Witnessing the Strath Oykel Clearance. March 1820.
In the winter of 1819-20, the word went around that the people of Strath Oykel were to be evicted. Snow lay on the ground during that January of 1820, but it was a fertile valley; in the summer the area “was beautiful… a green valley floor watered by the black run of the River Oykel, rich pastures rising in gentle slopes to the south. The townships to be cleared lay on the west bank of the Kyle of Sutherland at Culrain…” As Prebble points out in his book, “this was the glen where the Men of Ross had gathered in 1792 before setting out on the great sheep drive… The memory of The Year of the Sheep was perhaps stronger in this strath than anywhere in Ross. The people had another reason for their pride, and for thinking that their laird and the Government were in their perpetual debt. During the Napoleonic Wars the county had supplied more than two thousand five hundred men for the three battalions of the 78th Regiment, RossShire Highlanders… Strath Oykel had sent its youth with the rest of Ross…” (Prebble J, p.121-2)
Culrain is just a few miles north of Gledfield, where my ancestor James Ross was the village blacksmith during those sad years of the Clearances. Culrain is reached from Gledfield these days by a road that first crosses the Carron River and then winds up through forest, over a ridge and down into the next valley. The Kyle of Sutherland, the westerly extension of the Dornoch Firth, is a narrow body of water down on the right side of the road as it descends toward Culrain. These days a railway line runs along the edge of the Kyle, and at Culrain there is a little country station; in 1820 there was no railway, but the road led northwest to the Oykel Ferry, near Achnagart, the main crossing to Sutherland Shire prior to the building of the Bonar Bridge in 1812. Nowadays the ferry is gone and the railway crosses the Kyle where the ferry used to be. Culrain is something of a backwater, though there is a railway station there, and a youth hostel and a scattering of houses; cars and trucks heading north miss both Gledfield and Culrain by taking the newer northward route from Ardgay over the Bonar Bridge into Sutherland Shire. Even Bonar Bridge is much less busy now, since a long causeway across the Dornoch Firth further east opened in 1991, which spans the water between Tain and Dornoch, carrying the vast bulk of traffic heading northward from Inverness, completely missing the area at the inland end of the firth which was once such a busy thoroughfare.
It is likely that by 1820 James Ross, in his mid to late twenties, was already living in Gledfield, and that the business was thriving. He had not yet married his future wife, Catherine Urquhart of Golspie, the town over which the Duke of Sutherland’s stately home, Dunrobin Castle, presided. It is probable that Jame knew many of the people of Strath Oykel who were evicted. He would have been very aware of what was happening to his friends that dark cold winter, and he could hardly have avoided being deeply affected.
The landlord who owned the lands of Strath Oykel was a man named Hugh Munro, a few years younger than James Ross. Munro had inherited the Novar Estate from his uncle, Hector Munro, who had made his name serving in the British Army in India. Hector’s two sons had both met rather dramatic and tragic deaths in India – one after being attacked by a tiger, and the other by a shark in the Bay of Bengal. Hector had been the landlord of Novar at the time of the 1792 troubles. Novar House lies very close to Alness, near where the men of Ross had abandoned the sheep on the ill-fated drive south.
When Hector died without a male heir in 1805, Hugh took over the estate. He had a keen interest in art and was a great fan of the renowned English artist, JMW Turner, from who he commissioned a number of paintings. Even as a young man Hugh Munro was an art collector, like his protege Lord Stafford, the Duke of Sutherland. However, his financial resources were nothing like those of the wealthy owner of Dunrobin Castle, and his passion for collecting art required a steady source of income, more than his estates were providing him at that time.
Hugh Munro lived in a different world to the Gledfield blacksmith, even if their homes were only a few miles apart. Hugh probably had little interest in his estate more than as a source of income for his art collection. He probably knew little of the people who inhabited his estate. James, however, knew the valley of Easter Ross intimately, and lived his whole life there. It is likely that he knew many of the families evicted from the settlements in the Strath Oykel. While Hugh Munro was educated at Oxford (though he never took a degree) and lived the society life of the British aristocracy, James Ross learnt the trade of smithing and lived out his life in his little Highland village. Hugh died in 1864 and James two years later. Hugh presumably spent much time in England, whereas James never left Ross Shire.
Hugh never married but the estate that he owned passed to his cousin when he died and remains very much in the family, today a destination for luxury hunting and fishing holidays, and a delightful location for Highland weddings. James, on the other hand, married, and had 13 children, but there are few traces to be found of his family apart from the ruins of his old forge and a few proud family gravestones in the Kincardine churchyard. The two sons who carried on the family business after James died in 1866, Malcolm and then Hector Ross, both died childless. The need for blacksmiths was diminishing by the end of the First World War and once Hector was too old to carry on the shop fell into disrepair. Now there are just a few walls still standing. Four of the Ross children migrated to Australia, but the lack of male offspring resulted in the Ross name disappearing from their family lines.
