Archive for ‘Croick Church,’

February 28, 2019

The Church belongs to God but the stone belongs to the Duke: the Highland Clearances as told by Iain Crichton Smith

When Morag R recommended Iain Crichton Smith’s novel about the Clearances, Consider the Lilies and said she’d be interested in my thoughts on it I didn’t think it would lead to a blog on the subject. But it did.

Crichton Smith was a poet as is clear in this book with its constrained sentence construction which slowly works up into a novel. His descriptions of people, places and situations are presented as lean and concise observations that are straight out of a poet’s toolbox.

consider the liliesI didn’t warm to his style immediately. I found it too spare and his protagonist Mrs Scott a little too glaikit and too far gone for a woman of just seventy; a country woman who didn’t know the names of flowers and birds is completely unbelievable – but Crichton Smith’s character grows in awareness throughout the book, driven by circumstance, to question everything she believed in. By the end of the book I was impressed. The simplicity of the tale’s beginning transformed into a rigorous exploration of the deceit and corruption that produced one of the greatest atrocities, arguably the greatest atrocity, to take place in these islands. An atrocity of monumental proportions that has been deliberately under-exposed by generations of historians happily complicit and driven by their own prejudices to sugar-coat the eviction and transportation of tens of thousands of Scots Highlanders from their homes and country – penniless and traumatised to uncertain futures abroad. These apologists are still around – on our radios and televisions – dismissing the Clearances as not so bad – in fact they were the making of the Highlander several claim.

Crichton Smith’s novel is set during the Sutherland Clearances. There were various Clearances around Scotland including Argyll, the Hebrides and the straths of Ross from where my own family were cleared.

Ian Macpherson, MP for Ross and Cromarty 1911-1935, said that there was no ‘more foul deed been committed in the sacred name of property than in the Highlands of Scotland in those days.’

Characters in the novel include James Loch, Patrick Sellar, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland – all infamous rogues and all actual perpetrators of this inhumane episode. The guy in the ‘white hat’, so to speak, is stone mason, Donald Macleod, who was also a real person and was himself a victim of the burnings. Macleod was loathed by the landed interests and their lackeys for speaking out about their barbarism and he exposed the callous removal of whole communities in letters to the press which laid bare the cruelties of this policy of ethnic cleansing.

His letters were published in the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle and attracted a good deal of attention and the only thing that prevented the odious Duchess of Sutherland from suing Macleod and the paper for defamation was her recognition that she was as guilty as sin and that the publicity would not do her reputation any good.

‘The Church belongs to God but the stone belongs to the Duke’

The Sutherland clearance began in 1807. Farmers were driven from the holdings worked by their forefathers and themselves. They were pushed to the coasts to take up fishing as if crofters would know one bit of a boat from another and not starve while finding out.

Mrs Scott is visited by James Sellar, factor to the Duke of Sutherland (Marquess of Stafford) who puts the fear of death into her with his talk of destroying her home and moving her off the land that has been home to her people for generations so that sheep can have the freedom to live there. Deeply Christian she goes to the church minister for advice. He is aloof. The pampered world he inhabits bears no comparison to her little smoke-blackened thatched home where she brought up her son and from where her husband went off to fight for the British king and died somewhere in Spain. Why – she doesn’t understand. Nor does she comprehend why years after her husband’s death abroad she never received the pension she was promised. She would not know how much the laird class despised men like her husband while happy to recruit tens of thousands of these strapping and brave individuals to defend the interests of the king and Britain’s wealthy classes.

In the First World War soldiers were promised they would come home to a land fit for heroes. That was a lie. They got unemployment and starvation. In 19th century Scotland soldiers who survived the king’s foreign wars returned to find their homes gone – burnt down, their people gone forever and sheep where their families once stayed, worked and played.

Mrs Scott’s only child leaves for Canada and in a heart rending passage Mrs Scott is left bereft and utterly alone. The much respected minister is no consolation for he is a nasty piece of work and blames the Clearances on sinful villagers not rapacious landowners. Mrs Scott listens to him, to his lies, his dismissal of her expectation of a pension following her husband’s death. He boasts of building the village church with his own hands. She knows he did no such thing and she realises he is not a good man and has only his own self-interest at heart. She loses her innocence. She abandons the church.

When Patrick Sellar returns he is accompanied by fellow flunky, James Loch. They sit in Mrs Scott’s home playing hard cop soft cop – heaping lies upon lies in an attempt to persuade this old woman to leave peaceably and accept this evil action is in her best interests. Mrs Scott has meantime discovered the very folk she had always accepted were her betters were, in fact, her enemies and the ones they vilified were her friends. The atheist mason, Donald Macleod, and his family offer her kindness. She comes to understand him for condemning the minister and the church for sermons that kept the people quiet and obediently loyal to landed interests. She refuses to conspire with Sellar and Loch to speak against Donald Macleod in court. She quietly listens as a furious Sellar threatens to burn her out of her house within two days.

