View across the Outer Harbour of Stornoway

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Cruel clearances in Caithness

This triple alliteration is not attempt at levity. The county of Caithness, the far northeastern corner of mainland Scotland, saw some of the worst abuses encountered by the Napier Commission. My transcriptions took me to the coastal town of Lybster. Historically, the Commission could have done with more than just one session in Caithness, as several written statements were handed in, without people being interrogated on their content.

James Waters, a representative for Dunnet, the northernmost point on the British mainland, recounts an instance of heartrending cruelty.

An aged couple, who had brought up four sons and seven daughters on the said farm, fell a little in arrears to the landlord. The factor having unlimited power, hypothecated his subjects, and as soon as law would allow it was sold by auction for ready money; I was an eye-witness to this. The mother of this large family had been an invalid for years. The factor was looking on when all was sold off but the blankets; they were ordered to be carried out—I know not whether they were taken off the sick woman's bed or not; the people felt so disgusted no one would offer a shilling for them; had any one done so they would have got them. The factor ordered them to be carried away as they were to somewhere about the south end of the Dunnet sands. It was seen next year the factor's reason for such cruelty to this man. There were five families; he was the centre one; they were all turned out next year, and their farms made an outrun to a large farm. There has not been a plough in since; it has now become a barren waste. Another case of cruelty, two aged persons—man and wife —who had brought up a family respectably, were turned out of their home and their furniture together. They had no way to go; these two aged Christians lay six weeks beside a dyke amongst bits of furniture. At last the aged man became delirious, and wandered off through the hills; the neighbours went in search, and found him wandering with his Bible under his arm, saying he was seeking his father, who had been dead nearly thirty years. He then was allowed to put up a house in the bottom of an old quarry, and I understand is still living there.

Landing on your four feet

The pastor had a kitten that climbed up a tree in his backyard and then was afraid to come down. The pastor coaxed, offered warm milk, etc. The kitty would not come down. The tree was not sturdy enough to climb, so the pastor decided that if he tied a rope to his car and pulled it until the tree bent down, he could then reach up and get the kitten.

That's what he did, all the while checking his progress in the car. He then figured if he went just a little bit further, the tree would be bent sufficiently for him to reach the kitten. But as he moved the car a little further forward, the rope broke. The tree went 'boing!' and the kitten instantly sailed through the air - out of sight.

The pastor felt terrible. He walked all over the neighborhood asking people if they'd seen a little kitten. No. Nobody had seen a stray kitten. So he prayed, 'Lord, I just commit this kitten to your keeping,' and went on about his business.

A few days later he was at the grocery store, and met one of his church members. He happened to look into her shopping cart and was amazed to see cat food. This woman was a cat hater and everyone knew it, so he asked her, 'Why are you buying cat food when you hate cats so much?' She replied, 'You won't believe this,' and then told him how her little girl had been begging her for a cat, but she kept refusing. Then a few days before, the child had begged again, so the Mom finally told her little girl, 'Well, if God gives you a cat, I'll let you keep it.' She told the pastor, 'I watched my child go out in the yard, get on her knees, and ask God for a cat. And really, Pastor, you won't believe this, but I saw it with my own eyes. A kitten suddenly came flying out of the blue sky, with its paws outspread, and landed right in front of her.'

Wednesday 10 November

A bright and sunny start to the day, and the overnight frost left the water hose outside partially blocked. After a gale, you see, the windows at the back (facing away from the sea) are coated in salt, and need to be hosed clean. But with the dribble from the hose first thing I could barely reach the downstairs windows, let alone the upstairs ones. As the afternoon progressed, grey clouds moved up from the Atlantic and obscured the sun. We are on warning for high winds later in the night. The freight ferry is not sailing, a decision they took as early as 9.30 this morning.

At 2pm, I set off for a trip to the beach at Tolsta, which I had actually not visited for quite a while. The path from the carpark to the beach is now concreted over. It was cold, sunny and a tad breezy. Visibility was excellent, leaving the Sutherland hills (50 miles away) clearly outlined on the horizon.