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She was a Graham of Montrose, and came from humble beginnings. I remember her describing something called a byre, and explaining that her mother lived in a crofter’s house with the cattle.
From the moment I learned this, I have wanted to travel to northern Scotland to see how crofter society worked. I also wanted to learn something of my grandmother’s generalized distaste for a certain kind of Englishman. My dream was recently fulfilled when my sister organized a group of family and friends, and in the process we learned some history lessons we were never taught in school.
From London, we flew to Inverness on Moray Firth by the North Sea. We boarded a minibus with Donald, our Scots guide.
Our first stop will be Culloden battlefield, he announced. He painstakingly described the final battle of the Jacobite uprising on April 16, 1746. The Highland army fell to the Duke of Cumberland and the English loyalist forces, after just one hour of combat. This consisted of a raging line of Highlanders running pell-mell into the English guns. With the death of more than 2,000 Scots, the battle of Culloden ended the Jacobite (comprised of Catholics and Scottish Episcopalians) attempt to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne, and effectively subjugated the Highlands to the Protestant English.
Our guide, a staunch advocate of Scottish independence, described how the many badly wounded Scots were bayonetted as they lay on the battlefield. No mercy was shown. Cumberland was later described as the Butcher of Colloden. Subsequently, civil penalties were introduced to diminish Gallic (pointedly not ‘Gaellic’) culture and weaken the Highland clan system.
Hearing all of this started to colour in my grandmother’s fabled antipathy to the English landed gentry.
The minivan headed for Golspie, the village adjoining Dunrobin Castle, the ancestral home of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. Here we stretched our legs and had a pub lunch. High above the village was an imposing bronze statue of the Duke of Sutherland perched on a hilltop.
We toured the castle’s magnificent great room, dining hall and library. Massive stuffed Red Deer heads hung from the walls. Under one, a plaque read: Killed by the Duke of Sutherland in Dunrobin Forest, Sep 28th 1932. 25 Stone 10 Points. As we left, I scanned the countryside, which is denuded of forest. I wondered why.
The minivan headed up the paved highway to Helmsdale, where we turned left and west, away from the coast and into the green rolling hills. All about us were flocks of sheep, many walled in by magnificent dry-pack stone fences. We stopped at a roadside lay-by to read the inscription on a stone: To mark the place near which (according to Scaope’s Art of Deerstocking.) the last Wolf in Sutherland was killed by the Hunter Polson, in or about the year 1700.
Our guide told us how the hand of man had altered the Highland landscape by overhunting, deforestation and something called The Clearances – which you may not have heard about? They were launched by the Sutherlands, who were advised in the early 1800s that the economics of sheep were far better than collecting crofter rents. As many as 15,000 Sutherland Highland crofters were forcibly displaced from their tenancies. Many were literally burnt out by gangs of burners who set fire to roof thatch and timbers.
In the manner later applied to the creation of Canada’s Indian Reserves (created by B.C.’s Governor Douglas in the 1850s), the Sutherland’s factors created crofter villages, where the displaced cattle-raising and farming families could huddle together in huts. They were advised to learn how to fish, even though many of them had never stepped into a rowboat (Strathnaver Museum, The Clearances Exhibit, 2017).
Our first day in Scotland concluded near just such a village, Melvich, at the mouth of the Halladale River. We had bookings for the week at the welcoming Bighouse Lodge, on its banks. As our minibus pulled to a stop, I felt suddenly that my grandmother’s love of the Highland landscape was surrounding us all. What a day!
Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery.
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