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The Heather on Fire
A Tale of the Highland Clearances by Mathilda Blind (1886)

Our thanks to John Henderson for sending this in.





A Tale of the Highland Clearances
[Page 55]


So on from glen to glen, from hut to hut,
The hated factor came with arrogant strut
And harsh imperious voice, and at one stroke,
Of house and home bereft these hapless folk,
Bidding all inmates to come forth in haste:
For now shall their poor dwellings be laid waste,
Their thatch be fired, walls levelled with the leas,
And they themselves be shipped far o'er the wide, wild seas.


Thus through his grasping steward bids the chief.
In whom hereditary, fond belief
Honours the proud head of their race - the man
Whose turbulent forbears their devoted clan
Had served in bloody wars, nor grudged to yield
Their lives for them in many a battle-field:
But in these latter days men's lives are cheap.
And hard-worked Highlanders pay worse than lowland sheep.


Duan Third, Stanza xxvi., Page 55

Ref…. In "The Highland Clearances”, Alexander Mackenzie (pages 267, 268) writes,

"The tenants of Knoydart, like all other Highlanders, had suffered severely during and after the potato famine in 1846 and 1847, and some of them got into arrear with a year's and some with two years' rent, but they were fast clearing it off. Mrs. Macdonell and her factor determined to evict every crofter on her property, to make room for sheep. In the spring of 1S53 they were all served with summonses of removal, accompanied by a message that Sir John Macneil, Chairman of the Board of Supervision, had agreed to convey them to Australia. Their feelings were not considered worthy of the slightest consideration. They were not even asked whether they would prefer to follow their countrymen to America and Canada. They were to be treated as if they were nothing better than Africans, and the laws of their country on a level with those which regulated South American slavery. The people, however, had no alternative but to accept any offer made to them. They could not get an inch of land on any of the neighbouring estates, and any one who would give them a night's shelter was threatened with eviction themselves. It was afterwards found not convenient to transport them to Australia, and it was then intimated to the poor creatures, as if they were nothing but common slaves, to be disposed of at will, that they would be taken to North America, and that a ship would be at Isle Orsay, in the Island of Skye, in a few days to receive them, and that they must go on board. The Sillery soon arrived, and Mrs. Macdonell and her factor came all the way from Edinburgh to see the people hounded across in boats, and put on board this ship, whether they would or not. An eye-witness who described the proceeding at the time, in a now rare pamphlet, and whom I met last year at Nova Scotia, characterises the scene as indescribable and heart-rending. The wail of the poor women and children as they were torn away from their homes would have melted a heart of stone! Some families, principally cottars, refused to go, in spite of every influence brought to bear upon them, and the treatment they afterwards received was cruel beyond belief. The houses, not only of those who went, but of those who remained, were burnt and levelled to the ground. The Strath was dotted all over with black spots, showing where yesterday stood the habitations of men. The scarred, half-burnt wooden couples, rafters, and bars were strewn about in every direction. Stocks of corn and plots of unlifted potatoes could be seen on all sides, but man was gone. No voice could be heard. Those who refused to go aboard the Sillery were in hiding among the rocks and the caves, while their friends were packed off like so many African slaves to the Cuban market.”

Duan Third, Stanza xxvi., Page 55,
Ref….Hugh Miller writes,
"The clearing of Sutherland was a process of ruin so thoroughly disastrous that it might be deemed scarcely possible to render it more complete. Between the years 1811 and 1820, 15,000 inhabitants of this northern district were ejected from their snug inland farms by means for which we would seek in vain a precedent, except, perhaps, in the history of the Irish massacre. A singularly well-conditioned and wholesome district of country has been converted into one wide ulcer of wretchedness and woe.”

Duan Third, Stanza xxvii., Page 55.
Ref….In "The Highland Clearances^' Alexander Mackenzie (pages 320, 321) writes,

"Yearly the Highlands have sent forth their thousands from their glens to follow the battle-flag of Britain wherever it flew. It was a Highland ‘rearlorn’ hope that followed the broken wreck of Cumberland's army after the disastrous day at Fontenoy, when more British soldiers lay dead upon the field than fell at Waterloo. It was another Highland regiment that scaled the rock-face over the St. Lawrence, and first formed a line in the September dawn on the level sward of Abraham. It was a Highland line that broke the power of the Mahratta hordes and gave Wellington his maiden victory at Assaye. Thirty-four battalions marched from these glens to fight in America, Germany, and India ere the eighteenth century had run its course ; and yet while abroad over the earth Highlanders were the first in assault and the last in retreat, their lowly homes in far-away glens were being dragged down, and the wail of women and the cry of children went out on the same breeze that bore too upon its wings the scent of heather, the freshness of gorse blossom, and the myriad sweets that made the lowly life of Scotland's peasantry blest with health and happiness.

