Highland Clearances

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Ruined croft houses on Fuaigh Mòr in Loch Roag. The island was cleared of its inhabitants in 1841 and is now used only for grazing sheep.

The Highland Clearances (Scottish Gaelic: Fuadaichean nan Gàidheal [ˈfuə̯t̪içən nəŋ gɛː.əl̪ˠ], the "eviction of the Gaels") were the evictions of a significant number of tenants in the Scottish Highlands mostly during the 18th and 19th centuries. They resulted from enclosures of common lands and a change from farming to sheep rearing, largely carried out by hereditary aristocratic landowners who previously had status as Scots Gaelic clan chiefs. The Clearances were a complex series of events occurring over more than a hundred years.[1] A Highland Clearance has been defined as "an enforced simultaneous eviction of all families living in a given area, such as an entire glen".[2]

The Clearances relied on the insecurity of tenure of most tenants under the Scottish legal system. There was no equivalent of the English system of copyhold, which provided a heritable tenancy for many English counterparts of the Scots who were cleared from their farms.[3] The cumulative effect of the Clearances and the large-scale emigrations over the same period devastated the cultural landscape of Scotland; in the end, they destroyed much of Gaelic culture.[4]

The Clearances resulted in significant emigration of Highlanders to the coast, the Scottish Lowlands and further afield to North America and Australasia. In the early 21st century, the descendants of the Highland diaspora far outnumber the population in Scotland.[5] The Highlands themselves now have a population density of about 9 persons per square kilometre in comparison with an EU average of 116 per square kilometre, which is on a par with the northern parts of Finland and Sweden.[6]

Economic and social context

The enclosures in rural England in the British Agricultural Revolution started much earlier, during the Tudor period. Similar developments in Scotland have lately been called the Lowland Clearances by historians such as Tom Devine.[7] But in the Highlands, the impact on a Goidelic (Scottish Gaelic)-speaking semi-feudal culture, which had included the fulfilment of obligations of a chief to his clan, led to vocal campaigning against the actions. There has been a lingering bitterness among the descendants of those forced to emigrate[citation needed] or to remain in crofting townships on very small areas of poor farming land.

Changes in clan leadership

From the late 16th century, laws required clan leaders to appear in Edinburgh regularly to provide bonds for the conduct of anyone in their territory. This created a tendency among chiefs[citation needed] to identify as landlords, rather than leaders of men. The lesser clan-gentry increasingly took up droving, taking cattle along the old unpaved drove roads to sell in the Lowlands. This brought wealth and land ownership within the clan, although the Highlands continued to be overpopulated and poor.[citation needed]

Repression of Jacobitism

The recurring Jacobite risings (1688–1746) brought repeated government efforts to curb those clans who supported James VII of Scotland and II of England and James Francis Edward Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart.

Under the Clan Act of 1715, the clan system was weakened as the British government rewarded clansmen who followed the government rather than their disloyal chief.[8]

In the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1715, Highlanders had begun emigrating to the Americas in increasing numbers. In addition, under the Disarming Act of 1725, the Crown attempted to subdue and disarm the Scottish Highlanders in order to prevent another uprising.

Following the 1746 Battle of Culloden, the Stuarts' last major attempt to reclaim the throne, the established government responded with repression. Many of the battle's prisoners were executed, but most were granted mercy and transported instead,[9] under the Traitors Transported Act 1746 (20 Geo. II, c. 46)[10]

The 1746 Act of Proscription, incorporating the Dress Act, required all swords to be surrendered to the government; it prohibited the traditional wearing of clan tartans and kilts. The Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746 removed the virtually sovereign power which the chiefs held over their clans. The government's enforcement of the prohibitions varied and often related to the degree of a clan's support during the rebellion. However, overall, these actions led to the destruction of the traditional clan system and of the supportive social structures, small agricultural townships, and run rigs.[citation needed]

Elimination of the tacksman

A tacksman (a member of the daoine uaisle, sometimes described as "gentry" in English) was the holder of a lease or "tack" from the landowner, subletting the land to lesser tenants.[11]:86 They were often related to the landowner, even if only distantly. They acted as the middle stratum of pre-clearance society, with a significant role in managing the Highland economy.[12]:9 They were involved in running the baile, and trade in and out of the Highlands, especially in black cattle.

They were the first sector of society to feel the effect of the social and economic changes that included the Clearances, when landlords restricted their ability to sub-let, so increasing the rental income directly to the laird; simple rent increases were also applied. This was part of a slow phasing out of this role, with change gathering momentum from the 1770s, with the result that in the next century, tacksmen were a minor component of society. T. M. Devine describes "the displacement of this class as one of the clearest demonstrations of the death of the old Gaelic society."[13]:34

Many emigrated to America, in the words of Eric Richards: "often cocking a snook at the landlords as they departed".[12]:9 Emigrating tacksmen, and the larger farmers who departed at the same time, represented not only a flight of capital from Gaeldom, but also a loss of entrepreneurial energy.[13]:50 In the opinion of T M Devine, tacksmen and the middle-ranked tenant farmers represented the economic backbone of the peasant communities of the Western Highlands. Those of them who emigrated were not refusing to participate in a commercial economy, rather they rejected the loss of status that the changes of improvement gave them.[14]:173

Phases of the Clearances

The first phase of the Clearances occurred mostly over the period 1760 to 1815. However, it began before the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, with its roots in the decision of the Dukes of Argyll to put tacks (or leases) of farms and townships up for auction. This began with Campbell property in Kintyre in the 1710s and spread after 1737 to all their holdings.

