I briefly spoke to Sir Tom Devine last year, after one of his presentations, and he told me that his next book would be ‘explosive’. Well, he wasn’t wrong, but The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed is much more than explosive.
Here’s a couple of quotations from the Introduction:
“Nationalism, clearances and victimhood soon became intimately linked by some polemicists, a tendency which has continued to the present day through the proliferation of social media. The contentions were that the historic tragedy of the Gaels had taken place during the Union and sometimes also, against all the evidence, that English landowners and sheep farmers were mainly responsible for the draconian acts of eviction.”
“Many third- and fourth-generation American Scots share the view that Scottish emigration across the Atlantic came from the Highlands and was initiated by force and coercion. The boring reality is that the vast majority left from the farms, towns and cities of the Lowlands and were mainly attracted to North America because they saw it as a fabled land of opportunity to achieve a better life.”
Devine is an expert oarsman, and he rows us through an important period in Scottish history, sometimes navigating choppy waters but always with complete control of the rudder. He covers all the important issues.
He explains the ancient history of the complex Scottish clan system in an expert way. All sorts of things had an effect on bloodlines, which were often fictitious or malleable, and new lines of descent could be created. In the absence of national governance, the clans filled a power vacuum. Inter-clan feuds often resulted in the complete abandonment of settlements, sometimes for many years. In places, there was considerable movement of tenants and cottars. Nevertheless, “the expectation of the people [was] that the ruling families had the responsibility to act as protectors to guarantee secure possession of some land in return for allegiance, military service, tribute and rental. It was a powerful and enduring belief which endured long after the rationale of clanship itself had vanished and when élites had shed ancient responsibilities and metamorphosed into commercial landlords.” He gives a wonderful explanation of how the clan system in Scotland actually worked, which is far different to popular, modern interpretations of unchanging, loyal and close brotherhood.
On the gradual disintegration of the clan system, he writes that by the 1660s or so, “The long transition from tribal chiefs to commercial landlords was now in train, many decades before Bonnie Prince Charlie’s historic defeat on Culloden Moor.” By the 1680s ‘victual’ rents were rapidly being replaced by money rents with consequences for those who paid rents. Demand by the Royal Navy for beef from highland black cattle during the Wars of the Spanish Succession provided a much-needed source of income to pay such rents.
There were other changes experienced by the clans in these pre-Culloden pre-clearances years. A reduction in inter-clan feuding meant a less militarised society (apart from those who fought as mercenaries in Europe, and who sometimes went on to command Jacobite forces), changes in some areas to the traditional use of tacksmen to collect rents, and for these and other reasons by the 1730s there were significant levels of emigration to Georgia and the Carolinas. Norman MacLeod of Dunvegan and Sir Alexander MacDonald of Sleat were threatened with prosecution for trying to deport some of their clansmen. Things just weren’t the same, for the clans.
All of the above is significant because it shows how clueless those people are today who would have us believe that, pre-Clearances, Gaeldom consisted entirely of extremely close-knit feudal communities which had remained unchanged for centuries until Culloden happened and consequently Highland society was destroyed by Clearances undertaken by those from England. Were pre-Clearance Highland communities viable before Culloden? Devine tells us that severe shortages were recorded in 1671, 1680, 1688, 1695 and 1702. The 1690s were known as the ‘Lean Years’. Food shortages were acute in the early 1740s. It would seem that life in the Scottish Highlands in the years before Culloden was rarely idyllic. And then there was the profound effect of rapid population growth, especially in the Highlands, where people had always lived close to the margins of subsistence.
But this book is not only about the Highlands. It’s title, after all, is The Scottish Clearances, so Devine also looks at the Lowlands and other areas of the country. Generally speaking, the land was more fertile in such areas than in the Highlands, but in the years after the British civil wars agriculture was not much more advanced than in the north. One big difference was in the preponderance of towns, and another was that the Lowlands were far less organised along the lines of armed followings compared to the north. There was less clan structure, leases between landowner and tenant were based on rents, and while many rural workers were now more proletarian than peasant in status, a capitalist class of landowner was also emerging. Devine notes that “In the long run this was to become a major source of divergence between the mores and expectations of the people of many parts of the Highlands and Lowlands, a growing differentiation eventually to have profound social consequences in later decades.”
Leases in the Lowlands were often longer, for periods up to 19 years, whereas in the Highlands there were mostly annual agreements. Longer leases were needed to ensure that arable land was developed over the years – the same was not necessary for pastoral smallholding patterns in the north. In the south was a proliferation of cottars, who occupied small plots of land with few rights to permanence. There was little security of tenure for them.
