A Useless Body

David Craig

  • Set Adrift upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances by James Hunter
    Birlinn, 572 pp, £14.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 78027 354 9

James Hunter’s work has analysed with utter thoroughness the culture of the Highlands and the diaspora that was forced on it. In his latest book, Set Adrift upon the World, he doesn’t try to describe, in a novelist’s or a journalist’s way, how individuals suffered and grieved and retaliated. Rather, he lays out the way systematic dispossession was managed, legally, by the class who engineered the process and who did so for their own gain. The justices of the peace, judges and estate factors made money and entrenched their own power by robbing thousands of small farmers – peasants, if you like (although that isn’t really a British term) – of their lands and turning the country into ranches for big herds of sheep. The new farmers could pay two to three times as much in rent and the landowners felt no duty to their tenants: after all, as the Countess of Sutherland wrote in 1799, tenants who refused to enlist in ‘her’ regiment, the 93rd, ‘need no longer be considered a credit to Sutherland, or any advantage over sheep or any useful animal’.

Sutherland stretches a hundred kilometres from the massive headland of Cape Wrath in the Atlantic north-west. Its average population today is two people per square kilometre, as against Scotland’s average of 68 or England’s 413. Looking inland from the banks of its rivers, the Naver or the Helmsdale, you feel they may well be flowing from some distant source in Poland or Siberia. Around you mountains raise up their grey-blue massifs, habitats of red deer and golden eagle, grouse and ptarmigan. Between these heights lie long straths and glens, well-watered and greenly fertile – decent homelands, you might think, for human generations. They were, until the early 19th century. Angus MacKay’s family were evicted from Strathnaver in 1814. Sixty-nine years later he testified to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars:

you would see a mile or half a mile between every town; 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 fowls 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 … and in several other towns the elders and those who were taking to themselves to be following the means of grace were keeping a meeting once a fortnight – a prayer meeting amongst themselves – and there were plenty gathering, so that the houses would be full.

These families were evicted, their roof timbers set on fire so that the houses could not easily be reoccupied, all in the name of bringing civilisation to people who were thought to be ‘barbarous’. Francis Suther, the principal factor of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland and organiser of the evictions of 1819-20, described these homes as ‘huts’. When the Sutherlands entered on their ‘reforms’, they thought there were three thousand people living in ‘their’ country; in fact there were fifteen thousand. Patrick Sellar, the estate manager before Suther, called them ‘barbarous hordes’. William Young, Sellar’s partner as estate factor, called them ‘a set of savages’. The tenants in the western district of Assynt were described by the Sutherlands’ under-manager, an ex-army man called Gunn, as ‘a useless body’, ‘unprincipled in their morals’. These were people who walked for three hours to church each Sunday along a rough path – no doubt to full meetings, like those Angus MacKay attended. The people’s protests at their treatment were described as ‘howls’.

What we may regard as strengths of the pre-industrial way of life were treated as weaknesses by the new Highland managers. The arch-evictor Patrick Sellar was a thoughtful and eloquent man who in his way went deeply into the way of life he was bent on dismantling. ‘Every man,’ he wrote in a document quoted by Hunter, ‘is a quarrier, mason, woodman, carrier … carpenter, cooper, turf-cutter, thatcher … farmer, cattle dealer, poacher and God knows what.’ Such indeed was the variety of skills that supported life before the factory system and which was now to be systematically and explicitly done away with. In a croft house a few miles from the Sutherlands’ vast château at Dunrobin I was shown a family’s title deeds from 1854. They specify that the tenant could not ‘sport, fowl or fish’, even though wild game was a crucial part of the diet. Only the landlord could work mines, minerals, stone and clay. Only he could ‘cut, prune, thin and carry away the natural and planted woods’ – this in part explains the superhuman efforts made by evicted tenants to carry away their roof timbers. Tenants could not graze animals in the woods – although certain oak woods provided important grazing. Tenants could not ‘cut divots’ – turf was used for the building of walls and for roofing and was crucial on islands such as Barra where tenants were allowed to cut heather for thatch on just one day in the year – which might be when people were away at the fishing.

The embargoes were extraordinarily thorough. A tenant could not keep more than one dog, which must have made herding a nightmare. A later title deed I have seen reserved all peats to the landlord, also ‘all sand, gravel, stone and freestone’. When the second Duke of Sutherland threw his weight against the founding of the Free Church he refused to let churches or manses for this new branch of Presbyterian Christianity be built on his land or with ‘his’ stone. The Free Church may seem an inhumanly austere sect, but in the 1840s it was a sinew of anti-landlord protest because it gave the people the right to choose their minister – this had previously been done by the landlord. Hunter remarks that the traditional ministers in Sutherland were ‘unyielding on its being everyone’s Christian duty to submit to the will of their landlords’. The matter was as much social as theological. The minister was chosen by the landlord, he dined with him, and he might well rent properties from him – although they wouldn’t have been crofts and so not subject to dispossession.

