[Scottish Potato Clearances Contents]
What about other reasons for people having to leave their homes, districts, and country? Did the papers help us to discover what was happening across Scotland?
STATE OF THE HIGHLANDS – REPORT TO GOVERNMENT.
After tracing the immediate cause of the destitution to the failure of the two crops of 1835 and 1836, Mr Graham observes that the country is in a state of great impoverishment and misery, the grand cause of which he considers to be, that the population has been allowed to increase in a much greater ratio than the means of subsistence which it affords. This evil, he is of opinion, has arisen from various causes. 1st, The consequences of the peace. 2d, The failure of the kelp manufactory. 3d, the failure of the fisheries. 4th, The cessation of various public works in the Highlands. 5th, The want of regulations by landlords. And lastly, The non-enforcement of the Poor Laws.
In order to do away with the over-population, Mr Graham proposes various remedies. 1st, By educating the people. “What has already been done (he observes) for the Highlands in the establishment of Schools, cannot be too much applauded, and can scarcely be too forcibly recommended to the attention of Government to be continued systematically, as the best and surest foundation for any internal cure which can now be operated, of the present disproportion between the population of these districts, and their means of employment.” 2d, By obtaining employment for the surplus population in the manufactories in the great towns, or in establishing works for them near their own houses. 3d, By constructing roads in judicious lines through the country, whereby they would be employed. But Mr Graham considers the encouragement of Emigration to be the most effectual remedy for the evil which forms the subject of his Report. The following are his observations on this point, with which we must for the present conclude:-
“The most effectual mode of preventing a recurrence of the present distress, and one which was suggested every where as being almost a necessary remedy, would be by Emigration. To whatever extent in other ways employment can be found, emigration, in one shape or other, must continue to take place. Probably it would, in the long run, be the most expedient, the most efficient, and the most economical expenditure of the public money, if Her Majesty’s Government were to assist in establishing a system of emigration on a great scale. To give effectual relief, it must be done generally, and on a great scale. If it is done partially, and to a small extent, the relief will not be recognised..”
– Inverness Courier, Wednesday, 22nd November, 1837, p.4.
[To qualify this assertion; in 1840 the population of England and Wales was approximately 15.9 million contained within its combined 58,355 square miles (272.5 people to the square mile), to Scotland’s 2.6 million within its 30,415 square miles (85.5 people to the square mile) or nearly two thirds less.]
Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons, on Emigration from the United Kingdom. – Just Printed.
Your Committee are induced to consider, that the following important facts have been established by the evidence which they have collected for the information of the House:-
First – That there are extensive districts in Ireland, and districts in England and Scotland, where the population is at the present moment redundant; in other words, where there exists a very considerable proportion of able-bodied and active labourers, beyond that number to which any existing demand for labour can afford employment. That the effect of this redundancy is not only to reduce a part of this population to a great degree of destitution and misery, but also to deteriorate the general condition of the labouring classes. That by its producing a supply of labour in excess as compared with the demand, the wages of labour are necessarily reduced to a minimum, which is utterly insufficient to supply that population with those means of support and subsistence which are necessary to secure a healthy and satisfactory condition of the community. That in England, this redundant population has been in part supported by a parochial rate, which, according to the Reports and evidence of former Committees specially appointed to consider the subject, threatens, in its extreme tendency, to absorb the whole rental of the country; and that in Ireland, where no such parochial rate exists by law, and where the redundancy is found in a still greater degree, a considerable part of the population is dependent for the means of support on the precarious source of charity, or is compelled to resort to habits of plunder and spoliation, for the actual means of subsistence.
Secondly – That in the British Colonies in North America (including the Canadas, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward’s Island) at the Cape of Good Hope, and in New South Wales, and Van Diemen’s Land, there are tracts of unappropriated land of the most fertile quality, capable of receiving and subsisting any proportion of the redundant population of this country, for whose conveyance thither, the means could be found at any time, present or future.
Thirdly – That while the English, Scotch and Irish evidence, taken before your Committee, appears to establish the fact, that this redundant population is practically found to repress the industry, and even sometimes to endanger the peace, of the mother country; the colonial evidence, which has been taken by your Committee, uniformly concurs in the opinion that the industry and the safety of the colonies will be materially encouraged and preserved by the reception of this population. The unemployed labourer at home necessarily consumes more than he produces, and the national wealth is diminished in that proportion. When transferred to new countries, where soil of the first quality of fertility is unappropriated, and where the rate of wages is consequently high, it will be found that he produces infinitely more than he consumes, and the national wealth will be increased by the change, if the colonies are to be considered as integral parts of the nation at large.
