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Mon 28 September 2020
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'The Battle of Culloden' by David MorierBy the end of the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, the clan system in the Scottish Highlands was nearing the end of its span. Ironically, the deliberate dismantling of the clans, so cruelly started in the bloody years after Culloden, was completed not by the aftermath of glorious rebellion but by the decidedly unromantic process of civil eviction, much if it at the hands of the successors of those same Highland chiefs who had brought out their kin for the Jacobite cause in the first place.

Landowners, many of them ruined financially by the 1745 Rebellion, saw an opportunity to restore their finances by replacing their tenants with sheep, and so set about clearing their lands of the Highland families and communities who lived there. Not all landowners resorted to this heartless action, but many of those who did carried out their task with ruthless and barbarous efficiency, often through the agency of a factor.

One such individual was Macdonald, factor of the district of Boreraig and Suishnish on Skye, who was also a Sheriff Officer and - ironically - local Inspector of the Poor. In September 1853, with the Sheriff-Substitute and a body of police, Macdonald came to Boreraig and began the removals of the families living there. Most of the men were away working in Glasgow or on the railroads, but some who were attending their cattle in the hills heard the commotion. They came down in haste, and there was a short, brutal struggle, in consequence of which three men - John Macrae, Duncan Macrae and an Alexander MacInnes - were placed in irons and dragged thirty miles to Portree. In their absence, the evictions continued at Boreraig and elsewhere. One lawyer, writing at the time to a newspaper, reported:

The scene was truly heartrending. The women and the children went about tearing their hair, and rending the heavens with their cries. Mothers with tender infants at the breast looked helplessly on, while their effects and their aged and infirm relatives were cast out, and the doors of their houses locked in their faces. No mercy was shown to age or sex, all were indescriminately thrust out and left to perish.

At Portree, the two Macraes and MacInnes were released subject to their promise to appear before the Court of Justiciary sitting in Inverness. Without food or money, they walked to Inverness - a distance of one hundred miles - and there surrendered at the Tolbooth. Their accusers must have thought the outcome of their trial a foregone conclusion, but they were defended by a passionate advocate by the name of Rennie, who persuaded the jury to return a verdict of not guilty.

'Lochaber No More' by John Watson Nicol 1883After the trial, the three returned to their families. They opened the houses, put back the roof timbers and briefly returned to some semblance of normal life, but their victory was shortlived. On 30 December, in the depths of a Highland winter, Macdonald came again when the Macrae men were away. The mother of John Macrae, who was eighty-one, refused to move from her bed and was dragged out on her blanket. The houses were boarded up and the people - children, women and old folk alike - were left outside in the snow to survive as best they could.

At this remove, it is difficult to imagine the inhumanity of the Clearances. The story told here of the evictions of the Macraes of Boreraig is just one among thousands. Of those evicted, many died of starvation and exposure, while others were reduced to living outside like animals, surviving on Parish Relief and the charity of others. Many Highlanders emigrated or took service with the British army, which in large measure accounts for the wide scattering of Scots around the world today.

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