In the mid-nineteenth century, Colonel John Gordon lived in the fabulous Cluny Castle in Aberdeenshire. He owned six slave plantations in the West Indies and was said to be “the richest commoner” in Britain. Gordon became “the most hated man in Scotland” not because he was a slave-owner, and not because he was wealthy, but because he stayed that way by ruthlessly squeezing the lifeblood out of poor tenant farmers eking out a living on his massive land holdings – estates that included, as of 1838, the entire island of Barra.

In Clanship to Crofters’ War, historian T.M. Devine describes Gordon as the prototypical Highland estate owner, a man who “bought partly because rentals were low and the land was poor in the hope of transforming its prospects and so making huge gains in the long term.” In 1838, by outbidding the infamous Patrick Sellar in what today would be considered a bankruptcy sale, Gordon acquired key sections of the vast Clan Ranald (MacDonald) estate in western Scotland.

That estate included lands on the Scottish mainland and in both the Inner and Outer Hebrides – among these last, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. These three islands, linked to the Clan MacNeill for hundreds of years, had been consolidated with the more northerly lands of the MacDonalds in the early 1600s. Two centuries later, the clan chieftain Reginald George MacDonald – famous for swaggering around in Highland dress at the court of King George IV – lived so far above his means that he drove his estate first into trusteeship and then into insolvency.

Enter Colonel John Gordon, who acquired not the entire estate but the three outer islands, where a potato famine began taking a toll in the mid-1840s, reducing people to penury. The Reverend Norman MacLeod wrote: “The scene of wretchedness which we witnessed, as we entered on the estate of Col. Gordon, was deplorable, nay, heart-rending. On the beach the whole population of the country seemed to be met, gathering cockles . . . I never witnessed such countenances – starvation on many faces – the children with their melancholy looks, big looking knees, shriveled legs, hollow eyes, swollen-like bellies—God help them, I never did witness such wretchedness.”

By 1848, the rents paid by these people had earned Gordon a return of less than 66 percent on his investment. Meanwhile, he had been compelled to expend £8,000 in famine relief. The colonel had not attained his splendiferous lifestyle by letting this sort of thing continue. He acted, and today one result of his handiwork can be discovered on the east side of Barra at an archaeological site that was once a thriving village.

You won’t find “Balnabodach” listed in the guidebooks or even on maps of the Outer Hebrides. But if on Barra you drive seven kilometres north out of Castlebay on the one-lane highway that encircles the island, the A888, you should be able to spot a series of ruins on the eastern side of the road, down the hill as you approach Loch Obe. You may have to scramble a bit (think trial and error), but you can make your way through marshy ground to stone ruins that once were Barra blackhouses. To wander among them, careful not to do damage, is to get as close as anyone can to those who lived here once upon a time.

Here, along a freshwater stream that tumbles down the hill to the loch, people have lived off and on for centuries.

The loch connects to the open sea by a narrow, four-hundred-metre channel that once afforded excellent protection against sea raiders. Peat deposits provided fuel for fires, and cows and sheep could graze on the gentler slopes. In 1996, according to an Isle of Barra website, archaeologists discovered a barbed flint arrowhead dating from around 2,000 BC. And people who lived here during the Iron Age, between 200 BC and AD 200, left nearly 250 pieces of pottery, as well as flint tools and pumice stones used for scrubbing animal skins.

By the time of Scotland’s first census, in 1841, Balnabodach was home to eight households and twenty-six people. They lived in Barra blackhouses built during the previous century, with thick walls and single doors in one long side. Families made do with an earthen floor and cooked and slept around the fireplace at one end. The largest house, designated House A, once had a wooden dresser in one corner. Here, the family displayed their finest pottery, which comprised brightly coloured “sponge ware” from the Scottish mainland and crockery from Stoke and Newcastle in England.

Archaeologists found an abundance of bowls, useful for eating broth, gruel and porridge. They turned up a clay pipe, some glass beads and copper buttons, an iron chisel and knife, and a sharpening stone. They also found a copper thimble outside the front door and could imagine a “woman of the household sitting on a sunny summer day, mending an item of clothing and dropping her thimble between the cracks in the stone.” In an atypical flight of fancy, they surmised that the woman might well have been Anne Macdugald or her sister-in-law, Flory Macdugald.

This they extrapolated from the 1841 census, when Hector Macdugald and his family probably lived in House A, which had a small room added onto one end not as a byre for animals but for human habitation. While most of the households were listed as crofters, one was a cottar (who farmed another tenant’s land) and another a pauper – eighty-year-old Neil Macdugald. These families kept a few sheep and did some fishing, but mainly subsisted by growing potatoes and barley.

