Sunday, February 18, 2018

Evictions in Berriedale.

This article written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 27 March 1884

Since his statement to the Commission, the next correspondence I have from Alexander Gunn is the letter below re evictions. I have already published this letter way back on 20 November 2013 but to keep continuity with Gunn’s letters I will publish it again without comment and refer readers back to the 20 November 2013 blog for more details. 


To the Editor of the Northern Ensign
Sir John Sinclair in Thurso

SIR, - Allow me through your valuable columns, to give a detailed account of the evictions in Berriedale, both by Sir John Sinclair and by Mr James Horne, his successor. The account of the matter by your correspondent, “Old Man Narrator,” is not altogether correct. Sir John Sinclair, who was considered the greatest agriculturist in the country, and who was a real or honorary member of almost every agricultural society in the three kingdoms, as well as of several societies on the continent of Europe, was the first to introduce what were called the “big sheep” to Caithness. The small sheep or “Kerry,” was the only breed in the country before that time. To make room for his sheep, Sir John evicted 61 families from the Berriedale straths, and laid the whole under sheep.

The townships on the Millary or Berriedale straths were these, viz., Glut,1 tenant; Eskbin,1; Eskmaealmag,1; Haborgue,1; Esknabing,1; Upper Millary,1; Lower Millary,1; Ardachigh,1; Toreshey,1; Duin 3; Taigh-an-Duin,1; Dalgheamich,2; Knock Feune,1; Ellaw-an Duinag,1; Upper Borgue,2 – in all 19.

From the Langwell Strath there were evicted from the township of Inver,5; Knocktorinrectan,1; Elonluisg,1;  Capernach,1;  Taigh-an-Asary,1;  Ruharigy,1; Turnal,1 (held by George Gunn who had seven sons, the equal of whom were not in the country); Taighnault,1;  Bardnachie,1;  Struan,1; Bualnahaoden,1;  Bualtarach,1;  Garvary,1;  Brainaheaglash,1;  Auldnabeath,1;  Uag More 1; Uag Bhaig,1;  Borgue, Langwell,1 (where my great-grandfather, who came from Cattag, lived during the proprietorship of Sutherland of Langwell); Corrag,1;  in all 23.

From the Ousdale district there were evicted from the township of Ousdale, 9 families: Borgue of Ousdale, 2;  Struie, 8; in all 19; giving a grand total of 61.

It is singular that after Sir John had turned out these 61 families, and occupied their places with his sheep, he began to break up large tracks of ground on the hill-side to the west of Berriedale, at a place called Carterfield, and got it under cultivation, having taken several crops of oats off it. Also at Borgue, Langwell, he brought in a large park, the first turf of which was cut by Lady Janet, and was known ever after as Park-na-Bainthighearn, or “Her Ladyship’s Park.” There was also broken up a large square piece of moor, or moss, to the west of Carterfield. It was planted with curly greens about Christmas, and, as might be expected, the frosts of winter destroyed every plant of them. These fields which were broken up and put under crop for a year or two, instead of being given to the tenants evicted from the straths, were allowed to fall out of cultivation into grazings for sheep, and a few years saw them covered with their original heather.

The singular thing is that while by all accounts the Ulbster family have been the most extensive evictors in the country, as appears from the recent correspondence in your spirited paper, they were yet looked up to and esteemed by the whole community. No doubt there were some good traits in their character, but these were sullied and tarnished by their treatment of those respectable and happy families that were so ruthlessly driven out of their comfortable holdings. As stated in some of my previous communications, when Sir John got his regiment of Fencibles embodied, he got 60 men from Berriedale, said to be the finest men in the regiment, and yet this was the treatment they received at his hands.

Your correspondent is also at fault in saying that James Horne evicted none at Berriedale. Horne evicted 13 families in the township of Auchencraig. Three families were evicted by him from the Cairn, 4 from Rinsary, and 6 from Badbea. True, some of these as your correspondent says, got miserable patches elsewhere on the estate, but so did some of those evicted by Sir John; but I consider they were entitled to be numbered among the evicted nevertheless, as they were driven from their comfortable homes without justice or reason, and the plots on which they were allowed to settle down were not entitled to the name of land, being bare rocks or black moss, whilst the arable land they were driven from was given over for sheep grazings.

