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They call him the Mannie, and panting, almost out of breathe, I can see him rising over the dying bracken and the dry gorse at the top of the hill — a sandstone giant, atop a 100-foot column of colonial splendour. This is the first Duke of Sutherland, and tiny beneath his plinth, here since 1836, I can see where Scottish nationalists have been digging to topple him.

The Victorians called him the Great Improver. The towering Duke was English, of course, and everything you can see from this peak, from the humped mountains in the distance, to where the coast disappears out of sight, he inherited with his Scottish marriage. This was, and much of it still is, the Sutherland Estate, the barren result of the Duke’s improvements — the Highland Clearances. Deer skip and chew through lichen and tufts, where his men burnt whole villages, as the hill tumbles into the sea.

Poking out of firs, as vulgar as Neuschwanstein, is Dunrobin Castle, to this day the seat of the laird. Not only this view, but the Highlands as we know it, is still a patchwork quilt of enormous estates created out of the Clearances. Today half of the privately owned Scottish countryside still belongs to 432 landowners. Nationalists call this a colonial creation, and radicals inside the Scottish National Party are pushing Holyrood to begin dividing them up.

Hunger for land reform has grown in the Highlands alongside nationalism. The attacks on the Mannie began in the Nineties. At first, there was a plot to dynamite it. Then, in green paint, they daubed “Monster” all over him. SNP politicians in Inverness began hectoring for the Duke to be ripped down and replaced with a Celtic cross. Nationalist intellectuals suggested breaking his column, and then smashing him limb by limb, to lie ruined like the torched crofts of his 15,000 evictees. 

Twice, men with tools have snuck up at night, ripping out sandstone corners of his plinth, digging under to topple him headfirst off the ridge. They haven’t stopped. A plot to deface him is now afoot. The closer Scotland gets to independence, the closer the Mannie, and the estate system he symbolises, is to a full-frontal attack.

The road north from the Mannie, winding past the coves and villages established by the Duke for his expellees, is one of the best places to think about what is happening in Scotland. What were the Highland Clearances and why do they matter? The barren moors as we see them today are a modern, man-made wilderness. After the Jacobite rebellions, Scotland’s feudal lairds, who once saw themselves as clan chiefs, protecting upland villages, evolved into 19th-century British lords. Their inheritance was overpopulated, unprofitable and blighted by disease. To turn a profit, men like the Duke of Sutherland believed they knew the answer. They would empty the hills, forcibly resettling their tenants. Sheep, and profits, would replace them. Eviction would be swift and villages would be set alight if they resisted. Those who could not be resettled on the coast would be sent to the colonies. Two centuries on, the sheep have gone. The bracken and the heather are now grouse moors and deer forests, filled with the childhood memories of the aristocracy.

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Gladiatrix
December 16th, 2015
12:12 PM
If the SNP actually thinks that the European Court of Human Rights will agree to people being told what they can and can't do with their own land, or being taxed at punitive rates merely because of who they are then the SNP is delusional. Any attempt to bring in laws like those proposed wouldn't last 5 minutes, will result in an enormous damages claim and huge public expense in sorting out the legal mess. Proof positive were it required that Sturgeon, Salmond et al are unfit to hold public office.

Gladiatrix
December 15th, 2015
10:12 PM
If the SNP thinks that the ECHR will let them indulge in mass land theft they are delusional. This talk of deciding who can own land and who can inherit only with permission of the SNP, is not only pointless it is clearly unlawful. If the SNP persist the current landowners should prosecute them for misfeasance in public office, and sue for massive compensation.

Anonymous
November 29th, 2015
8:11 AM
Very good article. Land reform coming.

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