Highland Clearances

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The Highland Clearances (Scottish Gaelic: Fuadaich nan Gàidheal, the expulsion of the Gael) is a name given to the forced displacement of the population of the Scottish Highlands from their ancient ways of warrior clan subsistence farming, leading to mass emigration. This was part of a process of agricultural change throughout the United Kingdom, but the late timing, the lack of legal protection for year-by-year tenants under Scottish law, the abruptness of the change from the clan system and the brutality of many of the evictions gave the Highland Clearances particular notoriety.

The enclosures that depopulated rural England in the British Agricultural Revolution started much earlier, and similar developments in Scotland have lately been called the Lowland Clearances, but in the Highlands the impact on a Goidelic (Scottish Gaelic)-speaking semi-feudal culture that still expected obligations from a chieftain to his clan led to vocal campaigning and a lingering bitterness among the descendants of the large numbers forced to emigrate, or to remain and subsist in crofting townships on very small areas of often marginal land. Crofters became a source of virtually free labour to their landlords, forced to work long hours, for example, in the harvesting and processing of kelp.


[edit] Clan Chiefs

From the late 16th century the Scottish Privy Council required clan leaders to regularly attend at Edinburgh to provide bonds for the conduct of anyone on their territory, bringing a tendency among Chiefs to see themselves as landlords. The lesser clan-gentry increasingly took up droving, taking cattle along the old unpaved drove roads to sell in the Lowlands. This brought them wealth and land-ownership within the clan, though the Highlands continued to have problems of overpopulation and poverty. The Jacobite Risings brought repeated government efforts to curb the clans culminating after the Battle of Culloden with brutal repression and legislation from 1746 leading to the destruction of the traditional clan system and of the supportive social structures of small agricultural townships.

From around 1725 clansmen had been emigrating to the Americas. Increasing demand in Britain for cattle and sheep and the creation of new breeds of sheep, such as the black faced which could be reared in the mountainous country gave the landowners and Chiefs the opportunity of higher rents to meet the burden of costs of an aristocratic lifestyle. As a result, many families living on a subsistence level were displaced.

[edit] "Improvements"

What the landlords thought of as necessary "improvements" but became known as the Clearances are thought to have been begun by Admiral John Ross of Balnagowan Castle in Scotland in 1762, although MacLeod of Dunvegan had done some experimental work on Skye in 1732. Many chiefs engaged Lowland, or sometimes English, factors with expertise in more profitable sheep farming, and they 'encouraged', sometimes forcibly, the population to move off suitable land. The people were accommodated in poor crofts or small farms in coastal areas where farming could not sustain the communities and they were expected to take up fishing, or they were put directly onto emigration ships.

In 1807 Elizabeth Gordon, 19th Countess of Sutherland, touring her inheritance with her husband Lord Stafford (later made Duke of Sutherland), wrote that "he is seized as much as I am with the rage of improvements, and we both turn our attention with the greatest of energy to turnips". As well as turning land over to sheep farming, Stafford planned to invest in creating a coal-pit, salt pans, brick and tile works and herring fisheries. That year his agents began the evictions, with ninety families forced to leave their crops in the ground and to move their cattle, furniture and timbers from their former houses to the land they were offered some 20 miles (30 km) away on the coast, living in the open until they had built themselves new houses. Stafford's first Commissioner, William Young, arrived in 1809, and soon engaged Patrick Sellar as his factor who pressed ahead with the process while acquiring sheep farming estates for himself.<ref name=prebble>The Highland Clearances, John Prebble, Penguin Books, 1963, ISBN 0-14-002837-4</ref>

Elsewhere, the flamboyant Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry portrayed himself as the last genuine specimen of the true Highland Chief while his tenants were subjected to a process of relentless eviction.<ref name=prebble/>

To landlords, 'improvement' and 'clearance' did not necessarily mean depopulation. At least until the 1820s, when there were steep falls in the price of kelp, landlords wanted to create pools of cheap or virtually free labour, supplied by families subsisting in new crofting townships. Kelp collection and processing was a very profitable way of using this labour, and landlords petitioned successfully for legislation designed to stop emigration. This took the form of the Passenger Vessels Act passed in 1803. Attitudes changed during the 1820s and, for many landlords, the potato famine which began in 1846 became another reason for encouraging or forcing emigration and depopulation.

