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Strath of Kildonan Commemorating a time of upheaval, when families were robbed of their land and livelihood

Standing in a park overlooking the east Sutherland village of Helmsdale, a statue depicts a young family from the 19th century.

The father is looking out to the North Sea, while the mother faces inland - casting a final glance at her beloved Strath of Kildonan.

The Emigrants is a tribute to the thousands of Highlanders who sailed to the New World after being evicted from their homes during the Clearances in the 19th century.

Between 1807 and 1820, approximately 2000 people were removed from their homes in Kildonan to make way for more profitable sheep farming. These traumatic and life-changing events are still passionately talked about and remembered by descendants.

Two hundred years on from this turbulent period of history, Timespan Museum and Arts Centre in Helmsdale is marking the bi-centenary of the Kildonan Clearances with a Translocation Festival which will see the locals and the diaspora uniting in a series of events.

The festival is as much a celebration of the human spirit as it is a commemoration - from a service in the tiny Kildonan church where the evicted heard their final sermon before leaving the strath, to sending out candles from Helmsdale harbour, bearing the names of the evicted who had no choice but to set sail for Canada on August 12, 1813.

Timespan's historian Jacquie Aitken says that for some families the link to their cleared ancestors is only a couple of generations away and can be seen in the eyes of their forbearers staring out from old family photographs.

"The stories and oral histories which have survived from that time are an important reminder that these were real people with the same thoughts and feelings as us," says Jacquie. "They faced incredible difficulties as they were forced to make life-changing decisions. Their choices were limited to either moving to the coast and becoming fishermen or growing crops on steep uncultivated hillsides, or leaving family and friends behind for a new life thousands of miles away."

The Clearances took place across the Gaeltacht, but my fascination with the story of the Strath of Kildonan stems from the fact that my great-grandfather was a hill shepherd there in the 1870s and my family has lived in Helmsdale for generations.

Helmsdale was featured in Neil Gunn's classic novel The Silver Darlings, and the film of same name will be screened during the festival. Musician Edwyn Collins, who has strong family connections with the village, features Helmsdale as it is today in the video of his new single.

The festival is the culmination of a year-long project, including the excavation of a longhouse at Caen township outside Helmsdale.

The longhouse was the hub for the family at work, sleep and play and many stories were told around the peat fire which was eventually put out for the last time when the family was evicted.

Finds in the Caen longhouse confirmed that people were forced to leave in a hurry. Keir Strickland, archeology lecturer at Orkney College, says: "We have found an unprecedented amount of broken pottery, glass and metal, along with more personal finds such as a button, a metal buckle, a clay pipe as well pieces of copper with rivets from a probable illicit whisky still".

Visitors to Timespan can navigate life in the original Caen township in a virtual world using digital gaming technology created by St Andrews University.

The Evictions

"The preacher ceased to speak, the people to listen. All lifted up their voices and wept, mingling tears together. It was indeed the place of parting and the hour."

This was a moving description of the last service held at Achness and Ach n'a h-uai in May, 1818 by Donald Sage, who wrote Gloomy Memories, an early definitive account of the Clearances. His father was the minister, the Rev Alexander Sage. While Alexander was supportive of his parishioners, many ministers were discouraged from interfering in estate management.

By the end of the 18th century wool prices had soared and there was an ever-increasing need for good hill pasture. In 1805, the Countess of Sutherland visited her holiday residence, Dunrobin Castle in Golspie, and set in motion "the perfect plan", which by 1840 resulted in more than 1000 tenants being displaced and 18,000 sheep on the strath.

In January, 1813, the Kildonan tenants came together to try to resist the eviction with a list of proposals which included agreeing to rent increases, if they could stay.

On two occasions riots broke out and for 12 weeks no-one from the estate would set foot in the strath for fear of their lives. The tenants' attempts to negotiate proved futile, including sending a petition to the London-based landowners.

The policy of the Sutherland estate was to set fire to the timbers of the longhouse roofs to prevent tenants from returning to their homes. One of the most infamous estate factors, Patrick Sellar, was briefly imprisoned on the charge of culpable homicide of an elderly woman in 1814 but was later acquitted. "This was a time of physical and cultural translocation," says Jacquie, "which impacted in many ways on the lives of those displaced, including emigration trails to North America."

The first evictions in Kildonan took place on Whitsunday in May when the leases expired. Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, offered them a lifeline in the form of assisted passage on The Prince of Wales to his newly created agricultural settlement on the banks of the Red River in Canada.

From the original 500 or so who had signed up to the scheme, around 100 people, predominately made up of family groups, could be accommodated in the ship provided by the Hudson Bay's Company, which sailed from Stromness in June. The voyage was hazardous and typhoid soon took a grip. In August, the ship landed on the coast of Hudson Bay as the onset of winter approached.

Over 200 of those displaced people were among the founding population that arrived at the Red River Settlement in 1813 and 1815, which developed into the City of Winnipeg.

Canadian Phyllis Fraser who visited the Caen dig is a direct descendent from one of the evicted Caen families. "The Kildonan group is particularly significant to us in Winnipeg as it is this group who largely stayed in the settlement and whose descendants are still here, many still farming the land as their ancestors did on their arrival.

"My ancestors who came from the Caen area were Mathesons, Alex and Ann, their children, and Alex's widowed mother Janet. Their young son John was only six months old at the time of their departure from Sutherland in mid-August, 1815."

Phyllis gave a detailed of account of the hardships her forbearers faced on arriving at the Red River Settlement on November 3. "The winters were hard and food and shelter were not in abundant supply so the settlers had to journey a further 100 miles south to winter at Fort Daer, returning in the spring to plant crops and build homes.

"Each family was given a long, narrow lot of land which bordered on the Red River. Lord Selkirk encouraged them to build homes and break the land to prepare it for agriculture.

"After being forced off the land in Scotland, the settlers would have had high hopes for a better life in Canada, but instead found themselves caught in the middle of a fur trade war between the Northwest Company and the Hudson Bay Company.

"Their homes were destroyed by those who wanted them gone and the locusts did the same to their crops. Hostilities came to a head in 1816 when 20 of the colonists were killed by the Northwest Company in the Battle of Seven Oaks.

"The challenges continued with a huge flood in 1826 but in spite of these hardships, the settlement survived and eventually prospered. Last year many of the settlers' descendants travelled to Winnipeg from across North America to join in a week of commemoration. I know some of these descendants will visit Helmsdale this August for the festival."

It's a tribute to the spirit of the Kildonan tenants that as part of the Translocation Festival the people of Helmsdale and Winnipeg last weekend simultaneously danced a Strip the Willow - a dance of the diaspora.

None of this could have taken place without the work of Timespan which has been a heritage and cultural hub for a generation. Timespan's fundraising endowment appeal will allow this meeting place of the past, present and future to survive for generations.

After all that their ancestors endured, the young generation must be allowed to keep this heritage alive and have their voices heard.

The Helmsdale Highland Games take place at Couper Park today. Visit www.timespan.org.uk. For a festival brochure visit timespan.org.uk

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