Featured Article - The Highland Clearances
Article No. 2
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|The Highland Clearances
The desolate beauty of the Scottish Highlands, so admired by natives and tourists
alike, is the result of a period of so called ‘improvements’ that resulted in what we
call the Highland Clearances. The eerie emptiness, long a haunting and powerful
feature of this part of the country, was something that was only achieved
through the forced eviction of many tens of thousands of people often amid
scenes of cruelty and sheer depravity. The Clearances continue to live on in
popular memory as one of the most lamentable and sickening events in Scotland’s
history and it is a subject that continues to cause controversy to this day.
Forced evictions, the burning of property, terrible cruelty, desperate famine, extreme
poverty, and even murder, these are the thoughts that are aroused when one takes time
to consider the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Clearances began in the late 18th century and carried on in separate phases well
into the 19th century. Over many years tens of thousands of people were cleared from
their homes mainly to make way for sheep, the wisdom at the time being that the sheep
were more profitable than small tenant farmers. Some Highlanders left their homes
voluntarily and went abroad, mostly though the evictions were forced upon an
unwilling population and were often carried out using the most despicable of methods.
To this day the clearances remain a permanent scar on the psyche of the Scottish
nation. The brutality and the sheer cruelty of the process singled it out as unique in the
turbulent history of what is termed the agricultural revolution.
History recalls the cultural renaissance that occurred in Scotland during the 18th
century as one of the greatest periods in Scottish history with many of Europe’s finest
minds being found in Scotland working in varied fields from philosophy to economics. It
was a time when Scotland had began to realise greater economic success on a grand scale
as trade with the colonies was booming, trade that had only been made possible after the
union of Scotland and England in 17o7. However, not all of Scotland had benefited from
the union and in the Highlands the way of life for the people living there carried on
virtually unchanged as it had done for many centuries. Poverty was always on the
horizon for the Highlanders who continued to live a hand to mouth existence, swearing
loyalty to their various clan Chiefs.
After the unsuccessful Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745 the government dealt the
Highland communities a number of hammer blows from which they would never fully
recover. The very foundations of highland culture were attacked and virtually
destroyed with a ban on the wearing of tartan, the disarming of the Highlanders, and
the abolition of the traditional rights of the Chiefs amongst other things.
It was, however, the very people who were supposed to defend the Highlanders interests
who would be responsible for the most serious assault on their way of life as it was the
Chiefs who would be largely responsible for the Highland Clearances as they cast off the
old ties and embraced the new life as part of the aristocracy. The government repression
which started in the 18th century and the Clearances which continued late into the
19th century were responsible for the disappearance of the last vestiges of feudalism
from Scotland and for the near annihilation of an entire culture.
After the last Jacobite rebellion the majority of the Chiefs had turned their backs on the
very people who had pledged their loyalty to them for so long and who in return
expected very little if only to be left to work their land. Times were changing and the
Chiefs interests had moved away from loyalty and honour to profit. The small holdings
would be swallowed up by the landlords and converted into large farms, out would go the
people and in would come the sheep.
Of course, not everyone who left the Highlands during this period had left involuntarily
or had been burned out of their homes amid scenes of depravity and cruelty, some
landlords did assist their former, if unwilling, tenants in finding new work or helped to
pay for the journey across the oceans to new lands. Indeed many people had opted to
start a new life in the colonies long before the clearances had truly began. However,
while gentle forms of eviction were utilised in some cases it was no less traumatic for the
families who were uprooted and forced into the slums of the cities or the crowded
The Clearances began around 1760 although it was not until around 1790 that the
process truly began to gather pace as Sheep farming reached the North of Scotland. It
should be pointed out, however, that there had been instances of evictions prior to 1760,
but not on a scale that is anywhere near what was witnessed after 1790.
As Scotland changed growing pains were evident everywhere although it was the
Highlands that experienced the worst of these changes. The early days of the Clearances
originally went virtually unnoticed by the rest of the population who were
unsympathetic towards what they considered to be the barbarians of the North. At this
same time the population of the Highlands continued to grow and it was argued by some
that a series of ‘improvements’ should be carried out in order to help ease overcrowding.
