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The Patterns of the Highland Clearances

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot

© 1991

Synopsis: This essay describes the evolution of the clearances from the first wave in the early 1800's to the final major wave in the 1850's by discussing the social and economic patterns involved.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

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The flow of emigrants was constant and relentless. Much of this was to blame on the increasing population pressures in the Highlands and Islands. The growth of the kelp industry had encouraged landowners to subdivide the crofts and insist on large families. Consequently when the kelp industry collapsed and the price of cattle fell there were now large numbers of surplus and destitute people unable to pay either their rent or for their subsistence. The failure of the potato crop, upon which the crofters were solely dependent, in the late 1830s and again in the 1840s and '50s was the last straw for many of these people.

The 'clearances' of the 1840s and early 1850s were intended to clear the land of those people who were so destitute that the landlords could not support them. It was thought that they would have a far better chance of surviving outside Scotland than by staying at home.

This last wave of clearances was paid for by the landowners who found it cheaper to pay for the transport of their tenants across the Atlantic or even to the new favourite for émigrés, Australia. In many cases the tenants had no choice but to emigrate, their homes having been torn down to make way for sheep-walks. With nowhere left to go, the offer of passage to the colonies where they would be able to acquire land denied to them in Scotland was the only choice.

The majority of Highlanders did not emigrate however, many being too poor in the first place. Once the break had been made with their land, many Gaels moved south to find work in the factories of Lowland Scotland. By 1851 85,400 native born Highlanders were living in the rest of Scotland However, all of this demographic movement from the Highlands was not sufficiently fast enough to relieve the pressure on the resources of the Highlands until well into the 1850s.

By the 1850s the Clearances were effectively at an end, for several reasons, firstly there were no more people to evict, secondly the population had finally begun to decrease, thirdly the economy was now beginning to pick up and finally the fishing industry was finally entering an upturn. Moreover the crofters were finally beginning to stir themselves on their own behalf.

The final end to clearances came in 1886 with the passing of the Crofters Act after four years of struggle. There are several reasons to explain why it took a long time for the Highlanders to defend themselves. Firstly, they were slow to organise effectively. Secondly, protests against the clearances tended to be spontaneous and unorganised. Then the loss of their traditional leaders, the Tacksmen, meant that they took time to recover from the shock of the clearances, the destruction of the Clan society and also to produce new leaders from amongst themselves. Finally the church had an important influence on the course of events. The Church had tended to portray the clearances as God's retribution for their sins on earth and they consequently advised against protesting. This is a graphic example of the effect the reintroduction of patronage had in Scotland.

The question of patterns to the clearances is difficult to explain. While the individual acts of clearances showed differing characteristics there were several aspects which remained the same in each case. The first of these is that of the economy. The landowners were faced with a situation where they were trying to increase the yields from their lands while at the same time having to finance the population of their land. It is unsurprising that they followed the actions which they did, for this was the era when the uncompromising, improving, ideas of Robert Malthus and John MacCulloch were followed closely by landlord and sheep farmer alike. These doctrines advocated the clearing of the land and the eviction of the native population for:

The blessing of classical political economy was the reward of the improving landlord who had been prepared to break the grip of custom.

Secondly, all Highland landlords strove to make the most money out of the boom period Britain was going through at the turn of the century. With wool and kelp prices rising, the chance was there for the taking. The Highlanders themselves could not take this opportunity because of their individual lack of capital and expertise and so they were at the mercy of the landlords. Finally the famines of the 1830s and '40s caused the landlords to look hard at the principle of emigration- something that they had been intrinsically opposed to for most of the preceding decades. Indeed during the Clearances one of the most valuable weapons available to the people had been the threat of emigration in order to gain tenurial concessions.

The large cost involved to keep the people on the land, forced many landlords to see that by paying the cost of passage to the colonies they could rid themselves of the worst affected families and so ease the financial burden. In some cases the policy of previous years was revoked. In particular, the bans on marriage were lifted on many estates, to enable the people to comply with the emigration laws, so allowing them to leave the land.

For the Highlanders themselves, the experience of the Clearances left an indelible hatred in their memory for the factors and the sheep farmers, not for the landlords. Even the individual incidences of Clearance showed that there were different patterns involved. The manner in which the evictions were carried out depended on the factor and the circumstances in the area at the time. The result however was always depressingly the same. Even resistance to the Clearances showed different patterns depending on the area and the influences of church and leadership.

It is clear therefore, that there was no one pattern to the Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. The sad fact is that the financial circumstances of the landlord dictated the fortunes of the people on the land. In trying to keep themselves in the manner of London society the landlords destroyed what was in reality important to the Highlands, its people.

Ewan Innes, May 1 1991

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