Highland Hearts

V.G. Kiernan

  • On the Crofters’ Trail: In Search of the Clearance Highlanders by David Craig
    Cape, 358 pp, £14.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 224 02750 6

‘Just inside the fir-dusk a hollow oblong of stones now showed, brown and damp with that stupefied or browbeaten look of an abandoned croft-house ... Here was Unnimore.’ Here, too, was David Craig, groping through a wilderness in Morvern in search of a long-abandoned hamlet; his treasure-trove the remains of eight little houses, their stones covered with ‘whiskery grey lichens’. A hundred pages on, our intrepid explorer is being driven across the shingle of Hudson Bay by ‘a sturdy black-eyed woman of Highland Cree descent’, in a three-wheeler with a rifle aboard in case of polar bears, on the track of a lost settlement of folk cleared from Kildonan. His reward this time is a crumbling gravestone, with a name and a date – 1813 – still legible, probably the furthest-north relic left by any exiled Highlander.

This is a rambling book, in the best of both senses. It is wayward, discursive, sharing the true incoherence of history – that of the poor, at any rate. Its author’s simple tactic was to ‘follow the grapevine’, moving about and looking up new informants whose names the last ones gave him. He does not neglect published sources, or documents or old letters, but essentially his work is a fine example of oral history, records of the past gathered from the lips of men and women. There is much to be learned from it about this method – what it can do to supplement our knowledge, and the blanks and infirmities it suffers from. Much has been written on the same subject; best-known among recent works is John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances. Craig is concerned not so much with the Clearances in themselves as with the sort of memories of them that have lingered among later generations.

He is from Aberdeen, and has no Gaelic beyond what he picks up by the wayside. But Aberdeen is not far from the mountains, and he seems close enough in imagination to their now scattered offspring to be able to enter into their experiences. He has come to feel that in delving into these he has really been ‘rebuilding, in fantasy, a homely nest’, re-entering a corner of his own, left behind since boyhood. All through the book there is a vital awareness of how a community, a neighbourhood, is needed for the carrying-on of a tradition.

He is a literary man by trade, rather than a historian. His ordinary style is easygoing, but blossoms into phraseology when there is something vivid to be described, whether in nature or mankind. A ‘translucency of light over the sea’ blends with ‘that singular welcoming and softening of the atmosphere which never leaves a settlement’. Cormorants call up an image of ‘black crucifixes fleeing along the ice-green tunnels of the breakers’. The genteel type of newcomers on the ‘g-and-t island’ of Mull suggest ‘living waxworks representing a past stage of the upper-middle class ...’ There are photographs to reinforce such visual impressions. Here and there readers may come on some puzzling terms. They will only gradually discover that a ‘lazybed’ is a trench for planting potatoes in. Agon is a good Greek word, but scarcely an English one.

Before 1745 the Highlands and Islands were a little world of their own, a peculiar mixture of clan spirit and feudal lordship, with nothing to protect commoners against the chiefs who were supposed to be their fathers and protectors. After Culloden and a brutal pacification, the feudal jurisdictions were ostensibly put an end to. But the ancien régime has never really been swept away in Britain as it was in France on the night of 4 August 1789, when the National Assembly decreed the total abolition of the feudal system. Chiefs turned into toadies of the English government, and controlled their clansmen on its behalf. All the land became their property, and they used their power to exploit or get rid of the cultivators.

Nothing comes out more strikingly in this book than the strength of the social despotism that continued, in fact if not in name, after 1745. Craig writes of ‘the seigneurial rapacity’ displayed by the landlords, of the ‘commandeering or thieving of the crofters’ animals’ that they or their myrmidons indulged in as a matter of course. Anecdotes give us glimpses into a state of life not unlike that of old Russia or China, where the bad landowners and their bullies ‘had nothing to restrain them from gratifying their own worst selves’. Tenants might be compelled to perform thirty or forty days’ labour yearly for their landlord, like Medieval serfs. There was similar but much lighter ‘boon work’ in Wordsworth’s Lakeland.