There were few places in Scotland were overcrowding could have been citied as the
primary driver for the Clearances, forgetting for a moment the way in which this
process was carried out, if anything it seems that this argument was put forward as
nothing more than an excuse for what was to come rather than as a reason.
One of the few places where the overcrowding argument could perhaps hold up to
scrutiny was on the island of Islay on Scotland’s West Coast. The island was beginning to
suffer from overcrowding in the 18th century and could not support the growing
population and a solution was needed. However, the island was spared the torment and
cruelty that other less densely populated parts of the nation were subjected to and even
though there were enforced clearances these were generally carried out in an entirely
different and arguably more humane way.
While the ‘improvements’ argument was gaining favour in large sections of society the
sheep began to arrive in 1792. The sheep replaced the outgoing tenant farmers and
their families who were driven away. At no stage, however, could the terror tactics that
were to be adopted in some parts of the country ever be excused as a means to an end.
The real motivation for the Clearances was not to ease overcrowding at all but to earn
the former Chiefs and the new landlords a better profit. It is true that the Clearances did
solve the perceived problem of overcrowding in some areas, indeed it went one step
further and the Highlands were emptied of most of the native Gaelic speaking people
from their ancient lands and leaving the land virtually empty.
One only has to look around the desolate highlands today, devoid of humans and sheep
alike, in order to realise that the whole scheme was a dismal failure, of course that is if
one is takes the view that improvements really lay at the heart of the evictions in the
first place which the evidence lends no real weight to.
The process of the Clearances was not one of immediate forced emigration, rather whole
families had to move to unfamiliar towns and cities where they usually had to enter new
industries for which they had never been trained, it would have been a truly painful
Nowhere were the Clearances executed with as much severity and sheer ruthlessness as
in Sutherland, in the North of Scotland. The Sutherland Clearances commenced in
1807 but it was here that year on year the severity of the evictions increased to a point
where Sutherland is remembered today as the scene of some of the worst acts of
depravity that make the Highland Clearances unique in history.
The landowners, the excessively rich Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland, and her
husband George Granville Leveson-Gower, the Marquis of Stafford, were responsible for
the eviction of around 15,000 people from their lands.
There were many contradictions and ironies behind the improvements arguments put
forward by the Countess of Sutherland and Stafford, and in the end it all ended up as a
rather dismal failure but most importantly the Marquis of Stafford was one of the richest
men of the age. They employed a man to help carry out their greedy purge, a man
whose name lives in infamy as one of the most brutal enforcers of his masters will,
During the evictions at Strathnaver in 1814 Sellar and his men came upon the house of
a Tinker that was set to be destroyed. Upon finding out about the presence of a bedridden
old woman in the house Sellar is quoted by a witness as saying:
“Damn her, the old witch, she has lived too long. Let her burn!”
And so the house was set ablaze with the old woman inside. She was rescued by witnesses
but died within a few days of her ordeal. Sellar was unrepentant and carried on evicting
families from their homes until in 1815 he was arrested and charged for his part in the
events mentioned above, however, he was acquitted by a packed Jury comprising
predominantly of local landowners sympathetic to his cause, something that was not all
too uncommon in such trials at the time. His career with the Marquis of Stafford was a
short one but he retired with the gratitude and thanks of his employers and it was a brief
career from which he profited greatly at the expense of other people.
The Highlanders who had been cleared from the land found themselves in a serious
situation, they had to find work to survive and feed their families. The choice was to
move to one of the new coastal settlements, to move to the towns and cities of the south,
or to emigrate. Most moved south to start a new life that they were totally unprepared
The majority of Highlanders spoke only Gaelic and settling into a new life in the
lowlands would have been very difficult for them and their families not only due to the
language barrier but also because there was a great deal of prejudice that would have
limited work and promotion opportunities. Furthermore, nothing could have prepared
them for life in the slums or for the dirty, industrial work that many would now have to
Although it was not the most popular course of action many Highlanders set out for new
lives overseas in the Colonies, the journey was long and painful and many would not live
long enough to see their prospective new homes but those that did make it struggled at
first to adapt to their new lives in their strange new environments but they persevered
and many prospered.