In the mid-to-late 1840s, the horrendous potato famine that devastated Ireland also wreaked havoc in the Outer Hebrides. It starved Islanders on Barra and South Uist and, less acceptably still, rendered them unable to pay their rent. Colonel John Gordon decided to solve this problem by evicting the wretched crofters and shipping them to Canada. He identified Balnabodach as one of the Barra townships to be cleared and in 1851 turned loose his hired thugs.

According to oral tradition, these well-paid hooligans forced the tenantry into boats in the safe harbour. One young woman was out milking the family cow by the loch when Gordon’s agents dragged her off with nothing but the clothes on her back. A few people ran into the hills and were hunted down by dogs. They were hauled aboard in handcuffs.

A Protestant minister named Beatson led the evictions in Barra and the tiny island of Mingulay, which were Roman Catholic. An eyewitness named Roderick MacNeil, remembering in the present tense, described Beatson as “the most vigilant and assiduous officer Colonel Gordon has. He may be seen in Castle Bay, the principal anchorage in Barra, whenever a sail is hoisted, directing his men like a gamekeeper with his hounds, in case any of the doomed Barra men should escape.” One such man “took shelter on an Arran boat which Beatson boarded in a fury, demanding his surrender. The master (one John Crawford) lifted a hand-spike and threatened to split the minister’s skull, man of God or no, if he did not get ashore with his dogs.”

MacNeil, evicted from Mingulay, had never been the same since “my people were scattered, some of them in Australia, some in Canada, and some mouldering in the dust. Oh, the turns of the hard world! Many a trick does it play, and so it was with me. My new house was burned over my head, and I burned my hands in rescuing my dear little children. Oh, the suffering of the poor folk, the terrible time that was! The land was taken from us though we were not a penny in debt, and all the lands of the township were given to a Lowland farmer. He had always wished to have them, and he was not content until he got them.”

Small boats ferried the Barra people to a ship called the Admiral, which then sailed forty kilometres north to Lochboisdale in South Uist. There, on August 11, 1851, a different agent – the hot-tempered John Fleming – invited local tenants to a compulsory public meeting, threatening absentees with a severe fine (forty shillings). The meeting devolved into a surprise press-ganging, as thugs forced people into boats and then onto the ship which lay waiting to carry them to Canada. Forget gathering possessions: they were going aboard here and now.

Two days before, Fleming had written from South Uist to an emigration officer in Quebec. For the last three weeks, he had been “superintending the emigration of about 1,500 souls from this country to Canada.” He had just learned “with regret” that due to the unexpected illness of Colonel Gordon, nobody had previously notified anybody in Quebec.

Fleming wrote that he had already sent two ships – the Brooksby and the Montezuma filled with passengers in late July, and the Perthshire on August 5. He expected “the Admiral to be cleared out a few days hence.” He described the South Uist emigrants as having worked “at draining, ditching, road making, etc…, and I trust they may be advantageously employed when they reach Canada in similar work, or at railway operations…Of the Barra people, part have found employment at similar work, and part have supported themselves as fishermen, of which they have considerable skill.”

Fleming noted that a thousand people had been sent out two years before, “and send home encouraging accounts to their friends here.” Colonel Gordon was providing a free passage, clothing and shoes, and hoped that “these that are now leaving the land of their fathers may earn a competency in the land of their adoption.”

Two resources enable us to envision the truth of these events. The first, a relatively recent study, “The Jaws of Sheep” by James A. Stewart Jr., was published in Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium for 1998. The other we have already encountered: Gloomy Memories by Donald Macleod. In the 1850s, Macleod had emigrated to Woodstock, Ontario, some 150 kilometres west of Toronto. Whenever he travelled between Woodstock and Toronto, at about the halfway point he would pass through the town of Dundas. There he interviewed numerous former Islanders, survivors of Gordon’s 1851 Clearances.

“Hear the sobbing, sighing and throbbing,” he wrote later. “See the confusion, hear the noise, the bitter weeping and bustle. Hear mothers and children asking fathers and husbands, where are we going? hear the reply, Chan eil fios againn – we know not.” One eyewitness, Catherine Macphee of Lochdar, near the north end of South Uist, described the evictions as “loathsome work.” She told Macleod: “I have seen big strong men, champions of the countryside, the stalwarts of the world, being bound on Loch Boisdale quay and cast into the ship as would be done to a batch of horses or cattle, the bailiff and the ground officers and the policemen gathered behind them in pursuit.”

One powerful Highlander, Angus Johnstone, “resisted with such pith that they had to handcuff him before he could be mastered, but in consequence of the priests’ interference his manacles were taken off and (he was) marched between four officers on board the emigrant vessel.”

