A Highland Quest, 2014

This week Professor Eric Richards reflects on the three months he spent in northern Scotland this summer as Carnegie Visiting Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for History.

Historical research often depends on serendipity, on chance connections, many leading to dead ends. The Carnegie Trust brought me from Australia for three summer months in the Highlands in 2014 and gave me special moments just like these. One was the lucky find, in the Highland Archives in Inverness, of a small bundle of unseen documents relating to the Munro of Novar estates which witnessed a sustained explosion of protest among the small tenantry in the Spring of 1820. These were the Culrain Riots in Easter Ross, quite well known from other sources, but here were some internal documents of the estate factors and the legal authorities, which exposed much more about the origins and the pattern of the events. The Culrain events were a well co-ordinated spasm of popular resistance against a clearing landlord. Munro had ordered the removal of a large number of small tenants to make way for a new sheep farmer. He needed Culrain cleared.

Culrain today. A peaceful, sparsely-populated 'improved farm' with no hint of the problems and resistance of its inhabitants 150 years ago.

Culrain today. A peaceful, sparsely-populated ‘improved farm’ with no hint of the problems and resistance of its inhabitants 200 years ago.

The protest entailed a series of riots in which women were at the forefront, leading the resistance, humiliating the authorities, generating great alarm for law and order, and eventually causing the intervention of military force to suppress the ‘rebellion’. The women at Culrain were reinforced by men allegedly dressed as women: the main group of men remained in the background ready to act. The Munro documents also exposed the ineffectual plans of the landlord to make provision for the people he was about to evict, namely the offer of their resettlement at the Cape of Good Hope or on moors in the West of England. The events in Culrain, and at neighbouring Gruids soon afterwards, prompt a reconsideration of the question of resistance during the clearances, the prominence of women, and the place of women in both traditional and transitional Highlands of the early nineteenth century. These episodes, often following strikingly similar patterns, had been recurring ever since the 1790s and continued even at late as the 1860s, for instance at Clashmore in Assynt. They prefigured some of the later radicalised crofter agitation of the ‘Land Raids’.

Another happy chance was a find of emigrants’ letters in Gairloch, letters written in the early 1850s from Gairloch to people who had left for New South Wales a few years earlier. This type of correspondence is pure gold, the direct voice from ‘people below’ – in this instance they reported the potato famine in the west, they celebrated the death of the local estate factor, and they explained the unpopularity of the well-meaning improvement polices of Dr John Mackenzie. The Gairloch horde was a nice moment in the unending quest for emigrant letters and all documents about the circumstances of Highland emigration.
Then, reaching Stornoway and the Long Island for the first time, a new old world was opened up. Here I discovered a bewildering set of variants on the general narrative of the Clearances. The clearance events in Lewis and Harris have been extremely well-documented by local historians such as Angus Macleod and Bill Lawson. I was shown around innumerable townships where evictions and resettlements had occurred, and the great question was usually the actual sequence of displacement and transplantation of communities over long historical time. Evidently in many paces people were shifted about decade after decade – and this history makes less surprising the eventual upsurge of resistance and revolt – and the demand for the resumption of the old lands of the forbears.

Travelling around the Highlands arouses all sorts of questions, with hares running in several directions. One was the notion of a comparison of cleared with non-cleared zones within the region during the Age of the Clearances. This would be a big and unexplored agenda, even that of identifying the locations for comparison. I began to think of another comparison, on a much smaller scale might be more manageable. This entailed two islands involved in ‘precipitate emigration’ in the mid nineteenth century. It is intriguing that sudden ‘mass ‘emigration affected the insular communities of St Kilda (to Port Phillip in 1852) and of Handa (to Canada in 1848). Each episode was small enough and reasonably well documented to allow detailed investigation of the propellants of these emigrations, and perhaps offer unusual insights into the pressure of circumstances (notably from their respective landlords) in each case. But there is never enough evidence, especially direct testimony of the emigrating people themselves.

Eric Richards modelling Australian headware at the Centre for History in Dornoch. With David Worthington and Jim McPherson.  July 2014.

Eric Richards (centre) modelling Australian headware at the Centre for History in Dornoch. With David Worthington and Jim McPherson. July 2014.

Reay Clarke, a well-known farmer in Edderton, has just published an important book on sheepfarming in Sutherland, and he has long connections of his own with a great sheep farming family in Edderachillis. He writes critically of the great and ostensibly permanent damage that sheep farming has inflicted on the Highland environment and on the productive capacity of the land. Talking to the author immediately stimulated the idea of a long distance comparison with the impact of sheep farming on Aboriginal Australia and on the Australian environment – a subject of much current contention among historians. And of course there was always a fine irony in the importation of sheep farmers and shepherds from the Highlands into colonial Australia, some of them cleared, some of them so successful that they eventually undermined the Highland sheep economy itself.

Two other questions kept intruding on all these other Highland thoughts. I was in pursuit of the much-decried figure of the Highland estate factor, especially his role in the clearances. He was responsible not only for the management of the estates but also for the rough work of eviction and resettlement. Once more the challenge is to sort out the mythology from the realities of Highland life in those times, and to put the matter in perspective.

The other question brought me back to my benefactor, Andrew Carnegie. Not only the richest man in the world, he was also the most successful returned emigrant, using some of his colossal wealth to educate his homeland. In the Highlands there were earlier returned migrants who employed their overseas wealth to cross-subsidize their estates – from the East Indies, from India, from the United States and Canada. But even more prevalent, especially in the Age of the Clearances, was wealth generated in the Caribbean, from the slave trade and the slave plantations. This is a subject now being energetically excavated which casts a not always attractive light on the region as beneficiary of tainted wealth. So my Highland agenda kept expanding, but there must be help from among the new legions of Highland historians.

Reay Clarke’s book can be ordered from the Islands Book Trust: http://www.theislandsbooktrust.com/


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