They have considered that no system of emigration could be recommended to the attention of Parliament which was not essentially voluntary on the part of the emigrants, and which did not relate to that part of the community which may be considered to be in a state of permanent pauperism. They also consider, that it would be in the highest degree desirable that any expense incurred for the purpose of emigration, to be contributed from national funds, should be ultimately repaid: so that no gratuitous expenditure should be necessary, except in cases which might justifiably be made exceptions to the general rule. It is true, the emigrations carried into effect in 1823 and 1825, under the superintendence of Mr. Peter Robinson [in Ireland], were supported by Parliamentary grants of money, for which no repayment was pledged; but those emigrations were necessary for the purpose of experiment, and the justification of employing public money for that purpose was specially pleaded, on the ground of their being experiments which were necessary to precede any more extended scheme. The principal, if not the only objections which were raised against these experiments, rested on the ground of the expenditure of public money which they involved being unrepaid.
“It is at once evident that this system of emigration could be made immediately applicable to Ireland and Scotland, provided that money was raised there for the purpose by local assessment, or that a specific tax was pledged for money lent for that purpose by the Government.
Although it may be argued , that there can be no actual redundancy of population as long as the waste lands in the mother country remain uncultivated, yet no person conversant with such subjects can contend that such redundancy does not now virtually, at least, exist; in other words, that there are not many strong labouring men for whose services there is no adequate demand, and who cannot be employed upon any productive labour that will pay the expenses of production; and if any person should feel alarm, that under the operation of such a measure too great a proportion of the population might be abstracted, they may rest assured not only that this measure can be suspended or limited at any time, but that in point of fact it has that suspensive power within itself; for, whenever there should exist at home an adequate demand for the services of able-bodied men out of employ, whether from the increase of productive industry or from the demands of war, or from any other cause, there would be no longer a temptation to emigrate.
The mode in which this may be done is pointed out; and it is shewn that parishes in England, and proprietors of land in Scotland and Ireland, are interested in contributing to the removal of unemployed labourers from a part of the empire where they endure distress and constitute weakness, to other parts, where they may maintain themselves, and add to the strength and security of our foreign possessions.
– Glasgow Herald, Friday, 25th August, 1826, p.1.
[This final assertion wasn’t borne out in practice, with regards the Irish, anyway, much to the horror of authorities;]
THE fact that since May, 1851, more than two and a quarter millions of emigrants have left the shores of Ireland is surely sufficient to attract serious attention to the question of the exodus going forward from that country. The Irish emigration returns for last year were issued yesterday from the office of the Registrar-General. Once more they show a large increase in the number of those who are seeking their fortunes in other lands. The emigrants during 1873 were 90,149 in number; during 1872 they were only 78,102. Thus 12,047 more persons left their native land last year than the year before. Were this tide of emigration directed to some portion of our own empire the state of matters would not be so serious as it is. The United States, however, and not Canada or Australia, absorb by far the majority of those who leave the Emerald Isle to seek their fortune abroad. Until the emigration from the United Kingdom is directed to our own colonies and not to the territory of some other Power, the continual drain going forward from our empire is matter for national regret. How to direct the stream of emigration from its present course is a problem for patriotic politicians.
– Edinburgh Evening News, 21st January, 1874.
Let us follow, for a little, the poor Highlanders of Sutherland to the sea coast. It would be easy dwelling on the terrors of their expulsion, and multiplying facts of horror; but had there been no permanent deterioration effected in their condition, these, all harrowing and repulsive as they were, would have mattered less. Sutherland would have soon recovered the burning up of a few hundred hamlets, or the loss of a few bed-ridden old people, who would have died as certainly under cover, though perhaps a few months later, as when exposed to the elements in the open air. Nay, had it lost a thousand of its best men in the way in which it lost so many at the storming of New Orleans, the blank ere now would have been completely filled up. The calamities of fire, or of decimation even, however distressing in themselves, never yet ruined a country: no calamity ruins a country that leaves the surviving inhabitants to develope, in their old circumstances, their old character and resources.
