The Strathnaver Conference: Day 2 - Views of the Clearances

12 September 2014
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Part two of a three part series on The Strathnaver Conference which was produced by the University of the Highlands and Islands and took place in Bettyhill, Scotland from 4 to 6 September 2014. By Theresa Mackay. ...

Part two of a three part series on The Strathnaver Conference which was produced by the University of the Highlands and Islands and took place in Bettyhill, Scotland from 4 to 6 September 2014. By Theresa Mackay.

Coffee in hand and trying desperately to pass tables of books, most of which are either Highlands and Islands history best-sellers or short-runs only available otherwise through the local Strathnaver Museum, I curse the size of my rucksack. What post-graduate student travels thousands of miles to a conference arriving with little room in her bag to take home new books? That would be me, a traveling-light Mackay in Mackay Country’s An Bloran Odor – Bettyhill - here to spend three days with academics from around the world at Land and People in the Northern Highlands: The Strathnaver Conference. Squeezing my way past to find a seat, I am successful in resisting the book temptation, if only until coffee break.
Dr. Isobel MacPhail, lecturer at The Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), and well-known researcher in contemporary and historical representations of the Highlands, introduces us to today’s keynote speaker, Carnegie Trust Centenary Professor and Emeritus Professor of History Eric Richards from Flinders University in Australia. Dr. MacPhail tells us Professor Richards has been ‘generous, supportive and inspiring’ during his Professorship with the UHI Centre for History, who, under the leadership of Dr. David Worthington, has promoted the importance of an academic community and engagement within the region.

A towering figure, Professor Eric Richards' books are a part of any good historian's library yet his writing style is accessible enough for those whose interests are more knowledge-seeking than strictly academia. Precisely the reason why several years prior to having any interest in doing a Masters in Highlands and Islands history, I picked up his book The Highland Clearances; People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2008) at a local Highland games book stall. I had a bigger rucksack that day.


Starting his talk, Not the Highland Clearances: Other Responses to the Highland Crisis, Professor Richards begins to discuss alternative views of the Highland experience, offering a different Clearances narrative than the expected one of all landlords clearing people for sheep. Not denying that the Clearances had a dramatic effect and in fact ‘did dwarf all other aspects of change during the period,’ Professor Richards encourages us not to be satisfied with the known but to look for alternatives in our research, even when approaching the Big Narratives, such as the Clearances, that dominate the Highlands and Islands historical landscape.

As an example, he quotes the work done by Professor Robert Allen from the University of Oxford who makes the case that small producers were not a drag but rather had a positive impact on agricultural developments in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an argument that Professor Richards feels is also transferrable to Scotland.

He then discusses three examples where land was not cleared, but where experiments were conducted in population retention coupled with land improvements, still with the same Clearances end goal of making the landlords money. Calling the experiments a ‘rearrangement policy’ rather than a ‘clearing policy,’ we learn that some tests failed yet others prospered, despite landlords experiencing their tenants’ resistance to change. Professor Richards closes by encouraging us to look for the variations within the Clearances, non-Clearances and the Highlands experience.

This different tack seems the perfect segue into our viewing of the film A Northerly Land: A Walk in Strathnaver. Produced by Strathnaver Museum artists-in-residence, writer George Gunn, and musician Iain Copeland, as an elegy to eighteenth century Gaelic poet from Strathmore, Rob Donn, we sense that the land here may not be what we assume.

With the film still haunting us, we set out with long-time resident and Strathnaver Trail expert, Jim A. Johnston, for an ‘archive of the feet’ excursion, a phrase attributed to British historian Simon Schama who believes that in order for historians to truly understand a place, they must walk the ground that they study.

First up is a stop at Syre Church, a corrugated iron church built in 1891 by the Free Church of Scotland to serve those under the employment of the Sutherland Estates. Ominously, estate factor Patrick Sellar’s house is not far away. A short drive later we descend on the vast settlement of Rosal, the remains of a village that was cleared of people for sheep by Sellar in the early nineteenth century. Run-rigs, a communal farming system for sharing the land, can be seen on the hillside.

Finally, we land our feet in Baile na Gillean- Baligill- nearby Strathy, a coastal village that grew as a result of the Clearances. At the cliff’s edge we see the remains of northern industry in a meal, and later, woollen, mill circa 1800 and two circular limekilns built 1820-60.

Our boots muddy and one conference day remaining, we finish Day two with the landscape winding its way like lazy smoke into our soul.

Read part one and part three of Theresa's conference blog.


Theresa Mackay is Executive Director of the British Columbia Museums Association, the professional organization for museums in the province, owner of Larchgrove Marketing Group, named after her ancestral home in Glenlivet, and Associate Faculty at the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, Royal Roads University. She is an MLitt candidate in Highlands and Islands history with University of the Highlands and Islands and blogs about having Scotland in her soul at Theresa played a key role in the application to secure Craigflower Manor and Lands for the Victoria Highland Games Association.