Despite the period after the Great Highland Famine being labelled by some historians as a period of relative prosperity for the crofting and cottar community of north-west Sutherland, poverty and occasional destitution remained the norm. This article examines the structural causes and social consequences of this recurring pattern, principally from the perspective of the owners and managers of the Sutherland estate. The views of those factors ‘on the ground’ revolved around the organisation of immediate assistance for the people, as well as a fear of a ‘dependency’ culture being the permanent result of landlord charitable aid. These views clashed with those of the estate commissioner and ducal family, who were concerned with their public image, especially in the wake of unfavourable comment on the clearances. These contrasting views were further complicated by contemporary debates about charity and Poor Law reform which, although often metropolitan in focus, had a direct impact on the Sutherland estate's response to destitution in the mid-nineteenth century.