The Clachan Estate, Scottish Highlands, June 1816
Constance Grant stood on the brow of the hill, gazing dejectedly down at the charred remains of what had once been the village of Clachan Bridge. Though a month had passed since the razing and burning, the acrid stench of smoke still filled her mouth and her nose, scorched into her memory forever more.
Last October, when the Sheriff Officer first tried to serve the writs, the villagers had defiantly torn them up. He returned in November, this time escorted by several constables and with the laird’s own factor in tow. His name was Robert Lockhart, the minister’s son who had once been one of their own, until the laird elevated him. The man once admired by all and dear to the heart of one foolishly blinded by love, was the harbinger of their downfall now. Reluctant he may have been, but he had ensured the writs were officially and legally served.
Still, despite the fate which had already befallen the other villages on the Clachan Estate and the surrounding estates, the people of Clachan Bridge were not minded to capitulate and had hoped and prayed for a reprieve. For natural justice to prevail. Or for Lockhart to derail his employer’s plans. He’d already secured a stay of execution for them. They had been allowed to wait out the harsh winter before the evictions were enforced. Some took hope from this, planting their kailyards as usual, ploughing their runrigs in readiness for the new year’s crop. But when Lockhart came again in May with his posse of men, incomers recruited from the lowlands armed with picks and axes, the villagers were forced to accept that he was no longer on their side. They were about to lose their homes, their land, and their livelihoods.
This destruction and mass eviction was in the name of what they called improvement, these days. Stark disbelief turned quickly to fury and fear, and then wild panic that day, as women tried to save their bairns and salvage their prized possessions, while the menfolk desperately tried to prevent the factor’s men from pulling down their homes.
Fifteen minutes notice to leave, they were given. Fifteen wretched minutes, to drag all they owned from the cottages. Heavy wooden kists stuffed full of shawls, precious plates, family heirlooms, were hauled into the kailyards. Dressers too heavy to move were stripped of bowls, of pots, spirtles and spoons. Kettles and griddles were unhooked from the fires they’d hung over for decades. Panic gave way to a grim determination as the minutes ticked past. Bairns tottered back and forth carrying what they could – a stool, a jug, a fireside rug, a stone warming pan. Women grabbed their spinning wheels, men their working tools.
Walking amongst them, Constance’s father had railed at Lockhart, one of his formal pupils and who, as a grown up, he had welcomed into his home when he had come courting his only daughter. The factor made no attempt to defend himself. His eyes sought hers over her father’s shoulder with a final plea for understanding. Or was it forgiveness? Constance turned away. Sick at heart, she didn’t doubt Lockhart was torn, but he had made his choice, and she would not pity him for it, nor ever absolve him.
The villagers called frantic instructions to each other. Panicked chickens ran in circles, clucking and squawking. Dogs barked. Cattle lowed in terror. But when Lockhart checked the silver watch the laird had given him on his promotion to factor, announced in a shaking voice that the fifteen minutes had elapsed everyone, from the smallest babe in arms to the oldest grandmother carried out on her bedding, fell silent.
The factor hesitated, temporarily unwilling, or unable, to order the commencement of the destruction. It was his henchmen who acted, tearing down the back wall of each cottage, felling the crux that supported the roof, ruthlessly kicking the doors from their hinges. When the fires were lit, the wailing started. And the crying. And the screaming. The roofs, thatched with bracken and heather, dry as tinder from the previous week’s spring sunshine, were engulfed by the flames in a matter of seconds. The heat was so fierce it forced everyone back. There was no need for Lockhart’s men to form a barricade here, not since the tragic events at the burning last year on a neighbouring estate. No one dared risk defying the men by remaining in their home. They knew better now. It was not murder apparently, not according to the law, to allow a man to burn to death in his own cottage while he was being evicted.
So they’d watched, growing silent once more, save for the sobbing children and the howling dogs and the minister, Lockhart’s own father, praying uselessly and far too late for his flock to be spared. The flames intensified, the smoke became a thick black pall, the stench of it filling their mouths and their noses, making their eyes sting and stream.
Lockhart stood slightly apart, grim-faced, studiously avoiding her gaze now. The villagers were too stunned to plead with him, far less berate him. Constance stood silently among them, convinced she was witnessing a vision of hell. She’d had no notion that worse was to come, until she heard the strange rattling in her father’s throat that was no sob, as her heartbroken father sank slowly to the ground. Mhairi, the village fey wife ran to his aid, but not even she could revive him.
A month had passed since that awful day. The memories made Constance’s eyes burn, but she didn’t cry. She had no tears left. Turning her back on the ruins of the village, she made her way up the crooked path to the school house. She’d been born here. Her mother had died here. Her father had lain here in his coffin before his last journey to the little churchyard a mile distant over the moor. He was buried in the family grave, with his wife and their two wee ones, the brothers born too soon that Constance had never known. They were all together now, reunited in death. She fervently hoped they were at peace.
