The end of the Clans
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the Scottish Clan system had changed.
For hundreds of years, each of the famous families (or Clans) of Scotland had lived in their own territories or sections, led by an elder figure, often the heriditary Clan Chief.
But after the Rising of the '45, the Clan Chiefs who backed the insurrection to install Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne were removed or executed by the British Crown and their lands given or sold to private owners with little or no connection to the old families. Other Clan Chiefs sold their holdings due to economic pressure.
So as Year of the Sheep opens Elizabeth Gordon, the 19th Chief of Clan Sutherland (installed by a special vote of the House of Lords) is faced, along with her husband, probably the wealthiest man in Britain, with the problem of what to do with the one million square acres of the county she is responsible for, and the poverty-stricken people who live there..
Like many of the other Scottish landlords, she decides to clear the people out of their ancestral straths and glens and move them to new towns along the Scottish coast, leaving the vast interior open to the sheep herders, who represent a significant economic benefit.
But the people of the village of Glencullen, deep in the mountains, have a different perspective. Unwilling to leave behind their ancestral homes and farms, where they have lived and loved and fought for nearly a thousand years, the people of Glencullen, led by the women of the strath, decided to make a stand.
Led by Mute Meg, the white witch and healer of the village; encouraged by Anna Kenton, the new schoolteacher; and supported by the fierce efforts of the outlaw known as Billy Hanks, the people of Glencullen resist the demands to leave and prepare for the final battle against the powers that be.
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BookLife Fiction of the Year
James Y. Bartlett's Year of the Sheep: A Novel of the Highland Clearances, was selected as one of 15 quarterfinalists (out of more than 950 novels) in the BookLife Fiction of the Year contest, sponsored by Publisher's Weekly magazine.
A fusion of the gothic novel and Virginia Woolf, this book delights in storytelling. Something mystical looms in Bartlett’s writing, making it a tale just as enchanting as its folklore.
From the Afterword to Year of the Sheep
Dunrobin Castle, Dornoch, Scotland
Home of the Duke of Sutherland
There are no happy endings in any stories about the Highland Clearances of Scotland. In the end, the people of the glens were forcibly removed to make way for the sheep (and later, for the deer runs and fishing beats that landowners offered to wealthy clients from the big cities; and later still for the tourists who come to enjoy the empty spaces and beautiful views, devoid of humanity).
So it may be hard, at first, to understand why a storyteller would grab on to this subject, and spend a good thirty years of his life researching and reading and trying to understand what happened and why.
Most of my career was spent as a travel writer, with a specialty in golf. As a result, I made numerous visits to Scotland, and the rest of the British Isles, to play the famous courses and stay in the lovely nearby resorts, inns and hotels. Yes, a dirty job, but somebody had to do it!
On one of my first visits to Scotland, I needed something to read for the long flight back home, so I stopped in the airport bookstore, and in the Scottish History section I found, and purchased, a copy of John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances. I had heard about the Clearances, of course, but really knew next to nothing about that period of history.
That book got me started on what became a lifelong interest in the Clearances, and while I have since learned that Prebble’s work was and is controversial among academic historians (he was a lifelong communist and a journalist, and is accused of letting his political views shade his historical storytelling), that book was massively influential on me. A great many of the stories Prebble told of incidents at the various removals over the fifty-plus years of the Clearances made their way into my novel, although I moved them around in both time and space to better fit my own fictional story.
I should quickly add that Prebble was not my only source material: I have read numerous other histories and studies of the Clearances, including those of more academic historians who have been more willing than Prebble to at least give some consideration to the economic and societal forces that led the Scottish landlords of that time to try to do something about the seemingly endless poverty of life in the glens and straths. The late Eric Richards wrote a seminal two-volume history of the Clearances and also wrote a book length biography of the first Duke of Sutherland, titled The Leviathan of Wealth: The Sutherland Fortune in the Industrial Revolution.
It was Prebble’s chapter on the Massacre at Greenyards, also known as the Massacre of the Ross Women, which took place in Strathcarron in 1854, which was the first brick in the foundation of what became Year of the Sheep. I have been to Strathcarron (which is a doppelganger for Glencullen), and walked through the kirkyard at Croick Church, where removed people lived for weeks outdoors in tents.
But the images from that incident, when the women of Strathcarron made a stand against the forces of the laird (in this case, Ross of Balnagowan), and were savagely beaten for it, stuck in my head.