“If I go there will be trouble And if I stay it will be double”

The talk and the film footage, the many, many words written recently about controversial statues and what should be done about them have got me thinking of that statue on a hill at the back of Golspie.  My Sutherland mother said he was a “bad man” and what made his statue even more extraordinary to me was hearing that the folk he’d wronged in his lifetime were made to contribute to the funds to put the thing up!

George Granville Leveson Gower did not become the Duke of Sutherland until 1832, shortly before his death.  For most of his life he was the Marquis of Stafford, his family owning land in Yorkshire and Shropshire as well as in Staffordshire which made him one of the richest men in 19th century England.  In 1785, he married Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland who had been brought up in Edinburgh; she was orphaned at the age of 1 so from her father she inherited the eastern coastal plain of Sutherland along with Assynt in the west.  This Sutherland estate was her dowry and technically, control of the estate passed to her husband on her marriage; however, she took an active interest and he delegated many tasks to her.  They bought more land between 1812 – 1816 so together owned about 63% of Sutherland, one of the largest private estates in Europe at 1.5 million acres.  She shared her husband’s view that things had to change; when facing opposition, she urged estate manager James Loch to “trounce those people who want to destroy our system” and she called for “aggressors” to be “scourged”.

The second half of the 18th century were the post-Culloden years in which the Highlands were to be ‘pacified’ and those who had rebelled punished.  The Dukes of Cumberland and Newcastle had seemingly wanted to ship cleared highlanders to the colonies but had realised that these plans were unmanageable.  Reciprocal ties between clan chiefs and their people were cut; this was when these clan chiefs were encouraged to turn their backs on their traditional ways of life, including their language and their sense of responsibility for their clan, and become part of the British ruling class.  It was a successful strategy, and it has continued right up to the present day.

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The statue on top of Beinn a’Bhraigaidh

James Hunter in his 2015 book about the Sutherland Clearances Set Adrift Upon The World, tells us that “… in the space of seven or eight years in the early 19th century, the interior of a large Scottish county was forcibly depopulated.  This was accomplished by turning thousands of people out of their homes” which were “then destroyed.  …… nothing so organised and on such a scale had taken place in Britain before …… What was done …. was planned and carried through by a small group of men and one woman.”

There are those who view these events that took place in Sutherland (and elsewhere) as “improvements”: bringing in more modern farming methods and bettering the living conditions of the local people.  What is undisputed is that small scale farmers were removed and larger more commercial farms were set up and given to tenants from outwith the area who paid much higher rents to the estate, resulting in more profits for the landowner.  Peasant farming was coming to an end, some folk think, just as it was elsewhere in Britain and what happened was inevitable.

The afore-mentioned James Loch, an ex-Edinburgh lawyer turned chief agent on the Staffordshire estate, became involved latterly with affairs on the Sutherland estate.    He wrote in 1820: “Why should the absolute authority of the landlord over his land be sacrificed to the public interest?”

However, there were opposing views: “The history of the wealth of the Sutherland family is the history of the ruin and of the expropriation of the Scotch-Gaelic population from its native soil.”  This is Karl Marx in The People’s Paper, 1853.

There had been negative publicity for the estate fairly early on in the century.  The Military Register in London in 1815 had run a critical article which was picked up by other newspapers. James Loch in particular was keen to avoid more bad publicity but in 1819, The Observer published an article headlined “The Devastation of Sutherland” and that year became known locally as Bliadhna na Losgaidh (the year of the burnings).  Later, Donald MacLeod, a stonemason from Strathnaver, wrote a series of articles for the Edinburgh Chronicle to expose what the “ruthless and tyrannical” landlords were doing.  He was also the author of Gloomy Memories in the Highlands of Scotland which was a riposte to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands; this latter book was a defence of the Sutherland family’s actions as she was a pal of theirs.

The Sutherland estate had been wanting to clear land of tenants from the 1790s but had lacked the money to carry out their plans.  However, their fortunes changed when the Marquis of Stafford inherited fortunes from his father, and then from an uncle in 1803.  Lairg was cleared in 1807 with most of the evicted tenants emigrating; Assynt was cleared in 1812 with people relocated to coastal villages. Kildonan and Strathnaver were cleared in 1813 / 14 but only after riots and confrontations which went on for 6 weeks in Kildonan and the calling in of the army.  Patrick Sellar, the infamous factor for the estate, was charged with culpable homicide after the deaths of two elderly people – Margaret MacKay and Donald McBeath – during clearances in Strathnaver in 1814 but he was acquitted at a trial in Inverness two years later by a jury of farmers, businessmen and lawyers.

It was after this that James Loch came on the Sutherland scene and the mass evictions continued.  In 1820, he published his own account of the “improvements” on the estate in which he writes revealingly: “The children of those who are removed from the hills will lose all recollection of the habits and customs of their fathers.”

Some writings by Loch are included in the Sutherland section of Alexander Mackenzie’s The History of the Highland Clearances first published in 1883 but I found it online at glendiscovery.com history_of_the_highland_clearances.  Also in the opening section of this book, you can read what Alexander Mackenzie himself, Rev Donald Sage, General Stewart of Garth, Hugh Miller, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Donald Macleod all had to say about the Sutherland Clearances.