First phase clearances involved break up of the traditional townships (bailes), the essential element of land management in Scottish Gaeldom. These multiple tenant farms were managed by tacksmen. To replace this system, individual arable smallholdings or crofts were created, with shared access to common grazing. This process was often accompanied by movement of the people from the interior straths and glens to the coast, where they had employment in, for example, the kelp or fishing industries. Their former possessions were then converted into large sheep holdings. Essentially, therefore, this phase was characterised by relocation rather than outright expulsion.[15]

The second phase of clearance started in 1815–20, continuing to the 1850s. It followed the collapse or stagnation of the wartime industries and continuing rise in population. These economic effects are illustrated by the contemporary commodity prices: kelp had been falling since 1810, in 1823 the market price in Liverpool was £9 a ton, which fell to £3 13s 4d a ton in 1828, 41% of the 1823 price. Wool prices also reduced over a similar period to a quarter of the price obtained in 1818, and black cattle nearly halved in price between 1810 and the 1830s.

In the second phase, landlords moved to the more draconian policy of expelling people from their estates. This was increasingly associated with 'compulsory emigration', in which landlords cancelled rent arrears and paid the passage of the 'redundant' families in their estates to North America and, eventually, Australia. The process reached a climax during the potato famine of 1846–55.[16]:370–371


The Highland Clearances were part of the Scottish Agricultural Revolution but happened later and over a shorter time span than the same process in the Scottish Lowlands, in England and, to a large extent, elsewhere in Europe. The growing cities of the Industrial Revolution presented an increased demand for food; land came to be seen as an asset to meet this need, and as a source of profit, rather than a means of support for its resident population.[13]:38

Before improvement, Highland agriculture was based on run rig arable areas under the common management of the community and common land for grazing; those working in this system lived in townships or bailtean. With no individual leases or ownership of plots of such land, there was little incentive to improve it (for instance by drainage, or using crop rotation systems). Nor, with common grazing, could an individual owner improve the quality of his stock.[17]:27 Enclosure of the common lands and the run-rig fields incentivised improvement, but, more importantly, allowed a change in land use. In many clearances, this change was the replacement of mixed farming (in which cattle provided a cash crop) with large-scale sheep farming. In many cases,[a] shepherds were recruited from outside the Highlands to manage these flocks, so the entire existing population were displaced to either crofts on the same estate, other land in the Highlands, industrial cities of Scotland or, more commonly in later clearances, to other countries.[12]:105-106

Different landowners decided to introduce the improvements that required clearance at different times and for different reasons. The common drivers of clearance are as follows:

Economic changes

Replacement of the old-style peasant farming with a small number of well-capitalised sheep farmers allowed land to be let at much higher rents. It also had the advantage, for the landowner, that there were fewer tenants to collect rent from, thus reducing the administrative burden of the estate.

In some areas, land remained in arable use after clearance but was farmed with more intensive modern methods. Some of the earliest clearances had been to introduce large-scale cattle production. Some later clearances replaced agriculture with sporting estates stocked with deer. There were instances of an estate being first cleared for sheep and later being cleared again for deer. The major transition, however, was to pastoral agriculture based on sheep.[12]:4,24

The most productive sheep were the Cheviot, allowing their owners to pay twice as much rent as if they had stocked with Blackfaces. The Cheviot's disadvantage was that it was less hardy and needed low-level land on which to overwinter. This was usually the old arable land of the evicted population, so the choice of sheep breed dictated the totality of clearance in any particular Highland location.[13]:32–53[18]:176

Social engineering

Some of those carrying out clearances believed that this was for the benefit of those affected. Patrick Sellar, the factor (agent) of the Countess of Sutherland, was descended from a paternal grandfather who had been a cottar in Banffshire and had been cleared by an improving landlord. For the Sellars, this initiated a process of upward mobility (Patrick Sellar was a lawyer and a graduate of Edinburgh University), which Sellar took to be a moral tale that demonstrated the benefits to those forced to make a new start after eviction.[19](p20)

The provision of new accommodation for cleared tenants was often part of a planned piece of social engineering; a large example of this was the Sutherland Clearances, in which farming tenants in the interior were moved to crofts in coastal regions.[13]:36–37 The intent was that the land allotted to them would not be enough to provide all of their needs, and they would need to seek employment in industries like fishing or as seasonal itinerant farm labourers. The loss of status from tenant farmer to crofter was one of the reasons for the resentment of the Clearances.[12]:403

The Lowland improver Lady Grisell Baillie (1665–1744) and Sheriff Donald MacLeod (1745–1834), laird of Geannies, a keen improver, the law officer involved in the 1792 Ross-shire Insurrection, and a widely respected proprietor.[12]:114–135

