TWO centuries ago this month, one of the most notorious trials in Highlands history took place, where the factor of the Estate of Sutherland – where thousands of people were ‘cleared’ from their homes – was controversially acquitted.
Inverness author Barbara Henderson is now publishing a children’s book on the Highland Clearance which features the notorious Patrick Sellar on the bicentenary of his trial.
He was controversially acquitted of wilful fireraising and culpable homicide at 1.15am on the morning of 24 April, 1816.
In the decade from 1811 to 1821, around 15,000 people were removed from their homes from the Estate of Sutherland.
The Clearances was the forced displacement of small-scall agricultural farmers to increase the income for absent landowners – and particularly the Duke of Sutherland – by letting it to sheep farmers.
Sellar, the infamous local factor, presided over the ‘Year of the Burning’ - violent forced evictions in the Strathnaver area which saw roofs set alight, even though tenants were still inside.
Barbara’s new children’s book on the subject, Fir for Luck, is set to be published by Cranachan Publishing in September.
While it features Patrick Sellar in flashbacks, the novel is about a young Sutherland girl who chooses to resist eviction, and finds herself in the unfamiliar territory of a local rebellion.
The Durness riots of 1841 form the historical backdrop for the narrative.
The author said: “I’m just delighted that Fir for Luck is going to be in the hands of young readers soon.
“It reflects the fact that the Highland Clearances took place over several generations.
“The theme of displacement and forced emigration seems very current and relevant just now.”
Sellar and his men carried out some of the most violent evictions, destroying possessions and at times setting fire to croft houses.
On one occasion one elderly woman was still inside the croft as it burned. She escaped, but died five days later. Another tenant was left exposed in the cold after being evicted and also later died.
He was put on trial for wilful fireraising and culpable homicide.
However, he was acquitted.
Witnesses included those who were forcibly evicted, and many spoke in Gaelic. Their evidence was translated into English for the judge and jury.
The crofters thought that this was because many members of the jury were local landowners.
After the trial, Sellar stopped working as a factor but he continued making money from sheep farming in Sutherland on land given to him by landowners who acknowled.