The Strathnaver Conference Day 3 - Of factors and emigration that shaped the land

15 September 2014
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This is the final instalment of a three part series on Land and People in the Northern Highlands: The Strathnaver Conference which was produced by The Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands, and took place in Bettyhill, Scotland from 4 to 6 September 2014. ...

This is the final instalment of a three part series on Land and People in the Northern Highlands: The Strathnaver Conference which was produced by The Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands, and took place in Bettyhill, Scotland from 4 to 6 September 2014.

A shivery, rainy morning with coats zipped, a delegate remarks to me how lucky we are to have experienced such a sunny autumn day yesterday during our excursion to historically significant sites on and near the Strathnaver Trail.

Here with academics from around the world for Land and People in the Northern Highlands: The Strathnaver Conference, which is supported by The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland in connection with Carnegie Trust Centenary Professorship, my fellow post-graduate students and I have spent the past two days surrounded by thought leaders, looking at the history of and current research on the County of Sutherland and Mackay Country.

Hanging my jacket on the back of the chair and feeling relief that the heat is turned on at the Bettyhill Village Hall, we dive right in to today’s proceedings with Dr. Annie Tindley from the University of Dundee. Her book, The Sutherland Estate, 1850-1920: aristocratic decline, estate management and land reform (Edinburgh University Press, 2010) is the jumping-off point for her presentation on Castle Government: The Psychologies of Land Ownership and Management in North Sutherland, c. 1860-1911. In this talk we begin to discover the profession of the factor and how estates were managed by them in post-Clearance Sutherland.


Dr Tindley tells us that factors were often the face of absent landowners and that they had 'nearly complete power' over the tenants. Not a profession chosen by those who desired a neighbourly invitation to tea, the career was a tough, but well-paid one that included accessing all areas of the estate in all weather to impose financial and social discipline on crofter tenants.

For a sense of scope, Dr Tindley reminds us that by 1861, the Sutherland estates covered over one million acres. (Just think about that on a shivery, rainy day with no heat available at the flick of a switch!) Strategically managing the divide between the poor crofters and the wealthy landowners, she shares that alcoholism and illness were major by-products of the occupation.

Firmly deciding that a factor I never shall be, I appreciate this glimpse into their profile as I am reminded of Carnegie Trust Centenary Professor Eric Richards’ encouragement yesterday to look for the ‘variations in experience’ within the Clearances narrative.


The value of unpacking, analysing and challenging historical narratives and long-held assumptions becomes crystal clear with the viewing of a film by Will Sadler. Completed in 2013 as part of his artist residency with the Strathnaver Museum, had I looked at A Part of Who We Are: The Story of MacKay Country’s Ceilidh Tradition before coming here I would have likely interpreted it as a short documentary on ceilidhs in the coastal village of Poulouriscaig.

But after an immersive two days learning from some of the top historians in Highlands and Islands research and seeing first-hand some of the sites connected to the Clearances, I instead see the film as a statement of the deep historical connection between the land and the local people that weaves itself in to the fabric of contemporary culture:

Finishing off the conference, we hear from Professor Marjory Harper (pictured), Chair in History at the University of Aberdeen, and award winning author, including the prestigious Saltire Society Award for the 2004 Scottish History Book of the Year and most recently the Frank Watson Book Prize winner for Scotland No More? The Scots who Left Scotland in the 20th Century (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2012).

With my post-graduate pen poised, I listen intently to her presentation called From the Northern Highlands to the 'Great White North': The Perception and Practice of Emigration from Sutherland and Caithness since 1774. Like her writing, each concept shared is jam-packed with a richness of thought.

Professor Harper asks a simple but key question regarding the history of emigration: why would people put themselves through such an ordeal and were they indeed passive victims of circumstance? She then shares her thoughts on variables that influenced migration and emigration as evidenced by her work in carefully analyzing the written and oral testimonies of the people involved.

We hear of strategic recruitment by tacksmen, widespread propaganda that 'polished the farm yard' of Canada, not a wheat sheaf out of place, and vocal opposition by countries receiving what they perceived to be 'the dregs' of Scotland.

And so concludes The Strathnaver Conference. Jacket zipped and walking to the car to start the journey down single track roads towards Inverness, I reflect on the past three days. I realize that I have had my assumptions challenged and my thinking has changed about who the people are in north western Scotland, what this land means to them and what those before them have experienced. It is not desolate, quiet and empty here. This place is alive. It always has been.

Read part one and two of Theresa Mackay'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.