'What I propose doing with the people? I say, nothing.' The richest commoner and his Barra tenants

09 August 2018
2-56926.png 'What I propose doing with the people? I say, nothing.' The richest commoner and his Barra tenants
An exclusive extract from Neil Bruce's research on the media storm which erupted when a group of Barra refugees arrived in Victorian Glasgow.

An exclusive extract from Neil Bruce's research on the media storm which erupted when a group of Barra refugees arrived in Victorian Glasgow.

Neil M. Bruce explores the reaction of the press to the appearance on the Scottish mainland of refugees from Barra, who arrived in 1850 in an effort to the escape the effects of potato famine and who found themselves at the centre of a complex and shifting media narrative.

In December 1850, a party of ‘Barra Highlanders’ appeared on the streets of Glasgow. Their arrival was the first reported instance of mainland Scots being confronted with significant numbers of impoverished Highlanders, who had been ‘ejected’ from their homeland. Their presence prompted discussion, reported in the press, about how best to deal with them.

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The press also discussed the responsibilities of their landlord, ‘the richest commoner in Scotland’, Colonel John Gordon of Cluny, and subsequently, reported wider deliberation about the condition of the Highlands and islands.

The 'richest commoner'

This article will consider how the ‘fourth estate’ reported and commented on the unfolding story, reflecting on the different perspectives of individual newspapers. It will also consider how some of those involved used the press to their own ends. In particular, the role of one journalist, Donald Ross, will be assessed, as will that of Cluny as proprietor of Barra, and in particular whether he saw himself as sufficiently wealthy and single-minded to be able to ignore the ‘court of public opinion’.

The press was well-versed in reporting the then prevalent Highland famine, its causes and consequences. Newspaper articles had considered the respective roles of landowners and relief agencies, as well as external perceptions of Highlanders.

Using contemporary reports, Kristina Fenyő has sorted Lowland perceptions of Highlanders into the categories of ‘contempt’, ‘sympathy’ and ‘romance’, often ‘running in parallel columns of the same newspaper’. She recognised that ‘by the early 1850s, however, a strong sense of giving up on the Highlanders and Highland improvement set in’. The arrival of the Barra Highlanders came at this pivotal time, and in its discussion this article will assess how well Fenyő’s categories reflected Lowland perceptions in this instance.

The Barra estate

Cluny bought the Barra estate in 1841, for £38,050, from the trustees of the sequestered 41stchief of clan MacNeil, General Roderick MacNeil, who had been trying to sell it since 1837 at an initial asking price of £65,000. Between 1838 and 1841, Cluny accumulated considerable acreage throughout the Western Isles, taking advantage of the low price of land to buy the estates of Benbecula, Bornish, Boisdale and South Uist for a total of £156,157 10s.  

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He invested capital in efforts to improve farming practices and develop fishing to sustain the population, while achieving a return for himself, which he calculated might be 4⅔ per cent per annum. However, one critical commentator, Thomas Mulock, described him as ‘quite a babe in pecuniary matters’ because he expected to increase rents by harvesting ‘the golden-egged goose’ of kelp, even though that market had waned since the end of the Napoleonic wars.  

Was Cluny responsible?

Cluny’s tardy response to his tenants’ destitution in the later 1840s brought him disapprobation from relief agencies, government and the press, though it was later acknowledged by government officials that he had ‘done more’ than many other proprietors. By 1847, Cluny was owed £14,500 rent, having had to almost halve rental values and pay out £8,000 in relief to support his tenants.

In 1848 and 1849, he supported emigration to Cape Breton as one answer to the ongoing famine. It is with this context in mind that when, in 1850, the press reported that ‘paupers from Barra’ had reached the mainland, Eric Richards says that the reaction evidenced ‘the extreme frustration which faced the improvement mentality in the… recalcitrant economy of the west Highlands and Islands’. 

The initial reaction

Initial press reaction to the Barra Highlanders was primarily sympathetic, though the first article reporting their arrival, in the Glasgow Herald on 9 December 1850, was titled ‘Threatened Pauper Invasion from the Highlands’. This was probably because the paper was recounting the discussion at the previous day’s meeting of the city’s parochial board, and its concerns about what to do with the arrivals.

Two related narratives flow through the reports of why they left Barra; survival, and compulsion by the proprietor. One article in the Northern Star and National Trades’ Journal said the ‘tales of misery and of distress which the people narrate are truly-heart-rending’. Previously ‘ejected from their houses’, the report continued, they had ‘evidently ran off from the island’, having been manhandled, threatened with imprisonment and soldiers, who would ‘cut them down like cabbages, or drive them over the rocks to the sea!’.

The report by the Dunoon correspondent of the Inverness Courier, syndicated in the Scotsman, reminded readers that they had predicted ‘the people of the Hebrides … impelled by hunger’ would start to migrate in numbers.  

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(aerial image copyright NASA)

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