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Launch of the Strathnaver Clearances Bicentenary Programme

The Bicentenary of the Strathnaver Clearances is supported by the local Highland Councillors and has received funding through the Ward Discretionary Budget.

Strathnaver Museum’s programme of events to commemorate the infamous Clearances of Strathnaver commenced in Bettyhill on Saturday night with a Bicentennial Ceilidh in the Public Hall.  Fear an tigh at the event was Iain Mackay, better known as Ian Inshlampie, a highly appropriate choice given that he is the son of the first, and only, shepherd to be employed on the Rhifail Sheep Stock Club, established by the Congested Districts Board in relation to the resettlement of Strathnaver by its native people.  Topping the bill were the young musicians of Feis air an Oir, ably assisted by the All Welcome Ceilidh Band, whose core membership were the children of Janette Mackay of Strathy, with anyone welcome to join.  Some did, including David Macleod of Achuvoldarch, who ordinarily plays with the Melness Band, and Shona Munro of Bettyhill who also opened the event on her pipes. Brother and sister Duncan and Rhona Macleod, of Bonar Bridge, also direct descendants of the dispossessed of Strathnaver, demonstrated their musical virtuosity, as did some impromptu contributors, including Lisa Macdonald of Helmsdale, with her rendering of ‘The Rose’ and Janette Mackay herself, who led community singing well in to the night.

On Sunday afternoon, the corrugated iron church at Syre was crowded for a special service.  Though constructed in 1890, many years after the clearances, to serve the tiny population of shepherds and estate employees then living in the Strath, this was a very appropriate place for commemoration.  A few yards away, at Langdale, the Reverend Donald Sage, then minister at Achness further up the Strath, preached what has become immortalised as ‘the last sermon in Strathnaver’ to his parishioners on the point of their eviction and wrote a moving record of that day, and the events that followed, in ‘Memorabilia Domestica’, an account of his own various ministries, and those of his father and grandfather, which was first published in 1889, twenty years after his death and almost fifty years after he completed the manuscript.

A brief outline of the background to the Strathnaver Clearances was given by local historian, Elliot Rudie, and the service itself was conducted by the Reverend Leslie Goskirk, himself a descendent of tenants evicted elsewhere in Sutherland, who took as his text the same verses from the Book of Revelation used by Sage on that fateful day.  To mark the fact that, in the pre-Clearance Strath, the language of the entire population was Gaelic, there was also a selection of readings of psalms from the Gaelic Bible from Christine Stokes of Tongue and the Melvich Gaelic Choir, together with a contingent from the Lairg Choir, led by Raymond Bremner of Thurso and Graham Campbell of Halladale, contributed three songs on relevant themes in the authentic tongue of the Gael.   Where singing in English was concerned, this was done in the style once common throughout Scotland, and dating from before universal literacy, with a precentor, Richard Bradley,  ‘taking out the line’.

All of which added up to a moving and memorable introduction to the Museum’s commemorative programme which continues this week and next with a varied series of events along the North Coast culminating on the evening of Wednesday the 6th August with a lecture at the Farr Edge in Bettyhill by Dr. Elizabeth Ritchie of the University of the Highlands and Islands entitled ‘Why did the Clearances happen?’

Jim A Johnston