The forced evictions went on for more than three weeks.

One morning, Macphee said, “we were suddenly awakened by the screams of a young female who had been recaptured in an adjoining house, she having escaped after her first capture. We all rushed to the door, and saw the broken-hearted creature, with dishevelled hair and swollen face, dragged away by two constables and a ground-officer.”

Almost 170 years later, while exploring South Uist in 2017, I thought about that young woman’s first capture. Roughly ten kilometres north of the ferry dock in Lochboisdale, we came upon the ruins of a tacksman’s house in Upper Bornish Clearance Village. Earlier that day, after visiting the birthplace of Flora MacDonald, we had visited the Kildonan Museum and picked up an archaeological guide pointing the way to notable ruins. It spoke rather grandly of a “Kildonan Trail” but we found ourselves greeting cattle as we beat across pathless, marshy ground to the ruins of this neglected village. In the eighteenth century, the guidebook said, Upper Bornish comprised half a dozen households, the people living mostly “in long houses shared at times with livestock.”

The tacksman among them, the senior tenant, was the only one who had a separate byre for sheep and cattle. Decades came and went, people lived and died, and in August 1851, the poor farmers whose ancestors had toiled here for centuries were among those commanded to attend a public meeting at Lochboisdale, where a sailing ship called the Admiral stood at anchor. When I read that the penny dropped.

I remembered the eyewitness narrative of Catherine Macphee, who reported that many of those who turned up for the Lochboisdale meeting had been “seized and, in spite of their entreaties, sent on board the transports.” Later she heard the screams of that young woman, who had escaped once only to be recaptured. Among the ruins, I stood reflecting. Given its proximity to Lochboisdale, this village, Upper Bornish, might well have been where that young woman came from. I stood in silence gazing skyward.

Some of those who were put aboard the Admiral broke away and swam to shore. Macphee added that “Fleming led the police and officers in pursuit of them, combing the curling hills to the north of the loch, beating the fugitives down with truncheons and bringing them in irons to the quay.” From Benbecula, located immediately to the north of South Uist, Fleming brought carts filled with bound men over the sand at low tide. He sent raiders to storm cottages as dawn broke, but even then, some people escaped. “Were you to see the racing and chasing of policemen,” Macphee said, “‘pursuing the outlawed natives, you would think that you had been transported to the banks of the Gambia on the slave coast of Africa.”

She grew emotional at the remembrance: “I have seen the townships swept, and the big holdings made of them, the people being driven out of the island to the streets of Glasgow and the wilds of Canada, such of them as did not die of hunger and plague and smallpox while going across the sea. I have seen the women putting their children in the carts which were sent from Benbecula and Lochdar to Loch Boisdale while their husbands lay bound in the pen, and were weeping, without power to give them a helping hand, though the women themselves were crying aloud, and the little children wailing like to break their hearts.”

Families were separated. On Barra, many people had fled into the rolling hills. Most were tracked down by dogs and taken, but not all. The daughters of one John MacDugall, for example, aged twelve and fourteen, were left alone on Barra after the rest of the family was shipped off to Quebec.

Between 1848 and 1851, Colonel John Gordon cleared more than 2,000 people from the Outer Hebrides. On five ships, he transported almost 1,700 people to Lower Canada, where 600 were accepted as paupers and were supported by the colony. Hundreds of others were reduced to beggary. A few were buried on Grosse Île, site of an immigration depot near Quebec City.

Gordon’s promises of work and land proved empty. More than seventy people who had voluntarily boarded the Admiral wrote a deposition asserting that they had done so “under promises to the effect that Colonel Gordon would defray their passage to Quebec; that the Government Emigration Agent there would send the whole party free to Upper Canada, where, on arrival, the Government agents would give them work, and furthermore, grant them land on certain conditions.” They declared, further, that they “are now landed in Quebec so destitute that if immediate relief be not afforded them, and continued until they are settled in employment, the whole will be liable to perish with want.”

Many who proceeded to Upper Canada made their way to the township of Dundas. “They were in rags,” said a newspaper, “their mourning weeds were the shapeless fragments of what had once been clothes.” The Dundas Warder of October 2, 1851, reported: “We have been pained beyond measure for some time past, to witness on our streets so many unfortunate Highland emigrants, apparently destitute of any means of subsistence and may of them sick for other attendant causes. There will be many to sound the fulsome noise of flattery in the ear of a generous landlord who had spent so much to assist the emigration of his poor tenants. They will give him the misnomer of benefactor, and for what? Because he has rid his estates of the encumbrance of a pauper population.”

