Posts tagged ‘Barra’

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 1, 2019

Kelp, Clearances, Clanranald, Speculators and Scottish Scoundrel Lairds

This blog came about after I was contacted by a reader whose family were involved with kelp preparation in the Hebrides before being forced off their land to make a life elsewhere. What I knew about kelp could have been written on a postage stamp until I looked into it further. This is some of what I discovered.

Much of the glass going into windows in Britain’s better-off households, to protect them from the elements was, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, mainly manufactured using kelp produced by the poorest of people in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Highland Scots engaged in this process from very young children to the elderly and infirm enjoyed none of the protection of glass forced as they were through circumstance to live outside among the rocks on the seashore during the kelp season; enduring all weather conditions and blasted by wind, rain and sea or baked under the hot sun on exposed isles and coasts. When crofters were labouring at the shore they were not looking after their crofts which provided their food and so these failed from lack of attention and in any case the seaweed they traditionally used to fertilize the land was needed to be burnt to make kelp.

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Seaweed used to make kelp

Glass and that other major product of kelp, soap, were made using potash and soda produced from burned seaweed; it was also used in calico production, for bleaching, for iodine, for producing potassium alum (an agent in a host of industrial uses) and for fertilisers. Glass used for bottles and drinking glasses was less dependent on kelp than window glass up until the 1830s. That this important trade has been largely ignored by historians and economic historians is surely down to its location – rural Scotland (Wales and Ireland.) Sadly, historians and social commentators indulge their own prejudices which are passed on through their works which have shaped our knowledge of the past. There has been and still is an emphasis on urban employment over rural – urban = good and significant / rural = bad and trivial.

Kelp production contributed in no small measure to the UK’s economy, it became a valuable commodity and was a major source of employment in rural Scotland with around 60,000 involved in kelp production in the Hebrides and Orkney (a similar number in Ireland.) In any measure this is a large number of people dependent on an industry which was essential to the UK’s production of glass and soap – so much so stones were taken to beaches to encourage seaweed to grow on them. Of course essential as the kelp industry was its lynchpin, the kelpers, were ruthlessly exploited. 30 tons of seaweed was needed to produce 1 ton of kelp ash. Something in the region of 2,000 tons of kelp was produced annually in the western isles in the mid-later 18th century. A laird’s cut was around £21 per ton with local workers paid something under £2 per ton at best and 4d (4 pennies at the other end.)

What is kelp? Nowadays we refer to a type of seaweed as kelp but originally this was the name given to the alkali produced from burning seaweed. Hebridean lairds allocated their crofters a small portion of seashore when kelp production was at its height. In addition to working the land crofters and their families were put to work by their lairds producing kelp. Lairds paid their tenant crofters an annual amount for each ton of kelp and the sums paid reflected what was set by agents working for glass or soap manufacturers.

Kelping was heavy work which required many hands to cut, carry, spread to dry and burn the seaweed in stone kilns (filthy work which led to blindness among kelpers.) Kiln fires burned for about 8 hours to produce kelp, dark blue and oily, which then had to be cooled over weeks.

For crofters whose smallholdings were inland kelp production meant moving their whole family to the shore, perhaps many miles away from their homes so forcing them to live on the seashore where they laboured both day and night by torchlight. Men had to go to sea fishing during the only time available to them, in the dark, to feed their families otherwise attempting to live off the odd limpets or shellfish they could find. There are reports of people eating seaweed but they could not eat the weed they needed for kelp. Oatmeal was the staple diet of Scots but on islands where it might not be possible to grow oats, or in sufficient amounts, having this most basic foodstuff was dependent on the arrival of boats from the mainland. Then again meal wasn’t free and these people had no or virtually no cash because their landlords paid mainly in kind, with goods rather than money. To obtain meal people had to barter the little alternative food they had such as cattle or fish. Because kelp required a lot of hands to produce it families were encouraged to have more children which meant more mouths to feed which was difficult at the best of times but when the worst came families were desperate.

During the long years of the French and Napoleonic wars the British government slapped hefty import taxes on foreign goods and British manufacturing became dependent on home produced kelp so Highland lairds forced their tenants into its production. The Highlands’ youth were also in great demand by the British army because of their height and strength but those families who sacrificed their sons in the British crown’s and government’s wars discovered there was no reciprocation for as soon as the Napoleonic Wars ended the government lowered the tariff on foreign kelp with the result that imports of Barilla or Spanish kelp devastated Highland production and pushed already impoverished people to utter despair. Not everyone did badly, in fact some benefitted – the usual people – London speculators and soap manufacturers. Greed was the winner and if the people of the Hebrides had to survive eating the seaweed that once was in such demand then so be it. Reports of terrible starvation, of children with ribs jutting out and bulging eyes in emaciated faces seem not to have lost any greedy government minister or capitalist manufacturer a minutes sleep.

So there it was British manufacturers preferred foreign kelp or adopted a different type of ash made from salt. Islanders lost the little income they depended on and their lairds lost a source of income. Something had to give. Lairds gave the people away. Forced them out. Burnt them out of their homes so they couldn’t go back. Young and old were forced onto vessels heading for North America. Lairds wanted to empty the land of people so they could replace them with sheep. It’s strange how loyalty is so often a one-way street.

reginald george

Reginal George the big spender

One notorious laird who cleared islanders as if they were detritus was Reginald John James George, chief of Clan Ranald, a branch of Clan Donald, at Moidart and Benbecula. Old Etonian Reginald’s father had previously flogged off most of the Clan’s landholding while Reggie spent his time furthering the domination of Britain abroad. He wasn’t familiar with Scotland and had no understanding of his estate or its people. But in an effort to play the laird he did develop a penchant for tartanalia.

