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The Heatherly Loch and its Lost Souls

Actualizado: 20 de ago de 2020

"The Highland Clearances were a devestating part of the history of Scotland. For many it changed not only their way of life but also shaped the rural future of Scotland. Many villagers suffered at the hands of their landlords and tackmen and fought a desperate struggle to find a new life. Others managed to propser in a new life that never saw them return to Scotland again." (1)

Glen Quaich, Photo credit: Ruth Pringle, 2020

Walking the north side of Loch Freuchie ('Freuch': the heatherly loch) through Glen Quaich, you pass the remnants of a number of ruined settlements dating from when the Highland Clearances broke up families and communities across huge swathes of northern Scotland.

Few houses remain visible: as they were made from the land, it would have quickly reclaimed them. Each of the settlements you walk past once had around 10-15 crofts, built of stone, clay and wattle or thickly cut turf. The roofs were thatched in heather, broom, bracken, straw or rushes. Some would have also had also a mill. Each housed 10-15 families. Most of this development dates from the early 1800s - as a result of the first Marquess of Breadalbane moving Highlanders from his estate around Loch Tay in order to implement new farming and tenancy agreements (similar economic and agricultural change was becoming widespread across Europe). This first wave of displaced families did not remain in Glen Quaich for long. In the early 1800s, around three hundred crofters voluntarily left the glen to resettle in Canada. (2)

By the time John Campbell, second Marquis of Breadalbane succeeded to the Marquisate in 1834 the Breadalbane estates had been growing increasingly over populated for years. The land was unable to support the very large numbers of people, cattle, sheep, goats and horses scratching a living upon it and starvation was rife. Men had retuned home at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815) and the first Marquis of Breadalbane had divided land into plots to reward the veterans with: however well intentioned, these plots compounded the problem as they were each too small to support the number of people living off them. (2)

There was huge hardship and suffering and a succession of bad weather and harvests resulted in famine across the Highlands. It was argued by the ruling classes that as a kindness all Highlanders should be removed from their miserable existence and settled elsewhere: their motivation no doubt at least partly the desire to break up the militaristic and archaic Clan System which had facilitated the Jacobite Risings of the early part of the 18th century, and continued to threatened those in power. There was also the influence of persuasive, smooth-talking agents of ship-owners seeking new indentured servants to ferry to the rapidly expanding United States of America (3): selling dreams of landownership and bountiful harvests in the new lands for great personal profit.

In many ways, John Campbell, second Marquis of Breadalbane and owner of an estate of almost half a million acres in Perthshire and Argyll acted on the advice, globalism and industrial revolution of the age, but the legacy of his actions were (and are) devastating. Younger sons of Highlanders had always had to leave home to seek their fortune elsewhere - as the land simply could not support them: the awfulness of the Highland Clearances was removing an entire stock of people. (2) All across the Breadalbane Marquisate (as across huge swathes of the Highlands of Scotland), houses were burned, walls levelled and the fields turned into open moorland grazing for blackface sheep. (2)

"Next to go was the entire population of Glenquaich, a lovely heather clad glen running inland from Loch Tay to the hamlet of Amulree, and where over 500 people lived. The evictions were carried out before the houses were set alight". (2)

A Changed Landscape

Imported from The Borders, large numbers of sheep provided meat for the burgeoning cities of the south, wool for their factories - and initially great profit for land owners. (3)

By 1850, out of 3500 people on Loch Tayside only 100 were left (2)

By the 1900s, cheaper lamb produce was being imported from Australia and New Zealand and much of the estates across Scotland were divided and sold off to a new class of wealthy industrialists from the south, becoming vast sporting estates of grouse and deer (3): playgrounds for the super wealthy to visit - not necessarily even inhabit.

To give a sense of scale, UK wide, around 50 million artificially reared, non-native game birds are bred in captivity and released into the countryside to be shot: that's more than the combined biomass of every single wild bird in the British Isles: no one knows the exact figures as, incredibly, this is largely unregulated:

“The half-dozen native white-tailed eagles recently released on the Isle of Wight required mountains of paperwork. To throw out a few thousand non-native pheasants requires no paperwork at all. In fact, to throw out 47 million pheasants requires no paperwork at all. You don’t have to be much of an ecologist to think that might be a bit wrong.” (4)

Mark Avery, of the campaign group Wild Justice, 2019

"Figures suggest that almost one fifth of Scotland is given over to driven grouse shooting and yet if Scotland’s economy were the size of Ben Nevis this industry’s contribution would be the size of a small banjo".

