Patrick Sellar

Image of Patrick SellarIf one person epitomised all that was hated about the Highland Clearances that man would be identified as Elgin born Patrick Sellar.  Indeed his gravestone at Elgin Cathedral still attracts visitors from overseas with Scottish connections eager to record their hatred.

And yet without the Clearances and Patrick Sellar in particular, would we be celebrating this Year of Homecoming 2014?

Patrick Sellar was born on 5 December 1780, the only son of Thomas Sellar, solicitor and his wife Jean Plenderleath, daughter of an Edinburgh minister.

Patrick had a privileged childhood, was educated at Edinburgh University and joined his father’s flourishing legal practice in 1803, some five years before his father purchased the estate of Westfield near Elgin.

In 1809 Patrick and William Young a local farmer and improvement entrepreneur, were called to Sutherland to advise Lady Stafford, Countess of Sutherland on plans for the improvement of her vast highland estates of some 1.5 million acres.  In 1810 they were appointed to manage the estate.

It was a challenging time.  The demise of the old clan systems meant that those living on an estate were no longer a resource to be called upon in time of battle but were now seen as a liability, standing in the way of modern farming methods and the maximising of the landowners’ incomes.  Sellar was mainly responsible for rent collection and removals.

He recalled: “Lord and Lady Stafford were pleased humanely to order the new arrangement of this country.  That the interior should be possessed by Cheviot shepherds, and the people brought down to the coast and placed in lots of less than three acres, sufficient for the maintenance of an industrious family, pinched enough to cause them to turn their attention to the fishing.  This was a most benevolent action to put these barbarous Highlanders into a position where they could better associate together, apply themselves to industry, educate their children and advance in civilisation.”

In parallel with his core duties Sellar acquired a large arable farm and then bid successfully for a large new sheep farm in Strathnaver.  The scene was set for a seething bitterness carried through future generations.

The removals by Sellar were particularly severe.  An eyewitness account relates that:
“The consternation and confusion were extreme.  Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property, the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them.

The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds, amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description.”  At the township of Rosal “The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins”.

On 13 June 1814, Sellar was involved in the eviction of William Chisholm and his wife from their croft.  During the eviction the roof was set on fire, with Chisholm’s mother-in-law, Margaret Mackay, still inside.  She was rescued by her daughter and taken to a nearby shed, where she died five days later.  Sellar was put on trial at Inverness in April 1816 for acts of gross inhumanity, including culpable homicide.  Tried by a jury of landowners from outside Sutherland he was completely exonerated!

Sellar was eased out of the Sutherland management, but he had left his indelible mark, some 15,000 people being cleared from the Sutherland Estates between 1811 and 1821.  Patrick Sellar remained one of the greatest sheep farmers in the Highlands, widely respected as an agricultural adviser and sheep expert and influential in establishing wool and sheep markets.

In 1819 he married Anne, daughter of Thomas Craig of Barmuckity, near Elgin.  They had nine children, with one son becoming professor of Latin in Edinburgh University and another a successful MP.  Between 1838 and 1844 he bought two estates in Morven Argyll, evicting 230 people, but soon fell out with his neighbours.  After a long illness he died on 20 October 1851 at Park Place, Elgin and was buried at Elgin Cathedral on 1 November.

For many, Patrick Sellar from Moray embodies the Highland Clearances.  He was single minded, severely critical of the old highland ways and thought that the highlanders should emigrate for everybody’s sake.  In retrospect, did he merely accelerate the inevitable, whereby overpopulation and poverty would have driven those highlanders to the new industrial cities, or to the coast or overseas in due course?

What is indisputable is that his methods, even for the harsh times of the early 19th century, were severe.  But did his actions directly contribute to the rich cultures of Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand and those Scottish connections which we celebrate during this Year of Homecoming?