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I read something last night that shook me to my very core.

I've been planning a diary on a genocidal event known as Fuadach nan Gaidheal, what we call the expulsion of the Gael. I have begun the process of collecting primary sources, as most of my knowlege comes through the words of historians, and I discovered that the number of first hand accounts available has grown since the last time I studied the subject in depth. The English name is the "Highland Clearances."

It began in the latter half of the 1700s, and continued until 1895. A' Ghàidhealtachd as it was called was the culturally distinct Gaelic speaking part of Scotland, known romantically as the Highlands.

Is Gaidheal mi. I am a Gael. This is where my people come from, and records of family there stretch back as far as history can record. My people inhabited that land when it swallowed the 9th Roman Legion.

America has an immigrant culture. One of the aspects of that culture is asking ourselves the question "Why are we here?" What compelled our ancestors to leave their homes?

This question stirred in me when I went home, and visited the land of my ancestors. And found it empty. Deforested, and depeopled, I saw many empty stone foundations littering a countryside almost completely devoid of human life. We went through valleys that I knew from song and story, and found no one.

Why did we leave, and why was no one left behind?

The short and brutal answer is that we were intentionally wiped out. In the aftermath of the bloody Jacobite rebellions we were deemed dangerous to the British state, and through a series of "Reforms," we were wiped out. Our homes, our communities, and even our language was targeted for extermination by the government in London.

The most brutal and least understood period of this history was the expulsion. The highland clearances. The process of burning down nearly every Gaidhlig-speaking town in the Highlands and forcibly transporting us to the American colonies. The precursors began in some parts of the Highlands as early as 1760, though the clearances proper began in the 1780s.

A family digs through the remains of their home in Lochmaddy, 1895.
I made the mistake of reading the first hand accounts last night. The account of Seonaid MhicNeacail, Janet McNicol in English, affected me so deeply that I've spent the night researching her story. Even as the sun rises while I write this, I do not feel like sleeping.

With any account, it is important to do some historiography, and this is something I have endeavored to do.

How do we know that this account of the destruction of Melvaig is accurate?

There are a number of ways to tell. The most difficult step is to verify that her father was a real person, and that he indeed served in the Crimean war, losing an arm. The British military kept very good records. One could contact the Royal Highland Regiment about a soldier discharged due to the loss of his arm. The home town, Melvaig, would be listed, and as it was a small community, it will be easy to narrow things down. Some military records were destroyed during the London blitz, so it is possible that the record of his service has been lost, but if it exists, it could verify her story. I intend to contact her great-grandson, and verify as much of this information as possible.

As for the rest, the time period is right. We know that other clearances were in fact happening in this time. The language is right. The translation is awkward, but there are ways of speaking used in her account, phrases such as "Roof-Trees" rather than timbers, which even to my elementary understanding of the conventions of the Gaidhlig language, lend much credence to her account.

Most importantly, the houses that were burned down? They would have been made of wood and stone. In most cases of clearances during this time period, foundations or walls of the cleared houses still remain. They stand as a poignant reminder of this period in history.

You can see the remains of the old crofting town of Melvaig on Google maps. Here's an image of one of the destroyed homes  from Google's Street View.

The stone foundations are almost all still there. The remains of a cleared settlement still stand in Melvaig. You can see from Google maps that this house isn't the only one from the period that stands empty.
Janet McNicol's account of this event is the only account that we have.  Verified accounts confirm similar stories about the burning homes, destruction of property, and racial/ethnic motivations for the attacks.  

We know that there were clearances in her area in this time period. We know that Gaidhlig-speaking war veterans had no special protections from these attacks. We know that sexual assault and rape occurred. We know that clearances were often done during the colder parts of winter. We know that Melvaig itself was cleared, and we can see the remains of the old settlement by using the incredibly powerful tools that the internet has given us.

Until new information surfaces, and I do intend to do some digging, I have no reason to disbelieve her. I would rate this account as accurate.

As with any oral history, it is important to find other, verifying documents. I am searching for those now, but I believe I've done due diligence in my attempts to verify this account.

I am posting her account of the event in full below the jump.

A massive trigger warning on the words you are about to read. After reading this account, I did not sleep.

One note on the language, the word "chattels" here refers to any movable property. Furniture, Beds, Clothing, Trunks, that sort of thing.

