Voyage around Scotland inspires Celtic Life spread on the Highland Clearances

The October issue of Celtic Life International features a gorgeous 3-page spread on the 1853 Highland Clearances at Knoydart. The writer — that would be moi — turned up in the vicinity by great good fortune while sailing with Adventure Canada earlier this year. A version of the article, which begins roughly as below, will turn up in a 2019 book to be published by Patrick Crean / HarperCollins Canada. Working title: SPIRIT OF THE HIGHLANDERS: How the Scottish Clearances / Created Canada’s First Refugees.

On day four out of the resort town of Oban, we awoke to
find our expeditionary ship anchored in Isleornsay harbour off the Isle of
Skye. This was not a planned stop. Overnight, faced with southwesterly winds
gusting to 60 and 65 knots, the captain had taken the Ocean Endeavour north into the Sound of Sleat that runs between
Skye and the mainland. Here he had found shelter in one of the most protected
harbours on the east coast of Skye.

June 2018. We were circumnavigating
Scotland, my wife, Sheena, and I, with Adventure Canada. We had stopped in
Islay and would soon visit Iona, St. Kilda, Lewis, Shetland, Orkney.  We were among roughly 200 passengers and I
was one of several resource people available to hold forth on matters of
historical interest. This surprise
drove me to my maps.

For the past few years, I had been researching
Scottish Highlanders who emigrated to Canada in the 18th and 19th
centuries. Some made the move of their own volition, but most were refugee
victims of the Highland Clearances. During one of those Clearances, I recalled,
a ship called the Sillery had anchored
here at Isleornsay harbour. It had arrived late in July 1853 to carry off farmers
who lived along the north shore of Loch Hourn, a broad inlet that enters the
mainland six or eight kilometres due east of Isleornsay. That area was part of
Knoydart in Glengarry.

I remembered wondering why the Sillery had not entered that inlet to reduce transport time. Now, onboard
experts suggested that strong westerly winds – not unusual in these parts –
would have made it difficult for any 19th-century sailing vessel to
emerge out of that inlet. That explained why the Sillery had anchored in this sheltered harbour and the captain had set
his crewmen to rowing across the sound.

Almost 100 years before that, in 1746, farmers from Knoydart
had been among the 600 Highlanders who followed Macdonell of Glengarry into the
catastrophe known as the Battle of Culloden. In the decades that followed, some
had emigrated to Upper Canada and others to Nova Scotia. Still, by 1847, more
than 600 people remained in the coastal settlements, though their numbers were then
reduced by the Great Famine. But activist-journalist Donald Ross, who collected
first-hand accounts of several Clearances, wrote that these crofters needed
only a little encouragement to resume thriving as farmers.

In 1852, however, the newly widowed Josephine Macdonell
gained control of the Knoydart estate. A Lowland industrialist named James
Baird – a Tory member of Parliament — had expressed interest in acquiring her
lands, but only if they were unencumbered by paupers for whom he would become legally
responsible. Ignoring the people’s offers to pay arrears caused by the potato famine,
the widow Macdonell issued warnings of removal. “Those who imagine they will be
allowed to remain after this,” she wrote, “are indulging in a vain hope as the
most strident measures will be taken to effect their removal.”

In April 1853, she informed her tenants that they would be
going to Australia, sailing courtesy of
the landlord-sponsored Highland and
Islands Emigration Society
In June, she amended that: they would travel instead to Canada, their passage
paid as far as Montreal. On debarkation, they would each be given ten pounds of
oatmeal. After that, they were on their own.

On August 2, 1853, with the Sillery anchored at Isleornsay, men with axes, crowbars, and
hammers rowed across the inlet and landed. They joined a gang of mainlanders and
began clearing farmers from their homes. The factor in charge ordered that after removing the tenants, his men were immediately to
destroy “not only the houses of those who had left,” Donald Ross wrote, “but
also of those who had refused to go.”

Burly men ripped off thatched roofs, slammed picks into
walls and foundations, and chopped down any supporting trees or timbers.
Eventually, Ross wrote, “roof, rafters, and walls fell with a crash. Clouds of
dust rose to the skies, while men, women and children stood at a distance,
completely dismayed.” According to Ross, “The wail of the poor women and
children as they were torn away from their homes would have melted a heart of

(To read the rest, check out the October issue of Celtic Life International.)

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