The state of the Highlands after 1745 – The lands of the people confiscated – Sheep farms bring about first clearances – Example of tyranny – Sutherland clearances – Evil effect of the new Poor Law – Deer forests and grouse moors depopulate the country.
THE lesson which the Highlanders gave the English Government in 1715 and 1745 was taken to heart. If English statesmen up to this period ever thought of the Highlands of Scotland at all, it was as of a remote and barbarous province unworthy of any consideration, which they dismissed with contempt, while they concentrated their energies upon the more imposing drama enacted upon the Continent. The descent of the war-like host upon the Lowlands, and the invasion of England, at once dispelled their indifferences. The state of the Highlands became a burning question at Westminster, and immediate steps were taken to avert the danger that the unique state of society of this bare-legged fraternity menaced England with. It cannot be denied that the tribal system of the Highland clans was entirely unsuited to the government of a civilised state. It was intolerable that the landlord of a district of country should be able to command the military service of his tenants, even against the recognised government of the land. It is astonishing that such a remnant of barbarism should have existed so long. It was well that it should be put a stop to forever. While the candid student of history will admit this much, the hasty, ill-considered measures adopted in London for the pacification of the Highlands must have our highest reprobation. The Clan, sept, or family, is a form of Society peculiar to the Celtic races of these islands. They generally bore the same name. The head of the clan, say Macdonald, was surrounded by kinsmen, so that the lowliest kern of the tribe could claim blood relations with the chief, and looked up to him as a father. The business of their lives was pastoral and agricultural; the amusements, hunting and war; the arts were confined to lyric poetry, and a wild and romantic strain of music. Manufacturers there were none, for the freeborn mountaineers looked with scorn upon mechanical pursuits. Such a state of society was dimly understood by the Lowland Scots, and very far from being appreciated. If the Lowland Scots knew little of the state of the Highlands the English absolutely knew nothing. But their ignorance was no barrier in their eyes for changing the whole domestic relations of the Highlands.
The position of landlord and tenant as known in England was forcibly imported into the Highlands, and the chief, who was only the nominal owner of the soil, by an arbitrary Act of an alien Government became absolute proprietor. How, then, could these Highland Chiefs show their gratitude to the Government which had so abundantly enriched them with the possessions of others? Silver and gold they had none, but the Government needed mercenary troops to carry on their wars, and recent events had made them too familiar with the warlike powers of the hardy mountaineers. Here, then, was the Chieftain’s chance. Relying upon the feudal attachment of his clan he raised regiment after regiment of what became the finest infantry in Europe. These simple mountaineers knew little and cared less about the merits of the quarrel in which they were engaged; enough for them that their beloved Chief was their Colonel, and that their officers were their own kindred. They fought the battles of the British Crown, and we will see further on how well they were rewarded for their devotion.
We said that the arbitrary Act of an alien Government transformed a limited ownership of the soil into an absolute proprietorship. Had the slightest care been taken with the rights of the people it would have been found that the Highland peasant was as much the owner of his farm as the chief was of his castle. Nearly every piece of cultivated soil and pasture land had been in possession of the same family for hundreds of years, and as the common law of Scotland acknowledges forty years’ possession as a presumptive title to an estate, it was an act of barefaced robbery to confiscate the property of these poor people. The English knew none of these facts, and did not care to know from those who had the information. The simple Celts knew no English – a crime in the eyes of Government – so without and notion of what was going on, they found in a few years that all that they possessed had been handed over to their Chief, and by that act they had become his serfs. We know these statements will be controverted, and lawyers will ask us to show the titles by which the tenants held their farms. Titles there were none – tradition and custom was the law of the land. The military and other service to the Chief was a tac upon the farm, and was needed for mutual protection and defence against a common enemy. When the Government of the country rendered these elementary duties to society, and imposed taxes to defray the expenses, the tenants forfeited no right to their property, nor could the Chief make any claim to a farm which he never had possessed. Evil customs and covetous desires are soon learned.
