The honourable acquittal of Mr. Sellar, and the compliments he received in consequence from the presiding judge, with a dismissal of the sheriffs had the desired effect upon the minds of the poor Sutherlanders, and those who took an interest in their case. Every voice in their behalf was silenced and every pen laid down – in short, every channel for redress or protection from future violence was closed; the people were prostrated under the feet of their oppressors, who well knew how to take advantage of their position. It appeared that, for a considerable interval, there were no regular sheriffs in the county, and that the authority usually exercised by them was vested in Captain Kenneth McKay, a native of the county, and now one of the extensive sheep farmers. It was by virtue of warrants granted by this gentleman that the proceedings I am about to describe took place, and, if the sheriff-officers, constables, and assistants, exceeded their authority, they did so under his immediate eye and cognizance, as he was all the time residing in his house, situated so that he must have witnessed a great part of the scene from his own front window. Therefore, if he did not immediately authorise the atrocities to the extent committed (which I will not assert), he at least used no means to restrain them.
At this period a great majority of the inhabitants were tenants-at-will and therefore liable to ejectment on getting regular notice; there were, however, a few who had still existing tacks (although some had been wheedled or frightened into surrendering them), and these were, of course, unmolested till the expiration of their tacks; they were then turned out like the rest; but the great body of the tenantry were in the former condition. Meantime, the factors, taken advantage of the broken spirit and prostrate state of the people – trembling at their words or even looks – betook themselves to a new scheme to facilitate their intended proceedings, and this was to induce every householder to sign a bond or paper contain a promise of removal: and alternate threats and promises were used to induce them to do so. The promises were never realised, but, notwithstanding the people’s compliance, the threats were put in execution. In about a month after the factors had obtained this promise of removal, and thirteen days before the May term, the work of devastation was begun: they commenced by setting fire to the houses of the small tenants in extensive districts – part of the parishes of Farr, Rogart, Golspie, and the whole parish of Kildonan. I was an eye-witness of the scene. This calamity came on the people quite unexpectedly. Strong parties, for each district, furnished with faggots and other combustibles, rushed on the dwellings of this devoted people, and immediately commenced setting fire to them, proceeding in their work with the greatest rapidity till about three hundred houses were in flames! The consternation and confusion were extreme; little or no time was given for removal of persons or property – the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them – next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children – the roaring of the affrighted cattle hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire – altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description: it required to be seen to be believed. A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole county by day, and even extended far on the sea; at night an awfully grand, but terrific scene presented itself – all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once! I myself ascended a height about eleven o’clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which were my relations, and all of whom I personally knew; but whose present condition, whether in or out of the flames, I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of these days a boat lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore; but at night she was enabled to reach a landing place by the light of the flames!
It would be an endless task to give a detail of the sufferings of families and individuals during this calamitous period; or to describe its dreadful consequences on the health and lives of the victims. I will, however, attempt a very few cases. While the burning was going on, a small sloop arrived, laden with quick lime, and when discharging her cargo, the skip[per agreed to take as many of the people to Caithness as he could carry, on his return. Accordingly, about twenty families went on board, filling deck, hold, and every part of the vessel. There were childhood and age, male and female, sick and well, with a small portion of their effects, saved from the flames, all huddled together in heaps. Many of these persons had never been on the sea before, and when they began to sicken a scene indescribable ensued. To add to their miseries, a storm and contrary winds prevailed, so that instead of a day or two, the usual time of passage, it was nine days before they reached Caithness. All this time, the poor creatures almost without necessaries, most of them dying with sickness, were either wallowing among the lime, and various excrements in the hold, or lying on the deck, exposed to the raging elements! This voyage soon proved fatal to many, and some of the survivors feel its effects to this day. During this time, also, typhus fever was raging in the country, and many in a critical state had to fly, or were carried by their friends out of the burning houses. Among the rest, a young man, Donald McKay of Grumbmorr, was ordered out of his parents’ house; he obeyed, in a state of delirium, and (nearly naked) ran into some bushes adjoining, where he lay for a considerable time deprived of reason; the house was immediately in flames, and his effects burned. Robert McKay, whose whole family were in the fever, or otherwise ailing, had to carry his two daughters on his back, a distance of about twenty-five miles. He accomplished this by first carrying one, and laying her down in the open air, and returning, did the same with the other, till he reached the sea-shore, and then went with them on board the lime vessel before mentioned. An old man of the same name, betook himself to a deserted mill, and lay there unable to move; and to the best of my recollection, he died there. He had no sustenance but what he obtained by licking the dust and refuse of the meal strewed about, and was defended from the rats and other vermin, by his faithful colly, his companion and protector. A number of the sick, who could not be carried away instantly, on account of their dangerous situation, were collected by their friends and placed in an obscure, uncomfortable hut, and there, for a time, left to their fate. The cries of these victims were heart-rending – exclaiming in their anguish, “Are you going to leave us to perish in the flames?” However, the destroyers passed near the hut, apparently without noticing it, and consequently they remained unmolested till they could be conveyed to the shore, and put on board the before-mentioned sloop. George Munro, miller at Farr, residing within 400 yards of the minister’s house, had his whole family, consisting of six or seven persons, lying in a fever; and being ordered instantly to remove, was enabled, with the assistance of his neighbours to carry them to a damp kiln, where they remained till the fire abated, so that they could be removed. Meantime the house was burnt. It may not be out of place here to mention generally, that the clergy, factors, and magistrates, were cool and apparently unconcerned spectators of the scenes I have been describing, which were indeed perpetrated under their immediate authority. The splendid and comfortable mansions of these gentlemen, were reddened with the glare of their neighbours flaming houses, without exciting any compassion for the sufferers; no spiritual, temporal, or medicinal aid was afforded them; and this time they were all driven away without being allowed the benefit of their outgoing crop? Nothing but the sword was wanting to make the scene one of as great barbarity as the earth ever witnessed; and in my opinion, this would, in a majority of cases, have been mercy, by saving them from what they were afterwards doomed to endure. The clergy, indeed, in their sermons, maintained that the whole was a merciful interposition of providence to bring them to repentance, rather than to send them all to hell, as they so richly deserved! And here I beg leave to ask those Rev. gentlemen, or the survivors of them, and especially my late minister, Mr. McKenzie of Farr, if it be true, as was generally reported, that during these horrors I have been feebly endeavouring to describe – there was a letter sent from the proprietors, addressed to him, or to the general body, requesting to know if the removed tenants were well provided for, and comfortable, or words to that effect, and that the answer returned was, that the people were quite comfortable in their new allotments, and that the change was greatly for their benefit. This is the report that was circulated and believed; and the subsequent conduct of the clergy affords too much reason for giving it credence as I shall soon have occasion to show.