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Open Letter to the Countess of Sutherland

Poetry by Joseph TG MacLeod edited by Peter Lawrie
Joseph MacLeod, Inverness   At the foot of this webpage is an "Open Letter to the Countess of Sutherland". I discovered it among some papers while researching the writings of my own Great-Grandfather, Joseph MacLeod (1862-1949). - the author of Highland Heroes of the Land Reform Movement . But the "Open Letter" was not written by my Joseph. Instead it was by war-time BBC Newsreader Joseph Todd Gordon MacLeod, (1903-1984).

I was once shown a photograph of the two of them, when the younger Joseph visited the elder at his home in Crown Drive, Inverness, during 1941. A blood relationship is tenuous, except perhaps many hundreds of years ago - the parish records do not go that far back. However, on reading the poem below, I feel that they must have found much to discuss about the Clearances and the Highland land question. With no more evidence than the dates to support this, I wonder at the coincidence of his visit to Joseph in Inverness being followed in 1942 and 1943 by his Highland and particularly "Clearance" poetry in Men of the Rocks and Ghosts of the Strath.

  Joseph Todd Gordon MacLeod
Among the JTG MacLeod papers at the National Library of Scotland is a letter from Joseph in Inverness dated April 1941. In it, Joseph responds to "an interesting letter" from JTG MacLeod in which he had mentioned his connection with Kildonan. Joseph responded indicating that he would help in any way he could when JTG MacLeod came North. He also mentioned that he knew the (late) Rev. Adam MacLeod of Croy, who was a cousin of JTG's father, and his son who was a minister in Leith. Unfortunately this is the only letter in the archive, we don't have JTG's original enquiry or an indication of when he did actually visit Inverness and presumably go on to Kildonan. As I mentioned the photograph of the two men in Inverness proves that he did. A PDF of the letter is here.

Kildonan, Sutherland The ancestors of both men came from the East Sutherland parish of Kildonan, which had been subjected to a notorious Clearance of the populace by the Sutherland estate between 1813 and 1819. I found the ancestry of Joseph Todd Gordon MacLeod by searching the Parish Records, census returns, and and the Free Church records. His great grandparents, as written in the Open Letter, were George MacLeod, the dominie of Kildonan, and his wife Ann Gordon, whose family had been one of the many burned out of Strathnaver by Patrick Sellar in 1813. George and Ann were left at the Kildonan schoolhouse after 1819, to teach the children of the incoming shepherds as there was virtually nobody else left in the strath. Their three sons and two daughters were born between 1817 and 1825. George Gordon MacLeod, the youngest, was born 25/4/1825, entered Aberdeen University in 1845 and graduated MA. He served as the Minister of Duke Street Gaelic Free Church in Glasgow. On 24th June 1858 in Banff, he married Anna Ross MacPhail from Lochbroom, Wester Ross.

Adam, another son of George and Ann, born 14/9/1821, also became a Free Church Minister and four of Adam's sons, in turn, would follow him into the ministry of the Free Church. One of the four, the Rev. Adam Andrew Gordon MacLeod (1856-1928) became the minister of Croy, mentioned above in Joseph's letter.

Glasgow George Gordon MacLeod and Anna Ross MacPhail had three sons and a daughter (George, James, John and Helen). George Somerville MacLeod, was born 11/1/1861 Blythswood, Glasgow and followed his father to became a Free Church Minister. James Gordon MacLeod was born 6/12/1863 and John Somerville MacLeod on 2/5/1865. Their last child, Helen, was born in May 1867 and died the same year, as did her mother.

Dundee James Gordon MacLeod married Dundonian Helen Kidd Todd on 17/4/1898. Helen had been born in Dundee on 5/10/1873 to Thomas Robertson Todd and Eliza Cunningham Kidd.

London James G MacLeod and his wife moved to London where he become the managing director of the Rio Tinto Trading Company. The birth of their only son, Joseph Todd Gordon MacLeod was at 19 Inglis Road, Ealing, Middlesex, on 24 April 1903.

A brief Biography The following brief biography of Joseph Todd Gordon MacLeod has been taken from online references, including the website of Waterloo Press. He was educated at Rugby School and Balliol, Oxford and passed his bar examinations, though he never practised as a barrister, preferring a career as an actor, and to fulfil his hopes of becoming a poet. At Rugby he was close friends with Adrian Stokes and, at Oxford, with Graham Greene.