The officers of the Highland regiments mingled in the society which their position entitled them to. They lost the simplicity of manners of their Highland home, and expensive tastes were acquired. Proud, high-spirited were these Highland gentleman. They disdained to cut an inferior figure in the society they were called upon to mingle with. The limited means at their disposal galled them to the quick. The landlords of England revelled in wealth, and made an ostentatious display of it. Why were their estates so barren of supply? When they returned to their native glens they found a teeming population, whose only wealth consisted of loyal hearts and the warm welcome they accorded their Chief on his arrival at his castle. The half-naked kerns with their savage glee at his return home became a disgust to him, while the rent rolls put before him by his factor gave little cause of rejoicing to the debt-embarrassed Chief. There was one way out of his difficulties, but it was a cruel one. Could he face it? Not personally; but then he had willing servants who would do his dirty work and bear the odium, while he reaped the reward.
The European war in which the Highlanders played so gallant a part had raised the value of the home market for sheep to an enormous extent. The pasture of the Highlands was well adapted for the rearing of sheep, and Lowland and Highland tacksmen with capital were ready to give large rents for sheep farms. But, then, there was the people; what was to be done with them? The whole land was in their possession. The factor said, Why do they not emigrate? The Chief said, Poor ignorant men; why continue to starve in the Highlands when there is such abundance of rich lands in America? But the Highlander loved his native land, and would rather live in penury there than revel in abundance in New Brunswick. The Chiefs worked themselves up into a passion at such obstinacy. Whenever a man wishes to do a wicked thing the prologue to the act is to get into a rage; all the other scenes of the drama are then comparatively easy. They won’t emigrate; they defy me; what assurance! And all his satellites echoed, What ingratitude for all the years the Chief has kept them and their forebears. If they won’t go away peacefully, then they must be evicted from my land. ‘Certainly, your Grace,’ or ‘my Lord,’ cried the factor. ‘The rights of property must be respected. Leave them to me; I know how to break their stubborn Highland spirit.’ Such was the beginning of the first Highland Clearances.
It is not our intention to harrow the feelings of our readers by going into all the scenes of cruelty and oppression that characterised these Highland evictions. Enough for our purpose to give a general outline of the whole, and one or two examples to stimulate the curiosity of our countrymen, who can study the question for themselves. We take this example from the Glengarry evictions. The factor had ordered the people to emigrate to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or Canada. Among those who did not like to leave their native country was –
‘John Mackinnon, a cottar, aged 44, with a wife and six children, had his house pulled down, and had no place to put his head in. Consequently he and his family for the first night or two had to burrow among rocks near the shore! When he thought that the factor and his party had left the district he emerged from the rocks, surveyed the ruins of his former dwelling, saw his furniture and other effects exposed to the elements, and now scarcely worth the lifting. The demolition was so complete that he considered it utterly impossible to make any use of the ruins of the old house. The ruins of an old chapel, however, were near at hand, and parts of the walls were still standing, and thither Mackinnon proceeded with his family, and having swept away some rubbish and removed some grass and nettles, they placed some cabers up to one of the walls, spread some sails and blankets across, brought in some meadow hay, and laid it in a corner for a bed, stuck a piece of iron into the wall in another corner, on which they placed a crook, then they kindled a fire, washed some potatoes, and put a pot on the fire and boiled them; and when these and a few fish, roasted on the embers, were ready, Mackinnon and his family had one good diet, being the first regular food they tasted since the destruction of their house!
‘Mackinnon is a tall man, but poor and unhealthy looking, His wife is a poor, weak woman, evidently struggling with a diseased constitution and dreadful trials. The boys, Ronald and Archibald, were lying in “bed” (may I call a “pickle” hay on the bare ground a bed?) suffering from rheumatism and colic. The other children are apparently healthy enough as yet, but very ragged. There is no door to their wretched abode, consequently every breeze and gust that blows has free ingress to the inmates. A savage from Terra del Fuego or a Red Indian from beyond the Rocky Mountains would not exchange huts with these victims, nor humanity with their persecutors. Mackinnon’s wife was pregnant when she was turned out of her house among the rocks.
