Jim Hunter reflects on the 200 year anniversary of the trial of Patrick Sellar

Two hundred years ago, on 23 and 24 April 1816, Patrick Sellar was tried in the High Court, Inverness, on culpable homicide and other charges arising from clearances on the Sutherland Estate where Sellar was employed as factor by the estate’s owners, the Marquis and Marchioness of Stafford, later Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. This blog touches on the beginnings of the June 1814 evictions on Rhiloisk Farm in Strathnaver. The farm, named for one of the cleared townships it replaced, was being taken over by Sellar himself. The methods Sellar used, together with resulting deaths, were the basis of the High Court case against him – a case which ended in the Inverness jury (consisting mainly of substantial farmers, businessmen and lawyers) finding the factor not guilty. Most of the 200 or so long-established communities destroyed in the course of the Sutherland clearances have remained empty and unpopulated ever since.

It took just two or three days to do everything that had to be done to make sure that townships on Rhiloisk farm were left uninhabitable. During this period, Sellar had at his disposal about two dozen men. Some were sheriff-officers and constables. Others were his own employees. Of the latter, Sellar’s shepherds – most of them from the Scottish Borders or from England – were perhaps the most committed to ensuring that family after family was left homeless. Had Patrick Sellar failed to get sheep on to Rhiloisk, after all, his shepherds would have lost their jobs.

James MacKay, a tenant in Rhiloisk township, had actually moved out with his family before, as it was put by one of MacKay’s neighbours, ‘Mr Sellar and his party of hatchetmen’ arrived. His furniture, he explained, had been ‘left locked up in his dwelling house’ until such time as he was ready to move it. On getting back to Rhiloisk the day after the evicting party had passed through, however, James MacKay found ‘that his door had been broken open and smashed to pieces, and the whole of his furniture thrown out, broken and destroyed’. Nor was this all. The beams and rafters supporting the roofs of his house and barn and byre had been cut through exposing the buildings to the weather and making it impossible for MacKay to make any further use of scarce and valuable timber he had intended to incorporate into his new home.

Patrick Sellar, according at least to people who saw what happened at Rhiloisk, was in a hurry. ‘Mr Sellar’s usual cry … to his party,’ said Hugh Grant, was ‘to make haste [to] throw out … furniture and [to] knock down the houses’.

Seeing what was being done to other houses round about, Donald MacKay, described subsequently as ‘a feeble old man’ in his eighties, clambered up on to his home’s roof ‘with the aim,’ he commented, ‘of saving the timbers from being cut down and destroyed’. On his falling from the roof, he was, by his own account, so ‘severely hurt’ that he had to abandon his house to its fate.

At Rivigill, Rhifail and Rimsdale, events unfolded in much the same way, although not all of the houses were demolished. Those needed to accommodate shepherds were left intact with the former dwellers being compensated in cash but at for a sum far less than the true value of the homes.

Although comments from some of those affected survive, it is to words recorded nearly seventy years later that capture the sheer terror engendered among some of the people affected by what Patrick Sellar did in June 1814. Those words were spoken by Angus MacKay who grew up in pre-clearance Strathnaver and taken down in Bettyhill on Tuesday 24 July 1883 by a civil service clerk working for the six-man commission of enquiry Prime Minister William Gladstone had set up to look into the causes of crofter discontents that, here and there, had erupted into violence. There had been no such violence in Sutherland at this stage, but crofter grievances – many of them dating back to the clearances – were certainly not lacking and Bettyhill Free Church was ‘filled in every part’ that day. Donald MacKinnon, Professor of Celtic at Edinburgh University, asked Angus MacKay to tell the commission what he remembered of the day when, as a boy of eleven, he fled from Patrick Sellar.

MacKay did not say where exactly he spent his childhood, but his answers to MacKinnon’s questions show that he grew up in one of the riverside settlements on Rhiloisk farm. Angus’s father, mother and older brother left the farm very early to drive the family’s ‘cattle, sheep, a horse, two mares and two foals’ to the ‘uncultivated piece of ground’ to which they had been directed. Angus and his brothers, meanwhile, were left at home and asleep – their father, as Angus made clear when questioned, intending to be back in time to get him and his brothers up for breakfast. Well before their father’s return, however, the boys were roused by a neighbour shouting that Patrick Sellar and his evicting party had set to work nearby. ‘We got such a fright,’ Angus MacKay said of himself and his brothers, ‘that we started out of bed and ran down to the river, because there was a friend of ours living upon the other side, and we wished to go there for protection.’ Had he been alone, Angus might readily have forded the River Naver – despite its being, even in dry weather, both deep and fast-flowing. But he had his brothers with him, and the only way Angus could see to get the littlest of them – then just three – safely across was to carry him piggyback fashion. ‘The water was that deep,’ Angus MacKay went on, ‘that, when it came up upon his [the three-year old’s] back, he commenced crying and shaking himself upon my back, and I fell, and he gripped round about my neck, and I could not rise nor move. We were both greeting [sobbing], and took a fright that we would be drowned.’ Luckily, however, the two boys were glimpsed by a woman making her way ‘up the strath’ on the Langdale side. ‘She saw us,’ Angus MacKay said, ‘and jumped into the river and swept us out of it.’

You can find out more about these clearances and the people affected by them in Jim Hunter’s new book, Set Adrift Upon the World, which is available from Birlinn and on Kindle