I was digging around a Scottish root of the family tree and reading about the ill-fated Clan Gunn (great-grandfather Harry Nelson of Stirling, and so a member) when I came across a reference to the Highland Clearances and the evil Countess of Sutherland.
Highland Clearances were one of those suspiciously neutral phrases so disliked by George Orwell. But an “Evil Countess”? Not a lot of wiggle room with that kind of talk. It was irresistible. I had to know more.
The countess in question turns out to be Elizabeth Gordon, only child of the 18th earl of Sutherland and his wife. One of those households so yearned for by young readers of children’s books where the parents exit early and both freedom and responsibilities are put on tiny shoulders. In Ms Gordon’s case, the title came to her just after her first birthday. Already we can see where this story is going.
The title itself goes back to the thirteen century, a time when the Clan system meant unbreakable bonds of family and community (think Brave and Braveheart). By the time the Countess got the pip, tartans were illegal and bonds of obligation had faded; worse, clan leaders had became a little withdrawn, began to view the churls and villeins almost as subjects or even chattel rather than extended family.
Her family extended further when she married George Leveson-Gower, Marquis of Stafford (and so is referred to as Lady Stafford), which combination made them (well, okay, made him) richer even than the Rothschilds.
Apparently it wasn’t enough. When modern agronomists promised the one percenters that sheep were the wave of the future, the landowners brought in whole hog and sent the tedious tenants on their way. (It was a little late in coming to Scotland – the English had done this centuries earlier.)
In the Sutherland case, this saw the removal of some 15,000 crofters (tenant farmers) between 1811 and 1820 under the direction of James Loch, good Whig and estate manager to the family. (Among his underlings was Patrick Sellar, a factor who stood trial in 1816 for the burning death of an old woman who failed to vacate a house that was then torched. The jury was of his peers, that is, other local landowners.)
Where did they go, these displaced crofters? Some shipped off to the Americas, some were encouraged to join the army, which provided adventure and opportunity far away from Scotland (where they might make planned dispossession rather more difficult than was strictly desirable). The rest were prodded to the coast, where it was suggested that fish were a notable source of protein and freely available to all.
The actual push, by all accounts, was pretty grim. Donald McLoed, one of the DPs, described it in his book Gloomy Memories in the Highlands of Scotland:
“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 terrific 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 two hundred and fifty 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. 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.”
Well, that was one point of view. On the “none are so blind as those who will not see” front, the Countess, who seems to have learned nothing from the recent unpleasantness in France, remarked of some starving tenants:
“Scotch people are of happier constitution and do not fatten like the larger breed of animals”
Mr. Loch provided the moral cover for the less easily persuaded, and who can saw that he didn’t actually believe it? He wrote An Account of the Improvements on the Estates of the Marquess of Stafford, and spoke of Lady Stafford’s excellent qualities (she raised a regiment to put down the Irish Rebellion of 1798) and how pulling this particular tooth was in fact in the crofters’ long term best interests. How could he justify it? He was a Malthusian, for one thing, and doubted the capacity of the highland soil to support the growing number of people. Besides, their morals and general life habits were abysmal, and the change would no doubt do them good.
Others felt that the whole business was going it more than a bit. (Karl Marx went to town on the issue.) Among the Scots themselves, pride of place among the againsters must go to General Donald Stewart of Garth, a genial and bluff old soldier with serious battle service in Flanders, the West Indies, Minorca, Egypt, and Italy Caribbean, and highly sympathetic to these people. (His own character can be inferred from the fact that when the army proposed transferring him out of his regiment, the men under him threatened to revolt .) A proud Scot, with much to be proud of, he was in large part responsible for the somewhat romantic view of Scotland that one got from the works of men such as Sir Walter Scott.
He was also appalled at the Clearances, both those in general and the Sutherland in particular, and made the subject a part of his book, Sketches of the Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders. He irritated by Loch’s written defenses of the clearances, and wrote rebuttals to Lochs work, trying to avoid too direct an imputation of the Sutherland affair, but pretty pointed nevertheless. It was a sentimental age and the charge seemed to work. The Ruling Class, most notably Queen Victoria, began to frown on this sort of thing, and the rates of eviction went down considerably.
Too late for many, in any event, which is how these things tend to go. The population of Scotland did continue to grown, but a great number of people were leaving, including and eventually great grand father Henry Nelson. Like Loch, coincidentally, a man of Stirling.
Passions fade over time and history is forgotten, but Scotland remains forever lovely. If they ever do that independence thing and institute a law of return, well, I’d have to give it some serious thought.
(The countess, in one of those novelistic touches designed to underscore the character of a character, died in London. The current countess, number 24, (half American, as it happens) is, it seems, a decidedly better body of work than the unfortunate ancestor. )
More on the Clearances here.
More on General David Stewart here.