I have, in the preceding pages, particularized the Duke of Sutherland as chief depopulator of the Highlands; I must now notice those next to him, Athol, Breadalbane,1 Lord Macdonald, and Gordon, as you will see from the following:- A gentleman of the name of R. Alister,* in 1853, wrote a work which was inscribed to another patriotic philanthropist of the name of Patrick Edward Dove, Edinburgh, titled “Barriers to National Prosperity,” in which he demonstrates the short-sighted policy of Highland proprietors in a style worthy of the author and editor, Mr. Dove. The Marquis of Breadalbane was offended at seeing the work advertised, and wrote the following letter through the public press. As I was not personally acquainted with the extent of the clearance system in that quarter, I consider the most prudent step I can adopt is to give verbatim Breadalbane’s letter and Mr. Alister’s reply:-
To the Editor of the Perthshire Advertiser.
21 PARK LANE, LONDON,
June 18, 1853.
“SIR, – My attention has been directed to an article in the Perthshire Advertiser, of the 13th ultimo, in which a work, entitled Barriers to the National Prosperity of Scotland, is reviewed, and from which are quoted passages tending to give an impression of the management of my estates in the Highlands, which is inconsistent with the facts.
The extract from Mr. Alister’s work to which I more particularly allude is the following:- “At the present rate of depopulation, the Highlands must soon be one vast wilderness; and although their numbers were never great in the British Army, yet we aver that one-tenth of the men who fought in the last war could not be got in the Highlands. Many of the smaller glens are totally cleared, and any of the peasantry remaining do not calculate that they can obtain a home for many years longer. Glencoe, the Black Mount, and Lochtayside, where the Campbells flourished, are swept; and although no difficulty was experienced by the late Marquis of Breadalbane in raising three battalions of fencibles at the last war, we are sure that 150 men could not now be obtained.”
Glencoe does not, and never did, belong to me.
Mr. Alister appears to labour under a mistake as to the history of the Black Mount, inasmuch as he would seem to assert that it was formerly densely inhabited; whereas the fact is, that, as far back as the records of my family reach (for some centuries) till towards the close of last century, when it was put into very large sheep farms, that country was always a deer forest, and consequently uninhabited, except by the foresters. As I began to convert it again into a forest upwards of thirty years since, it is obvious that it could only have been in the hands of tenants for a (comparatively speaking) short period. The present population of that district is, I believe, as great as it was in the times to which Mr. Alister alludes, and, in point of fact, the number of families employed by me there now, as shepherds and foresters, is much the same as the number who lived there when the ground was tenanted by farmers.
On my Nether Lorne property, I believe the population to be greater than it was fifty or sixty years ago.
The population on the banks of Loch Tay is certainly not as large as it was twenty years since, and it is fortunate for all parties concerned that it is not, as a continuance of the old system would, before this, have produced disastrous results.
When I succeeded to the property, I found the land cut up into possessions too small for the proper conduct of agricultural operations, or the full employment of the occupiers. The consequence was, that habits of idleness were engendered, great poverty existed, and the cultivation of the land was in a most unsatisfactory state – the social, the moral, and physical conditions of the people being thus unfavourably affected.
A continuance of this state of matters was clearly inconsistent with the improvement of the country and the welfare of the inhabitants, subjects to which I at once, on my succession, directed my attention, and to which I have ever since constantly directed my best thoughts.
To carry these views into effect, it was absolutely necessary that the holdings should be so increased in size as to give sufficient employment to the resources of the occupiers, and this could only be done by consolidating some of the smallest possessions, retaining the tenants who appeared most likely to profit by the change.
In no case was this done in the way implied by Mr. Alister, as the changes were always made gradually, and so as to produce as little inconvenience as possible to those whom it was necessary to remove. Indeed, whenever, from the circumstances of the case, it was practicable, those who were removed were offered other houses.
In reality, there has been no depopulation of the district, in the sense in which the word is usually accepted. There is still a large population on both sides of Loch Tay, and almost all the land is still held in, comparatively speaking, small possessions.
