By Jim A Johnson
Strathnaver Museum hosted an unusual and well attended event in Bettyhill Public Hall last Tuesday evening which centred round the topic of migration to and from the Highlands and Islands, a hot issue nationwide given the wave of zenophobia rippling outwards from England in the wake of the Brexit vote a few days earlier. First up was Brora born musician and film-maker Robert Aitken who, inspired by a 1920s docudrama from Ireland’s barren Aran Islands, had created a cinematic tone-poem based on the experience of Kate Macpherson of Kildonan who in 1813, along with many other people from Sutherland, endured what Professor James Hunter, in Set Adrift Upon the World, described as the most gruelling journey ever undertaken by any group from Europe to Canada. As with many human migrants before and since, Kate’s exit from Kildonan was a forced one as victim of the grandiose scheme of so called ‘Improvement’ carried out on Sutherland Estate between 1806 and 1823. Kate’s experience of the New World eventually turned out to be a positive one as she married another Red River settler who arrived two years later and their only son became a Canadian Senator. But Kildonan was not forgotten as, on her deathbed in 1867 she is reputed to have said, ‘If I could see the hills of home I might still live.’
Bringing the fate of the immigrant in to the present day was Brian Macleod of Tubeg, Skerray who read extracts from his recently published paperback, Where I eat my bread, the fruit of almost a score of interviews he has conducted with incomers to the Highlands and Islands. These have hailed from an astonishing fourteen countries spread across most of the world and, while their reasons for coming to the UK’s remotest corners are as diverse as the people themselves, the most comforting thread running through their experience is that almost all found it welcoming here. Kate Macpherson was one of hundreds of thousands of Scots who, whether fleeing oppression as in her case or as economic migrants in countless others, have found new opportunity or sanctuary all over the world. It is good to think that our part of this small country can now offer that to others, irrespective of race or creed, who have similar aspirations.
Jim Hunter, who wrote the foreword to Brian’s book, has recently pointed out that Sutherland is one very few places on the face of the earth where the population is lower today than it was two hundred years ago and, in his foreword to Brian’s book, endorses the idea that, having poured its own population across the world over the last two centuries, Sutherland could today find space for some of those currently displaced by violence and oppression. That’s a powerful idea to reflect on!
The evening culminated with a showing of Last Footsteps of Home which, though some found it rather enigmatic, was deemed to be an excellent taster for a gripping story that could easily make a full length film.