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


Frances said...

Well, I had read about the purchase of the painting, but was ignorant of the background stories.

Thank you for my history lesson!


Elizabethd said...

Interesting history. I am pleased about the painting, so I'm sure is the Duke.

Fennie said...

Most interesting post, Lampie. No doubt you have read John Prebble's book about the Clearances. There is a little church he writes of - I can't remember where it is now, perhaps Golspie, where the 'cleared' farmers were herded to shelter to await transportation to the other side of the world. High up there is graffiti scratched with a diamond on the glass panes - something about 'ship them to the colony.' What is intersting, apart from this real life reminder of those events, was that whoever it was wrote in English - as opposed to Gaelic. It reminds me of those Gazan children who hold up placards in English (which I don't suppose they can understand) but which they know will be understood by those who matter. Yes, all very interesting and touching.

Pipany said...

Oh didn'tquite ealise the story beneath the one in the media. Thank you for the history lesson Lampie. xx

Edward said...

Your description of the clearances sounds like the removal of Palestinians today. Completely disgraceful. I won't be going to see the painting either - mainly because it's not very good.

LittleBrownDog said...

Oh, Lampie - I'm not surprised you're furious! It was shocking, what went on during the clearances in Scotland and - to a lesser extent - the enclosures in England. Having recently been doing a little research on the latter, I was appalled to read how dismissive the landed gentry were of those folk they considered their inferiors; they treated them hardly better than animals. No, on second thoughts, sometimes they didn't treat them as well as their animals.

Do secretly love the painting, though - the way the ground sort of tips up as Actaeon first spots Diana - although will now content myself with looking at in on screen only.

bradan said...

And it happened all over the Highlands and in Ireland too, of course. But don't forget - 'is treasa tuatha na tighearna'.
Many of these people went on to do great things in other lands.

I really enjoyed this blog, you should write more of your history!

Pondside said...

Very interesting post, LWB. That's the story of my paternal forbearers - some herded onto ships, some going in search of a better life. As Braden said, many went on to do great things in the New World. If you ever have a chance to visit Cape Breton Island or Renfrew County, Ontario, or even Clan Donald in Alberta, you'll recognize family names and place names.

lampworkbeader said...

Yes, when I traveled up the Alcan we drove through an area called Strath Naver, and when I looked in the phone book it was full of Mackays.

Exmoorjane said...

Fascinating Lampie and I'm not surprised you feel the way you do about the painting. Not my game really....though I do appreciate that the women aren't all stick thin!
You tell history very well - I agree with the others, more please!

Milla said...

that was extremely interesting, Lampie - beautifully put, and great pictures, too (and thanks for horribly apposite comment on my blog)

Cait O'Connor said...

There were not only clearances in Ireland, people often forget about Scotland. Great post Lampie.

Inthemud said...

Intersting to read the history. Not surprised you're fuming and won't be going to see the painting!!

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