James Loch's "Improvements" 1820: Apologia for the Clearances

From 1813, James Loch was the Chief Agent for the Sutherland Estates of the Marquis of Stafford.As such he oversaw the controversial clearances of the population from much of the interior of the county.

The Highland Clearances are an extremely sensitive issue, still arousing much anger, particularly amongst those living in the far north. I shall leave it to others better acquainted with the history to assess the various aspects of the issue, though it seems to me that for a very balanced account of what took place both in Sutherland and elsewhere in Scotland, Tom Devine's The Scottish Clearances should be compulsory reading for anyone interested.

Loch does spend a certain amount of the book seeking excuses for his actions in encouraging the population to leave the glens.  But the book does contain information that is of interest beyond the issue of the Clearances. To begin with, there is a fine fold-out map of the county at the front - and remember, this is a county that was not fully surveyed before the Burnet/Scott map commissioned by the Duke of Sutherland and published in 1833.

The map shows, amongst other things, the various sheep farms that then existed on the estate.

The Roads

Loch's book gives a large amount of information regarding the roads of Sutherland, and their improvements. At the start of the 19th century, the roads that connected the ferries at the Firths of Cromarty, Dornoch, Beauly and Lochfleet "were as rude and unformed as might have been expected, and were quite unfit for travelling. Beyond the Dornoch Firth, indeed, no such thing existed, so that the County of Sutherland was not only cut off from all intercourse with the neighbouring districts and the rest of the kingdom, but its interior means of communication was still more defective. Consisting as this county does almost entirely of one uninterrupted succession of wild mountain or deep morass, the intercourse between one district and another was confined exclusively, or nearly so, to the exertions of those who could travel on foot, and even this mode of communication, except to the natives who were brought up to such toil and exertion, was almost impractical....Few strangers were tempted to visit it."

It appears that the one road that did exist north of Inverness, which followed the east coast, was of a very rudimentary nature:  "The coast side road was ascertained by the greener appearance of the surface, and the course for a carriage to follow was marked out by tracing two narrow ruts along the ground. There was literally only one bridge in the county, that at Brora, which does not exceed the span of 24 feet.

Above, building a new bridge at Brora, and, below, the opening ceremony in 1929.

Loch writes about the problem of crossing the rivers. "...the runner who carries the letters to Assynt, or the messenger who is going to Tain for the doctor, to attend his dying friend, a distance of 60 miles, is often delayed for several days by the sudden rising of the waters."

Loch, of course, is keen to emphasise the contribution of the Duke of Sutherland to all the improvements that took place regarding the infrastructure at this time. He notes, for example, that the bridge at Bonar, "...though it forms the junction between the two counties of Ross and Sutherland, the whole of the moiety, not advanced by the public, was borne by the heritors of the latter county. " Referring to the structure of this famous bridge, designed by Telford, he describes the need for "an extensive embankment on the Ross-shire side, with two stone arches of FIFTY and SIXTY feet span respectively, and one iron arch of ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY feet span."

Bonar Bridge, the original design by Thoma Telford, taken from Thomson's "Traveller's Guide to Scotland", 9th edition, 1829.

Loch also describes improvements to the east coast road. The climb up the Ord of Caithness section, which had always been a challenge to travellers "terminating in a vast precipice, jutting into the sea" was a particularly tricky section. However, the new road "is constructed ....over the mountain with such skill, that the traveller is unconscious of the height to which he has ascended...."

                                                   Road Builders in Scotland. Two engravings by Paul Sandby, c.1750.

Travellers on a Road in Scotland. by Paul Sandby, c.1750. The man second from the right may be maintaining the road.

One of Telford's biggest projects in the far north was the building of the Mound causeway which crossed Loch Fleet SW of Golspie. A road was constructed on the built-up causeway, at the end of which was a stone bridge with sluicegates that controlled the flow of water into the River Fleet. The work was beneficial for the Duke of Sutherland as it allowed some of the land (some 400 acres) in this part to be reclaimed for agricultural use - it was in fact land farmed by the now-much-hated Patrick Sellar who was responsible for the most aggressive clearances in Strathnaver. The Duke contirbuted £1,000 towards the work on the Mound, though Loch notes that the project had not been a complete success. "The floods in the river, during the Spring months, are both more considerable and more frequent than was attended to or calculated upon. The consequence is that the waters of the river, when the tide is full, both covers a larger proportion of this space, and it remains longer under water than was expected. This is to some degree owing to the number of arches {in the Mound] being lessened from what Mr Telford originally intended, and was only agreed to by that gentleman in consequence of the local information which was laid before him and pressed upon his attention."

Loch also mentions that the Duke offered a further £600 towards the project  when the sea broke through after initial attempts had been made to hold it back. "Rushing through with considerable impetuosity, it destroyed a considerable portion of the work, and excavated a large chasm in the bed of the frith, thereby increasing materially the total expense of completing it."

Telford modified the Mound in 1833.

Loch's book also contains a number of architectural drawings of buildings erected by the Duke of Sutherland, including the Cottage and Farm worked by Sellar at Morvich.

Many of the landowners in the Highlands contributed generously towards the construction of the roads. Someimes, for example on the Dunrobin to Dornoch road, the poorer tenants were given the opportunity to pay off debts accrued in the past by joining the construction force. Once the important link from Lairg to Tongue had been started by Telford and his team, what Loch calls a "Bridle-way"was constructed from Altnaharra to Strathnaver, providing a "tolerable road....This road was particularly difficult to construct, arising from the numerous blocks of stones with which the sides of the mountains are covered." Another such road was planned between Altnaharra and Durness, for which Lord Reay was responsible, though the Duke of Sutherlnad contributed his share towards the early stages of the road which passed through his lands. Gradually these remote parts of the north-west were being opened up, though the much-needed road along the north coast, passing over the particularly boggy Moine, had to wait until the 1830s for construction.

