Residents in North Sutherland, Scotland, are hoping to return small-scale settlement to land cleared during the Highland Clearances of 1814-18. Working through three entities – the North Sutherland Community Forest Trust; Bettyhill, Strathnaver and Altnaharra Community Council, and Strathnaver Museum – they are seeking a community buyout of an area managed by Forestry and Land Scotland. Canadian author Ken McGoogan wrote about that clearance in his book Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada. Here is an excerpt.
“Everything here is like a fairy story,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote to her husband in September 1856. “The place is beautiful! It is the most perfect combination of architectural and poetic romance, with home comfort.” Stowe, the celebrated American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was describing Dunrobin Castle, which is situated in the Sutherland Highlands some eighty-five kilometres north of Inverness. The place is splendiferous, no question.
The first time Sheena and I visited, in 2016, I had just begun researching the Clearances and had only a vague idea of what Dunrobin represented. Like Stowe before me, I was dazzled by the magnificence of the place. Would you believe 189 rooms? And a history dating back to at least 1401, when the Norse-GaelicLords of the Isles built a
square keep here with walls six feet thick. In one splendid room after another, we admired paintings of this duke and that lady, not quite sure of who was who. In the Music Room we found a surprise – a gorgeous full-body portrait of the Irish chieftain Hugh O’Neill (1550 – 1616), whose resistance politics could hardly be more out of place.
The next year, while staying at the nearby Golspie Inn, we visited Dunrobin Castle for the second time. I had a much better grasp of what and who merited my attention. During the Rising of 1745, a Jacobite army stormed and seized Dunrobin. The 17th Earl of Sutherland narrowly escaped through a back door. He sailed to Aberdeen, joined the army led by the Duke of Cumberland, and subsequently regained his castle. In 1765, his eleven-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth Sutherland, inherited Dunrobin and its extensive estates. Twenty years later she married the wealthy politician George Granville Leveson-Gower, also known as Lord Stafford, who later became the 1st Duke of Sutherland.
Dunrobin Castle contains portraits of both and paintings also of their son, the 2nd Duke of Sutherland, and his wife, the Duchess Harriet. Their daughter, Elizabeth Georgiana Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, was the one who, in 1854, played host to Harriet Beecher Stowe, filling her head with denials and obfuscations about the Clearances while squiring her around London and, later, Dunrobin.
In the gift shop, I picked up an illustrated, large-format paperback entitled Dunrobin Castle: Jewel in the Crown of the Highlands. The text does not ignore what the Sutherlands did. But it portrays Lord Stafford as a “do-gooder” who was “shocked by the primitive conditions of his wife’s tenantry.” The book quotes another baronet explaining that Stafford was one of those reformers “willing to dedicate his life and fortune to making other folk do something they found desperately disagreeable for the sake of what he believed to be their future good.”
Using his enormous personal wealth, “he destroyed the old ways of life in Sutherland by uprooting the pastoral inhabitants of the hills and glens and moving some of them to housing on the coast where they could earn better money working in industries which he himself had financed.” That housing includes what are now stone ruins clinging to the dangerously wind-swept cliff edge at Badbea Clearance Village, where farmers were invited to fish and pick kelp.
Lord Stafford, we learn “was too much influenced by [economist James] Loch, and the clearance work was carried out at great speed by his agents whose harshness is still remembered.” Stafford “lost a great deal of money in his ‘philanthropic’ indulgences” but created “a modern communications system in Sutherland, and while he was hated at first, he came to be respected by many at his death, though there are still Scots who can see no good in him and many regard him as an enemy of Gaeldom.”
That would be why the locals have repeatedly tried to topple the towering, one-hundred-foot-tall statue that Stafford erected of himself just north of the nearby town of Golspie. Many of the five thousand people he evicted from Sutherland glens “were forced to emigrate and this accounts for the wide scattering of Scots throughout the British Empire. It was their hardy characteristics and imaginative minds which contributed so much to the building of that empire.”
