Highland Clearances Influence Composer

Robert Aitken's new soundtrack 'Kildonan'

Robert Aitken’s new soundtrack ‘Kildonan’

A new soundtrack by a Scottish composer has been influenced by the infamous Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Kildonan, the latest work by Sutherland based composer Robert Aitken, draws on traditional, contemporary and classical styles to create an album that evokes the forced eviction of people from their lands.

During the industrial revolution, landowners in Scotland sought to make more capital by shipping people out and making way for shooting estates and large industrialised deer and sheep farms. Tracks on the soundtrack include Last Footsteps of Home which tells the story of a young girl on her way to an emigrant ship that lies in wait, and Red River Rant, a tribute to a piper on board an emigrant ship bound for Canada.

Aitken, who was born and brought up in Brora in Sutherland, said: “My aim is to drop the listener into a particular point in time and experience the life-story of a situation. I want the music to be felt rather than just heard. With Kildonan it was also important to examine the big themes of life, then and now – to connect the past with our present in what I do not see as time immemorial, but the ever moving cycle of life as time orbital.”

The soundtrack has received praise from Emmy-winning documentary producer Guy Perotta who called Kildonan a breath of fresh air. “Kildonan is very different from what is found in some works involving Scottish history, which sometimes resorts to what seems like a stereotypical take on what the music ought to sound like.”

Songs from the soundtrack feature on an app released in 2012 to mark the 200th anniversary of clearances in the Strath of Kildonan. Musuems Without Walls: Scotland’s Clearances Trail App uses GPS navigation, archival information and new media to guide users around important clearance sites, bringing the area’s history alive.

Several of the evicted Kildonan families sailed to Hudson Bay, in north east Canada, where they were forced to build their own shelters to protect themselves against severe winter conditions. The following spring, they set off on foot for the Red River Settlement around Lake Winnipeg in Canada where Scottish aristocrat, the Earl of Selkirk, had promised them land. Many made the 100 mile (161km) journey in handmade snowshoes.

Among the travelers was Catherine McPherson, who nursed the sick after typhoid broke out aboard ship on the journey from Scotland to Canada. She also survived a severe flood that carried away her log-built home. Her story is told in the app.

The soundtrack is available for purchase on Spotify, iTunes and Amazon.


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2 thoughts on “Highland Clearances Influence Composer

  1. Tsu Dho Nimh

    There is a book – one of the ancestor-worshipping sort – it’s called “The Men of Kildonan”. Despite being called a “romance”, it’s non-fiction.

    If you sift out all the blather and most of the skite you have some good detail about the stay at Hudson Bay (near Churchill), the route they took to get to the Red River, and some of the early events.

    What my mom the geneaologist could cross check with other records was accurate, and what another geneaologist checked against his own records was also accurate. He was amused to be descended from the low-life Irish the fine upstanding Scots author ranted about.

    I’m descended from the Selkirk Scots*, plus the shiftless French and untrustworthy Indians of that area.


    *(Clan MacBeth, Sutherland, Campbell and McDonald


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