About 35 miles north of Inverness the Sutherland Monument stands on the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh, a small hill of 1,302 feet overlooking the village of Golspie. It sticks out of the hill like a needle and can be seen from many miles away.
The Sutherland Monument was erected in the 1830’s, following the death of the first Duke of Sutherland. He was given the title about six months before he died. It is a controversial memorial, for the Duke of Sutherland and his wife are largely reviled for their part in the Highland Clearances.
At the time of the clearances, he was a Marquis, former MP and ambassador. By the time he married the wealthy Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, he was already a millionaire in his own right, said to be earning some £300,000 per annum from his estates in Staffordshire. The Sutherland estate was one of the largest estates in Europe, if not the largest, although it was viewed as uneconomic when considered in its own right.
For this reason, during the years 1811-21 the Countess and her husband evicted their farming tenants and residents, demolishing their homes and clearing the land. The land was then let more profitably to Lowland sheep farmers. Many of those evicted resettled in new villages along the coast. Many emigrated overseas to the “New World”. However, the fact was that families who had lived on this land for many generations were simply turfed out at short notice.
According to some, the duke was horrified by the appalling living conditions the people endured on the inland part of the estate, and believed the land could simply not sustain them. They argue he moved them to what he considered to be better conditions and a better life. According to others, the clearances were simply driven by greed. There was more profit to be had from sheep farming. As for the existing families, they simply had to be moved.
The Highland Clearances were not confined to the Sutherland estate; they occurred all across the Scottish Highlands. However, the Sutherland clearances are considered to be the most dramatic and harsh. Large volumes of people were resettled in a relatively short period of time, and without compassion. In some cases crops had to be left in the ground and the families had to carry what they could, leaving everything else behind. Estate records show that the eviction of 2,000 families a day was not uncommon.
1814 was a notorious year, known as the Year of the Burning. Once families had been evicted, their houses were burnt down, sometimes with their belongings still in them. On one occasion a witness reported seeing 250 crofts on fire from a single vantage point. Today the stone outlines of demolished ruins can still be seen.
The Countess and her husband themselves were resident in London, and so employed a “factor” (from the Latin “who acts”) to represent them. This factor was Patrick Sellar, himself a sheep farmer. He oversaw many of the evictions. One of these was in Strathnaver, on the north coast, and concerned the home of William Chisholm who lived with his wife and mother-in-law, Margaret MacKay. Margaret MacKay was over 90 years old and refused to leave during the eviction. The roof was therefore set on fire with her inside the building, reportedly on the basis that this would probably persuade her to leave. Margaret MacKay was rescued by her daughter and taken to a nearby shed which itself was only just avoided being torched. Margaret MacKay died five days later.
Sellar was put on trial for arson and culpable homicide. The jury were said to be local landowners. The witnesses for the prosecution only spoke Gaelic which had to be translated for the jury to understand the evidence. Sellar was acquitted and was later given large tracts of land by the Countess and her husband, in thanks for his work for them.
When the Duke of Sutherland died in 1833 a subscription was started to raise funds for a monument in his memory. According to Discover Sutherland, “Subscriptions came in from far and wide, which is surprising given his reputation today“. The monument was erected in 1837 and stands at 100 feet tall. It was carried up Beinn a’ Bhragaidh by horse and cart.
Its inscription reads, “Of loved, revered and cherished memory. Erected by his tenantry and friends“.
Known locally as The Mannie, opinion on it seems to be divided into two camps. Some want the monument to stay, as a reminder of what happened here. One local resident has said, “If you take away history nobody will ask questions. If he stays there people will ask what it is and then hear what happened here during the Highland Clearances“.
Others, however, want the monument pulled down, calling it a “…monument to a monster“. There have been petitions to the Scottish Parliament to have it removed. There have been hate messages sprayed across its base. In 1994 there was even an attempt to dynamite it. There are regular reports of damage and vandalism to the monument, as people attempt to topple it.
When we reached it the base had been protected by a metal cage, and there was a small amount of rubble lying around the base. Was this evidence of someone chiseling away at the base?
As it is, the Duke of Sutherland currently remains in situ, surveying Golspie and the coastline beyond.
It is a wonderful stretch of coastline. We’ll be walking through one day.
Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth)
- The Sutherland Monument: N 57° 58.900 W 004° 00.395