Posts tagged ‘Duchess of Sutherland’

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