Posts tagged ‘The Clearances’

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.

 

 

 

 

November 14, 2016

Hugh Miller stepped off the Betsey to find lands visited by terror and evil (Rum and Eigg)

 

Were the people willing to go?

Some of them
Others were not very willing, they did not like to leave the land of their ancestors

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Isle of Eigg

A recent discovery of an anchor believed to have belonged to a floating kirk that sailed around Ardnamurchan from the time of the Disruption  coincided with me reading about a floating manse from the same era.

When the Church of Scotland split in 1843 its breakaway congregations set themselves up as the Free Kirk.  When they tried to build their own churches they were often denied permission by lairds still attached to the Church of Scotland, men who governed the lives of those who lived on their land, and so worship was frequently carried out in the open air in all weathers in places they could not be chased off by landlords. However, Free Kirkers at Loch Sunart found money to have a ship built to sail the Western Isles so providing a watery kirk for the folk in the islands out of reach of controlling lairds. The anchor found is thought to have come from it.

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Towing the iron church into Loch Sunart

I don’t know how many such vessels were used in this way but loathe to let a coincidence pass by I was pressed to retell a little of what struck my ancestor, Hugh Miller, when he voyaged around the Inner Hebrides on a floating manse in 1858 – a journey recorded in his book, The Cruise of the Betsey.

Miller was a journalist, a newspaper editor, an evangelical Christian, a folklorist and an archaeologist. From Cromarty in the Black Isle he travelled around the Sound of Mull – to Rum and Eigg looking for fossils, the bloodstones of Rum included, and discovered more than a pile of old stones.

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Hugh Miller

The evangelical Christian was immensely moved by seeing the impact of the Clearances on these isles. He was, as a Highlander, familiar with the Clearances and, indeed, his own family had been cleared from their glens so he was sensitive to the evidence revealed by the land from some eighteen years earlier when nearly 400 men, women and children, virtually the entire population of Rum, were dragged out of their homes and shipped off to a foreign country leaving behind all they knew and loved.

Ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs of Bosnian Croats and Muslims rightly aroused outrage at the end of the 20th century when people were thrown off their homeland because they were despised for having a different religion and culture from their oppressors. In Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries people were thrown out of their communities, off the land they worked, to make room for sheep and later deer in acts of economic cleansing that involved a wholesale disregard for them as human beings. Both these despicable acts involved the imposition of cruelty by one group upon another and enforced deportation.

As he stepped ashore on Rum (pron. room from the Gaelic now anglicised to sound like the spirit) from the floating manse, the Betsey, Miller noticed patches of green on the island’s hillsides – places once home to people for generations who had been summarily cleared out as if that was of no significance – “cleared off to the backwoods of America” as Miller phrased it. Several homes were razed to the ground in 1826  so the men, women and children dragged from them would not be able to live there anymore while others were left to fall down over time. Miller was struck,too, by the little patches of corn still growing where once farming had followed the seasons and provided food for islanders. He stared at abandoned cottages; homes that once rang out to the sounds of christenings, weddings and New Year celebrations – and the land about them where the peoples’ loved ones were buried.

“…it seems a bad policy,” Miller remarked, despite the chilling argument from economists at the time “that there are more than people enough in Scotland still.”

On population size being a determinant for clearances Miller commented –

“There are, I believe, more than enough in our workhouses, – more than enough on our pauper-rolls, – more than enough huddled up, disreputable , useless, and unhappy, in the miasmatic alleys and typhoid courts of our large towns, but I have yet to learn how arguments for local depopulation are to be drawn from facts such as these.”

Miller mentioned a solitary shepherd’s house standing at one end of the island where the shepherd and his wife lived-

“the sole representatives in the valley of a numerous population, long since expatriated to make way for a few flocks of sheep, but whose ranges of little fields may still be seen green”.

As the party that disembarked from The Betsey searched the hills for Rum’s renowned bloodstones they were spotted by island’s shepherd and soon he and his wife had clambered up, she carrying a “a vast bowl of milk, and he a basket of bread and cheese” out of kindness and hospitality.

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Isle of Rum

It struck Miller that the more remote places were the greater the hospitality – that is certainly true of friendliness among people in Scotland’s small villages where few would walk by another without a nod, smile or a hello.

