A Holiday in Sutherland’s Shadow

I’m currently up in Dornoch at the moment (I’ll give you a moment to look up and find out precisely how maddeningly far north that is) for a week’s holiday with my mother.  I’ve never been to the Gàidhealtachd before – at least not since I was two – and it isn’t a region I have investigated much, so there’s quite a lot of historical catching-up to do.  For one thing, I had never grasped quite how independent the Highlands were from the central political powers in both Scotland and the United Kingdom, even until the 1800s.  This makes perfect since given the somewhat vexed topography of the whole region: you cannot be in genuine control of the Western Isles or the Shetlands unless the people living there actively cooperate.  We tend to forget that for a long time the Gàidhealtachd was actually overpopulated relative to the fertility of the land until thousands of people were forced out, on which more later.

The place in Dornoch where the last witch-burning in Scotland took place

Dornoch (Dòrnach in Gaelic, which means ‘pebbles’) has a surprising number of historical sites for a village of its size, although this is probably partly due to the desperation of the local tourist organisation.  There used to be a railway station here, but it was closed, along with the whole line, during Beeching’s obliteration of the transportation services and the town never seems to have forgiven Westminster for it.  After the Royal Golf Links (established in 1618, so loyal to the Scots rather, than the British crown), the castration of the rail line seems to be what the people of Dornoch define themselves by.  The local bookshop has a section devoted to the Dornoch Line, with memorabilia to suit every pocketbook, from amateur pamphlets about the technical aspects of the trains to enormous hardcover photo albums of line’s remains.  The local museum promises an exhibition of artifacts from the Line along with far older pieces – although I haven’t actually been in yet to check – and the café which now occupies the waiting room is marked on maps as ‘Train Station’ with the same admirable disregard for reality which leads the Argentines to label the Falklands as part of their country or the Syrians to make maps showing the West Bank as part of Jordan.  A far more frustrating feature of living in Dornach is the near-continuous presence of fighter jets leaving what I assume is the nearest US army base.  Even Loch Ness wasn’t free of this; I saw two planes flying low over the loch in the 30 minutes I were there.

A sign in Gaelic on Dornoch beach

What has surprised the most about my visit so far though (except for the Clearances) is the relative lack of Gaelic displayed around the place.  When I compare it to Wales, where the daily presence of Welsh, mandated by the Welsh Assembly, is one of the first things you notice as a visitor, signs in Gaelic seem to have been very much left up to local discretion.  Most of the larger road signs have Gaelic town names on them, at least outside the major cities, most schools seem to be titled in both languages, and I’ve even seen one or two villages with bilingual street signs.  But I have not seen a single pamphlet, newspaper, or flyer in Gaelic.  This is partly unsurprising – it’s spoken by 58,000 people, most of them in the Western Isles and that half of the Highlands, compared to the near 800,000 Welsh speakers – but I think it reflects the degree to which Scotch Nationalism focuses on more inclusive aspects of culture, which may well explain the relative successes of the SNP and Plaid.

However, enough of this.  To the Clearances, an episode of history that I had no idea about before this trip.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, tens of thousands of families were thrown out of their homes, sending Highland culture into the disarray that it exists in today, permanently shattering the authority of the clans, and causing waves of Scottish emigration to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, to the degree that there are today more people of Highland extraction abroad than in Scotland.  This was motivated primarily by the rising demand for cattle, as landowners preferred to convert villages within their lands into grazing areas for sheep or cows, which were more profitable than serfs.

Although the Clearances began in the 1700s – some allege that this was one of the most vicious periods, with communities burned to the ground in order to ‘purify’ the land for grass, although this is disputed – their most famous period is between 1811 and 1820 when the Marquess of Stafford (later to become 1st of Sutherland, the name under which he is remembered today) and his wife evicted vast numbers of tenants, forcing them to move to settle coastal areas under the assumption they could take up fishing.

Sutherland's monument from Dornoch beach

Many of them emigrated instead – despite laws raising ticket prices brought in specifically to prevent this – and thousands died.  Despite a brief and insincere Parliamentary uproar after one of Sutherland’s property managers was acquitted of murdering tenants and subsequently placed in charge of one of the farms, the policy continued until Sutherland’s death in 1833.  He and his wife remain the most well-known and unpopular symbols of the injustices of the Clearances (which they called the ‘Improvements’).

Scale photo of the Monument

In an act of flagrant self-delusion, Lady Sutherland commissioned a gigantic statue of her husband after his death, complete with a wildly imaginative plaque (“loved by his friends and tenants”) and had it placed in a prominent position on top of Ben Bhraggie, outside Golspie, where it still stands.  Its continual presence is a matter of no little debate, particularly compared with the modesty of the monuments commemorating the victims of the Clearances.

One of these, a statue of a family leaving their home, sits in the village of Helmsdale, and an identical statue is displayed in Winnipeg, which was originally settled by Scots evictees.  The other, far more sombre, monument, sits on the edge of a cliff about 6 miles north of Helmsdale, in the ruins of Badbea.  The first residents of Badbea arrived in the last years of the 1700s.  Many of them had been evicted from sheltered lands in the glens around Helmsdale, and their farming methods were totally unsuited to the barren land they now found themselves on.  Although the landowners had believed their ex-tenants would turn to fishing, rates of death amongst the inexperienced Badbeaites were such that it was not a viable option, and most of the men had to walk to Helmsdale and back each day to work on the new sheep farms which stood where their houses had been.

Badbea today; the monument is on the left

Back in Badbea, the women often had to tether their children and such livestock as they still had to the side of the cliff in order to prevent them from being blown into the sea.  Although he was not initially connected with it, Sutherland’s actions helped increase Badbea’s population considerably.  By the mid-19th century most of the inhabitants had left for the South or other countries.  In 1911, the son of a man who had been born in Badbea but later emigrated to New Zealand returned and had the monument constructed.  By one of those supreme ironies that the world thrives on, due to the common practice of tenants taking their landowner’s name as a surname, his name was Alexander Sutherland.

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