In 1937 he became secretary of Huntingdonshire Divisional Labour Party and stood as a parliamentary candidate, but failed to gain election. In 1938, after researching and recording a well-received programme on Russian theatre history, he joined the BBC as announcer and newsreader, becoming a renowned wartime newsreader, but resigned from the BBC in 1945. Joseph died in 1984.

Clearance verse Between 1940 and 1953, he published under the pseudonym Adam Drinan. Drinan's works were admired by W. S. Graham, Compton Mackenzie, Neil M. Gunn, William Montgomerie and Edwin Muir, who marvelled at his ability to render Gaelic rhythms and assonance in English, and at his vivid descriptions of the Scottish landscape and inhabitants. "Through the Drinan verse, particularly in Men of the Rocks (1942) and Ghosts of the Strath (1943) MacLeod sought to develop a ‘documentary’ style which focused upon community and locality, particularly the people of the Highlands and Islands, whilst referencing past atrocities such as the Clearances".

I am intrigued by his admirer's comments on his rendering of Gaelic assonance in English, which even great Gaelic poets such as Sorley MacLean had struggled to do. It might even suggest that MacLeod had been a Gaelic speaker himself. In the context of the time this would have been remarkable. Born in London and educated at Rugby and Oxford, it seems hardly credible that his father would have taught him the language. My own Joseph had been brought up in a Gaelic speaking home in Helmsdale but the almost universal prejudice at the beginning of the 20th century had been that Gaelic was a handicap to "getting on in life" and therefore he discouraged his children in Inverness from using it. Thus the Gaelic dialect peculiar to East Sutherland is now extinct. Elimination of the language had been an ambition, as expressed by Sir Robert Gordon's advice to his nephew, ever since the Gordon family captured the Sutherland earldom at the end of the 17th century. The Clearances and the estate's domination of every aspect of life in the 19th century, and with compulsory education provision from the 1880s, enabled them to achieve this ambition. The last elderly native speakers of the distinctive East Sutherland dialect of Gaelic died in Embo in the 1980s. Perhaps MacLeod learned some Gaelic as an adult, but few adult learners achieve real proficiency in the language.

In James Fountain's 2010 thesis on MacLeod, I found this poignant and intense synopsis of the personal reality of the Clearances from Poem VII of Men of the Rocks. Unlike much of MacLeod's verse, this needs no explanation from a literary critic. MacLeod expresses succinctly in just three stanzas the suffering of the people and the heartlessness of the factors and their employers. Donald MacLeod needed many pages in letters XIX and XX of Gloomy Memories pages 48 to 51 to convey the same outrage - his own family had been similarly treated while he was away working. Although Donald's wife had not died, he wrote of her "... she is now, except at short intervals, a burden to herself, with little or no hopes of recovery. ... the injuries she received in body and mind, were too deep for even her good spirits and excellent constitution to overcome, and she remains a living monument of Highland oppression".

Here was a youth, a young wife, and two children,
a third to come. They paid less rent than sheep.
Here was their croft, this stump the stonechat chides from.
Deep the heather as that night’s snowfall deep.

Here was a ditch. She cuddled the children, thanking
almighty God for his lovingkindly mud;
and drew across the top a smouldered blanket
and praised Him for the love wherewith He loved.

The factor searched and came upon the litter
and prodded with his stick until they fled.
The husband was away to earn his living.
At dawn on the white hill the wife was dead.

The Open Letter to the Countess of Sutherland, was published in 1978 under his own name. Why does the Open Letter resonate so strongly with me? It expresses MacLeod's personal, implacable anger towards the Sutherland earldom who were responsible for the appalling treatment of his ancestors - and mine. He admits that while the 20th century Countess of Sutherland whom he addressed was not personally responsible for the dreadful actions of her family, - "it is not yourself indeed we are hating or blaming," but the memory, "the sack on time's back", passed by his forebears to MacLeod (and also to the wider community of descendants of the 'cleared of Kildonan', including myself). He says "I did not fill the sack either".

