“An latha dh’fhàg sinn an t-Aoineadh-mòr shaoil mi gun sgàineadh mo chridhe” (The day we left Aoineadh Mòr I thought my heart would break) – Mary Cameron
It’s strange the things you remember from the past. At my first Scottish History tutorial at Edinburgh University many years ago, our tutor told us that much of history is myth, and that he wanted to start our course with some ‘myth-busting’. Firstly, he said, the Vikings didn’t go around in horned helmets – certainly not into battle – and secondly, the Highland Clearances were purely economic, had to happen and were not that bad really.
That the Vikings wore horned helmets for ceremonial purposes only made sense – but forcing people from their homes and claiming “it wasn’t that bad really” was another matter altogether. And not one we could accept. While it’s true that economic migration from the Highlands was already taking place – and taking place across all of Europe – the brutal evictions faced by so many native Highlanders tell a very different story indeed.
Fortunately attitudes to the study of history have changed. The previous approach of kings, queens and dates of battles – the history many of us grew up with – has all but gone. Sources and events have been re-assessed and a new, refreshing, and more honest emphasis placed on the lives of all. And it makes history so much more interesting!
No-one can deny that the Highland Clearances are a particularly grim part of our nation’s history. As large estates passed from hand to hand the new owners – from both Scotland and England – gave scarcely a thought to the people who lived on and worked the land: these people were invisible or regarded as being in the way, worthless.
One clear and unequivocal example of the inhumanity of that period can be seen in the deserted township in Aoineadh Mòr in Morvern. In 1824 the land was purchased by a wealthy Edinburgh woman, who promptly had the whole village evicted to make way for sheep. Home to more than fifteen families, it had 22 houses and outbuildings, run-rigs for growing crops, grazing for cattle, kail-yards, corn-drying kilns and winnowing barns. A young woman, Mary Cameron, with her baby and two other small children, was among those forced from their homes, her husband James carrying his aged mother up the steep path from the glen. As they looked back, the destruction of their homes was already taking place.
With nowhere else to go they had to make their way to Glasgow and hope for work along with thousands of other dispossessed people. It was a cruel time of low wages, appalling housing and disease. With help from their minister, James did eventually find work, but both he and their eldest son Donald fell prey to the ‘infectious fever’ so prevalent in the overcrowded and insanitary city, and young Donald died. Mary later told her story to Rev Norman MacLeod, one of the MacLeods of Fiunary in Morvern, thus giving us a first-hand account of the tragic fate of this community.
Today the Forestry Commission are responsible for Aoineadh Mòr and its beautiful setting close to Loch Arienas. Lichen abounds, an indication of the pure clean air in the glen. There is a car park and well-marked paths to the former township. The signage includes illustrations of how the settlement would have looked when full of life. It also gives explanations, and helpful pronunciations, of the Gaelic words associated with Aoineadh Mòr. But be warned! Cleared forestry areas are seldom pleasant places – often more closely resembling WW1 battlefields than anything else! – and even reaching the picnic bench on the other side of the burn was a challenge!
Do we learn from history, from the mistakes and cruelties of the past? I hope so. Change is in the air with the new Land Reform bill proposed by the Scottish Government, and backed by the great majority of people in Scotland. It’s also worth noting that there are individual landowners already taking innovative steps towards redressing housing problems in the Highlands e.g. the new settlement at Achabeag on the Ardtornish Estate. Wise and fair use of our land is to be welcomed by all.