Edinburgh, 22 October 1883 - James Macdonald and John Mackay / Strathnaver

JAMES MACDONALD, Retired Revenue Officer, now residing in Edinburgh (81), and JOHN MACKAY, Pavior, Edinburgh (83)—examined.

45486. The Chairman [to John Mackay].
—You are the elder of the two, and we will ask you for your statement first. I understand you desire to relate something respecting your memory of the burnings in Sutherland ?

45487. Will you be so good as relate it in your own way ?
—I mind of my father's house being burned, and four houses that were in the place at the same time.

45488. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—Is it down in your paper ?
—My Lord and Gentlemen,
—I am a native of the parish of Farr, Sutherland. I was born at a place called Dalhoriskel, on Strathnaver, so far as I can ascertain, in 1801. I came to this city the year after King George IV visited it, in 1823 I think it was. The only evictions I witnessed was that which took place in the hamlet in which I was born. That hamlet was composed of five houses. I have heard, however, that the clearances were first begun on the heights of the strath of Kildonan, and that they were afterwards continued on the heights of Strathnaver, where they were earned out by degrees, till the whole of the inhabitants, down to its very foot, were cleared off. I have, however, a distinct recollection of having seen a number of the people that were evicted on the heights of the strath congregated at the curves on the river, some distance below my father's house, waiting for the couples and some other wood and furniture of their houses, of which they had made rafts, to be floated down by the river while in flood, and which they then dragged ashore. Those, however, were people who were located within a few miles of the confluence of the Naver. Those who were located about Strathy Point, Strathy, and that neighbourhood, had to refloat their wood below the cruives, to be carried down to the sea, at the confluence of the river, where they had a boat to transport it eastwards. The people, having no knowledge of seamanship or the working of a boat, piled their effects principally in its prow, and, by so doing, raised the stern so much out of the water that when they set sail the rudder powerless, and they nearly lost their lives. Finding themselves powerless in the matter, one of them had to go to Strathy Point for a seafaring man to trim their boat for them, and to pilot them to their destination. Some time previous to the Whitsunday term, my father and the rest of the families comprising the hamlet of Dalhoriskel got notice to quit. Where the other families were sent to I do not now remember, but my father was sent to a place called Newland, so called, as up to that time no one had lived in it, being nothing but bare rocks and stones, totally unfit even for goats, far less for human beings, to live in. It was such a place that the people used to say it was the last place that God created, and that He must have been in a hurry while He had done so. I did not go with the rest of my father's family to Newland, but remained at Skelpick with some friends. Immediately the people left the hamlet the houses were set fire to. I witnessed the five houses in flames, which really grieved me more than words can express. I afterwards heard that the manner in which those removals were carried out were harsh in the extreme. But being a matter of history I need not dwell on it. I visited the place only once since I left it, and that is more than thirty years ago, so that my recollections are not so vivid as they once were.

Statement of James Macdonald.
—To the Honourable the Royal Commissioners on the Crofter question,
—' My Lord and Gentlemen, I respectfully beg to state that my appearance before you here is due to the fact that I am a native of the parish of Clyne, in Sutherlandshire, where I was born in the year 1802, and that I resided there during the year when the clearances—which are now matter of history —took place in that county. This being known to a number of my countrymen now located in this city, they have requested me to come before your Honours and give some evidence as to what I observed and witnessed in my native place in those unhappy times to which I have referred. Having acceded to their request, I will endeavour briefly to relate one or two incidents of my early recollections, and afterwards will be glad to answer to the best of my ability any questions which you may be pleased to put to me; but I desire to avoid attaching blame to individuals who were engaged in carrying out the high-handed doings of those days, either as factors or principals. They are now all in their graves; and it would be unkind to their living relatives to be keeping their names before the public in what may be considered an unenviable light. The scenes which I have witnessed in Sutherland in connection with those clearances were of a very distressing nature, and have left a distinct and painful impression on my mind, although I cannot be expected to remember at this distance of time all details of what came under my observation then. I may mention here that my impression of the people who were expelled from their holdings in those days was and is that they would, morally, mentally, and physically, compare favourably side by side with any other peasantry in the world. With regard to the wilful burning of dwelling-houses, that is a point upon whieh there need be no doubt whatever. I beg to assure your Honours that I have seen the atmosphere in Clyne, and for many miles around, filled with the smoke which arose from the burning cottages from which their inmates had been forcibly ejected, in the straths of Kildonan, Brora, Fleet, &c. Other cottages I have seen in the act of being demolished —levelled with the ground; and I have seen the people who had occupied them for days without shelter, huddled together at dykesides and roadsides, and on the beach, waiting the arrival of ships to carry them across the Atlantic, or wherever they were forced to go. I have a distinct recollection of seeing a notice, that was issued simultaneously with those proceedings, posted upon the door of the parish church, intimating that any person who was known to have given shelter to, or to have harboured any of the evicted people, would in turn, without any warning, be summarily ejected from his or her house, and be compelled to leave the county; and this harsh decree applied irrespective of any ties of relationship whatsoever. At the present day it is hard to believe that such cruelties were actually perpetrated; but I am here a living witness to testify that it is only too true that such things were done. Permit me to add an expression of the belief I have always had fixed in my mind, that were our landed
proprietors to take a more personal and practical share in the management of their estates, and come themselves more in contact with the people, the results would generally be of the happiest nature ; and many of the difficulties now surrounding the question before your Honours might never have arisen. The peasantry would have been encouraged and stimulated by the presence of their landlords among them in person; and the bonds of sympathy and confidence which once existed would have been in existence still, conducing materially to the best interests of both. Great wealth has been expended from first to last in vast experiments on the Sutherland estates; and I deplore the fact that the latest great scheme appears to have ended in disappointment and loss to the generous nobleman whose good intentions had originated it. The reason why the reclamations recently carried out so extensively in Sutherland have proved a failure is now well known. The ground chosen was uaturally unsuited for the execution of the design, while plenty of good land, lying waste in the straths, well adapted by nature for such improvement, might have been utilised and brought at a comparatively small expenditure to yield valuable returns. A happy, prosperous
peasantry might have been replanted there to the mutual advantage of both landlord and tenant, and also that of the nation. I scarcely expect to see it, but I rejoice in the belief that this will yet be done, and at no
distant date.