The planned acts of social engineering needed investment. This money often originated from fortunes earned outside Scotland, whether from the great wealth of Sir James Matheson (the second son of a Sutherland tacksman, who returned from the Far East with a spectacular fortune), the more ordinary profits from Empire of other returning Scots, or English industrialists attracted by lower land values in Scotland.[12]:54 Large amounts of capital were used to start industrial and commercial enterprises or build infrastructure like roads, bridges and harbours, but the return on this capital was very low by contemporary standards. This wasted investment is described by Eric Richards as "a loss to the national economy to be set beside any gains to be tallied."[12]:410, 20

Some of this expenditure was used to build new towns, such as Bettyhill, which received tenants cleared from Strathnaver. This displacement has been compared to the movement of Glaswegians to Castlemilk in the 1950s – with a similar distance from the original settlement and a comparable level of overall failure of the project to produce the anticipated social benefits.[20]:175

In the second phase of the clearances, when population reduction was the primary intention, the actions of landlords can be viewed as the crudest type of social engineering with a very limited understanding of the likely consequences.[12]:415

Failure of the kelp industry

The kelp trade was badly affected by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and had collapsed totally by 1820. Kelp (or seaweed) was harvested from the seashore at low tide, dried and burnt to yield an alkali extract used in the manufacture of soap and glass. It was a very labour-intensive industry. Production had steadily grown from the 1730s to a peak level in 1810, and was mostly located in the Hebrides. The end of war reintroduced competition from Spanish barilla, a cheaper and richer product. This, combined with the reduction of duty on the foreign import, and the discovery that cheaper alkali could be extracted from common salt, destroyed the seasonal employment of an estimated 25 to 40 thousand crofters. There was little prospect of alternative employment; the only possibility was fishing, which was also in decline at the same time.

The overall population of the Western Isles had grown by 80 percent between 1755 and 1821. The economic collapse of an industry that was a major employer in a greatly over-populated region had an inevitable result. Not only did the level of poverty increase in the general population, but many landlords, failing to make prompt adjustments to their catastrophic fall in income, descended into debt and bankruptcy.[13]:42–43,48,52


The Highlands, as an agriculturally marginal area, was the last part of mainland Britain to remain at risk of famine, with notable instances before the 19th century in 1680, 1688, the 1690s, 1740–1, 1756 and 1782–3. The history of the trade in meal suggests that the region balanced this import with exporting cattle, leading to a substantial reliance on trade for survival that was greater than anywhere else in Britain.[12]:44

There was near-contemporaneous dispute as to the severity of famines in the pre-clearance Highlands: in 1845, the Sutherland estate management argued over the level of famine relief that had been needed in the past, including this opinion: "The cattle on Sutherland were that Spring dying from scarcity of provender... and this is the condition to which your morbid Philanthropists of the present day refer as the days of comfort for the wretched Highlanders." (11 June 1845 letter to James Loch).[19]:36-37 Even accepting the level of debate on the subject among historians and the incomplete body of evidence, there is a clear case that, for example, pre-clearance Strathnaver (in Sutherland) experienced recurrent famine in a society operating at the margin of subsistence.[21]:78

Crofting communities became more common in the early part of the 19th century. Particularly in the West Highlands and the Isles, the residents of these small agricultural plots were reliant on potatoes for at least three quarters of their diet. Until 1750, potatoes had been relatively uncommon in the Highlands. With a crop yield four times higher than oats, they became an integral part of crofting.[13]:49 After partial crop failures in 1836 and 1837, a severe outbreak of potato blight arrived in Scotland in 1846. This introduced famine of a much greater scale and duration than anything previously experienced. By the end of the year, the north-west Highlands and the Hebrides had serious food shortages, with an estimated three quarters of the population with nothing to eat.[16]:371

The Irish potato famine had struck a year earlier, and Ireland's misfortune created a philanthropic awareness that meant that the relief effort could be quickly mobilised for the Highlands before large numbers of people had died. The richer landlords were able to fund their own famine relief for their tenants. Others, though, were bankrupted by buying the necessary food. Conversely, some landlords were criticised for using the voluntarily raised relief funds to avoid supporting their tenants through the crisis.[12]:255–256

The Highland Potato Famine started to ease in the first half of the 1850s, but the years of famine had taken their toll. Beyond the human impact, the financial effect on landlords was overwhelming. Rental income was reduced whilst expenditure rose. With such an obvious disaster in front of them, some sold their estates, while others realised they needed a stricter level of management, often leading to clearance. Others went bankrupt.

