In my last I quoted an expression current among the clergy at the time of the famine “that God had a controversy with the people for their sins,” but I contend – and I think my readers in general will agree with me – that the poor Sutherlanders were “more sinned against than sinning.” To the aspersions cast upon them by Mr. Loch, in his book (written by an interested party, and evidently for a purpose) I beg the public to contrast the important work by General Stewart before mentioned, and draw their own conclusions. The truth is that the Sutherlanders were examples of almost all the humble virtues; a simple and uncorrupted, rural, and pastoral population: even the unexampled protracted cruelty with which they were treated, never stirred them to take wild or lawless revenge. During a period of 200 years, there had been only three capital convictions, and very few crimes of any description; the few that did occur were chiefly against the excise laws. But those who coveted the lands, which in justice were their patrimony, like Queen Jezebel of old, got false witnesses to defame them (in order that a pretext might be afforded for expelling them from the possessions which had been defended with the blood of their forefathers). It was the factors, the capitalists, and the clergy, that had a controversy with the people, and not the Almighty, as they blasphemously asserted. The Sutherlanders had always been a religious, a devout, and a praying people, and now their oppressors, and not Divine Providence, had made them a fasting people. I proceed to give some account of that mockery of relief which was so ostentatiously paraded before the public in the newspapers, and at public meetings.
I have already observed that the relief afforded to the Highland districts generally, by the government, and by private charity, was not only effectual in meeting the exigency, but it was bone fide charity, and was forthcoming in time; while the pittance doled out to the Sutherlanders, was destitute of those characteristics. How the poor people passed the winter and spring under the circumstances before mentioned, I must leave to the reader’s imagination; suffice it to say, that though worn to the bone by cold, hunger, and nakedness, the bulk of them still survived. The Highlanders are still proverbially tenacious of life. In the latter end of April, 1837, when news reached them that the long-promised relief, consisting of meal, barley, potatoes, and seed oats, had actually arrived, and was to be immediately distributed at Tongue and other stated places, the people at once flocked to those places, but were told that nothing would be given to any, till they produced a certificate from their parish minister that they were proper objects of charity. Here was a new obstacle. They had to return and implore those haughty priests for certificates, which were frequently withheld from mere caprice, or for some alleged offence or lack of homage in the applicant, who if not totally refused, had to be humbled in the dust, sickened by delay, and the boon only at last yielded to the intercession of some of the more humane of the shepherds. Those who were in the fishing trade were peremptorily refused. This is the way in which man, religious man, too! can trifle with the distress of his famishing brother.
The places appointed for distribution were distant from the homes of many of the sufferers, so that by the time they had waited on the ministers for the necessary qualification, and travelled again to the places of distribution and back again, with what they could obtain, on their backs, several days were consumed, and in many cases from 50 to 100 miles traversed. And what amount of relief did they receive after all? From 7 to 28 lbs. of meal, and seed oats and potatoes in the same proportions; and this not for individuals, but for whole families! In the fields, and about the dykes adjoining the places where these pittances were doled out, groups of famishing creatures might be seen lying in the mornings (many of them having travelled the whole day and night previous), waiting the leisure of the factors or their clerks, and no attention was paid to them till those gentlemen had breakfasted and dressed, &c.; by which time the day was far advanced.
Several subsequent distributions of meal took place; but in every new case, fresh certificates of continued destitution had to be procured from the ministers and elders of the respective parishes. This was the kind, and quantity, of relief afforded, and the mode of dispensing it; different indeed from what was represented in the glozing falsehoods so industriously palmed on public credulity.
In the month of September, her Grace being then on a visit in the country, the following proceedings took place, as reported in the public papers of the day, which afforded a specimen of groundless assertions, clerical sycophancy, and fulsome adulation, for which it might be difficult to find a parallel:-
‘The Presbytery of Tongue, at their last meeting, agreed to present the following address to the Duchess of Sutherland. Her Grace being then at Tongue, the Presbytery waited on her; and the address being read by the moderator, she made a suitable reply:
“May it please your Grace.
We, the Presbytery of Tongue, beg leave to approach your Grace with feelings of profound respect, and to express our joy at your safe arrival within our bounds.
We have met here this day for the purpose of communicating to your Grace the deep sense which we entertain of your kindness during the past season to the people under our charge.
When it pleased Providence by an unfavourable harvest to afflict the Highlands of Scotland with a scarcity of bread, and when the clergymen of other districts appealed to public charity in behalf of their parishioners, the confidence which we placed in your Grace’s liberality led us to refrain from making a similar appeal.
When we say that this confidence has been amply realised, we only express the feelings of our people; and participating strongly in these feelings, as we do, to withhold the expression of them from your Grace, would do injustice alike to ourselves and to them.
In their name, therefore, as well as in our own, we beg to offer to your Grace our warmest gratitude. When other districts were left to the precarious supplies of a distant benevolence, your Grace took on yourself the charge of supporting your people; by a constant supply of meal, you not only saved them from famine, but enabled them to live in comfort; and by a seasonable provision of seed, you were the means, under God, of securing to them the blessing of the present abundant harvest.
That Almighty God may bless your grace, – that he may long spare you to be a blessing to your people, – and that he may finally give you the inheritance which is incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, is the prayer of
May it please your Grace,
THE MEMBERS OF THE PRESBYTERY OF TONGUE.
(Signed) HUGH MACKENZIE, Moderator.”
The evident tendency of this document was to mislead her Grace, and by deluding the public, to allay anxiety, stifle inquiry, and conceal the truth. However, her Grace made a “suitable reply,” and great favour was shown to the adulators. About a year before, the very clergyman whose signature is appended to this address exchanged part of his glebe for the lands of Dinsad and Inshverry; but in consenting to the change, he made an express condition that the present occupiers, amounting to eight families, should be “removed,” and accordingly they were driven out in a body! To this gentleman, then, the honour is due of having consummated the Sutherland ejections; and hence he was admirably fitted for signing the address. I must not omit to notice “the abundant harvest” said to succeed the famine. The family “allotments” only afforded the sowing of from a half firlot to two or three firlots of oats, and a like quantity of barley, which, at an average in good seasons, yielded about three times the quantity sown; in bad years little or nothing; and even in the most favourable cases, along with their patches of potatoes, could not maintain the people more than three months in the year. The crop succeeding the famine was anything but an abundant one to the poor people; they had got the seed too late, and the season was not the most favourable for bringing it to even ordinary perfection. Hence, that “abundance” mentioned in the address was like all the rest of its groundless assumption. But I have still to add to the crowning iniquity – the provision distributed in charity had to be paid for! But this point I must postpone till my next.