So, you see, Stafford was right to do what he did. It all worked out in the end.
As we explored Dunrobin Castle and its magnificent gardens, I couldn’t help feeling that one man, above all, deserves to be commemorated here. That man, a stonemason named Donald Macleod, is remembered only by a rough stone cairn at the side of a two-lane highway that winds north to the Strathnaver Museum near the coastal town of Bettyhill. As for Dunrobin Castle itself, by the time we left, I considered it the most politically incorrect edifice in Scotland. Why so?
In 1811, Lord Stafford was serving as a member of Parliament when the British government passed a bill offering to pay half the cost of building roads in northern Scotland. The north had none to speak of because the Romans, who had occupied England from AD 43 to 410, never gained control of Scotland. Stafford and his wife had recently hired three wealthy, well-educated men – Patrick Sellar, William Young, and James Loch – to suggest ways to “improve” their land holdings and make them still more profitable.
His three emissaries advised Lord and Lady Stafford to move people away from the broad and fertile river valleys – Strathnaver, Strath Brora and the Strath of Kildonan—and to convert these regions into giant sheep farms. The people could be sent to allotments and put to work fishing and mining kelp on the coasts of Sutherland. The Staffords, Patrick Sellar wrote, “were pleased humanely to order” this new undertaking.
The interior of Sutherland would be given over to shepherds and Cheviot sheep and tenant farmers would be removed to the rocky coast and “placed in lots of less than three acres, sufficient for the maintenance of an industrious family, pinched enough to cause them to turn their attention to the fishing.” This benevolent action would “put these barbarous Highlanders into a position where they could better associate together, apply themselves to industry, educate their children, and advance in civilization.”
In 1813, the Staffords – also known as the Sutherlands – offered their tenants new lands on the cliffs north of Helmsdale at rocky, windswept Badbea. The farmers had a choice. They could either become herring fishers and kelp pickers or they could emigrate. Ninety-six opted immediately to depart for faraway Rupert’s Land (a massive expanse encircling the east, south, and west of Hudson’s Bay). They crossed the water to Stromness and sailed on the emigrant ship Prince of Wales. After finding Badbea uninhabitable, others followed. In the two decades ending in 1831, the Staffords slashed the population of Kildonan from 1,574 people to 257.
How did they manage this? In 1814, Patrick Sellar gave orders to burn hill-grazing areas so there would be no food for the tenants’ cattle and the people would have no choice but to depart. Soon he was ordering the burning of villages. In May of that year, 430 people were evicted and forced to move to the coastal town of Brora. Sellar himself personally directed the clearances. To force the people out, he had the roofs of their houses pulled down and the timbers set alight to prevent rebuilding. Such is the sanitized version.
As it happened, a courageous young stonemason named Donald Macleod witnessed Sellar in action. Born in the 1790s, Macleod had grown up in a traditional blackhouse listening to worried discussions about the worsening conditions for Highland farmers like his own family. Between 1772 and 1791, nearly seven thousand people had left the counties of Inverness and Ross. At this point, those who emigrated had faced pressure but had not been forcibly evicted. They had simply been ordered to move from their viable ancestral holdings onto miserable plots of land on the famously blustery Scottish coast.
Yet even on those barren, rocky shores, the displaced farmer was not to be his own man. He was to become a fisherman, yes. But he was also expected to pick kelp, seaweed trapped among the rocks, an activity that could provide more profits than sheep. These profits would go mostly to the laird, of course. And so, during the brief kelping season in April and May, men who had once been farmers stumbled around on rocks in the freezing cold waves gathering green weeds for poverty wages.
This kelp-gathering required a massive labour force. Landlords expressed dismay when, despite their efforts to populate the coast, those they sent there thwarted their good intentions by retreating to Inverness or Glasgow, or else by joining the military or even emigrating. To maintain the flow of profits from trading in kelp, one laird insisted that “if the [fertile farming] country has any inhabitants at all, they must be expelled.”
