Were the clearances or the improvements more significant in the creation of the deserted upland landscapes which exist all over Scotland? What are the most important benefits of the study of deserted settlements?
By Mike Haseler
as part of Glasgow University Archaeology course
(Note this is long: on A4 it is 20 pages long)
The Battle of Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand is an iconic battle between the Europeans and native Americans. It was fought in June 1876 between the Sioux nation “Indians” or “native Americans” and the 7th Cavalry: a veteran organisation created after the American Civil war. General Custer was of immigrant German and English stock. (Wert 1996).
In 1887 Buffalo Bill took his wild west show to Great Britain in celebration of the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria. Performers re-enacted the riding of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, and stagecoach robberies. The show was said to end with a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand, in which Cody portrayed General Custer. 21 years later a group of boys went to a camp on Brownsea island under a famous veteran of the Boer War Named “Baden Powell”. He enhanced and honed his military scouting skills amidst the native Zulu in the early 1880s in the Natal province of South Africa. It was this native “Scouting” which so attracted the boys and the group became known as the “Boy Scouts” – a name earlier used in 1899 to describe Harry White, Buffalo Bill’s assistant. A couple of decades after BP led to the foundation in 1926 of the “Hitler Jugend Bund der deutschen Arbeiterjugend”, (Hitler Youth League of German Worker Youth), along similar lines to the Boy Scouts but viewed as providing a future “Aryan supermen” indoctrinated in racist anti-Semitism. As soon as Hitler took power in 1933, the persecution and exodus of Germany’s 525,000 Jews began followed by their mass murder.
In his paper “Agents of Dispossession and Acculturation. Edinburgh Accountants and the Highland Clearances”, Stephen Walker (2003) summed up the the clearances thus:
The mass clearance of people from the Highlands and Islands remains one of the most emotive episodes in the history of Scotland. The attempts by Highland landowners to forcibly evict whole rural communities and encourage their migration in order to make way for large sheep farms and deer forests “is one of the sorest, most painful, themes in modern Scottish history” (Richards, 2000, p. 3). In his comprehensive history of the region, Hunter asserts that the clearances were “the absolute nadir of the entire Highlands and Islands experience” (1999, pp. 13–14). The eviction of crofters and cottars from the late 18th to the late 19th century continues to fuel sentiments of anti-landlordism and revulsion against the principal perpetrators: they “rank with Glencoe and Culloden in the literature of condemnation. It is a subject which regularly raises the chant of ‘genocide’ ” (Richards, 2000, p. 4).
The genocide to which Richards & Walker referred, was persecution and mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis; a genocide without equal, but one that was preceded by many others before and after Custer. Following the defeat of the Nazis there were massive changes. Israel was formed, the old colonial empires were dismantled. Forced “westernisation” of indigenous groups such as the Australian Aborigines ended, apartheid disappeared in S. Africa. Soon the “culture of apology” became widespread: in 2006 the UK issued “statement of regret” over slavery, likewise the US House of representatives in 2008. The UK & Australian governments apologised c2010 for the forced removal of aborigine children.