Like many of the landed gentry of the Highlands Hugh Munro came to believe that sheep were more profitable than people, and like many others he decided to clear his lands of the people inhabiting the best land. Through January of 1820 snow had fallen intermittently on the valleys of Easter Ross, but in the darker corners of the forests where the insipid winter sun hardly reached, the snow lay deep in drifts. Winter was always a tough time for the crofters of Strathcarron and Strath Oykel, marked by the familiar anxiety of hunger; but with luck and planning the people were able to survive on their stores until warmth returned to the earth in April and May, bringing life back to the cold north. This winter, however, another kind of anxiety lay like a dark snow cloud over the valley – the worry about evictions.
In early February their fear materialised when the laird’s law agent turned up in the valley, together with witnesses, carrying Writs of Removal to be presented to all the tenants and their dependents, warning them to be ready to quit by Whitsunday. Word of their coming had gone before and there was an angry crowd waiting to meet them. The law agent and his witnesses “were maltreated and pillaged of their papers,” according to a report in the Inverness Courier. They were driven off the property, through the snow and from the glen, and threatened with bodily harm if they returned.
James Ross, the young blacksmith of Gledfield, heard about the confrontation and wondered what would become of it. He felt sure that the laird, Hugh Munro, would not let things lie after such an open defiance of his rights and authority. James had seen what had happened to the lands owned by Lord Stafford, the Duke of Sutherland to the north, and felt certain that the same fate was coming to Ross-Shire. He didn’t have long to wait before the next chapter in the story unfolded before him. A month later to the day, on the second of March, he was witness to the old Sheriff of Dingwall, a certain Mr Mcleod of Geanies, who had come over the hills from the south, on his way north to Strath Oykel.
It is hard to be sure which way the road ran in 1820. Nowadays to get to Culrain from Ardgay requires passing through Lower Gledfield, which was called Gledfield back then. However, looking at an old map from around that time the road seems to go more directly and to bypass Gledfield, following the route that the railway now follows across the Carron River. The railway did not exist then, but perhaps there was a road bridge where the line crosses now.
The road from Ardgay to Culrain nowadays runs right past the ruins of the old blacksmith shop before crossing the fields to a high stone bridge across the Carron River. If Sheriff McLeod took that route he would have passed right by James Ross’s little business. But even if the road in 1820 was a mile or so further east, the people of the little settlements of Ardgay and Gledfield could not ignore the Sheriff’s process. For he was not alone.
McLeod was 73 years of age in 1820. He had been Sheriff in Dingwall for a long time, even before the debacle of 1792, the Year of the Sheep, 28 years before. When informed of the fate of the Law Agent and his witnesses he knew that he would have to jump once again into action, since it was his duty to maintain law and order in this little corner of the Highlands. He apparently appealed to the authorities for a military force from the garrison at Fort George, near Inverness. He was clearly worried about the strength of resistance he might meet. The records suggest that he even asked for artillery, as if he was going to war. In retrospect this sounds ridiculous, and even at the time it was regarded as an over-reaction and the request was declined. It does however reflect the excessive level of anxiety that Sheriff McLeod felt in confronting the Highlanders.
One of McLeod’s achievements during all the years of his service in Dingwall had been to establish a local militia, the Easter Ross Regiment, based at Dingwall. McLeod was its colonel. The permanent staff consisted of 25 red-coats, and these were rapidly mobilised. In addition McLeod called on the local constabulary, and managed to recruit 40 volunteers. Many of the local gentry, outraged as they were by the insolence of a peasantry who dared to defy them, were keen to ride with McLeod’s little army, and a large party of them turned up with their servants. Hugh Munro was almost certainly among them. All told perhaps 80 or 90 men marched or rode from Dingwall on a cold and grey Thursday, the 2nd of March, four weeks after the Law Agent had been rebuffed and sent on his way.
It is perhaps twenty miles from Dingwall to Culrain and it is hard to imagine the Sheriff and his men covering that distance on a winter’s day. However, if they left early while it was still dark, and kept up a steady pace, they could probably cover the distance in 7 or 8 hours. Had they departed at 6am they would have passed Gledfield in the early afternoon and got to Culrain by four or five. The Sheriff rode in a carriage, the soldiers were presumably on foot, and the gentry were mounted.