Land was now a commodity, to be bought and sold among those with money, whose aim was to squeeze as much profit as they could out of it and those living on it. This involved a transformation of the economy. Between 1770 and 1850 an old subsistence economy was passing away. Craig sees that, like most big historic changes, this had a good as well as bad side, but the poor felt only its cruelties. If this was a transition from barbarism to civilisation, they were getting the worst of both. ‘Run-rig’ farming, with periodical re-allotment of holdings, was – as in many parts of Europe – ‘democratic and fairly unproductive’, giving no incentive to improvement. The ‘crofting’ system was imposed by landowners to break it up, and confine each cultivator to a small tenant-holding, often on the coast so that he could pay his rent by collecting kelp, or seaweed from which iodine was extracted. Rates of payment were fixed by the estate, and rents frequently raised in order to keep tenants hard at work.

When foreign imports made kelp unprofitable, landlords turned to sheep-rearing, and crofters were removed from the better soil to make room for flocks of Lowland sheep owned by Lowlanders or Englishmen, or by the landlords’ own factors. Crofters had always been poor, so poor that blood was sometimes taken from cattle to be mixed with oatmeal. The population was swelling, and a demographic crisis had long been looming up. Its shadow helped to set going the ‘emigration mania’ of the 1770s, which carried away twenty thousand Scots, not all of them destitute, some of them small employers.

But far more were soon leaving under compulsion of necessity, or landlord greed, and these are the folk whose descendants’ stories Craig has been collecting, garnering the harvest before too late. For many, it is already too late. Many of those he has buttonholed regret that as youngsters they took little interest in their elders’ narratives, and forgot them, so that a traumatic collective experience may survive only in brief summary. Tales that have drifted down the current of time may have fossilised into myths. A myth can still have significance, Craig observes, as pointing to the importance of its theme for a community. A stirring tale of a South Uist crofter, an old soldier, defying eviction sword in hand, makes a ‘grand legend’, but ‘as history it is riddled with doubtful points.’

It is the callous and humiliating fashion in which people were driven out that embitters some of their descendants. Families were expelled from their cabins – some without time to remove their meagre possessions – and the thatched roofs set on fire, or the fire on the hearth, to which a semi-pagan sacredness clung, was doused. Many were drowned when they were relegated from the valleys to a barren coast, and had to try to exist by fishing. On Berneray island tenants were forced off the good land by soldiers, procured for Lord Dunmore by a friend in the Cabinet. In the famine year 1847 hundreds of the destitute joined in a long hunger-march to Glasgow, where they were left to lie out on the Green in cold and rain.

Times of hunger, or more than usual hunger, gave landlords opportunities to get rid of people by offering food on condition of a promise to emigrate. Some who agreed and then changed their minds were roped and dragged down to the boats, like convicts being transported. On Tiree an agent known as the ‘Black Factor’ screwed up rents, evicted those who failed to pay, sometimes, in the kindness of his heart, paid part of their passage-money to Canada. Children and old folk must have suffered most from the expulsions. One family memory is of ‘an old man sheltering in the mill and lying there licking oatmeal dust from the floor, defended against rats by his collie’. An old crofter said to the Napier Commission of enquiry set up in 1883: ‘I think I hear the cry of the children till this day.’

Sheep were ousted by foreign competition, much of it from Australia, where some crofters had fled; clearances continued, for sporting purposes mainly, with the rearing of deer and grouse for the pleasure of shooting more than eating. Dominant classes, feudal or capitalist, take to killing by instinct. The sacred rights of property were vindicated, like the divine right of kings in old days to do wrong. It is a disturbing thought that so much of Scotland and the world is still overrun with more or less feudal landlords. The very idea of a human being claiming ownership of mountains, lakes, the soil that others live by, is ‘feudal’ or morbid: such monstrous egotism cannot but breed a distorted personality and a warped society.

Sometimes we hear of the haughty landlord riding up to the tenant’s door and ordering him out. More often, and always on the estates of such grandees as the Sutherlands, who counted their acres by the hundred thousand, this role was entrusted to ‘factors’, ‘agents’, ‘ground officers’. To please his employer, one of these had to display zeal by treating humble folk high-handedly. He had to keep up his dignity. A crofter was evicted for letting his horse get ahead of the factor’s on the road, instead of staying obsequiously behind. The Napier Commission was told how people were forbidden to give any aid or comfort to evicted families, on pain of suffering the same fate. When John MacLeod, a tyrannical Harris agent died, ‘people came from miles around to urinate on his grave.’