The Ulster family may well pray to be saved from their friends, since Mr Logan, who shows great zeal on their behalf , has been the means of bringing to light matters that had been entirely forgotten, and which would never appeared before the public but for Mr Logan’s zeal without knowledge. I would venture to give him a bit of advice for his guidance in the future, and that is let sleeping dogs lie. – Yours &c.,

Alex Gunn. Glasgow

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Heartless and Exacting Landlords

Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part I

Alex Gunn concludes his statement:

"The Highlander is blamed for laziness. I deny the charge. The Highlanders are not lazy, but the treatment to which they have been subjected from time immemorial at the hands of heartless and exacting Highland landlords has crushed their spirits, when all their labour and industry go to enrich the landlord. Let the Highlanders get fair play, and give them an inducement to exert themselves, and they will work as much, and as willingly as any of Her Majesty's subjects."

Sir John Sinclair was Laird of Langwell from 
1791 to 1816 sending tenants to Badbea from 1793.
Photo Credit: Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (1754 – 1835) by Benjamin West (1738 – 1820) Highland Council

"As for the remedy for these crying evils, I have only to recommend what others have so generally recommended, namely, give the land to men with security of tenure, that is that if the man pays his rent he cannot be turned off his holding, and also give compensation for improvements; but let no man be forced to leave his native country, the place of his birth if there is an acre of ground capable of cultivation. Let deer and sheep be reared where potatoes won't grow, then there will be contentment and happiness, and not till then."   

The Last of the Clan by the Scottish artist Thomas Faed in 1865 sums up so much of Alex Gunn’s statement. The viewers perspective is from the deck of a departing emigrant ship. The old clan elder with his sorrowful head bowed depicts the Highlander’s ‘crushed spirit’ while others watching the loved one’s depart, weep.

'When the steamer had slowly backed out, and John MacAlpine had thrown off the hawser [rope], we began to feel that our once powerful clan was now represented by a feeble old man and his granddaughter, who, together with some outlying kith-and-kin, myself among the number, owned not a single blade of grass in the glen that was once all our own.' Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, this painting was accompanied in the catalogue by this paragraph which was probably written by the artist himself. 
Photo Credit: Glasgow Museums
Potatoes growing in the Highlands on marginal land

Monday, January 1, 2018

Emigration to Canada

Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part H

Alex Gunn continues:

"A Canadian land agent, who was examined before the Royal Commission, recommended emigration, assisted by Government grants, as a cure for the present destitute state of the unfortunate crofters. But my answer to that is, why send the people away from their native soil so long as there is an acre of ground capable of cultivation in their native glens? In place of Government subsidising them to leave their native homes let it give them grants of public money to help them cultivate land at home, and to stock their farms." 

"I am of the opinion that there is as good land in the Highlands as there is in America or elsewhere. I have seen farms in East Lothian which paid £7 per acres, but the finest crop of wheat I ever saw was in a field on a farm in Ross-shire, every stalk of which was six feet long; and Ross- shire is in the Highlands I presume."

Just harvested crops at Ross-shire 2015
Harvest at East Lothian 2010

"We are often told of the great and rapid prosperity of Canada, and of the colonies in general, by reason of the great and constant flow of emigration. Well, in proportion, as our colonial possessions are being enriched, by our industrious classes spreading over the face of the country, in the same proportion is our country impoverished, by the deportation of her industrious population. It is not sheep or deer that enrich a country. It is by a teeming and industrious people that a country is made prosperous and happy."

My Comments:

There was quite a lot of discussion on the pros and cons of emigration to Canada at the Royal Commission but Alex Gunn makes his point that if there was a fairer distribution of land in the Highlands then no-one would have to leave their homeland. The same argument was offered by other witnesses as well.

I was pleased to find the two photos from Geograph with evidence of bumper crops at Ross-shire and East Lothian more than 120 years after Alex Gunn’s claims about good land in the Highlands. I can imagine him saying 'I told you so!'

Sunday, December 31, 2017


Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part G

Alex Gunn continues:

Google Earth image showing the still unproductive land near Newport

Some of the poor people who were evicted were set down on a steep brae-face at Newport to the east of Borgie, and after cultivating a considerable quantity of ground that land was taken from them and cultivated by the laird, and they were sent further up the hill, in a bleak heathery spot, where they had to set in once more and break up the barren ground, and where they are scarcely able to live. The most galling part of this whole thing is that they got no compensation for their improvements.

