The Ghost Stones of Boreraig

Route: Boreraig and Suisnish: the Cleared Coast

Date walked: 05/08/2016

Distance: 16.5km

It was a long walk along a narrow, frequently boggy path over empty moorland; here and there we passed solitary clumps of native trees, recently planted, clinging to otherwise bare hillsides. A lowering sky promised rain. We were trekking to a glen on the shore of Loch Eishort, a sea loch on the west coast of the Isle of Skye, our destination the empty villages of Boreraig and Suisnish. It was a circuit of 10½ miles and I had doubts about whether Owain, my 12-year old son, would be able to manage it, but I needn’t have worried, he was game.

When we eventually broke out of the hills and began a meandering descent to Boreraig, I saw my wife and son standing motionless on the path below me, looking intently at what appeared to be a heap of stones, but which I knew even from some distance away was the remains of a house. I reached for my camera but its case, attached to my belt, was empty; I’d dropped the sodding thing somewhere behind me but after a brief search I found it, resting undamaged on a tuft of heather. As I neared my family I saw they’d been staring at the ruins of a blackhouse (a traditional type of house common in the Highlands; built with double dry-stone walls packed with earth; roofed with wooden rafters and a thatch of turf and straw or reed). The oblong shape of the house, though much reduced in height, was still quite recognisable from the débris of the dry-stone courses of its low walls, built with flat stones of the local limestone. Ferns ringed it about, partially obscuring the threshold of the truncated doorway; a thicket of bracken filled up the hollow interior. My wife and son walked on, I tarried.

A traditional blackhouse had no gable end with a fireplace and chimney: instead a stone hearth occupied the centre of the packed earth floor and smoke from the cooking fire would curl up to a chimney hole cut in the thatch. In the gloom the fire was a source of light and warmth; the “keeping in” of the fire was so central to the lives of the deeply pious Gaels that a prayer would accompany the smooring of the fire, the placing of turfs over it at day’s end, so it could be rekindled from the glowing embers in the morning:

I smoor the fire tonight,
As Mary’s Son smoored.
Be it well with house and fire;
Be it well with all our household.
Who are on this floor? Peter and Paul.
Who are on watch tonight?
Light-white Mary and her Son.
Thus God’s voice taught,
And the Angel spoke:
The Angel at my house and door,
Until the clear day come tomorrow.

And in the morning a prayer, The Blessing of the Living, would be intoned as the fire was rekindled:
I will kindle my fire today in presence of the angels . . .
Without malice . . . or fear . . . of anyone under the sun,
But the Holy Son of God to shield me.

In the old crofting communities of the Highlands the hearth was the centre of life, and as the author David Craig points out, “It is no wonder that the words heart and hearth are so like each other . . .” It was the custom in small communities like Boreraig, where people were greatly dependent on mutual aid, to have at least one fire always burning somewhere in the township. But each spring the fire in each blackhouse was quelled as part of the ritual removal of the soot-begrimed thatch for use as fertiliser on the fields; by the time the last house had had its fire extinguished and its roof taken off the first one had been re-thatched and a fire freshly kindled in the hearth.
The landlord’s thugs always struck the first blow in the same spot: water would be poured through the chimney hole to extinguish the fire; choking smoke would quickly fill the small house and force its inhabitants outside in a state of great agitation. To seal the desecration of the only place where food could be cooked and cold bones warmed, one of the crew would find where the precious cow’s milk was kept, take it and hurl it over the hissing embers in the hearth. In the county of Sutherland in the far north of the Highlands such gangs were contemptuously referred to as “the fire brigade.” The nickname of one notorious bully in that neck of the woods, Donald Bannerman, was ‘Sgrios’, the Gaelic verb for destroy. The systematic extinguishing of the hearths in a township was a calculated refinement of cruelty whose purpose was to destroy the heart of the community. Scenes such as this took place all over the Highlands and islands of the Hebrides, barely a glen escaped, and they continued for nigh on a hundred years.

