Lady Gordon Cathcart one of the last of Scotland’s tyrants

It takes a certain type of personality icily detached from common humanity to be at  ease with plucking people from all that they hold dear and is familiar to them and transplant them like so many cabbage plants into an area of foreign soil with nothing to sustain them.

Scarth family from Scotland

Scottish settlers in Canada

Lady Emily Eliza Steele Gordon Cathcart was one such woman. Famous and notorious in equal measure she wielded power like so many demi-gods of the 18th and 19th centuries in turning people off their hereditary lands; populations with more claim to the land than her. Her tyranny was one of the last of its kind in Scotland. She died in 1932 and not a moment too soon.

Cathcart came to own chunks of the Hebrides through her marriage to Captain John Gordon of the Cluny estate in Aberdeenshire (a long way from the Western Isles.) He had inherited parts of the Hebrides from his father who bought up islands from the Chief of Clanranald in 1838. The Gordons were fabulously wealthy chiefly from the several slave estates they owned in the West Indies.

Up to their necks in the slave trade the Gordons were represented in parliament, for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis by John senior, a Tory. This John, unsurprisingly opted to see something of the world, and get paid for it so he joined the military. In Egypt he admired many of its ancient monuments and with characteristic humility carved his name on several of them – the Dendara temple was graffitied by him in 1804. He did the same at the temple of Edfu, and at Esna, and at Gebel el-Silsila and in Thebes at the temple at Karnak and at the pylon of the Luxor temple, and the great temple of Medinet Habu and in the mortuary temple of Ramesses II, and on several tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and at Kom Ombo at the Isis temple at Philae, and at the Tomb of Paheri – on both its east and west walls. In fact he was the first to vandalise the tomb.

The vandal John Gordon

Fast forward to his inheritance of both Cluny Castle and estates and riches from his uncle’s six properties in Tobago. Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1833 and slave owners were very well compensated. Gordon’s 1400 slaves proved to be a good money earner when the UK government paid him nearly £25,000 which would work out around £100,000,000 today in compensation for the loss of their human chattels. He didn’t require much of that to buy up North and South Uist, Benbecula and Barra plus estates closer to home (not Weymouth but Aberdeenshire) of Midmar, Kebbaty and Shiels, Banffshire, Inverness-shire, Midlothian and Nairnshire.

Like so many of today’s British super-wealthy this Gordon senior invested substantial part of his fortune overseas for he was notoriously greedy as well as being a disreputable rogue who evicted 3,000 tenants with centuries-long ties to the land. Those who resisted were handcuffed and forced aboard Atlantic-bound ships. Some thought they might run off and hide in caves but were hunted down by men and dogs. When homes were pulled to pieces islanders propped up blankets on sticks for shelter but these were taken from them. Some concealed themselves under fishing boats but they, too, were exposed and their boats destroyed. The choice to stay or go was not offered to the Gordon tenants. They were regarded as vermin, and not dissimilar to the Tobago slaves, property to be dispensed with however the laird liked.  

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Benbecula

All sorts of promises were made to cajole people to leave the Highlands and Islands. Promises of a grand life awaiting emigrants but as with most promises they turned out to be nothing but lies. There was not work, nor land for them all. Ripped away from everything they had known Scottish Islanders were reduced to begging. Scottish child migrants were badly undernourished in this land of plenty. The Reverend Norman MacLeod reported seeing them with shrivelled legs, hollow eyes and swollen bellies. For the privilege of slowly starving to death Gordon’s islanders were forced to pay for their imposed migration by this the wealthiest ‘commoner’ in Scotland.

John Gordon far from doing anything positive with his vast fortune proved to be an utter scoundrel. He attracted the reputation as one of the most hated men in Scottish history but his name has faded from our collective memory so I thought it time to revive his notoriety.

Motivated by greed and vanity he earned himself a reputation at the time for his brutal treatment of the islanders of the Hebrides. He wanted them out and so they were sent packing – lock, stock and barrel the populations of the islands were given no choice – no generous compensation from a sympathetic government for them – if only they had been slave owners -but instead they were booted out of their homes, their crofts, and onto ships that took them to Canada to survive or fail in the strange environment where a different language was spoken for these were entirely Gaelic speaking people. Those who survived the long weeks at sea had to get by or sink.