The clearances started in the Lowlands, two generations before the Highland Clearances, and saw people replaced by pastoral specialisation (sheep) on the hillsides and cattle in the lower areas, and the development of larger agrarian (or mixed use) farms. The sheep which were introduced were the same Cheviot breeds which were later brought to the Highlands. The Lowland clearances were significant and widespread, yet today few people seem interested in them, possibly because they’d prefer to wallow in populist misinterpretations of victimhood associated with the similar process of the Highland Clearances.
In the Borders, generations before the Highland Clearances, there were significant levels of dispossession, with landlords evicting tenants and tenants evicting cottars. In the areas around Peebles, people were replaced by sheep farms, villages disappeared, yet there were no recorded protests. Why? Because many of the dispossessed moved to the towns that expanded with the textile industries, and found jobs there. In the west, in Galloway, in the 1720s there were several large protests as land was enclosed by the large landowners and locals levelled the stone enclosures. The protesters thought that enclosure was part of a Jacobite plot! (There was very little sympathy for the Jacobite cause in those regions).
A small number of landlords owned vast tracts of Scotland. A far higher proportion of people owned land in England, and the Scottish situation resulted from feudal tenure imposed centuries previously. The same small number of people held political power. Primogeniture ensured that territorial fragmentation did not happen as it did in Europe. Unlike in Europe where peasant proprietorship was widespread, farmers held land at the discretion of the landlords, and the ‘tack’ alone gave legal access to the land.
Landowners were very powerful, and through the Patronage Act of 1712 even had the right to appoint to vacant church offices. Often, the very same people were at the forefront of industrialisation. They saw themselves as improvers, as founders of industrial villages, and partners in industrial initiatives such as mines, roads, canals and the development of banks. Generally speaking, Devine writes that living standards were slightly improving for poorer people in Scotland between the 1780s and 1800s, which was different from most other parts of the UK and Europe. Scotland also contributed disproportionally to the military conflicts of the times in terms of numbers of soldiers and seamen, and this provided another opportunity for employment.
Things were changing for the landlords, however. The Napoleonic Wars meant that loans and credit were more difficult to obtain, as available funds were diverted to the higher returns offered from government bonds issued to pay for the wars. At the same time, household expenses were increasing as numerous landlords built and maintained properties in the enlarged cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and income from Highland estates did not compare with income from estates further south. A surprisingly large number of estates were in debt, a very large proportion of estates changed hands in the 1820s and 1830s, and this removed previous ties between the traditional owners and the traditional occupiers of the land. The new owners were often trustees for the creditors, affluent merchants, bankers and lawyers who wanted a reasonable return on their investments.
Changing to pastoral husbandry offered much better returns, but of course this resulted in considerable social upheaval.
There was nothing new about clearing people off the land, and although this may seem distasteful to modern readers, the general opinion was that the land, the economy and the overall situation would be improved. Often it was the largest landowners who were the most sympathetic towards the people they were moving, as they were the people with enough resources to offer alternative employment in other ventures.
Motivation for change also arose from increased demand from growing urban centres as a result of industrialisation. People in the towns needed to be fed and food production levels needed to be increased to satisfy demand. Devine quotes Lord Kames in 1815 “…there never were greater agricultural improvements carried on in any country than there have been in Scotland during the last thirty years.” Urbanisation in Scotland was the fastest in Europe. In addition, by converting to sheep, rentals could increase by up to five times. Devine adds, “Commercial forces were now so overwhelming that radical social change in Gaeldom seemed inevitable.”
The optimism and patriotic desire for improvement were expressed in the Scottish Enlightenment by the better educated Traditional methods of estate management were condemned as irrational and inefficient. What Scotland needed, such commentators decided, was modernisation and efficiencies along the lines of improvements made in the Lowlands.
Other important factors include that long before 1815, at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, large tracts of cheap land became available in North America. Positive publicity attracted many, who could travel on ships landing cargos from North America at Glasgow. Between 90,000 and 100,000 Scots took this route between 1700 and 1815, from all parts of the country. The majority were farmers and artisans rather than the poor.
So, in the period before clearances in the Highlands, a lot of things were happening. Land and farming methods were being improved, with new land being taken into cultivation of one kind or another. There was movement of people to the cities and towns, people were emigrating to seek new opportunities abroad, industrialisation was rapidly taking place, old links with the land were being broken, and cottars were disappearing from the Lowlands, having been evicted from their holdings, and were becoming a landless wage-earning labour force with more regular employment than before.
Landlessness in relation to overall population was greater in the Lowlands after the clearances in those parts than in the Highlands. When the Napoleonic Wars ended there were economic slumps and then protests in England and the Highlands, but not in the Lowlands. They were relatively insulated from hardship by the long-hire system, there being various reasons why long-hire was used in the Lowlands rather than casual labour as elsewhere. In England, there were the Captain Swing riots of 1830-31 with 19 rioters being executed and 505 being transported to Australia. In the Highlands, however, population growth and a decline in economic activities meant that sheep farming was one of the few ways to profit and survive. Landlords considered ways to reduce the surplus population.
