The Scottish Highland Clearances

Settlers Monument

 

 The Plough is put away.

The land once ploughed is empty, a waste.

 The land of our ancestors is stolen away from us.

 

The story of the Scottish nation is ancient, intricate and complex and often contradictory. To this day it is not fully explained or taught even in Scotand where the people surely have the right to know their own history. One dreadful episode in the history of the Scottish people has become known simply as The Clearances. This short paper attempts to explain in simple terms exactly what The Clearances were, how they were carried out, by whom and why. It is not intended to be a full and complete account of these complicated and inter-tangled events. A bibliogaphy is given at the end of this paper for those interested in researching further into The Clearances. lt is amazing that this very nearly successful attempt at cultural genocide has not attracted more comment or criticism from society both within and without Scotland. But then, if nobody is told about it, nobody can complain about it.

 

To understand the Clearances fully it is necessary to understand life as it used to be in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, home of the Gaels. The old Scottish clan society was a natural development of the earlier Celtic tribal society, and proved to be a stable, lasting and fair way of living. Each clan had a chief to whom the people owed allegiance and he in turn could call on them to fight in his private army when necessary. The chief controlled the land but leased it out to "tacksmen". They in turn rented the land to tenant farmers and they in turn employed farm labourers who were known as"cottars" to help with the day to day running of the farm. It was the chief's responsibility to ensure that all members of the clan had sufficient land to maintain him or her self. Under the clan system nobody owned the land. Everyone was free to farm and graze the land in order to survive. This equal and fair distribution of the land was honoured by all succeeding monarchs and clan chiefs.

 

This basic subsistence slyle of living had existed for countless centuries in the Scottish Highlands and Islands and had naturally developed and evolved its own culture, language, customs, sense of identity and unique character by those living it. The Lowlands of Scotland had lost this simplistic lifestyle as early as the 12th century and had become very much an Anglicised people and community. Even one of Scotland's own monarchs, King James VI, commented, "As for the Highlanders, I comprehend them all in two sorts of people: the one that dwelleth in our mainland that are barbarous, and yet mixed with some show of civility; the other that dwelleth n the lsles and are aII utterly barbarous". This view was the commonly held one throughout the rest of Britain. The popular image of the Highlander was that he was dirty, Iazy, untrustworthy and without honour. Exactly the same misrepresentations which were circulated regarding the Irish, another Celtic and Gaelic speaking people.

 

The Highlands and Islands at this time were very remote and very difficult to access and few people south of the Highland glens had ever been there. Despite its remoteness it was the most densely populated area of the whole country. In 1755, 51% of the Scottish population lived in the Highlands and were Gaelic speakers, 31% lived in the Central Lowlands and spoke English with 11% living in the Southern Uplands. By 1981 the figures had dropped to only 21% living in the Highlands but 74% now living in the Central Lowlands and a mere 5% remaining in the Southern Uplands.This dramatic shift in population centres has resulted in the wild and barren Highland glens which most visitors love - but they should not be like this. Had the Clearances not occurred the Highlands and Islands today would consist of many thriving towns and cities with virtually none of the windswept, picture postcard scenes which the name "The Highlands" automatically evokes.

 

To read the complete bibliography of the Scottish Clearances please click on:  The Scottish Highland Clearances