(Birlinn, 2015); hbk; £25
The Sutherland Clearances continue to provoke controversy, particularly the notion of “Improvement” and the causes of migration, and there are inherent difficulties where most of the primary sources emanate from the Establishment. In Set Adrift Upon the World, Hunter, Emeritus Professor of History and former director of the Crofters’ Union, has delved into personal letters, press reports and emigration records to piece together narratives which reflect the agency and experiences not only of the powerful but also of the dispossessed.
He places nineteenth century Sutherland firmly in its global context – families cleared from their tenancies sailed to Canada and men signed up to fight in Ireland, France, South Africa and New Orleans when there was little alternative. We also hear how, in April 1815, Mt. Tambora in Indonesia erupted, showering dust and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere which in turn produced the global cooling which contributed to prolonged wet weather in Sutherland with concomitant harvest failures. Hunter weaves these stories in and out of the central narrative about the Clearances, revealing connections with all the intrigue and reveal of a tartan noir.
Nor does he shy away from some of the paradoxes of oppression and colonialism along the way – how many of those dispossessed families of Sutherland themselves became oppressors of the Métis and indigenous people in Canada: “the issue at stake in this Sutherland collision was the same as that posed by North America’s frontier fighting: which of two incompatible ways of life was to prevail?” Though the Earl of Selkirk, critic of the Sutherland family’s exploitation of their tenants, is often presented as a bit of a hero of the Clearances for giving the emigrants passage overseas, Hunter questions whether his encouragement of the settlement of Canada was positive.
The deviousness of the antagonists is also exposed – according to law, people could only be evicted at Whitsunday and with 40 days’ written notice and they had the right to harvest the crops which they had already sown. The infamous Sutherland land agent, Patrick Sellar, left dispossessed tenants’ crops in the ground but had their mills and threshing barns pulled down, in effect nullifying their right. Sellar’s defence in settling people near the coast on land so poor they would have to supplement their croft with fishing, was “‘because it surely was a most benevolent action to put these barbarous hordes into a position where they could better associate together, educate their children and advance in civilisation.’” His qualities are noted even by his employer, the Countess of Sutherland, who wrote to her husband, “The more I see and hear of Sellar […], the more I am convinced he is not fit to be trusted further than he is at present. He is so exceedingly greedy and harsh with the people.”
We get a real sense of the tenacity of the evicted tenants to pursue Sellar, despite having lost everything. They even crowdfunded a solicitor to ensure he faced trial in 1816 for causing the death of an elderly woman. However, as Hunter points out, judge and jury had too much in common with Sellar – to condemn him would have been to condemn “improvement”.
Hunter’s writing style is lively and, though it’s a weighty book, you can read it as a series of short stories and vignettes. Academics might miss rebuttal of alternative interpretations or a fuller analysis of pre-Clearance hardship and pressure on land which meant emigration was already underway before the nineteenth century. But, all things considered, this is a great read whether you know next to nothing or almost everything about the Sutherland Clearances.