Miller put it more eloquently –

“[that]…hospitality dwindles and disappears, like fruits in the thick of a wood; but where man is planted sparsely, it blossoms, and matures, like apples on a standard or espalier. It flourishes where the inn and the lodging-house cannot exist, and dies out where they thrive and multiply.”

The 400 souls of Rum were crammed on board ships, Highland Lad and, oh the irony, the Dove of Harmony  to Nova Scotia in Canada to begin their lives from scratch. They left behind their island, one sheep farmer and 8,000 sheep.

“All the aborigines of Rum crossed the Atlantic; and at the close of 1828, the entire population consisted of but the sheep-farmer, and a few shepherds, his servants.”

Those who survived the shocking conditions and overcrowding on-board during often rough passages across the Atlantic had to find whatever way they could to house, feed and clothe themselves and families in unfamiliar territory while back in their homeland the sheep experiment to make money for the laird failed when the price of mutton plummeted. Rum was sold off – another piece of property, like the people who once lived there. At his time of writing Miller believed the new owner was an Englishman looking for an opportunity to make money by turning the island into a deer forest – a sporting estate to amuse wealthy gunmen from the mainland.

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Rum had been populated by human beings since the 8th millennium BC. It is surely understandable that succeeding generations of the island’s inhabitants regarded the island as theirs but others held a different perspective so the folk of Rum lost out to speculators investing in “wool and mutton” and then deer. Islanders were pawns in a bigger game that turned a once thriving island into a desert. Rum would be sold several times over in the search for  profit.

The island’s streams that once provided food for its people were found by Miller to be full of fish with no-one to take them. Rum’s former fishers not possessing fishing nets used to bunch heath roots together which they arranged in mounds across burns, securing them in place with boulders then one or two involved would walk downstream beating the water  and driving trout towards the dam where they would get caught up in the heather roots. The bigger fish were scooped out for food while the immature ones were returned to the burns.

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Isle of Eigg

The Betsey called in at the island of Eigg whose people were also evicted and shipped abroad and here Miller and his associates came upon the site of notorious mass murder that took place from an earlier time – remnants of civilisation: straw beds, human bones, household objects, the handle of a child’s wooden porringer (a bowl with a handle) with a hole through it to hang it to a wall, strands of grey hair.

One winter, possibly during the 16th century, members of the clan Macleod from Skye sailed to Eigg and having offended the native people, the Macdonalds,  the raiders were strapped to boats and pushed out into the sea. Following their rescue they plotted vengeance on the people of Eigg and returned to the island, well-armed, and so terrified the people they ran away and hid in a large narrow cave. The Macleods searched the island but not finding anyone they contented themselves with ransacking the islanders’ houses and were about to leave with their booty when one of them spotted a figure on the beach. They renewed their hunt and as this was in the winter-time a light fall of snow exposed the lookout’s footprints. The footsteps led to the mouth of the cave. Because the cave’s entrance was very narrow the Skye men were unable to enter it safely so they gathered heather and ferns and packed them into and around the entrance and set fire to them so that in time those hiding – the entire population of Eigg – elderly to babies were smothered to death by the smoke.

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Narrow-entranced cave where the population of Eigg took shelter and died

Sir Walter Scott raised money to provide Christian burials for these sad remains when he found out about the massacre.

Miller did discover samples of the bloodstones he was after on Rum – the hard stone once used to shape into tools and weapons by the island’s early settlers. The populations of Rum and Eigg survived centuries of hardship, Viking invasion, occupation by Scots but coarse, selfish, inhuman lairds finally destroyed civilisation on the islands.

Evidence to a government select committee on enforced emigration in 1827 recorded this question:

Were the people willing to go?
Answer:
Some of them
Others were not very willing, they did not like to leave the land of their ancestors

A witness to the deportation of the people of Rum recalled hearing plaintive echoing cries from aboard Atlantic-bound ships as their human cargo watched their homeland disappear from view forever.

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Preaching to a breakaway Free Kirk congregation at the seaside

Rum was sold to Nature Conservancy in 1957 as a nature reserve, now under the control of Scottish Natural Heritage.