Shiaba: The story of a cleared village

ISLANDERS on 19th-century Mull worked tirelessly to claw a living from the soil. Few areas lent themselves to crofting and the returns from the land were meagre. The most fertile area was in the Ross of Mull, owned by the Duke of Argyll, where tenants lived comfortably, undisturbed by the threat of clearances.

The township of Shiaba, in the island's south-west, had everything it needed - good land, sheep, cows and even a few horses. At the head of the track was the schoolhouse where, weather and chores permitting, the children gathered for rudimentary schooling. Simple dry-stone houses stood lazily in the bends of the road, where families lived at the front and the animals bedded down in the back during winter.A thriving township, it came as a surprise when in 1845 the Duke issued the villagers with an eviction notice.

Today the ruined settlement stands as a reminder of a brutal clearance. Homes that once supported a vibrant community stand empty, old runrigs (fertile strips of land) slope down to sheltered beaches and a mother-of-pearl sea.

Professor Tom Devine, one of Scotland's leading historians, considers the area to be "achingly beautiful", but more importantly calls Shiaba "a fantastic laboratory for looking at the clearances (and) … the most significant site in the western Highlands."

The image of the Highlander at the time of the clearances is often one of a people struggling to sustain a living on unforgiving terrain. In 1845 The Scotsman wrote about the crofter in disparaging terms, emphasising the poverty before concluding that:

"The children grew up as idle, indolent and ignorant as their parents, to lead the same useless and comfortless lives."

Reports like this confirmed in Lowland minds the paucity of the crofters' existence and, it could be argued, prepared the middle classes for the clearances by dehumanising crofters.

The example of Shiaba (pronounced SHE-uh-ba) contradicts this image. The village boasted a schoolmaster, and the Gaelic poet Mary MacLucas (Child in a Manger) lived there. This clearly was not a place peopled by ignorant savages.

Neil McKechnie's forefathers used to run the Shiaba shop. He returned recently to visit what is left of his great-great-grandfather's house.

"It was a very attractive and prosperous township, with very pretty views," McKechnie says. "You can't live on views right enough, but it was fairly prosperous." He recounts family stories of goods for the shop being unloaded in the bay: tobacco and sweets as well as nails and oats.

But in the summer of 1846 a strange ash fell all over the Highlands and freak weather battered the west coast. Virtually overnight the potato crops failed. People in Shiaba began to starve.

A year later the Marquis of Lorne, the Duke of Argyll's son, realising that he could make more money by renting the land to a single sheep farmer, issued a removal notice on the confused villagers. Initially they thought at it was a ruse to force them to pay more rent, but when it became clear they were to be evicted the crofters and villagers petitioned the Duke to reconsider.

Accompanying their petition was a letter written by the township's oldest tenant.

"I am now verging on one hundred years of age," Neil MacDonald wrote in 1847. "It would be a great hardship and quite unprecedented to remove a man of my age who, is as natural to suppose, is drawing close to the house appointed for all living."His pleas were ignored. There is no record of the eviction day. No-one recorded their distress as they were made homeless. Some were moved elsewhere on Mull, where they attempted to make a living on less fertile land, and others emigrated to America, Canada and Australia.

Devine, who authored the best-seller The Scottish Nation, 1700-2000, is in no doubt that the eviction would have sent tremors throughout the area.

"Shiaba had a reputation in Mull as being good agricultural land," he says. "They must have felt if Shiaba is doomed, then what hope have we?"

A further five Mull townships were cleared in the next few years, adding names to the passenger lists taking people overseas, or crowding people into already cramped areas. In 1862, Tobermory built a poorhouse to deal with the increased numbers of famished and homeless islanders. Poverty became a constant bedfellow.

Yet Shiaba was never completely cleared. A shepherd continued to live there tending the sheep and looking after the 92 acres of land. And Morag McKinlay was only five years old in 1932 when her family moved there.

"It was very isolated and very rugged," recalls McKinley, now 78. "We used to have to walk miles over rough road to school every morning."

The family lived a simple life, her mother baked, made butter and cheese and tended to the crops whilst her father looked after the flock. There was no electricity, so they entertained themselves playing cards or climbing through the ruins of the old township.McKinlay remembers a happy but a hard life where the children helped in looking after the croft. The family left in the late 1930s when a storm blew the roof off the cottage, a night she will never forget.

"As we ran for the barn a great gust of wind nearly blew me off my feet and I remember my mother shouting at me to sit down so I wouldn't be blown away."

The damaged house was never repaired and the family moved to another farm. The sheep were granted complete freedom of the township, a fitting metaphor for the whole of the clearances.

What was begun in 1845 was finally achieved and Shiaba was empty of people.