In one of the eastern eclogues of Collins, where two shepherds are described as flying for their lives before the troops of a ruthless invader, we see with how much of the terrible the imagination of a poet could invest the evils of war, when aggravated by pitiless barbarity. Fertile as that imagination was, however, there might be found new circumstances to heighten the horrors of the scene, – circumstances beyond the reach of invention, in the retreat of the Sutherland Highlanders from the smoking ruins of their cottages to their allotments on the coast. We have heard on one man, named McKay, whose family, at the time of the greater conflagration referred to in our last, were all lying ill of fever, who had to carry two of his sick children on his back a distance of twenty-five miles. We have heard of the famished people blackening the shores, like the crew of some vessel wrecked on an inhospitable coast, that they might sustain life by the shell-fish and sea weed laid bare by the ebb. Many of their allotments, especially on the western coast, were barren in the extreme, – unsheltered by bush or tree, and exposed to the sweeping sea winds, and in time of tempest to the blighting spray; and it was found a matter of the extremest difficulty to keep the few cattle which they had retained, from wandering, especially in the night-time, into the better sheltered and more fertile interior. The poor animals were intelligent enough to read a practical comment on the nature of the change effected; and, from the harshness of the shepherds to whom the care of the interior had been intrusted, they served materially to add to the distress of their masters. They were getting continually impounded; and vexatious fines, in the form of trespass money, came thus to be wrung from the already impoverished Highlanders. Many who had no money to give were obliged to relieve them, by depositing some of their few portable articles of value, such as bed and body clothes, or, more distressing still, watches, and rings, and pins, – the only relics, in not a few instances, of brave men whose bones were mouldering under the fatal rampart at New Orleans, or in the arid sands of Egypt, – in that spot of proud recollection, where the invincibles of Napoleon went down before the Highland bayonet. Their first efforts as fishermen were what might be expected from a rural people unaccustomed to the sea. The shores of Sutherland for immense tracts together, are iron-bound, and much exposed, – open on the eastern coast to the waves of the German Ocean [North Sea], and on the north and west to the long roll of the Atlantic. There could not be more perilous seas for the unpractised boatman to take his first lesson on; but though the casualties were numerous, and the loss of life great, many of the younger Highlanders became expert fishermen. The experiment was harsh in the extreme, but so far, at least, it succeeded. It lies open, however, to other objections than those which have been urged against it on the score of its inhumanity.
… The yearly disbursements of our Scottish Fishery Board, in the way of assistance to poverty-struck fishermen, unable even to repair their boats, testify all too tangibly that they cannot regulate their long runs of ill luck by their temporary successes! And if such be the case among our hereditary fishermen of the north, who derive more than half their sustenance from the white fishery, how much more must it affect those fishermen of Sutherland, who, having no market for their white fish in the depopulated interior, and no merchants settled among them to find markets farther away, have to depend exclusively on their herring fishing. The experiment which precipitated the population of the country on its barer skirts, as some diseases precipitate the humours on the extremities, would have been emphatically a disastrous one, so far at least as the people were concerned, even did it involve no large amount of human suffering, and no deterioration of character.
One of the first writers, of unquestioned respectability, who acquainted the public with the true character of the revolution which had been effected in Sutherland, was the late General Stewart of Garth. He was, we believe, the first man, – and the fact says something for his shrewdness, – who saw a coming poor-law looming through the clearing of Sutherland. His statements are exceedingly valuable, – his inferences almost always just. The General, a man of probity and nice honour, had such an ability of estimating the value of moral excellence in a people, as the originators of the revolution had of estimating the respective merits of pounds of mutton and beef. He had seen printed representations on the subject, – tissues of hollow falsehood, that have since been repeated in newspapers and reviews; and though unacquainted with the facts at the time, he saw sufficient reason to question their general correctness, from the circumstance that he found in them the character of the people, with which no man could be better acquainted, vilified and traduced. The General saw one leviathan falsehood running through the whole, and, on the strength of the old adage, naturally suspected the company in which he found it. And so, making minute and faithful inquiry, he published the results at which he arrived. he refers to the mode of ejectment by the torch. he next goes on to show how some of the ejected tenants were allowed small allotments of moor on the coast side, of from half an acre to two acres in extent, which it was their task to break into corn land; and how that, because many patches of green appear in this way, where all was russet before, the change has been much eulogised as improvement. We find him remarking further, with considerable point and shrewdness, that, “many persons are, however, inclined to doubt the advantages of improvements which call for such frequent apologies,” and that “if the advantage to the people were so evident, or if more lenient measures had been pursued, vindication could not have been necessary.” The General knew how to pass from the green spots themselves, to the condition of those who tilled them. The following passage must strike all acquainted with the Highlanders of Sutherlandshire as a true representation of the circumstances to which they have been reduced:-
“Ancient respectable tenants who have passed the greater part of their life in the enjoyment of abundance, and in the exercise of hospitality and charity, possessing stock 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; thus drawing a rent which the land cannot afford! When herring fishing succeeds, they generally satisfy the landlord, whatever privations they may suffer; but when the fishing fails, they fall into arrears. The herring fishing, always precarious, has for a succession of years been very defective, and this class of people are reduced to extreme misery. At first, some of them possessed capital, from converting their farm stock into cash, but this has been long exhausted; and it is truly distressing to view their general poverty, aggravated by their having once enjoyed abundance and independence.”
