The ruins of Ardvreck Castle near Loch Assynt in Sutherland, Scotland
My grandparents brought me up as a MacKay. That’s where they told me that everything should start from; not from being a Scot or from being British or European, male or white, big or small or smart or dim.
Being a MacKay should be the first point of reference in understanding who I was and how I would be that person. Above all else I would be independent-minded, I would understand right from wrong, I would be honest, I would respect anyone who earned it and I would always try to use whatever brains God had given me.
If I were to somehow fall below these standards, my job would be to climb back up to them as quickly as possible. It was made clear to me that this is always expected of a MacKay because the bar was set a long time ago and it would always be there to help and guide me. Therefore there could be no use for fear or depression as I would simply deploy the weapons issued to me through being a MacKay.
I’ve had to climb back up a few times in my life but my grandparents were right: it is easier and more reasonable to deal with life when you know who you are.
Until recently I have experienced a profound sense of the temporary wherever I have lived. A sense that “this” place, be it Largs (much as I love the land of North Ayrshire), Glasgow, Barrhead, Bucharest, strangely not south-west France, was not really mine and that I would not be staying. It has been hard to explain, I’ve just felt it and it has been an issue, a question that I have always hoped to answer.
There was a period in my life in which I travelled widely — in Africa, Asia and across Europe. My job was to spend one or two days in a city, make business contacts and work out how things were done in each of them. It turned out that my natural sense of impermanence helped me in this work because it allowed me to have a more open mind than might otherwise have been the case. I had grown used to observing places without any sense of attachment and the principles set out in the MacKay identity manual allowed me to be objective and self-contained wherever I was.
My wife is from Moldavia in north-eastern Romania. She too is independent-minded, knows right from wrong, is inspiringly honest, respects others and always uses her formidable brain and so we click. I often think that she is more of a MacKay than I am.
Romania as a country is only around one hundred years old and the territory of Moldavia has, for centuries, been a matter of dispute at different times between Russia, the Ottomans, Poland and Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s complicated, as they say. Complicated, but utterly fascinating. The land is unspeakably beautiful with shimmering lakes, sacred mountains, trackless forests and deep spirituality. Sound familiar?
One day my wife decided that, after having got to know her land, it was high time that we should be introduced to where the deeper me comes from, to where the MacKays come from. And so this summer we did just that.
By the beginning of the 18th Century, Clan MacKay had suffered the tragic misfortune of being settled on land in the far north of Scotland that had become part of the estates of the Marquis and Marchioness of Sutherland (later Duke and Duchess). They were one of the wealthiest couples in Great Britain, with great tracts of land and huge investments in the industrialisation of the country south of the Highland Line. The Sutherlands decided to “improve” their holdings in the north, to increase their value and make them more profitable.
The implementation of their project demanded the removal of the people from their many small settlements in the arable interior, where their forbears had lived for hundreds of years, and resettling them along the agriculturally barren coastal areas. The best land along the river courses was to be converted to sheep farming and the MacKays were in the way. Their traditional houses were destroyed and their way of life along with it. This was the time of quite deliberate forced depopulation from which the Highlands never recovered. Few in the centres of power in both Edinburgh and London cared enough about highland people for anything to be done to stop it.
The Clearances took place throughout the Highlands, and indeed much of Britain during this period of rapid economic and social change. However, many consider the Sutherland clearances to have been the most brutal with many children and old people in particular dying as a direct consequence and many others ultimately forced to leave for the colonies, never to return. It is worth noting that as hundreds of Sutherland men of the 93rd infantry regiment were dying at the Battle of New Orleans, in January 1815, their families were being evicted from their homes in the straths of MacKay country. Later in the century, the Canadian city of Winnipeg was founded by emigres/refugees from Sutherland.
The Clearances remain a time of lasting sadness and shame.
As we drove along the single track road around the head of Loch Naver, past the few buildings that comprise Altnahara, we turned northeast and entered Strathnaver itself, the heart of MacKay country as the brochure says. After the loch, we followed the river down to where it runs into the sea at Bettyhill, named after the Duchess of Sutherland herself, who had arranged for the destruction of her tenants’ lives.
The desolation is immediately obvious as where once the straths in the area had been densely populated by thousands of people, living modestly along the fertile river banks, now there is no one. The landscape is almost impossibly beautiful. The sun shone and sparkled in the dark waters of the loch and the river. The foliage of grass and ferns was explosively green and, frankly, virile. Eagles flew at ground level in search of prey, indifferent to the odd car passing along the road. Every human sense was tantalised while we stood still on the thick turf. Strathnaver is one of the most perfect expressions of Nature left to its own devices that I have ever seen.
Here is the most sparsely populated area in western Europe with a population density of two people per square kilometre. And everywhere there are spotlessly white Cheviot sheep, sole imported residents of this extraordinary paradise.
We stayed for a night at the comfortable Farr Bay Inn, walked around the deserted windswept beach and spent time in the excellent Strathnaver Museum and the adjacent cemetery, 50 percent of which contained MacKays. I felt not one single moment of impermanence there and my question of being was answered silently by the energy I felt. I have now seen and touched the thing that my grandparents could only tell me about. I felt like one of the salmon returning to the exact spot in the river where its egg had hatched.
Identity seems to be a difficult thing for many people these days as uncertainty grows on all fronts. They cling to nationality, to social status, to colour, to religion, to sexual orientation, to their political opinions and many other things that fulfil their need for something to confirm who they are. I consider myself very lucky and grateful to my grandparents for never having had to look, or “find myself” as it’s called, and even more so now because I’ve finally stood on the ground of Strathnaver.
Ronnie Smith is a British writer. At present he is living in Languedoc, France.