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Set Adrift Upon the World

By Jim A. Johnston

Two hundred years ago a unique and dramatic event took place in Sutherland when, in the name of Improvement, Countess Elizabeth Sutherland, the aristocratic proprietor of much of the County, with the financial backing of her fabulously rich husband, the Marquis of Stafford, embarked on a social engineering project of unprecedented scale. Within the space of a few years the entire interior was emptied of its native population, thousands of them, who were concentrated in to an overcrowded coastal strip. Those for whom there was no room in that confined space, or for whom the coastal allotments, designed ‘to pinch’ were just too small were in their own words, ‘set adrift upon the world’, a fate which seemed worse than death.

In a time when we daily witness the poor and displaced of the world literally cast adrift on its oceans Emeritus Professor of History at the UHI, Jim Hunter, is publishing Set Adrift Upon the World, his account of what happened in those far off times when the population of Sutherland found itself similarly abandoned in what even then regarded itself as a civilised and enlightened world.

More has been written about the Sutherland Clearances than any other similar episode in Scottish history, partly because of the enormous scale of the event but also because of scholarly access to the meticulously kept record of proceedings in the muniments of the Sutherland family which have, for many years, been publically available for study.  In Set Adrift, Jim has gone to extraordinary lengths to get under the skin of the Clearances, not just from the dry accounts of the records in Scotland, England. Canada and the USA, but from the voices and experiences of the common people, the men, women and children who were evicted, dispossessed and expelled.  The search took him from the empty Straths of Sutherland to the frozen wastes of Hudson Bay not to mention the battlefield of New Orleans where soldiers from Sutherland were fighting for their country while, in their homeland, other soldiers of their own nation were being sent North to ensure that the landlord’s writ should run.

The 460 page book, reprised in part at last year’s Strathnaver Conference, is being published shortly by Birlinn Books at £25.00 and Jim will be launching it with series of discussion lectures in Sutherland in November.  These start at Dornoch on the 4th and continue at Bettyhill on the 20th with a date still to be arranged at Timespan in Helmsdale during that month and a final event in Brora on the 3rd of December.

Jim, who has published widely on Highland topics with a particular accent on crofting, claims that this is his magnum opus and will be the last of his tomes.  Let’s hope not but instead look forward to engaging with him throughout Sutherland on the content of what promises to be an enthralling and disturbing read.

The Bettyhill event will be hosted at the Public Hall by Strathnaver Museum.