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The Patterns of the Highland Clearances

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


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 violent end to the Jacobite rising of 1745 also sounded the death knell of Highland society. What began in less than an hour of fighting on Culloden moor took nearly a century to complete.

The first actions of the government were to destroy the basis of Highland life. The Clan system was primarily martial. Once the need for large numbers of fighting men was obviated and indeed made illegal, it was possible, for the first time, for the money economy to enter Highland society. The Anglicisation of the ruling Highland class meant that as the numbers of Gaelic speaking lairds dropped, and the numbers of monoglot lairds rose the chief became a feudal landlord for the first time in any real sense. They now began to spend more and more time in the south and needed to extract more money from their Highland estates to fund their increasingly extravagant expenses.

The Tacksmen were the first strata of Highland society to feel the brunt of this change. They had become obsolescent after the '45 both as military leaders and as administrators of the system. One factor would collect the rent and administer the land at less cost to the chief than the Tacksmen could. Many were to carry on their military traditions by becoming officers in the new clan regiments which were being raised at this time, while others took up administrative positions in the Empire or became the first of the emigrants to Canada and America.

The growth in kelping and agricultural improvement, encouraged the Tacksmen to make new lives for themselves in America. By the end of the 18th century they had disappeared as a class- often taking their dependents and whole townships with them.

The Clearances fall into three distinct stages. The first stage began with the introduction of sheep farming to the Highlands from 1760 onwards and ended with the establishment of the large sheep runs in the interior of the country and the people on the coast. This period was to see the worst excesses generally associated with the Clearances.

Soaring wool prices at the turn of the century had led to an increase in clearings from the interior to the coast. Few Highlanders had the capital or experience to take advantage of this because of the large flocks needed. Consequently the Clan chiefs, now landlords in their own right, brought in southern sheep farmers with capital and experience.

The early clearances were almost always from the land to the coast simply because at the time when wool prices were rising the prices for kelp were rising too. Kelping was labour intensive and could soak up the excess population now created. Fishing was also put forward as a means by which the Highlanders could raise money.

This removal from the interior to the sea shore created for the first time a new individual, the crofter. The removed tenant was given a small piece of land- the croft. If this land was bad- it was often the land which even the sheep farmer wouldn't touch- the crofter was forced into kelping. If the land was relatively good the crofter had to pay a very high rent and was therefore forced into kelping.

The most notorious examples of this type of clearance took place on the Sutherland estates of the Stafford family. The Stafford family's ethos was that the people of the straths of Sutherland would be moved to the coast where they could engage in more profitable occupations. The land thus cleared would be turned over to sheep. To fulfill this policy they engaged the services of several sheep farmers from Moray and the Borders amongst them Patrick Sellar.

The clearing of Strathnaver in Sutherland is a perfect example. In 14 days in May 1814, 430 people were evicted and forced to move to Brora on the coast where they were to become fishermen. Sellar himself personally directed the clearances. To force the people to move, the roofs of their houses were often pulled down and the roof trees set alight to stop rebuilding. He was later tried and acquitted of the murder of some of the elderly evicted tenants.

For the people moved to the coast, life was inevitably hard. They had to adjust to a new lifestyle and try to eke out a living from fishing- something most had had no experience of. In many cases they continued to farm on their small plots of land.

The early clearances were the most harsh of all because no alternative was offered. Emigration and migration were discouraged by the landlords as being against the interests of the country and most notably themselves. Kelping demanded a large workforce and while it prospered the landlords and to some extent the people prospered. However, once the kelp prices began to fall during the 1820s this situation changed. Those who did choose to migrate or emigrate were seldom the poorest people in society. They had the means to support themselves in Scotland if they had wished for the emigrating Highlander of this period chose to go to America.

The 1830s saw an intensification of migration and emigration. The trickle of emigrants and migrants began to become a stream as the economic situation deteriorated. After the collapse of the kelp industry, the landlords were interested only in clearing more land for sheep who were still profitable. In some cases even the newly created crofts were cleared. Landlords also financed schemes where their tenants were removed from Scotland to the Americas, so relieving the population burden on their lands, but often the tenants were given no option but to emigrate.

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