The Rousay Clearances

By Fiona Grahame Images by Martin Laird

Kamoan, bounded by Tibet and Nepal, is part of the Himalayan range. Mahatma Gandhi wrote of it “In these hills, nature’s hospitality eclipse all men can do.”

It was once covered in dense forests filled with many kinds of wild animals. Human occupation dates back thousands of years. By 1850 those dense forests were stripped back to make way for intensive farming.

It was to this beautiful land that George William Traill arrived to take up his post as its first administrator as part of the British Empire in 1816.

The period 1815 – 1914 is known as Britain’s Imperial Century when the might of the Empire stretched across almost a quarter of the world’s land surface and more than a quarter of the world’s population came under its control.

Exploitation was the name of the game as the Empire provided raw materials and a cheap labour force. For a few, riches were to be made in service overseas either in the civil or military administration of the colonies.

And so it was for George William Traill who retired from the civil service in 1836 and began to use his acquired wealth to buy up land on the island of Rousay , Orkney.

Farm improvements were already taking place on the many tenanted farms in Orkney. The kelp industry had gone bust. It  had provided landowners with a lot of easy money at the expense of crofters who had to harvest the kelp from the shoreline leaving their fields to do so. Landowners reorganised their estates. It was a pattern replicated across Orkney’s islands as tenanted crofters who had farmed the land for generations were removed to make way for the squaring off of fields or in the case of Shapinsay to be rehoused in a planned village. Many left for good to travel south to the towns in the Scottish mainland or to emigrate across the seas.

For the tenanted farmers left, life became even harder as common grazing land was simply taken over by the large estates which were being created.

Frotoft was the first land in Rousay purchased by  George William Traill. The estate was that of a distantly related Traill now in debt due to the collapse of that once lucrative kelp industry. George continued buying up land including Quandale in 1841 and the Westness estate in 1845.

Quandale was said to be a fine bere growing area. Bere is an ancient strain of barley suited to the Orkney climate. The grain was used for milling and malting. The straw for numerous different products. Today bere barley is having something of resurgence in popularity.

George William Traill was not interested in bere growing. This was about making money and he decided that clearing the crofts of people and replacing them with sheep would be more profitable.

The former Westside Kirk

In the 1841 census, 214 people including 41 children lived in Quandale. That’s almost more than the population of the whole of Rousay today. The crofters at Quandale had to renew their tenancies every year. In 1845, once they had brought in the harvest, the 28 households were given notice to quit. Any who remained would be considered squatters. The people of Quandale were evicted from the crofts they had farmed and improved for generations.  Some moved to poorer land in Rousay where they had to start the process all over again of building up their crofts, including the homes they would live in. Many emigrated.

As in other parts of Scotland, houses were destroyed to ensure people would not be able to return. The only building remaining, The House of Tofts was said to be the oldest 2 storey building in Orkney. Dating back to the 16th century, possibly much earlier, today it is a roofless ruin having been finally cleared in 1846. The once vibrant township of Quandale was emptied of people and replaced   with sheep.

The House of Tofts

In 1847, aged 54, George William Traill, was found dead in the toilet. He had suffered a heart attack after an evening’s dining at the Oriental Club London . His estates were inherited by a distant great nephew Frederick William Burroughs who assumed the name Traill-Burroughs on succession. The estates on Rousay continued to be under the management of the highly efficient factor Robert Scarth as the new laird was not of age.

This was only the first phase of the Rousay Clearances.

This article was first published in iScot Magazine.

There is a publication available to purchase which went with the recent exhibition “The Rousay Clearances: Exodus from the Egypt of the North. “

To purchase a hard copy at £8 email

The ebook is available from Blurb at £3 . Click on the link The Rousay Clearances

Related article: Rousay: ‘Gods of the Earth, Gods of the Sea’

6 replies »

  1. More history we were never taught about…

    “The most powerful form of lie is the omission”. Orwell

    ‘Gleichschaltung Gaslighting: The Eradication of Scots Historic-Cultural Identity’ (© 2017) by ‬#GaslightingGilligan

  2. I remember history lessons at Balerno High School back in the 1990s. Our history teacher would tell us of how the highland clearances were justified. I argued with him about it back then. One of the first things I hope is changed through independence, will be the way we teach our children about the history that shaped the land the lands they live in today.

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