By 1994, five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many communist ‘hate figures’ had their statues demolished, some smashed to pieces, other re-erected in memorial gardens. In Scotland, for a decade, Highland Heritage Educational Trust had been campaigning to ‘keep the people’s history in the public eye’. This included publishing the Highland Clearances Trail to counter the history fed to generations of the view from the castle and factors’ windows. Two of our old campaigners Sandy Lindsay and Peter Findlay hit on a ploy. They applied for outline planning permission to remove the Duke of Sutherland’s statue from Ben Bhraggie which overlooked the ancient ducal seat at Dunrobin.
The Duke’s stony stare over the Moray Firth turns its back to the county from which thousands of Gaelic speaking, indigenous people were cleared to install sheep ranches. This improvement would accrue vastly increased estate revenues. ‘Golspie’s lordly stone’ was described in a more recent popular song Grannies Heilan’ Hame. It had been claimed, at the time of the monument’s completion in 1838, to be the largest portrait statue in Europe. For 150 years its place in the local landscape earned the sobriquet ‘The Mannie’ by the residents of Golspie and around. As time passed its prominent position atop Ben Bhraggie became a local fixture.
But an upswell of social history in the 1960s amplified a darker tale. Youngsters in north-west Sutherland and their crofting families recalled how their forebears had been ejected from the fertile inland straths to patches of heather to break in as crofts on the rugged coasts. Such gloomy memories were written up by the exiled Donald Macleod, who had witnessed the Rossal Clearance in 1813. Folk memories prompted a wave of support to topple the stone Duke when Lindsay and Findlay announced their plans in October 1994. In fact, the publicity provoked a worldwide clamour for removal and a trenchant debate that lasted far beyond the rejection by the Sutherland divisional planning committee of the plan in March 1996.
Highland Heritage members set up a specific group ‘The Book of Ben Bhraggie’ to gather signatures and funds for the demolition. Talk of blowing it up or dragging it down with ropes was pub talk for years. On seeing the ten metre white stone statue on top of a massive twenty mete red sandstone, plinth, they baulked. Recently persons unknown had cut the lightning conductor and from time to time a police presence was evident on the four hundred metre hill.
Lindsay and Findlay envisaged the statue’s careful removal and its re-erection in the formal gardens of Dunrobin Castle. They saw it replaced by a Celtic cross to symbolise a peaceful resolution. Three years later, An Lanntair museum in Stornoway curated an exhibition ‘MacTotem’ where thirty artists made ‘amendments, interferences, interventions and ideas’ around the infamous statue. One proposal placed a cage round his head, another replaced the head with that of a sheep (see above, image by David Hutchison). A friend of mine locally suggested placing a noose round its neck and holding that aloft by a helium balloon.
The truly lasting solution was proposed by Dennis MacLeod, a successful mining engineer, recently returned to Scotland after decades to live at Skatwell in Strathconon near Dingwall. Dennis had been born on a croft at Marrel by Helmsdale, of a family whose ancestors had been cleared from the Strath of Kildonan. A fortnight before entering the debate, on 18th October 1994 a large party of supporters of the Book of Ben Bhraggie climbed the hill and taped planning notices on the statue’s plinth. Dennis argued that it would be better to erect a new statue to those who suffered clearances featuring ‘a Highlander looking out to sea with his wife behind, looking back to the strath from which they had been cleared, with their two bairns at their side’. He also suggested a clearances museum with lists of those evicted, gathering records from around the world to make a huge archive. One outraged reaction was this was a waste of money, others were enthused at the prospect, offering their own ideas.
