How a whole people were dispossessed and scattered

The ‘Highland Clearances’ are a scar on the Scottish psyche to this day. These clearances were at their worst during the period 1763 – 1775, but they did not end until around 1881. During this time, a documented number of 170,571 Highlanders were ejected from their traditional lands. These official figures are generally accepted to be very conservative, and the actual numbers are much greater. Huge numbers of these dispossessed people migrated to Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand at this time.  

These awful clearances are often laid firmly at the door of the English, which is factually wrong. For example, in the book ‘Tartans’ by the American author, Brenda Ralph Lewis (who does appear to exhibit a general anti English attitude) – she states under the entry for the MacFie Clan that:-

“the MacFies were widely scattered by the notorious Highland Clearances of 1763 –1775, in which the English evicted families from the Highlands and the Isles of Scotland”.

This is wrong, plain and simple. It excuses the callous and profiteering actions of certain clan chiefs and nobles during the Clearances. It also smacks of the blinkered anti-English or anti-British sentiment that can unfortunately surface in some people from America. The small tenantry of the Highlands were evicted by the landowners seeking 'improvement' and enhanced rents, and these were more likely to be Scots than English.

The English were responsible in as much as the Hanoverian (German) monarchy that ruled the United Kingdom, as it still does, defeated the Jacobite rising at the decisive Battle of Culloden in 1746. Though it must always be remembered that there were Scots and English in both armies and the conflict was not by any means a battle between the Scots and the English, but rather a British civil war.

After Culloden, the British government banned the Highlanders from wearing the tartan or any of the Highland garb, and from carrying weapons. They even banned the bagpipes as an instrument of war. The ‘Heritable Jurisdictions Act’ of 1747 also required that Scots landowners accede to the jurisdiction of the British parliament or forfeit their lands. Hardly surprising given the dynastic circumstances of the conflict, which went to the very core of the political establishment.

The betrayal of the clansmen

The fact is, many of the Highland gentry and titled clan chiefs preferred the soft and refined life of London than that to be had in the cold and spartan Highlands. By the end of the 18th century, 60% of Hebridean landlords were reported to be absent from their lands.

In his book 'The Making of the Crofting Community', J. Hunter writes:

"Many chiefs were as at home in Edinburgh or Paris as they were in the Highlands, and French or English rolled off their tongue as easily as - perhaps more easily than - Gaelic. Moreover, while away from his clan the typical chief, conscious since childhood of his immensely aristocratic status in the Highland society whence he came, felt obliged to emulate or even surpass, the lifestyle of the courtiers and nobles with whom he mingled. And it was at this point that the 18th century chief's two roles came into irreconcilable conflict with one another. As a southern socialite he needed more and more money. As a tribal patriarch he could do very little to raise it."

These clan chiefs and Scottish nobles realized that sheep could provide them with an excellent income as by the end of the 18th century, the price of wool had risen dramatically. Basically, one shepherd and a flock of sheep were worth more than the rents collected from many clansmen and their families living on small plots.

The absentee landlords used their estate managers (Factors) to clear their lands, and they often did this with great brutality. Homes were burned to the ground and the inhabitants forced out of lands their forbears had lived on for 500 years or more. Many could not believe their clan chief, their kinsman, was doing this to them. 

This process was a continuation of the enclosure movement that had begun in England, and signaled a change from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Capitalism had arrived in Scotland, firstly in the Lowlands and then inevitably in the Highlands. Small plots gave way to industrial farming but the methods used to achieve that aim were often shameful in the extreme.

In 1739, in an early sign of things to come, MacDonald of Sleat and MacLeod of Dunvegan sold selected Clan members as indentured servants to landowners in the Carolina’s. In effect, selling their own kin into slavery, for that is another less palatable name for indentured servitude! 

Donald Cameron of Lochiel began clearing his lands in the 1780’s under the guise of 'improvement'. It was certainly not seen as an improvement by the Cameron clansmen who had bled for the Cameron chief's during the Jacobite risings.

The beautiful Highlands - cleared of the Gael by the greed of clan chiefs and landowners

To give some idea of the enormous impact the clearances had in the Highlands, during the first clearances of the Strathglass area by William, the 24th Chisholm, nearly 50% of the clan, his kinsfolk, were evicted. In 1826, the island of Rhum was cleared, all except for one family.