The evictions began in the protracted aftermath of the historic battle at Culloden Moor in 1745, a decisive fight which resulted in the collapse of the Jacobite army and the inglorious flight of its commander, Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, as he’s more widely known. The English parliament drafted into law draconian legislation whose sole purpose was the extirpation of the clans and the ruination of their chiefs. With a marauding army of occupation carrying out summary and public executions, the minds of the people were very focussed on the consequences of supporting the shattered Jacobite cause. Almost every aspect of Gaelic society and culture was proscribed: it was illegal to own a broadsword or carry concealed arms of any description; the wearing of plaid, the iconic tartan, was prohibited (unless you were prepared to take the king’s shilling and become a soldier of the Crown); and even speaking Gaelic, the language of the people, was forbidden. And because of its power to inspire clansmen in battle, the bagpipes were condemned as an instrument of war; caught blowing, a piper could expect a whipping with a cat o’ nine tails and a term of imprisonment. But the heaviest blow to fall was economic: the estates of the Jacobite lairds, with their valuable income from the rent-rolls, were forfeited to the Crown until such time as the chiefs were prepared to acknowledge the English king as their sovereign ruler. Under the sustained weight of civic and military oppression the familial relationship between the people (the word ‘clan’ derives from the Gaelic word for children, clann) and their chiefs suffered greatly; in just a few decades the kinship between the warlords and their warriors, a bond which had endured since time immemorial, was to disappear without trace.

When the old chiefs who’d fought at Culloden died off, their sons “developed into a class that forgot the Gaelic and agreed with the English that it was a barbarous tongue . . . [and] took wives from England and the Lowlands . . . [who] asked for more than homespun on their backs and stones for walls . . . “ Under pressure of spiralling debt and the necessity of supporting the expensive lifestyle of upper-class socialites they aspired to in Edinburgh, London or Paris, the chiefs became mere landlords, sank inexorably into debt and lost forever the wish to abide among their own people. Towards the end of the eighteenth century “three fifths of the Hebridean lairds . . . were already absentee landlords.” Impoverished chiefs began selling their land to people with no connection to or sympathy for the old ways; from the 1820s onwards “large tracts of clan land became available for sale on an unprecedented scale . . . most [of which] were forced by the threat or reality of financial disaster.”

Ownership of huge stretches of ancestral land and property, and the absolute power that devolved onto the new class of owner, was to lead to the emptying of villages and townships (small crofting communities) across all the counties of the Highlands and Islands: the farmers, crofters and cottars (landless labourers) who with their families had worked the land for generations were forced out of their homes, often very brutally, to make way for large scale sheep farms that could supply meat to the population of the new industrial cities of the south and wool for the looms in their factories. Displaced Highlanders derisively referred to the “the laird’s ‘four-footed clansmen.’” The unprecedented, mostly enforced depopulation of the Highlands, an area greater in size than European nations such as Belgium or Holland, was to become known as The Highland Clearances.
Two years before Lord McDonald sent in his agents to clear Boreraig of its people, the township could boast of 22 households, accounting for a hundred and twenty men, women and children. The census which records this information describes its occupants as crofters and agricultural labourers, some weavers, a fisherman and a carpenter. It had once been a thriving settlement, and even at a remove of 150 years it wasn’t a stretch to see how it could have been that; it is an idyllic spot, “a fertile glen, sheltered and south facing,” as a Wikipedia entry puts it, but there’s no road as such to Boreraig, and never has been, just a rough path winding over the hills from Suardal on the Broadford road. Nevertheless, even I could see how it would have been a decent place to live and raise a family, if you could feed yourself and your children, that is. Getting paid work or carting supplies would have been a chancy business even at the best of times; and the harsh winters would of necessity driven the able bodied to cities like Glasgow in search of work to pay Lord McDonald his rent. The collapsed remains of houses could be seen all over the hillsides and on the flat land near the shoreline, with crumbled lines of dry-stone dykes connecting the evocative heaps of stones that had once been homes. A herd of cattle were grazing as we ambled through the deserted township and it was all too easy to imagine life as it had been here, with the smoke from cooking fires swirling up and away in the wind, and the ould ones sitting in the sun with their shawls wrapped around them, chattering in the Gaelic and taking in whatever happened to be going on. I’d had glimpses of the ruins of blackhouses on Harris and Lewis, and on Barra and South Uist, from a distance and usually from a moving vehicle; but being up close, as I was here in this spectral place, was a different thing altogether.
The people living in Suisnish, Boreraig’s sister village, a few miles along a rocky coastal path, were cleared at the same time as Boreraig, in September 1853. The crofters had been warned in April that they were going to have to go but they refused to leave voluntarily. There was no gentle persuasion when the time set for the evictions came round: mothers and fathers, bewildered children and aged grandparents clutching whatever scant possessions could be rescued, were driven out of their homes by the Lord McDonald’s men. An enfeebled grandmother, Flora McDonald, who was caring for her widower son’s four children while he was away working in the south, had her house emptied of her effects and her door barred and padlocked. The children, all very young, managed to get their granny under shelter in a nearby sheep byre, where they lived a precarious existence for several months. When her son returned he had no choice but to stay in the byre with them: he suffered from the cold and the damp, and in the unsanitary conditions, with inadequate food and clothing, it wasn’t long before he died: “. . . laying with his head at the door, his black hair waving in the wind” until a coffin could be found for him.
The geologist, Sir Archibald Geikie, witnessed the exodus of some of the refugees from Suisnish as they were making their way to Broadford, a prosperous settlement on the east coast of the island:

