Blood on the Tartan by Chris Holmes


Saint Valentine’s Day, 1845
The Scottish Highlands

Ten constables drove their mounts through swirling snow, determined to arrive at their destination before morning. Blue jackets buttoned high against the wind, silver badges layered with hoarfrost, they held down their hats with one hand. The other hand gripped black truncheons bearing the Queen’s monogram—‘VR’ for Victoria Regina burnt into the hard ash wood.

The first glint of dawn emerged as an anemic yellow sun rising over the Cromarty Firth, the middle of three crooked fingers of water clawing into northern Scot- land’s eastern coastline. The men headed for Glencalvie, a small Highland settlement three miles up Strath Carron. And they meant no goodwill to the clansmen residing there.

James Gillanders, the estate manager or ‘factor’ for many Highland lords, and a landowner in his own right, led the posse. “Damn this foul weather!” he uttered through clenched teeth, then viciously spurred his reluctant horse.

Men in blue followed, some on horseback others in carriages, all grumbling and swearing, their woolen cloaks flapping like flags in the wind.

In one of the crofters' cottages, Anne Ross, gaunt from malnutrition and bent over from unending labor, huddled around the fire with her three children. The firepit had no proper chimney, only a hole in the roof with a barrel open at both ends stuck through it for the smoke to escape. The peats, not completely dry, burned wet and choking, and the children coughed and hacked. Their dinner of thin oatmeal porridge and soggy ban- nocks had failed to quiet their growling stomachs. Anne’s husband, Jock, was away, traipsing from town to town at the head of the strath in a futile attempt to find work and forestall his family’s impending eviction.

The posse continued on, passing chambered cairns marking burial vaults of an ancient race long gone, like the glaciers, from ancient Scotia.

Halfway up the glen, Gillanders halted, “Here, me,” he said, handing out flasks of porter, ale and whisky to the men. They drank deeply. When the procession resumed, they could just make out the village of Glen- calvie ahead and the cottages of the families quietly living there as their ancestors had done for generations before them.

But the new landlord had other plans for this land. ‘Clearances’ was the name given them by the clansmen. ‘Improvements’ was what the landlords called them. Whatever the name, the plans had no room for any of these families. They'd all have to go, all have to be evicted.

Gillanders spurred his horse and patted the official Writs of Eviction in his breast pocket. A wicked smile parted his lips.

With two thundering raps, Anne Ross’ door burst open. Two constables, their speech thick from drink, reeled in truncheons drawn. The two younger children screamed and ran to their mother. The oldest, a firm- jawed, dark-eyed lassie, glared at the lawmen.

"Catherine!" her mother cried. "See to the children. I will gather what food and clothes I can."

The girl reluctantly obeyed.

Anne and her children soon joined other families outside and watched in silence as the constables piled their scant possessions by the roadside. When the men had finished, they looked at Gillanders. He nodded and within minutes, the first cottage was burning.

"'Tis a right bonny blaze!" one constable said with a grin, warming his hands in front of the leaping flames.

The factor looked down on the ragged crowd gathered about him.

"Please, sir, where will we go?" one of the women pleaded.

"What about the children?" cried another. She pointed to her babe-in-arms.

"How will we eat?" a third asked, her voice rising in a forlorn wail.

Gillanders extinguished his lantern. The shadows falling on the skeletal faces of the villagers startled him at first. But he'd hardened his heart years ago, had played out scenes like this many times in many other villages.

"Writs were delivered to all of you a fortnight ago,” he said sternly. “You've had time to find other shelter. You've left me no choice but this…" He swept his hand around the group of constables, busily setting fire to other cottages between pulls on flasks of liquor.

Anne Ross, her plaid shawl pulled tight over her head, approached the factor and touched his leg res- pectfully. "Sir, could you nae wait just a few days more? Many of our men are gone with the Regiment. My own husband is away. The bad weather has prevented us from finding other accommodations." She put her hands together. "Please, sir, just a few days more.”

Catherine tugged at her mother’s arm, trying to pull her away. “Do not beg, Mother. Not to the likes o’ him.” She looked the factor in the eye and spit into the snow.

But her mother sobbed and made one last plea. “Please, sir, for the babies." She swept her arm around the children. “For all the babies!” Gillanders answered in a voice as cold as the snow. "This land has already been leased to others. They will be here within weeks and expect it to be cleared for their use." He touched his breast pocket, bulging with the profitable leases he’d already signed with the sheep farmers.

Planting the butt of his riding crop firmly in Anne Ross’ bony chest, he pushed her away, then turned to the men and yelled, "Clear them away, lads. Clear them all away!"