|AUTHENTIC & EYE WITNESS ACCOUNTS
The following accounts are considered to both authentic and accurate, although we can no longer interview the individuals there is very good documentation to support these accounts.
Below are three accounts of the tenant evictions in 1819, written by people who knew Sutherland well at the time.
James Loch was a lawyer from the south who became commissioner of the whole of Sutherland Estates. Planning to improve the lands under his control, he moved thousands of people from their homes to the north coast, and created large sheep farms. He was definitely the 'landlords man' and his opinions are pretty obvious in these writings. The men being impatient of regular and constant work, all the heavy labour was abandoned to the women, who were employed, occasionally, even in dragging the harrow to cover the seed. to build their hut, or to get in peats for fuel, the men were ever ready to assist; but most of their time, when not in pursuit of game, or illegal distillation, was spent in indolence and sloth. They were contented with the most simple and poorest fare. They deemed no comfort worth the possession which was to be purchased at the price of regular work. The cattle which they reared on the mountains, and from the sale of which they depended for the payment of their rents, were of the poorest description.
The coast of Sutherland abounds with many different kinds of fish, not only sufficient for the consumption of the country but affording a supply for more distant markets, when cured and salted. It seemed as if it had been pointed out by Nature that the system for this remote district was to convert the mountainous districts into sheep-walks, and to remove the inhabitants to the coast.
The people who were to be removed were to hold their farms, during the last year of their occupation, rent-free on condition of their settling in their new lots without delay; and it was ordered that the moss fir belonging to their huts should be purchased from them because it would have been impossible for them to have carried it off. Some of the people, however, reappeared and constructed new, or repaired their old turf huts, and reoccupied their former possessions. This rendered a second ejectment necessary and, to prevent the possibility of its repetition, the only course which could be persued was to collect and burn the timber. This simple and necessary act has been falsified in every possible way. The most positive and direct denial is given to every account in which it has been attempted to apply these proceedings the character of cruelty and oppression.
The whole of the population from Altnaharra to Invernaver have been settled on the sea shore, as near to the various creeks as it is possible to arrange. These people have begun to cultivate their lots with much industry. Many of them have with great boldness taken to catch cod and ling. They have become as expert boatmen as any in the world.
Donald Macleod, a stonemason from Rosal in Strathnaver, suffered eviction himself and witnessed the clearances and burnings of 1819. His widely read book Gloomy Memories became the accepted view of the clearances, but critics claim his accounts are exaggerated because of his anger at his own eviction and also some twenty years had passed before the publication of his book.
“Elizabeth Gordon, 19th Countess of Sutherland and her factor, Patrick Sellar, were especially crue “ claimed Donald McLeod, a Sutherland crofter, he later wrote about the events he witnessed:
“This calamity came on the people quite unexpectedly. Strong parties, for each district, furnished with faggots and other constables, rushed on the dwellings of this devoted people, and immediately commenced setting fire to them, proceeding in their work with the greatest rapidity till about three hundred houses were in flames! The consternation and confusion were extreme; little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property - the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them - next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children - the roaring of the affrighted cattle hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire - altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description: it required to be seen to be believed.
|A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day and even extended far on the sea; at night an awfully grand and terrific scene presented itself - all the houses in an extensive district were in flames at once! I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which were my relations, and all of whom I personally knew; but whose present condition, whether in or out of the flames, I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins.”
"To these scenes," says Donald MacLeod (author of `Gloomy Memories'), "I was an eye-witness, and am ready to substantiate the truth of my statements, not only by my own testimony, but by that of many others who were present at the time. In such a scene of general devastation, it is almost useless to particularize the cases of individuals; the suffering was great and universal. I shall, however, notice a few of the extreme cases of which I was myself eye-witness.
John Mackay's wife, Ravigill, in attempting to pull down her house, in the absence of her husband, to preserve the timber, fell through the roof. She was in consequence taken in premature labour, and in that state was exposed to the open air and to the view of all the by-standers.
Donald Munro, Garvott, lying in a fever, was turned out of his house and exposed to the elements.
Donald Macbeath, an infirm and bed-ridden old man, had the house unroofed over him, and was in that state exposed to the wind and rain until death put a period to his sufferings.
I was present at the pulling down and burning of the house of William Chisholm, Badinlkoskin, in which was lying his wife's mother, an old bed-ridden woman of nearly 100 years of age, none of the family being present. I informed the persons about to set fire to the house of this circumstance, and prevailed on them to wait until Mr. Sellar came. On his arrival, I told him of the poor old woman being in a condition unfit for removal, when he replied, `Damn her, the old witch, she has lived too long - let her burn.'
Fire was immediately set to the house, and the blankets in which she was carried out were in flames before she could be got out. She was placed in a little shed, and it was with great difficulty they were prevented from firing it also. The old woman's daughter arrived while the house was on fire and assisted the neighbours in removing her mother out of the flames and smoke, presenting a picture of horror which I shall never forget, but cannot attempt to describe. Within five days she was a corpse."
