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The Highland Line: marking a gloomy anniversary

Strathnaver Museum, is staging a programme of events to mark the bicentenary of the Strathnaver Clearances in Sutherland, and it is well worth a look.

It starts today (Friday, July 25) and will run till August 9, commemorating the tragic events of the Clearances. It will also celebrate the heritage and culture of the north Highlands.

The festival will start at the Durness Highland Gathering, but over the next two weeks there will be a range of events including music, Gaelic, family history, heritage walks and talks, children's event and much more.

A special bicentenary ceilidh will be held in Bettyhill Village Hall tomorrow with entertainment from talented local musicians from Feis Air An Oir. The next day a service in Syre Church will feature a performance from members of the Melvich and Lairg Gaelic Choir.

As part of the fortnight of events, Dr Laura Hamlet from the North West Highland Geopark will explore how the first settlers to our shores lived. While Dr Elizabeth Ritchie from the University of the Highlands and Islands will ask the question 'Why did the Clearances happen?'

Now there's a question that has been the subject of bitter dispute for generations. But happen the Clearances did, as a glance around the Strathnaver of today quickly bears testimony.

The strath became a byword for the violence and cruelty of the agricultural "improvements" ordered by House of Sutherland at the start of the 19th century. The people had to make way for sheep, and the estate's factor Patrick Sellar and others burnt them out if they refused.

One of those who was cleared from Strathnaver and the township of Rossal was stonemason Donald MacLeod, who was to end up in Toronto. His influential book Gloomy Memories, published in 1857, recalled what he saw as a young man.

It was based on a series of letters to the press. These letters were afterwards published separately in a thick pamphlet which apparently is now very difficult to find.

His first letter expresses his anguish at the sheer injustice of what was being visited on his people.

It begins: "I am a native of Sutherlandshire, and remember when the inhabitants of that country lived comfortably and happily, when the mansions of proprietors and the abodes of factors, magistrates, and ministers, were the seats of honour, truth, and good example-when people of quality were indeed what they were styled, the friends and benefactors of all who lived upon their domains. But all this is changed. Alas, alas! I have lived to see calamity upon calamity overtake the Sutherlanders.

"For five successive years, on or about the term day, has scarcely anything been seen but removing the inhabitants in the most cruel and unfeeling manner, and burning the houses which they and their forefathers had occupied from time immemorial.

"The country was darkened by the smoke of the burnings, and the descendants of those who drew their swords at Bannockburn, Sheriffmuir, and Killiecrankie-the children and nearest relations of those who sustained the honour of the British name in many a bloody field-the heroes of Egypt, Corunna, Toulouse, Salamanca, and Waterloo-were ruined, trampled upon, dispersed, and compelled to seek an asylum across the Atlantic; while those who remained from inability to emigrate, deprived of all the comforts of life, became paupers beggars-a disgrace to the nation whose freedom and honour many of them had maintained by their valour and cemented with their blood."

In Gloomy Memories he writes: "I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted 250 blazing houses, many of the owners of which 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."

Some said he exaggerated. Did, for example, all the ministers in Sutherland really threaten "...the vengeance of heaven and eternal damnation on those who should presume to make the least resistance" to the agents of the House of Sutherland?

Possibly not, but some probably did. After all the birth of the Free Church, and its resistance to landlord interference in the business of the Kirk, was still quarter of a century off at this point.

The title of the book had been in response to 'Sunny Memories' written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, about Sutherland after a visit to the Duke and Countess of Sutherland's Dunrobin Castle. She had presented rather a different picture of Sutherland.

Indeed today there are still those who put a positive spin on what the Sutherlands set out to do, underlining how many were eventually to prosper having emigrated to North America and elsewhere. However in the first place many were cleared not to embarkation ports but to the inhospitable north coast, and barely subsistence living. Donald MacLeod and his family were moved to Strathy Point for example. That's why the evictions didn't immediately feature in the census figures for Sutherland, which some historians took as evidence of the limited impact of the clearances.

However it was the burning of people's houses that dictated the 'improvements' in Sutherland and elsewhere in the Highlands and Islands would grow in infamy down the decades.

Indeed it has been argued in the Herald that one particular burning was the specific event which triggered the very idea of "The Highland Clearances", which still has currency today.

That was in the little settlement of Badinloskin, two or three miles east of Strathnaver.

Today all that is to be seen there are stones.

Margaret MacKay lived there and was in her 90s. But she died, six days after the destruction of the home she shared with her two daughters, the husband of one of those daughters, and her grand-daughter, aged 11.

It was destroyed on the orders of Sellar, who was accompanied to Badinloskin by a posse of sheriff-officers, policemen and shepherds.

What caused particular anger was the fact that the house was set on fire - at a point, according to several witnesses, when Margaret MacKay, who had been bedridden for some years, was still inside it. On being rescued from the blaze by one of her daughters, it was said, Mrs MacKay was carried to the surviving outbuilding where she later died.

Her family was one of many then being ejected from a newly-established sheep farm called Rhiloisk. But even by the standards of 1814, Badinloskin was seen as going a bit far and newspapers reported what had happened. Patrick Sellar was prosecuted, being tried in the High Court in Inverness on culpable homicide charges. He was acquitted, but the idea of the "Highland Clearances" had been born, and the debate about them had begun.

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