‘…there are far more defeats than victories, and that the victories last only a short time while the defeats last for ever’

In real life Sellar’s infamy lives on. He was a brute. In the spring of 1814 he and his men set fire to pastures at Farr and Kildonan so the crofters’ animals would have nothing to eat and the people would have no choice but to leave their land. The fires spread beyond the grass destroying fences so that fields with crops were trampled by the starving animals. Villagers’ outhouses, kilns and mills were set alight – their means of work and for providing food were destroyed. Homes were set ablaze and if the occupiers weren’t at home or quick their possessions and furniture went up in flames. What could not be immediately saved was lost.

People of all ages were made homeless; the old, the infirm, pregnant women, children and babies were left with nowhere to shelter by lairds who lived in castles – aided and abetted by their willing employees and church ministers. In Sutherland the poorest people were made destitute by one of the richest women in the country acting out of sheer greed and callousness.

deserted home

Deserted home

Of course people died. The most vulnerable died first. The winter of 1815-16 was cold with heavy snow. People were abandoned to find any means of shelter in the open and with no proper access to food. It was hard enough for the healthy but for the frail and young it meant inevitable death. The people burnt out of their homes were left to walk many miles to the coasts carrying whatever they could save from the flames loaded onto their backs, smoke billowing from their past lives behind them.

In 1816 the murderous thug , Sellar, was charged with culpable homicide and fire raising against forty families. He was found innocent. Of course. Witnesses were prevented from giving evidence and two sheriffs instrumental in bringing this man to trial lost their jobs. Stalin’s show trials weren’t handled with more efficiency.

In 1827 the Duchess visited the aptly named Dunrobin Castle – although they never stopped robbin’ the poor. Piling insult upon insult her lackeys went around her tenants forcing them to contribute to a gift for her. Then her tenants were squeezed to bear some of the cost of a mausoleum for the Duke. We’re still living in these times with the wealthiest people in the UK demanding tax exemptions for their estates in Scotland.

When the inevitable starvation visited these cleared families government relief was arranged in some part and the Duchess of Sutherland provided ‘charitable relief’ to some of her tenants who lost their homes and ability to feed themselves through her actions. Surprise, surprise this relief had to be paid back by her tenants. The ‘charity’ was no such thing. And if her tenants refused to pay for their own ‘charity’ they were once more evicted from their recently settled homes.

As for being the voluntary evacuation of worthless land the Highland Clearances were nothing of the kind. Certainly there was poverty and some people chose to leave Scotland to try to make a living in north America but the majority were forced to migrate – to the coasts, other parts of Scotland and abroad. Forced emigration was cruel and violent as in the kidnapping of the folk of South Uist and Barra who were manhandled onboard Atlantic-bound ships and dumped in Canada, destitute. Gaelic speakers thrown into a foreign country that spoke a different language. This was happening as late as 1851.

Thomas Faed's painting The Last of the Clan as they await to board an Atlantic-bound ship

Thomas Faed’s painting The Last of the Clan as they await to board an Atlantic-bound ship

As for the land that was forcibly cleared it became the playground for the rich. When sheep didn’t pay enough to satisfy lairds who owned vast tracts of the country they introduced deer and grouse to be slaughtered by the kind of people who get a kick out of exterminating wildlife. We still have these shooting estates across Scotland – to our shame. Now they are desolate places that once were alive with working communities and where our birds and animals fly over and stray across at their peril.

Mrs Scott’s native Sutherland was cleared of 15,000 people in the ten years from 1809 alone. At Strathnaver where the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland torched thatched roofs with flaming faggots over 200,000 acres of crofted land made up of pastures, meadows and cultivated fields worked by communities were turned into five substantial farms. Sellar bought  up some of the land he drove tenants from; terrorised by shouting men wielding sticks and guns and chased by dogs.  

Farmers were forced from fertile land to desolation and starvation and areas of depleted populations became ghost straths.

I recommend Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies as a thoughtful and humane exploration of a callous period of British history. And when you’ve absorbed Smith’s poetic but blunt message take a look at contemporaneous accounts from the period of the Clearances but be prepared for accounts far more harrowing and as is often the case truth is stranger than fiction.

The title Consider the Lilies is taken from the Book of Luke in the Bible. 

Mackenzie’s History of the Highland Clearances 1883 read for free http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/51271
Donald Macleod’s Gloomy memories can be read here – https://archive.org/stream/donaldmcleodsglo00mcleuoft/donaldmcleodsglo00mcleuoft_djvu.txt

February 18, 2016

Reflections on the Highland Clearances: Croick Church at Strathcarron

 

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When Sir John Lockhart Ross of Balnagowan joined the frenzy for making money from introducing sheep and deer to Highland estates he gave no thought to evicting people who lived and worked his vast acres from their homes in the straths and glens their families had occupied for generations. The land was his and he would do what he liked with it and he had a lackey eager to do his bidding. 