The results of the system I have pursued speak for themselves. If any person who saw Lochtayside twenty years since were to see it now, he could not fail to be struck with the change for the better in the face of the country, in the state of the dwellings, and in the appearance and habits of the people.
A very satisfactory proof of the flourishing condition of the people may be found in the fact, that, while the inhabitants of many parts of the Highlands were suffering from famine in the years 1846-47, and were to a great extent indebted for mere existence to the charity of the public, none of the money so collected was expended on, or required by, the inhabitants of my estates, even on the west coast. All were supported by internal, not by external aid, although the failure of the potato crop was quite as complete there as in other parts of the Highlands. Indeed, money was raised in these districts in aid of the general funds collected for the alleviation of the famine.
In no part of the Highlands are the religious and educational wants of the inhabitants better provided for, nor are there fewer public-houses.
In looking over my factorial accounts, I find that, on my Perthshire property, I have expended, in employing the people in useful works, £188, 750; on Glenurchay, a part of my Argyleshire property, £19,402; and on the other part a similar sum in proportion – in each case from the period of my succession down to 1852 (eighteen years).
Having stated these facts regarding the management of my property, and my conduct towards those residing upon it, I fearlessly ask, am I justly obnoxious to the imputation of being regardless of the prosperity and happiness of the people upon it? Have I recklessly driven out from its mountains and its glens the interesting and gallant race that formerly resided there? – I remain, sir, your obedient servant,
To the most noble the Marquis of Breadalbane.
“MY LORD, – For the last fifteen years I have been brought into immediate contact with the middle and lower orders in various parts of Scotland, and during that period I have observed that the section of our population deriving their support from land have been subjected to some grievances, so much so that their means of living have become pinched, and multitudes, who would have submitted to great privations at home, have nevertheless been compelled to expatriate themselves from the country so dearly loved, or, what is worse, take shelter in the dungeons of a large town. For a long time it puzzled me to understand how a country growing in commercial prosperity must be declining in its agricultural population; and while the towns were doubling their residenters, and consequently demanding greater supplies of food, yet all the while vast tracts of producing land should be thrown to waste! Any enquiries that I could make were generally answered, that the peasantry must make way before the improvements of modern agriculture; but that explanation I never was satisfied with, and I never was at peace until I found out what appeared to me to be the real cause of such great evils; for I could not shut my eyes to the fact that rural depopulation and the overpeopling of towns stood linked together as cause and effect. As your Lordship must know, I traced out these evils to the Laws of Entail, which have concentrated vast territories into the hand of a single individual, while they prevented peasant proprietorship, – a system that has produced magical benefits wherever it has been allowed to come into operation. The Game Law rules I also found to be a wicked instrument, seized by lairds for banishing the peasantry, and for desolating great tracts of land. The Laws of Hypothec I also found operated most injuriously against society, by unduly enlarging the size of farms, by giving illegitimate security to lairds for rents, and for increasing the price of rent to a fictitious amount. The abolition of these unjust laws is all the cure that I suggest, and I hesitate not to affirm that if their abolition were secured, a most healthful improvement, both moral and physical, would be apparent in Scotland, and that at no postponed date.
Your Lordship is aware that I brought these views under public notice in a volume entitled, “Barriers to the Prosperity of Scotland;” at the same time labouring to prove that a country cannot long survive the loss of its peasantry, or, if it did exist, it would be – like Samson, deprived of his hair – shorn of all that was morally fair or physically good. I have laboured to show how the peasant at home loves his country and his God, but when huddled into the pestiferous alleys of a large town, he loses his physical strength and his religious principle; and his family, which, in the cottaroon, would be brought up in thrift and in virtue, would, like the rest, be swept into the vortex of vice and dissipation.
This theory of human life your Lordship has not attempted to overturn, neither have you denied its applicability to the present condition of Scotland. But you have attempted to place my statements before the public as being untrue, and therefore my case against the laws of Game, Entail, and Hypothec would fall to the ground. I must confess that I should have much rather been attacked in my arguments than in any isolated illustration thereof, because the general argument may be perfectly good, albeit the particular illustration thereof may have been incorrect. In a former publication I had to complain of this; for many busied themselves with the illustration, while they overlooked entirely the principle it was intended to support.
