We recently had a holiday; camping near Dundonnell among sheep and midgies. We stayed on a wee croft. One of many which stretch along the shoreline of Little Loch Broom, wee strips of land 3 acres in size. Looking on the map of the area I saw a set of ruins, marked as a sheep station. Curiosity got the better of me so I jumped on my bike and set off to have a look. The gate at the track head was locked, the land owner was clearly not trying to encourage folk to enjoy the countryside hereabouts. But I still managed to get over to the ruins, which I now know to be called Kildonan.
Kildonan was a township, a community of people who lived on and worked the land. Not an easy life in the highlands of Scotland. But what greeted me there were sad little piles of stone, each one a monument to the greed of men. A few of the piles were still recognisable as black hooses, turf roofed buildings with no chimney, but most of them looked as if the walls had been pushed in, an effort to hide the embarrassment of the land owners perhaps. A lot of the stone had been robbed to build folds for the sheep which replaced the people. But each one of those piles cried to me, wanting to tell me of the sadness of their history.
The people of Kildonan were subsisting, but surviving. They had no money but paid their rents in kind to the laird, with goods and labour. The land changed hands a number of times and eventually ended up in the possession of Mackenzie of Ardross. He wanted to make “improvements” to the land, so he used an ancient act of parliament which allowed him to evict the tenants with 40 days notice. You see, one man and a dog could earn the laird ten times as much looking after Cheviot sheep as all of the people could earn him. The people had improved the land over generations, collecting kelp from the shore and spreading it on the peaty soil. But now the laird coveted this more fertile ground for sheep.
So the people of Kildonan were evicted, along with the inhabitants of the township of Keppoch. About 128 people of all ages were pushed up the Scoraig peninsula to farm tiny 3 acre strips of peat bog, an area which was not large enough to live off. They had no shelter and whole families had to sleep in the heather until some rudimentary dwelling could be constructed upon their allocated strip of bog. The sheep now grazed their former land. Some of the people were being evicted for the second time, having been cleared from Strathnasealg a few years before. Still the people had to pay their rents by working for the laird up to 21 days a year, normally the best days for getting the work done.
What might have been for Kildonan had it not been cleared? It could have been a town by now. But the greed of the laird, spun as improvements, ruined the township and the people but made him rich for a time until the price of sheep collapsed. Now Kildonan lies on the 33000 acre Dundonnel Estate which used to be owned by the composer Tim Rice. He would come and play on the estate for 2 weeks a year, the remainder of the time he was an absentee landlord. Keppoch is shrouded in trees, as if the shame is too acute to allow it to be seen.
All of this highlights the problems of land ownership in Scotland today. At least the crofters have security of tenure these days but the are still at the mercy of feudal overlords who control vast swathes of our land. These owners manage the land for blood sports, the Eilean Darach estate also own 6500 acres in this area, you can stay there and kill lots of fish, birds and animals from as little as £4200 per week. Where there should be natural forest there is scorched strips of heather. Where eagles should be soaring there is poisoned bait and the blast of shotguns.
Is this what we want for our land? For it to be a playground for the rich? For it to be owned by, and for the benefit of, a handful of people?
I would like to see these places repopulated. The natural pine forests restored. The native wildlife given the conditions which they need to thrive. That’s what I want for our land.