Patrick Sellar’s Culmaily: a model of improvement - exclusive History Scotland extract


12 February 2020
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In this exclusive History Scotland extract, Duncan Simpson considers the record of land owner and notorious Clearances agent Patrick Sellar.

Even those historians who have ‘repeatedly put Patrick Sellar on trial’ to borrow a phrase from Ian Grimble, have conceded one aspect of his legacy, that he was ‘a great farmer.’

An important element of this reputation was his improvement of the extensive farm at Culmaily which was his first venture into farming, initially in partnership with Estate Commissioner William Young.

Leading historian of the clearances Eric Richards described ‘the stagnant lochs, the birch woods, the black peats which used to cover the land… transformed into the fine fields of Culmaily’ James Hunter described Sellar as a ‘consummate agriculturalist’ in his latest book on Sutherland, and Culmaily as ‘emblematic of what improvement could accomplish.’

An act of alchemy has been accepted by historians, even those who have characterised the wider transformation of the Sutherland estate as a failure. 

‘Objects of Wonder and Delight’

Shortly before Sellar’s death in 1851, estate commissioner James Loch wrote these lines to him:

Although these matters are objects of wonder and delight to us who saw it all otherwise, it is impossible to convey to strangers those feelings even if able to tell what was the condition of things before 1812. Who is the oldest man about the place who could tell me about Culmaily? 

The oldest man about the place who remembered the preceding state of affairs might well have had different feelings about the changes. Loch’s question is provoking. While he included himself amongst those ‘who saw it all otherwise’, his knowledge of the workings of the Estate could only have been that of a superficial observer prior to his active management role in the north commencing in 1816. His question implies a lack of knowledge, a need to find witnesses.

Furthermore, it implies that the estate’s record of the whereabouts and fortunes of the 352 people removed from Culmaily in 1812 was inadequate, or non-existent. That makes hollow Loch’s later claim that the ‘utmost caution and deliberation’ had been employed in order to ‘raise the importance and increase the happiness’ of those very people.

‘Zeal for the Improvement of the Country’

Early exchanges between then estate commissioner Young and the Staffords conjured a lofty ‘grand design’ of coastal development of industry in parallel with the development of sheep-walks in the interior. Culmaily was intended to be an industrial hub which demonstrated the possibilities for re-employing the people displaced from the interior. The land there was identified as having the richest potential on the estate.

What farming operations were planned were of the nature of a 'show farm', flax milling being the intended centrepiece. Young was to oversee these operations, with Sellar (pictured) his assistant.

reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) 4.0 International Licence,The two men were plainly at odds from quite an early stage in operations, though they still managed to combine to ruthless effect initially, swiftly disposing of the previous factor Cosmo Falconer. Ironically, given subsequent events it was the haste and lack of planning associated with the first clearances which gave them their opportunity.

The initial clearance of 300 people from Lairg in order to make way for Atkinson and Marshall’s sheep run saw them resettled hastily in ‘restricted situations’ in Upper Strathnaver, an area Sellar would later clear for the same purpose. Sellar lamented the misery he had witnessed in Upper Strathnaver to the Marchioness:

The inhabitants who formerly occupied the Extensive Sheep walks in the interior are Crammed, we understand, into hamlets there, without any new track being pointed out for their industry and wanting, we fear, the full Supply they formerly Enjoyed on their boundless pastures. Depression, debility, sloth, filth etc. are the consequence. 

Crocodile tears those, shed with the downfall of Cosmo Falconer in mind, and perhaps the dawning of an awareness of the value of those ‘boundless pastures.’ Falconer issued a stark warning about the self-serving nature of Patrick Sellar in the letter acknowledging his dismissal, contrasting his naked greed with Young’s ‘disinterested zeal for the Improvement of the Country.’

That zeal would result in Young’s dismissal in turn as the costs of those improvements spiralled out of control. Some of the poorly accounted extravagances which saw Young lose his position improved Sellar’s lot at Culmaily immensely. Substantial engineering accompanied the road-building project supervised by Thomas Telford in the district.

Copyright KiruaThe key factor in the success of the drainage schemes Sellar implemented were the construction of an embankment at Loch Lundy, and the massive works establishing ‘The Mound’, which greatly improved Morvich (pictured here).

The provisions of the government scheme which built the new road from the Mound covered the cost of enclosure and drainage along its length. This gifted Sellar’s later drainage schemes a uniquely strong underpinning.

The fine house at Morvich which became Sellar’s family home was built for the marquis of Stafford as an alternative to Dunrobin. Groundworks also accompanied that construction, and unspecified improvements were made to the fields surrounding Morvich. The estate funded the new farmhouse at Culmaily, and offices on both farms.

Despite the rapid progress of those buildings, the proposed cottages for the remnant of the population who were to be retained were not immediately constructed, due to ‘a lack of skilled labour in the county’. As the farm was on the approach to Dunrobin, the cottages had to be built to a high standard of facade. This focus on appearances was a prime motivation for the re-organisation of Culmaily, revealed in letters from the marchioness which tell of her satisfaction at seeing the black houses ploughed under. It seems likely that the cottages were not completed until 1815, when Loch referred to them as though they were a recent addition.

That suggests that the 30 people eventually settled at Culmaily were not selected from the original population who had resided there. Indeed, Sellar stated that his own preference was to have workers brought from outside, and his own 1820 account referred to the eighteen families he employed as ‘south coasters’ presumably from Moray. His son’s defence of Sellar to the Napier commission maintained that his father took some highland workers on, but only as the ‘second generation’ of his workforce, in comparatively junior positions. This again calls into question the stated principle aim of improving the lot of the people.

‘The condition of things before 1812’

There are two estate maps which portray the state of the land at Culmaily prior to Sellar and Young’s occupation. The first, made by John Kirk for the tutors to the young countess in 1771, served primarily as a sketch of the land which the new road replacing the existing high road above the farm traversed. While it depicts ‘wet marsh land’ north of the road, the majority of the farm was depicted as ploughed and enclosed arable.

The second was made by John Home, prior to his survey of Assynt in 1774. On it, the core 40 acres of Culmaily were all indicated as arable, with around twenty per cent of Sallachy to the south assessed to be ‘wet meadow grass’ or ‘natural woodland.’ The remaining eighty per cent of Sallachy’s lands are indicated as arable. The moor making up the bulk of what would become Sellar’s ‘fine fields’ south of the road is marked ‘may easily be improved into Corn Land’. John Henderson’s survey of 1807 also observed that ‘by draining the low ground between Culmailie and Drumay, a considerable tract might be made arable.’ 

The previous tenant of Culmaily was Colonel Alexander Sutherland, an elderly veteran who Francis Suther later described as ‘feebleminded’, mocking ‘the childish grief’ he displayed when meeting with people about to be evicted in Strath Brora. The colonel expressed the vain hope that he would be left alone amidst the ‘storm of improvements’, but when his sub-tenants were gone, he became the focus of attention. Sellar thwarted attempts by others within the estate structure to leave him in place, insisting that his forty acres was the key to the surrounding 260. The colonel was also tenant of Strathlundie, which does not appear to have interested Sellar initially.

He identified the neighbouring farmland of Morvich as the estates next target; ‘for the Ground is rich and fertile beyond expression, and it has carried oats and bere in succession beyond memory of man.’ During later negotiations when tenant of that same land, he insisted that a large part of that acreage was ‘unimproveable rocky pasture’. 

Read the article in full in the March/April 2020 issue of History Scotland, available in print and digital versions here.