"[A]s I was returning home from my ramble a strange wailing sound reached my ears at intervals on the breeze from the west. On gaining the top of one of the hills on the southside of the valley, I could see a long and motley procession winding along the road that led north from Suisnish. It halted at the point of the road opposite Kilbride, and their the lamentation became loud and long. As I drew nearer I could see that the minister with his wife and daughters had come out to meet the people and bid them all farewell. It was a miscellaneous gathering of at least three generations of crofters. There were old men and women, too feeble to walk, who were placed in carts; the younger members of the community on foot were carrying their bundles of clothes and household effects, while the children with looks of alarm, walked alongside. Everyone was in tears . . . When they set forth once more, a cry of grief went up to heaven, the long plaintive wail, like a funeral coronach [lamentation], was resumed and . . . the sound seemed to re-echo through the whole wide valley of the Strath in one prolonged note of desolation."

After banishment from Suisnish, some of the traumatised crofters and their families headed east along the cliff hugging coastal track to Boreraig, intending to reach Druim Fhearna at the head of Loch Eishort, where it was thought help might be found. They would have carried all their material possessions with them, competing for footholds on the path with yapping dogs and skittish cattle; mothers would have had to manage crying babies clinging to them in addition to the creels tied across their backs, and the old would have been struggling and stumbling and making their way as best as they could; and the men would have been hefting farm tools and the flaughter-spades they used for cutting peat, and foot ploughs; and spinning wheels. God knows how they managed it; and with it being late in the year most likely it was wet, and it would have been cold.

The Suisnish people couldn’t get even an oatcake or cup of tea from the distressed folk of Boreraig. No assistance was to be had from them: the township was in a state of alarm and disorder after Lord McDonald’s thugs — actually a body of police accompanying his Lordship’s Factor, a factotum who wore three official hats: Sheriff-officer, Ground-officer, and Inspector of the Poor — had completed the dirty business of evicting the families from their homes and land. Three of the township men who’d been with their cattle up in the hills had rushed down to see what was causing the commotion they could hear; they resisted their evictors and were clapped in irons by the constables and dragged to Portree, where they were charged with the crime of “deforcing” the constables, an offence defined as “The opposition given, or resistance made, to messengers or other officers, while they are employed in executing the law.” They were released on condition of a solemn promise to present themselves before the Court of Justiciary sitting in Inverness. They walked there, a distance of a hundred miles, penniless and assuredly hungry, and put themselves at the mercy of their lordships; an impassioned defence by a local solicitor urged the jury to return a verdict of Not Guilty, which they duly did.

When the three men returned to their families in Boreraig they laboured to put their houses back in order and got on with their lives. At the end of December, when the men happened to be away, the Inspector of the Poor returned and finished his work. The mother of one of the men, 81 years old, refused to leave her bed, which did not deter the Factor: she was dragged out into the snow on her blanket and her house locked and barred behind her. The remaining houses in the township were padlocked and boarded up and the people left in the snow to fend for themselves as best they could in the bitter winter.

Emptied of people, as Lord McDonald had wished, Boreraig and Suisnish were converted into a sheep farm, with 2,761 acres of hill grazing supplemented with the 183 acres of arable land that had fed the families who’d lived there.
I was walking about the ruins of the township and simultaneously keeping a weather eye on a bull in the middle of the small herd of cows grazing nearby. A doorway was getting my attention, specifically the lintel spanning the opening. I’ve fitted pre-fabricated steel-reinforced concrete door lintels, but the lintel I was looking at was a long, heavy looking piece of stone, flat on the underside, that must have been taken from somewhere hereabouts. Though my hearing and sight are deteriorating with age, I have hawk eyes when it comes to judging level and plumb and can spot when a vertical or horizontal line is off a degree. God knows how long the lintel had been in place — two centuries, more — yet the stones supporting it had not even begun to sink back into the earth. To make a fine adjustment to the plane of a concrete lintel during its installation, slivers of slate can be inserted as spacers beneath where it rests on the doorway jambs. I had a good look at the left and right jambs of the door opening, at how the stones had been stacked and fitted to each other to support the lintel in its level plane: despite the innumerable irregularities of shape and size, they formed a consummate jigsaw; the lintel was dead level. The search for stones to make a house like this, their selection and transportation, must have been a back breaking, time consuming business: the mason’s interminable scouring of the ground, each stone lifted from the earth or the loch shore, its shape turned and felt in his hand, before being dropped into a part filled barrow, or thrown aside; the pushing of the heavy, unwieldy barrow over uneven ground to the job site, its emptying, the return to the hillside or the loch, a journey repeated again and again again until a sufficient quantity of stones had been amassed to enable him to start work. Or perhaps it was a communal effort and the people of the township helped in the foraging and carting; I don’t know. The quality of the craftsmanship, still very present in this ruined house, is so arresting that, aesthetics aside, it manifests more than mere skill; this dry-stone construction was undertaken by a good person; bad people rarely produce fine, lasting work. An eyewitness to the evictions, Donald Ross, described the tenants of Suisinish and Boreraig as “. . . remarkable for their patience, loyalty, and general good conduct.” Good people then.