‘In about four days thereafter she had a premature birth, and this and the exposure to the elements, and the want of proper shelter and nutritious diet, has brought on consumption, from which there is no chance whatever of her recovery. There was something very solemn indeed in this scene. Here, amid the ruins of the old sanctuary, where the swallows fluttered, where the ivy tried to screen the grey, moss-covered stones, where nettles and grass grew up luxuriously, where the floor was damp, the walls sombre and uninviting, where the owl, the bat, and the fox used to take refuge, a Christian family was necessitated to take shelter. One would think that as Mackinnon took refuge amid the ruins of this most singular place that he would be let alone, that he would not any longer be molested by man. But, alas! he was molested. The Manager of Knoydart and his minions appeared and invaded this helpless family, even within the walls of the sanctuary. They pulled down the sticks and sails he set up within the ruins – put his wife and children on the cold shore – threw his tables, stools, chairs, &c., over the walls – burnt up the hay on which they slept – put out the fire – and then left the district. Four times have these officers broken in upon poor Mackinnon in this way, destroying his place of shelter, and sending him and his family adrift on the cold coast of Knoydart. When I looked in upon these creatures last week I found them in utter consternation, having just learned that the officers would appear next day, and would again destroy the huts. The children looked at me as if I had been a wolf; they crept behind their father, and stared wildly, dreading I was a law officer.
‘The sight was most painful. The very idea that in Christian Scotland, and in the nineteenth century, those tender infants should be subjected to such gross treatment reflects strongly upon our humanity and civilisation. Had they been suffering from the ravages of famine, or pestilence, or war, I could understand it and account for it, but suffering to gratify the ambition of some unfeeling speculator in brute beasts, I think it most unwarranted, and deserving the emphatic condemnation of every Christian man. Had Mackinnon been in arrears of rent, which he was not, even this would not justify the harsh, cruel, and inhuman conduct pursued towards himself and his family. No language of mine can describe the condition of this poor family, exaggeration is impossible. The ruins of an old chapel is the last place in the world to which a poor Highlander would resort with his wife and children, unless he was driven to it by dire necessity.’1
In Strathglass, Kingtail, Glenelg, Outer Hebrides, Borcraig and Suishinish, South Uist, and Barra the same scenes as we have related were enacted, and hundreds of families were evicted from the home of their fathers, forced to emigrate to a distant shore, though not a few found a grave in the Atlantic. The people in many cases were totally unfit for the voyage, so that pestilence broke out in many a ship, which was thus eased of its cargo. Happy, indeed, were they when the waves closed over them, and they were thus freed from the inhumanity of their oppressors. The process by which the poor people were deluded into emigration was this:- The factor, taking advantage of their ignorance, got them to sign a contract to emigrate to a nice farm on the other side of the water. Once caught in the snare, the police were called in to enforce the compact, and the people were hunted up like wild animals, and driven on board like a flock of sheep. So much was this the case that the captain of a coasting steamer told us that he frequently got notice from the factor or landlord to call at such and such a place to take up so many families couched in the same language as the order to ship black cattle or sheep. The people were poor and defenceless; they could not even speak the language of their oppressors, and the law was no friend to them; they were the outcasts of society under the law of an alien Government. The most infamous of all the Highland clearances was perpetrated in the County of Sutherland, and that for the self-same selfish ends – sheep paid better than men. The rights of the people were ignored, the letter of the law was on the side of the spoiler, so the people were swept from the face of the earth. An invading army who lays waste the enemy’s country will sometimes spare the houses of the unresisting villagers, but no such sentiment of pity found a place in the breast of the Highland oppressors – the love of gain had obliterated the last spark of human feeling.