Unproductive land at Newport
In the rear a steep, impossible to farm brae, between Berriedale and Newport

The neighbouring estate of Dunbeath had a share in evictions as well. From the year 1830 to 1835 there were 65 families evicted from the Dunbeath strath. A number of them settled down on a barren hill face on the coast, where they had to do the best they could by cultivating small patches of ground and eking out a miserable existence by fishing. These 65 families [had once] lived comfortably and happily. I remember once being in the house of one of these tenants and I well remember the air of comfort and fullness which I observed about the house, and I dare say all the others were as comfortable as this family. I believe each of these families would possess from 20 to 30 head of cattle. This fertile strath was put under sheep. Between Berriedale and Dunbeath there were 162 families cut adrift, and good land to the extent of 2500 acres laid waste.

Ruins of a crofting settlement at Dunbeath
Ruins at Dunbeath
My Comments:

Not only did the crofters and their families get sent to impossibly difficult places to try to live off, they still had to pay rent to the landord. 

At the Commission of Inquiry, over and over witnesses spoke of the injustice of the refusal of the proprietors to pay compensation to crofters for improvements made, such as draining a swampy piece of land. The crofters were told if they didn't like the conditions they could leave. Of course many didn't leave because they had no-where to go to and if they did find a patch of poor land they had to start all over again to dig and plant in the desparate struggle to feed their family. So the exploitation continued year after year. 

To be continued..

Thursday, December 28, 2017


Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands 1883 Part F

Alex Gunn continues:

There was a thriving fishing and curing carried on at Auchencraig before the people were evicted. I remember seeing 13 boats fishing at Auchencraig for Leith curers and between coopers and others engaged in the fishing, there were hundreds of pounds circulating in the district every year. There was also a thriving herring fishing carried on at Berriedale, but the laird preferred salmon fishing to herring fishing, and lest the salmon fishing should suffer he put an extinguisher on the herring fishing, thus taking away an industry which was a great advantage in the district.

Ceann Ousdale with the Auchencraig settlement
 having been on the hills in the right foreground
Remains from the old Auchencraig settlement

The late Duke of Portland purchased the estate from the Hornes for £90,000, and banished the sheep, all but a few hundred, converting the whole estate into a huge deer forest and then claimed exemption from poor rates on that account. Some of the witnesses before the Royal Commission stated that a deer forest would give employment to more people than a sheep farm, but my experience is quite different. When the sheep were on the estate, there were as already stated, 12 shepherds, and at the clipping time there would be 20 people employed for three weeks, while two or three people are all that are needed to look after the deer. There are thousands of acres in these straths, of as fine land as is in the country, and were it under cultivation it would supply the market with a very large quantity of farm and dairy products, and provide hundreds of families with comfortable homes.

The Langwell Water valley
A good track goes up the valley for about 10Km on the north side. 
This section on the south side only has deer-tracks through the wood!

My Comments:

A number of witnesses to the Royal Commission spoke out against the Poor Law Act whereby rich landowners were exempt from paying tax on their shooting grounds while small crofters were heavily taxed on various public matters.

The mention of the Leith curers is evidence that the herring business was well established at Auchencraig. The firms of curers moved around the coast of Scotland and played a central role in the herring fisheries, organising and overseeing all the associated activities. They had to ensure there was enough salt delivered on time and arrange for the barrels to be ready. Once the barrels were packed the curer firm would arrange for their export. The curers purchased the fish through a system paying a guaranteed price to the crew of the fishing boat, also having payment agreements with the gutters and packers. It seems unbelievable that such a well-established local industry could to fall prey to the whims of the laird in favour of salmon when the two could have easily existed in the same district.

Welbeck Estates, including Langwell and across to the mountains of Morven, Scraben, and Maidens Pap, is approximately 50,000 acres. It is still a sporting estate owned by the Portland family with both deer shooting and Atlantic salmon river fishing being offered to those who can afford it.

Curious deer in the Langwell Estate
Note the two-headed deer on the right!

Note: Auchencraig is also known as Achnacraig and has other variations in spelling.

To be continued...

Herring fishing at Berriedale in 1820 by Willliam Daniell