Some of the removals to which we have referred took place during that group of scarce seasons in which the year 1816 was so prominent; but the scarcity which these induced served merely to render the other sufferings of the people more intense, and was lost sight of in the general extent of the calamity. Another group of hard seasons came on, – one of those groups which seem of such certain, and yet of such irregular occurrence, that though they have attracted notice in our climate from the days of Bacon downwards, they have hitherto resisted all attempts to include them in some definite cycle. The summer and harvest of 1835 were the last of a series of fine summers and abundant harvests; and for six years after there was less than the usual heat, and more than the usual rain. Science, in connection with agriculture, has done much for us in the low country; and so our humbler population were saved from the horrors of a dearth of food; but on the green patches which girdle the shores of Sutherland, and which have been esteemed such wonderful improvements, science had done, and could do nothing. The people had been sinking lower and lower during the previous twenty years, and what would have been great hardship before had become famine now. We feel at times that it is an advantage to have lived among the humbler people. We have been enabled, in consequence, to detect many such gross mis-statements as those with which apologists of the disastrous revolution effected in Sutherland have attempted to gloss over the ruin of that country. In other parts of the Highlands, especially in the Hebrides, the failure of the kelp trade did much to impoverish the inhabitants; but in the Highlands of Sutherland the famine was an effect of improvement alone.
We saw how a late, untoward year operates on the bleak shores of the north-western Highlands, when spending a season there a good many years ago. We found what only a few twelvemonths previous had been a piece of dark moor, laid out into minute patches of corn, and bearing a dense population. The herring fishing had failed for the two seasons before, and the poor cottars were, in consequence, in arrears with their rent; but the crops had been tolerable; and though their stores of meal and potatoes were all exhausted at the time of our coming among them (the month of June), and though no part of the growing crop was yet fit for use, the white fishing was abundant, and a training of hardship had enabled them to subsist on fish exclusively. Their corn shot in the genial sunshine, and gave fair promise; and their potatoes had become far enough advanced to supplement their all too meagre meals, when, after a terrible thunder storm, the fine weather broke up, and for thirteen weeks together there scarce passes a day without its baffling winds and its heavy chilling showers. The oats withered without ripening, – the hardy bear might be seen rustling on all the more exposed slopes, light as the common rye-grass of our hay fields, – the stalks, in vast proportion, shorn of the ears. It was only in a very few of the more sheltered places that it yielded a scanty return of a dark-coloured and shrivelled grain. And to impart a still deeper shade of gloom to the prospects of the poor Highlanders, the herring fishery failed as signally as in the previous years. there awaited them all too obviously a whole half year of inevitable famine, unless Lowland charity interfered in their behalf. And the recurrence of this state of things no amount of providence or exertion on their own part, when placed in such circumstances, can obviate or prevent. It was a conviction of this character, based on experience, which led the writer of these remarks to state, when giving evidence before the present Poor Law Commissioners for Scotland, that though opposed to the principle of legal assessment generally, he could yet see no other mode of reaching the destitution of the Highlands. Our humane Scottish law compels the man who sends another man to prison to support him there, – just because it is held impossible that within the walls of a prison a man can support himself. Should the principle alter, if, instead of sending him to a prison, he banishes him to a bleak, inhospitable coast, where, unless he receives occasional support from others, he must inevitably perish?
