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Patrick Sellar lived from 1780 to 1851. He was the estate factor of the 19th Countess of Sutherland during the most notorious episode in the Highland Clearances. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Patrick Sellar was born and brought up in Elgin. His father was a lawyer, and Patrick followed in his footsteps. Some time around 1810 he was employed by Elizabeth Sutherland, the 19th Countess of Sutherland, and her husband, the 2nd Marquess of Stafford to be the factor, or manager, of their estates in Sutherland. At the time the Sutherland estates amounted to some 1.5 million acres and formed the biggest private estate in Europe. They were managed from the family home at Dunrobin Castle near Golspie.
It was a challenging time to take the job. 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 was the Highland Clearances.
The Countess of Sutherland and her husband, the Marquess of Stafford (later to become the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland), had tried to address the problem of overpopulation by raising the 93rd Regiment of Foot, the Sutherland Highlanders, which in August 1800 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, largely through the efforts of Patrick Sellar. Sellar later gave his account of what happened: "Lord and Lady Stafford were pleased humanely to order the new arrangement of this country. That the interior should be possessed by Cheviot shepherds, and the people brought down to the coast and placed in lots of less than three acres, sufficient for the maintenance of an industrious family, pinched enough to cause them to turn their attention to the fishing. A most benevolent action, to put these barbarous Highlanders into a position where they could better associate together, apply themselves to industry, educate their children, and advance in civilisation."
This contrasts starkly with an eyewitness account of Sellar's clearance of the Strathnaver township of Rosal in 1814: "The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description, it required to be seen to be believed. A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself - all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition - whether in or out of the flames - I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins."
On 13 June 1814, Sellar was involved in the eviction of William Chisholm and his wife from their croft in Strathnaver. During the eviction, the roof was set on fire, with Chisholm's mother in law, Margaret MacKay, still inside. She was rescued by her daughter and taken to a nearby shed, where she died five days later. As a result, Patrick Sellar was put on trial in Inverness in 1816 accused of arson and culpable homicide. He was acquitted at 1.15am on the morning of 24 April 1816. Clearly Sellar's view of the rights of "barbarous Highlanders" was shared by the judicial establishment of the day...
Sellar later became a sheep farmer and a tenant of the Sutherlands, making use of part of the deserted landscape he had largely created. He died in Elgin in 1851 and is buried in the grounds of Elgin Cathedral.