Such was the network of landownership and legal powers which made the clearances possible. Hunter unravels it and leads us through it with the sharpest of eyes for telling details to be found in national and regional archives, record offices and company files. He describes, for example, the people involved in the trial of Patrick Sellar in Inverness in 1816; Sellar had been charged with ‘culpable homicide, fire-raising and cruelty’ after the death of Margaret MacKay. In the late spring of 1814 Sellar’s team had laid waste to a small farm on the high ground between Kildonan to the south-east and Strathnaver to the north. It was occupied by a sub-tenant of one of Sellar’s sub-tenants, William Chisholm. He was warned out – given notice to quit – and the next day Sellar’s men arrived, threw out the furniture, unroofed the house and set fire to it. Chisholm’s bed-bound mother-in-law, Margaret MacKay, who was still inside, screamed ‘Tèine!’ – ‘Fire!’ – and her daughter dragged her out and carried her to an outhouse six feet long, where she died six days later.

Such treatment was common. In Grummore, a few miles west of William Chisholm’s farm, an old miller hid in his mill from the men trying to evict him from his house and lay there, licking oatmeal dust from the floor, defended against rats by his collie. The great-grandsons of a Kildonan woman who died in 1907 showed me her photograph – a bulky woman in widow’s black – and recalled what she had told them about her eviction: ‘when Betty was coming over the mountains there … she was with her wee sister, and they each had a sheep with them – they were like a pet, I suppose. And the shepherd who kept the farm for the estate down there at Portgower, when he saw them he set his dogs on the sheep and they worried them.’

At his trial, two sheriff-substitutes were character witnesses for Sellar, plus a ‘leading Banffshire landlord’. Two influential people, a minister and a sheep-farmer, were allowed to sit beside him in the ‘panel box’ throughout the trial. ‘Everybody called by Sellar’s defence team … had something to lose’: his head shepherd, his foxhunter and the two sheriff-officers who supervised Chisholm’s eviction. The sheriff-substitute of Inverness-shire had known Sellar ‘from his boyhood’ and believed him ‘incapable of doing anything cruel or oppressive’. And so on. ‘No equivalent character references’ were available to Sellar’s accusers because people were dissuaded from giving them by their minister, whom the duchess entertained at Dunrobin and considered ‘very good-looking’ and ‘sensible, intelligent and gentlemanlike’. And so on and so forth. The judge – who had been a partner in an Edinburgh firm of lawyers that ‘handled a great deal of Sutherland Estate business’ – summed up in favour of the accused; the jury unanimously found him not guilty; Sellar burst into tears; and ‘many of the people present in the still crowded courtroom now rushed to congratulate him.’

Hunter’s account of all this, and much else (including the Sutherlanders’ settlement in Canada), is detailed and unsparing. His fellow-feeling for the cleared people is unmistakable, especially when compared with other historians such as the dispassionate Eric Richards, author of A History of the Highland Clearances (1985), and J.M. Bumsted, who wrote in The People’s Clearance (1982) that Highlanders ‘largely lacked … the ability of fluent self-expression’. Hunter is careful to present the evidence for all he records. No assertion is left unqualified. The evictors are quoted verbatim – and of course they were in command of the contemporary media and had a great deal to say. They were working, as they saw it, in the interests of ‘improvement’, a word Hunter uses in inverted commas, to signify his scepticism about the high-minded aims professed by the landlords and their agents. ‘Improvement’ of what? Housing? As Hunter remarks, ‘few people today are likely to be charmed by the thought of a turf-walled home in which smoke from a chimney-less fire had to find its way out through an aperture in a thatched roof.’ But fifty years after the Sutherland clearances one-third of all Scottish homes consisted of one room, as against the typical four in Sutherland; a further third consisted of two; and forty years later again, in Glasgow, where thousands of cleared people finished up, there were 45,000 one-room tenement flats with outside toilets and no clean water.

Eric Richards calls the clearances ‘distant’. They are still proverbial in the Highlands. A man talking to me in Tongue, on Sutherland’s north coast, recalled how his mother had broken in on a conversation about history with the single phrase: ‘Ach, Sellar sgreataidh’ – ‘loathsome Sellar’. The great-grandson of a family cleared from Kildonan told me his ancestors were set to building walls and sheepfolds with the stones of their own dismantled houses for a wage of ‘one shilling for a ten-hour day. And they were selling them meal at £3 for a boll [of meal] – that’s ten stone – so that was costing them sixty days’ work. Slavery, that’s all it was.’