‘Learning to love the marquis: A family story from clearance-era Sutherland’

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On 22 October 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Professor Jim Hunter (University of the Highlands and Islands) who discussed ‘Learning to love the marquis: A family story from clearance-era Sutherland’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

After an introduction by Dr Martin MacGregor, Prof. Hunter began his lecture by outlining his unashamedly narrative approach to the Sutherland clearances. As we shall see, this tactic was immensely fruitful. Quoting John Putnam Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive, he stated that ‘most of all I wanted to tell a story’. The majority of academic output on the Sutherland clearances has focused on the identity and character of the perpetrators, such as Patrick Sellar; the victims often remain anonymous. These victims need rescuing from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’.

On the 31 May 1821, a dozen men under the employ of the Marquis of Stafford, George Granville Leveson-Gower (remember that name!), came to Ascoilemore in Sutherland to evict Jessie Ross and her family. Jessie, twenty-seven, had two young daughters, the five-year old Elizabeth and three-year old Katherine, and a two-month old baby girl, Roberta. Ordered by sheriff officer Donald Bannerman to leave the premises, the unwell Jessie refused, which compelled one of the men, Stevenson, to force his way inside. Stevenson was almost certainly drunk, as the sheriff’s party had consumed ten bottles of whisky the night previous and three that very morning. He roughly picked up the baby girl in one arm and the baby’s wooden cradle in the other, and marched out of the house. On his way out, the baby’s head struck the door frame, and she began crying in alarm and pain. Stevenson left her outside the house in her cradle, sheltered from the harsh wind by a dyke (wall). A nearby friend of Jessie’s, Mary Murray, quieted the baby-girl by allowing her to suckle. Professor Hunter suggested that Stevenson’s inebriation was motivated by guilt and shame, due to his close friendship with Jessie Ross, one of the few fellow English speakers in the area.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth, the five-year old, was struck in the face with a heavy plank by Stevenson, and the three-year old, Katherine, suffering from the potentially fatal ‘whooping cough’ was shivering throughout the ordeal. Three weeks later, she died, and Jessie’s husband, Gordon, unavoidably absent during the eviction, argued that the ‘inhumane treatment’ of his family may well have caused her death.

This harrowing tale made clear the appalling conditions undergone by those evicted. In contrast to the typical image, the Ross family, as with many other families evicted, were not isolated, impoverished and in need of ‘saving’. Gordon Ross was the local schoolmaster and enjoyed a higher than average income (£15 a year), and both he and Jessie were bilingual (Gaelic and English) speakers.

Notified of their eviction in 1819, Gordon faced the prospect of losing both his home and his livelihood. He and his family were to be relocated to Helmsdale, a ‘dumping place’ for the recently evicted tenants of Sutherland. He lobbied for a teaching post at Helmsdale but was ultimately passed over in favour of a protegé of the Marquis of Stafford. Six days before the eviction, he set off to Edinburgh in order to lobby the SSPCK for another teaching post. Knowing that he would not return in time, he arranged for a legally binding document that stated the Ross family would leave their home only when he returned.

On the day, 31 May, the Ross family was initially spared, but the new beneficiary of their land, Gabriel Reid, demanded they be evicted like all the other tenants. In early July, Gordon Ross wrote a strongly worded letter to the Marquis of Stafford, sufficiently well-argued to compel Stafford to immediately return from a sojourn in Paris. Fearing a repeat of the bad publicity generated by Patrick Sellar’s trial, the Marquis organised a show trial of Gordon Ross, arranged by his close associate James Loch. The entire machinery of justice in Sutherland at this time was a subsidiary of the Staffords. Bannerman, the sheriff officer in charge of the eviction, painted a rosy picture of the 31 May, claiming there was no violence, his men were entirely sober, the day was ‘very hot’ and the children were ‘happily running about’.

Some brave souls spoke in favour of the Gordon’s case, like Jessie’s maid, however, Loch brought in his own witnesses to portray Gordon as a poacher and noted subversive who aimed to oppose evictions by violence. Drawing a neat parallel to the futility of fighting state justice in George Orwell’s 1984, Professor Hunter noted that Loch forced Gordon to recant his claims, after his wife Jessie stated his letter was ‘nonsense’. This new version of events claimed the Ross family were shown the ‘greatest care and kindness’. Professor Hunter pointed out that the bare minimum facts of the eviction left little room for this ‘kindness’.

Later, Gordon Ross’ health collapsed and he suffered some kind of breakdown: a churchman described him as ‘insane’. However, before this breakdown, he fathered another son with Jessie–their first son, George, died in infancy before the eviction. Ominously, this second son was named George Granville Leveson-Gower Ross, after the name of the Marquis. Professor Hunter noted that Gordon Ross may not have loved his dictator like Winston Smith did by the climax 1984, he at least learned to show ‘proper deference’ to the Marquis of Stafford. This proved a sad denouement to a harrowing, yet completely compelling lecture.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher) 

Our seminar series continues next week, 29 October, with Nicola Carty’s ‘The development of Gaelic language skills by adult learners’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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