Hard lives long lost

David Henderson

David Henderson joins a group entering into the story of the Sutherland Clearances. The Duchess Eileen, wife of the Fifth Duke of Sutherland, and the taxidermist had combined to great effect, even if their efforts did not find favour with one Beith Primary 11-year-old.

A prostrate lioness, very dead after being shot by the duchess earlier this century, now lies quietly in the library of the imposing Dunrobin Castle overlooking the waters of the Dornoch Firth. Her jaws and steely eyes remain menacing, even if the rest of her is in rug format. (The lioness, that is.) Young Emma, however, is not impressed. "It looks as though it's been run over by a steamroller," she scoffs, and saunters on through the rambling chambers, adorned with masterpieces of every kind.

The Duke and his good lady were well connected (he died in 1963): black-and-white pictures of the Queen Mum and her husband, George VI, adorn a sideboard.

"I wouldn't like to live here," quips another young Ayrshire lass. "It's too grand." Dunrobin Castle is certainly that. The earls and dukes of Sutherland were not short of a bob or two since, as clan chiefs, they owned virtually the whole of the county and were among the richest families in Europe, according to the official guidebook.

The First Duke, an Englishman who died in 1833, retains a special place in Scottish history and even today his statue, which dominates the ben overlooking Golspie, continues to provoke controversy. Scottish Nationalists recently wanted to flatten it.

The ill-feeling was caused by the family role in throwing thousands of families off their crofts in the early 19th century as sheep replaced people in the Sutherland Clearances. The Duke and his factors were reviled for their harshness as crofters were shipped overseas to the colonies.

Sixty-seven 10 and 11-year-olds from Beith Primary in North Ayrshire travelled up north in late June on the trail of the Clearances, depicted through the fictional Murray family, centrepiece of the Desperate Journey story, now much adapted by Scottish primaries.

At one point in the story, set during the Clearances, the two Murray children make a final plea to the Countess of Sutherland not to remove their family from their land. Despite walking barefoot eight miles to Dunrobin Castle they got no joy.

After studying what teachers describe as a "fabulous story", involving all aspects of primary work, stretching to geography, history, art, technology and drama, the Beith pupils were able to experience first hand what it must have been like for the Murray children.

The daily diary of young Feargus, euphemistically known as the "character" of this five-day trip organised through the Scottish Youth Hostels Association, records what all felt: "You find it sad when you find out what happened to there (sic) houses."

Having experienced the wealth of the Sutherlands at Dunrobin in the morning, the Timespan museum up the coast at Helmsdale brought home to the party in the afternoon the daily lives of the crofters. The museum makes no bones about the goodies and baddies. Feargus was impressed.

The day before the party had toured Croick Church in Strath Carron. Crofters turfed off their land lived in the churchyard for years, refusing to desecrate the church by living inside. Their names are still etched on the church window panes.

Party leaders Margaret Aitchison and Cathie McLachlan, Primary 6 teachers, jumped at the SYHA package, now in its second year. "Kids get so much out of the Desperate Journey and this adds to it. They're being reminded of what they've learned. Our visit to the castle really showed up the contrasts and you could not have imagined the wealth unless you saw it," Mrs McLachlan says.

Her colleague adds that the Highland Clearances are part of the children's heritage and they really feel that they are the Murray children when they are being evicted.

Both were impressed with the Pounds 110 youth hostel package and especially their base in Carbisdale Castle. It was built earlier this century following a Sutherland family bust-up and was home to the Duchess Blair before the Salvesen family bought and donated the building to the SYHA in 1945.

Carbisdale is reminiscent of the old style hostels but compensates by its grandeur and setting. Its paintings, statues and artifacts gave auctioneers Christie's the colliewobbles, although it could never be in the same class as Dunrobin.

But for Ayrshire kids, it was something else. Playing hide and seek in a haunted castle was memorable. Legend has it the Duchess stalks the link corridor after dusk ("don't look behind you" was the advice offered) and a former nannie who lost a baby is reputed to shed tears in the boys' dormitory.

One lad on the first night accused his mates of spitting on him. Staff did not dare tell of spookier matters.

June Osborne, who heads the SYHA office in Glasgow, devised the package, one of three historical tours through Scottish history, sampled by more than 2,000 pupils in the past two years. "We're trying to encourage schools to use youth hostels in Scotland and also to allow kids to see their own country rather than Disneyland. It's about the bonding of the children. They've got to learn to live with each other," she explained.

The SYHA packages can be tailored to individual needs. The three tours, In the Footsteps of the Jacobites, The Scottish Wars of Independence and The Desperate Journey, include transport, meals, accommodation and entry to visitor attractions. Details from June Osborne, SYHA, 12 Renfield Street, Glasgow G2 5AL. Tel: 0141 226 3976

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