"My father's father's sister" was Mary MacLeod, born 20/7/1819 and still residing with her parents and her brother, trainee Free Church minister George Gordon MacLeod, at the Kildonan schoolhouse in the 1851 census. From the census returns it is apparent that Mary remained unmarried at Kildonan until at least 1901 when she was aged 81, therefore, "in her croft on the hunger line above the Helmsdale shore" may be poetic license with regard to her location, but not the straitened circumstances. She had treasured her father's writings, only to have them taken and destroyed as unwanted evidence by estate functionaries.

While Mary MacLeod may not have actually resided on the Helmsdale shore, my own Joseph MacLeod's father and grandfather most certainly did exist in a "croft on the hunger line above the Helmsdale shore" thanks to the "improvements" introduced by the ancestors of the Countess of Sutherland. While I, personally, like many descendants of the 'cleared of Kildonan' may be comfortably off today, our present well-being was not the intent of the Countess's forebears towards ours.

Unlike Joseph TG MacLeod, I have no poetic talent with which to express my anger. I am not alone in this sense of outrage, Pat Bukalska, a Polish journalist, with whom I recently discussed the Clearances wrote "When I talked to people in Brora and Helmsdale I was surprised how strongly they still feel about the past — it is almost as if it happened 20 years ago, and not 200 years ago."

For more about JTG MacLeod / Adam Drinan


Open letter to the countess of Sutherland

Lady, it is not yourself indeed
we are hating or blaming. No. no,
that burden of birth on your back it was not
your shoulder bound
for your bending. But the sack on time's back
that has moulded my shoulders,
I did not fill the sack either.

In my veins implacable blood beats
of Gordons out of Strathnaver:
through my semen seed spirts
from the dominie of Kildonan,
and from his father the packman from Tain
who married the dominie's daughter
and crowned himself dominie.

Expelling that son, you, Lady, expelled my father's son
now not even a ghost of the Strath
which was yours by the law; not among sad ghosts,
results of your law—
him the dominie, and
him the minister, and
Muckle Donuil the minister's man.

And the father of me, Lady,
(never a mean nor a spiteful soul
spoke from my father's mouth)
but what I now tell,
since the time of telling at last has come,
my father told to me
not once but again
and again and
again, with grief on his humble highland
face. things unobliterable:
that I might never forget
the fact in the phantom,
dream in abolished home,
the rich wished sigh
which soughs on Kildonan.

It was my father's father's sister.
as my father told me,
in her croft on the hunger line
above the Helmsdale shore,
your ducal factor came to:
meaning, Countess,
on that day you came to me.

Another man was with him,
unknown, or not ,to be known.
They sought in the written hand
of the last,
outcast, safe-dead-fisted
dominie of Kildonan
writings known to be treasured in the croft.
One, the Sessions Book
kept by the dominie as Sessions Clerk
belonged to the Kirk
(our kirk, not yours, by the fish-profuse
Minister's Pool);
the other a penning dawn after dawn,
eve after eve, of
the doings in the Strath and the wilderment
in the thinkings of,the Strath,
now, now our wilderness, season after season,
year after year of
life flattened down to
a rabbit-run in a green trade
to make your profits
from southern sheep,
Or bracken.

That anonymous, no-one-responsible,
shadow from your family, sleuthing
our aged lady on the hunger line,
intimated His Grace of Dunrobin
would be liking to read these books
in the dominie's hand.
So the grace that had been in the Strath
graciously in the graceless croft
lent them.

These loans Dunrobin,
ducal by loans and purchases,
never returned,
And never will the books, Lady,
be found in your Castle,
nor are they interred
in your papers at Register House.
Not even smoke they are any more,
Like the sky over Auschwitz.

Would it surprise you to hear
that when this cultured voice of mine
was loved at a microphone during a war,
not seldom, in bed, I dreaded
that maybe the course of my duties
in a south-british studio
might order my sounds to be suave
to one of your family.
Or be seeming suave,
Might tell me to welcome, kilted in brightly
brittly-echoed walls of talking,
to plaid itself, gag itself, over 'old wrongs'
by time to no-time.

Notions at night long years ago
are now long dead, but dreads remain,
and the deeds of the dead remain,
and the tall thick
idled grasses of Kildonan
obliterating my grave there,
my absence of burial there,
and all of us stil remain
in exile.

Indeed you did, you do, you would do well
to renounce:
for yesterday once was today, and still
all yesterdays are today.
Because of this, Lady, we are tied together,
you and I,
yours and mine,
for ever.