That same editorial described the funeral of a refugee child. “It was pitiful the other day, to view a funeral of one of these wretched people. It was, indeed, a sad procession. The coffin was constructed of the rudest wood…Children followed in the mournful train; perchance they followed a brother’s bier, one with whom they had sported and played for many a healthful day among their native glens…There was a mother too, among the mourners, one who had tended the departed with anxious care in infancy and had doubtless looked forward to a happier future in this land of plenty. The anguish of her countenance told too plainly these hopes were blasted, and she was about to bury them in the grave of her child.”

On Nov. 26, 1851, the chief emigrant agent in Quebec, A.C. Buchanan, responded to Colonel Gordon’s agent, John Fleming, with a cool-headed but ferocious dressing down. Between August 28 and October 18, he wrote, five ships had arrived from Gordon’s estates carrying 1,681 passengers. These were Brooksby, 285; Montezuma, 442; Perthshire, 437; Admiral, 413; and Liskeard, 104. Five adults and three infants had died while sailing or in quarantine.

“These parties presented every appearance of poverty,” he wrote, “and, from their statement, which was confirmed by the masters of the several vessels, were without the means of leaving the ship, or of procuring a day’s subsistence for their helpless families on landing, and many of them, more particularly the party by the Perthshire, were very insufficiently supplied with clothing.”

Buchanan laid out an account, noting that Gordon owed £152, in addition to which “there is a charge for a week’s rations served out to the passengers on leaving the vessel, for which this department is held responsible, in the event of Colonel Gordon’s declining to settle it.”

Buchanan noted that because the Quebec populace spoke French, “this city and neighbourhood afford no opening of any extent for the employment of the destitute emigrants who arrive in large numbers and at a particular season of the year. It is in the interior and western portions of the province only that employment for labourers and artisans is to be procured, and these must be reached before the pauper can find any means of support. Therefore, to convey to this port emigrants possessing no resources whatever, and without a provision of some kind for their progress westward, is to subject them to great distress and certain discouragement.”

Clearly furious, Buchanan continued at length. The provincial government could not afford to carry the freight for “those who are interested in the removal from Great Britain of paupers and other unprofitable portions of the populations.” He asked Fleming to tell Colonel Gordon that “the mere transfer to this port of an indigent tenantry, without an alteration in any respect in their condition, gives no reasonable ground for expecting their subsequent successful progress.”

On the other hand, if “the landlord who is interested in the reduction of the population of his estate should extend his assistance so far as to carry forward his emigrants to the occupation of land, or should secure their advance to advantageous employment, the sure result would be incitement to industry and exertion, and the strongest desire on the part of all to obtain a similar opportunity of benefiting themselves.”

Buchanan closed by referring “to the wholly different circumstances under which a party consisting of 986 persons were sent out in the past spring by Sir James Matheson, from the island of Lewis. These emigrants were provided with a passage to this port, food and clothing, and on arrival were supplied with a week’s rations and a free passage to their ultimate destination. They had embarked in the early part of the season, and nearly the whole landed here in July, when an unusual demand for labourers existed in almost every section of the province. About 400 proceeded to Sherbrooke, Eastern Townships, where those able to work obtained employment on the Montreal and Portland Railroad at ample wages. The remainder went forward to Toronto, where they, also, immediately obtained suitable employment.”

At the end of the year, in a report to head office in England, the medical superintendent in Quebec, G.M. Douglas, wrote of those Highland emigrants sent out by Colonel Gordon: “The supply of provisions and water seems to have been good and liberal; but I never, during my long experience at the station, saw a body of emigrants so destitute of clothing and bedding; many children of nine and ten years old had not a rag to cover them. Mrs. Crisp, the wife of the master of the Admiral (which vessel brought out 413 of the number), was busily employed all the voyage in converting empty bread-bags, old canvass, and blankets, into coverings for them.

“One full-grown man passed my inspection with no other garment than a woman’s petticoat. Great care and precaution seemed to have been taken of their health on the voyage by the medical men in charge, especially Dr. Patterson of the Perthshire, who caused the ship’s allowance to be issued sparingly at first, as many families had for months previous to embarking subsisted solely upon shell-fish and sea-weed picked up on the beaches and rocks of their island. I learned on inquiry that the ordinary payment for the day’s labour of an able-bodied man in South Uist was one pound of oatmeal, and that constant labour even for this miserable pittance was not to be obtained.”

As to the money spent on provisions provided to the destitute souls he had dispatched to Quebec, Colonel Gordon, comfortably ensconced at Cluny Castle, never repaid a penny. Colonel John Gordon. The most hated man in Scotland.

Story By Ken McGoogan


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