So it is no surprise that almost as soon as the new Scottish parliament opened, it debated the following motion:
That the Parliament expresses its deepest regret for the occurrence of the Highland Clearances and extends its hand in friendship and welcome to the descendants of the cleared people who reside outwith our shores. ( S1M-1004 Scottish Parliament 2000)
And those listening were left with little doubt that members saw the highland clearances as one of racist genocide:
there is no doubt that they happened and that they led to the destruction of the Highlands that Boswell and Johnson saw in their celebrated tour of the Hebrides. At the time of their visit to the north, that process was already in hand, but the clearances were responsible for its completion. … In other countries, the genocide and ethnic cleansing that has taken place, against the Indians in America and the Aborigines in Australia, was acknowledged long ago. Today, the time to acknowledge what happened to those who were cleared from the Highlands has come. (Fergus Ewing (SNP))
2.1 The narrative evidence
The highland clearances are a series of events in the 18th and early 19th century. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Scottish historiography portrayed Culloden (1745) as a watershed that marked the onset of the Clearances (MacKillop 2003). A typical account is a narrative starting with Culloden, highlighting particular events such as the year of the sheep (1792), illustrating the horror of the events with accounts such as the Sutherland clearance (1811-1820) :
Patrick Sellar did, upon the 13th day of June, 1814, … violently turn out … Donald M’Kay, a feeble old man of the age of four-score years .. who, … not being able to travel to the nearest inhabited place, lay for several days and nights thereafter in the woods … also, Barbara M’Kay, … who was at the time pregnant, and …confined to her bed in consequence of being severely hurt and bruised by a fall; … saying, That you would have the house pulled about her ears; and [so she was carried] nearly a mile across the country to the imminent danger of her life: [also did] turn out, of his bed and dwelling, … Donald Munro, a young lad, who lay sick in bed at the time. And …wickedly and maliciously set on fire, burn, pull down, and demolish, … the house and barn … [of] Barbara M’Kay, an infirm old widow, nearly fourscore years of age, and who was obliged to sell three of her five cattle at an under value, in order to support herself, her crop being destroyed from the want of her barn: … And [did] kill Donald M‟Beath, father to Hugh M‟Beath, … by unroofing and pulling down, … the whole house … where the said Donald M‟Beath was then lying on his sick bed, saving only a small space of roof, …whereby the said Donald M‟Beath was exposed, …[and] in consequence … died about eight days thereafter … [and did] wickedly and maliciously set on fire, burn, and demolish, … the dwelling-house, …[of] Margaret M’Kay, a very old woman of the age of 90 years, … who had been bed-ridden for years, [knowing she] was at that time within … you were told that the said old woman could not be removed without imminent danger to her life; and the flames having approached the bed … she shrieked aloud in Gaelic, “O‟n teine,” that is to say, “O the fire,” …[and] carried out …and placed in a small bothy, and the blanket in which she was wrapped was burnt in several places, and … [she] never spoke a word thereafter, but remained insensible from that hour, and died in about five days thereafter. (Indictment of Patrick Seller)
There is no question that many of the deserted homesteads are a direct consequence of these clearances as the Rev. Donald Macleod, speaking of the minister of Morven said:
“His later years were spent in pathetic loneliness. He had seen his parish almost emptied of its people. Glen after glen had been turned into sheep-walks, and the cottages in which generations of gallant Highlanders had lived and died were unroofed, their torn walls and gables left standing like mourners beside the grave, and the little plots of garden or of cultivated enclosure allowed to merge into the moorland pasture. He had seen every property in the parish change hands, and though, on the whole, kindly and pleasant proprietors came in place of the old families, yet they were strangers to the people, neither understanding their language nor their ways. …At one stroke of the pen,‟ he said to me, … “two hundred of the people were ordered off. …The sense of change was intensely saddened as he went through his parish and passed ruined houses here, there, and everywhere.” (MacKenzie 1883)
2.2 The statistical evidence
In 1755 Alexander Webster completed a census of Scotland and calculated the population of highland areas as being 266,085 between 1790-98 John Sinclair completed another and it had fallen by … well no! At 303,612, the fact is that in 42 years in the middle of the clearances as Meyer (1987) puts it, it has risen by “only 14%”. Even taking account of the 7% error estimated by Anderson (2011) in Webster’s figures, there is no way this can be construed as a population decline.
Perhaps there is a point that in contrast to the rise from 1,265380 to 1,526,492 of 21% for the rest of Scotland, the 14% rise in the highlands population was low, but Devine (1983 p.138), using a different definition for “Highlands” finds a higher rise of 20% between 1755 and 1795.