When illustrating the evil effects of our feudalistic legislation, it was barely possible for me to avoid pointing to certain estates where the evils were most apparent. But I certainly did so as seldom as possible, and I think in only one instance have I condescended on a personal reflection. Your Lordship’s name is not mentioned at all, for although I state that Lochtayside had been cleared, I did not say by whom; and had you not published the letter of 18th June, your lordship’s name and character might have been forgotten altogether in connection with such a deplorable state of matters. Personally, I entertain no grudge towards your Lordship or any other laird, but on the contrary it might have been beneficial to me to retain the good favour of lairds rather than to excite their ill-will. But the letter referred to leaves me only two courses, – either to support the statements of my book, or stand arraigned before the public as guilty of circulating untruths. Your Lordship has dragged our dispute prominently before the public; let the public, therefore, be judge between us.
I have good right to complain that your Lordship’s contradiction of my statements are not brought out in a straightforward manner, but that by numerous shifts and fallacies you evade the facts altogether. Considering the high position of your Lordship, I think you might have condescended to have met such a humble antagonist as I am openly and frankly; excuse me, therefore, if I now ask you to answer my statements seriatim.
1st. Do you deny in general that the Highlands are being depopulated, and that one soldier could not now be raised for ten who fought in the last was? Your Lordship, I think, would hardly risk the denial of a statement which every person in this country knows to be correct. I have given the public an opportunity of denying my statements; but so far as I can judge, my figures are under rather than over the mark. I can point to a place where thirty recruits that manned the 92nd in Egypt came from – men before whom Napoleon’s Invincibles had to bite the dust, – and now only two families reside there altogether. I was lately informed by a grazier that on his farm a hundred swordsmen could be gathered at the country’s call; and now there is only himself and one or two shepherds. On his neighbour’s farm fifty swordsmen formerly lived, and it is now much in the same condition. The Sutherland and Gordon clearings are known to the world, and yet the fact of Highland depopulation is stated as being inconsistent with truth? Under this head your Lordship had ample opportunity of contradicting my statements, but no man with any regard to his standing could do so. But if I am labouring under a delusion here, I am not alone, as will be seen from the following quotation:-
“But in other and in too many instances the Highlands have been drained, not of their superfluity of population, but of the whole mass of the inhabitants, dispossessed by an unrelenting avarice, which will be one day found to have been as short-sighted as it is unjust and selfish. Meantime the Highlands may become the fairy ground for romance and poetry, or the subject of experiment for the professors of speculation, political and economical. But if the hour of need shall come, – and it may not perhaps be far distant, – the pibroch may sound through the deserted region, but the summons will remain unanswered.” – Sir Walter Scott, [‘Tales of a Grandfather’].
Let us hear what the great continental historian, Michelet, says:-
“The Scotch Highlanders will ere long disappear from the face of the earth; the mountains are daily depopulating; the great estates have ruined the land of the Gaul, as they did ancient Italy. The Highlander will ere long exist only in the romances of Walter Scott. The tartan and the claymore excite surprise in the streets of Edinburgh: they disappear – they emigrate – their national airs will ere long be lost, as the music of the Eolian harp when the winds are hushed.”
It is not necessary for me to say anything about the result of this depopulation – whether it is desirable or not – for I am not at present discussing an abstract question in political science, but the fact of that depopulation going on is notorious overall. In one week one hundred most industrious emigrants left the district of Athole for Canada, while sixty additional were preparing to remove. As the press stated, there is a general “move” of Highland population to Australia and Canada, of their own accord in many instances. The ousted farmers from Athole have thriven so well in Canada, that the remaining friends are desirous of sharing their prosperity. Those who left Badenoch for Australia sixteen years ago have made fortunes rapidly, and now the people en masse are flitting. But it is not only in the Highlands this system is at work; from where I write I see a farm in the occupation of a tenant who has ground that formerly sustained one hundred lowland Scotch families, and all in peace and plenty, in contentment and happiness. On hundreds of places might Nicoll sing,-
“Ae auld aik tree, or may be twa,
Amang the wavin’ corn,
Is a’ the mark that time has left
O’ the toon where I was born.”
