SHEEP SHOW; Comedian David Mitchell Traces His Scottish Roots to a Farm in the Highlands

Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), August 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

SHEEP SHOW; Comedian David Mitchell Traces His Scottish Roots to a Farm in the Highlands


Byline: Brian McIver

BORN in Wiltshire, raised in Oxford, educated at Cambridge and proud to be middle-class, you don't come much more English than comedian David Mitchell.

Or at least that's what most people, including himself, would have thought until very recently.

Because the oddball, straight-man half of Peep Show double act Mitchell andWebb has just discovered an incredibly rich and intriguing Scottish background.

It stretches back more than 150 years and includes some of the biggest social and economic milestones in our history.

The 35-year-old is the latest celebrity to get the genealogy makeover in the new series of Who Do You Think You Are? He embarked on an incredible journey across the hills of Sutherland and the glens of Skye to find out just how deep his family roots extended.

He discovered a sheepfarming dynasty on one side of his family. On the other was a controversial and heroic figure who fought against 19th-century slave labour but also imposed a strict moral authority on his family and local community.

David says his discoveries, which are unveiled in the next episode of the BBC1 documentary this Wednesday, have given him a fresh perspective on his family and just how alike and different he is from his ancestors.

He said: "I've always felt a bit guilty saying that I'm at all Scottish because I was born in England and my dad and his parents were born in England.

"But everyone before that is Scottish, and it seems like that for hundreds and hundreds of years. On the Scottish side, I seem to be descended from very middle-class people.

"I've always been a big fan of the middle classes and the bourgeoisie. They always get a kicking for not being quite posh enough or not normal enough, and for their pretensions.

"Well, I'm proud of being part of a long line of middle-class people, a long line of people who looked down on the peasantry and resented the aristocracy.

"I hope to continue that hypocritical attitude in my own life because without the middle classes there is no comedy."

David started his lineage hunt by checking out the Mitchell side of his roots.

His father's side can be traced back to a 30,000-acre farm called Ribigill, near the village of Tongue, Sutherland.

But the nearest he had been to it was hearing tales of the farm from his grandfather, who spent time there as a child duringWorld War One to avoid the threat of German attacks in the South of England.

His great-great-grandparents, William and Annie Mitchell, and their 13 children, took it over in 1839. David visited the farm, which now lies in ruins, and said: "I'm finding this place incredibly sad. It feels ridiculous now, but I feel slightly more personally involved.

"This was my family's business and it's been allowed to flounder."

The farm's 3000 sheep were managed by eight shepherds with 60 people living and working on the land, which the Mitchells leased from the Duke of Sutherland.

That was just a few years after the local population was devastated by the Clearances.

David was concerned by the proximity of his family's lease to the dates of the Clearances and felt the need to investigate.

He said on the show: "It's occurred to me that they were doing all this sheep farming in the North of Scotland in the 19th century.

"So my ancestors may have been the beneficiaries of the Highland Clearances.

"The Mitchells seem to have done well out of the Clearances and were prosperous sheep farmers, so I suppose that might have been the non-heroic side of the Clearances to be associated with."

But David was relieved to discover his family did not arrive there until 18 years after the last of the families had been evicted by the Sutherlands.

"On this farm, there were nine or 10 villages and they were all out within 20 years because it was financially more viable to put sheep here. …

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