IMG_20200715_152457311James Hunter’s book is excellent: it is detailed and authoritative.  He carried out research in Canada as well as in the UK.  He explains why eight of the “bloody British” who died at The Battle of New Orleans in 1815 were from the Strath of Kildonan: they’d been recruited as early as 1800 into the British Army’s 93rd Regiment, their families led to believe that they’d have secure tenancy in return.  Other Sutherland men had previously been encouraged by the Countess of Sutherland to join the Sutherland Fencibles in 1793 and they had helped to put down the 1798 rebellion in Ireland.

Overall, Hunter gives a voice to the dispossessed, one they had largely lacked at the time in comparison with those who had set out to remove them.  And it is this power imbalance, along with the attempt to manipulate history that it represents, which I think is behind my loathing of the statue.  It was put up by the bereaved Duchess of Sutherland in 1837 and inscribed: “erected by a mourning and grateful tenantry to a judicious, kind and liberal landlord who would open his hands to the distress of the widow, the sick and the traveller”.  I wonder if she believed this or whether it was just a blatant attempt to control how he would be remembered by history.  Why else did she want the tenants to contribute towards the cost but did she get local tenants to pay for the two other statues she put up in England?  (I know somebody who peed on the statue at Cliveden – and I congratulated him when he told me.)

Locally, the statue is known as The Mannie and while this diminutive does not name him, it makes him sound almost inoffensive and certainly unthreatening.  Yes, it’s used as a landmark by fishermen but so would the 76 feet tall pedestal, without the 24 feet tall statue on top of it.  Being a vindictive kind of creutair, I’d have it rolled down the hill and then dumped into the North Sea but on a more rational day, I’d settle for it being dumped at the gates of Dunrobin for the family to deal with.

Golspie Community Council put out a statement at the end of June to say they supported the “view of local residents that the statue of ‘The Mannie’ should remain untouched as an important aspect of the history of Sutherland.  The Community Council does not endorse any protest or campaign to remove the monument.”  That made me wonder what survey they’d done of local residents’ views and how representative they were themselves of the local community.  Does it ‘belong’ just to Golspie or does it ‘belong’ to Sutherland?  Who should have a say?

Five years ago an online petition to remove the statue was set up by John Angus Morrison which attracted just 4,876 supporters.  I was not aware of any publicity round this at the time.  In the 1990s, a then Inverness councillor sought planning permission to remove the statue and replace it with a Celtic cross on the existing plinth.  Their offer of the statue to the Getty Museum was refused.

Online comments are interesting and varied.  It should be left as a focus for discussion;  if you “take away history”, nobody will ask questions; keep it there so we never forget;  it’s of its time;  it serves to remind of historical injustices;  it needs to be there in order to be remembered;  it should be replaced with something neutral;  interpretive panels should be put up nearby;  he’s revered or reviled by people in the area;  he’s widely regarded as Scotland’s own Josef Stalin.

Some local people want it to stay cause it’s a landmark but it could be easily changed into a different kind of landmark.  Others feel that if it gets demolished, it would remove a reminder of the Clearances but reminders of the Clearances are the empty straths of Sutherland and they’re also in museums, in books, in the Emigrants Monument in Helmsdale and in the souls of some of us here in Scotland, and overseas in the descendents of those who emigrated and of the native people who suffered when the oppressed became part of the oppressors.

You’ll also hear that the Duke of Sutherland was an improver; yes, he was adding to the family wealth but he also wanted to improve the conditions of his tenants and anyway it was his henchmen who did the bad stuff.  Well, some folk need to do more reading before they make up their minds.  As for “taking away history”, how is that even possible when it has already been recorded?

Some local people say they don’t want to “fan the flame” by getting involved in a removal campaign.  I’d never heard of Edward Colston before he went into Bristol harbour but I know him now!  Removing the statue from the Ben would create headlines round the world, especially among the Highland diaspora and it would certainly put Golspie on the map for all the right reasons.

In the Northern Times on 19 June, there was an article about Alan Grant, a “Dornoch art graduate” who had contacted the paper to suggest that the statue should be wrapped in plastic or fabric as a “mark of shame”.  He felt that taking it down would be a “hollow gesture” which would “serve only to remove a tangible reminder of historical wrongs”.  He went on to describe replacing the statue with a Celtic cross as “a bit childish“!  The wrapping however would make it “an anonymous reminder of what happened, not who did it”.

I shudder at the thought of the environmental implications of the plastic, shredded by the wind, blowing over the fields and the town and into the sea.  I also think we need to know “who did it” and taking down the statue would be a long-delayed sign of our collective disapproval and disavowal of his actions.  And no more strangers to the area would see the statue, read the inscription and believe that this was a man worthy of being commemorated.  It might also restore some pride to the Sutherlands if they are seen to be apologetic at last for one of the most shameful episodes in highland history.

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on ““If I go there will be trouble And if I stay it will be double”

  1. Pingback: Highland and Island connections with slavery – Splendid, Bella!

  2. Pingback: A mixter-maxter – Splendid, Bella!

  3. Pingback: Cauld kail het up – Splendid, Bella!

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