Chris Packham, in a letter to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, 2020 (5)

Walking Glen Quaich you will see that Loch Freuchie is still within a huge area of blackface sheep moorland, stretching from Amurlee down the Sma' Glen. The southern side of the loch is also at least partly sporting estate mixed with some residential housing (as on this weekend in August, I must have seen a hundred of young pheasants).

Loch Freuchie in Glen Quaich, Photo credit: Ruth Pringle, 2020

When we use numbers and statistics to give a sense of scale, it's immediately depersonalising: we know this when listening to the figures of COVID-19 creeping ever higher. I'm trying to imagine a world without media, with rumours and offers of a better life abroad filtering through to communities desperate for survival. The injustice of being forced from your home by the feudal powers you paid to shelter you. Of spending a whole lifetime knowing one glen, then surviving a perilous journey, arriving (as an indentured servant) in a 'new world' of different weather, vegetation, politics and dangers. Loving Scotland in your heart, but never returning. Communities scattered. Cultures destroyed forever.

"After the Breadalbane evictions began in 1834 more and more families from central Perthshire began to emigrate . They left with great sadness. The story of Anne Menzies is typical. She was born at Shian, Glenquaich in 1839. Her father was a local school teacher who also had a small croft. Out of this he had to provide the Marquis with two cartloads of peat, so many skeins of wool, so many pounds of butter and cheese, and £16 rent every year. Anne's family were forced to emigrate in 1842 and sailed from Greenock on the Clyde. The voyage was long and stormy and the ship was three times blown back to the Irish coast. Every one on board did their own cooking and ate their own supplies. There was much sickness and many died. Cholera was the scourge on the emigrant ships and over 20,000 victims of the ship-borne disease lie buried at Grosse Island, Quebec." (2)

Loch Freuchie in Glen Quaich, Photo credit: Ruth Pringle, 2020

History is not closed and locked. The circumstances which shaped the present landscape around us are our our legacy, but it's unfinished and in no one final form. As ever, new forces of change are here.

The global COVID pandemic has brought more people into the Scottish countryside than before - as the whole of the British Isles finds new ways to holiday. There has been an increase in tourists leaving litter, faeces and tents behind them, burning trees, tangling wildlife in disposable plastic: it's quite rightly easy to condone. However, as I read on a post on Rewilding Scotland Facebook page, by Harley Mathieson, beware that this behaviour (and indeed this pandemic) becomes the latest excuse to close more of Scotland off from its own people (6).

At it is, the 'bucolic' Highland landscape is not only shaped by hunting estates - it is scarred by them. Empty hills are far from 'natural.' Indigenous wildlife suffers in competition and forced proximity (and is often persecuted for its proximity ) to game.

Glen Quaich, Photo credit: Ruth Pringle, 2020

Amid the search of a 'new normal', please let us make sure that our generation is not the next to be denied parts of Scotland, 'for its' or for 'our own good'. At one farm at the far end of the Glen Quiach is a sign reading, 'walkers welcome' (there were a few wild campers dotted around too). Thank you for both having and promoting this spirit!

Our landscape contains the story of its people - all those who lived on it and from it and fought for it. For so many reasons, now more than ever, we need to listen.

The Heatherly Loch, a short film by Ruth Pringle, which layers the sound of sheep with images of the ruined cottages of Glen Quaich, 2020

Slideshow of the walk around Loch Freuchie, Glen Quaich, Photo credits: Ruth Pringle, 2020

Many thanks to the many sources I have used here - in particular to CaledonCol, for all the historical research and context on the settlements at Glen Quaich: he provides much more brilliant detail on this subject and many more on his blog.

About us

Blue Noun English Language School is currently closed. In the meantime we're learning about our fabulous region Strathearn in order to share information and places with our international visitors. We publish a blog to promote Strathearn as a great destination to visit, to give our language learners something to read - and to show who we are/what we're all about.

Live language learning!

1: highlandclearances.blogspot.com

2 CaledonCol

3: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/scotland_clearances_01.shtml

4 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/12/defra-review-release-game-birds-legal-threat

5: https://www.thecanary.co/opinion/2020/07/30/as-chris-packham-launches-a-stinging-letter-at-nicola-sturgeon-this-eagles-death-has-to-be-the-last/

6: Rewilding Scotland Facebook page, by Harley Mathieson

Rewilding Scotland Facebook page post, 13th August, 2020

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