Rising population is hardly evidence of systematic clearance let alone genocide. If we look at the data from MacKenzie, (fig 3 & 4) we see that total population (top line) in both Inverness and Caithness continues to rise after 1830 peaking in 1851 in Inverness and 1851-81 in Caithness. Far from supporting a narrative of systematic oppression in the 18th century, the population statistics tells a totally different story: a growing population if not a booming prosperous area, particularly in the large towns of Inverness (bottom area of Fig 3 ) and Wick (bottom area of fig 4)
Table 1: Graphs of population. Figures are stacked with largest parish lowest so that the top represents the total population for the shire.
Looking at Sutherland (fig 5) which is the quintessential clearance area, we also see a growing total (top line) population throughout the time of the Sutherland clearances (1811-20). Again peaking around 1830-50, only entering a decline after the period of the clearances.
In other words, there is not the slightest evidence that during the time of the clearances either Inverness, Caithness of Sutherland experienced any net decline in population; the decline started well after the time of the clearances.
2.3 Local changes
Looking at the paper from Turnock (1967) examining the detailed changes in the Lochaber area, we find that every area shows a rise in population from 1800 – 1830 except Glenelg and Morvern which show a small drop before they rise to the peak of 1830.
After 1830, areas like Movern, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan & Sunart do show a precipitous decline as high as 75%, but this is part of a general trend that extends up to the 1950s.
There is no evidence for the mass clearances of the highlands which most accounts describe before 1830.
However, if we look more closely at the figure 7 showing in detail the area of Glen Roy and Glen Spean to the north-east of Fort William, we see a general pattern of change. The 1851 distribution shows very dense settlement spread uniformly along the lower reaches of the Spean and Glen Roy, thinning out in the upper parts of the glens where possibilities for agriculture were very limited. By 1891, these smaller sites have shrunk many disappearing entirely by 1966. In contrast, the larger sites of 1851 have split dramatically into two groups: a few large population centres like Spean & Roy Bridge growing massively, with the bulk of sites decreasing in size.
Looking at figure 8 we see the pattern is repeated in Knoydart. Of the 15 large population centres in 1841 only 4 are still sizeable in 1891 and by 1966 only Inverie remains.
This seems to reinforce the data showing a few large towns like Inverness and Wick growing at a time of general population decline. It seems that the main change during the latter 19th century was a shift from small to large, from smaller settlement to larger county towns, and from smaller to growing centres in the lowlands.
Is this what the writers are referring to? Is this the “smoking gun” evidence of the clearances?
During the time of the “clearances” of the 18th and early 19th century it is hard to use any other description about the highlands in general, other than it was booming: population growth was not only enough to fuel local growth, but enough to supply other areas as well such as the central/lowland zone. Not until 1831 did the population exodus from Argyllshire lead to a decline, not until 1841 in Sutherland and not till1851 in Inverness, and Ross and Cromarty.
However there was a sharp divide in the experience of the NW mainland and Hebrides regions furthest from the lowlands and those areas closer: the southern, central and eastern highlands. All areas of the highlands experienced net emigration, but the pull of the lowlands was greater in the areas that were closest.
As figures 9 & 10 show, the decline in population in areas like Perthshire and Argyll began as early as 1830. Although after the major clearance events, it is significantly earlier than highland regions. Devine (1983) , notes that the southern and eastern parishes grew least at around 12 to 14 percent, whilst the growth in the north west …
“was of the order of 34 per cent. Moreover, between 1801 and 1841 44 per cent of parishes in the south and east grew by less than 10 per cent while in the north west only 5 per cent did so. In the same period, population rose by 53per cent in the north west but by only 7 per cent in the sourthern zone [Gray 1957 p.59-60]”
Devine backs this up by showing the source of migrants in lowland towns. Of the 112 highland women marrying in Greenock between 1761 and 1775, 109 were born in Argyllshire, two in Inverness-shire and one in Ross-shire. In 1851 1 in 26 of the highland born population of Greenock was born in Argyllshire compared to one in 235 born in Inverness-shire and one in 3,224 born in Sutherland. The 1821 Paisley census was the first to list birth place of the population. It shows 7% of the population were from the highlands with most from Argyllshire and eastern Inverness-shire.