The sufferings of the people of Sutherland during the first of these years of destitution (1836), we find strikingly described by McLeod:-
“In this year,” says the author, “the crops all over Britain were deficient, having bad weather for growing, and ripening, and still worse for gathering in. But in the Highlands they were an entire failure, and on the untoward spots, occupied by the Sutherland small tenants, there was literally nothing fit for human subsistence. And to add to the calamity, the weather had prevented them from securing the peats, their only fuel, so that to their previous state of exhaustion, cold and hunger were to be superadded. The sufferings endured by the poor Highlanders in the succeeding winter truly beggars description. Even the herring-fishing had failed, and consequently their credit in Caithness, which depended on its success, was at an end. Any little provision they might be able to procure was of the most inferior and unwholesome description. It was no uncommon thing to see people searching among the snow for the frosted potatoes to eat, in order to preserve life. As the harvest had been disastrous, so the winter was uncommonly boisterous and severe, and consequently little could be obtained from the sea to mitigate the calamity. The distress rose to such a height as to cause a sensation all over the island, and there rose a general cry for Government interference, to save the people from death by famine.”
Public meetings were held, private subscriptions entered into, large fund collected, the British people responded to the cry of their suffering fellow-subjects, and relief was extended to every portion of the Highlands except one. Alas for poor Sutherland! There, it was said, the charity of the country was not required, as the noble and wealthy proprietors had themselves resolved to interfere; and as this statement was circulated extensively through the public prints, and sedulously repeated at all public meetings, the mind of the community was set quite at rest on the matter. And interfere the proprietors at length did. Late in the spring of 1837, after sufferings the most incredible had been endured, and disease and death had been among the wretched people, they received a scanty supply of meal and seed corn, for which, though vaunted at the time as a piece of munificent charity, the greater part of them had afterwards to pay. [See prior article from the ‘Inverness Courier,’ Wednesday, 2nd August, 1837, p.3.]
– Witness (Edinburgh) – Wednesday 30th August, 1843, p.2.
LORD MACDONALD AND HIS
COMMISSIONER AT THE BAR.
The scene has shifted. It is no longer four poverty-stricken peasants, opposed by all the weight of the Crown, and testified against by a long array of thirty witnesses, that they did not, with the passiveness of statues of lead, witness the destruction of their homes, and the forcible expulsion of themselves and their families from our common fatherland. They occupy their solitary prison cells, but thither have they carried with them an untainted character, and the sympathies of good men everywhere – of all haters of oppression.
Higher parties now, self-indicted, stand before a more august tribunal. Writhing under the strong and just condemnation which a freeborn jury passed upon his conduct, Lord Macdonald has, through his commissioner, Mr Patrick Cooper, rushed into print. From the deliverance of the jury they have appealed for a more favourable verdict to public opinion, and now await its fiat. It is very long since emphatic expression was given to the bitter wish, “O that mine adversary would write a book!” and the poor and down-trodden Sollas people might well and wisely have given expression to a similar prayer – “O that our oppressors would publish a defence.” They are gratified. A defence has been published, and such a defence, too, as their warmest wishes could hardly have anticipated to be more favourable to their purpose.
We do not, on this occasion, feel called upon, by any considerations of fair play, to transfer Mr Cooper’s prolix statement to our columns, simply because it is but a reproduction, in a somewhat more enlarged and coarser form, of previous statements, which we have again and again reprinted. There is absolutely nothing novel from beginning to end of it. The tints of mendacity and vulgarity which darkened his previous reports are merely deepened in their hue. Stung by the verdict of the jury, he has but rendered his mixture somewhat more “thick and slab.” The objects he seeks to achieve may be stated to be three-fold.
