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Neil M. Bruce explores the reaction of the press to the appearance on the Scottish mainland of refugees from Barra, who arrived in 1850 in an effort to the escape the effects of potato famine and who found themselves at the centre of a complex and shifting media narrative

In the news: The ‘richest commoner’ and his Barra tenants


Cluny Castle, the main residence of John Gordon of Cluny

In December 1850, a party of ‘Barra Highlanders’ appeared on the streets of Glasgow. Their arrival was the first reported instance of mainland Scots being confronted with significant numbers of impoverished highlanders, who had been ‘ejected’ from their homeland. Their presence prompted discussion, reported in the press, about how best to deal with them. The press also discussed the responsibilities of their landlord, ‘the richest commoner in Scotland’, Colonel John Gordon of Cluny, and subsequently, reported wider deliberation about the condition of the Highlands and Islands.

This article will consider how the ‘fourth estate’ reported and commented on the unfolding story, reflecting on the different perspectives of individual newspapers. It will also consider how some of those involved used the press to their own ends. In particular, the role of one journalist, Donald Ross, will be assessed, as will that of Cluny as proprietor of Barra, and in particular whether he saw himself as sufficiently wealthy and singleminded to be able to ignore the ‘court of public opinion’.

The press was well-versed in reporting the then prevalent highland famine, its causes and consequences. Newspaper articles had considered the respective roles of landowners and relief agencies, as well as external perceptions of highlanders. Using contemporary reports, Kristina Fenyö has categorised Lowland perceptions of highlanders as being of of ‘contempt’, ‘sympathy’ and ‘romance’, often ‘running in parallel columns of the same newspaper’. She recognised that ‘by the early 1850s, however, a strong sense of giving up on the highlanders and highland improvement set in’. The arrival of the Barra highlanders came at this pivotal time, and in its discussion this article will assess how well Fenyö’s categories reflected lowland perceptions in this instance.

Cluny bought the Barra estate in 1841, for £38,050, from the trustees of the sequestered 41st chief of clan MacNeil, General Roderick MacNeil, who had been trying to sell it since 1837 at an initial asking price of £65,000. Between 1838 and 1841, Cluny accumulated considerable acreage throughout the Western Isles, taking advantage of the relatively low price of land to buy the estates of Benbecula, Bornish, Boisdale and South Uist for a total of £156,157 10s. He invested capital in efforts to improve farming practices and develop fishing to sustain the population, while achieving a return for himself, which he calculated might be four and 2/3 per cent per annum. However, one critical commentator, Thomas Mulock, described him as ‘quite a babe in pecuniary matters’ because he expected to increase rents by harvesting ‘the goldenegged goose’ of kelp, even though that market had waned since the end of the Napoleonic wars.

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About History Scotland

In this packed issue we continue our pioneering new series which focuses on the Stewart queen consorts, exploring the life of Arabella Drummond (c.1350-1401) who played a significant role in governing the country following the incapacity of her husband Robert III of Scots. Also in this issue: · The ‘richest commoner’ and his Barra tenants · Excavations beneath the streets of Inverness · New reconstruction of St Andrew’s Cathedral Plus: Family history advice, archaeology dig reports and finds analysis, National Records of Scotland column and lots more…