The traditional view of the highland “clearances” as a being something forced on the populace is impossible to square with this pattern of emigration. If emigration were linked to rising population, limited food and employment as many suggest (Gaskell 1996), then the areas most likely to suffer would be those further from the lowland areas of employment and food production. In contrast, it is those area closest to the employment opportunities in the growingly industrialised lowlands which experience migration strongest.
2.5 Historical changes
The highlands were unique because the feudalistic or perhaps more accurately Mafiosa clan system which put the clan at the centre of the highland economy was effectively abolished by the Tenures Abolition Act 1660 & Heritable Jurisdictions Act of 1746. The Tenures Abolition Act ended the feudal bond of military service; the Heritable Jurisdictions Act (passed after the Jacobite rebellion) removed the virtually sovereign power the chiefs held over their clan. The result was to break the old bond of loyalty between clansman and chief which not only created an obligation for the clansman to the chief but the chief to the clansman.
In order to break the force of clanship, administration has always practised the political maxim, Divide et impera. The legislature hath not only disarmed these mountaineers, but also deprived them of their antient garb, which contributed in a great measure to keep up their military spirit; and their slavish tenures are all dissolved by act of parliament; so that they are at present as free and independent of their chiefs, as the law can make them:(Smolledtt 1824)
In its place came a common law applied by civil jurisdiction rather than clan chiefs. The result was to take the centre of economic life away from the clan. It freed up trade allowing the development of urban centres reliant on trade and tradable commodities such as the wool & cattle needed during the Napoleonic wars. Indeed, the whole economy of the highlands changes from one of barter to one of accountants as walker (2003) shows by the active involvement of Edinburgh accountants in the highlands.
However all areas were affected by a series of enclosure acts of 1661, 1685 & 1695 and division of Commodities Act of 1695 passed by the Scottish parliament. These allowed many landlord/laird to enclose their land without the agreement of their tenants. According to Caird (1964 p.73):
these acts were basic to the speed of transformation of the individual estates, as was the fact that at the time there were fewer than 8000 considerable proprietors in Scotland. … Investigations at Lix in Highland Perthshire have revealed a case of partial enclosure by rearrangments of the ferm-toun with “the individual farmers dispersed in two’s and three’s over the arable land” in about 1780 and cottages still being added until 1823. But in 1850, the clusters of joint-tenants at Easter Lix had disappeared and the lands were absorbed in an adjoining sheep farm. Great displacement of population undoubtedly took place, but the term ‘clearance’ is rarely used, for the displaced persons found employment and houses in the new villages in the neighbouring lowlands.
There was also an increased dependence on temporary migration. Seasonal migration by young adults at the bottom of the social ladder had been common in the 18th and early 19th century, but by the 1850s in became equally common among crofting and rent-paying families. (Devine 1979).
2.6 The Lowlands
When discussing the “highland” clearances it is easy to forget that similar changes were occurring all over Scotland. Whilst the pattern of population had changed in the highlands, a similar change had also been going on in the lowlands. The land was divided into medium and large sized estates and then carved up into individual farms. Just as the highlands had seen a move away from small to large holdings, so by 1830 sub-tenants had all but disappeared in the lowlands and the typical holding was 200 acres for large farms employing six men. Together with improved machinery, cropping and farm practices such as specialisation there was less need for permanent labour in the rural Lowlands. Whether cause or effect of the changes, farm labourers headed for the nearest town in search of work and accommodation. By 1851 15% of the population of Peebles-shire had made its way to Edinburgh. (Knox)
Looking at Parry (2008) we see a similar pattern of settlement abandonment on the Lammermuir with increasing numbers after 1800 (however see section 2.8)
|Date||Settlements Abandoned||Rate per century|
Table 2: settlement abandonment on Lammermuir Hills based on figures from Parry (2008)
Like the highlands, the rate of lowland rural depopulation increased after 1840 due to the introduction of labour-saving technology, such as the self-binding reaper, the potato digger. The output per man increased dramatically: in 1840 it took 22 man days to tend an acre of barley; by 1914 it was down to 12 and by 1951 it had dropped to three.
