Am Bratach No. 241
November 2011

by Kevin Crowe
"The Man Who Went to Farr: Patrick Sellar and the Sutherland Experiment" by JG Leith, 2010, Baseline Research. £10.00.

Much has been written about the Strathnaver Clearances. From Macleod and Miller in the nineteenth century to Prebble, Grimble and Richards in the twentieth, as well as newspaper and magazine articles, official reports, songs and poems, fictional accounts, archived correspondence and biographies and autobiographies, there has been a wide variety of perspectives.

It is not hard to see why they remain such an emotive topic. Sellar had a clear conflict of interest, as an employee who helped clear land that he himself then worked. The methods used by Sellar and others, involving destroying homes and crops, were brutal, and led to Sellar being arrested and charged with culpable homicide which carried the death penalty. The manner in which Sellar was found not guilty proved controversial. The role of the Countess of Sutherland and her husband Lord Stafford (and 1st Duke of Sutherland) in the so-called "civilising" of the country caused anger in many quarters. Also, soldiers returning from fighting for King and Country often found their homes destroyed and their families dispersed. Imagine the outcry today if soldiers returning from Afghanistan were treated this way!

This latest addition to the literature has a different focus to much that has gone before. Macleod and Grimble were polemical; Prebble as a Marxist placed the Clearance in the context of the rise of capitalism; Richards wrote with the distance of an academic; Loch was an apologist for Lord Stafford; Napier was concerned with improving the lives of crofters and cottars.

In contrast, Leith provides an overview of the literature, quoting extensively from all the major sources and attempting to decipher what this tells us about the Clearances and the characters involved. However, very early in his book, he makes it clear where he stands: “The trial of Patrick Sellar was a charade. The verdict may well have been correct according to the law, but the event was stage managed to achieve that verdict. The witnesses for the prosecution were carefully selected to present a perception of untrustworthiness and to create confusion around their testimonies. The personal and character witnesses used by Sellar’s defence were all ‘upstanding’ gentlemen and therefore, ‘trustworthy’.”

He then goes on to explain the purpose of his book: “…a presentation of not just what was examined by the then High Court in Inverness…but also what was being said and often inferred by some who never received the opportunity to give evidence and some who were effectively precluded from giving evidence…there were others who knew many of the real truths, but either from fear of for favour remained silent.”

Despite attempts to stop due process, Sellar was brought to trial. However, it seems clear from the start justice would not be done. The arresting officer MacKid (Sheriff Substitute of Sutherlandshire), was not allowed to give evidence, after Defence Counsel objected. Of the forty prosecution witnesses, only eleven were called, most of whom had little or no English.

Particularly interesting is that the defence listed as one of its witnesses the stonemason Donald Macleod, the future author of “Gloomy Memories” and whose criticisms of the Clearances led to him having to emigrate. Leith describes this as “…something of a mystery as to why he was listed as a defence witness…” Given that he was never called to give evidence, is it beyond the bounds of possibility that listing him as a Defence witness was a way of ensuring his evidence wouldn’t be heard?

The presiding judge, Judge Pitmilly, proved less than objective when he asked the jury to compare the stature of Sellar’s character witnesses with “…that of the tinker and other prosecution witnesses in terms of likely trustworthiness.”

Those who took part in the Clearances had an equally prejudiced view of those who lived in Strathnaver. For example: “…had no ambition for any comfort or luxury beyond the sloth he then possessed.” Or this description of the Sutherland Estate policies: “A most benevolent action, to put these barbarous Highlanders where they could…advance in civilisation.” Or these words of Sellar: “The people are a parcel of beggars with no stock but cunning and laziness.” And “The Strathnaver people are very bad payers and seem totally inactive following the business of eating and drinking…” Finally: “…the Gaelic language and the Gaelic people would be extirpated root and branch from the Sutherland estate.”

Ironically, the “improvers” aim of increasing profitability ultimately failed, at great cost to the people and the environment.


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