I have never said that the Highlanders should be kept up as a nursery for soldiers; my only position is this, do not keep up nor put them down. If they cannot work, let them shift for themselves; but if they are beaten, it is time for others to look out. Although it is not necessary to keep up the Scottish peasantry by eleemosynary aid, yet does that argue that they should be oppressed as much as possible? that they should be rendered uncomfortable at home, and their crops devoured through the influence of game laws? Surely not.
I say, that “any of the peasantry remaining do not calculate that they can obtain a home for many years longer.” Now, on Lochtayside, and especially at Acharn, I certainly understood that some thirty or forty tenants looked at Whitsunday next as the time when their doom would be fixed. Certain ominous examinations have been seen, and whispers were rife that the same dose which their neighbours had been favoured with was in preparation for them. The besom of extermination had left no barrier betwixt them and being thrown upon the wide world for a home and the means of life. To say what your Lordship’s plans are for the future is what I cannot do; but I am perfectly correct in saying what is “calculated.” On another Highland property, I was aware at the time my book was in the press that extensive warnings had been given for the small tenants to leave. I am glad, however, to say, that such doings have been seen in their true colours, and that if any have to leave that property it will be their own fault, as I learn that every reasonable encouragement will now be afforded them to stay at home. The question was started in high quarters, – “If the people leave, who will be got to work the land?” Well would it be for Breadalbane, and for our country, if your Lordship would set yourself seriously to examine the same question.
In reference to Glencoe, your Lordship abruptly answers, that it does not, and never did belong to you. I never said that it did. I asserted that it is “swept” of its inhabitants, and perhaps my information is incorrect, but your Lordship has not condescended to state whether it is so or not. If, however, my language can bear any such construction as that your Lordship is proprietor thereof, I willingly withdraw any such ambiguity, and confess that my language should not be equivocal, although at the same time, I believe that the less some Campbells say about Glencoe the better. I have also put the Black Mount among the number of cleared grounds. That there were numerous tenants living there was according to my information. In a region of territory covering some 200 or 300 square miles of Scottish ground, the fact is, as I have stated, viz. that it is “swept” – not one tenant on the whole!!! Your Lordship evades the question by saying, that my statement amounts to this, “that it was formerly densely populated.” I certainly was unable to tell the number of families put away, but your Lordship might have done so, and there is nothing to prevent that being done yet. You tell us about the records of your family; your Lordship might have spared such an allusion. It is a painful one to a Scotchman, and particularly to a Highlander. Tradition must be far wide of the truth if the early history of your family be fit for seeing light in the nineteenth century. You tell us that the present population of that district is now as great as the time to which I allude. What time, my Lord? – please explain yourself. You tell us that it is obvious that this land could only have been in the hands of tenants for a short time. I certainly understood that it never was a deer forest until made so by your Lordship, but I never said so. The arguments used to excuse the clearing system are not a little unique. Thus, the Black Mount is cleared, having been “but thinly peopled”; and Lochtayside is all but swept, because it was “too densely populated.” Some of your Glenquiech tenants’ families were in possession 400 years – was that the reason they were “swept?” If not contradictory, these arguments are, at least, somewhat strange; thus the Fens of Lincoln have only been improved lately, – ergo there would be no harm in converting them again into marshes. The whole cultivation of America is of comparatively recent origin, – ergo, it would be no harm for a tyrant to lay it all waste! Then, you very cooly tell us that your shepherds and foresters make up as great a population as formerly resided there. But you have forgotten to tell how many shepherds you have there, and it would be naturally inferred that the Black Mount is as well grazed as before. Now, allow me to remind your Lordship that such an impression is very far from being borne out by the facts of the case, there being only a very small part of the Black Mount under sheep pasture. Then, about the foresters, you would think it no harm in having the whole Highlands under the dominion of that excellent and useful class, would you? Your Lordship must hold very strange doctrines of political science, if you estimate that game-keepers and foresters, who keep the country lying waste, who dissipate the national resources, are for a moment to be compared to the industrious peasant, by the sweat of whose brow human life is sustained, and whose laudable endeavour is to improve land, not lay it waste! The country would be vastly improved if idle keepers, who are a notorious pest to any district, were transformed into respectable and industrious tillers of the ground. Am I not correct, then, in saying that the Black Mount has been swept of its industrious tenants, and that only a few shepherds, (not, I believe, one tenth of what ought to be) occupy their place? But about the Black Mount more anon.
