The Cheviot

Highland Clearances

People were forced to leave their land. Many moved to find work and somewhere else to live. Some moved to new coastal towns and others opted to leave Scotland in search of a new life elsewhere.

Many who faced eviction attempted to resist the plans but were eventually driven out by the violent landlords. These narratives of resistance by the common folk are documented with some poignancy throughout The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

The play begins in Strathnaver 1813. The figure of the Young Highlander explains:

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it was no easy time to be alive in. Sir John Sinclair of Caithness had invented the Great Sheep; that is to say, he had introduced the Cheviot to the North.

Located in Sutherland, the village of Strathnaver stands as an example of some of the worst treatment of Highland people during the Clearances.

Sutherland

One of the most notorious figures of the Clearances is the Countess of Sutherland. By the 1820s she owned two thirds of the county of Sutherland. Some estate records show that as many as 2000 families were evicted from her estate.

The lawyer, Patrick Sellar, was hired in 1809 as the Duke of Sutherland’s factor, tasked with the acquisition of land and with overseeing the subsequent evictions.

In their first dialogue in the play, Sellar and Loch negotiate the sale of the land from under the feet of those currently living and working on it. The men paint the Highlanders with very broad and general brushstrokes. According to Sellar:

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the common people of Sutherland are a parcel of beggars with no stock, but cunning and lazy

Loch describes them as living in a form of slavery to their own indolence. Attitudes like this allowed landowners to justify their actions.

The various readings drawn from factual accounts, to be selected […] according to where the show is being done, provide a powerful and forceful counter-argument to Sellar’s claim that the clearance of people from the land was a process of improvement. For example we are told that in Kildonan, Sutherland, nearly 2,000 souls were […] burned out, whilst in Ardnamurchan:

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a half-witted woman who flatly refused to flit was locked in her cottage […] It was not until her slender store of food was exhausted that she ceased to argue […] and decided to capitulate.

There was very little justice for Highlanders driven from their land. Patrick Sellar was charged with culpable homicide, but acquitted on the basis that there was very little evidence of his involvement.

The injustice of Sellar’s acquittal is reinforced in the play through a combination of powerful dialogue, readings from factual accounts and the ‘kangaroo court’ scene in which the judicial system is held up as failing those it is supposed to serve and protect.