Landlord debt

Many Highland landlords were in debt, despite rising commodity prices and the associated farm incomes which allowed higher rents to be charged. Much of this was due to profligate spending.[12]:96–97 The landed classes of the Highlands socialised with southern landowners, who had more diverse sources of income, such as mineral royalties and windfall income from urban expansion. The low productivity of Highland lands made this a financial trap for their owners. In other cases, spending on famine relief depleted the financial resources of landowners – so even the prudent and responsible could ultimately be forced to increase the income from their estates. Lastly, investments in an estate, whether on roads, drainage, enclosure or other improvements might not realise the anticipated returns. The major financial pressure, though, was the end of the Napoleonic War, which had supported high prices for the small range of commodities produced in the Highlands.[13]:63–83

The extent of indebtedness among Highland landowners was enormous. The evidence of this is the very high number of hereditary lands that were sold, especially in the first half of the 19th century. T. M. Devine describes this as a "financial suicide" by an entire class of people.[13]:68 Debt was not a new problem for Highland landowners in the 19th century – it had been equally prevalent in the 17th and 18th. The change was in the lender. The further development of the banking system at the beginning of the 19th century meant that landowners did not need to look to family members or neighbours as a source of finance. The downside to this was a greater readiness of the lender to foreclose – and an increased willingness to lend in the first place, perhaps unwisely.[13]:65–73

Debt had three possible consequences, all of which were likely to involve the eviction of tenants. The landlord could try and avoid bankruptcy by introducing immediate improvements, putting up rents, clearing tenants to allow higher-paying sheep farmers to be installed. Alternatively, the estate could be sold to wipe out the debts. A new owner was highly likely to have plans for improvement which would include clearance. They also had the money to fund assisted passages for cleared tenants to emigrate, so putting into practice ideas suggested in the 1820s and 1830s. As most purchasers were from outside the Highlands or from England, they neither understood nor followed the Gaelic principle of dùthchas,[b] so removing a potential level of protection for tenants. Finally, the landlord might enter bankruptcy, with the estate passing into the hands of administrators whose legal obligation was to protect the financial interests of the creditors. This last case was often the worst outcome for tenants.[13]:58–59[16]:369


The 18th century was a time of population growth, almost continuous from the 1770s onwards. This was not seen as a problem by landlords as people were considered to be an asset – both to provide a pool for military recruitment and as an economic resource. Landowners and the government sought to discourage emigration, an attitude that resulted in the Passenger Vessels Act of 1803, which was intended to limit the ability of people to emigrate.[23]

The role of the Highlands in providing a source of recruitment for the army and navy was, in the words of T M Devine, "quite remarkable". Starting in the Seven Years' War (1756–63) and increasing during the American Revolution, by the time of the Napoleonic Wars, one estimate put the Highland contribution to regiments of the line, militia, Fencibles and Volunteers at 74,000. This was out of a population of about 300,000. Even allowing for this estimate overstating the case, in time of war, the Highlands was seen as a significant recruiting resource.[13]:43

The attitude towards increasing population was altered in the first half of the 19th century. First, the kelp trade collapsed in the years immediately following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Most of those working in the kelp trade were crofters, with not enough land to make a living. Without alternative employment, which was not available, destitution was inevitable. The landlords (or in some cases the trustees of their bankrupt estates) no longer tried to retain their tenants on their land, either encouraging or assisting emigration, or, in the more desperate circumstances, virtually compelling those in substantial rent arrears to accept an assisted passage (i.e. to emigrate), with the alternative of simple eviction.[13]:43,48,52

The potato famine followed shortly after the collapse of the kelp industry. The human cost to the tenants and the landlords' liability for famine relief made the downsides of population more apparent.

In the decades following 1815, the ideological and political consensus changed. Surplus population slowly became thought of as a liability; their need to be fed could not be ignored in a philanthropic age. Therefore, large-scale expatriation was considered as a solution to the social crisis in the Highlands. The ideas of Malthus were adopted by many in a position to influence policy.[24] The Passenger Vessels Act was repealed in 1827 and in 1841 a Select Committee of the House of Commons concluded that the crofting parishes had a surplus population of 45,000 to 60,000.[13]:184–185


The primary motivation for clearance was economic. Associated with this was the suggestion by some theorists that the Celtic population were less hardworking than those of Anglo-Saxon stock (i.e. Lowlanders and, in some instances, English), so giving an economic element to a racial theory. James Hunter quotes a contemporary Lowland newspaper: ‘Ethnologically the Celtic race is an inferior one and, attempt to disguise it as we may, there is . . . no getting rid of the great cosmical fact that it is destined to give way . . . before the higher capabilities of the Anglo-Saxon.’ These views were held by people like Patrick Sellar, the factor employed by the Countess of Sutherland to put her plans into effect, who often wrote of his support for these ideas,[25] and Sir Charles Trevelyan, the senior government representative in organising famine relief during the Highland Potato Famine.[18](p416) (Trevelyan regarded himself as a "reformed Celt", having a Cornish Celtic heritage.)[13]:164

Roman Catholics had experienced a sequence of discriminatory laws in the period up to 1708. Whilst English versions of these laws were repealed in 1778, in Scotland this did not happen until 1793. However, religious discrimination is not considered, by some historians, to be a reason for evicting tenants as part of any clearance, and is seen more as a source of voluntary emigration by writers such as Eric Richards.[12]:81–82 There is one clear (and possibly solitary) case of harassment of Catholics which resulted in eviction by Colin MacDonald of Boisdale (a recent convert to Presbyterianism). This temporarily stalled when the risk of empty farms (and therefore loss of rent) became apparent when voluntary emigration to escape persecution was possible. However, in 1771, 36 families did not have their leases renewed (out of some 300 families who were tenants of Boisdale); 11 of these emigrated the next year with financial assistance from the Roman Catholic church.[17]

