29 April 2022
Professor James Hunter, author of a book on the Sutherland Clearances, tells the story of the Clearances from the perspectives of some of the women involved. ...
They would be better dead, they said, than set adrift upon the world. But set adrift they were – their land made over to sheep farmers, their communities destroyed, their homes burned.
Such were the events explored in James Hunter’s book, Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances. In this exclusive article for History Scotland, Hunter underlines his determination to ensure that women (all too often excluded from older narratives) are given their proper place in the story he sets out to tell. That is why his book begins, he writes, with what happened to a woman by the name of Jessie Ross.
Jessie Ross’s life began to be taken apart at about 2pm on Thursday 31 May, 1821. That was when ten or a dozen men took possession of the Ross family home in the Sutherland community of Ascoilemore. Those men were there to evict this young mother, her two small daughters, aged five and three, and her two-month old baby girl. They were also there to empty the house of everything the Rosses owned.
Jessie’s baby, whose name was Roberta, had been born less than a year after another baby, a boy who did not live.
In just twenty months, then, Jessie Ross had been through two pregnancies, one of which had ended tragically. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t in good health.
This was of no concern to the men invading Jessie’s home. Their remit was to make way for the expansion of a nearby sheep farm by ridding Ascoilemore – in the middle part of Strathbrora – of its inhabitants. There was no possibility, then, of the evicting party letting anything or anyone, certainly not Jessie Ross and her children, get in their way.
The man in charge of proceedings, a sheriff-officer called Donald Bannerman, began by ordering out the two Ross girls, Elizabeth and Katherine. Their mother, however, refused to go with them. ‘She would not leave … until the whole furniture was off,’ it was afterwards explained. On Jessie Ross also refusing to help move the wooden cradle in which her baby was sleeping, one of the party, a shepherd called William Stevenson, picked it up – roughly and angrily it was said – in order to carry both cradle and baby outside.
Perhaps, as would be alleged, Stevenson was drunk – he and his colleagues having got through ten bottles of whisky the previous night and another three that morning. Or perhaps he was just clumsy. At all events, Stevenson somehow ran the cradle up against the Ross home’s door or doorframe. Two-month old Roberta, though not tumbled out, was shaken awake and began to cry in alarm. She was still in distress when her cradle was set down in such shelter as an exterior dyke or wall provided from a chill wind out of the north-east.
Although Ascoilemore’s other residents had been evicted the day before, there were still people in the vicinity – some of whom now came to the Rosses’ assistance. Among them was a woman called Mary Murray. Like Jessie Ross, she was a nursing mother and, doing something that would be thought unacceptable today – but which was standard practice then – Mary quietened Roberta’s cries, a bystander said, by ‘giving the child a suck’ at her own breast.
The older Ross children were not so easily comforted. Not long after the evicting party got to work, Elizabeth, the five-year-old, was struck in the face by a piece of planking thrown from inside the house – the culprit again being Stevenson. She too began to cry and, though her crying was said to have stopped after ‘quarter of an hour’, neither Elizabeth nor Katherine, her sister, could have been anything other than traumatised by what was happening to them. Both were reported to have ‘looked cold’ and to have been ‘trembling’ or shivering – their misery compounded by the fact that they had whooping cough.
Nowadays rare, whooping cough was once a common childhood illness.
Its symptoms – usually including a fever and the drawn-out cough from which the infection got its name – were always unpleasant, sometimes severe and occasionally fatal. What happened to the three-year old Katherine Ross some three weeks after the events of 31 May, then, might have happened anyway. But when Katherine died, it’s understandable that her father, Gordon Ross, unavoidably elsewhere when his wife and children were evicted, should have insisted that his daughter’s death resulted from what he called the ‘inhuman treatment’ she had experienced the day the Ross family’s home was taken from them.
Jessie Ross’s resistance to her and her children’s eviction – resistance encapsulated in Jessie’s refusal to help move her baby – was entirely passive. Other women, however, did not hesitate to engage in more active forms of protest. Hence the fate which overtook Sheriff-Officer Donald Bannerman when he and two colleagues, Alexander Ross and Alexander MacKenzie, attempted to serve eviction notices on people living in a place called Gruids.
To get to Gruids, the three men had taken the ferry that made regular crossings of the River Shin a little way downstream from the present-day village of Lairg. As they approached the Gruids bank, the ferryman, John Murray, well aware of who his passengers were and why they had made the long journey from Golspie, remarked – sarcastically – that a warm welcome doubtless awaited them.
Hearing this, all three asked to be returned to the opposite shore. Murray, however, declined to oblige. Left with no alternative but to disembark, Bannerman and his colleagues did so – only to see, as Bannerman put it, ‘a number of persons, mostly women armed with sticks and cudgels, making towards them’. Soon, said Bannerman, this crowd – about a hundred strong – ‘violently seized’ him. The ‘precepts of removing’, as the sheriff-officer called the documents he had hidden about his person, were quickly found. Then, while one or two of his assailants went to fetch (from a nearby home) an already burning piece of fuel that could be used to kindle a fire, the rest of the ‘mob’, young women to the fore, ‘stripped him naked ... threw him down, and bound his hands behind his back’.
A blaze was set alight and the eviction orders thrown on to it. Next Donald Bannerman, who had meanwhile been permitted by older women to get back into his ‘britches and stockings’, was again grabbed, lifted into the air and suspended over flames fierce enough to scorch him – ‘first on the back and then on the belly’. Together with Ross and MacKenzie, who had also been ‘laid hold’ of, Bannerman – amid shouted enquiries as to whether he ‘had said his prayers that morning’ – was next marched back to Murray’s ferryboat. Minutes later, the three captives, escorted by a number of their captors, had been returned to the River Shin’s Lairg shore.
There, Ross managed to escape. Running (as he may have thought) for his life, he found shelter in the home belonging to Lairg’s schoolmaster, bolting the house’s door behind him as he entered. Soon, however, Ross had been retaken – two girls having ‘broke[n] in through [a] window’ and opened the schoolmaster’s locked door from the inside.
Once Ross was back at the point where MacKenzie and Bannerman were being held, both he and MacKenzie appear to have had their freedom restored. Donald Bannerman’s ordeal, however, was not yet over. The exhausted sheriff-officer was once more ???felled ... to the ground’. Only after he had been left to lie there ‘for some time’ was he at last set on his feet and, and with hands still bound and most of his clothes bundled roughly round his neck, left to stumble off towards Golspie.
(Originally published 18 December 2015. Reviewed 30 April 2022)
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has written extensively about the north of Scotland and about the region’s worldwide diaspora. In the course of a varied career Hunter has been, among other things, director of the Scottish Crofters Union, chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise and an award-winning journalist.
Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances is published by Birlinn.
(top ruined croft image copyright Sarah Egan; croft image below copyright Dave Fergusson)