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.
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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
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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