I have now endeavoured to shadow forth the cruel expulsion of my “co-mates and brothers in exile,” from their native hearths, and to give a faint sketch of their extreme sufferings and privations in consequence. Few instances are to be found in modern European history, and scarce any in Britain, of such a wholesale extirpation, and with such revolting circumstances. It is impossible for me to give more than an outline; the filling up would take a large volume, and the sufferings, insult, and misery, to which this simple, pastoral race were exposed, would exceed belief. But if I can draw public attention to their case, so as to promote that authorised inquiry, so much deprecated by Highland proprietors, my end will be attained. If the original inhabitants could have been got rid of totally, and their language and memory eradicated, the oppressors were not disposed to be scrupulous about the means. Justice, humanity, and even the laws of the land, were violated with impunity, when they stood in the way of the new plans on “Change of Tenancy;” and these plans, with more or less severity, still continue to be acted upon in several of the Highland counties, but more especially in Sutherland, to this day. But there is still a number left, abject, “scattered and peeled” as they are, in whose behalf I would plead, and to whose wrongs I would wish to give a tongue, in hopes that the feeble remnant of a once happy and estimable people, may yet find some redress, or at least the comfort of public sympathy. I now proceed to give some account of the state of the Sutherlanders, on their maritime “allotments,” and how they got on in their new trade of fishing.
People accustomed to witness only the quiet friths and petty heavings of the sea, from the lowland shores, can form little conception of the gigantic workings of the Northern Sea, which, from a comparatively placid state, often rises suddenly without apparent cause, into mountainous billows; and, when north winds prevail, its appearance becomes terrific beyond description. To this raging element, however, the poor people were now compelled to look for their subsistence, or starve, which was the only other alternative. It is hard to extinguish the love of life, and it was almost as hard to extinguish the love of country in a Highlandman in past times; so that, though many of the vigorous and enterprising pursued their fortunes in other climes, and in various parts of Scotland and England, yet many remained, and struggled to accommodate themselves to their new and appalling circumstances. The regular fishermen, who had hitherto pursued the finny race in the northern sea, were, from the extreme hazard of the trade, extremely few, and nothing could exceed the contempt and derision – mingled sometimes with pity, even in their rugged breasts – with which they viewed the awkward attempts and sad disasters of their new landward competitors. Nothing, indeed, could seem more helpless, than the attempt to draw subsistence from such a boisterous sea with such means as they possessed, and in the most complete ignorance of all sea-faring matters; but the attempt had to be made, and the success was as might be expected in such circumstances; while many – very many – lost their lives, some became in time, expert fishermen. Numerous as were the casualties, and of almost daily occurrence, yet the escapes, many of them extraordinary, were happily still more frequent; their disasters, on the whole, arose to a frightful aggregate of human misery. I shall proceed to notice a very few cases, to which I was a witness, or which occur to my recollection.
William McKay, a respectable man, shortly after settling in his allotment on the coast, went one day to explore his new possession, and in venturing to examine more nearly the ware growing within the flood mark, was suddenly swept away by a splash of the sea, from one of the adjoining creeks, and lost his life, before the eyes of his miserable wife, in the last month of her pregnancy, and three helpless children who were left to deplore his fate. James Campbell, a man also with a family, on attempting to catch a peculiar kind of small fish among the rocks, was carried away by the sea and never seen afterwards. Bell McKay, a married woman, and mother of a family, while in the act of taking up salt water to make salt of, was carried away in a similar manner, and nothing more seen of her. Robert McKay, who with his family, were suffering extreme want, in endeavouring to procure some sea-fowls’ eggs among the rocks, leaving a wife, and five destitute children behind him. John McDonald, while fishing, was swept off the rocks, and never seen more.
It is not my intention to swell my narrative, by reciting the “moving accidents” that befell individuals and boats’ crews,, in their new and hazardous occupation; suffice it to say, they were many and deplorable. Most of the boats were such as the regular fishermen had cast off as unserviceable or unsafe, but which these poor creatures were obliged to purchase and go to sea with, at the hourly peril of their lives; yet they often not only escaped the death to which others became a prey, but were very successful. One instance of this kind, in which I bore a part myself, I will here relate. Five venturous young men, of whom I was one, having bought an old crazy boat, that had long been laid up as useless, and having procured lines of an inferior description, for haddock fishing, put to sea, without sail, helm or compass, with three patched oars; only one of the party ever having been on sea before. This apparently insane attempt gathered a crowd of spectators, some in derision cheering us on, and our friends imploring us to come back. However, Neptune being then in one of his placid moods, we boldly ventured on, human life having become reduced in value, and, after a night spent on the sea, in which we freshmen suffered severely from sea-sickness, to the great astonishment of the people on shore, the Heather-boat, as she was called, reached the land in the morning – all hands safe, with a very good take of fishes. In these and similar ways, did the young men serve a dangerous and painful apprenticeship to the sea, “urged on by fearless want,” and in time became good fishermen, and were thereby enabled in some measure to support their families, and those dependent on them: but owing to peculiar circumstances, their utmost efforts were, in a great degree, abortive. The coast was, as I have said, extremely boisterous and destructive to their boats, tackle, &c. They had no harbours where they could land and secure their boats in safety, and little or no capital to procure sound boats, or to replace those which were lost. In one year on the coast, between Portskerra and Rabbit Island, (about 30 miles) upwards of one hundred boats had been either totally destroyed or materially injured, so as to render them unserviceable; and many of their crews had found a watery grave! It is lamentable to think, that while £210,000 were expended on the so-called improvements, besides £500 subscribed by the proprietors, for making a harbour, the most needful of all; not a shilling of the vast sum was ever expended for behoof of the small tenantry, nor the least pains taken to mitigate their lot! Roads, bridges, inns, and manses, to be sure, were provided for the accommodation of the new gentlemen tenantry and clergy, but those who spoke the Gaelic tongue were a proscribed race, and everything was done to get rid of them, by driving them into the forlorn hope of deriving subsistence from the sea, while squatting on their miserable allotments, where, in their wretched hovels, they lingered out an almost hopeless existence, and were none but such hardy “sons of the mountain and the flood” could have existed at all. Add to this, though at some seasons they procured abundance of fish, they had no market for the surplus; the few shepherds were soon supplied, and they had no means of conveying them to distant towns, so that very little money could be realised to pay rent, or procure other necessaries, fishing tackle, &c., and when the finny race thought proper to desert their shores (as, in their caprice, they often do,) their misery was complete! Besides those located on the sea-shore, there was a portion of the people sent to the moors, and these were no better off. Here they could neither get fish nor fowl, and the scraps of land given them were good for nothing – white or reddish gravel, covered with a thin layer of moss, and for this they were to pay rent, and raise food from it to maintain their families! By immense labour they did improve some spots in these moors, and raise a little very inferior produce, but not unfrequently, after all their toil, if they displeased the factors, or the shepherds in the least, even by a word, or failed in paying the rent, they were unceremoniously turned out; hence, their state of bondage may be understood; they durst not even complain! The people on the property of Mr. Dempster, of Skibo, were little, if anything, better off. They were driven out though not by burning, and located on patches of moors, in a similar way to those on the Sutherland property, with the only difference that they had to pay higher than the latter for their wretched allotments. Mr. Dempster says “he has kept his tenantry;” but how has he treated them? This question will be solved, I hope, when the authorised inquiry into the state of the poor Highlanders takes place.