Many streams and rivers run down the eastern fall of the mountains of northern Scotland, the Highlands, as they are called. The valleys they form, though narrow and wild at their heads, spread out into gentler, lusher lands as they approach the east coast, where these now broad, deep rivers flow into the firths that are the fjords of Scotland. Is is these valleys, called straths, that were home to the sparse population of the Highlands since time immemorial, since they afforded both shelter from weather that blows its rains and snows across the bleak higher ground, and lush, fertile land to support the grazing of animals and the growing of crops.
One such valley is the Strathcarron, with its dark running river, the Carron, eventually emptying into the Kyle of Sutherland which becomes the Dornoch Firth. The Carron is not a long river, running barely twenty miles from its source in the mountains of Ross-Shire to its mouth. It receives a number of tributaries on its journey to the coast, the major one being the Cullenach which runs in from the north near a tiny settlement called Amat, about 8 miles upstream from Bonar Bridge, where the Carron joins the Kyle.
Standing a little way up on the slope on the northern bank of this stream, very close to its junction with the Carron, there is an old church, at a place called Croick. This last May I visited Croick Church with my Scottish friend Hamish. We had driven up the valley from Ardgay, a village that lies at the head of the Dornoch Firth, having that morning driven from Inverness where we had been staying with friends, a retired minister of the Church of Scotland and his wife. I wanted to see this little church which unexpectedly achieved fame in Scotland and England in the 1840s.
Croick Church appears to be in the middle of nowhere, an unadorned cement-rendered structure surrounded by some old trees, with a churchyard ringed by a dry stone wall covered in moss. Looking out from the churchyard there is little to be seen by way of human habitation, just a solitary farmhouse a few hundred metres away down the valley. Slopes covered with heather run up to ridges on each side, and the curve of the valley prevents a view of the higher reaches of the river. The day we visited the sky was grey, the grass a mix of green and yellow, the heather on the heights still brown, with little colour to relieve the general melancholy of the landscape. It was easy to wonder why there should be a church here at all, out in the wilderness, with few to attend Sunday Services apart from some wandering sheep. Who comes here, we wondered?
Yet in 1827 the government of Scotland had decided to build a church here, and there must have been a reason for that. When we entered the church we were confronted with the following sign with a lot of the incumbents over the last two centuries:
The lands that are now relatively deserted and given over to the grazing of sheep and the pursuit of hunting and fishing were clearly once home to many people, and the Strathcarron of today has been called an “abandoned community” by a blog with the same name. But how did it come to be so?
A plaque by the road outside the church tells the story:
The story of the Glencalvie clearance in 1845 was told at the time in The Times of London, which had dispatched a journalist to cover the event, one of a long series of evictions in the Scottish Highlands which took place over a century from the late 1700s. The story has been retold many times, with two of the most comprehensive coverages to be found in John Prebble’s book, The Highland Clearances, and Eric Richard’s more recent account in his book of the same name.
We walked around the quiet interior of the church and tried to make out the scratchings on the east window. There is one that has caught the attention of visitors since that time and which still does not fail to tug at the heart when it is seen. It reads, “Glencalvie people – The Wicked Generation.” Not least has it inspired a novel of the Clearances by the same name, The Wicked Generation (Alison Johnson, 1993), a book which paints a vivid picture of those troubled times, though it is completely fictional and set in the Western Isles and not in Strathcarron at all. Why did the people call themselves this? How could they see themselves as “wicked.” Surely the wickedness of those days was that of the landlords who drove them away. But like people throughout history, they must have wondered why. Why were they being driven from their homes? What had they done to deserve this? True, they had mounted a little resistance when the first notices were first served a few years previously. But in the end they had succumbed largely without a fight, accepting their exile as their fate, perhaps sensing that they in some way deserved no better. Whether or not they felt this was the judgement of God for their sins is impossible to know, they seemed aware of a certain spiritual poverty, and though they had suddenly become homeless strangers on the earth, they may have taken comfort from the words of Jesus, so often preached from the pulpit of their church, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Glencalvie people were surely aware that they were poor in spirit that week in May 1845. The kingdom of heaven was their only comfort, cold comfort as it might seem to us, the irreligious of today.
170 years before Hamish and I stood in the same place, some ninety people from the nearby Glencalvie Estate set up camp in this very churchyard. They had been evicted from their homes and were en route to a world unknown and uncertain for them. They remained in the churchyard for a week or so before going on. Very few of their number found anywhere to live in the immediate area, and the majority simply disappeared, presumably to coastal communities, to other parts of Scotland, to England, or perhaps to the rest of the world, joining the growing stream of migrants away from the Highlands and to the colonies of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.
Poor people of the day generally walked. There were no trains in the Highlands in the 1840s. Cars and trucks were unknown. There were carts and carriages to carry goods and people if they had the money. The people of Glencalvie were not the only people living in the Strathcarron, of course. There were many others who watched as they left their homes. The report in The Times describes their arrival at the churchyard, where makeshift tents had been set up to temporarily accommodate them:
I am told it was a most wretched spectacle to see these poor people march out of the glen in a body, with two or three carts filled with children, many of them mere infants, and other carts containing their bedding and other requisites. The whole countryside was up on the hills watching them as they steadily took possession of their tent. (The Times, Monday, June 2, 1845)
When they left, a week or so later, they made their way down the valley towards Ardgay and Bonar Bridge. Most of them were leaving their beloved strath forever. Many of them would have straggled through the little village of Gledfield before they came to Ardgay. One of the first houses they passed in Gledfield was the home of the village blacksmith, James Ross, and his family. James had thirteen children, ranging in age from 1 to 22 years old in 1845. Some 25 years earlier, before he had married or started a family, a younger James had witnessed the Strath Oykel clearance just north of Gledfield, when some 600 people had been forced to leave their homes to make way for sheep. Now he watched another exodus of people, this time from his own strath, and as he watched he surely wondered what the future of the Highlands would be like. How would the world be for his children. James was already over fifty and was knew he would likely end his days in Gledfield, but the children’s lives were just beginning. What would happen to them, he wondered, and where would they end up?
One of the thirteen children bore the same name as his father, James Ross. He was my grandmother’s grandfather, and was just 18 years old at the time of the Glencalvie Clearance. He was likely watching too as the people of Glencalvie left. Within five years he too would leave. He found employment as a servant in an English house in the south, far from his birthplace. He married a girl from Wales and they settled eventually near Liverpool, where he plied his trade as a journeyman joiner. But in the meantime, in the Highlands, his younger sister Helen, and their little brother Andrew, had decided for a new life even further afield, sailing for Australia in 1857, just two years after yet another cruel clearance (Greenyards) had taken place in the Strathcarron, very close to their home. Nine years later, in 1866, James junior would pack up his family in Liverpool, and, with his youngest sister Jane who had joined them from the Highlands, would sail away for the far side of the world. That same year, 1866, his father, James Andrew Ross, blacksmith of Gledfield, died and was buried in the churchyard of Kincardine in the beloved Highlands that they had left forever.