During September Strathnaver Museum will be hosting Australian sculptural artist and metal worker Barry Smith’s new body of work entitled ‘Betrayal and Loss’. Inspired by his visits to north Sutherland, Barry’s new exhibition is based on Donald Macleod’s Letter XI published in Gloomy Memories: The Highland Clearances of Strathnaver.
Barry is based in Maleny, Queensland and regularly spends time in north Sutherland. Taking salvaged materials and objects Barry gives them new life transforming them into artwork reflecting themes of peace, stillness, social justice and the environment.
Donald Macleod was born in the village of Rosal at the end of the 18th century and wrote a series of letters, initially published in the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle during 1840 and 1841. His letters depicted the events he witnessed during the Strathnaver Clearances which took place from the early to mid 19th century.
During this time 1,000s of families were removed from the inland straths, to make way for more lucrative sheep farming, and allocated new lots along the coast. Rosal was one of the largest of the 49 townships cleared in Strathnaver, home to 13 families farming 50 acres of arable land. Rosal was cleared between 1814 and 1819 becoming part of what was now Rhiloisk Farm, and the tenancy held by the infamous Patrick Sellar, Factor to the Sutherland Estate.
Donald’s letter XI explains how some of those removed looked to take up fishing, but with no experience and often inferior equipment this was an especially perilous enterprise. In one year, he claims that ‘upwards of 100 boats’ had been destroyed along the 30 mile stretch of coast from Portskerra to Rabbit Island often with loss of life, leaving families in increasing deprivation.
Donald further explains that those obliged to take up fishing could often only afford second rate equipment, cast off as useless by experienced fishermen. Those taking up fishing having to make do and mend with whatever resources they could lay their hands on.
Donald goes on to say that although £210,000 was spent by Sutherland Estate on improvements to roads, bridges, inns and manses, this was primarily of benefit only to the gentry and clergy. Of the vast sum expended on improvements only £500 directly benefited the small tenantry through the making of a harbour.
Artist Barry Smith explains: “The exhibition is inspired by Donald Macleod’s account of the cruelty and injustice of forcing those removed during the Clearances to become fisherfolk. The works reference the hardships faced by families forced to the edges; and the great loses sustained on destructive seas along perilous rocky shores”.
Fiona Mackenzie, Strathnaver Museum Manager says: “We are delighted to host Barry’s new body of work in our recently opened Annex building. The themes Barry explores in his work relate not only to our past, exploring the hardships of our predecessors during what was a traumatic period in our history, but also to our future through his reuse and reclamation of resources. Much like our forebears had to do to survive following their removal to the coastal fringes and we now have to consider as part of the climate crisis”.
The exhibition, part of the Highlands and Islands Climate Festival, will run in Strathnaver Museum’s Annex from 1st to 30th September. Strathnaver Museum invites members of the public to an exhibition launch on 1st September from 7pm.
Copies of Donald Macleod’s Gloomy Memories can be purchased from Strathnaver Museum.