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Highland and Lowland Clearances - shame, Scotland, shame


I assumed that the clearances were some of the most tragic, in­fam­ous bits of Scottish history, where heartless landowners forced suffering people from their lands and homes. The Highland Clear­ances in Scotland re­sulted from a shift from agric­ul­tural farming to sheep farming, swiftly and brut­ally. And it represented the end of hundreds of years of fiercely independent clans and of paternal land ownership! 

The Scottish Clearances (2018)  is by TM Devine. Covering the rural revolution of the 1600-1900 era, his book compared the more fam­ous Highland Clearances with those that occurred all over Lowland Scotland. Devine’s book was well supported by documentary evidence, the emph­asis being on economic and polit­ical issues during the critical era.

Between the early C18th and the late 1850s, Highland society was subjected to two long episodes of clearance. In the first cycle, up to c1815, landlords engaged in social and economic engineering to relocate population; they wanted to create extensive grazing lands for sheep so traditional townships were swept away and the people were removed. New crofting communities were created and based on fish, kelp, potato and military employment, all of which profited the landlords.

But having created the conditions for a famine in the late 1840s when the potato crop failed, this society collapsed. The ongoing clearance policy resulted in starvation and deaths of so many people, especially children and the elderly. Poverty-stricken croft­ing communities were swept away in this second cycle of clearance and emigration.

Thomas Faed,  1865, 
Last of the Clan, 
Fleming Collection, London

The Highland Clearances were much shorter lived than the Low­land Clearances, and resulted in lower overall numbers leaving Scotland. Some cleared families were fortunate enough to have their passage to a new land paid for by their land­lords. Nonetheless whole vill­ages were rem­oved from their beloved homes and ended up emigrating. Fortunately they could remain together in their new land, where they already had land, a living and a support network.

Even more importantly the book examined the forgotten history of The Lowland Clearances. The Lowland Clearances occurred from Scot­land’s Central belt down to the Borders, and affected huge numbers of people. I was grateful for the maps that gave a sense of the scale of these dispossessions.

Scottish Lowlands in white
Scottish Highlands in light grey
England in dark grey

Lowland Scots had lived off the land for centuries, until the clear­ances were triggered in response to the Industrial Rev­ol­ution. Tenant farmers or crofters rented land from the land­owners, worked the land, and paid a portion of their crop return to the landowner as rent. Tenant farmers hired cottars/day workers to do planting and harvesting, doing back-breaking work, for a subsistence wage.

I suppose at least the timing was good; the burgeoning industrial economy of Low­land Scotland absorbed some of the rural victims.  But in the clearances, carried out over a longer time, communal townships and old farms were elim­inated and a very eff­icient but heartless form of agriculture was impos­ed. Note that large-scale sheep farming encroached into this part of Scotland long before it was contemplated in the Highlands.

Lowland property-owners drew up very demanding leases for the ten­ants. At the end of the lease, many of the contracts were not ren­ewed. Or the landowner could simply terminate the lease, with­out appeal. Ind­ividual farms were replaced by larger, more com­mer­cial farms that yielded larger crops. The handful of animals were no longer put to pasture on the outskirts of the crop fields. Ins­tead large herds were grazed separately, with cottar support. An entire rung of rural society was wiped with arrival of the new leases.

TM Devine's book, The Scottish Clearances

Worse still, the option of paying rents in kind ended and the new requirement was for cash payments. Those unable to pay .. had their leases terminated. Plus the rents for the new, more mod­ern farms were much higher than they had been for the crofting fam­il­ies. This of course created another legal means of clearing people off their land.

The displaced cottars were forced into nearby towns to find work. But these men were unskilled in factory work and their adjustment to an unfamiliar life often had devastating economic effects.

The majority of Lowlanders emigrated over time, seeing that their best option for prospering was to leave Scotland and emigrate to the New World. Alas the Low­land farmers were given nothing; they were expected to pay their own passage. They had no guarantee of a job waiting for them when they arrived in the Am­ericas, although some had good luck and found available land. Large numbers of these Lowland Scots settled in Eastern Canada in the 1840s and 50s, especially in Nova Scotia, and in the USA after the mid 1850s. And given their miserable experience in Scotland, they tried to assimilate quickly.

There were 170,571 Scots documented as being ejected from their homelands. But landowners lied, and records were lim­ited. Perhaps two million Scots left their homeland in total and emig­rat­ed to lands with better opportunities, to make their mark there.

The very sad Emigrants Statue. 
Above the River Helmsdale (in the Highlands) and overlooking Helmsdale harbour 

The radical ideas of the Scot­tish Enlightenment (18th-early C19th) were always significant. But were there protests against the clearances? Yes there was extensive dist­urb­ances seen throughout the years of clearance, becoming more pol­it­icised in the Highland Land War of the 1880s. But it was very dif­ficult for powerless tenants to subvert the balance of power that favoured the landlords and the state. As well, there were endless Gaelic songs, poems and paintings.

Read a very different book review in the Irish Times.






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