Year of the Sheep

Ruins of the Badbea longhouses with the 1911 monument in the background

Another wave of mass emigration came in 1792, known to Gaelic-speaking Highlanders as the Bliadhna nan Caorach ("Year of the Sheep").[12]:111 Landlords had been clearing land to establish sheep farming. In 1792 tenant farmers from Strathrusdale led a protest by driving more than 6,000 sheep off the land surrounding Ardross. This action, commonly referred to as the "Ross-shire Sheep Riot", was dealt with at the highest levels in the government; the Home Secretary Henry Dundas became involved. He had the Black Watch mobilised; it halted the drive and brought the ringleaders to trial. They were found guilty, but later escaped custody and disappeared.[26]

The people were relocated to poor crofts. Others were sent to small farms in coastal areas, where farming could not sustain the population, and they were expected to take up fishing as a new trade[citation needed]. In the village of Badbea in Caithness, the weather conditions were so harsh that, while the women worked, they had to tether their livestock and their children to rocks or posts to prevent them being blown over the cliffs.[27] Other crofters were transported directly to emigration ships, bound for North America or Australia[citation needed].

Examples of individual clearances

Ormaig was once the principal settlement on the Isle of Ulva near Mull. It had been inhabited since prehistoric times, until it was cleared by Francis William Clark in the mid-19th century.

Two of the best documented clearances are those from the land of the Duchess of Sutherland, carried out by, among other people, her factor Patrick Sellar, and the Glencalvie clearances which were witnessed and documented by a London Times reporter.[28][29][30]

In 1807, Elizabeth Gordon, 19th Countess of Sutherland, touring her inheritance with her husband Lord Stafford (later 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, and 90 families were forced to leave their crops in the ground and move their cattle, furniture and timbers to the land they were offered 20 miles (32 km) away on the coast, living in the open until they had built themselves new houses. This plan has been described as a "typical example... of social engineering which met neither the hopes of the benefactors nor the needs of the beneficiaries, but produced social disaster."[31]

The Sutherlands' 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.[26] The Sutherlands carried out extensive clearances between 1811 and 1820.[32][33] Sellar personally supervised the eviction of any who showed reluctance to go, and the burning of cleared houses (especially the roof timbers) to prevent re-occupation.[34]

Tenants were generally treated according to due process of law, being served with notices of eviction and given time (typically three months) to vacate. However, many were reluctant to leave, did not obey the eviction notices, and were evicted with force. The methods used were sometimes harsh, even by the standards of the early 19th century.[26] Donald McLeod, a Sutherland stonemason,[35] 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.[36]

Portrait by Henry Raeburn of Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry in 1812. MacDonnell claimed to support Highland culture, while simultaneously clearing his tenants.

Accounts like those of McLeod and General David Stewart of Garth brought widespread condemnation. Two old people evicted at Sellar's orders were too ill to go far. He left them exposed to the chill northern air and they died. He was acquitted on a charge of manslaughter, but the Duchess wrote: "The more I hear and see of Sellar the more I am convinced that he is not to be trusted more than he is at present. He is so exceedingly greedy and harsh with the people, there are very heavy complaints against him from Strathnaver." In due course Sellar was dismissed from his post.[31]

Elsewhere, the flamboyant Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry portrayed himself as the last genuine specimen of the true Highland chief while his tenants (almost all Catholic) were subjected to a relentless process of eviction.[26] He abandoned his disbanded regiment; its Catholic chaplain (later bishop), Alexander Macdonell led the men and their families to settle in Glengarry County, eastern Ontario, Canada.[37][38]

Potato famine

A romanticised early Victorian depiction of a member of Clan MacAlister leaving Scotland for Canada, by R. R. McIan.

As in Ireland, the potato crop failed in Scotland during the mid 19th century. The ongoing clearance policy resulted in starvation, deaths, and a secondary clearance, when families either migrated voluntarily or were forcibly evicted.[vague] There were many deaths of children and the aged.[clarification needed] As there were few alternatives, people emigrated, joined the army, or moved to growing urban centres such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee in Lowland Scotland and Newcastle upon Tyne and Liverpool in the north of England. Others squatted in Highland towns such as Tobermory, Lochcarron, or Lochaline.[39] In places some people were given economic incentives to move, but in many instances landlords used violent methods.[40]

Devine writes that, in contrast to earlier clearances,

evictions during the famine were often governed by an undisguised determination to expel the people. In addition, these clearances were unleashed on a population already ravaged by hunger and destitution and few attempts were made to provide shelter to the dispossessed.[39]

The effect of the large scale evictions and the appearance of destitute Gaels in urban areas[41] was to bring the problem of Clearance to the attention of Britain and lay the foundation for reform.[39]

In 1851, following his tour of the Western Highlands and Isles, Sir John McNeill wrote:

The inhabitants of these distressed districts have neither capital enough to cultivate the extent of the land necessary to maintain them if it could be provided, nor have they land enough were the capital supplied to them.[42]

Richards considers this observation to be "the central dilemma of the crofter economy".[43] After the potato blight, there were more people than the land could support.

