Standing in Couper Park above the south side of the River Helmsdale and overlooking the village of Helmsdale and its harbour is the Emigrants Statue. The statue can be accessed by footpaths climbing from either of Helmsdale's bridges, or from the car park beside the Wee Cafe, next to the A9 immediately to the south of the more modern bridge.
The Emigrants Statue was unveiled by the Rt Hon Alex Salmond MSP, then First Minister of Scotland, on 23 July 2007. It was commissioned by Dennis MacLeod, who was born and brought up in Helmsdale before making his fortune in gold mining in South Africa.
The inscription on the monument, in Gaelic and English, reads: "The Emigrants commemorates the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland who, in the face of great adversity, sought freedom, hope and justice beyond these shores. They and their descendants went forth and explored continents, built great countries and cities and gave their enterprise and culture to the world. This is their legacy. Their voices will echo forever thro the empty straths and glens of their homeland."
The statue is the work of sculptor Gerald Laing. It depicts four figures. The kilted man is looking ahead into an unknown future, while beside him a boy is looking up to him for guidance or reassurance. The woman, wrapped in a shawl, is holding a baby and is looking back towards the home they have been forced to leave. In September 2008 a matching statue, known as the Selkirk Settlers Monument, was unveiled in Winnipeg, Canada.
The Emigrants Statue is describes as "a non-political national and international project". It provides a focus for the commemoration of the huge numbers of people evicted from their ancestral homes during the Highland Clearances, in an area where the impact of the clearances on the society and the landscape was both profound and irreversible. Many of those displaced by the clearances found their way to new homes elsewhere in Scotland or, very often, abroad, where they made new lives.
The Winnipeg connection stems from one small group of these displaced Highlanders. In the summer of 1813, over 100 people who had been evicted from their homes in this part of Sutherland some months earlier set sail for Canada. They spent their first winter enduring the bitter cold of Hudson Bay, before eventually settling in the Red River district of what is now Manitoba. There they helped establish what has since grown to become the city of Winnipeg.
The arrival of Highland emigrants like this these was a huge gain for the growing young nations of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and the presence of the Scottish diaspora around the world is a tremendous benefit to Scotland today. But the loss of so many Scots at the time is something it is difficult not to regret, and the impact on the individuals involved must have been devastating.
The Emigrants Statue succeeds in evoking the very mixed feelings produced by this complex story, and it is fitting is has been given such a fine and appropriate location.