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Book Review: Set Adrift Upon the World by James Hunter

Book Review

Set Adrift Upon the World by James Hunter

Published in hardback by Birlinn @ £25.00

ISBN 978-1-78027-268-9

460 pp

More has been written about the Sutherland Clearances than any other event in our country’s turbulent past.  Men of great intellect, and immense persistence, like the late Dr. Iain Grimble or Eric Richards, Emeritus Professor of History at Flinders University in Australia, spent whole slice of their lives studying that remarkable episode. Popular historians, like John Prebble, sold thousands of books on the back of it. Novelists Neil M Gunn, Fionn MacColla and Ian Crichton Smith did likewise. Liverpudlian playwright, John McGrath, invented a whole new type of play, ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ to encompass a tiny part of it.  Eyewitness Donald Macleod wrote ‘Gloomy Memories’ because of it and was more than matched in his virulent commentary by the Gaelic poets of the time.  The Reverend Donald Sage, also present in Strathnaver as the traumatic events unfolded, confirmed that what these native firebrands had said was true. Karl Marx had his say, as did Hugh Miller, together with even more random commentators like Harriet Beecher Stowe.  And these are but a few of those whose thoughts on the so called ‘Improvements’ to Sutherland Estate have passed to posterity in print. Some have even argued more recently that, because so much has been said, it is now impossible to unravel anything approaching the whole truth, or to pass any kind of moral judgement, because the story has degenerated in to myth.

The basics are, of course well known.  Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, who had inherited her title as an infant in 1766, typified a new type of landlord/chieftain whose aim, in an age of astounding rapid technological and societal change, was to bring about ‘Improvement’ rather than maintain traditional relationships or the status quo.  Her marriage to the Marquis of Stafford in 1885, described then as ‘a perfect leviathan of wealth’ gave her the wherewithal to do whatever she liked in her vast ‘Northern Lands’ to bring ‘improvement’ about.  Consequently, together with a panoply of figures whose names are burned in to the psyche of Sutherland, like James Loch, William Young and Patrick Sellar, she set about a programme of what can only be described as social engineering on a Stalinistic scale which, while ostensibly intended to benefit everyone, including the peasantry, in fact benefited no one, not even the Sutherland Estate, in the longer term.  A few people, like Patrick Sellar, made small fortunes but, within a few years, the old social structures had been destroyed and a whole way of life had vanished.  The population distribution of virtually the whole county had been changed for ever and what was left set the scene for decades of decay and depopulation from which Sutherland has never recovered.

Set Adrift Upon the World reprises the dramatic events of the Clearance period in a highly readable form and from a perspective which James Hunter follows more determinedly, and more successfully, than any previous historian.  The perspective is that of the common people, a viewpoint rarely adopted in traditional histories but increasingly popular in academic circles in modern times as the notion of ‘history from below’.  Thus we find ourselves in the opening lines of his book at the Sutherland township of Ascoilemore in the early afternoon of Thursday the 31st May 1821 when Jessie Ross’s life ‘begins to be taken apart’. Ten or a dozen men, who had drunk ten bottles of whisky between them the previous night and a further three that morning, had arrived to evict her, together with her two young daughters, and her two month old baby, Roberta, from their home.  Her husband being absent, Jessie feared for her furniture if she left the house before it and refused to exit until it was carried out.  Her young girls, Elizabeth and Katherine, were ordered out by sheriff-officer Donald Bannerman, and Roberta’s cradle was ‘roughly and angrily’ picked up by another man, William Stevenson, who cracked it against the door or door-jamb whereupon the baby began to cry and continued to do so when the cradle was set down in the lee of a dyke to give some protection from the chilly north-east wind.  Another Ascoilemore woman, Mary Murray, whose family had been evicted the previous day but who was still in the vicinity, took the baby to her own breast, as was common in those days, and Roberta gradually calmed.  Five year old Elizabeth, struck in the face by a plank thrown from inside the house, also began to cry and, though this ceased after about a quarter of an hour she and her three your old sister Katherine continued to shiver, not just as a result of the trauma or of the bitter wind but because both incubating the whooping cough virus which killed Katherine three weeks later.  The story of the Ross family threads on right through the book with surprising twists and turns.

The essence of the Improvement plan was that the common people who had occupied the inland areas of Sutherland since time immemorial, should move from the interior to the coast where, instead of holding land together, and cultivating it in the traditional run-rig fashion, they would be given plots which they could cultivate individually while improving themselves economically by engaging in manufacturing or going to the fishing.  Meanwhile their townships, and all the associated outrun, would be let as large scale sheep-farms which, while providing wool and mutton for the nation in a time of almost continuous war, would also provide substantial rental income to their overlords.  The problem for the peasantry was that the coastal areas, like Armadale or Strathy Point for example, were virtually uncultivated and, while they might not suffer from the frosts that sometime struck the interior, were subject to strong salty winds blowing in off a tempestuous sea on to a rocky littoral devoid of harbours.  Also, the holdings on offer generally extended to less than three acres which, while sufficient to nurture a couple of cows and grow a modicum of crops, offered little in the way of compensation to people who had often possessed ten times as many cattle, and a greater area of arable land, in places which had been cultivated for millennia.

Consequently, they resisted, and the remarkable tale of that resistance forms a key story-line throughout Dr. Hunter’s compelling account.  Many of the dispossessed, particularly those who had been better off, left the area altogether.  Population growth amongst the remaining Sutherlanders disguised the phenomenon of emigration during much of the 19th Century but, from the very start of the Clearance episode, it was a powerful element of the overall picture.  Some did not go very far but found themselves small farms in neighbouring Caithness while others left in droves for Britain’s expanding colonies, largely in Canada where, after numerous privations, they were able to build a new life.  Several such destinations are dealt with in detail in Cast Adrift Upon the World, including the harrowing tale of eighty or ninety ‘damned savages from Scotland’.  These individuals hailed, in fact, from Kildonan and, in April 1814, after a ‘disease-blighted Atlantic crossing and a bitter Hudson Bay winter’ still found themselves with 800 miles to go to their intended destination on the Red River. The story of their odyssey alone makes the cost of Dr. Hunter’s book well worthwhile!

Nor did resistance necessarily involve departure.  Sometimes it was exceedingly direct as the Donald Bannerman, whom we met earlier in this review, found to his cost while on the receiving end of some very rough treatment from the women of Gruids.  Or prospective sheep farmer William Clunes who found himself riding for his life as he fled from Kildonan.  For the full details of these, and many other moments from two centuries ago, you will have to unravel the rich and detailed tapestry that James Hunter has woven for yourselves.

And, if you wish to look even more deeply into the story, that volume contains more than sixty pages of notes and bibliography to take you directly to the remarkable range of sources he has used plus a comprehensive index to readily return you to the bits you most want to look at again.

The author, who launched his magnum opus at Dornoch on Wednesday this week, will be attending further launch events in Sutherland starting with one at Bettyhill Public Hall, in conjunction with Strathnaver Museum, on Friday the 20th November at 7.30 pm which will be followed by similar evenings in Helmsdale and Brora at dates to be announced.

An absolutely great book which I thoroughly recommend.