These are the reminiscences of my great grandmother Seonaid ( Janet in English ) MhicNeacail, born in the Crofting Township of Mhealbeag ( Melvaig ) in the spring of 1853 and died in Torrin ( Isle of Skye ) in November 1949, just a few days before my 5th birthday.

She was a wee spritely sparrow of a woman, about 5ft 1 inch of height, with long grey hair which came down to her waist, but was normally held up in the form of a bun made up of two intertwined plaits. She had grey blue eyes which always seemed to dance and sparkle in the light of the 'Tilley' lamp. She might have been taller but for the 'bow' legs caused by rickets in her childhood; ( Milk was difficult to get, due to the landlords ruling that the township people were not allowed to graze more than ten head of cattle on the common grazings.)

She was the eldest daughter of a family of five, having one younger sister ( Ishbel ) who died at the age of 3 of consumption, and three elder brothers, Aonghas the eldest, Calum and Fionn ( Fingal ). Her Father Aonghas Mor MacNeacail was a corporal in a Highland regiment who served in the Crimean War, was badly wounded, losing his left arm to a cannon ball at Sevastopol. Both parents died in an epidemic in the 1880's.

She could only speak a few words of English and conversed in Ghaidhlig most of the time. I remember that she was not in any sense of the word 'Senile' but rather did a full day's work on the croft, and her mental faculties were sharp right up to the day she died peacefully in her sleep.

She often used to tell me stories of the great Celtic Hero's and kings, of battles long past, of maidens wooed and lost, and other stories that held me spellbound for hours. She used to sing all the beautiful old Ghaidhlig airs, and at the periodic 'Ceileidhs' could hold her own with the girls, indeed they often used to come to her to learn the 'Old' songs and airs.

She would sometimes tell me about the time she and her family were 'Cleared' out of Mhealbeag when she was about 5 or 6 years old. I am of the opinion that this was an experience that scarred her for life, because she would often break down in tears at the recollection of it. My Grandmother translated difficult words to help me and to the best recollection this is her story...

The Testimony of Seonaid Nic Neacail

"When I was about 5 years of age, just one year after my father came back from the War against the Russians, the whole township was warned by the factor at the time of paying the rents, that his 'Lordship' was wanting the people to move away from the township, in order that his lordship could let out the ground to Shepherds from the Lowlands. The menfolk did not believe that they would have to move, as there was plenty of ground where sheep could graze.

However two months later a notice ( In English ) was posted, requiring the inhabitants to remove themselves, their goods and chattels, within ONE Month. A Visiting Priest translated the notice into Ghaidhlig for them, but the Menfolk still did not believe that his Lordship would cast them out into the depths of winter. However three months went past without anything being done by the factor, and the people of the Township relaxed. There had been rumours of 'terrible doings' elsewhere, of people being turned out and the roof trees of the houses being destroyed, but this was 'elsewhere'.

Suddenly in the month of January, the factor turned up, accompanied by a large number of policemen from Glasgow, Lowlands Estate workers and Sheriffs Officers from Dunedin and told the people of the township to be out of their homes by dawn the following day, where they would be taken to Ullapool to be put on board a ship to the Americas (Nova Scotia). The menfolk were cast down ( in modern parlance - 'Shattered' ) and only the womenfolk made any protests. A group of them went to the factor to protest and were beaten up by the policemen's batons, my Mother amongst them.

The Dawn came, hardly anyone had moved their possessions and furniture out, we waited to see what would happen. An hour after dawn, the factor and his men went to the house of Eachunn MacLeoid, a widower of 86 years of age, thrust him out of his house and proceeded to throw his chattels out of the door. Then two men with axes cut through the rooftrees, causing the roof to collapse. They then piled winter forage inside the door and put a torch to it. Within a few minutes the pall of smoke had rolled through the township, causing panic as people raced to save their few things before the factors men arrived.

Our house was next, my mother tried to stop the men entering the door, they called us 'Irish filth' and one of them floored her with a mighty punch to the head and laid her out senseless on the floor. My father tried to protect her, despite having one arm, but he was punched and kicked senseless by four of the policemen. My brothers and I managed to drag our parents out of the house, and by the time we had got them outside, the axemen had already cut through the rooftrees. They then set fire to the house and went next to the house of my Uncle Coinneach.

