Friday, 6 February 2009

Diana and Actaeon

Well a spot of good news in these times of financial crisis, the painting Diana and Achaeton is now jointly owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and England. A sigh of relief all round then, the cash strapped 7th Duke of Sutherland is better off by £50million, a snip by all accounts; he could have asked for more.

Now Titian does a powerful painting, and I’ve no objection to us all owning the divine femme fatale and her doomed youth. It’s not the purchase of the saucy picture that smarts, but the irony that, in 2009, the year of Homecoming Scotland, when Scotland is doing its utmost to encourage its own diaspora to return to the motherland, it pays a large fortune to the descendants of the very family that helped to kick my lot out in the first place.

I’m talking Highland Clearances now, in particular the scattering of the Mackay’s of Strathnaver, from whom I am descended.

It seems a lot of dosh to pay to the descendants of the family who burnt my ancestors out of their homes, dispersing the Mackay’s of Strathnaver, Sutherland, far and wide across the world. O.K. my grandfather’s grandfather didn’t move far, to Betty Hill to be precise, but everything his family cherished and had worked for over for countless generations, was torn from them. Even the roof of their house was burnt over their heads. A piece of charred roof timber remained in the family for years, a harsh reminder of what cruelty and exploitation, in the guise of land improvement and agrarian reform, can do to a tenant people.

Starting in the early 1800s, the idea was to clear out the slothful, self sufficient, peasantry to make way for sheep, thousand of Cheviots, the profits of wool and mutton a far more tempting prospect than the low rents that could be squeezed from the tiny townships that nestled along the River Naver. Over a period of less than twenty years, the thriving population numbering almost two thousand, was reduced to 257, and many of those were shepherds brought in from the borders, hardly a Mackay was left in sight. They were all dispersed to Canada and other New World settlements, or crammed into tiny allotment plots on the coast, with quaint names like ‘Betty Hill’. There these oat growing, cattle farming, drovers were told to be fishermen, off a coast with some of the roughest seas in the world and with no natural harbors.

Countess ‘Betty’ Sutherland is reputed to have written to a friend, after being told of the plight of the people who’d been cleared from their homes in her name,

“Scotch people are of a happier constitution and do not fatten like the larger breed of animals.”

When this outrage was carried out, the Sutherland family owned one and half million acres of land, the Mackay’s of Strathnaver were left with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few charred belongings, and the unfamiliar smell of sheep in their noses. So you can see, art lover as I am, I won’t be visiting Diana and Achaeton in their new home in the near future.

There's little left of the once thriving townships.
St Columba Parish Church. From the pulpit of this church the Mackay's were told they had to leave their homes. It's now Strathnaver Museum