In the mid-19th century, he was “the most hated man in Scotland.” For sure he had competition, but Colonel John Gordon lived in a fabulous castle (see below) and was also known as Scotland’s “richest commoner.” Here in the Highlands and Islands, Gordon’s ghost has been killing my buzz. That’s not because he was wealthy, but because he stayed that way by ruthlessly squeezing the lifeblood out of poor crofters eking out a living on his massive estates – among them, as of 1838, the entire island of Barra.
Today, we visited the scene of some of Gordon’s handiwork – an archaeological site called Balnabodach (above). You won’t find it in the usual guidebooks, or even on most maps, and good luck working with google. But after making one false downward-scramble off the eastern side of the one-lane highway that encircles Barra, and getting turned back by marshy ground, we tried again and managed to reach it.
People have lived in this location for centuries. But at Scotland’s first census, in 1841, Balnabadoch was home to eight households and twenty-six people. They lived in typical Barra blackhouses, which had thick walls and single doors in one long side. Families lived on the earth floor, and cooked and slept around the fireplace at one end.
In 1851, with the potato famine wreaking havoc, killing two islanders and, less acceptably, reducing the Colonel’s income, Gordon decided to solve the problem by evicting crofters and shipping them to Canada. He sent men here to Balnabadoch, where they forced farm families onto small boats that transported them to a ship waiting at Lochboisdale. According to oral tradition, one young woman was milking the family cow when Gordon’s agents hauled her off with nothing but the clothes on her back. By the time the ship reached Quebec, well, that is a subject for another day.