Riot at Highland Inn

The star of the Highland Clearances based short-film, Last Footsteps of Home, stayed at the Golspie Inn whilst filming on location. The film is inspired by the true story of Catherine McPherson, a young Highland woman who left the Strath of Kildonan and boarded an emigrant ship bound for the New World in 1813 with locations throughout Sutherland and Caithness. The Golspie Inn (pictured above) played a key role in the story of the Highland Clearances where resistance to a planned programme of agricultural improvements included removal of the small farming tenants from the old townships in the staths to the coast. This resulted in the ‘Golspie Riots’ of 1813 when around 500 people turned up in a collective act of defiance at the proposed Clearances.

It was amazing to think that Molly stayed at the same historic location, where most probably a member of her film character's family attended the ‘Golspie Riots’ over 200 years hence. And how ironic and touching for us as film-makers to have Molly walk over the old bridge at the Golspie Burn (the rallying place of the Sutherland Clan) where a large crowd gathered - making a last ditch protest at being removed from their homes. Kildonan rebels

The films independent researcher, Jacquie Aitken (pictured below at Churchill, Manitoba) sets the scene: “In 1812 plans were made for the removal of people from the Straths of Clyne and Kildonan. By the end of that year conflict was evident and at the beginning of 1813 a group of valuers, factors and shepherds were confronted by bludgeon wielding locals while conducting a survey near Suisgill. These events became known as the ‘Kildonan Riots’.”

​​“As the situation escalated the Kildonan tenants worked together in an organised force of resistance to eject a sheep farmer and two shepherds from the parish. The party were prevented from carrying out another land survey at Torrish, which was to be incorporated into a new sheep farm. This act was seen as a great threat by the estate and postponed the implementation of the improvement policy in its tracks and Kildonan became a no-go zone for 10-12 weeks.” “As the situation escalated the sheriff-substitute, Robert MacKid, summonsed the ring leaders to appear before him at a court held outside The Golspie Inn on the tenth day of February 1813. To his surprise a crowd of over 500 people from Kildonan, Strath Brora and Caithness turned up with sticks and other weapons. They shielded the ringleaders and prevented them from being apprehended after a few attempts by the sheriff officers to arrest them. It is not known if the riot act was read to the crowd but the court was forced to adjourn and move to the safer surroundings of Dunrobin Castle.”

Set Adrift Upon the World

The story of the Golspie Riots also features in Set Adrift Upon the World, the much-anticipated latest book on the Highland Clearances by eminent Scottish historian and author, James Hunter (pictured above the shores of a frozen Hudson Bay). His researches took him to archives in Scotland, England and Canada…..The outcome of Hunter’s travels and enquiries is a gripping, moving, definitive account of a people’s struggle for survival in the face of tragedy and disaster. In these exclusive extracts from Set Adrift Upon the World the events of the ‘Golspie Riots’ at the Inn is given: ‘Soon the Kildonan men had resolved to go in force to Golspie on the morning of 10 February with the aim of forestalling further jailings. Not content with this, they decided to beef up their campaign by enlisting allies. In the run-up to 10 February, therefore, envoys were sent both north and south. Those who went north travelled well into Caithness – a county where, the Kildonan emissaries warned, farm rents would be put under upward pressure if or when evicted families from Sutherland came looking for new homes. Although an accurate prediction of what eventually occurred, this was perhaps a less rousing call to action than the one delivered by the strath’s southbound representatives whose destination was Strathbrora. There, in township after township, the Kildonan messengers said simply (and correctly) that if Kildonan was depopulated ‘to make room for sheep farmers’, other localities were bound sooner or later to suffer the same fate. The result was that the Kildonan people, when making for Golspie Inn on the morning of Wednesday 10 February, were reinforced by a substantial contingent from Strathbrora.’ ‘The sheer size of this crowd took James Duncan and his Inn’s other occupants by surprise. Although men from Strathbrora and Kildonan – men who had left home well before first light – had been entering Golspie for some time, they had succeeded in concealing their numbers by slipping into the village, as one of them put it, in widely separated groups ‘of five and six at a time’. For much of the morning, then, McKid, Young and their colleagues appear to have thought that the only people planning to turn up at the Inn were the comparatively few folk who had been told by Donald Bannerman, in the course of the latter’s otherwise unproductive foray into the Strath of Kildonan, to make themselves available for interview by Sheriff McKid. A less than subtle subterfuge from the outset, this plan – instead of culminating, as McKid had hoped, in several arrests – now looked increasingly likely to end in yet another victory for the Kildonan protest movement. This was confirmed when Patrick Sellar, a man not lacking in courage, took it upon himself to leave the Inn in order to discover the Kildonan and Strathbrora people’s intentions. ‘Their purpose,’ Sellar reported, ‘was to prevent the arrest of [their] ringleaders … [and] they were determined … to stand as one man in defence of [what they regarded as] their land and their property. On my endeavouring to point out the folly of a handful of men pretending to fight against [Britain’s] laws and … constitution … they said they were loyal men whose brothers and sons [as was indeed the case] were fighting [Napoleon] Buonaparte* … [but] they would allow no sheep to come into the country.’

