The Highland Clearances: a historian’s guide to a century of eviction
Why were the people of the Scottish Highlands removed from the land? Who was to blame for the evictions? And what became of the dispossessed? Sir Tom Devine answers the key questions on this traumatic chapter in Scottish history…
What were the Highland Clearances?
The Highland Clearances, also known as the Scottish Clearances, was the highly controversial and damaging process of removing peasant families and communities from land across Scotland from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries. These evictions were primarily conducted so that landowners could increase their income by repurposing the areas of the Highlands and western Scottish islands for sheep and cattle farming.
While some of the removals were done voluntarily, the majority were a product of coercion from the landowners. Homes would even be set alight to ensure that their former residents could not return. Those evicted relocated to coastal areas or to Scotland’s industrialising Lowland cities, or they left the country entirely and emigrated to places like Canada, United States, Australia and New Zealand.
The Clearances did not just dispossess huge numbers of people in Scotland, but they also attacked Highland culture and brought about the destruction of the traditional clan-based society – which had existed for centuries – where the Highlands moved from clanship to capitalism in a just a couple of generations. It was, and is still remembered as, a deeply traumatic period of Scottish history.
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When were the Clearances?
Rather than a single event, the Highland Clearances began around the middle decades of the 18th century and continued intermittently across the following century. The final major evictions occurred around the 1840s and 50s. In 1886, the Crofters Holdings Act gave Highland people security of tenure, ensuring that any further clearances on an extensive scale would be legally impossible.
Where did the evictions happen?
On the Scottish mainland, the Clearances primarily occurred in places north and west of the ‘Highland line’, running from just above Glasgow in the west to north of Dundee in the east. In the centre of this region is the concentration of the Highland massif, or great mountains, which features the Cairngorms.
The western islands were also affected, including the Inner and Outer Hebrides and stretching as far south as the island of Arran on the southwestern coast. But recent scholarship – counting my book, The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, 1600–1900 – has shown that the process of eviction was Scotland-wide. In fact, the southern uplands bordering England is where the evictions started in the 17th century, almost a century before beginning in the Highlands.
Who was responsible for the Highland Clearances?
In Scottish popular culture, there’s a tradition of blaming the English for things. I am sometimes asked whether they were to blame for the Highland Clearances. But while there was indeed a significant inflow of English landowners into the north of Scotland during the early 19th century – the most notorious being the future Duke of Sutherland – there’s no evidence that they were any more active in the evictions than their Scottish counterparts.
The landowners were, of course, the agents of the Clearances, but rarely did they become directly involved in the process. The ones actually responsible on the ground were officials, known as ‘factors’ or ‘estate chamberlains’. These were often Highlanders themselves, or Lowlanders trained in accounting and estate management.
But as well as thinking about the responsibility of individuals, it is important to understand that economic and social forces were powerful elements in bringing the Clearances about.
Why did the Highland Clearances happen?
Many factors – economic, cultural and political – came together to accelerate and intensify the process of clearance. In the wake of the Jacobite rising in 1746, which was crushed at the battle of Culloden, the system of clanship collapsed. Highlanders died in the fighting or were hunted down in the brutal punitive measures carried out by the English after the rebellion.
Clan chiefs evolved rapidly from being patriarchs to their people into capitalist landowners, who could use their property as a capital asset. They quickly found that they had increasing difficulty keeping up with the genteel tastes and customs of their counterparts in the Lowlands, though. The Highlands were a rugged part of Britain where rentals were low, so tremendous pressure built on these clan-chiefs-turned-landowners to increase their returns.
Given the nature of the terrain, one of the easiest ways to do that was to set down large swathes of their properties for sheep farming and cattle ranching. It has been estimated that it was possible to increase income by as much as 400 to 500 per cent by leasing the land to farmers from the south rather than just collect the rents of those already living there. But these flocks required access to lower ground over winter, which is where the peasants – their former clansfolk – were settled.
What part did industrialisation have?
