The Highland Clearances Re-examined

The very idea of such a golden age is dubious. The clanship was very much a lawless society with constant jockeying for power between warring clans. The Southern Scots regarded Highlanders as primitive murderous barbarians and with good reason. In an earlier attempt to indoctrinate the Highlanders into the Southern way of life settlers from Fife had emigrated North (the Fife plantations) only to be completely massacred. There was bound to be a decisive clash of cultures at one point. The tensions had already flared up before such as at the battle of Harlaw.

Indeed power hungry clan chiefs often plotted extending their territory further south and made many more murderous forays into the Southern Kingdom including the jacobite rebellions. Added to the religious and cultural differences it is not hard to understand the mistrust and hatred that existed between North and South.

In Highland society, power was based upon clans’ millitary strength. Lands were frequently taken through force and rival clans settlements destroyed.

Although the Highland economy was self-sufficient it was certainly not rich.

’Every family has a small farm, which they are too poor to stock with sheep or cattle, and in a bad year, as the last, when all the oats were spoiled by rain; they were reduced to absolute starvation. I have seen misery in Wales, but till I came into the country, I had no idea of humans or indeed other creatures existing in such habitations as I have seen and their food, if possible, still worse.’ (Grenville quoted in Richards 1982:95)

Thus it can be argued that the days before the clearances were anything but a golden age. The Clanship was a politically unstable, violent society wrought with war and poverty. Famine and starvation were commonplace before the clearances even began.

It is clear that the Highlands were economically and politically backward with no central planning or fiscal policy. Each autonomous tribe made its own rules and people very much relied on subsistence agriculture for food. Methods of farming were thoroughly pernicious and unproductive. At the same time, the South of Britain was relatively wealthy with a centralized industrialized economy. Britain was arguably the most powerful country in the world.

Clearly there was great need for change in the Highlands. The motivation for parliament to make these changes was national security. After all a Highland lead army had gotten as far South as Derby whilst attempting to overthrow the British King. The fifth such rebellion in a relatively short space of time. One parlimentarian tabled a motion that all Highland women should be sterilized so that the cursed Highlander race be wiped from the face of the earth. Whilst such a policy was not pursued it was reflective of the strength of anti Highland feeling which existed at the time.

Immediately after the 1745 Battle of Culloden the clearances began. ‘It began with the extermination of the wounded who still lay on the battlefield and was continued by the imposition of martial law, the shooting and hanging of fugitives, the driving of stock and the burning of house and cottage.’ ( Their initial purpose was to eliminate any Jacobite threat. They aimed to destroy the clanship society. Prisoners were

taken and tried in England. Some were executed by axe or rope. Many more were transported as indentured servants to the American colonies.

Highland chiefs were executed for the mere suspicion of insubordination, thus eventually all clan chiefs became answerable to the Southern administration as opposed to their own people. They were granted legal ownership of the lands which their peoples occupied as part of the process of bringing in law and order to a previously chaotic region. Many mixed with the English upper classes and lived the high life in London.

To pay for their new lifestyles many chiefs began to abuse their newfound legal powers exploiting their own people. They decided to make their land yield as high an income as possible regardless of humanitarian cost. For example in one case tenants were banned from making their own bread and forced to buy any bread from mills at an inflated price. Landlords letted the best land to the highest bidders, usually for cattle grazing.

Yet even after being cleared to the poor land, tenants rents were kept as high as possible. ‘It was bad enough, they thought, that an alien government should interfere with their old ways of doing; but that their chiefs, the heads of their race, for whom they were ready to lay down their lives should turn against them, was more than they could bear’ ( Many of the farmers emigrated as a result.

The Kelp industry of the nineteenth century sustained the Highland population as it once again put a value on manpower. At this point emigration declined as landlords conspired to create draconian new laws increasing regulations on ships to the extent that many Highlanders could not afford to emigrate and were forced to stay and work in conditions paramount to slave labour. However the industry eventually decayed and as the value of men decreased the regulations that had prevented emigration were unsurprisingly dropped. The Kelp industry was subsequently replaced with the wool industry; even more Highlanders were cleared from their land. Landlords regarded tenants as a burden rather than an asset. A government report described Highlanders as ‘parading and exaggerating their poverty whilst being basically lazy.” Exploited and repressed, thousands of Highlanders emigrated to pastures new some by choice some by force. ‘The colonel called all of his tenant farmers to a meeting to discuss rents and threatened them with a fine if they did not attend. In the meeting hall over 1500 tenants were overpowered, bound and loaded onto ships for America.’(McGowan clan website)

The Highland population plummeted from 400,000 to 120,000. With cheap imports from Australia the price of wool fell, another blow for an already suffering people who were feeling all the negative aspects of being cleared to poor land but enjoying none of the benefits of the new industries.

Many stories of this period exist perhaps the most well known is the story of the duke of Sutherlands henchman Patrick Sellar. Whilst banishing tenants from their homes Sellar set fire to a house in which resided a sick old woman.

‘Sellar, daith has ye in his grip;

Ye needa think he’ll let ye slip;

Justice ye’ve earned, and by the book,

A warm assize ye winna jouk.

The fires ye lit tae gut Strathnaver

Ye’ll feel them noo-and roast forever. (MacInnes 1964)

Sellar is often seen as a symbol of the humanitarian atrocities which occurred during the clearances, he is mentioned in virtually every written account and even has his own waxwork figure in a Highland museum. In reality such barbaric behavior was rare. Only two people died in the entire Highland clearances. While the upheaval of Highlanders to clear the best land was widespread it was not always accompanied by brutality.

In conclusion there is no doubt that the clanship Highland economy was backward compared to the South of Britain and radical changes were necessary. Tales of excessive brutality and upheaval have been somewhat exaggerated as only two people were actually killed while being cleared from land. The way that the land ownership was divided proved to be massively flawed. Giving Chiefs complete control over huge areas of land constituting thousands of families with no checks or balances simply encouraged greed and the transition process from old practices to new was certainly not a smooth one. Seeing as there was no democracy the people of the Highlands had nothing to protect them from the subsequent exploitation.

The new land ownership laws gave incentives to Lairds to ensure that land was used economically efficiently. Without doubt, the economic productivity of the Highlands would have been significantly increased. The concept of legal ownership of land ended the clan wars. Indeed no wars have been fought on British soil since the Highland Improvements. It was not the act of clearing people from the best land to ensure the lands most efficient and profitable use that was the problem. It was the subsequent greed of the Lairds whose extravagant big spending lifestyles down South ensured that the Highlanders barely received a fraction of the wealth that the modernised economy was creating.

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