Nestled just beyond Eynort in western Skye sprawls a pocket of green land, scattered with ruined dwellings. They lie snuggled together, their stones patterned with moss and lichen. The only sound is the whisper of a river and the cry of distant birds. You would never think, from the serenity of the area, that this was once the scene of great tragedy and injustice.
The location is Tusdale - a place once known as “the capital of Skye.” Around the year 1840, 12 families, who had been living “in comfortable circumstances,” were driven away from their homes to make way for profitable sheep flocks. The area was cleared by tacksmen under the MacLeod landlord, first by Dr Lachlan MacLean and then by Hugh MacCaskill. This period was known as “The Reign Of Terror,” according to evidence given to the Napier Commission in 1883 into landownership by Alexander Mathieson of nearby Carbost.
The Highland Clearances had a significant impact on Skye. Characterised by the forced displacement of tenants in a given area, the tragedy took place throughout northern Scotland and resulted in many Highlanders emigrating. In the case of Tusdale, the entire glen was utterly depopulated.
But before that period of turmoil and tragedy, Tusdale must have been an idyllic place to live. The glen is tranquil, shielded by the surrounding hills, a perfect place for families to raise their sheep and cattle. The hundreds of lazy beds and the well-crafted houses tell the stories of a hard-working people. It is easy to imagine them, busily tending their flocks or digging the fields, occasionally pausing to take in their exquisite, ever-changing view of the loch and the distant Isle of Canna. Perhaps some are building, creating themselves a house with thick walls and rounded corners, or collecting water from the two sparkling streams. There might be time to enjoy a meal with their neighbours, exchanging news or stories of the day. This is their home, this peaceful, serene valley, and it feels safe.
Not a great deal is known about the area, but a fictional account of the Tusdale Clearances can be found in Love And Music Will Endure - a novel by Skye author, Liz Macrae Shaw. The book is based on the life of Màiri Mhòr nan Oran (Great Mary of the Songs), a bard and political campaigner during the 1800’s. Mairi was heavily involved with the struggles of the Highland Land League, a political force involved in fighting for land reform.
Liz explains her reasons for including Tusdale in the novel, saying: “Living on Skye, Mairi would certainly be very aware of the Clearances. In her poetry she describes the desolation of the deserted townships and the heartache that the evicted people suffered. She writes about coming back to a place and finding all the people gone and just a dog barking. It would be very odd if she hadn’t had a direct experience of the Clearances and, being the sort of person she was, she would have had plenty to say about it!”
The account of Tusdale’s Clearance in Love And Music Will Endure is made more vivid by the truth interwoven with the fiction. The story of a local woman is brought to life in the book. To ensure her eviction, the tacksmen set a match to her roof. Her winter’s supply of butter and cheese melted and began to run down Cnoc Loisgte (Hillock Of The Burning.) All the families were uprooted from their homes and forced to build their lives all over again.
Today, on the shore of Loch Eynort, there stands a ruined church and chapel. The walk round the churchyard is like a journey back in time - history
lies literally at your feet. Lichen smothers the gravestones, but the names can still be traced - many of them including MacCaskills and MacLeods - and date from the 1770’s to the 1970’s.
It’s interesting to ponder what the future of Tusdale would have been had the Clearances not killed the village. Would it have retained its nickname: “the capital of Skye?” The knowledge that Tusdale was once a bustling hub of activity makes its peaceful atmosphere especially poignant. All that remains are the ruins and the lazy beds - a defiant reminder of the period before the Clearances, telling the story of people who fought the land to make their living - and fought so hard that their endeavours remain etched for all to see.