As for the villagers, some had accepted the secured assisted passages to Canada paid for by the laird. Some were trying to eke a living from the hitherto unpopulated hinterland on the coast. Others were dispersed to the four winds, seeking charity with their kin or scraping a new living in the cities. A diminishing few slept every night in the schoolhouse, creeping down from their hiding places under cover of darkness for the shelter and food she provided. Did her presence protect them? How would they survive when she left as she must, for there was nothing and no-one to keep her here.
The fledgling shoots from the seeds which had been sown in the spring had withered and died in the kailyards, just like the hope which had been extinguished once and for all. The village would be turned over to the four-legged incomers, the sheep. She hoped that the people, generations of whom had been taught by her father and lately by herself, would endure. They were all hardy souls, but the loss of their land had broken their hearts and their spirits.
Constance too was broken, consumed by grief and by guilt. Could she have done more to prevent it, argued more persuasively, pleaded more passionately? She would never know now. Her wooden chest was packed with the few things which would accompany her. At least she was assured of sanctuary at the end of the journey south. She was luckier than most.
As for this home, the only one she had ever known, what use was a schoolroom with no children to teach? It was a substantial building with a slate roof, glass in the windows, a hearth in every room. Doubtless the laird would find a use for it. A new home for the factor who’d served him so well, perhaps. Would Lockhart be able to live with the ghosts that would surely haunt him here? Constance cursed the man. Good luck with that.
The carrier was due any moment now. She’d said her goodbyes to her parents at the graveside earlier. Picking up her basket, Constance turned the key in the lock of the front door for the last time, and left it there. Then she went back down the path to sit on her plain wooden trunk, and await the cart.
A little bird informs me that Scotland can expect an exotic and rare visitor this summer. A plump royal peacock is about to alight on our shores, albeit briefly, before returning to the Capital, his natural habitat, a migration mirrored by the seasonal habits of the so-called Scottish aristocracy, who will be lining up to greet him. They, who flaunt their Highland heritage, in truth view their vast estates as a cash cow to fund their London Society lifestyle, their hard-working tenants merely a means to an extremely comfortable and privileged end. Our regal visitor will find himself very much at home in such company. After all, birds of a feather flock together.
Since it’s been over two hundred years since we were last blessed by the presence of a monarch, one would be forgiven for thinking fair Caledonia very much the poor relation in our so-called union of equals. The burning question for us mere citizens is, whether we should roll out the red carpet and display our famed hospitality to guests, or roll out the rotten fruit and display our famed hostility to those who would oppress us? Given that the King is a renowned trencherman, though prone to excess and gout, Flora prescribes fruit. Lots of it. Administered with gusto and precision. His Majesty deserves no less.
If some of our Caledonian elite end up slightly spattered in the process, that might well be considered poetic justice. It must not be forgotten that those same people studiously avoid getting blood on their hands, preferring to let their factor do their dirty work when it comes to driving hard-working families from the lands they have worked for generations.
Flora MacDonald, The New Jacobite Journal
Newhaven, near Edinburgh, Monday 8th July 1822
Though the fishing village of Newhaven was located no more than two or three miles from the centre of Edinburgh, it felt like another world. For a start, the air was much sweeter, with not a trace of the pall of smoke which hung over the city, even on the brightest of summer’s days such as this. Constance wended her way down the cobbled main street past the rows of distinctive cottages where a steep forestair led to the front door on the second floor of each, the ground floor being given over to drying fishing nets.
It was quiet, with none of the clatter of traffic she’d become inured, rather than accustomed to, in the New Town. She hadn’t set out with the intention of coming here. She’d left the house in Coates Crescent with no clear purpose at all, save to walk and to think. She had walked all right, though she couldn’t even recall how her meanderings had brought her down to the Firth of Forth, but as to thinking, she’d made not a whit of progress. The opposite, in fact, for as she reached the harbour, a melancholy stole over her that was quite at odds with the blazing sunshine.
The tide was out, leaving the fishing boats stranded at drunken angles on the gritty silt. The fresh tang of salt mingled with the smell of sun-baked seaweed, overlaid with the distinctive, sweetly rotten odour of the catch that had been sold in the market over on the other side of the harbour, where empty fish boxes were stacked on the jetty. Newhaven was nothing like the landlocked Highland village she’d left six years before. Yet something about the air of quiet contentment, of peace and calm, reminded her of Clachan Bridge, engulfing her in a wave of longing to be back there in happier times.
Usually she tried not to dwell on the past, but the memories, long-supressed, crowded into her mind today, the ghosts of those she’d lost clamouring to be heard. What had the bairns she’d taught made of themselves? Had any of them survived long enough to prosper? Was there any trace left to remind the shepherds who now roamed the land of the thriving village that had once stood there? And what of the loyal factor the absent laird had employed to enforce his orders? Had he found an alternative use for the schoolhouse, or let it fall to ruin, a poignant memorial to all the ghosts who must surely haunt the place? Perhaps he’d moved into it himself. That would be taking irony to the limits, right enough. She didn’t care. She wouldn’t waste her time worrying about any of those unfeeling orchestrators of misery. Marbhphaisg orra! A curse on them!