Alongside landowners requiring more rental income, another catalytic factor emerged at the same time: greater marketplace opportunities for selling Highland produce. A huge demand was growing for fish, grain, kelp, slate and timber, for example. To make the most of these markets, the evicted Highlanders became the workforce for these industries.
Another factor, which is often overlooked, is that the Highland population was rising rapidly in the late-18th century. There was almost a Malthusian situation: an exponentially rising population with less access to land and its resources, exacerbated by being in an environment that, unlike the Lowlands, did not have the capability for industrialisation.
This was a period of massive industrialisation in Scotland and England, but the inability of the Highlands to support alternatives to agriculture or land-based activity ultimately doomed the people there. For many, the choice became either to leave or face destitution.
I would argue that the Clearances aggravated the imbalance between population and resources, but fundamentally did not cause it. Even if there had been no evictions, much of the Highland population would still have been made to leave at some point as living conditions worsened and became almost intolerable. People sought out better opportunities elsewhere.
So what happened during the Clearances?
There were two main phases: the first ran from the 1750s to around 1815; while the second lasted from around the 1820s to 1850s.
In the first phase, most landowners did not actually want to get rid of the people. They looked to build a dual economy from which they could gain as much rental income as possible, while also benefitting from their tenants being engaged in other money-making industries. Far from being expelled during this period, the population was regarded as a precious labour resource.
As such, landowners wanted the interior land to be set aside from sheep or cattle, while the people would be relocated to the coastland crofts to encourage them to take up fishing or manufacturing kelp (a booming industry at the time). The smallholdings of the peasantry were shaved to a minimum to ensure they would turn to these more lucrative industries in which they had no experience. So, pre-1815, the story was not about expulsion, but shifting people to new areas.
By the 1820s, however, this had changed dramatically. The strategy of landowners evolved into getting rid of the people entirely. A sharp decline in the kelp business and the devastating impact of a potato blight meant that the crofting communities were no longer able to support themselves. They were deemed a redundant population, and eviction was soon regarded almost as a necessary action in estate management.
Some of the most draconian clearances took place during the following decades, and especially in the 1850s. One British administrator in the Highland, Sir Edward Pine Coffin, even wrote to Whitehall about his concerns that the intensity of the evictions was such that he feared for the survival of the society.
Where did the evicted people go?
During the first phase of the Clearances, the great movement was towards the mainland coast, especially from Ardnamurchan to Cape Wrath, where people were crowded into new settlement areas, which, of course, led to further destitution. This was followed by mass movement from the southern, eastern and central fringes of the Highlands to Scotland’s industrialising Lowland towns.
Others left Scotland entirely. Emigration began on a relatively small scale in the late-18th century, but accelerated in the second phase of the Clearances into a massive diaspora by the middle of the 19th century. These immigrants largely went first to Canada, then to the United States, Australia and New Zealand too.
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Some landowners even financially supported their evicted tenants to emigrate to ensure that they left – a process called ‘compulsory emigration’. They gave the people a bleak choice: simple, straightforward removal; or the promise of some support for leaving their homeland.
What was the legacy of the Highland Clearances?
The Clearances left a substantial hole in the Highland population, although not necessarily as a result of death. There’s no significant evidence of a marked increase in mortality during this period. Even when the population of the Highlands was threatened by potato blight, the change in mortality was limited. There is, however, evidence of higher mortality rates among those who sailed on immigrant ships, as a result of smallpox and other ailments.
The impact of the Clearances, in the medium- to long-term, was that it gave what remained of Highland society a sense of deep-seated grievance. The memory of the evictions – of having homes and lands taken away – remains ingrained in the population as that grievance has been handed down from generation to generation. Meanwhile, among the Lowlanders there is a sense of residual guilt that gives most Scots a feeling that something is owed to the Highlanders for what occurred in the past.
Sir Tom Devine is a historian, professor emeritus at Edinburgh University and prolific author of Scottish history. His books include The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed 1600-1900 (Allen Lane, 2018)