The Duke contributed towards the cost of a mail diligence between Inverness and Thurso, which began service in July 1819. "The horses had to be brought in from Edinburgh." Stables were built at Golspie and Port Gower, and new Inns were erected along the route, at Golspie, Port Gower and Clashmore, the designs included in Loch's book:

The Inn at Port Gower, erected in 1813.                                                                  Clashmore Inn, erected 1819.

Golspie Inn, erected 1809.

A new inn was also erected at Bonar Bridge.

Having decided that Sutherland was suited to sheep farming, and noting that there were lots of fish in the sea, it was an obvious step to Loch "to convert the mountainous districts into sheep-walks, and to remove the inhabitants to the coasts."

Efforts were made to develop places like Helmsdale and Brora. At the former village, before 1814, "there was not a boat belonging to the place, except those employed in the salmon fishery." Work was begun to build "a complete curing yard, with sheds....to which a red-herring house has been added." Further yards and warehouses were then constructed, together with a good inn, and nine houses of stone and lime. Loch adds that "it is expected that twelve more will be undertaken." The harbour was improved in 1818 with a pier and breast-work after a report by the engineer John Rennie.

Loch's book contains this interesting plan of Helmsdale.

Brora Colliery and Brickworks. A photo on a postcard posted in 1906, almost certainly taken by G.W. Wilson.

Houses were also built at Brora in 1811, the intention being to encourage the cod and ling fishery. There was also coal at Brora, and an early railway was laid for transporting the coal from the pits to the harbour. Salt pans were also developed there, together with a tile and brick works, and lime kilns. A post office was established. There was boat building, with 20 boats constructed in 1818. The Inn  the Stafford Arms, was fitted up, and it appears that Lady Stafford helped set up a brewery in the town. A weekly packet, "Dunrobin Castle" plied regularly between Brora and Burghead.

The plan of Brora, and details from the plan, taken from Loch's book published in 1820. The pit railroad can be seen on the plan to the left.

Trades were set up in other towns on the east coast. For example, Golspie boasted a baker, a saddle and harness maker, and a shoemaker. But it was fishing that was the main industry that was encouraged. Loch mentions that a Dutchman, who "having been taken prisoner during the late war, was sent to Caithness, for the purpose of teaching the people to cure herrings after the Dutch fashion. Having married a native of the country, he preferred settling at Portgower." By 1820, Assynt had 78 boats, each requiring a 6-man crew, and Strathnaver, 22 boats, needing a 7-man crew. In Assynt, they caught mainly cod, going up to 15 miles off the coast in the summer. Strathnaver ventured only up to 4-5 miles off the coast, where they caught mainly cod and ling. The Duke offered three prizes of £20, £10, and £5 for the three most successful boats in each of the three districts; Strathnaver, Assynt and the Moray Firth.

There are other points worth drawing from Loch's text. Referring to an earlier time, he notes that "in proportion as the distance from the seat of government was more remote, the power of the crown diminished, while that of the Chief was augmented....we perceive the Earls of Sutherland and Caithness taking but little concern in the general turbulence of the kingdom." Calling it "a matter of deep regret" he thought it likely that Gaelic "will cease to be a living tongue upon the main land of Scotland."

He describes the typical houses in the glens as being "built of turf, dry from the most valuable portions of the mountainside. Their roof consusted of the same material, which was supported upon a rude wooden frame, constructed of crooked timber, taken from the natural woods belonging to the proprietor, and of moss fir dug from the peat bogs....they were placed lengthways, and sloping with the declination of the hill...in order that all the filth might flow from the habitation without further exertion upon the part of the owner." The smoke from the central fire covered "everything with a black glossy coat, and [produced] the most evident injury to the appearance and eyesight of those most exposed to its influence." There were holes in the floor wherein lay "whatever fluid happened to fall near it. It was impossible that it should ever be swept, and when the accumulation of filth rendered the place uninhabitable, another hut was erected in the vicinity." Loch is obviously painting as bleak a picture as possible of the dwellings from which the population was moved, and he adds the familiar complaint regarding the men: "a great proportion of their time, when not in the pursuit of game, or of illegal distillation, was spent in indolence and sloth....all the heavy labour was abandoned to the women who were employed, occasionally, even in dragging the harrow to cover the seed." However, it should be noted that many of the visitors from outside commented on all these tendencies, from poverty and dirt to indolence.

On matters of agriculture, Loch calls the winters "tedious and boisterous", and the springs "cold and ungenial." But even if the summers are short, "as the sun at this season has great power during the day, owing to the length of time it is above the horizon, and the heat being much increased by the intense reflection from the hills, a most rapid vegetation takes place, and the harvest upon the coast side is got in earlier than in a large proportion of Scotland." Potatoes he thought were not suited to "the mildews and early frosts of the mountains." Famine was widespread in 1812 - 1813, and again in 1816 - 1817, and the population was forced gather what they could from the shores. 

James Loch was clearly trying to paint a picture of care and generosity on the part of the Sutherland Estate. He states that at these times of famine, the Duke offered support of £3,000 to help those who had cattle, and £9,000 to aid those who did not. He also claims that "nothing can be more praiseworthy, or deserve more to be applauded, than the conduct of the people on quitting their original habitations: for although they left them with much regret, they did so in the most quiet, orderly and peaceable manner."

It is to be much regretted that in the later clearances, there was to be no such calm and orderly exit.