The depopulation I have been treating of, with its attendant horrors and miseries, as well as its impolicy, is so justly reasoned upon by General Stewart, in the work formerly alluded to, that I beg to transcribe a paragraph or two. At page 168 he says:- “The system of overlooking the original occupiers, and of giving every support to strangers, has been much practiced in the highland counties; and on one great estate (the Sutherland) the support which was given to farmers of capital, as well in the amount of sums expended on improvements, as in the liberal abatement of rents, is, I believe, unparalleled in the United Kingdom, and affords additional matter of regret, that the delusions practised on a generous and public-spirited landowner, have been so perseveringly and successfully applied, that it would appear as if all feeling of former kindness towards the native tenantry had ceased to exist. To them any uncultivated spot of moorland, however small, was considered sufficient for the support of a family; while the most lavish encouragement has been given to the new tenants, on whom, and with the erection of buildings, the improvement of lands, roads, bridges, &c., upwards of £210,000 has been expended since the year 1808. With this proof of unprecedented liberality, it cannot be sufficiently lamented, that an estimate of the character of these poor people was taken from the misrepresentations of interested persons, instead of judging from the conduct of the same men when brought into the world, where they obtained a name and character which have secured the esteem and approbation of men high in honour and rank, and, from their talents and experience, perfectly capable of judging with correctness. With such proofs of capability, and with such materials for carrying on the improvements, and maintaining the permanent prosperity of the country, when occupied by a hardy, abstemious race, easily led on to a full exertion of their faculties by a proper management, there cannot be a question but that it, instead of placing them, as has been done, in situations bearing too near a resemblance to the potato-gardens of Ireland, they had been permitted to remain cultivators of the soil, receiving a moderate share of the vast sums lavished on their richer successors, such a humane and considerate regard to the prosperity of a whole people, would undoubtedly have answered every good purpose.”
In reference to the new allotments, he says; “when the valleys and higher grounds were let to the shepherds, the whole population was driven to the sea shore, where they were crowded on small lots of land, to earn their subsistence by labour and by sea fishing, the latter so little congenial to their former habits.” He goes on to remark, in a note, that these one or two acre lots, are represented as an improved system. “In a country without regular employment and without manufactures, a family is to be supported on one or two acres!!” The consequence was, and continues to be, that, “over the whole of this district, where the sea shore is accessible, the coast is thickly studded with wretched cottages, crowded with starving inhabitants.” Strangers “with capital” usurp the land and dispossess the swain. “Ancient respectable tenants, who passed the greater part of life in the enjoyment of abundance, and in the exercises of hospitality and charity, possessing stocks of ten, twenty, and thirty breeding cows, with the usual proportion of other stock, are now pining on one or two acres of bad land, with one or two starved cows; and for this accommodation, a calculation is made, that they must support their families and pay the rent of their lots, not from the produce but from the sea. When the herring fishery succeeds they generally satisfy the landlords, whatever privations they may suffer; but when the fishing fails, they fall in arrears and are sequestrated, and their stock sold to pay the rents, their lots given to others, and they and their families turned adrift on the world. There are still a few small tenants on the old system; but they are fast falling into decay, and sinking into the class just described.” Again, “we cannot sufficiently admire their meek and patient spirit, supported by the powerful influence of moral and religious principle.” I need not go further, but again beg the reader’s attention to this most valuable work [‘Sketches of the Character and Manners of the Highlanders of Scotland’ (1825)], especially the article “Change of Tenancy,” as illustrative of the condition and exponent of the character and feelings of my poor countrymen, as well as corroborative of the facts to which I am endeavouring to call public attention, as causes of the distress and destitution still prevailing in Sutherlandshire.
By the means described, large tracts of country were depopulated, and converted into solitary wastes. The whole inhabitants of Kildonan parish (with the exception of three families), amounting to near 2,000 souls, were utterly rooted and burned out. Many, especially the young and robust, left the country; but the aged, the females and children, were obliged to stay and accept the wretched allotments allowed them on the sea shore, and endeavour to learn fishing, for which all their former habits rendered them unfit; hence their time was spent in unproductive toil and misery, and many lives were lost. Mr. Sage, of evergreen memory, was the parish minister –
“Among the faithless, faithful only he!”*
This gentleman had dissented from his brethren, and, to the best of his power, opposed their proceedings; hence he was persecuted and despised by them and the factors, and treated with marked disrespect. After the burning out, having lost his pious elders and attached congregation, he went about mourning till his demise, which happened not long after. His son had been appointed by the people minister of a chapel of ease, parish of Farr, and paid by them; but, when the expulsion took place, he removed to Aberdeen, and afterwards to a parish in Ross-shire. On account of his father’s integrity he could not expect a kirk in Sutherlandshire.
After a considerable interval of absence, I revisited my native place in the year 1828, and attended divine worship in the parish church, now reduced to the size and appearance of a dove-cot. The whole congregation consisted of eight shepherds, with their dogs, to the amount of between 20 and 30, the minister, three of his family, and myself! I came in after the first singing, but, at the conclusion, the 120th psalm was given out, and struck up to the famous tune, “Bangor;” when the four-footed hearers became excited, got up on the seats, and raised a most infernal chorus of howling. Their masters then attacked them with their crooks, which only made matters worse; the yelping and howling continued till the end of the service. I retired, to contemplate the shameful scene, and compare it with what I had previously witnessed in the large and devout congregations formerly attending in that kirk. What must the worthy Mr. Campbell have felt while endeavouring to edify such a congregation! The Barony of Strathnaver, parish of Farr, 25 miles in length, containing a population as numerous as Kildonan, who had been all rooted out at the general conflagration, presented a similar aspect. Here, the church no longer found necessary, was razed to the ground, and the timber of it conveyed to Altnaharrow, to be used in erecting an Inn (one of the new improvements) there, and the minister’s house converted into the dwelling of a fox-hunter. A woman, well known in that parish, happening to traverse the Strath the year after the burning, was asked on her return, what news? “Oh,” said she, “Sgeul brònach, sgeul brònach! sad news, sad news! I have seen the timber of our well-attended kirk, covering the Inn at Altnaharrow; I have seen the kirk-yard, where our friends are mouldering filled with tarry sheep, and Mr. Sage’s study room, a kennel for Robert Gunn’s dogs; and I have seen a crow’s nest in James Gordon’s chimney head!” On this she fell into a paroxysm of grief, and it was several days before she could utter a word to be understood. During the late devastations, a Captain John McKay was appointed sub-factor, under Mr. Loch, for the district of Strathnaver. This gentleman, had he been allowed his own way, would have exercised his power beneficially; but he was subject to persons cast in another mould, and had to sanction what he could not approve. He did all he could to mitigate the condition of the natives, by giving them employment, in preference to strangers, at the public works and improvements, as they were called; but finding their enemies too powerful and malignant, and the misery and destitution too great to be even partially removed, he shrunk from his ungracious task and went to America, where he breathed his last, much regretted by all who knew him on both sides of the Atlantic.