In my last letter I mentioned something about the withholding and misappropriation of the money collected at church doors for the poor; but let it be understood that notwithstanding the iniquitous conduct of persons so acting, the loss to the poor was not very great. The Highlander abhors to be thought a pauper, and the sum afforded to each of the few who were obliged to accept it, varied from 1s. 6d. to 5s. a year: the congregations being much diminished, as I had before occasion to observe. It is no wonder, then, that the poor, if at all able, flee from such a country and seek employment and relief in the various maritime towns in Scotland, where they arrive broken down and exhausted by previous hardship – meatless and moneyless; and when unable to labour, or unsuccessful in obtaining work, they become a burden to a community who have no right to bear it, while those who have reduced them to that state escape scot-free. Any person acquainted generally with the statistics of pauperism in Scotland will, I am sure, admit the correctness of these statements. The Highland landlords formerly counted their riches by the number of their vassals or tenants, and were anxious to retain them; hence the poem of Burns, addressed to the Highland lairds, and signed Beelzebub, by which the ever selfish policy of those gentlemen is celebrated in their endeavouring, by force, to retrain emigration to Canada. But since then the case is reversed. First the war, and then the food monopoly has made raising of cattle for the English markets, the more eligible speculation, against which the boasted feelings of clanship, as well as the claims of common humanity have entirely lost their force. Regarding the poll-tax or road money, it is also necessary to state, that in every case when it is not paid on the appointed day, expenses are arbitrarily added (though no legal process has been entered) which the defaulter is obliged to submit to without means of redress. There are no tolls in the county; the roads, &c., being kept up by this poll-tax, paid by the small tenants for the exclusive benefit of those who have superceded them. In this way very large sums are screwed out of the people, even the poorest, and from the absentees, if they ever return to reside. So that if the population are not extirpated by wholesale, a considerable portion of the sums laid out on improvements will ultimately return to the proprietors, from a source whence, of all others, they have no shadow of right to obtain it.
I have now arrived at an important event in my narrative; the death of an exalted personage to whom I have often had occasion to refer – the Duchess-Countess of Sutherland.
This lady who had, during a long life, maintained a high position in courtly and aristocratic society, and who was possessed of many great qualities, was called to her account on the 29th of January, 1839, in the 74th year of her age. Her death took place in London, and her body was conveyed to Sutherland by way of Aberdeen, and finally interred with great pomp in the family vault, beside the late Duke, her husband, in the Cathedral of Dornoch. The funeral was attended to Blackwell by many of the first nobility in England, and afterwards by her two grandsons, Lord Edward Howard, and the Honourable Francis Egerton, and by her friend and confidential servant, Mr. Loch, with their respective suites. The procession was met by Mr. Sellar, Mr. Young, and many of her under factors and subordinate retainers, together with the whole body of the new occupiers, while the small tenantry brought up the rear of the solemn cavalcade. She was buried with the rites of the Church of England. Mr. George Gunn, under-factor, was the only gentleman native of the county who took a prominent part in the management of the funeral and who certainly did not obtain that honour by the exercise of extraordinary virtues towards his poor countrymen: the rest were all those who had taken an active part in the scenes of injustice and cruelty which I have been endeavouring to represent to the reader, in the previous part of my narrative. The trump of fame has been seldom made to sound a louder blast, than that which echoed through the island, with the virtues of the Duchess; every periodical, especially in Scotland, was for a time literally crammed with them, but in those extravagant encomiums few or none of her native tenantry could honestly join. That she had many great and good qualities none will attempt to deny, but at the same time, under the sanction or guise of her name and authority, were continually perpetrated deeds of the most atrocious character, and her people’s wrongs still remain unredressed. Her severity was felt, perhaps, far beyond her own intentions; while her benevolence was intercepted by the instruments she employed, and who so unworthily enjoyed her favour and confidence. Her favours were showered on aliens and strangers; while few, indeed, were the drops which came to the relief of those from whom she sprung, and whose coeval, though subordinate right to their native soil, had been recognised for centuries. Peace to her name! I am sorry it is not in my power to render unqualified praise to her character.
The same course of draining the small tenants, under one pretext or another, continued for some time after her Grace’s decease; but exactions must terminate, when the means of meeting them are exhausted. You cannot starve a hen, and make her lay eggs at the same time. The factors, having taken them all, had to make a virtue of necessity, and advise the Duke to an act of high-sounding generosity – to remit all the arrears due by the small tenantry. Due proclamation was made of his Grace’s benevolent intentions, with an express condition annexed, that no future arrears would be allowed, and that all future defaulters should be instantly removed, and their holdings (not let to tenants, but) handed over to their next neighbour, and failing him, to the next again, and so on. This edict was proclaimed under the authority of his Grace and the factors, in the year 1840, about a twelvemonth after the Duchess’s decease, and continues the law of the estate as regards the unfortunate natives, or small tenantry as they are generally called.