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August 23, 2017

Righting the wrongs

If countries can be said to possess a collective conscience, the Highland Clearances must surely rank as one of Scotland’s most shaming episodes. Well over 170,000 men, women and children were thrown off the land to make way for sheep. Scotland’s land reform project, although now addressing a much wider range of inequalities, was undoubtedly driven in its early days by the ghosts of communities cleared from the land. All of which adds extra emotional charge to the overwhelming vote by the Helmsdale community in favour of taking 3,000 acres of the Sutherland Estate under community ownership.


Jackie O'Brien, BBC Scotland

The land was cleared to make way for sheep and dwellings were destroyed

A new phase of Highland history is unfolding in Sutherland as land still owned by the family of the man blamed for the Highland Clearances is to be sold to descendants of those he evicted.

A community group has secured all of the funding it needs to buy 3,000 acres of crofting townships near Helmsdale on the far north-east of Scotland.

It is seen as a significant development for an area which still lives with the legacy of the decision by the infamous Duke of Sutherland two centuries ago to remove his tenants to make more money from sheep farming.

The English nobleman inherited the vast tracts of northern Scotland when he married and quickly set about making what he called “improvements”.

He carried out extensive clearances between 1811 and 1820, with his factor Patrick Sellar personally supervising the eviction of any tenants who showed reluctance to leave.

About 15,000 people are thought to have been removed from the wider estates of the Sutherlands and the cleared dwellings were burned to prevent them being re-occupied.

The Strath of Kildonan bore the initial brunt of his brutal decision and the townships to which many residents were cleared now form part of the buyout deal.

Many of those who were evicted left to seek a new life in Scottish cities or overseas.

However, others were cleared to the less fertile, exposed ground closer to the coast such as at Portgower and West Helmsdale.

A statue in nearby Helmsdale, called The Emigrants, is dedicated to those driven out of the hills by Sutherland.

It shows a bronze couple and their children. The father is looking out to sea and the mother is looking back to the hills they are leaving behind.

While many of the cleared left Scotland, others tried to make a living in the crofting townships, which are included in the buyout deal.

Two centuries on, descendants of those cleared are on the verge of an historic purchase of land at the centre of the struggle.

Anne Fraser, one of those driving the purchase of the croft land, said: “For me personally because I can trace my ancestors back to people who were cleared off the strath back into this area, it’s really significant, and it’s quite emotive as well.

“There are still lots of people living in the community who have that connection so I think they see it as finally getting something back.”

The townships of Marrel and Gartymore are also included in the buyback deal, which has been made possible with private funds as well as the £273,000 of public money awarded from the Scottish Land Fund. .

Ms Fraser hopes that more development and prosperity will flow from taking the land into public hands.

She says: “We are designated as a fragile area. We are part of the social deprivation stats because we are seen as being a poor place so the opportunity to have the land and develop it into something that is useful for the community so we can attract people back into the area, I think that is massive for the whole place, including the village.

“So it is not just about the crofting areas, it is much wider than that.”

This latest land purchase is all the more symbolic because it was offered for sale by the Sutherland family, descendants of the landlords who sparked the Highland clearances.

Esther Macdonald, whose family were also cleared, says she hopes the first east coast purchase of its kind will create a new sense of belonging and ownership for those living on and working the land.

She says: “I’m looking at the hill and thinking how great it would be for our forefathers to come back now and see that we are being able to purchase the land.

Esther Macdonald says the area is in her blood

“I feel so strongly about this area because it is in my blood. I love this area. It is just part of me and it feels right.”

The physical scars of the Highland Clearances still remain today in the abandoned hillside settlements of the Strath of Kildonan.

For Anne Fraser it is a chance to right some of the wrongs of the past.

She says: “I think it’ll give people satisfaction to be back in ownership and to be able to develop it as we would like to develop it because I think it has been underdeveloped.

“There is a sense of something being put right.”