Ref….In “Storm-Clouds in the Highlands” Sept. 1884. J. A. Cameron writes,
"Few Englishmen even now seem to be aware, notwithstanding all that has been written on the subject, that not very long ago, in many instances within the memory of living men, most of the Highland counties were the scene of evictions on a wholesale scale, compared with which the forced emigration of the Irish peasantry sinks into insignificance. Entire communities, from the patriarch of two generations down to the newly-born babe, were banished en bloc to Canada, and thrown there on their own resources to establish new homes or to starve. And although the people, except in a few cases, submitted to expatriation quietly if unwillingly, where they did manifest any reluctance to accept their fate, their houses were burned down over their heads, and they themselves were turned adrift on the bleak hill-sides, and on the wild and inhospitable sea-shores of that northern region, to seek subsistence as best they could. Until 1745, the year of Culloden, the clan system of land tenure prevailed in the Highlands, under which the ground belonged not to the chief alone, but to the community. A clansman could not be dispossessed of his holding by his chief. After 1745, however, the English system was introduced. The clans that had remained loyal to the Crown, as well as those that had thrown in their lot with Prince Charles, had their lands practically confiscated. The Highland chiefs, in short, were assimilated in position to English landlords. They were by the central government invested with the fee-simple of the land which was once held by the laird and the clansmen in common, and so a great wrong, amounting to a national crime, was done to the Highland population."

Ref….Dr. D. G. F. Macdonald writes,

"I know a glen, now inhabited by two shepherds and two gamekeepers, which at one time sent out its thousand fighting men. And this is but one of many that might be cited to show how the Highlands have been depopulated. Loyal, peaceable, and high-spirited peasantry have been driven from their native land as the Jews were expelled from Spain, or the Huguenots from France to make room for grouse, sheep, and deer. A portly volume would be needed to contain the records of oppression and cruelty perpetrated by many landlords, who are a scourge to their unfortunate tenants, blighting their lives, poisoning their happiness, and robbing them of their improvements, filling their wretched homes with sorrow, and breaking their hearts with the weight of despair."

Ref….Article on "The Crofters' Revolt” by J. S. Stuart Glennie, in " Our Corner" (p. 202).

"We come now to the third stage in the history of land-lordism in the Highlands, the stage which I have distinguished as that of the Nineteenth Century Clearances. In consequence of the English clearances of the sixteenth century, the spread of commercial principles, and the dying out of the old notion and fact of collective and limited ownership of land, the notion of individual and absolute ownership had got pretty well established in England by the middle of last century. So, after the Rebellion of 1745, the Highland chiefs being greatly impoverished, the devil came to them in three different shapes, one after another. First he appeared in a guise he very often assumes the guise of a pressing creditor; then he came as a jolly sheep-farmer from the south, with lots of tin in his pockets ; and, said the jolly sheep-farmer to the impecunious Highland chief: ' Clear out these rascals, who call themselves your clansmen. Sheep will pay you better than men, and if you will let the hills and glens to me, I'll double, triple, quadruple your rental.' And last of all the devil came to the Highland chief in another shape he very often assumes that of a sharp lawyer. The chiefs knew very well that they were but joint-owners with their clans of the land they occupied, and that crofter townships had rights of grazing on the hills sanctioned by immemorial custom; and they knew very well that, though many a chief's estate had been forfeited by Acts of Attainder, by no Act of Parliament had their clansmen's customary rights been forfeited. 'But,' said the devil in the shape of the sharp lawyer, 'never mind that. In England they act now on the notion of absolute ownership, and we'll just assume that your people are tenants-at-will, and that you can do what you like with them and theirs.' And it was simply on this assumption, a pure legal fiction, directly in the teeth of all historical facts, that the Duke of Athole began the Highland Clearances in clearing Glen Tilt, just one hundred years ago (1784), and worthily have followed suit the Dukes of Sutherland and of Argyll.”

Notes from Heather on Fire
The Poem, Heather on Fire

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