An account by Donald McLeod
Gloomy Memories, 1892
Accounts like those of McLeod and General David Stewart of Garth brought widespread condemnation and The Highland Land League eventually achieved land reform in the enactment of Crofting Acts, but these could not bring economic viability and came too late at a time when the land was already suffering from depopulation.
Rev. Donald Sage, the missionary at Achness, lived across Loch Naver from Grummore. Even at this time, with ministers appointed to parishes by landlords, his personal sympathy lay with the people when they were evicted from their homes.
To my poor and defenceless flock the dark hour of trial came in right earnest. It was the month of April 1819 that they were all - man, woman and child - from the Heights of Farr to the mouth of the Naver, on one day to quit their tenements and go - many of them knew not whither. For a few, some miserable patches of ground along the shore were doled as lots without anything in the shape of the poorest hut to shelter them. Upon these lots it was decided that they should build houses at their own expense, and cultivate the ground, at the same time occupying themselves as fishermen, although the great majority of them had never set foot in a boat in their lives.
At an early hour on a Tuesday, Mr. Sellar, escorted by a large body of constables, sheriff-officers and others, commenced work at Grummore, the first inhabited township to the west. They gave the inmates half an hour to pack up and carry off their furniture, and then set the cottages on fire. To this plan they ruthlessly adhered. The roofs and rafters were lighted up into one red blaze.
I had occasion the next week to visit the manse of Tongue. On my way thither, I passed through the scene of the campaign of burning. Of all the houses, the thatched roofs were gone; but the walls remained. The flames of the preceeding week still slumbered in their ruins, and sent up into the air spiral columns of smoke. The sooty rafters of the cottages as they were being consumed filled the air with a heavy and most offensive odour. Nothing could more vividly represent the horrors of grinding oppression.
The Testimony of Seonaid Nic Neacail
These are the reminiscences of my great grandmother Seonaid (Janet in English) MhicNeacail, born in the Crofting Township of Mhealbeag (Melvaig) in the spring of 1853 and died in Torrin (Isle of Skye) in November 1949, just a few days before my 5th birthday.
She was a wee spritely sparrow of a woman, about 5ft 1 inch of height, with long grey hair which came down to her waist, but was normally held up in the form of a bun made up of two intertwined plaits. She had grey blue eyes which always seemed to dance and sparkle in the light of the 'Tilley' lamp. She might have been taller but for the 'bow' legs caused by rickets in her childhood (milk was difficult to get, due to the landlords ruling that the township people were not allowed to graze more than ten head of cattle on the common grazings).
She was the eldest daughter of a family of five, having one younger sister (Ishbel) who died at the age of 3 of consumption, and three elder brothers, Aonghas the eldest, Calum and Fionn ( Fingal). Her Father Aonghas Mor MacNeacail was a corporal in a Highland regiment who served in the Crimean War, was badly wounded, losing his left arm to a cannon ball at Sevastopol. Both parents died in an epidemic in the 1880's.
She could only speak a few words of English and conversed in Ghaidhlig most of the time. I remember that she was not in any sense of the word 'senile' but rather did a full day's work on the croft, and her mental faculties were sharp right up to the day she died peacefully in her sleep.
She often used to tell me stories of the great Celtic heros and kings, of battles long past, of maidens wooed and lost, and other stories that held me spellbound for hours. She used to sing all the beautiful old Ghaidhlig airs, and at the periodic 'ceilidhs' could hold her own with the girls, indeed they often used to come to her to learn the old songs and airs.
She would sometimes tell me about the time she and her family were 'cleared' out of Mhealbeag when she was about 5 or 6 years old. I am of the opinion that this was an experience that scarred her for life, because she would often break down in tears at the recollection of it. My Grandmother translated difficult words to help me and to the best recollection this is her story...
"When I was about 5 years of age, just one year after my father came back from the war against the Russians, the whole township was warned by the factor at the time of paying the rents, that his Lordship was wanting the people to move away from the township, in order that his Lordship could let out the ground to shepherds from the Lowlands. The men folk did not believe that they would have to move, as there was plenty of ground where sheep could graze.
However two months later a notice (in English) was posted, requiring the inhabitants to remove themselves, their goods and chattels, within one month. A visiting priest translated the notice into Ghaidhlig for them, but the menfolk still did not believe that his Lordship would cast them out into the depths of winter. However, three months went past without anything being done by the factor, and the people of the Township relaxed. There had been rumours of 'terrible doings' elsewhere, of people being turned out and the roof trees of the houses being destroyed, but this was 'elsewhere'.