John Gordon senior died without any legitimate heirs and several dead illegitimate ones bar one, John, husband of Lady Emily. He was as vicious as his father in his treatment of the islanders and he, too, left no legitimate heir and so his wife inherited everything. She shared his malicious temperament and she persecuted the poorest in these lands with the same vigour as her obnoxious husband. Their contribution of clearing and re-settling people was, at the time, seen as both an outrage and an impressive contribution to empire building.

Lady Emily Gordon fairly quickly remarried and she added Cathcart to her list of names, taken from her new husband Sir Reginald Cathcart of Sunninghill, Berkshire in England.

The banished populations of the Hebrides disembarked on the northeast coast of Canada and straightaway had to erect shelters, initially of turf, as well as try to find a means of providing food and income for their families. Food prices were extortionately high in the area – eggs sold for one dollar per dozen, flour was six dollars for one hundred pounds, sugar cost a dollar for four pounds and salt ten cents a pound. Mostly farmers several Scots tried to re-establish croft life digging land to create smallholdings around Moosomin in Saskatchewan. Land that was sold to them for $2.50 an acre by the Canadian Pacific Railway company who lay claim to it. And who just happened to own shares in the Canadian Pacific? None other than Lady Gordon Cathcart who also held stock in Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company. As an investor in the potential of Canada Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart had strong reasons for sending enforced labour to this part of the empire. Bad doesn’t get close to describing parasites such as the Lady Gordon Cathcart aka Lady Bountiful.

They made do, these hardy souls, torn from their lands while the Gordons clung onto their vast estates and Castle Cluny itself. At Moosomin the Scots deposited there were said to have taken the Scotchman’s Trail to the place that would become their new home. They had virtually nothing to get established with and turned old herring barrels into sleighs so they could move around in the deep snows that fell in this inhospitable land. The woollen clothing that kept them warm in Scotland was no use in this harsh climate and they took to wearing animal skins in winter for protection.

And what of the natives of this dumping ground? They were Chipewyan, Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine, Atsina and Sioux. Their hold on the lands they had lived on for generations was no more secure than that of the Scottish Highlanders and like them they were banished and confined to designated areas. Part of the territory Lady Cathcart targeted for her cleared people was known as Assiniboia, the name taken from the First Nation peoples whose land it once was before being purloined by the government and in turn sold off to settlers.  

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Assiniboine Woman c 1900

 

 

Those recent settlers from the Hebrides hewed the untamed soil to establish their farms. To retain their newly acquired property they had to reside on it for at least six months annually over the first three years. Winters were brutal, far worse than anything known to them in Scotland and they were forced to move into towns during the worst months when snows made remaining on their farms impossible, sometimes taking their basic shacks with them. Winter started around the end of November and lasted until around April. Out of necessity Scottish islanders learned to skate, toboggan, to get around on snow shoes and by sleigh, originally as we’ve seen converted herring barrels.

Everything froze. Solid blocks of milk were broken up by hammer and chisel and sold by the pound. Live stock had to be shut up for the whole of winter and fed from hay gathered from the prairie. Traditional Scottish woollen clothing was fairly useless at keeping out the cold and so the Scots took to wearing animal skins and furs.

Frostbite was rife. One man, a Jewish rabbi, (not from the islands) undertook a journey of two miles in a blizzard with only cotton socks and moccasins on his feet. Sixteen hours later he was found close to death and his legs had to be amputated.

There were regulations imposed. Alcohol was regulated and mostly confined to the sick, although I imagine it was available to wealthier people in the area. A government permit was required if the need was desperate, ie illness, and the permit allowed the recipient to get liquor for up to six months. Inevitably this policy led to an upsurge in sick claims, especially from young men. When that failed several decided their only recourse was to produce their own booze through illicit distillation – of which there is a good strong tradition in Scotland.

Newcomers found the communities welcoming and traditional British class distinctions tended to fall away. People became less subservient. There is a nice account of a young girl from Benbecula who discovered being a servant didn’t suit her and so after three days she told her mistress she wouldn’t wait on her any longer and off she went. Her attitude chimed in  with members of First Nation tribes who resisted being constrained by European master/servant relationships and the trappings of European dress.