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On the afternoon of 24th May 1845 among the several hundred evicted from their homes that day from in Glen Calvie in Sutherland, that is ordered out of their homes, unroofed behind them and herded away like so many cattle, 90 sought refuge in Croick graveyard. These were law abiding, God-fearing people who resisted the attacks on them and their way of life but were beaten by the ruthlessness of those with wealth and power and their toadies.

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A few of the evicted did find alternative areas to farm and live but the numbers were so great that many did not. The 90 who crowded into the graveyard did not attempt to go into the church out of fear of causing offence. What does that tell you?

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A few scratched messages on the church’s windows during this clearance, and a later one from Greenyards in Strathcarron in 1854, known as the Massacre of the Rosses, and their words remind us the Clearances were tragic and despicable and happened to real people like you and me.

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Croick Church is at the end of a long single-track road up lovely Strathcarron. It was one of 43 churches funded by the British government at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, as a thank you for the contribution of strathfolk to the French Wars – the contribution being a rich supply of men and boys prepared to fight and die for a cause a long, long way from their homes and cares.

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Strathcarron’s menfolk in common with every other glen and strath in Scotland were much sought after by the British state, and their clan chiefs before then, for their bravery in battle; plentiful supplies of young and strong men who fitted the role of cannon fodder perfectly.

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So these churches, built with money made available by the government were called Parliamentary churches for that reason and were provided with an annual minister stipend of £120. Croick was built in 1827 and Thomas Telford was involved in selecting the designs of these Parliamentary churches and their manses but I don’t believe he designed them.

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While young strapping men might have been appreciated as a fighting resource (perhaps not quite the right term) by the authorities as long as they wore the uniform of the state, and fought for its interests and not against, they were designated insignificant when not required for military service. And neither they nor their families were respected when it came to evicting them at short notice when the land was wanted as hunting muirs – then those communities were disposed of as any other property only with less value to the lairds and their lackeys than grazing beasts.

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The Clearances were shocking and a disgrace although there are some today who would excuse them or try to diminish their significance in the history of this country as part of their rightwing political narrative. But there are always reactionaries blind to truth.
The shameful events of the clearing of Glen Calvie was reported at the time in the Times of London in a piece which recognised the reprehensible nature of the action – turning people out by force and making them into beggars.

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“Behind the church, a long kind of booth was erected, the roof formed of tarpaulin stretched over poles… horsecloths, rugs, blankets and plaids … their bedding and their children they all removed on Saturday afternoon to this place… they had been round to every heritor and factor in the neighbourhood, and 12 of the 18 families had been unable to find places of shelter…”.

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The man who physically carried out this act was the estate’s factor James Gillanders of Tain. His first attempts at serving eviction notices on the people were actively rebuffed by the womenfolk of the glen who burned the papers. This was in 1843.

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Gillanders succeeded the following year, avoiding the women he tricked the men into receiving the summonses. Observant of the law the people did not resort to violence in the face of such an outrage. They lost homes, means of living and feeding their families, communities and their entitlement (as it was) to land that stretched back generations and centuries.

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Among the 90 people who grouped together like animals outside the church that May were 23 children under ten years of age, including tiny babies, 10 over the age of 60 years and several in poor health.

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Some of the scratched messages showing that even from the most isolated glens the people were literate.

Among the scratched comments are:
GLENCALVIE IS A WILDERS …. BELOW SHEEP THAT …. TO THE …. CROICK
GLENCAL PEOPL WAS IN THE CHURCHYARD HERE MAY 24 1845
THE GLEN…. PEOPLES WERE HERE 1845 THE GLENCALVIE ROSS
JOHN ROSS 1854 …. GLEN….. 24
THE GLENCALVIE TENANTS RESIDED HERE MAY 24 1845
GLENCALVIE …. MAY
GLENCALVIE PEOPLE THE WICKED GENERATION GLENCALVIE
GLENCALVIE TENANTS RESIDING HERE
GLENCALVIE GREENYARD MURDER WAS IN THE YEAR 1854 MARCH 31
THE GLEN…. PEOPLES WERE HERE 1845 THE GLENCALVIE ROSS
JOHN ROSS SHEPHERD CROICK THE GLENCALVIE …. HERE MAY 24TH 184
THIS HOUSE IS NEDING REPAIR

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The instrument of this evil, or rather the one who physically carried out the act for it was greater than this appalling man, Gillanders, was buried in Croick graveyard and it should come as no surprise his grave was frequently strewn with rubbish as an indication of how he was regarded by locals.

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Glen Calvie is now a sporting estate, wouldn’t you know it? In presumably unwitting irony the holders of the estate explain how the strath has “been continuously inhabited since the end of the last ice age.” With what is not explained. Neither does the estate website care to linger on the story of the Clearances from the glen but it does provide a link to http://croickchurch.com and it does acknowledge “This history is only partial and incomplete.” Aye to that.

 

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