Her oath lacked bitterness. The laird would have found another factor, had Lockhart refused to do his bidding. That he had not refused, despite her pleas, had taught her a valuable lesson. Her wishes would always come a poor second to his. She had not been heartbroken when she left Clachan Bridge, but she’d been heartsore. Back in those early months after the Clearing, when Pearl had taken her in, she’d barely had the will to leave her bed of the morning. Days passed without her even being aware of them. Without purpose or desire she had drifted through her first Edinburgh summer, barely noticing the months edging from autumn into winter, and then back into spring. It was easy to miss the changing seasons in the grey city, easy to surrender to a perpetual, self-indulgent listlessness.
Until Pearl, dear Pearl, had introduced her to the man who had forced her to take a long hard look at herself, and to ask, was this all there was to look forward to, maudlin acceptance? Was she going to let the likes of the laird and his factor continue to destroy lives unopposed? Stop mourning and start protesting, Paul had said. Help open people’s eyes. Use your experiences to show them the appalling suffering that continues in the Highlands to this very day. Let’s force people to stop hiding their heads in the sand, to sit up and listen. Let’s make an outcry that can’t be ignored.
Smiling at the memory, Constance’s mood lifted a fraction. Pearl had given her a haven and Paul had breathed life back into her, giving her a purpose. For the last four years, she’d worked tirelessly alongside him, determined to convert hearts and minds to their cause, desperate to speak out on behalf of those diminishing numbers left in the Highlands who had no voice of their own to air their grievances. She’d been convinced that her voice would help turn the tide of public opinion, for if only people knew what was happening, they must surely call for it to end.
But the Clearances had not ended. Far from it, progress in the name of sheep farming was spreading inexorably through the Highlands and as a result, Paul was beginning to lose heart. Though his passion for their cause burned as brightly as ever, they had been shouting into a void for too long, he had insisted yesterday. Perhaps it was time to admit defeat. Constance had protested passionately, begging him not to give up, but something of his resigned acceptance had wormed its way into her mind overnight. Was she wasting her time? Had this crusade lost its purpose, leaving her in limbo, unable to give up on it, yet failing to make any headway? Six years she’d lived in Edinburgh, lost for most of the first two, pouring her heart and soul into her work for the last four, and all to no avail.
She had sacrificed so much. Had it all been in vain? Six years was a big chunk of a life to be rootless and homeless, expending her time on a cause few cared about. What the so-called elite promoted as the tide of progress was proving impossible to turn The old ways were being destroyed. Soon there would be no indigenous people left in the Highlands. The sheep would reign imperiously, unopposed.
And she would be forty next week. Forty, and what did she have to show for it? The only kin she had ever known were buried at Clachan Bridge. What hopes she’d had for a family of her own had died there too, crushed at the hands of a man who had put his ambition before her. The nature of the work she did now forced her to keep her own counsel. Save for Pearl and Paul, she had no friends, and no confidante.
Oh, for heaven’s sake, what was wrong with her! The day stretched out before her, and here she was indulging in a fit of the blues, rather than enjoying it. Her life might be uneventful, but it was still a life, and a damned sight more comfortable a life, she was willing to bet, than most of the others who’d left Clachan Bridge enjoyed. A life that was for living, not frittering away.
As she began to walk along the sea wall, past the shuttered fish market and on to the entrance to the harbour, Constance made a determined effort to shake off her sombre mood, but for the first time in her life, she had the horrible feeling that time was inexorably ticKing away.
Age was just a number, she reminded herself firmly. She would wake on the morning of her birthday no different from the woman who had gone to bed the night before. Which was, it dawned on her, precisely the point! She didn’t want to dwindle slowly into middle-age. She wanted to recapture the sparkle she’d once had, to wake up wondering what the day had in store for her, to look forward to it, rather than simply endure it. She wanted to make each day stand out, not blur one into the other in sepia tones. She wanted colour.
Finally, Constance’s mood rallied. She had sacrificed too much to give up now. If the King came to Edinburgh, as seemed now to be extremely likely, then the eyes of the world would be on the city. It would be the perfect opportunity to make a song and dance that surely could not be ignored. Scotland’s aristocracy would flock to the city proudly sporting their clan colours, while the true Highlanders were being banished from their lands. No-one could fail to see the hypocrisy of it. This visit could well be the catalyst for true change. One last chance to make people listen, to put an end to injustice. Now was not the time to be defeatist. If she must turn forty – forty! – then she would make it a turning point, a day to launch herself full-tilt at the future, rather than hide her head under her pillow and wish it over. She would persuade Paul not to give up. She would throw herself into making the most of the golden opportunity the royal visit presented.
Smiling, her mood finally fit for the day, Constance decided to give herself a respite for the rest of it, from worrying about the future. She had reached the furthermost point of the harbour wall, where the incoming tide was already lapping at the entrance to the harbour. Constance closed her eyes and tilted her face up, giving herself over to the simple pleasure of the sun on her face.