Famine and destitution in the Highlands of Scotland have become proverbial, and if not altogether continuous, are at least the rule, while any little gleams of improvement or partial alleviation form the exception. There are, however, there as elsewhere, a considerable number who suffer few of the evils that flesh is heir to, but who thrive and fatten on the miseries of their victims – the poor natives, whom they insult, oppress, and expatriate, without apparently the least compunction for the extreme distress they occasion.
Every effect must have a cause, and that cause I shall only glance at here, as it will be sufficiently apparent in the course of my narration.
During the Peninsular war [1807–14] an uncommon demand for provisions of all description arose, and when, on the return of peace, this temporary demand was subsiding, the landlords, being the legislators, contrived to keep up the extravagant war prices, by a system of prohibitions against all foreign produce, so as to make a permanent artificial scarcity, and consequent dearth throughout the country, that they might continue to pocket the increased rents the war prices had enabled them to realise in a depreciated currency. This, then, was the moving spring which led to that general conspiracy of landlords against the before undisputed rights of the inhabitants, to a residence on their paternal soil which they had so often defended with their blood, and to a subsistence from its produce in return for their industry. Hence the severities exercised in the most reckless manner, against the aborigines of the Highlands in general, and those of Sutherlandshire in particular; severities which have almost annihilated that habitual fidelity to, and respect for his superiors, for which the Gael was always so remarkable, and which formed the leading moral trait in his character, and was identified with his very existence. These bonds have been rudely severed; the immediate descendants of those serfs and retainers whose attachment to their chiefs was a passion, and for whom they were at any time, ready to lay down their lives, have been robbed, oppressed, and driven away, to make room for flocks and herds to supply the intense demand of the English market, excited by the legal prohibition of continental produce, and the wants of a rapidly increasing population.
The motive of the landlords was self-interest; and in the Highlands it has been pursued with a recklessness and remorselessness to which the proverbial tyranny and selfishness of that class elsewhere furnishes no parallel. Law and justice, religion and humanity, have been either totally disregarded, or what was still worse, converted into instruments of oppression.
The expulsion of the natives and the substitution of strange adventurers – sheep farmers, generally from England and from the English border – being, as it were, simultaneously agreed upon by the Highland proprietors, instruments were readily found to carry their plans into effect, who soon became so zealous in the service – not, however, forgetting to profit by the plunder in the meantime – that they carried their atrocities to a height which would have appalled their employers themselves, had they been witnesses of them. Every imaginable means, short of the sword or the musket, was put into requisition to drive the natives away, or to force them to exchange their farms and comfortable habitations, erected by themselves or their forefathers, for inhospitable rocks on the sea shore, and to depend for subsistence on the produce of the watery element in its wildest mood, and with whose perils they, in their hitherto pastoral life, were totally unacquainted and unfitted to contend.
This state of things, which I have reason to know, has prevailed more or less in all the Highland districts for more than 20 years, has carried to the greatest height in Sutherland. That unfortunate country was made another Moscow. The inhabitants were literally burnt out, and every contrivance of ingenious and unrelenting cruelty was eagerly adopted for extirpating the race. Many lives were sacrificed by famine and other hardships and privations; hundreds stripped of their all, emigrated to the Canadas and other parts of America; great numbers especially of the young and athletic, sought employment in the Lowlands and in England, where, few of them being skilled workmen, they were obliged – even farmers who had lived in comparative affluence in their own country – to compete with common labourers as hewers of wood and drawers of water, in communities where their language and simple manners rendered them objects of derision and ridicule. The aged and infirm, the widows and orphans, with those who could not think of leaving them alone in their helplessness; and a number whose attachment to the soil which contained the ashes of their ancestors, and the temples where they had worshipped, in hopes of some change for the better, were induced to accept of the wretched allotments offered them on wild moors and barren rocks. These and their offspring remain in the country and form the poor, whose constant destitution and periodical famine is beginning to exercise more attention, than is agreeable to those who have been the cause of their miseries, lest many dark and infamous deeds should, by an authorised enquiry be revealed in open day. Hence the violent opposition to a Government enquiry conducted by impartial persons. The lairds have no objection to an enquiry to be conducted by themselves and the resident clergy, knowing that in any case, they would be quite safe, and the report would of course lay all the blame on the inveterate sloth, and vicious habits they have unceasingly laboured to assign as the causes of Highland destitution. Such a course of dark and inhuman policy as that so long going on in the Highlands, could not have existed if the public had been properly aware of it, but among simple illiterate people, speaking a provincial dialect, it was easy for landlords, clergy, factors, and new tenants combined, who constituted the local administrators of both the law and gospel – men possessed of wealth, influence, talents and education – it was easy for them to effect their purposes, and stifle all enquiry, while the mild nature, and religious training of the poor Highlanders, prevented their resorting to that determined resistance and wild revenge which sometimes sets bounds to the rapacity of landlords and clergy in the sister island. The Highlanders had not language to make his wrongs known through the press, nor did he resort to the ruthless deed; hence he has been oppressed with impunity, while his persecutors hold up their heads as honourable gentlemen, and goodly ministers! I am truly sorry that truth has obliged me to represent the character of these latter gentlemen in such an unfavourable light, but I am convinced that had they done their duty, in denouncing the wrongs perpetrated before their eyes, instead of becoming auxiliaries, the other parties would in most cases, have been unable to proceed. The oppressors always appealed to them for sanction and justification and were not disappointed. The foulest deeds were glossed over, and all the evil which could not be attributed to the natives themselves, such as severe seasons, famine, and consequent disease, was by these pious gentlemen ascribed to Providence, as a punishment for sin – the other parties who were enriching themselves, of course never sinned, for they were rolling in wealth and luxury at the expense of the poor sinners! Such was the holy teaching of these learned clerks. They had always the ear and confidence of the proprietors, and I put it to their consciences to say how often, if ever, they exerted that influence in favour of the oppressed, to the tribunal of that Master whose servants they pretend to be I cite them, where hypocrisy and glaring perversions will not avail! At this same tribunal also I might arraign those unjust men who perverted the judgement seat, and made what should have been a protection, an instrument of oppression. But at present I must beg the reader’s attention to the following narrative, in which I have endeavoured, by a recital of uncontradicted and undeniable facts, to bring these parties to the bar of public opinion. Hitherto, during all the time that has passed in the publication of these letters, no attempt has been made to deny the facts I have alleged, though I have repeatedly challenged such contradiction.
Instead of my narrative exceeding truth, it has in reality fallen far short of it; for no language that I am able to use, can convey an adequate idea of the wrongs and sufferings of my unfortunate countrymen. While I feel myself called on by a sense of duty to bring these wrongs and sufferings before the public, I regret that the subject has not fallen into abler hands; but, silence in the face of such a mass of cruelty and iniquity would be enough to make the very stones cry out! Having by the kindness of the Editor of the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle been furnished with a vehicle, and assisted by other kind friends and correspondents, these letters have already met the public eye in the columns of that excellent paper, to the Editors and Proprietors of which I and my countrymen are much indebted. I am now induced to comply with the urgent request of great numbers of my countrymen and others, to re-publish the letters in the form of a pamphlet. I have engaged in this undertaking in the full confidence of the kind support of my countrymen and fellow-sufferers and their descendants, in whatever place or country, here or across the Atlantic, divine Providence may have fixed their destiny, in the fervent hope that He-
“Who sees with equal eyes, as Lord of all,
The hero perish and the sparrow fall.”
will so overrule events as to bring ultimate good out of the severe trials which He hath permitted to overtake my dear country, and that-