"The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description, it required to be seen to be believed."
"A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition - whether in or out of the flames - I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins."
This could be a report of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s. But it's actually an account by Donald Macleod, a native of Rosal, of the first Strathnaver clearances in 1814, the "year of the burning". In all, as many as 15,000 people were cleared from the 1.5 million acre estates of the Countess of Sutherland and her husband, the Marquess of Stafford (later to become the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland), in the years 1811 to 1821: all to increase the income from the land by letting it to sheep farmers.
The clearances were undertaken by the Estate Factor, Patrick Sellar, who recorded a slightly different view of what happened: "Lord and Lady Stafford were pleased humanely to order the new arrangement of this country. That the interior should be possessed by Cheviot shepherds, and the people brought down to the coast and placed in lots of less than three acres, sufficient for the maintenance of an industrious family, pinched enough to cause them to turn their attention to the fishing. A most benevolent action, to put these barbarous Highlanders into a position where they could better associate together, apply themselves to industry, educate their children, and advance in civilisation."
As a result of his 1814 actions in Strathnaver and the death of the elderly Margaret MacKay, Patrick Sellar stood trial in April 1816 in Inverness on a range of charges including culpable homicide and fire raising. He was acquitted: clearly Sellar's view of the rights of "barbarous Highlanders" was shared by the judicial establishment of the day...
Strathnaver runs for some 17 miles, south along the River Naver from the north coast at Bettyhill, (which was founded by and named after the Countess of Sutherland to house some of those cleared from Strathnaver), then south west along Loch Naver to Altnaharra. Driving the single track "B" road that runs along it is a slightly spooky experience for anyone with a sense of history.
To make the most of a trip along Strathnaver you should first get hold of a copy of the Strathnaver Trail leaflet available free at tourist information centres in northern Scotland. This is tied to roadside markers and trails to 16 different historical sites stretching from the shores of Loch Naver in the south to Bettyhill itself in the north.
These sites range from cleared settlements, most famously the one at Rosal, but perhaps most strikingly the ruins at Grumbeg, whose burial ground commands dramatic views of the whole length of Loch Naver. Elsewhere on the trail, you find brochs, cairns, war memorials, the church at Syre, a stone circle and the site of the Battle of Dalharrold, where the Scots defeated the Norse in the 1100s.
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