Suddenly in the month of January, the factor turned up, accompanied by a large number of policemen from Glasgow, Lowlands Estate workers and Sheriffs officers from Dunedin and told the people of the township to be out of their homes by dawn the following day, where they would be taken to Ullapool to be put on board a ship to the Americas (Nova Scotia). The men folk were cast down (in modern parlance - 'shattered') and only the womenfolk made any protests. A group of them went to the factor to protest and were beaten up by the policemen's batons, my mother amongst them.
The dawn came, hardly anyone had moved their possessions and furniture out, we waited to see what would happen. An hour after dawn, the factor and his men went to the house of Eachunn MacLeoid, a widower of 86 years of age, thrust him out of his house and proceeded to throw his chattels out of the door. Then two men with axes cut through the roof trees, causing the roof to collapse. They then piled winter forage inside the door and put a torch to it. Within a few minutes the pall of smoke had rolled through the township, causing panic as people raced to save their few things before the factors men arrived.
Our house was next, my mother tried to stop the men entering the door, they called us 'Irish filth' and one of them floored her with a mighty punch to the head and laid her out senseless on the floor. My father tried to protect her, despite having one arm, but he was punched and kicked senseless by four of the policemen. My brothers and I managed to drag our parents out of the house, and by the time we had got them outside, the axe men had already cut through the roof trees. They then set fire to the house and went next to the house of my Uncle Coinneach.
I remembered that my doll was on our bed, it was a precious thing,that my father had brought back from the war. A rag body with a lovely china head, which my mother had sewn clothes for; I ran into the house to get it, through choking smoke, but I could not find it. Aonghas beag came after me and took me outside.
It was like the picture of hell I once saw in the ministers bible, smoke and flames everywhere, you could hardly see in front of your face. My Mother was kneeling by my father, cradling his bloodstained head and sobbing for the thing that had befallen her family and the loss of her few precious things.
Some terrible things occurred after this, the policemen and factors men were reeking of whisky before they started, and when they found the whisky from Uncle Coinneach's 'Poit Dubh', the evil got worse. They took a delight in smashing some of the chattels which had been salvaged, and at the house of Eibhlin and Aoirig MhicNeacail (unmarried orphaned cousins of my father) - the two girls, only 14 and 17 were forcibly taken by some of the policemen, who did not spare their tender years and ravished them.
Their screams brought many of the men folk to their aid, but by this time the policemen were the devils themselves because of the whisky, and they laid into the men folk with their batons and clubs. One man who tried to stop them by firing at them with a fowling piece, was clubbed to the ground senseless, then bound hand and foot after which they kicked him for ages. All the time they were screaming insults like 'pig shit Irish bastard's'. Poor man he died that night from an efflux of blood from the mouth.
After this the spirit went from us, and the men folk were saying that this was a visitation upon us by the Almighty in punishment of our sins, and that we should not resist further. During the night Eibhlin and Aoirig hanged themselves for the shame of what had been done to them and the bodies were buried in the vegetable plot without a minister present and even then the policemen showed their loathing of us by passing water on the girls bodies.
By noon the Devil had done his work, and the factors men rounded us up like beasts and we were made to walk to Ullapool, carrying what we could and driving our few beasts before us. It took us two days to get there, I had no shoes and my feet were very sore. We were all cold and wet from the icy wind and smirr. We were all hungry as we did not have any food. Some people in a nearby township took pity on us and tried to give us food, but the factor warned that anyone who did aid us would have the same treatment and a passage to America. We got no food.
At night we took what shelter we could, behind walls, with blankets for a tent, but it was bitterly cold, and we could not sleep. A woman gave birth before her time and the baby was born dead and a three week old baby died of cold and the bodies were put in the ground without a christian burial or marker.
At last we got to Ullapool, to find the emigrant ship moored in the roads, with boats waiting at the stone wharf. The factor then took all the beasts and the few possessions which the people had got with them, as 'payment' for our passage. Each person was given a bag of 'sowans' (husked oatmeal) to last us the voyage and we were told to be ready to embark the following day. The policemen guarded us all that night, but there was no sleep for us, for the lamenting and sorrow would not let us go by.
At dawn, my father noticed a fishing boat approaching the wharf and recognised one of the crew as cousin Domhnull from PuirtRigh (Portree). Domhnull persuaded the owner to come alongside the wharf, and we got in quickly before the policemen noticed. The boat pulled away, and the policemen called out to the boat's crew to return to the wharf, but as they called out in the English tongue which no one understood, we left them shouting and cursing us.
It took two days to row to PuirtRigh, we sheltered one night in the lee of Raasay and at last came to the house of my fathers cousin, where we were made welcome. They were poor like us, but their home was our home. My father found a small place in the south at Torrin and my mother found employment in service to the local minister, indeed I went into service for him too when I was twelve.
Some years later we learned that the ship had arrived in Nova Scotia, but that half the people had not survived the voyage. Cholera and typhus had carried them off and their grave was the sea, with only the fish to know their resting place and the keening of the seabirds their only lament. I cannot forgive the cruelty of that awful day, what had we done that we should have been judged so harshly?"
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