The Rousay Clearances – Exodus from the Egypt of the North
For the 2020 St. Andrew’s Fair Saturday, Fiona Grahame and myself will be holding an exhibition of text and images concerning the Rousay Clearances. The exhibition is held in association with Cary Welling and Northlight Gallery, and we will be taking donations in aid of our chosen charity, Orkney Rape and Sexual Assault Service.
This is the third year in which we have held an event for Fair Saturday. In 2018 we showed production art from our animation about the Orcadian Woman’s Suffrage Society, which was under development at the time. In 2019 we displayed enlarged portraits of the all-but-forgotten crewmen of HMS Pheasant, which was lost to a mine off the coast of Hoy in 1917. Fair Saturday exists as a socially responsible counterpoint to Black Friday.
Fiona and I will be present at Northlight Gallery from 10am on Saturday the 28th to discuss the exhibition. Only two people at a time will be permitted into the gallery due to Covid-19 restrictions, and for the rest of the week the show can be seen in the gallery windows. We have a small print run of accompanying glossy booklets about the Rousay Clearances for sale, which we will also be releasing as an eBook.
In the 18th and 19th Centuries a great many Scots were forced to leave their homes as wealthy landowners evicted tenant crofters to make way for more profitable livestock. Many left Scotland altogether, crossing the Atlantic to new lives. This time is known as the Highland Clearances, but the islands of Orkney did not escape it. The exhibition tells what happened on Rousay.
At the time of the Napier Commission of 1883, at which crofters from Orkney gave evidence, the population of Rousay was 1118. This is hard to imagine – today it stands at just over 200. The island has never recovered. Nor have the Scottish Highlands, much of which is now effectively a managed desert and playground for grouse shooters.
“Although I may have to leave the land, I am prepared to speak the truth, and will not be cowed by landlordism. I consider as Burns says – ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’”James Leonard of Digro addressing the Napier Commission in 1883.
At school I learnt precious little of the Highland Clearances, and absolutely nothing about what went on in Orkney. History is written by the victors…