Landscapes of Power I: A Monumental Geography

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.

Jan - Dunrobin 004

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.

Jan - Dunrobin 005

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.

The Factor, the Amazon and the Fiery Little Antagonist

Had you walked through Dornoch of a Saturday night in the closing years of the eighteenth century, you might have spotted the indomitable Christina Leslie wrestling drunken patrons out of her inn.

Christina was born at Meikleferry, probably in the early 1760s.  She was an “amazon in size and strength” being over six feet tall and “her person [being] extremely robust”.  This came in handy on market day when “fierce, disorderly fellows quarrelled and fought with each other there, like so many mastiffs”.  When trouble broke out she launched herself into the fray, backed up by her Lochbroom-born ostler Donald, known as Ton’l in gentle mockery of his Gaelic accent.  “When her guests were fixed in each other’s throats, Mrs. Leslie made short work with them, by planting a grip with each hand on the back of their necks, tearing them apart, and finally by holding them until her ostler, by repeated and strong applications of his fists, had sufficiently impressed them with a sense of their conduct.”  Apparently she was less fearsome when not having to deal with disorderly fellows, having an “expansive countenance” and “mild expression”.  Christina’s forte was physical force, but her husband’s was verbal.

Hugh Leslie was an innkeeper, but was also the fiscal and the procurator in Dornoch Sheriff Court.  The performances between him and his legal opponent, Hugh Ross, were a source of great entertainment.  A schoolboy recollected that “Hugh Leslie’s bodily presence was always made known by his cough. During play-time I would frequently spend half an hour in the court-house, and I have often come upon Hugh Leslie in the midst of one of his forensic orations. He made use of no ingenuity of argument, or of special pleading; but he took up all the strong points of the case, and battered away at them, until, in ten cases for one, he was ultimately successful. … Poor Leslie’s arguments, which he delivered with such heat and rapidity, that he could neither illustrate them with sufficient clearness of expression, nor very distinctly remember them when he had finished, his cool and more able opponent took up one by one, and demolished, with pointed wit and sarcasm.  Ross held up all his words and arguments, from first to last, in a light so distorted and so perfectly ludicrous, that his fiery little antagonist could not recognise them again, but, starting to his feet, while Hugh [Ross] was going on, he would hold up both his hands, and, trembling with rage, cry out, ‘0, such lies! such lies! did ever you hear the like?’ These explosions of temper Ross met by a graceful bow to the bench, and a request to the Sheriff to maintain the decency of the court.”

The couple had twelve children.  In 1790 their sixth was born and named after the first who had died in infancy.  Angus Leslie attended the school at Dornoch and was eventually employed by the Duke of Sutherland as one of his under-factors on the Strathnaver district of the estate.  In Strathnaver some of Scotland’s most notorious clearances were implemented from 1814.  Angus was involved in enforcing the evictions.  One of the families he evicted was that of a stonemason named Donald MacLeod.  MacLeod was also a small crofter in Strathy on the north coast.  Leslie turned him and his family out of his house and croft in the middle of winter, during a heavy snowstorm, and, at the same time, forbade any of his neighbours, for miles around, to give them shelter.  Angus had picked on the wrong man.  Donald MacLeod was a highly literate, intelligent man who decided to fight back.  He wrote a series of letters in the Edinburgh Courant and a pamphlet, which reflected “very severely, not only on Leslie’s action, but upon the measures taken by the late Duchess of Sutherland against her Highland tenantry.”  One of the ironies is that only a few years before Angus turned the MacLeods out of their house with needless harshness his own father, Hugh, would have been involved in the arrest and imprisonment of another Sutherland factor, Patrick Sellar, for doing similar.  After MacLeod’s work was published, Angus resigned his position and instead took up the farm of Torboll, by Loch Fleet: a more peaceful living than factoring, or even being a lawyer or an innkeeper.

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The ‘Edinburgh Evening Courant’: the newspaper in which MacLeod’s denunciations of Angus Leslie were published. Please note this is illustrative – it is not the edition that MacLeod was published in.

Source: Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org if you want to read more]