We have now come to Lochtayside; and if the peasantry be not virtually “swept” from there, I shall make all apology that may be deemed meet. By a mere play upon words, your Lordship makes out that it is not “swept,” because some tenants remain there still; and yet in another place we are told it was for good to the people themselves that they were cleared off, and, in the same letter, it was for the prevention of pauperism; again, at the conclusion, you triumphantly ask, “Have I recklessly driven out from its mountains and glens the interesting and gallant race that FORMERLY dwelt there?”
In volunteering to correct the impression which everyone has, of Lochtayside being virtually cleared of its peasantry, I think if your Lordship could have proved that it was not cleared, this would have been easily done by a statement of the number of families there were in 1834 and those now in 1843. If my statement was not worth answering, why meddle with it? If it was worth noticing why not answer it in the only manner it could be answered, viz., by an appeal to facts and figures? In a passing allusion I think I shall be borne out if, in denouncing the clearing system, four out of five families are thrust out. If I had meant that it was cleared of every inhabitant, I should certainly have said “totally cleared;” but I adopted the everyday expression used whenever Lochtayside is spoken of, both by strangers who see the remains of former houses, &c., AND OF BREADALBANE MEN THEMSELVES. But lest your Lordship’s memory should have got rusty on this point, allow me to remind you of Mornish, with its twenty-two families, without a tenant at all. In Acharn, near Killin, there were nineteen families; how many now? if there be one tenant, mention his name. How many “toons” have been cleared of four, ten, or fourteen families besides those quoted? Out with it my Lord! If you have not been actuated by a desire to banish the people of Breadalbane out of the country, prove it by facts a figures, not by roundabout statements entirely beside the point. It is quite true that many people still live there; and if your Lordship thinks it anything to your credit that bothy-men now usurp the place of honest cottagers, I am willing to allow you the benefit of the plea, although, at the same time, I think the bothy system is one of the worst that your Lordship could possibly patronise. You can take credit in the population account for the inhabitants of your Lordship’s bothies at Newhall, Comrie-farm, Balmacnaughton, Auchmore, and Acharn, near Killin.
And, lastly, as to the fencible men. You must be aware that your late father raised 2,300 men the last war, and that 1,600 of that number were from the Breadalbane estates. My statement is, that 150 could not now be raised. Your Lordship has most carefully evaded all allusion to this, – perhaps the worst charge of the whole. From your Lordship’s silence I am surely justified in concluding that you may endeavour to evade the question, but you dare not attempt an open contradiction. I have often made enquiries of Highlanders on this point, and the number above stated was the highest estimate. Many who should know, state to me that your Lordship would not get fifty followers from the whole estates; and another says, – “Why, he would not get half-a-dozen, and not one of them unless he could not possibly do otherwise.” This, then, is the position of the question: in 1793-4, there was such a numerous, hardy, and industrious population on the Breadalbane estates, that there could be spared of valorous defenders of their country in her hour of danger……………………………………………………………. 1600
Highest estimate now…………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 150
Game of all sorts increased a hundred fold.
In conclusion, under this head, can you produce any thing farther in confutation of the statements made in by book? if so, let us have them. Knowing a good many facts, I am quite prepared to substantiate all I have advanced.
I am, my Lord,
your very obedient humble servant,
July, 1853. R. ALISTER.