[Fiction based on historical facts. My ancestors received no apology nor did they receive any compensation for the treatment described here. N.H.]
County Ross, Scotland, 1845.
GREAT WHITE GALLEONS SCUDDED across the sky from west of Kintyre and disappeared beyond Loch Ness. Occasional showers dampened the heather but the interrupted sunshine was enough to bring an orange tint to the distant hillsides. A golden eagle circled high above the glens and watched a solitary figure striding down behind a flock of sheep. The figure was mainly red and dark blue with hints of green and yellow. The moving white flock of sheep flowed over the green of the grass, randomly changing shape and blotting out the green as it passed over. Two black and white dogs escorted and harried the sheep onwards. They were on their way home and they were keen to get there after two months away with their master in the far northern pastures.
Closer inspection of the lone figure would reveal a very tall, red-bearded man of perhaps 35 years of age. He carried a long pole over one shoulder on the end of which was a goat-hide sack containing the few articles he needed to survive alone in the summer wilderness. His name was Euan MacPherson. But he was generally known as Big Red MacPherson. He knew this path well. He had trod it twice a year since 1825 when his father had first entrusted him to take the family’s flock to the summer feeding grounds in the northern hills, far away from their common lands and up so high that only in mid-summer could man or beast survive a single night in the open. These high pastures came alive for two glorious months and somehow Nature blessed the pasture with a special abundance of nutrients resulting in more new wool per head of sheep than the whole of the remainder of the year.
He was as keen as his dogs to get home. Home to his wife and family and the relative comforts of their cottage, and the kinship of his fellowmen. He wondered how young Davey had got on with looking after the barley crop and whether the harvest had been a good one. That reminded him of something else he looked forward to. A few wee drams of his best whisky! Many similar thoughts crowded each other in his mind but this year was different in that another issue was hovering on the outskirts. One that he knew would not go away. One that had to be dealt with. But dealt with wisely for the sake of his family. If it had been just him and his life at stake he knew full well how he would have dealt with it. He fingered the dagger in his belt and suddenly grasped the handle as if to pull it out. Why bother with life if all that he knew and treasured was to be taken away? Why stop to quibble with laws and reason if 500 years of tradition was about to be destroyed? Would his grandfather have allowed such a thing? These were some of the thoughts that occupied his mind as he strode on down the glen.
The life he led encouraged thinking but did not encourage talking. Heaven knew there was little point in talking to the sheep. And while dogs could be relied on to understand his commands and perhaps a sentiment or two they were not exactly talking companions. Spoken argument was not his forte. He knew himself well and understood these things about himself. Action was his mainstream. Especially now that the lonely summer months were past. He knew that he could be impulsive at times and as his thoughts continued to revolve he realised again that he would, for the sake of his family, need to curb his impulsive side and tread wisely.
At last he reached the edge of his home glen and looked down at the collection of cottages huddled together as if for companionship. Indeed this was part of the reason as there was nothing else in the glen except for some tilled ground for crops and yards for the sheep. Big Red, like most of his generation had been born in a cottage just like the one he was now striding towards. Built mainly of large clumps of earth or sods, the walls provided insulation even from the harsh highland weather. The roof was also mainly constructed from sods but laid down over precious roof beams culled from the ancient trees of long-gone forests. As he approached, the call went out that Red was back and a group of men and women gathered and waited for him. He had expected a little more enthusiasm! Why was everyone just standing and waiting rather than running to greet him as on other occasions? And where was his wife?
It soon became apparent from their expressions that something bad had happened and it was not long before he had heard the whole story from old Dugald. The jist of it was that the day they had dreaded was almost upon them. Old Dugald, as the representative of the clan, had been served with an eviction notice that legally affected the whole village. Poor old Dugald felt that he had betrayed his kith by being duped into accepting the notice. The others had tried to assure him that it was only a matter of time until it would have happened somehow. They had already watched neighbouring clans suffer the same fate. This had made them very aware of what was at stake. They had seen what happened when an eviction notice was enforced. The law had no sympathy for the old or weak or poor. Bedridden old folk were carried outside into the open. The meagre, but still precious, furnishings were tossed out onto the ground. And those ancient roof beams were burnt to prevent any possibility of re-use.
Big Red handed over the task of yarding the sheep to his son and grimly walked to his cottage where he found his wife waiting inside, seated at her spinning wheel. She looked up and he knew at once, from her expression, that this was not going to be easy.
“Dinna I tell ye? Dinna I tell ye? It’ll come while ye’re awa. Ye coulda stopped it! Ye had to go didn’t ye! What’ll happen to Grannie now? What’ll we do?” Then suddenly, her anger spent on her wordless Euan, she threw herself into his arms and wept bitterly.
AND SO IT HAPPENED that another remnant of the once great MacPherson clan, whose lands had been confiscated after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, were evicted by their absentee landlord for the sake of the wool trade and the prospect of greater profits from large sheep runs managed in the modern fashion.
