turned their course to the township of Baclinleathaid, and there commenced the burning again. In a certain hut there, there was an old woman who, perhaps, had none of her friends alive, or at least at hand, to be of any help to her in the hour of need. The party came to the hut of this friendless woman, set fire to the house, and instantly marched off, leaving the poor decrepit woman, who was within the house, to burn. It is true the woman's body was taken out by some neighbours who, too late, knew what was taking place, but death relieved her from pain ere they carried her across the threshold of her burning house.

I was well acquainted with Donald Macleod, who wrote "The Gloomy Memoirs of Sutherland", and always found him to be a truthful man. I heard some parts of his book read, and can emphatically say from my own experience, which now extends over a period of eighty-nine years, that it states the truth.

Macleod only wrote what hundreds could testify to ten years ago, but now almost all the people who knew much about the Strathnaver cruelties are dead, and the young generation, though they have heard sof these things from the lips of their fathers, cannot testify to them as eye-witnesses could. People now-a-days cannot imagine the awful cruelties perpetrated on Strathnaver by Sellar and his minions.

I declare this statement of mine is true.

Angus Mackay
-- Ann MacKay
-- Murdo Mackay
29th Aug. 1883

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