45489. The Chairman [to Mackay].
—Was your statement written by yourself ?
—It was not written by me, but I stated the whole of it.

45490. [To Macdonald].
—Was your statement written by yourself?
—No, by my son; it was dictated by me.

45491. It is a faithful transcript of your personal recollections'?

45492. I would like to ask you whether you remember anything of the condition of the people in their holdings before their removal ?
—Permit me to say that, so far as I am concerned, I am quite a disinterested man. But I recollect of the peasantry of these straths —seeing them in my father's house in my younger days, and comfortable and very respectable men they were. I recollect of that perfectly.

45493. Was your father himself a crofter?
—He had a little farm, but it was diminished when the flitting took place—when the removals took place. My father was one of four who had perhaps twenty or so acres—three more along with him; and when the evictions took place—when the allotments took place—my father's farm was reduced to four acres or so amongst those who were removed from the heights of the parish.

45494. We heard a letter read to-day by Mr Sellar, stating that previous to the evictions the people had been in a very miserable condition in these parts of the country—liable to scarcity and starvation. Do you remember anything at all personally about the general condition of the small tenants, or is it too far before your time ?
—I believe it was in my time it took place. I recollect perfectly for the last seventy years, and a more comfortable peasantry I never saw.

45495. What church did you go to ?
—The Established Church.

45496. What parish ?

45497. Do you remember the appearance of the congregation?
—I do.

45498. Were they well dressed and substantial-looking people ?
—Remarkably well-dressed and stout. The Sutherland Fencibles were raised from them—as fine a corps as ever entered the British army.

45499. At what age did you come to the south of Scotland ?
—-About thirty years ago.

45500. Where did you live previous to that —between the age of fifteen and fifty?
—I was at home until about 1828. Then I entered the revenue service, and was in Ireland for some years. I have been in different parts of Scotland and Ireland.

45501. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.
—You are both old men now, and have lived beyond the period mentioned by the Psalmist ? Both.
—We have.

45502. And the statements made in your papers, whatever may be said to the contrary, are true so far as you are concerned ? Both.
—They are.

45503. Sheriff Nicolson [to Mackay].
—Do you remember exactly the year in which your father was burned out; what was the year ?
—As far as I can mind, it would be the year 1818 or 1819. It was the last of the Sutherland burnings.

45504. Have you any recollection of a famine in the year 1816 ?
—-No, but I have mind, after they were all put to the coast, that the tenants out of the strath were placed in amongst the old tenants, and they had no means to live. Some of the land they had was invaded by the new tenants; and I mind of the Duke of Sutherland sending them help.

45505. It is said to have been a common thing in those times, whenever there was a bad season, for the people to be in a state bordering on starvation—was it so ?
—I never mind but of that year, and it was after Strathnaver was cleared.

45506. Did they raise corn enough to feed themselves?
—Scarcely; some of them. But they would depend upon cattle altogether. I mind one man came to the neighbourhood where I was, and he had twenty-one head of black cattle, forby six horses and sheep; I cannot tell what number of sheep. These came from Garvealt.

45507. Have you any recollection of their bleeding cattle in summer to make use of the blood for food ?
—That year I am speaking about.

45508. 1816, was it?
—The year they were badly off.

45509. Did they call the year by any name ?
—Nothing that I heard of; I never heard.

45510. Did they bleed the cattle?
—They did.

45511. And how did they use the blood?
—They boiled it, and took it with milk ; after it cooled, you could cut it like leather.

45512. Was it not the practice to bleed the cattle in spring, under the impression that it was for the benefit of their health?
—No, no; I never heard that. I never knew of them bleeding the cattle till that year, and I saw it done myself then.

45513. At no other time ?
—No other time.

45514. When did you leave your native parish?
—The year 1823.

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