1st. He seeks to have it believed, that Sollas is altogether unsuited for the location of crofters, or at all events, that the population was too dense for the capabilities of the soil to support them. He supports this, in the first place, by the weight of his own opinion – and, in the second place, by the averment that the drainage commissioners were so much of the same mind, that they declined to recommend any advance for it. As to the first of these proofs we need say nothing. We do not believe a single human being, who knows anything of Mr Cooper, his spirit, his character, his history, and the whole tenor of his proceedings as “Commissioner,” will be found disposed to attach more wight to it than we do ourselves, and that is just nothing, or if possible less. As respects the second, it is, though for a different reason, quite as valueless. An opinion of counsel in any case is justly reckoned worth nothing unless the memorial is seen upon which it is rested. Until, therefore, we are distinctly informed by what means, and upon what representations, or in respect to what proposals, the opinion alleged to have been given by the Drainage Commissioners was obtained, we deem it to be of no weight whatever. We know it to be the case that Lord Macdonald was so little convinced by either of the two opinions referred to, that he was at the pains to obtain a third from an honest man, and a sound, practical agriculturist, Mr Stewart of Ellenreach. How does it happen that this opinion is suppressed? Let it be published, and if it corroborate Mr Cooper, then, perhaps, we and others may begin to believe him worthy of occasional credit. But so long as it is withheld, let it be distinctly understood that such credence will be withheld also. We have already, and more than once, treated the capabilities of North Uist at full length, and we have been uniformly assured by those who know the island, that our representations on the subject might have been more strongly made, and yet have fallen within the truth.
Mr Cooper’s next attempt is even more characteristic of the man. He has stripped the poor peasants of Sollas of everything save their character, and even that he now seeks to deprive them of. He trys to represent them as indolent and intractable, as refusing to work even when offered to them. He supports this accusation merely by the old assertion, that when drainage operations were in progress in their neighbourhood, they refused to be aiding in them at fair wages. We have formerly exposed the utterly shameless nature of this assertion, but we will meet it once more. One would suppose, from the importance attached to it, that the work tendered to the poor people was of a nature and amount, which, had they embraced it, would have rescued them from all their difficulties, and averted the calamities which have since befallen them. The illusion will be at once dispelled when we state, 1st, That the total value of the work was limited to some £50; 2d, That they were required to execute it in mid-winter, at a distance of six miles from home, involving not only a journey of twelve miles a day, but the necessity of working up to their middles in water, the result of which, poorly clad and fed as they were, would most probably have disabled them for months; 3d, It was also offered at a time when the people’s stock of food was so low, that they had not meal enough to carry with them to the field, and to support their families at home, and no provision was offered to obviate this cruel difficulty. Such were the circumstances under which they declined to undertake this paltry allotment of work; and who shall say that, as prudent men, they were not justified in their refusal, that, for the sake of a few shillings which could have possibly have fallen to each, they were called upon to peril their ability to support their families for months? They did offer to execute it, however, if a more favourable season were selected, and though that was refused to them, it was ultimately granted to the parties brought from another island to execute it, who were also lodged upon the farm where the work was carried on, so that they were not necessitated to waste half their working hours in journeying to and from their work. Mr Cooper also alludes to some road, which, on a previous occasion, they had refused to work at. This charge is quite new, and if there is any truth in it at all, which we will never believe on the Commissioner’s unsupported assertion, we have not the least doubt that they had the most substantial reasons for their declinature.
His final and most laboured attempt is to extract the sting from the condemnation passed by the jury upon his principal’s procedure in the matter of the ejectments. That condemnation was deliberately and solemnly arrived at upon the sworn testimony for the prosecution, which fully and perfectly brought out the prominent features of the case, and in opposition to which all that Mr Cooper can either say of swear, will not weigh so much as a feather’s bulk. We do not think it necessary to say a word more upon this head, than just that his representations respecting it are quite as fallacious, and as easily capable of being proved so, as the other branches of his statement.
We have been thus brief and hurried in our remarks, because we are now anxious to leave the fuller and more detailed discussion of Lord Macdonald, and his hopeful Commissioner, in the very efficient hands of Mr Mulock, who is able to speak from the result of personal knowledge and personal inquiry on the spot. Without further remark, therefore, we subjoin the following manly and dignified letter to Lord Macdonald, merely premising that it does not exhaust, it only opens the subject, and that next week he proposes to enter more into details:-
THE SOLLAS TRIALS.
TO THE RIGHT HON. LORD MACDONALD.
MY LORD, – Now that the “majesty” of the law of landlord and tenant has been measurably vindicated by the conviction of the poor prisoners from Sollas, your Lordship must not be surprised to find the noble proprietor of North Uist himself subjected to a course of investigation, quite as rigorous as can take place in an ordinary court of justice. As your Lordship’s so-styled commissioner has thought proper to impugn indirectly the Christian compassion with which the Jury humanely qualified the stern uprightness of their verdict, it appears to me but just that your Lordship should be held accountable for the statements, as well as the acts of a delegated despiser and oppressor of the poor. I, for one, disdain to descend to altercation with Mr Cooper: but I assume your Lordship to be responsible for all the errors, all the harshness, all the vulgar virulence which abound in a statement to which Mr Cooper subscribes his name. I respect your Lordship’s rank – I unfeignedly pity your painful position, but I cannot suffer your Lordship to be screened by the interposition of an underling; as you have made the poor people of Sollas answerable for their acts, so your Lordship must now submit to a scrutiny of your own conduct. No privilege of your order can avail you here; and in your character of proprietor you are as amenable to the principles of truth and righteousness, as your captive tenants were to the common law of the land.