Amongst the most evil and despicable of all the evictors was Colonel John Gordon (a Scotsman). He had purchased the islands of Benbecula, South Uist and Barra from their former owners, Clanranald and MacNeil of Barra, who had both gone bankrupt with the collapse of the Scottish kelping industry.

Said to be one of the wealthiest men in Scotland, during the famines caused by the potato blight in the Highlands, he had refused to aid his starving tenants in any way. He was fully prepared to see them die of hunger, these poor emaciated people were reduced to gathering what cockles they could find on the seashore in order to survive.

Scotland no more

Gordon's response to the privations of his people was simply to order their eviction and deportation in the most brutal ways possible. Gordon's men rounded up those unwilling to emigrate, bound them and threw them onto the stinking hell-ships bound for Canada.

These poor, wretched people arrived in Canada absolutely destitute, dressed in rags and riddled with disease, and those were the lucky ones. Many never completed the voyage and died of contagion on the ships. Gordon came to symbolize the very worst excesses of the Scottish landowners, achieving even greater infamy than that of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.

All this happened at a time when the United Kingdom was run by a merciless and unbridled free market capitalism, when ordinary people were often thought of as nothing but gutter filth on the shoes of the elite. These forced migrations were seen by certain of the ruling elite as 'shovelling out paupers'. What did the elite and the landowners care if thousands died of disease or in rotten ships that sank on a regular basis - 34 sank in 1834 alone!

Grasping ship owners cared little for their emigrant cargo, for they had been paid for the passages already. It is no exaggeration to say that slave ships of the time had better conditions on board, as dead slaves fetched no money in the America's.

These are just a few of the Clearances that took place, there were many more, all carried out for fiscal gain by landowners, some of whose descendents still own vast tracts of land in Scotland. That land is still mostly devoid of people two hundred years on.

The amnesia of the new world

What is a surprise, is the fawning attitude that some descendents of these evicted clansmen in America in particular, have for certain clan chiefs, whose ancestors cleared their lands for sheep in such a brutal and inhuman manner. How can anybody feel loyalty to a person whose family was directly responsible for the misery endured by their own family, and worse, do not even have the moral backbone to acknowledge the fact on their official clan websites?

Time can all too often blind people who want to believe in a romantic past, to the truth and the horror of the actual situation. In Scotland today, it can also blind people to the true origins of the perpetrators of the Highland Clearances, not many of whom were English.

The Sutherland's were by far the worst of the clearers in terms of numbers. Their factors and underlings burned people out of their homes, including the sick, the elderly and children. This was usually accomplished whilst the men were away. The clergy on the Sutherland Estate were often in league with these ungodly actions, and indeed, many of them profited handsomely for their despicable compliance with the clearers.

Perhaps the last word can be left to an old Highlander on the Duke of Sutherland's Estate, in a report of 1854. This tells of the Duke of Sutherland seeking to gather troops for the Crimean War from amongst his poverty stricken remaining tenants:

"I do assure your Grace that it is the prevailing opinion in this country, that should the Czar of Russia take possession of Dunrobin Castle and of Stafford House next term, that we could not expect worse treatment at his hands, than we have experienced at the hands of your family for the last fifty years.

Your parents, yourself, and your commissioners, have desolated the glens and straths of Sutherland, where you should find hundreds, yea, thousands of men to meet you and respond cheerfully to your call, had your parents and yourself kept faith with them.

How could your Grace expect to find men where they are not, and the few of them which are to be found among the rubbish or ruins of the county, has more sense than to be decoyed by chaff to the field of slaughter; but one comfort you have, though you cannot find men to fight, you can supply those who will fight with plenty of mutton, beef, and venison".

It could be argued with much justification, that the Highland Clearances were nothing short of the displacement and attempted genocide of the native Gaelic speaking people. in many respects, the people of the Scottish Highlands received treatment that was no better and sometimes worse, than the treatment given to the native people's of the Great Plains of America by European migrants, some of whom in a terrible historical twist of irony, were displaced Highlanders.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr