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


A Tale of Tartan

The name ‘Tartan’ would be unknown to ancient Highlanders as the true Gaelic word is breacan which derives word breac meaning chequered. By changing the colours; varying the width; depth; number of stripes, different patterns can be formed. Tartan patterns are called “setts”; the sett being the complete pattern and a length of tartan is made by repeating the pattern or sett over and over again.

cull tart
Culloden Tartan

To form a tartan pattern there were normally six main stages: gathering the wool, preparing the fibres by combing it to the desired texture for soft or hard tartan, and spinning by a method involving a drop spindle, or distaff and spindle, in which the yarn or thread was spun by the fingers and wound round the bottom of the spindle. (This was later replaced by the spinning wheel, and ultimately by modern machinery.) The wool was then dyed, woven and finally stretched. This last stage, also known as waulking, was often accompanied by singing, during which jokes would be made about friends, frequently in impromptu verses; a tradition that has continued into modern times in the Harris-tweed industry.

Tartans were originally often distinctive within a geographical area and were thus territorial. It is said that a man’s plaid with its unique pattern of colours and stripes would tell you where he was from. Tartans for everyday wear were often brightly hued so for hunting and similar pursuits a duller brown-hued tartan would be worn. These hunting tartans were typically created by substituting the red of the dress tartan for brown. However, in some clans the everyday tartan was already a dark hue e.g. Mackenzie and thus the same sett was worn for hunting. In some clans there was also a special ‘chief’s tartan’ worn by the chief and members of his family only.

Dress and hunting tartans for Clan Fraser

After the Revolution of 1688 when the Stuarts were driven from the throne, tartan and the wearing of tartan plaids became symbols of Royalist and political principles. Tartan plaids were often worn in the Lowlands of Scotland as a protest against the Union of 1707 and some believe shortly before the rising of 1715 a special sett of tartan was invented and worn by sympathisers of the exiled Stuarts known as the ‘Jacobite Tartan.’

In 1747 after the Battle of Culloden the act of wearing tartan was banned under the Act of Proscription in an attempt to crush the clan system of the Highlands and prevent further uprisings. Penalties for wearing Highland dress included imprisonment for six months for a first offense and if caught again the possibility of being transported.

It wasn’t until the act was repealed in 1782 that tartan began to re-emerge and during the 1822 visit of King George IV to Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott popularized tartan for the masses. During the visit Highland Chiefs were persuaded to attend in their Clan tartans and the King himself wore a red tartan outfit which later became Royal Stuart tartan. Tartan suddenly became fashionable and families, who probably had never before worn tartan, became the proud possessors of family tartans as they looked to connect to romanticized history of their past.

George IV in his tartan outfit

Tartan along with clan cap badges now became an ideal dress for instilling traditional pride in each clan and helped preserve the clan as a tribal community at a time when modern and industrial changes were tending to minimise tribo-familial activities. Typically it would be the chief’s tartan that would become the clan’s tartan with the simpler designs dying out. The types of garment also changed. Originally men would have worn a traditional plaid (a single long piece of cloth belted at the waist and wrapped over the shoulder) but the kilt worn today is the little kilt, the feiledh bheag (meaning the ‘little fold’), from which the anglicised word ‘philabeg’ derives. This garment originally had large box pleats that were stitched; while the neat tight pleats of today’s kilt are the result of military influences in the nineteenth century.

Traditional Scottish plaid

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this brief spiel about tartan, we haven’t covered it all by a long shot but hopefully it’s piqued your interest. As always please like, share, tweet, comment and maybe even find your own family tartan.

All the best K & D