Apart from the studied misrepresentations and prolix mystification of your lordship’s magniloquent commissioner, the whole case of the ill-treated people of Sollas, lies in a nutshell; and if your Lordship shall be shown to be the transgressing party, through sheer ignorance of your own affairs, you must blame your own supineness, instead of finding fault with my freedom. I assert, without fear of confutation, that your Lordship’s statements (made through your vice-gerent) are wholly incorrect when you allege that “Sollas is not suited for small tenants, form the scarcity of manure, and the nature of the soil.” I maintain, on the contrary, from actual observation and inquiry, and from the written testimony of your Lordship’s former factor, Dr Macleod, that the experience of more than seventy years justifies the belief that the district of Sollas is well-suited for small tenants, if proper and reasonable encouragement were afforded them. “Up to the years 1846, 1847, and 1848, the rents of Sollas were as regularly paid,” says Dr Macleod, “as those of any other lands in North Uist, which can be proved from the factor’s books.” It is true that the potato failure threw the people of Sollas, like all other Highland tenants, necessarily in arrear, and the absolute need of increased corn cultivation, at once demonstrated the inadequacy of existing crops to supply subsistence for the population. But the real remedy for this distressing state of things lay with your Lordship, who, by reducing rents and enlarging crofts, might have secured the continuance (after a period of difficulty), of a thriving and thankful tenantry. But other counsel prevailed, and Sollas was foredoomed to depopulation, in order that the district should be partitioned among two or three prospective tacksmen, who had found favour with your Lordship’s functionaries. And I boldly affirm that these monstrously unjust pre-arrangements lie at the root of all the systematic clearances which disgrace and desolate the Highlands. The old dispossession of Naboth’s Vineyard, is renewed on a larger scale by the Celtic Ahabs – and when once a devoted district is fastened upon, or, in other words, bespoke, by some unscrupulous sheep-owner – pretexts are not wanting to colour the tyrannical eviction and forced expatriation of the unfortunate and unprotected peasantry. Thus, your Lordship (per commissioner), having resolved upon converting Sollas into a sheep-walk, it follows, as a matter of course, that the people must be idle, ungrateful, and insubordinate; and yet, upon investigation, their idleness turns out to be a reluctance to work in wintry weather, at least six miles form their own homes – their ingratitude consists in not bartering their Highland hearths for a few bolls of meal – and their insubordinacy is chiefly attributable to Commissioner Cooper’s settled purpose to consider them as a “mob.” That a rash young man, flushed with sudden authority, and inflated with professional pedantry, should have been let loose upon the ancient retainers of the house of Macdonald, is not creditable to your Lordship’s judgment; and I take upon myself to aver that the whole scheme of violence to be perpetrated at Sollas, was forcibly, though respectfully, denounced two months previously by your Lordship’s factor in Skye, Mr Mackinnon of Corry.
And, now, my Lord, I come, in order, to the imposition palpably practised upon your Lordship regarding the alleged application of the people of Sollas to be helped to emigrate. In a letter signed “Macdonald,” now lying before me, your Lordship states that “the tenants of Sollas, sometime ago, petitioned to be sent to America. Their petition was taken into consideration, and everything having been done to forward their wishes, they now, at the eleventh hour (July 12), after considerable expense has been gone into for the purpose of carrying out their wishes, draw back, and say they will not move.” Confiding, as I do implicitly, in your Lordship’s veracity, I must, nevertheless, plainly declare that your Lordship has been made the victim of some unworthy trick, for, on two occasions, the whole of the heads of families at Sollas emphatically assured me that they had never signed – never seen – never heard of any petition on the subject of emigration! I cannot yield to the supposition that fifty or sixty decent persons palmed a rank falsehood upon me, and I therefore conclude that a sham petition was obtruded upon your Lordship by interested parties, “whose wish was father to the thought” of compulsory emigration. As to the expenses contracted to carry out this pretended petition, your Lordship best knows to what extent your purse was drained to promote the ideal project; but one statement made by Mr Cooper, sounds to me very apocryphal, viz., that “the proprietor had arranged to get assistance from the Highland Destitution Committee to the extent of 20s for each adult, and 10s for each person under fourteen years of age.” Now, my Lord, the contents of a letter which I have recently received from Mr C. R. Baird of Glasgow, entirely negative Mr Cooper’s statement; for Mr Baird asserts, that all applicants were cautioned against supposing that the committee would give aid towards emigration unless carried on “on a system calculated to promote the permanent benefit of those who emigrate and of those who remain.” It being clearly your Lordship’s intention to effect a wholsesale removal of the tenants at Sollas, it was impossible that any bona fide arrangement could have been made with the Highland Destitution Committee.