The potato famine gave rise to the Highland and Island Emigration Society which sponsored around 5,000 emigrants to Australia from the affected areas of Scotland.

Political responses

Karl Marx was living in London during the peak of the national controversy over the Highland Clearances. In Das Kapital, he described them as

The spoliation of the church's property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism...[44]


It has frequently been asserted that Gaels reacted to the Clearances with apathy and a near-total absence of active resistance from the crofting population.[45] However, upon closer examination this view is at best an oversimplification.[45] Michael Lynch suggests that there were more than 50 major acts of resistance to clearance.[16]:375 Even before the Crofters' War of the 1880s, Gaelic communities had staved off or even averted removals by accosting law enforcement officials and destroying eviction notices, such as in Coigach, Rossshire, 1852–3. Women took the front line in opposing the authorities, with their male relatives backing them up.[46][47] Lowland shepherds imported to work the new sheep farms were subject to intimidating letters and maiming or theft of the sheep. More than 1,500 sheep were stolen on the Sutherland estate in a single year in the early 19th century.[48] Many forms of resistance were practiced under the table, such as poaching.[49] After the introduction of watermills at Milton Farm, South Uist, in the early nineteenth century, the tenants continued to hand-grind their grain with querns. As this was considered undesirable, the landlord had the querns broken; similar episodes were recorded in Skye and Tiree.[49] Another important form of resistance was in rejecting ministers appointed by the landlords.[46] After the Disruption of 1843, many Gaelic-speaking areas deserted the Church of Scotland in favor of the Presbyterian Free Church,[49] which refused to take money from landlords[50] and was often overtly critical of them.[51]

Richards describes three attempts at large-scale resistance before the Crofters' War: the Year of the Sheep, protests against Patrick Sellar's clearance of Strathnaver in 1812–4, and the "Dudgeonite agitation" in Easter Ross in 1819–20, sparked by a local tacksman's organization of an emigration fund.[52]

Crofters' Act

The Highland Land League eventually achieved land reform in the enactment of the Crofters' Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886, but these could not bring economic viability and came too late, at a time when the land was already suffering from depopulation.[citation needed] However, the Crofters' Act put an end to the Clearances by granting security of tenure to crofters.[53]

However, the Crofters' Act did not grant security of tenure to cottiers or break up large estates. As a result, the Scottish Highlands continues to have the most unequal distributions of land in Europe, with more than half of Scotland owned by fewer than 500 people.[54] Land struggles occurred after the First[55] and Second[56] World Wars as returning servicemen could not get crofts.




Many Gaelic poets were heavily influenced by the Clearances. Responses varied from sadness and nostalgia, which dominated the poetry of Niall MacLeòid,[57] to the anger and call to action found in the work of Màiri Mhòr nan Òran.[58] Considered one of the greatest Scottish Gaelic poems of the 20th century, Hallaig, was written by Somhairle MacGill-Eain about a cleared village near where he grew up on Raasay;[59] many other of his poems deal with the effects of the Clearances.[60]

Many songs were in the form of satire of the landlord class. Perhaps the most famous of these is Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh (Mackay Country or Northern Sutherland, a region hit hard by the Clearances), written by Ewen Henderson, who became known as the "Bard of the Clearances."[61] The song mocks the Duke of Sutherland, his factor, Patrick Sellar, James Loch, James Anderson, and others involved in the Sutherland Clearances:

Ciad Diùc Cataibh, le chuid foill,
'S le chuid càirdeas do na Goill,
Gum b' ann an Iutharn 'n robh do thoil,
'S gum b'fheàrr leam Iùdas làmh rium.

First Duke of Sutherland, with your deceit,
And with your friendship with the Lowlanders,
It's in hell that you belong,
I'd rather have Judas by my side.[62]

Similar sentiments were expressed with regard to the Ardnamurchan Clearances by a local doctor, Iain MacLachlainn.[63] The Canadian Boat-Song expresses the desolation felt by some emigrants:

Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.[citation needed]


The clearances were an influential theme in Scottish literature, with notable examples such as Consider the Lilies, a novel by Iain Crichton Smith.[citation needed]

Memorials to the Clearances

The emigrants statue commemorates the flight of Highlanders during the Clearances, but it is also a testament to their accomplishments in the places they settled. Located at the foot of the Highland Mountains in Helmsdale, Scotland.

