In The Scotsman Magazine the other day was an everyday article about Nova Scotia, in Canada. The reporter described how visitors from Scotland were often asked about their surnames, because many of the modern-day Nova Scotians were descendants of the ‘thousands of persecuted Scots [who] abandoned their homes to seek their fortunes in the land called Nova Scotia’.
Persecuted? Well, a minority of those who emigrated certainly were, no-one would deny that fact. The majority were definitely not. The most that can be said is that of those emigrants who ended up in Nova Scotia, a higher proportion had left involuntarily compared to those who settled elsewhere.
The Scotsman of 25 August 1849 gave a more accurate report: “When the lands are heavily mortgaged, the obvious, though harsh resource, is disposessing the small tenants, to make room for a better class able to pay rent, and this task generally devolves on south country managers or trustees, who look only to money returns, and cannot sympathise with the peculiar situations of the Highland population.”
With respect to the historical figure of the Duke of Sutherland, up in Golspie, there’s still, nearly 200 years later, a hate campaign against him. That article describes “…a new statue honouring those who fled overseas after being brutally driven out by the duke’s men.”
It’s drivel like this that perpetuates some of the myths about the Clearances.
If you go to the bother of actually reading up about the Highland Clearances, not in rubbish like John Prebble’s book and similar, but in the scholarly literature, the real picture is revealed as being far from the popular myth of tens of thousands of persecuted Highlanders who had their houses brutally torched and who were then forced to flee to Canada, Australia and elsewhere. That myth seems to be part of an ongoing ‘victim culture’ that attempts to place the blame for some perceived Scottish ills on outsiders. Some modern day political campaigns continue to be couched in terms of these inaccurate historical misconceptions.
But first, let’s talk about some instances where there were atrocities.
Colonel Gordon of Cluny, an Aberdonian, bought the island of Barra from the bankrupt Roderick MacNeil, the 40th Chief of the Clan MacNeil, in 1838. The traditional island occupations of kelp harvesting, fishing and soldiering were all in decline by the 1830s. As the National Gazetteer, 1868 pointed out, “The soil is poor, and ill-cultivated” on the island that is 8 miles in length from N. to S., with an average breadth of from 3 to 4 miles. The trustees of the estate had, two years before it was purchased by Gordon, recommended emigration for two-thirds of the population. By 1850, as this website points out, “Barra and the other islands of the Outer Hebrides were in the midst of the potato famines. The results in an over-populated island were catastrophic. Food was in very short supply and in fact the only two people specifically recorded as dying of starvation during the entire potato famine in the Western Isles were on the island of Barra.”
In some areas of the Highlands and Islands the landlords frequently provided poor relief to their tenants in times of hardship, and also often forwent the collection of rents (which was one of the main reasons why so many of them went bankrupt in the 19th century) but this did not happen in Barra, in 1851. Colonel Gordon had bought the estate as an investment, probably attracted by the relatively low cost, per acre, compared to land costs elsewhere in Scotland. The Aberdonian Gordon, who, when he died was thought to be the richest commoner in Scotland, mainly as a result of the agricultural improvements he made on his other estates, was also somewhat of a calculating cold fish. In what, by all accounts, was a cruel eviction, in 1851 at least 1700 people were removed from South Uist and Barra and transported overseas, mostly to Quebec. Gordon paid for their passage, but not for new clothing and shoes, as he had done with previous emigrants. As a result, many arrived in Canada in a very poor condition.
Elsewhere, at Strathaird in the south-west of the Isle of Skye, crofters and cottars had been suffering from the results of potato blight and about 600 people were evicted in 1850 from land owned by Alexander Macalister, another Scotsman, without much thought about their welfare.
These were some of the most extreme cases. On the other hand, however, the vast majority of those who emigrated from the Highlands in the 18th and 19th centuries did so under their own steam, in response to worsening economic conditions. Many emigrated before the Clearances, and many emigrated after the Clearances.
What were the choices facing people in those days? Population had risen in the Highlands and Islands, quite rapidly, over the preceding few decades. At the same time, farming prices had fallen, income from kelp production and illicit whisky production had dropped, and the old runrig economy and feudal clan system were finished. The land simply could not support the increased population numbers, and the condition of many of those who rented plots was dire. In many cases, rents were in arrears, and under Scots law the tenants had not acquired the right to the hereditary tenure of a farm similar to the copyhold system in England. In some cases, local tacksmen and drovers were able to enter the sheep trade, but this was not possible for the majority of the tenants, due to the costs involved, and sheep farming needed less labour. Often, those who could afford to, emigrated. Those who could not were much more dependent on their landlords, poor relief, and charities which raised money for them in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Many of the traditional landlords were struggling. A number went bankrupt due to the cost of supplying support (food) for tenants. In other cases, landlords paid the emigration costs simply to be rid of unproductive tenants.
The Sutherland clearances have received bad press from some sources, yet there is little comparison with what happened in Barra and Skye. A large part of the fortune made by the Marquess of Stafford (the husband of the Countess of Sutherland, and the person whose statue some people want to demolish) was poured into the Sutherland estates in an attempt at economic reform. Several fishing villages were created along the coast in an attempt to provide a living, and in numerous cases houses, or at least some building materials, for those cleared from the straths. Roads and harbours were built. Attempts were made to create tanning, cotton, flax, salt, brick and lime manufacturing, and coal mining industries. Middlemen were excluded from the new arrangements.
However, many of the people of the straths did not want to move. Here are some photos of what remains of their houses, in the Strath of Kildonan. There were riots. According to Eric Richards (The Highland Clearances, IBSN13: 978 184158 542 0), the Countess of Sutherland and her advisers were genuinely astonished at the response to their plans which they regarded as wise, benevolent, and in the long-term interests of all involved. The Countess had expended £70,000 between 1802 and 1811 on the estate, and between 1812 and 1817 this went up to £140,000. Income from the estate was much less than this, at £22,000 between 1812 and 1817.
At this time, the Sutherland policy was to resettle the people on the coast, and not to evict or encourage emigration. By 1819, most of the Kildonan people were moving to Helmsdale, and others from Strathnaver took up their assigned alllotments on the north coast. The Sutherland clearances continued for several years, and in some cases met with resistance.
Here’s a notable quote from Richards’ book: “It had always been a cardinal principle of the Sutherland clearances that every evicted tenant should be offered a coastal lot, some timber, some free trenching on the new lots, remission of arrears and a period of rent-free occupation for their new lots.” (pp 327-8)
In the longer run, the process was far less successful economically than had been hoped for and did not, as had been expected, replicate the economic transformation that had happened in the south of Scotland and in England. The coastal economy did not develop as much as had been expected, and the resettled tenants became crofters dependent on a mixture of activities. In some places along the coast, this situation remains to this day.
The final paragraph in Richards’ book is worth quoting: “The role of posterity has been to exaggerate and polarise the account and to diminish the underlying economic dilemma of everyone in the region. The exceptionalism of the Highlands has been over-rated at the expense of the significance of the Clearances as a well-documented exemplar of the perils facing a poor society located on the edge of industrialisation.”
This article, The Truth about the Highland Clearances, is well worth reading.
For some more updated thoughts, please see my review of Sir Tom Devine’s 2018 book: The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed