Last Footsteps of Home
A new short film set during the Highland Clearances – one of the most turbulent times in Scottish history – is due to be shot in the Scottish Highlands this Autumn. (This is the period that moved designer Alexander McQueen, whose forebears were from Skye, to create the Highland Rape collection which is currently on show at the Savage Beauty exhibition in the V&A.
Flora Macdonald is the most famous Highland heroine, remembered for her courage, tenacity and natural intelligence. Like their Scandinavian sisters, Highland women both past and present, are noted for these particular traits. Catherine McPherson may not be as well known as Flora but she shared the same warrior spirit. Caught up in the Highland Clearances, Catherine was forced to leave her family home and set sail for the New World, a journey that would test this young woman almost beyond endurance, be it nursing the ship’s passengers with typhus, or walking 100 miles in freezing temperatures wearing homemade snowshoes. Given that her son went on to be a Canadian Senator, the young woman from the Highland longhouse clearly used all her native qualities to survive.
Last Footsteps of Home traces the true story of Catherine McPherson, as she is forced to leave her family home in 1813 and board an emigrant ship bound for the New World.
It is a story close to the heart of the film’s creator Robert Aitken’s heart, as the producer/musician was born brought up in Sutherland, a north Highland county ravaged by the Clearances which saw farming tenants brutally evicted from their homes.
Robert Aitken with replica of ‘The Hector’, the ship that took the settlers to Pictou in Nova Scotia in 1773. Similar to the ship that would have taken the Selkirk settlers around 50 years later.
Explains Robert: “The film follows Kate McPherson at the precise point when she is leaving her home, her way of life and her country and we will quite literally follow her ‘last footsteps of home’. While the Clearances are well documented, what happened to the displaced Highlanders following the evictions and the impact they made on the world is not so well known.”
Both Robert and is co-producer, double Emmy award-winner Guy Perrotta, were greatly moved by Catherine’s courage, faith and endurance in the face of countless hardships where just to survive was a miracle.
They hope that Kate’s story will resonate with the audience on the topical and often controversial issue of migration in general. Mass movements of people, land grabs and forced evictions are still happening in many countries around the globe and Aitken and Perotta believe their film can give some indication of the true significance of never being able to see your homeland again.
Kate Mcpherson’s story
Along with around 80 other passengers including Alexander her younger brother, the young teenager set out from Sutherland to the Red River settlement (now known as Winnipeg) in Canada. They were paving the way for their parents to follow as passengers on the creaking timber vessel, The Prince of Wales.
Her possessions were few, apart from her mother’s spinning wheel, but Kate was no ordinary young woman. Conditions aboard were appalling during the two-month crossing, with typhoid fever raging, and following the death of the ship’s doctor, Kate nursed the sick, with everyone looking to her for guidance.
The ship was eventually forced ashore at Churchill River and not York Factory as the planned; it was too late in the year to make the journey to the Red River. Food was scarce and the settlers were ill-prepared for the brutal conditions which saw the mercury dip to 40°C.
Again fever and death followed, but the spirited Kate refused to give in. Wearing handmade snowshoes, the depleted group eventually traversed the freezing 100 miles to York Factory with Kate’s courage strengthening those falling by the wayside.
Her tenacity and resilience to keep going and help others underline Kate’s powerful resolve. Kate eventually settled in Point Douglas where she built a new home. Given that her son went on to be a Canadian Senator, the young woman from the Highland longhouse clearly used all her native qualities to survive.
Shooting Last Footsteps of Home
Robert Aitken describes the film as a tone-poem to the people of the Highland Clearances. “We’ve deliberately kept it free from dialogue, instead, syncing the visuals to the rhythm and tempo of the music. We’re also using early cinematic techniques such as montage and jump-cuts, as pioneered in the 1920s.
For delivery, we will be employing the very latest in film technology; from small but highly dynamic film cameras, various related add-ons and post production editing software. It’s interesting to note that only a couple of decades ago, the equipment needed to make film like this would have cost well over £250,000, a sum way beyond our reach. All the methods and tools available today will help create a musical narrative that carries the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions.”
The music used in Last Footsteps of Home was composed by Robert Aitken and takes a new approach to interpreting the Highland Clearances. It has already been chosen to back Oxfam’s Enough Food for Everyone IF international campaign and is also being used in a major new US documentary on the Highland Clearances and Scottish diaspora entitled Voices Over the Water which is being produced by Guy Perrotta who says: “We are very excited to be working with Robert Aitken. Robert has shown enormous dedication to his crafts, music and education, which is exemplified in the way he is helping us to ‘give voice’ to those who are no longer among the living.
“Robert is unique in that he almost seems to have a direct connection to the plight of the Scottish Highland people who were cleared. His work illustrates not only the emotional residue left over from the tragic Highland Clearances, but also the way in which a professional ‘does his homework, in that Robert seeks to drop the listener into a particular point in time in history and experience the life-story of a situation.”
Symbolising the New World
Robert has deliberately left the exact location of Kate’s Highland home ambiguous as he explains: “The story of the Highland Clearancesis so deeply rooted that to this day it can still evoke heartfelt emotion in descendents at home and abroad. The people who left the Highlands, either voluntarily or by force, ventured to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and America. Many went on to become leading figures in shaping these countries in the modern world. As such, we decided to end our film with a symbol of the impact that emigrants from all over Scotland have made on the New World
The film-makers intend to make a second and final instalment of the story, namely the crossing on the emigrant ship and arrival in Red River. Robert concludes: “For over 5,000 years, townships were thriving all over the Highlands. That basically came to an end overnight in the mid-19th Century. Most journeys begin with a single step – but in our film a period of human existence ended with a single step.”
In a fitting epitaph to the Highland Clearances, just five years after Catherine McPherson left her home in Helmsdale, the Rev. Donald Sage, circa 1818, wrote these words: ‘The townships in every strath and glen, and on every hill, which teemed with life, are now desolate and silent; and the only traces of the vanished, happy population are here and there, a half-buried hearthstone or a moss-grown graveyard’.
- The music used in ‘Last Footsteps of home’ is from the soundtrack KILDONAN and is now available from itunes, amazon mp3 and spotify etc. and most other online music stores.
Robert Aitken Biog
Born and bred in East Sutherland, Robert Aitken is a composer and independent new media producer and director of cultural projects at home and abroad. He specialises in communicating the unknown or lost social stories of peoples and their plight over the years to present day. He has worked with Emmy® Award winning director, Guy Perrotta, on his planned US national TV broadcast of Voices Over The Water and is composer on Working Life to War Life, featuring The Tent. His soundtrack to the Highland Clearances, Kildonan, features newly composed and arranged pieces inspired by the launch of Scotland’s Clearances Trail. Robert also is developing a series of short filmic, sonic and musically scored episodes relating to the Scottish Diaspora.