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Issue 3 - Highlands and lowlifes

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 3
July 2002


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Highlands and lowlifes

The widespread eviction of tenant crofters in the Scottish highlands in the late 18th and 19th centuries transformed the landscape. James Irvine Robertson examines the consequences

From the peak of Ben Bragghie in the far north of Scotland, a mighty 100-foot statue stares majestically out across the North Sea. Largely paid for by his sorrowing tenants, it is a memorial raised in 1834 to the first Duke of Sutherland. He invested huge sums of money from one of the greatest fortunes in England into replacing people with sheep to improve both his income and the lot of the remaining population across his wife’s vast estates. Instead of wealth, he created bitterness.

Between 1807 and 1821, thousands of families were evicted from the land, often at sword point, their cottages burned before their eyes, and forced to emigrate to the industrial cities of the south or overseas. Many died of hunger or disease on the emigrant ships and the so-called improvements failed, leaving those behind in abject poverty. These were the greatest and most notorious of the Highland Clearances which are still raw in the Scottish psyche – a people brutally ejected from their ancestral homes by their chiefs; a culture destroyed; one of the great wrongs of history.

Today when one looks at the Highlands, it seems extraordinary that this chilly, damp, infertile, inhospitable – but breathtakingly beautiful – landscape could support the hundreds of thousands of people who once wrested a living from it. Glen after glen, which now supports no more than the odd shepherd, gamekeeper or forestry worker, is littered with the tumbled ruins of deserted villages. The old way of life in the Highlands was hard beyond modern Western comprehension and starvation an ever-present threat. Great years of hunger continued well into the 19th century.

But, in the minds of its people, the land belonged to those who lived on it and worked it. A chief held it in trust for the members of his clan, his kinsmen, and they fought alongside him to protect it from interlopers and usurpers. This was never reality but it suited all concerned that the myth was perpetuated for it cemented bonds between landlord and people. In fact at the very time that the clan system was evolving, King David brought the feudal system to Scotland. To hold land, the chief needed a charter from the king which gave him sole possession of his territory in exchange for military and other services to the crown.

The clan system was destroyed by the repression after the ‘45’. The warriors who had been so important in keeping clan territory secure became mere tenants and the chiefs wanted cash rents from them rather than their swords. Later in the 18th century and early in the next, some chiefs, like Argyll, sunk great sums into their estates to create new industries and the infrastructure for them to thrive but the Industrial Revolution to the south undercut them as it undercut traditional rural craftsmen.

In the south the dispossessed moved to nearby towns and their new factories but there were no nearby towns in the Highlands. The Napoleonic War ended; young men could no longer join the army and perhaps send their wages home. The price of Highland produce fell back – first cattle, then sheep. The kelp industry, the one great hope for the future, was destroyed by the import of cheap foreign potash. Profits from its good years which could have been reinvested were dissipated by the landowners who were too often contemptuous of their people. And the country folk resented the changes and resisted co-operation with any of the lairds’ improvements which might have given them a future.

The greatest catastrophe of all was the increase in population. In other times people had to leave the land or face starvation but the introduction of the potato allowed many more to pack the townships in desperate poverty with no way to improve themselves. Those chiefs and lairds who tried to resist the agricultural rationalisation that would clear their lands of people were themselves swept away by the crash of produce prices and their estates were taken over by harder men with no attachment to the tenantry. Others, like the Duke of Sutherland, saw it their duty to employ their capital as efficiently as possible. Sentiment held little sway if greatest profits came from sheep. Still other chiefs and landowners were heartless or frivolous fools who uprooted their clansfolk to pay their gambling debts.

The only answer was emigration. Sometimes the chiefs tried to ban it; sometimes they encouraged it; sometimes they virtually took their redundant tenants by the scruff of the neck and hurled them into the grubby, cramped holds of transatlantic ships. The great majority of those who left did so voluntarily, sufficiently enterprising to risk the unknown in search of a better life for their families than the sparse Highlands could ever provide. But the terrible catalogue of cruelty and brutality that arose from so many of the forced evictions was carried from the Highlands by its departing population and still stains memories of the homeland – even today.

Public opinion in Great Britain condemned compulsory clearing from the start and continued to do so throughout. But it was legal. In a society that had yet to ban slavery, how could the law come between landlord and tenant? All the critics could do was hope that public condemnation would shame the perpetrators into changing their conduct. Sir Walter Scott said that the Highlanders were being ‘dispossessed by an unrelenting avarice, which will one day be found to have been as short sighted as it is selfish and unjust.’ David Stewart of Garth in his influential Sketches of the Highlanders published in 1822 stated that ‘It was a cold-hearted spirit of calculation, from which humanity and every better feeling shrunk, that induced men to set up for sale that loyalty, fidelity, and affection, which, as they cannot be purchased, are above all price.’

In 1843, The Sheriff of Tobermory in Mull visited emigrants aboard the Humberstone on the way to Quebec. ‘I spoke to one or two among them, one a Macdonald with all the old feelings of attachment towards his Chief – “If he had his own”, said the poor fellow, “we would not have been here to day”. How unworthy of his position in life has this wretched and contemptible trifler proved himself; by his folly and vanity he has ruined an honourable and ancient family, and almost exterminated a faithful and noble race of followers.’ In 1854 Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Sunny Memories about her stay with the Countess of Sutherland. It earned a ferocious riposte – Gloomy Memories written by Donald McLeod who was twice evicted from the Countess’s Highland estate. The former is forgotten, the latter has rarely been out of print.

The grossest injustices were not addressed until the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act of 1886. This gave the remaining Highlanders security of tenure but it discouraged investment and froze them on the marginal land to which they had been driven.

For the tiny population of the old Highland farmers, a living is still hard to obtain and the trauma of the Clearances is unhealed. Those who doubt it need only look to the controversial Land Reform Bill inching its way through the Scottish Parliament which seeks to give rights to the people and communities still subject to the whims of Highland landowners.

To this day, the Highland Clearances, the process whereby in the latter part of the 18th century large numbers of the Highland crofting community were removed from lands upon which their families had lived for centuries, arouses strong emotions. The current Land Reform debate in the Scottish Parliament is also encouraging political mileage to be made out of events that took place over 200 years ago. It is important therefore to understand the political and humanitarian motivations of the age.

The Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745 shocked public opinion throughout Britain. It had never before been thought possible for Highland clan chiefs to field such large numbers of fighting men from their tenantry, and in response the Government embarked upon measures to ensure that it would never happen again.

Although writers such as Dr Johnson and James Boswell had commented upon the wretched living conditions of Highland tenantry, much wretchedness was caused by the subsequent introduction of a policy to reorganise Highland estates. The object of this was to replace the abundant and inefficient small-scale arable farmings of Scotland’s glens, moors and mountains with large-scale sheep farming.

Social reformers of the day were of the opinion the old way of Highland life was no longer viable and, as a result entire communities were moved to other locations with factories built for their employment. Others were encouraged to emigrate overseas, particularly to the Americas.

While it is impossible to justify the manner in which the expulsions were handled, it is nevertheless worth noting that some of those behind them were motivated by the best of intentions. The 1st Duke of Sutherland, married to the heiress to the Sutherland estates where some of the worst expulsions took place, was an English-born Liberal reformer who genuinely believed that he was offering his wife’s tenantry the prospect of a better way of life. It should also be pointed out that by no means every Highland landowner was involved. Many of the clan chiefs who had survived the ‘45’ were bankrupted in their attempts to maintain the status quo. RCM