Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Clearances memorial is abandoned

IT WAS to be a 120ft high hilltop memorial to commemorate one of the most infamous episodes in Scottish history.

A 30ft family of “emigrants” cast in bronze by a renowned sculptor would sit on a 90ft conical plinth to remind Scotland and the world of the story of the Clearances, in which thousands of Scots were shipped out of their home country for new and uncertain lives abroad.

Down below, a state-of-the-art visitor centre would cater for the thousands of overseas tourists attracted to the Sutherland village of Helmsdale in search of their roots.

But Scotland on Sunday can reveal that the £5m project expected to transform the economic prospects of the area has been abandoned. Although a smaller version of the sculpture has been located just outside the village, the bigger project has been cancelled by the Scottish multi-millionaire who masterminded it because of a lack of financial support.

Dennis MacLeod, who was born in Sutherland and went on to make a fortune in the South African gold mining industry, said: “We are not going ahead with the bigger statue or the centre in Helmsdale. At the end of the day, with a few exceptions among the local business community, I found myself a lone figure.”

The decision has disappointed councillors, local residents and the sculptor, Gerald Laing, who hoped the centre would bring jobs and prosperity to Helmsdale, a coastal village on the A9 between Inverness and Wick.

“It’s a great shame because people were really looking forward to this as their ‘Angel of the North’,” said Highland councillor Rita Finlayson. “It was a project that would have revolutionised the local economy and there is a great feeling of disappointment that it never went ahead.”

The bigger sculpture was meant to be a counterpoint to the infamous statue of the Duke of Sutherland, which towers above the village of Golspie and the Duke’s Dunrobin Castle 17 miles to the south. It was the duke’s notorious land agents who were the leading figures in clearing the Sutherland glens of their 19th-century population to make way for sheep farms, then the route to prosperity.

At the time of the launch in 2002, MacLeod, whose own ancestors were cleared from the glens to the west of Helmsdale, said that while the project would record the history and culture of the Highland people over the last 250 years, it would also be a celebration of the achievements of Highlanders and their descendants throughout the world.

The centrepiece of the project was to be a 30ft high statue, consisting of four bronze figures mounted on a spiral plinth to depict a Clearance family and consisting of a father gazing out to sea, his wife looking back up the empty glen and their two children. Located on top of Creag Bun-Ullidh, a hill overlooking Helmsdale, at a height of 600ft above sea level, the complete structure would have been 120ft high with a 90ft spiral plinth in the form of an ancient hill fort.

Access would have been up a 10ft wide path winding up the hill, flanked by 10ft high standing stones, telling the story of the Clearances. They were to have been sponsored by communities around the world founded by Scots emigrants, and descendants could have their name inscribed on a wall of remembrance for a donation.

At the foot of the hill was to have been a museum, Clearances archive and a Hall of Fame, highlighting the cleared emigrants who had made their fame and fortune abroad in countries such as America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Ten full-time jobs would have been created with an initial estimate of 35,000 visitors a year, rising to 100,000 over time. MacLeod formed a company Highland Clearances Centre Ltd, with directors from among the local business community, to drive the project forward. Both Highland Council and Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise pledged £200,000 each towards the project if it went ahead.

But problems began to emerge because of the costs. Gerald Laing, the sculptor commissioned to create the bronze, said: “We didn’t go ahead with the 30ft bronze because the costs would have been phenomenal. What you are left with, however, is still a decent-sized piece on the edge of the village. It’s a shame that the bigger project did not go ahead because it would have been much more prominent. What’s there is smaller, but it is still very striking.”

MacLeod, who lives in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, says that the truncated project has personally cost him a six-figure sum, including the cost of the smaller bronze and six flagpoles at the site carrying the flags of nations where cleared Scots settled.

He has instead decided to invest £150,000 in setting up a history faculty for the University of the Highlands and Islands at Dornoch, so that the story of the Clearances and their aftermath could be spread around the world. “Things have now taken a different, and to my mind, better turn. Instead of having a static attraction at Helmsdale we will have an academic centre that will have a wider impact around the world.”

Back in Helmsdale, the community council is trying to pick up the pieces of the project that never fully came off. Evelyn MacKenzie, the chairwoman, said the council was now trying to raise £100,000 to build a pontoon to attract yachtsmen into the harbour. “Although we are not now going to get the thousands who might have visited a Clearances Centre, we hope it will go some way towards making up for the loss.”

THE Highland Clearances have long been the subject of emotive debate.

Some historians have tried to explain the Clearances as a necessary process of economic and agricultural change which was widespread across Europe in the late 18th and the early 19th century.

However, other writers are coruscating in their condemnation of the process, describing it as an early version of “ethnic cleansing”.

The historian Michael Fry reignited the controversy last year in his book, Wild Scots: Four Hundred Years of Highland History, which assaulted the “myth” of the Clearances, arguing that the mass eviction of Highlanders by ruthless landowners was largely a voluntary attempt to escape poverty and find a better life.

However, his argument was widely condemned by the Scottish political establishment, who accused him of “playing with words” and “ignoring his responsibility as a historian to honour those who had endured trauma and suffering”.

Rob Gibson, the nationalist MSP and land reform campaigner, introduced a parliamentary motion condemning Fry, as a “Clearance Denier”, arguing that the removal of locals for sheep caused mass depopulation and economic hardship for centuries.

“The Clearances have left unfinished business,” said Gibson.

Source-Scotland on Sunday

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