I remembered that my doll was on our bed, it was a precious thing, that my father had brought back from the war. A rag body with a lovely china head, which my mother had sewn clothes for; I ran into the house to get it, through choking smoke, but I could not find it. Aonghas beag came after me and took me outside.

It was like the picture of Hell I once saw in the Ministers bible, smoke and flames everywhere, you could hardly see in front of your face. My Mother was kneeling by my father, cradling his bloodstained head and sobbing for the thing that had befallen her family and the loss of her few precious things.

Some terrible things occurred after this, the policemen and factors men were reeking of whisky before they started, and when they found the whisky from Uncle Coinneach's 'Poit Dubh', the Evil got worse. They took a delight in smashing some of the chattels which had been salvaged, and at the house of Eibhlin and Aoirig MhicNeacail ( Unmarried orphaned Cousins of my Father ) - the two girls, only 14 and 17 were forcibly taken by some of the policemen, who did not spare their tender years and ravished them.

Their screams brought many of the menfolk to their aid, but by this time the policemen were the devils themselves because of the whisky, and they laid into the menfolk with their batons and clubs. One man who tried to stop them by firing at them with a fowling piece, was clubbed to the ground senseless, then bound hand and foot after which they kicked him for ages. All the time they were screaming insults like 'pig shit Irish bastard's'. Poor man he died that night from an efflux of blood from the mouth.

After this the spirit went from us, and the menfolk were saying that this was a visitation upon us by the Almighty in punishment of our sins, and that we should not resist further. During the night Eibhlin and Aoirig hanged themselves for the shame of what had been done to them and the bodies were buried in the vegetable plot without a Minister present and even then the Policemen showed their loathing of us by passing water on the girls bodies.

By Noon the Devil had done his work, and the factors men rounded us up like beasts and we were made to walk to Ullapool, carrying what we could , and driving our few beasts before us. It took us two days to get there, I had no shoes and my feet were very sore. We were all Cold and wet from the icy wind and smirr. We were all hungry as we did not have any food. Some people in a nearby township took pity on us and tried to give us food, but the factor warned them, that anyone who did aid us would have the same treatment and a passage to America. We got no food.

At Night we took what shelter we could, behind walls, with blankets for a tent, but it was bitterly cold, and we could not sleep. A woman gave birth before her time and the baby was born dead and a three weeks old baby died of cold and the bodies were put in the ground without a christian burial or marker.

At last we got to Ullapool, to find the emigrant ship moored in the roads, with boats waiting at the stone wharf. The factor then took all the beasts and the few possessions which the people had got with them, as 'Payment' for our passage. Each person was given a bag of 'Sowans' (Husked oatmeal) to last us the voyage and we were told to be ready to embark the following day. The policemen guarded us all that night, but there was no sleep for us, for the lamenting and sorrow would not let us go by.

Before dawn, my father noticed a fishing boat approaching the wharf and recognised one of the crew as cousin Domhnull from PuirtRigh ( Portree ). Domhnull persuaded the owner to come alongside the wharf, and we got in quickly before the policemen noticed. The boat pulled away, and the policemen called out to the Boats crew to return to the wharf, but as they called out in the English tongue which no one understood, we left them shouting and cursing us.

It took two days to row to PuirtRigh, we sheltered one night in the lee of Raasay and at last came to the house of my fathers cousin, where we were made welcome. They were poor like us, but their home was our home. My Father found a small place in the south at Torrin and my Mother found employment in service to the local minister, indeed I went into service for Him too when I was twelve.

Some years later we learned that the ship had arrived in Nova Scotia, but that half the People had not survived the voyage. Cholera and typhus had carried them off and their grave was the sea, with only the fish to know their resting place and the keening of the seabirds their only lament. I cannot forgive the cruelty of that awful day, what had we done that we should have been judged so harshly?"

This was recorded by her Grandson, Iain MacDonald, and posted online in several locations.

You can find it here and here.

Originally posted to Writing by Will McLeod: A Better World is Possible on Wed Jun 05, 2013 at 04:45 AM PDT.

Also republished by Shamrock American Kossacks, Genealogy and Family History Community, and Community Spotlight.

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