I must frankly avow that, looking calmly and impartially at these proceedings, I cannot avoid compassionating the false position of your Lordship. That a nobleman, hitherto distinguished for liberality and kindness towards his dependants, should shake off all ancient affinities – discard all friendly and patriarchal feelings, and become the extruder from their native land of families who, even in their calamity, do not breathe a reproach against their still revered chief, is matter for serious and saddening contemplation. Is there no hope for landlords but in the expatriation of their humble and attached tenants? Is it a crime that the poor Highland peasantry should still cherish that instinctive patriotism which binds them to their native mountain nooks? My Lord, I entreat you to lay to heart the awful responsibility which belongs to the possessors of the soil. If proprietors are so infatuated as to suppose that all the precepts of Christianity may be violated with impunity in order to subserve their imagined interests – that districts may be depopulated to gratify the greed of some childless grazier or Malthusian sheep-feeder – then be it proclaimed that the doom of ill-administered property is sealed! Neither laws nor soldiers can permanently protect property when the blessing of the Most High is withdrawn from the heritors of the soil: as they mere to others it shall be measured unto themselves. The pitiless promoters of forced emigration may, in the course of righteous retribution, become weeping wanderers from their own princely halls. I conjure you, my Lord, to be wise in time, and to secure safety at Armadale by clemency at Sollas. – I have the honour to be, your Lordship’s obedient servant,
Inverness, Sept. 21, 1849.
In the foregoing letter I have abstained from all specific mention of a subject formerly adverted to, viz., the improper interference of the Sheriffs in the matter of emigration, which, however, is an error in judgment not likely to occur again. Adhering immutably to my former views upon this point, justice impels me to add that, apart from his mistaken course at Sollas, the general conduct of Mr Sheriff Shaw is worthy of all commendation. From every quarter I heard testimony as to his impartial administration of the law, and very specially as to his attention to the poor.
– Inverness Advertiser and Ross-shire Chronicle, Tuesday 25th September, 1849, p.4.
I mentioned a surprising statement at the start courtesy of Punch Magazine. It wasn’t the only surprise it was to give me either. An earlier article, the same year, dated September 5th, 1857, gives us a poem, ‘Kinreen of the Dee,’ which appears to be a lament of a Highlander forced to leave his ancestral lands. Even more surprising is the lack of any derogatory article or comment coming before or after it that would take away from its message.
As a person who cannot stand potatoes as a foodstuff (I know, it’s apparently weird), I always wondered why they didn’t just turn to what they had subsisted on previously. Potatoes were only first grown in Scotland in 1739. So that was super quickly some of the population took to eating mainly those for their diet. But they were very definitely an important part of the diet of the poor. Everywhere experienced food shortages and famine occasionally, it was the way of the world at the time. You don’t hear of other populations being quite so forcefully evicted in response to it. What you do get, however, are people quite happy to talk about the famine in Ireland, but those starving in Scotland, due to having been cleared from their properties and lands, have apologists trying to avert from the cause or straight up declaring no starvation to exist in the areas the people had been driven to. Also we noted the continuing advances in agricultural techniques from the early 19th century. I feel the articles found speak for themselves.
When looking for information regarding the Clearances in the newspapers, there are a few useful terms to include;
Extirpate/Extirpated/Extirpation – the act of removing or destroying,
Deforce/Deforcing/Deforcement – to deprive someone wrongfully or forcibly of their rightful property,
and of course, Improvements/Improving.