Factors had their underlings, ready for any rough work. In their sanguinary clan feuds Highlanders had often shown one another no mercy: a century after Culloden the same spirit could still show itself. ‘They jumped on an old woman and broke her ribs,’ said one of Craig’s informants, who added: ‘It is difficult to understand the cruelty that’s in man’s heart.’ One of the worst effects of class division has always been the corrupting of part of the subject class by its masters. Early in the 1830s Wellington was summoning the English gentry to mobilise its grooms and other servants into a fighting force to put down Captain Swing and the rebel farm labourers.

A crofter from near Loch Eriboll maintained that the people there, ‘especially the women’, dared to resist the evictions. That women sometimes showed more fight than their men is a fact that shows up in other records. Craig gives several examples. Up in Sutherland some women are said to have seized a sheriff’s officer coming to serve writs, deprived him of his trousers, and given him a skelping. But one day in March 1854 the women of Strath Carron, trying to bar the way to a drunken police posse, were savagely beaten, a score of them seriously injured.

One woman was critical of the men for giving way so easily, and blamed the decay of their native language for depriving them of spirit. A Skye woman of our day feels that as the Clearances went on the men became crushed, demoralised: ‘The sap was squeezed out of them.’ A Harris man has another explanation. Habits of serving in the chiefs’ armed bands had made them docile, ‘so that the Gaels had no guts – except when they were fighting other people’s battles.’ One cannot miss the resemblance to Germans, and perhaps all over-military races have been warlike sheep, easily led or driven by their own Highnesses. The ‘Crofters’ War’ in the 1870s showed a recovery: by then, like the Irish peasants with their Land War, they had some political backing, and there was more publicity for their cause. In 1886 the Crofting Act gave them security of tenure and rent control, but no more land. Soldiers returning from the Great War, who had had time to forget about deference, carried out land-raids. But by then it was too late in history.

Earlier on, religion had supplied a drug which most of the clergy were quite ready to administer. Many of them were prosperous tenant farmers, sharing the desire to see the surplus population skimmed off. It was so in Shetland too, where Craig found that the ‘dovetailing between Church of Scotland minister and laird’ had been more patent than anywhere. There was keen resentment among the poor, many of whom joined the Free Kirk as soon as it broke away. But in default of support from any Christian church, Protestant or Catholic, they often seem to have found comfort in an older, pagan faith. Craig came across a variety of tales of curses laid by the sufferers on their oppressors, or their houses, or animals, and of retribution duly overtaking them. Like Hamlet, the Gaels could only unpack their hearts with words.

At Lettaidh in Strath Fleet women were evicted and cottages burned down while the men, recruited by the Sutherlands’ estate agents, were away fighting Napoleon. The more unpleasant life could be made for crofters, the easier it was to get them into the Army, at least until the 1840s: there were no volunteers for the Crimean War. Highland regiments did much of the rough work of empire-building. Among history’s intricately ramifying causations, there is a connection to be traced between the Clearances and the conquest of India.

Clearances were in part victories of the Lowlands over the Highlands. More broadly they were a late phase of the general history of the British Isles, the stage-by-stage elimination or subjugation of the Celt by the Saxon. Of those whom their heartless country threw out upon the waves, thousands perished during the crossing of the Atlantic, as thousands of Africans did during the same years. Some survivors failed to find a footing on the other side. Others made good, and joined in the dispossession of the Indians from their homes. Today, as Craig reminds us, other peoples are being cleared off their lands – in the Brazilian forests, for instance.

In Canada he came on many interesting things about the Highlanders in their reincarnation in a new world, but not much about how they came to be there. Memories of the dark days, the hardships and indignities seem to have been buried and blotted out, as too painful to live with. The Atlantic has been a river of Lethe. Comfortable on their farms or in their offices, they give as little thought to a murky ancestral past as the human race of a far future, if there is one, will give to humanity’s tribulations of today.