My mother’s McCaskills collided with their dreary little bit of history in 1832, when they were evicted from their village Rubha an Dùnain on the Isle of Skye and booted off to North Carolina to make way for flocks of more docile and profitable sheep. Thus arrived on Skye the outrage known as the Highland Clearances, which over the next several decades would see the wealthier Scottish landowners deliberately depopulating their country in order to increase their personal fortunes.
It baffles the imagination that the Highland clans for centuries had proved so utterly ungovernable, yet with the breakdown of the clan system after the 1746 Battle of Culloden, they passed so meekly into the night. But they did, more or less, and Scotland lost hundreds of thousands from the best educated proletariat in Europe. Even today, the Highlands are one of the least populated areas in the world, with 500 individuals owning more than 90% of the land.
One odd twist of this history occurred when the Highlanders who refused emigration took their native ferocity into service in the British Army. Regiments like the Black Watch became the shock troops of the British Empire, as fearsome and feared throughout the 19thcentury as any SS Panzer or Special Forces unit of the 20thcentury. From Waterloo to Lucknow to Magersfontein, the human wave attack known as the Highland Charge swept all before it.
For centuries, the Isle of Skye had borne the brunt of the most vicious warfare between the MacLeod and MacDonald clans. In one episode, the MacLeods caught 395 MacDonalds in a cave on the nearby island of Eigg and burned them to death. The MacDonalds retaliated by trapping the MacLeods at worship on a Sunday morning, barring the doors to Trumpan Church, and burning the lot to the ground.
In this mess, my mother’s McCaskills had hired out to the MacLeods as a form of coast guard, warning them whenever the MacDonald boats approached. Yet by the late 18thcentury, the clan system and all of its nastier rivalries had been swept away. The McCaskills of Rubha an Dùnain were rendered superfluous.
Removal usually involved burning the roof timbers of a cottage to prevent the tenants from reoccupying it. In at least two instances, the landlords forgot to remove a sick and elderly grandmother from her bed before burning her house down around her. Eventually, the sight of entire villages in flames, their citizens left to fend for themselves in the bitter Scottish weather, proved too much for even a 19thcentury Victorian stomach. But by the time the Her Majesty’s Government stepped in, an entire way of life had vanished.
Today, the once impoverished village of Rubha an Dùnain is a ruin at the tip of a barren peninsula, a rough three-mile trek over private MacLeod land from an end-of-the world campsite in nearby Glenbrittle. The locals all remember the McCaskills from the stories handed down through the ages. Yet as nasty as our Scottish finale might have been, it’s hard to feel sorry for the Americans who emerged from the ashes.
My own branch farmed tobacco in the Carolinas and Tennessee, then joined the northward migration of the 1930s Depression to work in the rubber factories of Akron, Ohio. This week, their descendant came full circle via Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Bruxelles, to stay in a four-star hotel and gaze out over the water and wonder at the vagaries of history.
Some small justice in that?