No one would deter the millionaire from choosing how to spend his money. He had previously funded clearances exhibits at the Timespan Museum in Helmsdale. His heritage included as a schoolboy running up Ben Bhraggie twice a week from Golspie High School. He had the means and the will to succeed. Circumstances led Dennis to commission sculptor Gerald Laing to create the new Emigrant’s statue. One was unveiled at Helmsdale in July 2007 by the then First Minister, Alex Salmond and the twin was unveiled in the following year in Winnipeg where cleared Kildonan folk had settled in the Red River Valley. Dennis, who had left the Highlands for health and family reasons, endowed the chair of history in the new department of the University of the Highlands and Islands based at Dornoch, in sight of the Duke’s statue. This led to the UHI appointing Jim Hunter as its first history professor. Jim’s series of books on the Clearances and the people’s fightback are central to modern scholarship which countered the establishment views that dominated the academic histories of the Highlands by the likes of TC Smout, Rosalind Mitchison and Phillip Gaskell. These had been standard texts when I entered university in 1968.
The ancient Earldom of Sutherland experienced the shock doctrine of improvement around 1810. For decades previously plans laid by the Countess envisaged greater rents to be extracted from tenants through sheep farming, which was then deemed compatible with existing local communities. Her marriage in 1785 to an English aristocrat, George Granville Leveson Gower changed everything. ‘The alliance of Lady Sutherland with the Stafford family brought together an exotic combination of Highland acres and English industrial wealth,’ wrote Eric Richards, the premier historian of Sutherland family. Gower had been in government, as joint postmaster general alongside Henry Dundas, the war minister. He had inherited wealth from huge farming estates and then canals and railway development in Midland England.
While no direct link is obvious between the Duke of Sutherland and slavery, the impact of his agents and sheep tenants led by Moray businessmen William Young and Patrick Sellar brought about the violent dispossession of Gaelic speaking natives.
There are now copious records of Highland lairds’ part in West Indian slave plantations, some from before the British Empire in 1707 in Dutch Suriname. Others directly invested their profits in sheep ranching which led to the eviction of local people here.
My home place, the village of Evanton in Easter Ross, reveals the local inheritance of both the slave trade and of the clearances. Street names celebrated slave plantations connections to Jamaica and Grenada while the same records show slaves given names local place names like Kiltearn, Foulis and Fyrish. In the 1880s Major Randall Jackson purchased nearby Swordale, Clare and Strath Skiach. In return for vacant possession to create a deer forest, he employed those dispossessed as servants and estate workers. On being elected to the new Ross-shire County Council he laid out allotments near the village for the remnants of an ancient civilisation which had populated the strath for millennia. Additionally, Jackson generously endowed the Diamond Jubilee Hall in which his portrait hangs to this day. The details of his part in the clearances of the Strath Skiach are not forgotten.
How we approach the education, the interpretation and the legacy of these slave owners and clearing lairds is a vital debate to rebalance our citizen’s knowledge of their country. I required to correct a letter writer from Golspie this week to The National. The writer stated that Sandy Lindsay has applied to demolish the Duke’s statue and break it into pieces and scatter them on the hillside. In fact, it was Neal Ascherson who wrote in his column in the Independent on Sunday on 9th October 1994 under a headline ‘Blow up the Duke of Sutherland but leave his limbs among the heather’. He argued, “I would blow him up, not just as a statement about the Clearances but as a gesture about ‘Heritage’, for the Duke’s removal is a reminder that Heritage, after all, is not just a dry schedule of monuments. It is a ceaseless rolling judgement by a people on its past.”
Black lives matters, repopulating the Clearance lands matter, we must get these tasks in hand.
Rob Gibson, Toppling the Duke – Outrage on Ben Bhraggie? Highland Heritage Educational Trust, 1996 and Strath Skiach, the Hawthorn Valley, Clan Munro Magazine no.26, 2012
Eric Richards, Patrick Sellar and the Highland Clearances, Edinburgh University Press, 1999
James Loch, Esc.MP, Memoir of the First Duke of Sutherland KG, printed, not published, 1834
Rosh with Adrian Clark, Evanton – Built on Slavery? Facebook 9th June 2020
Prof. David Worthington, The Highland slave owners in 17th Century South America UHI Centre for History.