When concluding that series of letters, descriptive of the woes of Sutherlandshire, which I now republish in the form of a pamphlet, I was not expecting so soon to find occasion to add important new matter to the sad detail. Another portion of my native country has fallen under the oppressor, and got into the fangs of law, which being administered by those interested, little mercy can be expected by the wretched defaulters.
All those conversant with the public papers will have seen an article, copied from the Inverness Courier, entitled “Riot in Durness, Sutherlandshire,” in which as usual a partial and one-sided account of the affair is given, and the whole blame laid on the unfortunate inhabitants. The violation of law, committed by the poor people driven to desperation, and for which they will no doubt have to pay dear, is exaggerated, while their inhuman oppression and provocation are carefully left out of sight. The following facts of the cases are a combination of my own knowledge, and that of trustworthy correspondents who were eye-witnesses of this unfortunate occurrence, which will yet be productive of much misery to the victims – perhaps end in causing their blood to be shed!
Mr. Anderson, the tacksman of Keenabin, and other farms under Lord Reay, which were the scene of the riot, was one of the earliest of that unhallowed crew of new tenants, or middlemen, who came in over the heads of the native farmers. He, with several others I could name, some of whom have come to an unhappy end, counting the natives as their slaves and their prey, disposed without scruple of them and all that they had, just as it suited their own interest or convenience, reckless of the wrongs and misery they inflicted on these simple unresisting people. They were removed from their comfortable houses and farms in the interior, to spots on the sea shore, to make room for the new-comers with their flocks and herds, and to get their living, and pay exorbitant rents, by cultivating kelp, and deep-sea fishing. In these pursuits their persevering courage and industry enabled them to surmount appalling difficulties, though with much suffering and waste of health and life. The tacksman set up for a fish curer and rented the sea to them at his own pleasure, furnishing boats and implements at an exorbitant price, while he took their fish at his own price, and thus got them drowned in debt and consequent bondage, from which, by failures both in the kelp and fishing trades, they have never been able to relieve themselves. Seeing this, and thinking he could, after taking their all for thirty years, put their little holdings, improved by their exertions, to a more profitable use, this gentleman humanely resolved to extirpate them, root and branch, after he had sucked their blood and peeled their flesh, till nothing more could be got by them, and regardless of the misery to which he doomed them, how they might fare, or which way they were to turn to procure a subsistence. To emigrate they were unable, and to repair to the manufacturing towns in quest of employment, when such multitudes are in destitution already, would afford no hope of relief. Where, then, were they to find refuge? To this question, so often urged by the poor out-casts in Sutherlandshire, the general answer of their tyrants was, “let them go to hell, but they must leave our boundaries.”
Human patience and endurance have limits, and is it to be wondered at that poor creatures driven to such extremities should be tempted to turn on their oppressors, and violate the letter of the law? Hence it is true that the poor people gathered, and seized and burned the paper which appeared as a death warrant to them (and may in one way or other prove so to them) and did their utmost, though without much personal violence, to scare away their enemies, and though law may punish, will humanity not sympathize with them? The story, as represented in the papers, of severe beating and maltreatment of the officers is, to say the least, a gross exaggeration. The intention, however indefensible ont he score of law, was merely to intimidate, not to injure. The military, it seems, is now to be called upon to wind up the drama in the way of their profession, I pray it may not end tragically. If the sword be unsheathed at Cape Wrath, let the southrons look out! If the poor and destitute – made so by injustice – are to be cut down in Sutherland, it may only be the beginning; there are plenty of poor and destitute elsewhere, whose numbers the landlords, to save their monopoly, might find it convenient to curtail; and to do which they only want a colourable pretext. Meanwhile, I shall watch the progress of the affair at Durness, and beg to call on all rightly constituted minds, to sympathize with the distress of the unfortunate people.