We can only give a few examples of the kind of treatment these God-fearing Highland peasants received from the hands of their landlord:-
‘John Mackay’s wife, Ravigill, in attempting to pull down her house in the absence of her husband, to preserve the timber, fell through the roof. She was in consequence taken in premature labour, and in that state was exposed to the open air and to the view of all bystanders. Donald Munro, Garvott, lying in a fever, was turned out of his house and exposed to the elements. Donald Macbeath, an infirm and bedridden old man, had the house unroofed over him, and was in that state exposed to the wind and rain until death put a period to his sufferings. I was present at the pulling down and burning of the house of William Chisholm, Budinliskin, in which was lying his wife’s mother, an old bedridden woman of nearly 100 years of age, none of the family being present. I informed the persons about to set fire to the house of this circumstance, and prevailed on them to wait until Mr Sellar came. On his arrival I told him of the poor old woman being in a condition unfit for removal, when he replied, “Damn her, the old witch, she has lived too long – let her burn.” Fire was immediately set to the house, and the blankets in which she was carried out were in flames before she could be got out. She was placed in a little shed, and it was with great difficulty they were prevented from firing it also. The old woman’s daughter arrived while the house was on fire, and assisted the neighbours in removing her mother out of the flames and smoke, presenting a picture of horror which I shall never forget, but cannot attempt to describe. Within five days she was a corpse.’2
The wholesale destruction of the dwellings of the peasantry, which, be it remembered, were erected by their own hands at their own cost, is thus described –
‘The consternation and confusion were extreme; little or no time was given for the 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 country by day, and even extended far out to sea; at night an awfully grand but terrible 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 250 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 actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing-place by the lurid light of the flames.’3
There was another powerful motive for dealing thus harshly with the people in the Highlands. A new Poor Law had been passed for Scotland, and, like too many other Acts of Parliament which have become law since, was a hasty and ill-considered measure. It was modelled after the English Poor Law, which gave the indigent poor a lien over the estates of the proprietors. The landlords took fright. We must get rid of our poor at all hazards, and drive them into the large towns; the fat and greasy citizens can maintain them; we will not be burdened. The roadside villages, the humble cottars were ruthlessly swept away; what the sheep farmers had spared fell a sacrifice to this new terror. What could these helpless people do in our large cities? They were husbandmen, but there were no fields there to till. Some of their daughters found service, but as most of them had never seen a carpet or a coal fire in their lives, their uncouth habits were ill adapted to the refinement of city life. Some had the fatal dower of beauty, and went to swell the army of unfortunates who minister to the vices of a corrupt age. The town missionary who labours among the lapsed classes is impressed with the large number of Highlandmen to be found in their midst. These men while in their native glens were decent, honest, God-fearing people; in the slums of our large cities they fall into despair, rot in their human sties, and swell the ranks of the criminal classes. The cup of bitterness was now surely full to overflowing to the poor Highlander. But no! yet another evil has fallen upon him. The beauty of his country, the bracing healthy breezes of his mountains have attracted an army of strangers.
These modern Crœsuses, gorged with the spoils of the civilised world and jaded with the enervating luxury of London, require a respite from their eternal round of gaiety. The Queen has her Highland home. It has become the correct thing for these frivolous children of fashion to have a deer forest, a moor to shoot grouse, a river to catch salmon. The bribe they offer to the landlord is enormous; but the land must be cleared; no bare-legged Highland peasant must come between the wind and their nobility. All must be swept away but a few ghillies and gamekeepers, and not even the passing tourist can deviate from the highway without being subjected to their insolence.
The stereotyped answer to all complaints on behalf of the poor people is that the land is too barren to support the population, that it has been marked out by nature for sheep-walks, deer forests, and moors for the cultivation of grouse, and that greater wealth comes to all concerned than if it were loaded with a half-starving peasantry. Now, the lands in the Highlands are peculiar. The patches of good land are scattered all over the country, some far away among the hills. The native population knew these spots, and built their houses there, and raised the crops suitable to their situation, while the neighbouring hills gave pasture to their cattle and sheep. The portion of the world’s goods that came to them was small; their simple pleasures, their pious superstitions, their life of toil, would provoke the derision of the purse-proud sons of the South. But in these glens there was reared a hardy race of men and women, the greatest glory of a nation. Poverty was no barrier to genius, for the Highland clachan had its poet and philosopher, while the hardy mountaineers were ready to swell the ranks of our army and defend the liberties of their country. We have wandered over the mountains and through the glens of Scotland – we have seen the ruined houses that once held a teeming, happy population. A hundred Goldsmiths would find a theme in our deserted villages. All are in ruins. The cry of the plover, the whir of the grouse alone disturb the silence of all around. Man has made a wilderness for his sport; a hardy race have been banished from their native land. Such is the penalty a country pays that consents to be governed by another. Those who laud the blessings of the Union think none of these things. Would these crimes that have been perpetrated in the Highlands have been permitted had Scotland retained her own Parliament and Government? We think not.