On 23 July 2007, the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond unveiled a 3-metre (10 ft) high bronze Exiles statue, by Gerald Laing, in Helmsdale, Sutherland, which commemorates the people who were cleared from the area by landowners and left their homeland to begin new lives overseas. The statue, which depicts a family leaving their home, stands at the mouth of the Strath of Kildonan and was funded by Dennis Macleod, a Scottish-Canadian mining millionaire who also attended the ceremony.[64]

An identical 3-metre-high (10 ft) bronze Exiles statue has also been set up on the banks of the Red River in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.[65]

In Golspie, Sutherland, a statue of George Granville Leveson-Gower, the first Duke of Sutherland, has been subject to vandalism due to his controversial role in the Sutherland Clearances.[66]


The diaspora was worldwide, but emigrants settled in close communities on Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia (Antigonish and Pictou counties and later in Cape Breton), the Glengarry and Kingston areas of Ontario and the Carolinas of the American colonies. Canadian Gaelic was widely spoken for some two centuries. One estimate of Nova Scotia's population has 50,000 Gaels immigrating from Scotland between 1815 and 1870.[67] At the beginning of the 20th century, there were an estimated 100,000 Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton.[68]

Highland surnames are also widespread elsewhere in Canada as well as in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Recent research has shown that Highlanders did play a significant role as owners of the newly introduced flocks; so it is an oversimplification to regard the new sheep farmers as being exclusively from the Lowlands or Northern England. Gaelic speaking tacksmen and drovers were to be found in the sheep trade from the 1780s. When sheep were introduced in the Sutherland Clearances, over half the leases were taken up by Sutherlanders.
  2. ^ "A collective claim on the land which is reinforced and lived out through the shared management of that land. It is a right which is grounded in daily habits and activities and it is bound up with relationships to others, and responsibilities. It gives rise to the idea, identified by the scholar Michael Newton, that 'people belong to places rather than places belonging to people'."[22]


  1. ^ Richards, Eric (2008). "Answers and Questions". The Highland Clearances: People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd. 
  2. ^ Watson, A. and Allan, E., "Depopulation by clearances and non-enforced emigration in the north-east Highlands", Northern Scotland 10 (1990), Edinburgh University Press
  3. ^ Richards, Eric (2008). "Chapter 5, Section II – The Act". The Highland Clearances: People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd. 
  4. ^ G. Dawson and S. Farber, Forcible Displacement Throughout the Ages: Towards an International Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Forcible Displacement (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2012), ISBN 90-04-22054-2, p. 31.
  5. ^ "Scotland's DNA: Tartan export". The Scotsman. 3 March 2011. Retrieved 22 May 2012. 
  6. ^ Highlands and Islands Scotland: European Regional Development Fund 2007–2013: Structural Funds Operational Programme "Environmental Trends, Problems and Issues", The Scottish Government, Edinburgh, 29 July 2008. Retrieved on 3 September 2017.
  7. ^ Houston, Robert, Allan Whyte, Ian D., Scottish Society, 1500–1800, Cambridge University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-521-89167-1, pp. 148–151.
  8. ^ McKerracher, Mairead (2013). The Jacobite Dictionary. Neil Wilson Publishing. 
  9. ^ Mairead McKerracher, Jacobite Dictionary, noted under 'T'
  10. ^ "An act to prevent the return of such rebels and traitors concerned in the late rebellion, as have been, or shall be pardoned on condition of transportation; and also to hinder their going into the enemies country."
  11. ^ Hunter, James (2015). Set Adrift Upon the World: the Sutherland Clearances. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited. ISBN 978-1-78027-268-9. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Richards, Eric (2000). The Highland Clearances People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil (2013 ed.). Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited. ISBN 978-1-78027-165-1. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Devine, T M (1994). Clanship to Crofters' War: The social transformation of the Scottish Highlands (2013 ed.). Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-9076-9. 
  14. ^ Devine, T M (2006). Clearance and Improvement: Land, Power and People in Scotland, 1700–1900. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd. ISBN 978-1-906566-23-4. 
  15. ^ Allan I. Macinnes (1988). "Scottish Gaeldom: The First Phase of Clearance". In Devine, T M; Mitchison, Rosalind. People and Society in Scotland, Volume 1, 1760–1830. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd. p. 71. ISBN 0 85976 210 6. 
  16. ^ a b c d Lynch, Michael (1991). Scotland, a New History (1992 ed.). London: Pimlico. ISBN 9780712698931. 
  17. ^ a b Adams, Ian; Somerville, Meredyth (1993). Cargoes of Despair and Hope: Scottish Emigration to North America 1603–1803. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd. pp. 63–71. ISBN 0 85976 367 6. 
  18. ^ a b Devine, T M (1999). The Scottish Nation: a Modern History (2006 ed.). London: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7181-9320-1. 
  19. ^ a b Richards, Eric (1999). Patrick Sellar and the Highland Clearances: Homicide, Eviction and the Price of Progress. Edinburgh: Polygon. ISBN 1 902930 13 4. 
  20. ^ Fry, Michael (2005). Wild Scots, Four Hundred Years of Highland History. London: John Murray (Publishers). ISBN 0 7195 6103 5. 
  21. ^ Paton, David M.M. (May 1993). "Brought to a wilderness: the Rev. David Mackenzie of Farr and the Sutherland clearances". Northern Scotland. 13 (first series) (1). doi:10.3366/nor.1993.0006. 
  22. ^ Bunting, Madeleine. "The language of resistance: Gaelic's role in community fight-back against corporate greed". Herald Scotland. Retrieved 10 July 2017. 
  23. ^ Divine, T M (2011). To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland's Global Diaspora, 1750–2010. London: Penguin Books Ltd. pp. 91–92. ISBN 978-0-7139-9744-6. 
  24. ^ Richards, Eric (2011). "Highland Emigration in the Age of Malthus: Scourie, 1841-55". Northern Scotland: 60–82. doi:10.3366/nor.2011.0005. 
  25. ^ Hunter, James (2005). "Chapter Six: Almost All Gone Now – Scotland: Strathnaver and Skye". Scottish Exodus: Travels Among a Worldwide Clan (2007 (Kindle) ed.). Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing. Kindle location 5111. ISBN 9781845968472. 
  26. ^ a b c d Prebble, John (1963) The Highland Clearances, Penguin Books, London, pp. 60–61
  27. ^ Campbell, James (1984). Invisible Country: A Journey through Scotland. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 81. ISBN 0-297-78371-8. 
  28. ^ "London Times of Tuesday, May 20, 1845". 
  29. ^ "London Times of Monday, June 2, 1845". 
  30. ^ "London Times of Thursday, October 22, 1846". 
  31. ^ a b Michael Fry. Clearances? What Clearances? Scottish Review of Books. Volume 1 Issue 2 2005. Published on Wednesday, 28 October 2009 09:36 http://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/index.php/back-issues/volume-1/volume-one-issue-two/158-clearances-michael-fry Archived 3 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine. accessed 22 January 2014
  32. ^ "George Granville Leveson-Gower (1st Duke of Sutherland)". Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 2008-02-01. 
  33. ^ Noble, Ross "The Cultural Impact of the Highland Clearances" BBC History. Retrieved 7 July 2008.
  34. ^ Richards, Eric (1999), Patrick Sellar and the Highland Clearances, Polygon at Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-1-902930-13-8 
  35. ^ Mcleod, Donald. "Gloomy Memories in the Highlands of Scotland". Retrieved 15 January 2016. 
  36. ^ Mcleod, Donald (1892), "Letter VII", Gloomy Memories in the Highlands of Scotland 
  37. ^ Kelly, Bernard William (1905) The Fate of Glengarry: or, The Expatriation of the Macdonells, an historico-biographical study, James Duffy & Co. Ltd, Dublin
  38. ^ Rea, J.E. (1974) Bishop Alexander MacDonell and The Politics of Upper Canada, Ontario Historical Society, Toronto pp. 2–7, 9–10.
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  40. ^ untitled editorial following mast-head - (7 November 1851). "Elgin and Morayshire Courier, Friday, November 7, 1851". Elgin and Morayshire Courier. , quoting extensively from the Quebec Times – the text of the statement is given in "Highland Emigration – Terrible Hardships". Dundee Courier. 19 November 1851. 
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  42. ^ Day, J.P. (1918), Public Administration in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, London, p. 202 
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Further reading