In the case of Euan MacPherson and his family the authorities had decided to modify their earlier approach to eviction, which had been to re-locate the families to the seaside to work in the kelp industry. This industry was showing signs of weakness and also there was much criticism in London of the methods being used to clear the land for sheep runs. So now the families were offered paid passage to Canada or Australia. This news was received with mixed feelings by the villagers.
“God knows I’m no fisherman” said old Dugald. “But I’d rather die of that fate in my own country than go off to some God-forsaken wilderness at my age and start all over again from nothing.”
Some others, Euan included, thought it was better for the young ones to go to a new country where land was plentiful, where settlers were welcomed, and the future was in their hands to make of it what they could. It surely could not be worse than labouring in the factories of Glasgow or elsewhere.
DEAR OLD GRANNIE started the journey to Greenock with them. They had been instructed that they would be found steerage passage on board a ship to Nova Scotia within a month. She put on a brave face and turned away from the cottage that had been her home since her daughter’s marriage to Euan fifteen years ago. As they travelled slowly along the rutted dirt tracks she gazed steadily at the road ahead and fondly at the green slopes of the glens that they passed through. But sadly within a few days the cold wind set off her cough again and she developed a fever. Grannie kept her thoughts to herself but she knew in her heart why the fever had come upon her. Her Lord was calling her to Him. Her life had served its purpose. From hereon she would be an impossible burden to her loved ones and with every minute that passed she was being taken further away from the place of her birth, from everything she knew that had meant anything to her in her long life. She quietly refused any of the meagre nourishment that her daughter managed to scrounge and only squeezed her hand when the daughter started to scold her for refusing to eat. So it was only two days later that the little group stopped to bury Grannie at a small parish on the outskirts of Greenock and there her body remained while her Spirit soared and her grieving family set off into the unknown. But as old Dugald said in the words of a local Bard:
A life well spent need not be mourned
When once the time has come
To flee the woes of life’s travails
And seek those Arms outstretched.
As from that haven we know not where
A new guardian then looks down
And waits and yearns to answer us
When life seems more than we can bear.
If only we would ask!
WITHIN A MONTH OF STRIDING into his home glen for the last time Euan stood with his wife and son Davey on board the brig “Albion” gazing across Greenock harbour waiting to set sail for Nova Scotia. Alongside them at the ship’s railings stood many other families. The men and women were openly weeping. The children stood solemnly beside their parents. But occasionally a boy would dart an excited look around and prod a sibling to release the tension building inside him.
Euan had finished with the anger that had consumed him when he had first heard the news of their eviction. The seemingly endless rantings that he had to endure from others around him had turned the anger into despair and finally a bitterness that would rarely leave him for the rest of his life. But he was diminished by the experience and never commanded the respect that he once enjoyed. He was just another homeless Scot bound for the unknown. ‘Big Red’ was no longer his familiar name from the other men.
He could understand the horror of those who had to leave their homes because of war. He knew there was much of this happening in Europe. He could understand having to emigrate when famine destroyed the crops and a people’s livelihood such as he knew had happened in Ireland. But he could not reconcile himself to the idea of rejection! To be not wanted in your own homeland! To be tossed aside like garbage when you had lived, worked and strived for generations, had always paid your rents, and had always obeyed the Word of God. And then to be treated in this way. And all traces of your existence eradicated as if you were vermin.
Euan churned these thoughts around and around. They would not go away. Eventually his bitterness translated into an attitude of resentment against any form of authority and particularly against any form of land tenure other than outright self-ownership. He drilled this concept into Davey’s mind day in and day out for many years after they landed and settled in Nova Scotia. They learned new skills and made a decent living in the new land that resembled in many ways their own true Scotland but it was never really home to Euan. The bitterness ate away at him and he died in middle age.
EUAN’S WIFE STAYED ON in Nova Scotia. She had friends from the old country and her spinning and weaving skills were in high demand. But Davey could not bear to live alongside his father’s grave on the shores of their new wild land. He had learnt from his father some of the bitterness that had killed him. He was determined to show “them” that a MacPherson would not be beaten. He would show “them” that a MacPherson was better than “them”. He would find work and use his new skills to make more money than his father had ever dreamed existed. Since his father’s death he was suddenly more confident than he had ever been. He knew that he could do better than this.
DAVEY HAD HEARD about the great opportunities in Upper Canada and America and so one day he stood with his back to the sea and far-away Scotland and looked westward toward the Great Lakes of North America and the Great Forests of Michigan. He would go there and start a new life! He would leave the memories of rejection behind him but he would never, ever trust a government to protect him. That would be the legacy that he would take with him to Michigan and instill in his children and grandchildren.
And so life went on, perhaps to a time when another Big Red MacPherson would stride the land. But it would be in another land of forests and lakes. In the land of Michigan.
Copyright © Neil Holdsworth 2018