In the spring of 1814, Patrick Sellar ordered all the tenant farmers to quit Strathnaver, that rich farming valley along the River Naver, where for generations their forefathers had tilled the soil. A few days after sending the first notice, Sellar ordered the pasture to be burned so the people would have to move their cattle. During previous removals, farmers had been permitted to carry off the door frames and timbers of their houses for use at their new allotments. This time, with most of the able-bodied men away from home, seeking pasturage for their cows, Sellar waved off that consideration and ordered groups of strong men to oust the aged, the infirm, the women, and the children.
Sellar himself had recently gained control of these lands and he meant to turn them into profitable sheep farms. The tenants had expected that, according to precedent, they would be allowed to remain a while in their ancestral homes, salvaging their crops while slowly they relocated. They were shocked into disbelieving silence when Sellar and his henchmen began knocking down their homes and setting them to the torch. Anything they were unable instantly to remove, the marauders destroyed.
Sellar personally directed this orgy of destruction, as Macleod and other witnesses later attested. One old man stumbled off among the trees and rocks and wandered, disoriented, before succumbing to the elements. Several small children did not survive.
“To these scenes,” Donald Macleod wrote—first in newspapers, later in pamphlets and a book—“I was an eye-witness and am ready to substantiate the truth of my statements, not only by my own testimony, but by that of many others who were present at the time. In such a scene of general devastation, it is almost useless to particularize the cases of individuals; the suffering was great and universal. I shall, however, notice a few of the extreme cases of which I was myself eye-witness.”
Macleod wrote of John Mackay’s wife, Ravigill, who while trying to pull up and preserve the timbers of their house, fell through the roof. “She was in consequence taken in premature labor, and in that state was exposed to the open air and to the view of all the by-standers.” A man named Donald Munro, sick in bed with a fever, was expelled from his house and left vulnerable to the wind and the rain. Donald Macbeath, an old man, bedridden, had the roof of his house torn off, and lay in the elements until he expired.
Patrick Sellar and William Young and their hired thugs put three hundred houses to the torch, even as Macleod and a few other able-bodied men struggled to remove the sick and the helpless before fire engulfed them. Macleod would never forget the cries of women and children, the bawling of cows, the barking of dogs. Sellar had the roofs of the houses pulled down and the timbers set ablaze to prevent rebuilding. “I was present,” Macleod wrote, “at the pulling down and burning of the house of William Chisholm, (in the town of) Badinloskin, in which was lying his wife’s mother, an old bed-ridden woman of nearly 100 years of age, none of the family being present. I informed the persons about to set fire to the house of this circumstance and prevailed on them to wait until Mr. Sellar came. On his arrival, I told him of the poor old woman, Margaret Mackay, being in a condition unfit for removal. He replied, ‘Damn her, the old witch, she has lived too long – let her burn.’”
Later that night in June 1814, Donald Macleod climbed a hill and counted 250 blazing houses. “Many of the owners,” he wrote later, “were my relatives and all of whom I personally knew; but whose present condition, whether in or out of the flames, I could not tell. The fire lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of those days a boat lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore; but at night she was enabled to reach a landing place by the light of the flames.”
Four decades later, the celebrated Harriet Beecher Stowe read what Donald Macleod had written and was moved to write about the Sutherland Clearances. She had received an account, she explained, containing some “ridiculous stories about the Duchess of Sutherland” that had been circulating in America. “There were dreadful accounts of cruelties practiced in the process of inducing the tenants to change their places of residence,” she wrote. “The following is a specimen of these stories.”