[edit] Potato Famine

Main article: Highland Potato Famine (1846 - 1857)

As in Ireland, the potato crop failed in the mid 19th century, and a widespread outbreak of cholera further weakened the Highland population. The ongoing clearance policy resulted in starvation, deaths, and a secondary clearance, when families either migrated voluntarily or were forcibly evicted. There were many deaths of children and old people. As there were few alternatives, many emigrated, joined the British army, or moved to the growing urban cities, like Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee in Lowland Scotland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Liverpool in the north of England. In many areas people were given economic incentives to move, but few historians dispute that there were also many instances where violent methods were used by the landlords to clear the highland population.

[edit] An account by Donald McLeod

Elizabeth Gordon, 19th Countess of Sutherland and her factor, Patrick Sellar, were especially cruel and their names are reviled in Sutherland to this day. Donald McLeod, a Sutherland crofter, later wrote about the events he witnessed:

The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description — it required to be seen to be believed.
A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself — all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition — whether in or out of the flames — I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of these days a boat actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing-place by the lurid light of the flames. [1]

Accounts like those of McLeod and General David Stewart of Garth brought widespread condemnation and The Highland Land League eventually achieved land reform in the enactment of Crofting Acts, but these could not bring economic viability and came at a time when the land was already suffering from depopulation.

[edit] Modern condemnation of the Clearances

Ross Noble claims some writers are coruscating in their condemnation of the Clearances, seeing the process as an early version of "ethnic cleansing".<ref>The Cultural Impact of the Highland Clearances By Ross Noble</ref> However, as Noble points out, this approach over-simplifies the issues involved. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the second, more brutal phase of the Clearances began; this was well after the visit of King George IV to Scotland, when lowlanders set aside their previous distrust and hatred of the Highlanders and identified with them as national symbols. Under the economic and social ideas of the time other landowners were callous about the lower orders, and these modern labels reflect new sensitivities. However, but the effect was particularly devastating to the cultural landscape of Scotland in a way that did not happen in other areas of Britain.

While the collapse of the clan system can be attributed more to economic factors and the repression that followed the Battle of Culloden, the widespread evictions resulting from the Clearances severely affected the viability of the Highland population and culture. To this day, the population in the Scottish Highlands is sparse and the culture is diluted, and there are many more sheep than people. However, the Clearances did result in significant emigration of Highlanders to North America and Australasia — where today are found considerably more descendants of Highlanders than in Scotland itself.

One estimate for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia has 25,000 Gaelic-speaking Scots arriving as immigrants between 1775 and 1850. Into the early 20th century, Gaelic was spoken in many Cape Breton homes, though by the beginning of the 21st century the number of native Gaelic speakers fell well below one thousand.<ref>Hector MacNeil, Gaelic Director, the Gaelic College, St. Ann's, Nova Scotia</ref>

Appalachia also served as a bastion for displaced non-gentry Gaels, and bears the often unacknowledged cultural marks of the dispossessed peoples.

[edit] See also

[edit] References


[edit] External links

[edit] Further reading (with bibliography)

  • An overview of the Clearances, Alexander McKenzie, 1881.
  • Gloomy Memories, Donald Macleod, 1857 (first-hand account of Sutherland clearances).
  • The Highland Clearances, Eric Richards, Birlinn Books, 2000.
  • The Strathnaver Trilogy, Ian Grimble. 3vols: Chief of MacKay, The Trial of Patrick Sellar, and The World of Rob Donn.
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