Friday, 7 June 2013

The Highland Clearances- A visit to Caen village in Kildonan Strath

The Highland Clearances were a dramatic ethnic cleansing where the usurpers were not other humans but sheep. The origins of the debacle are complex but were labelled by the landowners of the time as 'Agricultural Improvements,' made in the name of increasing the profitability of their estates. We also have to understand that by the early nineteenth century, the relationship between landowner and tenants had changed dramatically during the previous hundred years. Before the 1745 jacobite rebellion, tenant farmers were mainly part of the feudal clan system and valued for their ability to bear arms and fight fiercely for their chief. After the rebellion the clan system was supressed and many of the chiefs anglicised, a condition that required money rather than men at arms for support. Sheep were much more profitable than tenant farmers.
     The Countess of Sutherland, in whose name the worst of the excesses were perpetrated, was born in the south and spent most of her life in Edinburgh and London. She had clearly little emotional attachment to her tenants, although considerable funds were spent on unsatisfactory resettlement in coastal villages; for many, just stopping points on the way to the emigration ships. Around 100 displaced residents left Kildonan in June 1813, including a boatload who went to Hudson's Bay in northern Canada and had to survive the harsh winter before moving on in spring to the red River Settlement around Lake Winnipeg. The Timespan centre at Helmsdale has a message board for descendants from all parts of the world to reconnect via the Timespan project.
     The ruins of Caen village (not to be confused with Caen in Normandy) lie a few miles up the Kildonan Strath from Helmsdale in a beautiful side valley with its own burn. The visit was part of Timespan's Excavation project aimed at better understanding the sequence of events that led to the removal of the inhabitants. The visit was guided by enthusiastic heritage officer, Jacquie Aitken.
 The outline of the township, a few longhouses and other buildings could be discerned, wedged in time between, the sheepfolds of the supplanters and the neolithic cairns of long distant generations who lived there 5000 years ago.  Higher up the valley with an awesome view, better preserved walls suggested a superior dwelling while a nearby Neolithic souterrain kept the timescales in parallel. During our visit archaeologists from Orkney were conducting a geophysical survey to understand the layout and help choose the most fertile digging sites. Included in the project is a Virtual World application which will enable visitors to see inside the houses as they might have been in reality. It is intended that the archaeological details gleaned from the dig will paint  more authenticity onto the virtual canvas.
My final question, I'm sure asked by many was, 'Did the brutal lairds do the people a favour by obliging them to leave supposedly for a better life?' For me the answer has to be a qualified 'Yes.' Certainly not for the generation that endured the stress and hardship of removal but for successive generations thereafter. I'm sure that they were able to progress with more land and opportunity than in the mid nineteenth century Highlands or the slums of Glasgow. It's obvious that in time with or without clearances, depopulation continued in the Highlands and Islands as the young moved away seeking opportunity to the tune of the relentless march of modernity.

Novels by Alan Calder
The Glorious Twelfth- Buy Links

Also by Alan Calder, The Stuart Agenda published by Willowmoon


  1. A tragic time, Alan, that caused much suffering.

  2. Interesting post Alan. I'm currently researching the Lowland involvement for my work in progress. Best luck.


  3. Thanks Lindsay and Rose. Interesting that Rose is researching the Lowland involvement, presumably shepherds. A lady from Wick, Jenny Bruce is doing the same and has already given a talk in Galashiels. I'll try to put you together.

    1. Thanks Alan for mentioning my work .Enjoyed the walk up to Caen last week and everyone's company. By visiting the exact area,it reinforced my own thoughts and research on the Border shepherds who came to the straths in Caithness and Sutherland in the 19th century. Totally agree that for the majority of local cottars,their lives became greatly improved by emigration, but there are many misconceptions that have been perpetrated over the years, and still linger to fire the drama.

  4. Hi Alan,
    Thanks for sharing this piece. I am a descendent of resicents of Caen. My forebears were donald and Elspat Sutherland. My great, great great grandfather was their son Alexander Sutherland. Alexander and his family moved to Borgue in Caithness and then 'The Free Church of Scotland'. I have to agree, that in the long term we descendents were better off in the new colonies. I have visited Helmsdale and Berridale, from where the family were banned from the Kirk along with the minister on account of the minister giving too much favour to the Free Church adherents.
    Again thank you for sharing.
    Ewen Sutherland, Waiheke Island, New Zeland