The Highland Clearances

A controversial chapter in Scotland’s history, the Highland Clearances are mostly looked back at with sadness and some bitterness. The ‘Clearances’ refer specifically to the period in the mid-to-late 18th century to the mid-19th century in which tens of thousands of Highlanders were evicted from their homes; it is also used more broadly to include the restriction on tartan and other rules that altered the Highland way of life forever. To many, the Clearances are an example of ethnic cleansing but others consider them an economic necessity, a result of the industrial revolution. To the latter set of people, the Clearances are known as the ‘Improvements’.

After Culloden, and the defeat of the Jacobites in 1746 the Government introduced the Heritable Jurisdictions Act 1746, which reduced the powers of the Clan Chiefs to those of a landlord. The Act of Proscription, also introduced in 1746, restricted the wearing of tartan, as well as the ownership of weapons. The Government were brutal in enforcing these laws, with many Highlanders being killed for the slightest deviation from the new laws. Charles Edward Stuart had escaped to France, and the Highlanders attempted to get by in Scotland’s changing climate.

The reduction of the powers of the Clan Chiefs weakened the relationships between them and the rest of the people. Many Chiefs, as a result of attempting to keep up with their acquaintances in the Lowlands, England and other places in Europe, were in debt. Tacksmen (Gaelic: Fear-Taic meaning ‘supporting man’) had paid an annual sum to the Clan Chief for a bit of land, and then let it out to sub-tenants for rents. Wanting to cut out the middleman, the Clan Chiefs phased out the position of the tacksman. Out of jobs, many former tacksmen emigrated to Canada and America.

Wool sold for a high price, and the Highland landlords realised that they could make more money from sheep, specifically the Cheviot and the Blackface, than from people. The rents were increased, and when inevitably many of the tenants were unable to come up with the money, they were evicted. Sheep farmers from the Lowlands and northern England came up to take their place. An addition financial benefit for the landlords was that as there were fewer people to collect from, the administrative costs were lower.

The former tenants moved either to industrial cities in Scotland, other countries or small crofts, mainly located on the coast. The weather made for hard working conditions, and there are reports of the women, while they worked, having to tie their children and livestock to posts to prevent them from being blown into the sea or off a cliff.

Despite the uncertainty and hardship endured by many of the Highlanders, there were still a significant number of people motivated purely by profit. The Duchess of Sutherland had about 15,000 people evicted from the Sutherland estates, ordering hundreds of crofts to be burned in the process; her factor went to trial for presiding over the burning of a croft that contained an old woman who had refused to leave and for letting his sheep eat the other crofters’ corn. For both he was acquitted, which the crofters put down to many of the jury members being landowners.

The population continued to grow. People viewed it as proof of Scotland’s strength, but in reality it was putting increasing strain on everything. In the 19th century, the combination of the failure of the kelp industry in the 1810’s and famine led to more and more Highlanders emigrating, mainly to Canada, Australia, the US and the rest of Europe.

It is believed that around 150,000 Highlanders were removed from or left their homes in the entire process of the Highland Clearances. Of this number, many, either immediately or after further attempts at living in Scotland, emigrated. Today the descendants of these people are now scattered across the world resulting in a massive sharing of Scottish heritage.

We hope you found this article interesting. As always we love to hear your comments and read your thoughts on these topics.

All the best,

The Culloden Team