  • McKenzie, Alexander, An Overview of the Clearances, 1881.
  • Macleod, Donald, Gloomy Memories, 1857 (first-hand account of Sutherland clearances).
  • McIntosh, Alastair, Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, Aurum Press Ltd, 2004, ISBN 1-85410-802-6.
  • Prebble, John, The Highland Clearances, Secker & Warburg, 1963
  • Richards, Eric, The Highland Clearances, Birlinn Books, 2000.
  • Richards, Eric, A History of the Highland Clearances. Vol.1, Agrarian Transformation and the Evictions 1746–1886, Croom Helm, c1982, 085664496X
  • Grimble, Ian, The Strathnaver Trilogy, 3 vols: Chief of MacKay, The Trial of Patrick Sellar, and The World of Rob Donn.
  • McLean, Marianne, The People of Glengarry. Highlanders in Transition, 1745–1820, McGill-Queen's University Press; 1993.
  • Gebele, Hubert, Die Schottischen Clans im 18. Jahrhundert, Vom Wandel und Ende einer Hochlandgesellschaft am Rande Europas, A Personal Passion Play in Scottish History and Bibliography, Regensburg 2003.
  • Hunter, James, The Making of the Crofting Community, John Donald Publishers Ltd; 2nd Revised edition (27 Jun 2000).
  • Marx, Karl, Das Kapital, Charles H. Kerr & Company; 1906, Volume I, Part VIII, Chapter XXVII.
  • Statistical Accounts of Scotland
  • Smith, Adam, Wealth of Nations, The Modern Library Classics, Complete and Unabridged, 2000, Book III, Chapter IV

External links

  • Narratives in a Landscape: Monuments and Memories of the Sutherland Clearances dissertation on the landscape of the Clearances
  • Abandoned communities - the clearance of Strathnaver 1814–1819
  • The Cultural Impact of the Highland Clearances, a BBC History article by Ross Noble
  • The Highland Clearances. Article by Thomas Devine, published in Refresh 4, Spring 1987.
  • The impact of the Highland Clearances on one Mull family and their aftermath – a linear case study. https://web.archive.org/web/20111005170202/http://www.blackshouse.demon.co.uk/knockan.htm
  • Badbea Descendants Website
  • Clanship, Duthchas & Culloden: The Prelude to Clearance
  • The Highland Clearances, BBC Radio 4, In Our Time
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