Sheep farming undermined the basis of the old economy, and provided much greater and more reliable returns than small tenant rent payers. So the Highland Clearances started. Between 1807 and 1821 several thousand were cleared in Sutherland to tiny crofts on the east coast. The idea was to enable some cultivation but not enough that people would not need to also work in fisheries and other industries. As we know, there was sometimes brutality. For example, Patrick Sellar was indicted, and there were various riots. In Sutherland, there was enforced relocation on a larger scale. Despite these processes, the overall population of the Highlands and Islands continued to rise.
Devine looks at clearances in various parts of the Highlands and finds that they varied considerably in character. Some left tenants intact but removed cottars, some cleared whole areas gradually, some more quickly, some people were given the ‘choice’ of assisted emigration and some were not. Usually, it was the poorest people who were cleared. Although they had no legal claim to the land, many of those cleared felt that they had been betrayed and that the process of duthchas had been ignored.
At exactly the wrong time, the kelp industry failed for various reasons, fishing did not develop to the extent anticipated, and there were fewer opportunities for military service after 1815. A few years after Culloden, service in Highland regiments for the Hanoverian crown had been a major source of employment. Devine writes, “Gaels [partook in] the same techniques of total war employed by ‘Butcher’ Cumberland’s men after Culloden in genocidal campaigns against the Indian nations between 1760 and 1764.” It should be noted, however, that landlords often benefitted from military recruitment, through bounties, etc, and that local allotment for service could cause future problems with respect to sub-division of lets. On the other hand, those servicemen who were granted land in North America after service acted as a magnet for further emigrants.
The Sutherland clearances are famous. Devine writes that of 3,331 people cleared in 1819, at least 70% were relocated in Sutherland. “…some landlords became associated with policies which indirectly inhibited migration rather than promoted it, the very opposite of the stereotype in popular literature.” This included tolerance of unpaid rents and providing grain in hard times.
Then in 1836-7 the potato and grain crops partially failed, resulting in over 100,000 distressed people, especially in Skye and the Outer Hebrides, the situation accentuated by population increase over the previous decades. This was a portent of things to come. The establishment of the Free Church in 1843 arose partially as a result of resentment of interference by the landed class.
Three years later the potato crop failed and blight continued for several years. There was hardship and suffering, but nothing like what was experienced in Ireland. Unlike in Ireland, many of the new(ish) owners of the land had financial resources to provide temporary relief and assistance, though not all did so. But in 1848 there was a general recession, the price gained for black cattle fell, thousands could not pay their rents, the price of sheep rose, more clearances resulted, with many of the most extreme cases being on bankrupt estates that were now being managed by trustees. For a while, considerable relief was provided by charitable organisations. The Emigration Advances Act of 1851 triggered an increase in eviction and emigration, especially from those areas affected by the potato blight. The poorest, the cottars, and those in most rent arrears were targetted.
Many cases were harrowing, and Devine details what happened in Shiaba on Mull, when a whole community which had not failed to pay its rent for sixty years was uprooted from the Duke of Argyll’s land and replaced by a farmer from Islay. In Tiree an entire impoverished and starving community, their problems accentuated by repeated subdivision of land, was forced to emigrate with the landlord paying costs of transportation. Devine writes that “In large part it was the clearances of the later famine period that marked the experience of the western Highlands and Islands as different from the history of dispossession in the rest of Scotland.”
By the late 1850s the process had largely ended. Returns on black cattle had increased, fishing became more profitable, and temporary employment elsewhere in Scotland all enabled the growth of a monetary economy. Also, there were fewer mouths to feed than there would have been without emigration. Prevention of sub-division of rented land meant that many people left the Highlands.
The late 19th century saw a large amount of emigration, facilitated by better and faster transport, and availability of land in North America, and as Devine writes, “…many more Gaels left the Highlands for overseas after mass clearances had come to an end in the later 1850s than during the era of the great removals…” Unlike other rural parts of Scotland, there was less migration to the cities.
Devine ends with a brief introduction to the ‘Crofters War‘ and further change in the 1880s with the Napier Commission and legislation which reduced the power of landlords.
Devine does not give one chronological account of Scottish Clearances but rather has chapters on dispossession in the Borders, clearances in the Highlands, the transformation of landlordism, the disappearance of cottars, and so on.
I enjoy the way that Devine places everything into context and includes salient facts. He clearly shows that the numpties who reckon that the clearances were merely some anti-Gael process, or that they were always undertaken by heartless rich capitalists have got their history wrong. If you want to wallow in victimhood and make incongruous connections with modern Scottish politics (as, unfortunately, many do) then this book is not for you, but if you want to understand the Scottish Clearances, then read Devine’s scholarly work.