Post by Elizabeth Ritchie, lecturer at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands.
I didn’t know there was a memorial to James Loch. When I came to teach at the University of the Highlands and Islands I was instructed to prepare a course on the Clearances. I objected that I didn’t know anything about the Clearances. But I was the nineteenth-century historian and I allegedly specialised in the Highlands, so there was no way to wriggle out of it. And so I learned about the Clearances, particularly as they pertain to Sutherland, and I became familiar with names like that of James Loch, the head factor and the boss of the much hated Patrick Sellar, who designed and implemented the development of commercial agriculture, the removal of the people, and their replacement with sheep, with all of the long-resonating consequences for the economy, ecology, culture and psyche of the region and its diaspora. So my friend Annie, who has written a book on the Sutherland estate, (Annie Tindley, The Sutherland Estate 1850-1920: Aristocratic Decline, Estate management and Land Reform, Edinburgh University Press, 2010) was a little shocked to hear that, in all my bikes and hikes, I had never come across the memorial to one of the chief architects of Sutherland as it is today.
For two afternoons in January he became the pretext for walks around the woods of Dunrobin. As I made a circuit back to the castle where I had left my car, I realised I was walking a triangle: a triangle of monuments each of which spoke of the power of the people of Dunrobin to shape the landscape and the lives of the people within it.
The most obvious and most maligned is, of course, the gigantic and authoritative statue to the first duke of Sutherland on the summit of Beinn Bhraggie. Visible for dozens of miles around it is the focus for all historic discontent, yet survives the periodic attacks of chisel or spray can. Dunrobin Castle itself, with its fairytale Loire-like turrets, whitely protruding from trees and coast is another highly visible declaration of rulership, even moreso in the days when the approach to Sutherland was mainly by sea.
But in my wanderings I discovered two more monuments and recalled a third. I realised that the positioning of all these objects of stone was more than the accumulation of one-offs. They constitute a geography of power which marked ownership and authority, visibly by placement or by text. Directly west of the castle, framed by the gateway arch, is a classic Victorian statue to the second duke, with an inscribed pedestal. He overlooks the highways of road and rail, his robed back to Dunrobin Mains farm and his confident gaze rests on the spiky castle roof.
My woodland searches finally took me to my intended objective of James Loch’s memorial. A four-posted marble canopy accessed by stone steps sits oddly in forest. The poetic inscription declares that he often loved to come to this place to survey the view. The only view now is of tree trunks and deep ruts of heavy machines. But, sometime after 1858 when he died, this tiny hilltop monument permitted him to posthumously sweep his eyes over the territory he had commanded. A superficial reading of the sentimental plaque suggests it is merely a memorial to a fond old chap, but it does not take much reading between the lines to realise that it was paid for, and possibly designed and its position chosen, by the ducal family.
I thought the monumental geography took the form of a squashed triangle, about four miles by one, until I remembered an outlier. But an ostentatious, looming outlier, arguably the most ancient and important building in the north of Scotland: Dornoch Cathedral. Eleven miles to the south of Dunrobin, the medieval edifice’s rebuilding was financed by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1824. The very structure is a monument to her wealth and influence, even if you happened to miss the gigantic twin marble plaques and the inscribed floor-stone at the very front of the church.
The physicality, through their design and placement, of these monuments speaks authority. An authority positioned over several generations, though all harking back to the lives of the first duke and duchess, and the times in which they permanently changed the landscape and the lives of the folk of Sutherland. At least these monuments did speak authority until we took to blindly whizzing along the A9 in cars, before a small forest grew up around Loch’s vantage point, and before we stopped going to church.