... the Clearance of Glencalvie in 1845, a tragic event that is recorded in messages scratched on its east window
"... the Clearance of Glencalvie
in 1845, a tragic event that is recorded in messages scratched on its east window"


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The Church at Croick - by P.A. MacNab

(First published in Scots Magazine of May 1963 and now reproduced by kind permission of the Author)

I had long cherished a wish to visit Croick Church, with its sad, strange memories of the Clearances, and last summer I was able to fulfil a promise I had made to myself.

The road began in a familiar enough way. North from The Cromarty Firth up across the heathery moors, past the breathtaking viewpoint of Struie Hill, with the Dornoch Firth, the Kyle of Sutherland, and the sudden mountains, then the sweep down to Ardgay.

But at Ardgay I entered strange country. I turned left off the main road and found myself on the narrow but level road that runs on the south of the River Carron towards the tangle of hills and Glens away to the west.

It is a lonely countryside, its emptiness relieved only by one or two shooting lodges and sheep farms, with here and there a clump of woodland and rhododendrons crowding behind sheltering walls. The road crosses to the north bank of the river and after two or three rough miles peters out at Croick, 12 miles from Ardgay.

Here at last was the Church we had come to see. Its adjacent manse is now the keeper’s house its only neighbour a small sheep farm. Although the church and its precincts are well tended, there is a forlorn air about the place. Where are the people and houses to justify its presence in this remote glen?

Croick Church was built in 1827. It was then a centre of worship attended by a weekly congregation of 200 from the little communities which won a living from the soil and grazings round and about. Now they are gone. Nothing remains but old tracks radiating through the heather to green oasis on the hillsides and an occasional rickle of stones which mark where the houses of thriving people once stood, mute evidence of the Clearances and depopulation.

Every year, on the last Sunday in July, a Communion service is conducted in the Church by the minister of Kincardine Parish, whose consolidated charges and wide district point to the once large population for whom all those Churches were established.

The door stood invitingly ajar, so I went in. Everything is plain and well preserved inside the Church. The centre of interest lies, of course, in the east window, where a few words and names scratched on the diamond panes remind us of the whole sad story behind the depopulation, the outcome of one of the later clearances or ‘Improvements’ of the last century.

The incidents which centred on Croick Church are as reprehensible as any of the more widely publicised Clearances, although, in justice to the landlord, Major Charles Robertson of Kindeace, it should be said that they took place on the initiative of his factor, James Gillanders, who lived at Tain. The object of his policy of Improvement was Glen Calvie, which lies quite near Croick, which itself had suffered in the same manner a few years earlier.

In 1843 the people of Glen Calvie, reduced in numbers to no more than ninety by earlier evictions, were described as a happy, self-contained community. Although the glen was poor and rocky, it was rented at 55.10s. considered an exorbitant figure yet the people paid it. Furthermore, they were free from debt, law-abiding, and had sent many soldiers to the wars: they raised sheep and black cattle, and grew potatoes and barley. They could trace their tenancies back for 500 years.

The events which followed came to the notice of the London "Times", who sent a special correspondent to the scene. He summarised the general position in the north, with special reference to glen Calvie: "… through the actions of factors in the lonely glens, hundreds of people and generally industrious peasants have been driven from their means of support to become wanderers and starving beggars – a brave and valuable population lost …".

In 1843 Gillanders began his scheme to turn the glen into one large sheep farm at an even higher rent. The first step was to serve summonses of removal on the tenants. Anticipating this, however, and on watch just outside the boundary across the river, the women of the glen intercepted the constables, and, seizing the wrist of the man holding the writs, they applied live coals to the papers until they were destroyed, seeking to prove they had neither been seen nor handled in the glen.

Next year, not to be outdone, the crafty Gillanders invited the chief tenants to Tain for a "friendly discussion". Instead he placed the formal notices to quit in their hands. Decree for removal followed, and the law took its course. Stunned and bewildered, the people began to hunt feverishly for alternative holdings but only six families could find a place, and poor ones at that. The others were at last evicted by force, and for a time, while their menfolk were continuing their hopeless search, they were allowed to shelter in Croick churchyard, exposed to the elements, wishing, as it is recorded, that death would come to allow them to join there forefathers beneath the sward. They were helped only by the minister, who did all in his power to ease their condition.

As the people passed the weary days among the tombs someone among them, scratching idly on the diamond-shaped panes of the east window, left a short pathetic message for posterity. In the unhurried copperplate writing of last century we can still decipher some of the names: "C. Chalmers" "John Ross, Shepherd, parish of Ardgay" and others and, bowing meekly to what was accepted by a God-fearing people as Divine chastisement – "Glen Calvie people, the wicked generation" "Glen Calvie people was in the churchyard here May 24th 1845" – The words "Church Officer" also appear under the name "Ann McAlister", but it is probable that the designation refers to an illegible name scratched below. It is highly unlikely that a woman be acceptable as Church officer in the middle of the last century, in a community such as this one.

Why were they not allowed to shelter inside the Church? I suggest that the answer is simple. In those days this would have been regarded as desecration of a holy place, and even under such necessity, and if invited by the minister, they would probably have refused.

When Gillanders died, he was buried near the side gate of the churchyard. For generations afterward the memory of his cruel deceit was kept alive by the casting of stones and refuse on his grave until it became an unsightly, weed-grown mound. I could see no trace of this now. The Church is to be left open for visitors and an account of its history exhibited inside.

I left the Church and its sad memories and followed the alternative road past Braelangwell Lodge down Glen Carron and its fine salmon river, back to rejoin the busy main road at Ardgay.

 

 

 

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"The Church At Croick" by P.A. MacNab

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