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Sir Archibald Geikie witnessed a Highland clearance in Skye in 1854. Geikie became a distinguished Scottish geologist who made his reputation with work on the complicated and contentious geology of the east Highlands of Scotland in the late nineteenth century. In later life he wrote his autobiographical Scottish Reminiscences in which he looked back over his earliest career among the rocks of his native Skye, an island of great beauty and tragedy as well as scientific fascination and knowledge which gained him the attention and friendship of Hugh Miller, a pioneer geologist in the Highlands and challenging political figure.
Skye in the mid-century was pitched into radical economic change which broke into Geikie’s own wakening consciousness as a boy. In Kilbride an innocent and vulnerable community was about to be destroyed and Geikie was eyewitness to the infamous clearance at Suishnish in 1854 which, some sixty years after the events, he brilliantly recaptured.
It was odd that Geikie made no mention that Skye, like much of the western islands and Highlands, had been repeatedly ravaged by the potato famine during the previous seven years. Geikie’s vivid evocation of the Suishnish clearance was an eloquent and graphic testimony to the plight of a small community of peasants on the south-east corner of the island of Skye. It was a singular episode in a remote corner of the region. But it carried most of the main themes in the much wider history of the Highland clearances. Suishnish encapsulated the pathos of the clearances, the tragic end of a simple community in a stark and beautiful landscape overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It highlighted the problem of landlord bankruptcy and irresponsibility. It called attention to the unpreparedness and passivity of the people, to their subsequent emigration and to the general pathos of the event and its consequences. And Geikie clearly pointed the bone at the landlord’s agents, and at the influence of alien forces on this distant place and its fate. His silence on the condition of the people of Suishnish before the clearances invited his readers to assume that, before their dramatic eviction, they had been well-fed, contented and resilient.
In 1854 Suishnish was one of the last episodes in the long history of Highland clearances; it was also an example of small pre-industrial communities, which, across the world, have fallen beneath the implacable demands of economic development. The people of Suishnish stand, in symbolic form, for the rural past, which most of the modern world has lost.
Strathaird was a large estate in the south-west of Skye, thickly populated and desperately poor. It had been bought by Alexander Macalister, who decided to clear the land in 1850 for the purpose of sheep farming. The people, who were suffering badly from the continuing destruction of their blighted potato crops, numbered 620. Most were crofters and cottars, located mainly at Elgol and Keppoch. It was a comparatively large-scale, and therefore a potentially hazardous, clearance. The people were known to be in a state of turmoil and resistance to the announced intentions of the landlord. The scene was set for collision.
Knowing the disaffection amongst the Strathaird people, Sheriff Fraser of Portree decided to address them about the situation facing them and their landlord as well as the law which he himself represented. He wrote a long public statement. It was a careful and compassionate effort to make the best of a tragic choice. Addressing ‘My Friends’, Fraser told the people that the landlord of Strathaird was ‘firmly resolved to have the removing obtained against you carried into effect by ejectment’.
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