The Clearance of Swordlechorach – a Family Account

In an earlier post (Ardnamurchan, Anne McColl and the Archaeologists) I mentioned the eviction of Donald Henderson’s family during the 1853 clearance of Swordlechorach in Ardnamurchan, Scotland.

Another descendant of this family has drawn my attention to an account of the eviction from Mary Ann Henderson, a daughter of Donald Henderson and his wife Jane. This was published in ‘Herself’ : the life and photographs of M.E.M. Donaldson / presented by John Telfer Dunbar, Edinburgh : Blackwood, 1979. Donaldson lived in Ardnamurchan in the 1920s. Mary Ann would have been in her 6o’s then (born 14 October 1858). Here is her account – and note the enduring anger in the last sentence:

” Told by a friend that there was living in Portuairk a woman who still occupies the house built by her father when evicted from Swordle Chorrach. I called to see her. Mary Ann Henderson, now an old lady, though still with clear eyes of the brightest blue, received me with customary Highland courtesy, and knowing me for a friend, readily told me the tale of the sufferings of her father and mother. She herself was not born at the time of the eviction, but, naturally, she was familiar with the whole story.

Before relating this, I must ask readers to bear in mind that in those days the present roads were non-existent. When evicted, one of Mary Ann’s little brothers was suffering from measles, and her father had to carry him on his back all the way by the rough coast from Swordle to Achnosnich, where a compassionate crofter had given his barn to shelter them till the new house was built at Portuairk. As the result of exposure, however, the little boy died.

Whilst the father had to break off building from time to time in order to earn a little money to purchase necessary building materials, the mother was not without her tasks. She had first to walk to and from Swordle in one day – a ten hours’ journey – in order to fetch, as their only means of sustenance, all the potatoes she could carry from their old croft. Such a load only lasted a day or two, and then, whatever the weather, the hard journey had to be repeated. Then, in return for being allowed to gather the seaweed from the shore, the poor woman was obliged to carry sacks of sand half a mile inland from the bay – this to fertilise the landlord’s ground – and to cut peats in a marked portion of ground at Port na Cairidh for the use of his shepherd there.

The name of the factor who was the agent of these tyrannies and inhumanities was Ramage.”

You can feel the suppressed anger in the last sentence of Mary Ann’s account. The Ramage mentioned was probably John Ramage who, in the 1861 census, is shown as a farmer employing 3 labourers and 2 girls and resident, with his family, at Swordlemore. Ramage was an outsider born in Lanark. He may have been offered a lease of the Swordle lands by the Ardnamurchan estate’s trustees in bankruptcy that was conditional on him effecting removal of the prior tenants.

Mary Ann’s little brother who died during the journey was almost certainly Alexander, who was aged 2 years at the time of the 1851 census. Whilst there is an Alexander recorded in the census of 1861 he is too young by 4 years to be the same person. It is presumed that the later Alexander was named in remembrance of his dead brother, as was commonplace at the time.

There is a record of baptism that shows an intervening child born either during or shortly after the journey described above. This means that Jane was pregnant at the time she endured the privations described above.

This child, named Duncan, was born on 10 May 1853 and baptised on 9 June 1853. The church register shows that the father, Donald, was residing at Portuairk by the latter date.

Why wasn’t this child named Alexander if his brother had pre-deceased him? There is a hint in the identity of one of the witnesses – named as Duncan M’Dougald of Achosnich in the register. I like to think that he was the compassionate crofter of Achosnich, and that the child was named in appreciation.

The second witness to the birth was Anne Henderson, the baby’s widowed grandmother. She also endured the eviction and journey at the age of 87 years before dying 2 years later.

More information on this clearance can be found here.

(Herrmann Family History)

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