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Patrick Sellar

  • Name  : Sellar
  • Born  : 1780
  • Died  : 1851
  • Category  : Infamous Scots
  • Finest Moment : None

'For many years mothers would frighten young children with his name'.

The story of the Highland Clearances is writ on the stones for all to see; slowly reducing mounds of what were once houses, emptied of their inhabitants almost 200 hundred years ago for a fast profit. The Clearances was the last act in the destruction of the clan system in Scotland, and whether or not you lament it, the fact remains that hundreds of thousands were viciously forced to leave a land and way of life that they had known for generations, to leave a culture to slowly die of neglect, and to travel dangerously to lands they knew nothing of facing an uncertain future.

One of the most disgraceful chapters of the Clearances occurred in Sutherland, the furthest north part of the Scottish mainland. The landowner at the centre of this sad tale was Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland. She had tired of the years of childbearing, of the salons of London and Paris. She and her husband, the Marquess of Stafford, had an uneconomic estate, with a miserable rental accruing from its rapidly increasing population. Here was a project which looked like fun. Make money out of the estate. Not that the family needed it.

The man was the Most Noble George Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Marquess of Stafford, 3rd Earl Gower and Viscount Trentham, 4th Lord Gower of Stittenham in Yorkshire, 8th baronet of the same place, and, for the last six months of his life, the First Duke of Sutherland. For much of his adult life his annual income was some #300,000. When he emptied the glens through the use of his commissioners, factors, law-agents and ground-officers, aided very promptly by the police and army if so requested, he let the land to Lowlanders who brought in some 200,000 sheep. All of this cost him about two-thirds of one year's income, and one of his factors doing the dirty was one Patrick Sellar.

Sellar had ironically disliked the sheep at first, coming up to Sutherland in May 1809. He was an advocate who had studied law at Edinburgh University, and had already attained the position of Procurator-Fiscal of Moray. With Sellar was William Young, who had been made the Commissioner by Lord Stafford. The 'Great Experiment' was on the roll. Parliament was offering to bankroll half the cost of new roads and bridges, but the landowners were expected to cough up the remainder. Lord Stafford instructed his agents to impose a poll tax of four shillings on all tenants, whether they owned a quarter of an acre or thousands. And we know how popular poll taxes were in Scotland in comparatively recent, affluent times.

In 1807, at Whitsun, 90 families in the parishes of Farr and Lairg were evicted. Their crops were left on, or in, the ground, and they had to leave carrying their possessions as they could; furniture, roof timbers for a new dwelling. If they could find no shelter or build a rudimentary one they slept in the open - women, children, old and sick alike. This was to set the pattern which Sellar would continue.

There was little point in the evicted complaining - they spoke Gaelic and Stafford did not. In any case he would never watch the actual physical process of eviction, preferring to plan his improvements from his desk in London. As for our dear Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, let her speak here: 'We have been much occupied in plans for improvement,' she wrote. 'This country is an object of curiosity at present; from being quite a wild corner inhabited by an infinite multitude roaming at large in the old way, despising all barriers and all regulations, and firmly believing in witch-craft so much so that the porters durst not send away two old women who were plaguing us one day, believing them to be witches.'

The two old women were probably starving, but their Gaelic would be incomprehensible. Sellar, unfortunately, was quickly converted to become pro-sheep, and attacked his job with a convert's zeal. Regrettably, and with only a few notable exceptions, the ministers on the various estates sided with the landowners, often acting as host, ally and interpreter.

The low point, if we have to choose one, came in June 1814, when Sellar arrived to evict the people of Strathnaver. Most of the men were away in the hills, searching for lost cattle. Sellar arrived with four officers and 20 men. On the Sunday he attended a service, at which the reverend David Mackenzie threatened the people with hell-fire if they showed any disobedience. The next day the torches were lit.

One house, belonging to a man called William Chisholm, was especially singled out. Chisholm was a tinker, and probably a squatter, but this does not condone the act. In the house was the mother of Chisholm's wife, a bed-ridden woman of over 90. When Sellar was told that she was too ill to be removed, he replied, 'Damn her, the old witch; she has lived too long. Let her burn!' The house was set on fire and by the time she was pulled out, the blankets she was covered with were also burning. She was set down in an adjoining shed, which only with great trouble they were prevented from burning also. The old woman died within the week.

The news of this, and other acts, began to ripple through the country. Sellar was taken into custody and a trial began on 23 April 1816. The jury consisted of 15 men; eight were local landed proprietors, two merchants, two tacksmen, one a lawyer, and most were magistrates and Justices of the Peace. Sellar was charged with Culpable Homicide. When Lord Pitmilly came to sum up, he instructed the jury to bear in mind the character of the tinker, Chisholm, versus the character of the accused. The jury were quite clear what he meant, and returned a verdict of Not Guilty in 15 minutes.

Sellar continued to evict that summer, but was more careful to burn houses after the people had gone. He retired from Stafford's services in 1818, by which time he had become one of the most prosperous sheep-farmers in the area. Stafford had provided him with a large area of land of course. Sellar's works as a factor for Stafford would be remembered as Bliadhna an Losgaidh, the Year of the Burnings.

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