Here she quoted a passage by Donald Macleod, which he had first published in the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle in 1840, and then in a booklet, History of the Destitution in Sutherlandshire. She quoted the passage that began, “I was present at the pulling down and burning of the house of William Chisholm…”
Stowe took advice from Elizabeth Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll and the granddaughter of the original Lady Stafford, who had orchestrated the clearances. On her advice, the celebrated American author had consulted Patrick Sellar’s fellow conspirator, Mr. James Loch. This gentleman assured her that “the only thing like a fact stated in the newspaper extract” is that Mr. Sellar was accused of acts of cruelty. He had challenged this account, Loch added, by suing the sheriff substitute who affirmed the story and “obtained a verdict for heavy damages.” He neglected to mention that the testimony of several eyewitnesses notwithstanding, he had engineered the court’s verdict. The sheriff left the country, he said, and both he and Sellar “are since dead.”
Stowe quoted James Loch as adding that, thanks to Lord and Lady Stafford, Sutherland was flourishing: “nothing could exceed the prosperity of the country during the past year; their stock, sheep, and other things sold at high prices; their crops of grain and turnips were never so good, and the potatoes were free from all disease; rents had been paid better than was ever known…As an instance of the improved habits of the farmers, no house is built for them that they do not require a hot bath and water closets.”
In truth, all this was fatuous nonsense. A journalist set the record straight in the Northern Ensign, insisting that Sutherland had slid backwards in population and land values, and had “no shipping or commerce, no post offices, no banks, not a newspaper or a press or a bookshop.” Nevertheless, Harriet Beecher Stowe relayed Loch’s report as gospel in her 1854 book Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands. At the same time, this world-famous darling of the abolitionist movement – her Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold 300,000 copies – asserted that Donald Macleod’s eyewitness accounts of the Clearances were fabrications. According to Stowe, the stonemason was a fraud and a liar.
Two years after Sunny Memories appeared, Donald Macleod sat shaking his head over the book in the town of Woodstock, 145 kilometres southwest of Toronto. From Edinburgh, where he had worked latterly as a bookseller, he had recently crossed the ocean after losing his wife. Now nearing seventy years of age, Macleod had made his way to extended family in this bustling town in what is now Ontario. Along the way he had consulted with the activist-journalist Donald Ross, who had written so eloquently about several Clearances before emigrating to Nova Scotia. Ross had encouraged him to respond to Stowe’s vicious libel.
And so, in the autumn of 1856, Macleod sat at a kitchen table perusing the relevant section of Stowe’s book. She had quoted him at length: “Fire was immediately set to the house, and the blankets in which (the dying woman) was carried out were in flames before she could be got out. She was placed in a little shed, and it was with great difficulty they were prevented from firing it also. The old woman’s daughter arrived while the house was on fire and assisted the neighbours in removing her mother out of the flames and smoke, presenting a picture of horror which I shall never forget, but cannot attempt to describe. Within five days she was a corpse.”
That scene from 1814 haunted him still, though he had tried to put it behind him. In 1818, he had married Betsy Gordon, the bright-eyed daughter of Charles Gordon, a man highly respected in Farr and all along the north coast of Sutherland for his religious and moral character. Having apprenticed with his own father as a mason, Donald Macleod had taken to travelling south every summer to work around Inverness or even Edinburgh, where he could earn better wages. In winter he returned to Rossal Place at Bettyhill to live among family and friends.
As a result, he had witnessed countless scenes of destruction and devastation, including one that, in 1820, culminated in the death of his worthy father-in-law. That admirable man had left six orphans in a state of destitution—for before he drew his last breath, he had seen everything he owned destroyed and his house razed to the ground.
With his wife, Macleod had taken in the six children. Two years later, because his wife needed his help at home, he gave up his summer travels and worked locally for less money. If he had been less outraged by injustice and of a more crouching disposition, he might have moved south and survived there indefinitely. But seeing oppression and persecution flourish around him, and having learned that Lowlanders endured no such treatment, Macleod proved unable to hold his tongue. He became a marked man, and his powerful enemies – Patrick Sellar chief among them – yearned to make an example of him.