I’ve just finished reading a very interesting book: The Lowland Clearances, by Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell.
I’ve previously written about the Highland Clearances, and discussed some of the myths that have been created about that episode of Scottish history. The Lowland Clearances have received much less attention from historians, yet they paved the way for the clearances further north, and involved tens of thousands of people who lost their homes.
The process was often referred to as ‘land improvement’. There were far fewer protests.
“…in both [the Lowlands and Highlands] thousands of people were removed from the land, cleared to make way for sheep, cattle or regimented fields of commercially viable crops. In both areas there were evictions and terrible suffering and in both areas whole communities were shipped abroad in waves of emigration. Why, then, is it that these traumas live on so vividly in the traditions of the Highland community but in the Lowlands there seems to have been no significant impact on the collective psyche?”
One reason for this was that the Lowland tenants who were cleared had more of an economic relationship with their lairds, and understood that their leases might not be renewed, whereas in the Highlands the relationship was more feudal and tenants believed that the landowners had more obligations towards them. The Lowland Clearances occurred over a longer period, and generated less publicity.
Another reason was that alternate sources of employment, in the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, were closer at hand. Many displaced small tenants became workers in the new industries that grew up in those cities as part of the industrial revolution.
Because the new Lowland farms grew crops and kept cattle as well as sheep, there were more opportunities for employment as farm workers. In the north, although attempts were made to encourage new industries in tanning, cotton, flax, salt, brick and lime manufacturing, and coal mining, many ultimately failed. Although some of the Highland lairds built planned villages and invested in new industries, the Highland economy did not develop as it did in the south. The markets were too far away.
The end of the runrig system and the destruction of fermtouns in the Lowlands allowed for the development of commercially viable farms, and many in the south prospered. Even so, 60,000 people from the Lowlands emigrated between 1700 and 1780. Often, they had previously tried to make a living in the cities. When the Highlanders emigrated, because of their shared culture and distinct language, they tended to stick together in their new homes in Canada and elsewhere, rather than dispersing like the Lowlanders, and this helped to keep their traditions and memories intact.
Aitchison and Cassell point out that in some parts of the north of Scotland where the old village structures were not destroyed by the Clearances there is currently growth and vibrancy – they give Sleat, in Skye, as an example – and they compare this with the “the big farming landscape peopled by a few subsidy junkies” of the rural Borders.