‘From the besieged Inn’s windows, meanwhile, Donald Bannerman had been scanning the people milling about outside and had established, he told Sheriff McKid, that Kildonan men he had ordered to Golspie were among them. On learning this, McKid instructed Bannerman to take ‘a party’ and ‘proceed to apprehend’ individuals scheduled for arrest, starting with John Sutherland and Donald Polson. Sutherland…..was one of the Kildonan uprising’s leaders…..Both men, on hearing Bannerman order that they be ‘take[n] … into custody’, were inclined initially to step forward and surrender themselves. But seeing this, ‘people took hold of [them]’, or so it was said later, ‘by the skirts of their coats and pulled them [back] into the crowd’. Masterminding this piece of defiance, according to James Duncan who saw what happened, was a young man by the name of Robert Bruce. Bruce, whose home was in one of the communities due to be incorporated into Gabriel Reed’s Kilcalmkill farm, grabbed either Polson or Sutherland with his left hand ‘while, with his right hand, he brandished his stick above [Donald Bannerman’s] head’.’ ‘To obstruct, assault or – in legal jargon – ‘deforce’ a court officer like Bannerman in this way was to commit a crime. Hence Sheriff McKid’s decision to put formally on record that he had been obliged to give up his latest attempt to restore order in Sutherland as a result of Golspie Inn having been ‘surrounded by a lawless mob … who have exultingly … deforced the officers of the law by preventing certain individuals from being brought forward for examination’. He had himself commanded this mob, ‘in the king’s name’, to disperse, the sheriff went on, and one of his subordinates had translated this edict into Gaelic. But irrespective of the language in which they were delivered, his orders had been ignored and, fearing for their safety, he and the people with him had accordingly been obliged to abandon the inn and retreat – amid, it can be assumed, much derisive jeering – to Dunrobin Castle.’ As Jacquie Aitken surmises, “These episodes of defiance at Kilodnan and Golspie were only temporary as the full force of the Clearances would later demonstrate. The acts of defiance did show the landowners that many of their tenants weren’t willing participants in these forced changes. Subsequently, ‘Summons of Removing’ were issued and it wasn’t long before over 100 people had left Kildonan for Canada. In the Strath of Kildonan alone between 1811 and 1832 the population was decimated from 1574 to 257.” “We intend to remember the significance of the ‘Golspie Riots’ with a commemorative stone,” says Eddie McRae, owner of Golspie Inn. “The Inn is only too glad to support the making of Last Footsteps of Home. We have ambitious plans to make the Inn a conducive meeting place for people and the amazing heritage we have on our doorstep. We want to offer visitors and locals alike a rewarding cultural experience. The story of the ‘Golspie Riots’ will also be of great interest to descendants at home and abroad and we feel Robert’s film will truly help communicate this pivotal point in the Scottish Diaspora.”

As James Hunter concludes: “It will be great to have the Golspie events of February 1813 commemorated in this way. Interest in these happenings is worldwide. Just last week I was contacted by an Australian family descended from John Sutherland, a key leader of the Kildonan protests who features in my book and who was one of the men whose arrest was forcibly prevented in the course of the ‘Golspie Riots’.”

Like Catherine McPherson (the young woman who inspired Last Footsteps of Home) - John Sutherland, his wife and children left for North America. Their descendants are now to be found in several different countries. At a time when Britain and the rest of Europe struggle to cope with what’s called a ‘migrant crisis’, it’s worth recalling that it was once Highland people who felt they had no alternative but to escape oppression and exploitation by fleeing overseas. You can watch Last Footsteps of Home in full at: Set Adrift Upon the World is published by Birlinn Ltd.

Pictures courtesy of James Hunter and Jacquie Aitken

© 2017 Robert Aitken

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