Letter 14., pp.32-35.

During the period in which the building was going on, I think in the year 1833, Lord Leveson Gower, the present Duke of Sutherland, visited the country, and remained a few weeks, during which he had an opportunity of witnessing the scenes I have described in my last; and such was the impression made on his mind, that he gave public orders that the people should not be forced to build according to the specific plan, but be allowed to erect such houses as suited themselves. These were glad tidings of mercy to the poor people, but they were soon turned to bitter disappointment; for no sooner had his lordship left the country, than Mr. Loch or his underlings issued fresh orders for the building to go on as before. 

Shortly after this (in July 1833) his Grace the first (and late) Duke of Sutherland, who had been some time in bad health, breathed his last in Dunrobin Castle, and was interred with great pomp in the family burying-place in the cathedral of Dornoch. The day of his funeral was ordered to be kept as a fast-day by all the tenantry, under penalty of the highest displeasure of those in authority, though it was just then herring-fishing season, when much depended on a day. Still this was a minor hardship. The next year a project was set on foot, by the same parties who formerly got up the expensive family ornaments presented to her Grace, to raise a monument to the late Duke. Exactly similar measures were resorted to, to make the small tenantry – those who had benefitted by the large sums he and the Duchess had lavished for their accommodation; but the poor small tenantry, what had been done for them? While the ministers, factors, and new tenantry, were rich and luxurious, basking in the sunshine of favour and prosperity, the miseries and oppressions of the natives remain unabated; they were emphatically in the shade, and certainly had little for which to be grateful to those whose abuse of power had brought them to such a pass – who had drained their cup of every thing that could sweeten life, and left only

“A mass of sordid lees behind!”

Passing the next two years, I now proceed to describe the failure of the harvest in 1836, and the consequences to the Highlands generally, and to Sutherland in particular. In this year the crops all over Britain were deficient, having had bad weather for growing and ripening, and still worse for gathering in. But in the Highlands they were an entire failure, and on the untoward spots occupied by the Sutherland small tenants there was literally nothing – at least nothing fit for human subsistence; and to add to the calamity, the weather had prevented them from securing the peats, their only fuel; so that, to their exhausted state from their disproportionate exertions in building, cold and hunger were now to be super-added. The sufferings of the succeeding winter, endured by the poor Highlanders, truly beggar description. Even the herring-fishing had failed and consequently their credit in Caithness, which depended on its success was at an end. Any little provision they might be able to procure was of the most inferior and unwholesome description. It was no uncommon thing to see people searching among the snow for the frosted potatoes to eat, in order to preserve life. As the harvest had been so disastrous, so the winter was uncommonly boisterous and severe, and consequently little could be obtained from the sea to mitigate calamity. The distress rose to such a height as to cause a universal sensation all over the island, and a general cry for government interference to save the people from death by famine; and the appeal backed by clergy of all denominations throughout the Highlands, (with the exception of Sutherland) was not made in vain. 

Dr. McLeod of Glasgow was particularly zealous on this occasion. He took reports from all the parish ministers in the destitute districts, and went personally to London to represent the case to government and implore aid, and the case was even laid before both houses of parliament. In consequence of these applications and proceedings, money and provisions to a great amount were sent down, and the magistrates and ministers entrusted with the distribution of them: and in the ensuing summer, vessels were sent to take on board a number of those who were willing to emigrate to Australia. Besides this, private subscriptions were entered into, and money obtained to a very great amount. Public meetings were got up in all the principal cities and towns in Great Britain and Ireland, and large funds collected; so that effectual relief was afforded to every place that required it, with the single exception of that county which, of all others, was in the most deplorable state – the county of Sutherland! The reason of this I will explain presently; but first let me draw the reader’s attention for a moment to the new circumstances in which the Highlanders were placed. Failure in the crops in those northern and north-western parts of Scotland was a case of frequent and common occurrence; but famine, and solicitations for national aid and charitable relief, were something quite new. I will endeavour to account for the change. Previous to the “change of tenancy,” as the cruel spoliation and expatriation of the native inhabitants was denominated, when a failure occurred in the grain and potato crops, they had recourse to their cattle. Selling a few additional head, or an extra score of sheep, enabled them to purchase at the sea-ports what grain was wanted. But now they had no cattle to sell; and when the crops totally failed on their spots of barren ground, and when, at the same time, the fishing proved unprosperous, they were immediately reduced to a state of famine; and hence the cry for relief, which as I have mentioned, was so generously responded to. But I would ask who were the authors of all this mass of distress? Surely the proprietors, who, unmindful that “property has its duties as well as its rights,” brought about this state of things. They in common with other landed legislators, enacted the food taxes, causing a competition for land, and then encouraged strange adventurers to supercede the natives, and drive them out, in order that the whole of the Highlands should be turned into a manufactory to make beef and mutton for the English market. And when, by these means, they had reduced the natives to destitution and famine, they left it to the government and to charitable individuals to provide relief! Language is scarcely adequate to characterise such conduct: yet these are the great, the noble, and right honourable of the land! However, with the exception of my unfortunate native county, relief was afforded, though not by those whose right it was to afford it. Large quantities of oatmeal, seed oats, and barley, potatoes, &c., were brought up and forwarded to the North and West Highlands, and distributed among all who were in need; but nothing of all this for the Sutherlanders. Even Dr. McLeod, in all the zeal of his charitable mission, passed from Stornoway to the Shetland Islands without vouchsafeing a glance at Sutherland in his way. The reason of all this I will now explain. It was constantly asserted and reiterated in all places, that there was no occasion for government or other charitable aid to Sutherland, as the noble proprietors would themselves take in hand to afford their tenantry ample relief. This story was circulated through the newspapers, and repeated by the clergy and factors at all public meetings, till the public was quite satisfied on the subject. Meantime the wretched people were suffering the most unparalleled distress; famine had brought their misery to a frightful climax, and disease and death had commenced their work! In their agony they had recourse to the ministers, imploring them to represent their case to government, that they might partake of the relief afforded to other counties: but all in vain! I am aware that what I here assert is incredible, but not less true, that of the whole seventeen parish ministers, not one could be moved by the supplications and cries of the famishing wretches to take any steps for their relief! They answered all entreaties with a cold refusal, alleging that the proprietors would, in their own good time, send the necessary relief; but, so far as I could ever learn, they took no means to hasten that relief. They said in their sermons “that the Lord had a controversy with the land for the people’s wickedness; and that in his providence, and even in his mercy, he had sent this scourge to bring them to repentance,” &c. Some people (wicked people, of course) may think such language, in such circumstances, savoured more of blasphemy than of religious truth. Meantime, the newspapers were keeping up the public expectations of the munificent donations the proprietors were sending. One journal had it that £9,000 worth of provisions were on the way; others £8,000, and £7,000, &c. However, the other Highlanders had received relief at least two months before anything came to Sutherland. At last it did come: the amount of relief, and the manner of its appropriation shall be explained in my next.

One thought on “Letter 14., pp.32-35.

Leave a Reply