The word of their arrival had come to the valley long before they did and when the Sheriff climbed out of his carriage he was met by a “great crowd of people gathered on the road and on the brae side. There appeared to be more women than men… There was a great deal of noise, the women shouting and crying, young boys blowing whistles or horns to summon the laggards from the valley behind… There were also observed many men running down the hill on the Sutherland side towards the Ferry, with the apparent desire of crossing to assist their neighbours…” (Prebble, p124)
I have found myself wondering as I have read this account of the Culrain confrontation whether James Ross was there that day. He was not about to be evicted, but like the people of Sutherland who came to support the threatened crofters he may well have felt a degree of sympathy for them and their plight. James’ business came from the people of the valleys, and he must surely have known some of them. Somewhere between five and six hundred people were expected to vacate their homes, sub tenants of the three major tenants in the area: John Munro of Culrain, Duncan Kennedy of Achnagart and John Ross of Kilmachalmack. Even if James did not know many he would surely have known the names of these three men, who themselves were to be turned out. He may well have crossed the ridge to Culrain to support them. He was a young man, unmarried, and may have been an activist. The evictions that were happening in those days were known far and wide. There were even some among the “gentry” who felt more sympathy toward the peasants than toward the landlords. One such was a man named Thomas Dudgeon, who lived in Frear, between Edderton and Gledfield. He was seen by his fellow “gentlemen” as being a troublemaker and a nuisance. He was there in the weeks after Culrain. The crofters were surely glad to have at least him on their side.
John Prebble’s description continues (p.125):
Old McLeod got down from his carriage, waving the Writs of Removal, and immediately the crowd pressed upon him and the wall of constables and militia. He shouted to them to disperse, but the women cried back desperately. They shouted, “We must die anyway!”… Better to die here than in America or on The Cape of Good Hope. “We don’t care for our lives!”
A fight ensued, largely with sticks and stones, the constables and gentry striking the women with their sticks and riding crops. The militia fired a blank volley, then “gathered around their colonel with the butts of their muskets swinging.” Then one young militiaman, who had chosen to go against orders and load his musket with ball and not blank cartridges, fired into the crowd. The shot struck a woman in the chest. She fell to the ground, dead.
With things rapidly spiralling out of control the Sheriff decided to withdraw, and his soldiers were glad to escape the maddened women. They picked their colonel up bodily and carried him away, leaving his carriage behind to be overturned and kicked in by the Strath Oykel people. The Writs of Removal were torn up and scattered in the wind. The Sheriff and his men retreated the four miles back to Ardgay chased by men, boys and bloodstained women. There they barricaded themselves in the Inn, the people throwing stones at the windows before returning home in triumph. The Sheriff made the Inn his headquarters for the following week, half expecting the people to return and storm the place, but they never came. The revolt was over.
Twelve days later, in an extraordinary reversal, seven of the principal tenants of Strath Oykel went to the Inn, together with the minister of their parish and accepted the Writs of Removal. What had caused this turn around? Certainly not the urging of the gentleman Thomas Dudgeon of Frear, who had rather tried to stir the people to greater anger.
Rather it had been the effect of the sermonising of that very same minister, a certain Reverend Alexander Macbean, the vicar of the parish of Kincardine. He had gone from one end of the valley to the other preaching a message of submission to the law of the land, a law which enshrined the rights of the landlords far above the those of the tenantry. It is true that the Minister was incensed by the violence of the police and the militia towards his parishioners, and he roundly condemned the Sheriff for the way he had conducted the affair. But at the same time he preached obedience, making it clear that disobedience to the law in this case was paramount to rebellion against God, and that the result of such rebellion was the fires of hell. It was this vicar who eventually got the tenants to write a letter to James Aird, the Ground Agent of Novar, asking him to meet them at the Inn with new Writs of Removal. They met him there on the 14th and accepted the papers. The Sheriff and his little army returned to Dingwall, the crisis past. Two months later, with the Spring bringing warmth and life back to their beloved valley, the people left, over 400 of them.
Did James Ross have a part to play in these dramatic events or was he a silent bystander? Did he take in any of the departing people as they began their journeys to places unknown? There are no records of his household before the 1841 census, so these questions are impossible to answer. But James could hardly have been unaffected. A year or two after the Culrain revolt he married Catherine Urquhart, a Sutherland lass from Golspie. How did he meet her? Was she too affected by the Clearances?
There was further trouble in 1821 at Gruids, in Sutherland, just five miles north of Culrain and ten miles west of Golspie. This was the work of Lord Stafford. The eastern valleys of Ross and Sutherland were being emptied of people. The townspeople of these shires like James Ross and Catherine Urquhart were not directly affected but they saw the sorry crofters drift through their villages and towns. Among the displaced were friends and relatives. The Highland way of life that stretched back generations was being changed. A rift had arisen between the rich and the poor. The clan loyalty that had characterised the Highlands for centuries was disintegrating. Poor people were wondering increasingly what the future of the Highlands would look like. The young began to wonder about starting new lives in distant lands. James Ross may have been one, though he lived his whole life in Gledfield and is buried with his wife in the Kincardine churchyard. But as he and his wife raised their family together over the ensuing decades the future of the Highlands and the prospects of a life further away was surely a frequent topic of conversation.
The clearance of Strath Oykel was the first blow in the fight for the glens of Easter Ross. It was over twenty years before the next blow was struck.