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Elizabeth Sutherland Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland and 19th Countess of Sutherland, lived from 24 May 1765 to 29 January 1839. She was a noblewoman and landowner associated with the Sutherland Clearances. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Elizabeth Sutherland was born near Edinburgh, the only child of William Sutherland, 18th Earl of Sutherland. He died in 1766, leaving the one-year-old Elizabeth to inherit his title as 19th Countess of Sutherland. She was brought up by her grandmother, Lady Alva, in Edinburgh. Elizabeth's right to her father's title was challenged in the courts, but decided in her favour by the House of Lords in 1771.
In September 1785, Elizabeth Sutherland married George Leveson-Gower, Viscount Trentham, the son of the 1st Marquess of Stafford. When he inherited his father's title and became 2nd Marquess of Stafford in 1803 he inherited enormously valuable estates including the Bridgewater Canal. He was later described as "a leviathan of wealth ...the richest individual who ever died". In January 1833, six months before his death, George Leveson-Gower was made 1st Duke of Sutherland, effectively submerging the title of Marquess of Stafford beneath that of Duke of Sutherland. At the same time, Elizabeth became the Duchess of Sutherland. Elizabeth and George had four children who survived into adulthood. Their two sons eventually became the 2nd Duke of Sutherland and the 1st Earl of Ellesmere, while their two daughters married the 13th Duke of Norfolk and the 2nd Marquess of Westminster.
Their early married life was eventful. Elizabeth accompanied George to Paris when he was appointed British Ambassador to France in 1790, and for two years they were able to observe first hand this stage of the French Revolution.
Back in Sutherland at the end of the 1700s, the economic and political factors that had affected every corner of the Highlands since the defeat of the 1745 Jacobite uprising were also affecting the family's vast estates. The demise of the traditional clan system meant that people living on an estate were no longer an asset to be called upon in time of war: instead they were viewed as a liability, preventing the introduction of modern farming methods and the maximising of the lairds' incomes from their estates. The result, right across the Highlands and Islands, were the Highland Clearances.
At the start of the 1800s the Sutherland estates of the Countess of Sutherland and the Marquess of Stafford amounted to some 1.5 million acres and formed the biggest private estate in Europe. It was managed from the family home at Dunrobin Castle near Golspie. Large numbers of people lived on the land. One solution to overpopulation was seen as military service, and in August 1800, the 93rd Regiment of Foot, the Sutherland Highlanders, mustered in Strathnaver before marching off to service in the Napoleonic Wars.
But this still left a huge resident population. The result was what became the most notorious episode in the Highland Clearances when, between 1811 and 1821, some 15,000 people were cleared from the Sutherland estates. On one occasion a witness reported seeing 250 crofts on fire from a single vantage point in Strathnaver, and in 1816 the Countess's factor, Patrick Sellar, was tried but acquitted on charges of arson and culpable homicide arising from the death in 1814 of the elderly Margaret MacKay.
In terms of numbers, 15,000 is not far short of the combined modern population of Wick and Thurso. Some displaced people were resettled in coastal communities to take advantage of the herring boom. One example was the village of Bettyhill, on the north Sutherland coast, which was established by and named after Elizabeth. More people were shipped abroad: many to North America where they in turn helped displace the Native Americans. The Clearances fundamentally changed the landscape of much of northern Scotland. The pepper-potting of tiny settlements was simply swept away, leaving occasional ruins in the largely deserted countryside you see today when you move inland from the east coast.
Elizabeth Sutherland died in 1839, one of the most controversial figures in Scottish history. Five years earlier, and shortly after his death, a 100ft statue of her husband, the 1st Duke of Sutherland had been erected on top of Beinn a' Bhragaidh just west of Golspie. An inscription records that it was erected by "a mourning and grateful tenantry" to "a judicious, kind and liberal landlord". In more recent times opinions about the statue range from those who believe it should be destroyed or relocated to the grounds of Dunrobin Castle to others who feel it should become a monument to the Clearances.