While I was lost in the masonry my wife called me to come and look at something. I was astonished by what I saw: house walls built up with flowing layers of flat stones held together with a binding middle course of large boulders to provide stability; without them the walls wouldn’t have stood for as long as they have done; they are stone anchors, in fact. We both agreed it was impressive craftsmanship. I discovered afterwards that this house, more extensive and constructed along different lines to the crofters’ simple blackhouse, had most likely been the home of a tenant farmer, but whether he too had fallen foul of Lord McDonald’s wish to have his land cleared of people, I don’t know.

I wanted to explore the disintegrated lines of stones I could see on the hill slopes; I thought they might be the old demarcating walls that set the boundaries of the crofts, but cloud banks had been threatening rain all morning and now it came; we had to go, there was still a long way to walk and there was no shelter to be had here. My family picked up the trail to Suisnish, but I lingered a little, reluctant to leave. The remains of the disappeared life I could see all around me, empty spaces impressed with remnants of windows and door openings, are clues to the atrocities that shredded the lives of the crofters of Boreraig. The lines and piles of stones etch the landscape like scars and remain as witness to the wickedness inflicted upon a hard-working people; but then they are also relics, and should be cherished as such because they hold the memory of what occurred in this melancholy glen.

Ugly, decaying black scarps overshadow sections of the coastal trail to Suisnish; even the brackish pools collecting the water spouting from the slabby rents and cracks in the rock face looks dirty. We carried only backpacks with our lunch and water flasks in them, two cameras, and an Ordnance Survey map, nothing else; it was a gloomy walk in foul weather and seemed to go on interminably, but eventually the track opened out and veered inland and dropped down on its approach to Suisnish. After climbing a wire fence and crossing a quagmire masquerading as a field we were able to get out of the rain into an open sided sheep shearing barn which, mercifully, was dry and didn’t smell at all bad. To the accompaniment of relentless hammering on the tin roof I drank a cup of hot tea and looked out beyond the curtains of raindrops dripping from the eaves of the shed. Somewhere up above us, on a ridge above the boggy ground, were the houses that had constituted the village of Suisnish, but from where we were situated I could see nothing beyond the sea mist drifting across the hill slopes. We were dry and content for the moment, but I’d lost all traction for more exploration. Nonetheless, refreshed after a well-earned lunch we packed our things away, donned rain gear and headed back out onto a Landrover track that led eventually to the tiny cove of Camus Malag, where a long feeder road cutting away from the loch brought us out at an asphalt B-road and a two-mile slog to where the car was parked. This junction is where Kilbride is marked on the Ordnance Survey map, but all that’s there are a few scattered houses; it’s not a community of any sort, but it is the place where the minister said goodbye to the Suisnish crofters; in due course we came to his church, now just a shell; the once populous district he ministered to has long since disappeared from the maps, victim to a declining population and the Clearances.

This stretch of Skye coastline suffered so many evictions it is commonly referred to as The Cleared Coast. Some of the people of Boreraig and Suisnish were subsumed in the great Scottish diaspora and emigrated to Australia; those who stayed were moved to other crofts on Skye, which were sub-divided to make room for them, and there, no doubt in much reduced circumstances, they fended for themselves as best they could.

The oral tradition has always been very strong in Gaelic culture and I think the narrative of the evictions from Boreraigand Suisnish must remain lodged in the memory of the crofters’ descendants. The story would have been told and re-told to antipodean children, and the grand-children and the great grand-children of the emigrants, and some who listened to the re-telling of the story I’m sure would have felt the pull of history and been tempted to make the long journey to see and feel the place from where their ancestors were uprooted.

Have things changed? No. Land ownership in Scotland has hardly altered at all since the Clearances. The Guardian newspaper describes the landlords of the extensive estates spread across the Highlands and islands of the Hebrides as “the most exclusive cadre of landowners in the developed world. More than half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people;” and according to the academic and land reformer, Jim Hunter, “this equates to "the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world."

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Alex Carr

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