The Highlands of Scotland have not bore the lone brunt of forced evictions alone. The
lowlands did not escape the forces of agricultural and industrial change that were
sweeping the country and clearances were carried out there too, something which is less
well known. It has even been argued by some that the clearances of the lowlands
involved many more tens of thousands of people than the Highland Clearances had,
though this has not been substantiated in terms of numbers.
In England the enclosure movement that had started around the 12th century and had
continued to gather pace until it was all but completed in the 18th and 19th centuries
saw common land, previously used by farmers for communal purposes, enclosed for
private use, usually by wealthy landowners. As with the Highland Clearances quite
often sheep would take the place of the less profitable farmers and their families. The
enclosures caused untold misery to the farmers and their families who were forced into
lives of poverty and hardship in the towns and cities.
Even today it seems that the lessons of the Highland Clearances have not been learned as
in many parts of the world we still bear witness to the misery of large-scale forced
evictions which are becoming increasingly common place. Examples of such modern
day clearances are not hard to find.
Today China is thundering forwards in what some have labelled China’s own Industrial
Revolution. This march forward has seen whole communities uprooted and displaced in
the name of ‘modernity’, or rather profit if we are to call it by its true name, and in
many ways there are comparisons that can be drawn between the Highland Clearances
of the 18th and 19th centuries and the current situation in China.
Poor people have no expectation of support from the courts in China where the interests
of the rich and powerful are concerned. Ye Guozhu certainly did not when he was
sentenced to four years in prison in 2004 for merely applying to stage a rally against a
series of new housing developments that would displace a great many people. Ye Guozhu
and his family had been evicted against their will when their own house was demolished
a year earlier to build apartment blocks that they could never afford to live in
themselves and it is not simply housing developments that lead to forced evictions, all
manner of activities are forcing the people off of the land.
As was the case in Scotland long ago economic and social change has created tension
within Chinese society between the rich and the poor. The former peasants and land
workers are being forced to move to the big cities to look for work that they are not
familiar with in order to avoid utter destitution.
It is not unreasonable to draw such comparisons especially when one considers the
similarities that appear so frightfully obvious. Of course there are some clear differences
between the situation in Scotland and China, between then and now, but that the blind
desire of the ruling elite towards so-called ‘modernisation’ is breaking the back of
traditional communities in China as much as it did in the Scottish Highlands can not be
At the heart of the sorry tale that is the Highland Clearances is the central theme of
human greed, however other factors did affect the process. Issues of change, modernity,
materialism, greed, demography, conflict, repression, and cruelty all had a role to play
in how the Clearances came about but there is little that can compare to how the
Highland Clearances were executed. To simply view the Clearances through an
economic microscope is missing the wider human cost involved.
The clearances had been conceived by a narrow class of society desirous of ever greater
profit and it was enforced by thugs and opportunists. The hardship and the suffering
endured by many thousands of Highlanders at the hands of their own Chiefs and the
Authorities has never truly been forgotten and to this day bitter resentments remain.
The lingering scars are ever present in the psyche of the Scottish mind and in the minds
of those of Scottish Descent. The physical scars are clear for all to see today by the
poignant emptiness of the Highlands where even the sheep are no longer much in
The Highland Clearances were unique in the history of the world for their brutality and
the means by which the process was carried out. However, the forced eviction of people
from their homes is nothing new, indeed it continues across the globe even today.
Sometimes it is carried out in the name of modernisation and sometimes it is the result of
We see in China today, as with other parts of the world that are experiencing rapid
change, that no-one seems to have learned the lessons of the past and that as always
profit over principle is the driving force behind the forced eviction of people from their
homes, or what the new Chiefs are still calling ‘modernisation’.
|Author: Robert Edwards BA (Hons) LLB
© Robert Edwards 2007-19.
|Copyright © Your Scottish Descent 2007-19.
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“I’ve now had a
chance to read the
report from start to
finish and all I can
say is wow! It’s
amazing to think
that I knew nothing
about my ancestors
what they got up to!
Thank you so much