Page last updated at 23:33 GMT, Thursday, 21 May 2009 00:33 UK

Banished for driving sheep away

The sheep industry is worth more than 165m to the Scottish economy today

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

It is the year of Homecoming Scotland and the Scottish Government has been encouraging celebrations of all things Scottish.

Expats and people from abroad with Scottish ancestry have been invited to return to their homeland to enjoy and participate in festivals and events.

But 217 years ago, in what would become known in Scotland as the Year of the Sheep, government was pushing for the banishment of some Scots with the threat of execution should they ever return.

At a wedding, war was declared on sheep.

Men gathering for the celebration - the majority of them members of the Ross family of Strathrusdale - decided to pursue an ambitious plan to drive thousands of the animals from the hills of Easter Ross and Sutherland.

Announcements were made outside churches on a particular Sunday. The plan was drive the sheep from Sutherland and Easter Ross south
Prof Jim Hunter
UHI Centre for History

Four days later, 400 men began the operation.

It would lead to the mobilisation of soldiers from Fort George, near Inverness, court trials, and, for one of those involved, an order banishing him from Scotland for life.

It was 1792 and the Highland Clearances were under way.

Landowners were evicting thousands of tenant crofting families - in some cases forcibly - to make way for lucrative large-scale livestock farming.

In one corner of the Highlands this led to the Ross-shire Sheep Riots as crofters stood against the new farmers.

The troubles of July and August 1792 saw the year become known in Gaelic as Bliadhna nan Caorach - the Year of the Sheep.

Faded and fragile papers from Inverness County Sheriff Court Records, held in Highland Council's archive and available online on the website Am Baile, give an insight into some of the events of that summer.

The sheep riots began in June when a shepherd, Allan Cameron, and three others - one of them a woman - were attacked by a mob of 80 to 100 people.

French Revolution

Cameron, who was from Lochaber, was accused by locals of impounding their free roaming horses and cattle and then demanding payment for their release, according to Am Baile's reading of the papers.

During the assault, the shepherd was threatened. He was told his house would be torched and he would be killed if he did not leave the country, taking his sheep with him.

A warrant was issued for a number of those involved in the riot. It is dated 27 July - the same day of the wedding where the sheep-driving plotters had gathered.

Prof Jim Hunter, director of the UHI Centre for History, said the events in the Highlands played out against the backdrop of the French Revolution, which had started in 1789.

The historian does not believe the rioters were inspired by the revolution, though they may well have been aware of its effect instilling fear and suspicion among the government and monarchy that a similar uprising would happen in Britain.

He said what happened in Ross-shire in 1792 was a reaction to people being forced off the land.

Statue of George Washington in NY
A statue of George Washington in New York City

Prof Hunter said: "What is significant about what happened was that is was the only widely-organised protest against sheep farming and the clearances that ever happened.

"It was a well-organised attempt to do something.

"I haven't been able to find evidence to back this, but I suspect that given the level of organisation involved that former soldiers may have been among the protestors."

Scots - including many Highlanders - had fought in the Seven Years' War of 1756-63 and American Revolution of 1775-83.

The first pitted Britain and its allies against France and its supporters in what has been described as the "first world war", while the later conflict saw George Washington lead the colonist Continental Army to victory against British rule.

Prof Hunter said: "Announcements were made outside churches on a particular Sunday. The plan was drive the sheep from Sutherland and Easter Ross south."

The sheep drivers recruited to their ranks as they pushed south.

By early August, they had rounded up 6,000 sheep and had reached Beauly, near Inverness.

Prof Hunter said: "The government was panicky. The situation was worse from their perspective because of the French Revolution and there was apprehension that the same thing might happen in Britain.

"The government cracked down on public protests."

'Beyond seas'

Soldiers of the 42nd Regiment, better known as the Black Watch, were sent from Fort George on the Moray Coast to arrest the sheep drivers.

The Inverness County Sheriff Court Records reveal the punishments ordered for six men accused of driving sheep away.

They were Hugh Breck MacKenzie, John Aird, Malcolm Ross, Donald Munro, Alexander MacKay and William Cunningham.

MacKenzie and Aird were both ordered to be transported for seven years "beyond seas to such places as His Majesty shall appoint".

If they returned to Britain in those seven years they were to be sentenced to death.

Ross was to be fined £50 and detained in prison for a month and Cunningham three years in prison.

MacKay and Munro were to be banished from Scotland for the rest of their lives.

Today, the sheep industry that grew in part from the clearances is facing problems of its own.

There were about 7.1 million sheep in Scotland last year and estimated to be worth £165m to the economy, according to Scottish Government figures.

However, NFU Scotland warn increased production costs and more regulation from Europe is driving many farmers out of the business.

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