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It has to be said that scraping a living in the Hebrides was no easy task but then neither was it in the wild uncultivated part of Canada many found themselves. When some neighbouring islanders took to boats and landed on the empty acres of Vatersay they took cattle, sheep and ponies with them to set up farms there, earning themselves the nickname of Vatersay Raiders and were duly thrown into prison for daring to defy Britain’s property rights and squatting on Gordon Cathcart’s land. They could have chosen to cross the Atlantic to Canada or America but they wanted to stay in Scotland. The press, fawning towards the wealthy and powerful as ever, demonised the squatters on land Lady Bountiful herself had described as barren and inhospitable with no good water supply and where even potatoes would not grow. Still, she liked the place enough to hold onto it and fought those who tried to make a go of farming it. She demanded the Trespass Act be employed to defend her property from the audacious pirates who had taken ‘violent possession of it.’

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The Vatersay Raiders

The matter was raised in the Commons where her supporters and detractors stood up to defend or attack her for her behaviour towards tenants. She was described as a harsh and inconsiderate landlord but jumping to her defence was Lord Tweedmouth, First Lord of the Admiralty, who claimed she had done great work for encouraging work in Scotland and

“It was a monstrous proposal from men not even in the status of crofters to cross the sea to Vatersay, which was not included under the operation of the Crofters Act, and which was in occupation of a tenant, to take possession, and put their cattle upon it.”

In 1908 she took the squatters to court to reinstate her empty land – and to punish them, of course. A number were tried in Edinburgh and jailed. There were references to Scotland’s ‘semi-Celtic populace’ who, given half a chance, would spread the contagion of lawlessness if not controlled. She was accused of being an unprincipled owner intent on getting the government to purchase her property.

The disgraceful antics of Lady Gordon Cathcart attracted so much public attention the government did indeed buy the island in 1909 and divided it up into 60 working crofts.  

Again in 1914 questions were asked in the House of Commons over compensation for her losses – the goose and duck shoots, value of coastal products (seaware and tangle – seaweed kelp was a valuable resource for making into iodine and soda for the manufacture of soap and glass) to the tune of £13000.

The Union with England of 1707 afforded opportunities for lairds to transform their estates from places where people lived and reciprocated services to land that could be exploited for new-found commerce – game shoots, grazing for cattle to provide meat for the English market, sheep to provide wool for clothing for the domestic market but more importantly to provide uniforms for the military in the never-ending wars Britain was involved in. Mutton, too, from sheep and not forgetting kelp. The barren Highlands turned out to be an area rich for development, like any other colony and while the native people were not slaves as the West Indians were they were helpless, nonetheless, when it came to deciding their futures. And, er, she had a golf course built at Askernish on South Uist – make of that what you will.

 Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart’s character was rarely far from public scrutiny. Still she had many of her class ready to come to her defence. Unionist MP Sir George Younger, member for Ayr, rejected accusations that she had forcibly cleared crofters off their lands (and there are still unionist revisionist historians that will applaud Younger’s view that the Hebridean crofters voluntarily left their homes and boarded ships for Canada. Some would have but the majority did not.) Younger claimed Lady Cathcart’s tenants had their passages paid by her which was not true. Yes some received a loan but it had to be repaid. Younger told the House of Commons the former crofters were prospering in their Canadian homes and were grateful to Cathcart for the opportunity of moving there. Not everyone in the House was convinced. One asked if she had offered to transport the geese to Canada, or indeed Sir George Younger himself.

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Lady Cathcart had written to newspapers the year before attempting to salvage her reputation for being a nasty piece of work, insisting that in 1883 she ‘assisted a number of crofter families from the Islands of Benbecula and South Uist to emigrate to Canada, where their well-being and prosperity are assured, and they have repaid all the advances which I made to them to settle them on their homesteads.’ She produced a letter written by one of the settlers as part of her defence. It was well-known that Lady Gordon Cathcart was vehemently anti-Catholic and as most of her islanders were Catholic I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions how that might have affected her behaviour aside from her business interests in the northwest territories of Canada, around Regina and Wapella,   

The notorious clearer of people from their homelands Lady Gordon Cathcart of Cluny died at Westgate-on-Sea that well-known Scottish part of Kent at the age of 88yrs. In her will she left £5000 to Princess Helena Victoria “if she will accept it.”

Bet she did.

 

 

 

 

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