The plight of the Highlander was a favourite subject of Victorian artists, whose depictions of bailiffs seizing chattels in lieu of rent, evictions and emigrations found a ready audience in England. From about 1815 many of the clan chiefs, driven by the inability of their impoverished clansmen to pay rent on their smallholdings, sold the land. The new landowners knew only too well that large sheep farms were much more profitable than the traditional smallholdings of the Highlanders, who produced barely enough to keep them themselves and their family. Forced evictions and emigrations took place, in many cases in the most barbarous circumstances, as the landlords displaced the Highlanders with sheep. Matters came to a head in the year before Lochaber No More was painted, when, in April, there were riots in Skye in protest against the Highlanders' insecurity of tenure, the excessive rents for very poor land and the frequent evictions. The Crofters Act of 1886 went some way to improve the lot of the Highlanders.
The date of the painting suggests that it is possible that Nicol, a young expatriate Scot, executed this particular work in support of the recently formed Highland Land League, in order to bring into sharp focus the dreadful treatment of the Highlanders, rather than simply producing yet another depiction of the Highland Clearances. Be that as it may, it is a powerful and poignant evocation of the misery and sorrow caused by the Clearances. The essential simplicity of the composition serves to accentuate the painting’s message.
Lochaber No More was both the title of a pibroch lament, much favoured by departing Scottish emigrants, and the opening line of a song by the Scottish poet and literary antiquary Allan Ramsay, father of the celebrated portrait painter of the same name.
John Watson Nicol
Oil on canvas
108 × 83 cm
136.1 × 112 × 8.4 cm
Signed and dated bottom left
John Watson Nicol ROI, 1856-1926
Very little is known about the life of Nicol. He was the son of the genre and figure painter Erskine Nicol and the brother of Erskine E. Nicol Jnr, also a painter. John Watson Nicol was born in Edinburgh and brought up in London, following his father's move there in 1863. He was a painter of genre and historical subjects and portraits, but it is not known whether he had any formal art training or learned his craft in his father's studio. Today Nicol's reputation rests on this single painting, which he executed in 1883 at the age of twenty-seven, exhibiting the picture at the Royal Academy the same year. It was engraved for illustration in The Art Journal in 1884.