Enclosure and the Template for the Highland Clearances

Much has been written about the truly awful and despicable clearances of the people of the Highlands. A process whereby many of the Clan Chiefs betrayed their own people. A process where many of the so-called noble families of Scotland proved just how black of heart and money driven they actually were. They sugar-coated their awful actions by referring to the brutal clearance process as 'improvement'.  

This may have been the inevitable consequence of a move away from an agrarian society to an industrial one, and poverty and even famine may have been endemic in the western Highlands, but wholesale eviction from ancestral lands was never seen as an improvement by the people themselves.

What has not been so widely written about is the fact of the clearances in the Lowlands of Scotland. It wasn't only the Gaelic speaking Highlander who found himself and his family thrown off the land they had inhabited for centuries. These Lowland evictions were also tagged as 'improvement' and were to prove the blueprint for the Highland Clearances that followed.

The Lowland Clearances were generally carried out in a less overtly brutal manner, but the evictions were no less devastating for the Cotters (small peasant farmers), who often found themselves destitute and starving and driven into the big cities to eek out a living, or forced onto the emigrant ships. Capitalism and the industrial revolution was no benefactor of the small tenant farmer used to life in an agrarian society, and many were driven from the land.

One device used by the landowners was to draw up new leases for the Cotters and increase rents to astronomical levels. Five fold increases were not unknown. This drove many poor Cotters into bankruptcy and they were thrown out of their homes and off the land that their forebears had dwelled upon for centuries. Their meagre possessions were also seized and sold, to set against unpaid rent. Just as in the Highlands, people were left in penury.

Tens of thousands of Lowlanders suffered from the iron fist of the landowners, whose greed and rapacity knew no bounds. What concern was it of theirs that hard-working people were made homeless and forced into poverty? The evictions in the Lowlands were often far more devious than in the Highlands. The landowners also made full use of the law to achieve the evictions, rotten and one-sided in their favour as it inevitably was.

Many plundering lairds simply stole common land from the people and enclosed it, using laws that were passed by the Scottish parliament in the 1690's. This device deprived the Cotters of common grazing land for their animals, a right they had enjoyed from the ancient past.

By 1820 the Cotters had all disappeared, a third of the rural Lowland population had simply vanished! This dramatic change to the social strata of the Lowlands simply could not have happened without compulsion. People were forced off their land by the rabid excesses of capital and landlordism.  

Clearing the hills and filling the cities

Recent research certainly suggests that more people were forced off the land in the Lowlands than were forced off the land in the Highlands, surprising as that may seem.

Aberdeen University's Dr Marjorie Harper has written a book on Scottish emigration. She said:

"The analogy I like to use is of the flood and the dripping tap. I think one reason we focus so much on Highland emigration is that it was dramatic. But the dripping tap makes the bath overflow in just the same way as the flood does''.

''What was happening in many parts of the rural lowlands was the constantly dripping tap of depopulation that was going on right throughout the 19th century and the centuries before and after that."

So what happened to the Cotters? Many went overseas, to Canada and elsewhere. Many more went to the big cities and towns to seek work in the new industries. Others found work on the new model farms created by the landowners, but as paid labourers only, and not as the free tenants they used to be.

The landowners 'improvements' and the dispossession and eviction of the Cotters accelerated urban and industrial growth in the Lowlands. At the same time, it handsomely lined the pockets of the grasping landowners and gave them a developmental blueprint for the Highlands, which they would take to new levels of callousness and inhumanity.

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ęCopyright - James of Glencarr