You might recall that post-Culloden those symbols of the Highlands – tartan and bagpipes -were banned in an effort to destroy the very way of life of Highlanders. Once the British army eventually abandoned hunting down Highlanders as a sport and when the British government was certain the Highlands had been well and truly crushed faux Highland chic was invented in cartoon form with the appearance of George IV in Edinburgh in 1822 resplendent in a pair of bright pink tights and a mini kilt. He was encouraged in this pantomime by Sir Walter Scott and various other hangers-on including our Etonian Reggie George. It was absentee landlords who finished the job begun by the crown and government in London to destroy traditional Highland communities bound by kinship. The cleansing of the Highlands and islands continued unabated so the resurgence of tartan was neither here nor there. Its specific context and role had been destroyed for good. Time to indulge in games and make-believe.

Reggie discovered he just adored the Highlands, in his Anglicised head. He didn’t live in the Highlands, of course. His home was in the south of England or abroad and but he remembered ‘his people’ in Moidart and Benbecula when it came to collecting their rents which he made sure he received in full irrespective of the extent ‘his people’ were starving to death. In the years of the kelp industry canny landlords based rents not on croft land value but the value of a tenant’s stretch of shore with its seaweed. Self-indulgent Reggie wasn’t doing so well on the cash front either, for he loved to mingle with the rich and powerful and found he had to spend to prove he was one of them. So, like his father, he burnt through his estate’s wealth and was forced to sell his lands in Scotland in 1838 to Gordon of Cluny. Within a year he tried to persuade Gordon to allow him to keep the estate while allowing the new owner take up the old debts and manage the property for he thought it would be lovely for him to spend the remainder of his days among his affectionately disposed tenantry, ‘whose forefathers and mine have ever been united by ties of no ordinary degree of mutual attachment.’

You couldn’t make this stuff up but with the aristocracy you don’t have to – they’re delusional every one. Reggie’s affectionate tenants on South Uist and Benbecula saw him for what he was a nasty and grasping man who cared nothing for them. When the possibility of Reggie living on Benbecula was broached concerns were raised over his safety from his ‘clansmen.’ Such was their regard for this waster.

The tenants fared no better with John Gordon of Cluny; not only considered to be the richest man in Britain but a thoroughly nasty piece of work and not one who accepted criticism. Gordon’s takeover of Reggie’s estate was part of a long game, for worthless as they were to him then he saw a profit eventually. His other landholdings included tracts in Aberdeenshire, Banff, Nairn and Midlothian as well as the Hebrides but by 1848 Cluny’s Hebridean investment was costing him as he had to pay out nearly £8,000 in famine relief to his wretched tenants.

Another nasty piece of work, Patrick Sellar, the brute and factor who enthusiastically carried out the instructions of George Granville Leveson-Gower and Elizabeth the Duke and Countess of Sutherland. He was the willing hand that carried out many Highland Clearances evicting thousands of families, burning their cottages and establishing large sheep farms. Evicted tenants resettled in coastal crofts were forced to learn to fish and process seaweed. He tried to buy Clan Ranald lands on South Uist, Benbecula and Barra for his employer.

These people were all of a kind. Callously indifferent to human suffering and voraciously greedy. In 1851 Gordon of Cluny began to forcibly evict all his tenants to rid himself of responsibility for providing them with basic relief and with the prospect that sheep would better augment his already obscene level of wealth.

kilns on orkney

Kelp kilns on Orkney

In August 1851 the folk of South Uist were forced to attend a meeting at Loch Boisdale and from there they were grabbed and manhandled onto Atlantic-bound boats like so much cattle by the laird’s lackeys – his factors, estate agents and police. Angus Johnstone was handcuffed and forced onto the ship. Others ran in all directions to find hiding places so desperate were they to stay at home. In one incident a man hid in an Arran boat and was protected by the ship’s master who threatened to ‘split the skull’ of the first man to board his boat. This man survived this particular sweep of people. Most of those who ran were hunted down by men and dogs and dragged onboard vessels. Girls of twelve and fourteen from Barra evaded their persecutors and so the ships sailed to North America without them but with the rest of the family onboard – perhaps to a new life or perhaps to succumb to plague or smallpox during the crossing.

The venerable John Gordon of Cluny was, of course, a scoundrel. His promises were worthless. He told tenants he would pay their passage to Quebec where they would be provided with jobs and land. Reluctantly he paid the ship fees when compelled to by the government but reneged on the guarantees of work and land. So the islanders who left Scotland impoverished found themselves in unfamiliar Canada with nothing. This was no isolated example.

A Canadian newspaper, the Dundas Warder, reported on 2 October 1851
‘We have been pained beyond measure for some time past, to witness in our streets so many unfortunate Highland emigrants, apparently destitute of any means of subsistence, and many of them sick from want and other attendant causes.’

The richest man in Britain was a barbarian who brought incalculable misery, desperation and death to Highland Scots. Add the fate of the cleared people of Scotland to all those other acts of cruelty imposed on helpless communities throughout the British Empire and the slave trade and you have a large slice of British history that is too often glossed over for there is reluctance in many quarters to accept the immense harm created by the most powerful elements in the UK to the most helpless around the world, not least within the British Isles.

Next time you spread toothpaste containing kelp on your toothbrush or sprinkle dried kelp on your salad spare a moment to think of the people whose lives were destroyed by exploitative landlords who forced them to produce kelp when it was worth big money and speculators and the government who threw them to the wolves.

An excellent source is: The Jaws of Sheep: The 1851 Hebridean Clearances of Gordon of Cluny. James A. Stewart, Jr.
Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium
Vol. 18/19 (1998/1999), pp. 205-226

It can be read online: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20557342?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Shore ownership under udal law in Orkney and Shetland

November 20, 2017

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.