Not only was there less need for manpower, but former agricultural labourers might earn 50% more for industrial work. And town life was better or as a ploughman from
Dumfries put it to the Royal Commission on Labour (1893-4) put it:
“the life of an agricultural labourer is altogether colourless … his life throughout is sleep, eat and work; no time for enjoyment as other labourers have; no half-holiday on Saturday … no holiday as a right, only as a favour; we get from three to four a year.”
The introduction of sheep was synonymous with the “improvements”. According to Ryder (1968 p.155), the first stage in these improvement of the highlands was to abolish the runrig agriculture – made much simpler by the Scottish parliament’s acts. The rising population in the 18th century and the lack of capital after the failed Darien scheme meant many lairds lacked capital for other improvement and so converted their estates into sheep-walks. Sheep farmers from the south were offering high rents and so some of the first people to be forced from the land were the tacksmen. These had formerly been the chiefs’ agents, and could not afford the increased rents.
The conflict of the tenants’ and landlords’ interests came to a head on the issue of sheep about 1780. Sheep farms were more economically viable and so were favoured not only by landlords, but even by tenants as they permitted higher secure rents, but the large sheep farm involved new men from the south because, as Ryder says:
the highlander disliked the lonely life of the shepherd. Also, the expense of the change meant that the landlord could not wait for the 2,000 sheep, regarded as being an economic flock, to build up, or for the local men to gain experience as shepherds (Ryder 1968)
However, the process of clearances were not necessarily the cause of regional depopulation. The sheep farms that replaced tenants also created economic opportunity in areas such as fishing and textile processing (Gray 1957) and there was a marked increase in the population of a few small towns. In the NW Tain (Ross-shire) rose 14% and Stornoway rose 30% between 1841 & 1851.
And the evidence does confirm that the introduction of sheep helped stem the tide of emigration from the highlands as there is a lack of correlation between the spread of sheep farming and population as shown by detailed local studies. For example of Gray shows that of 14 parishes which in the 1790s had a ratio of sheep to population above the average in Argyllshire, 7 bucked the general decline and had an increase in population between 1755 and the 1790s. But of the 12 parishes with less than the average number of sheep relative to population, only 4 experienced a rise in population. It is therefore clear that sheep (I.e. improvements) were not a cause of population decline indeed introducing sheep seemed to cause population to increase.
2.8 Problems with preservation
According to Dixon, the single biggest problem in understanding deserted settlements is the lack of excavations. Parry (2008) highlighted the lack of excavation of deserted settlements when he examined the abandonment of upland sites in Southern Scotland. Although he found a very similar pattern to that seen in the highlands with massive increase in abandonment in the 19th century, he was unable to be sure of these figures, particularly the earlier one. As the scenes of Calligarry shows, between 1931 when figure 11 was taken and 2006 when figure 12 was taken, there has been a virtually wiping away of the settlement.
Table 3: Changes to Calligarry Township (Webb et al 2010)
The situation was far worse for many lowland sites because the buildings were made of clay and turf and occupiers were in the habit of simply abandoning one house and building another when it needed replacement. Dixon (2003 P. 57) also highlights the perishable nature of building material used in medieval buildings in Scotland and highlights the difficulty of dating earthworks even when datable pottery exists. In many cases the only certain evidence for settlements are those where broad rig cultivation can be identified. It is therefore unlikely that evidence of previous settlement would remain in areas of intensive ploughing whereas in areas of pasturage of cattle and sheep and upland areas where stone for building was freely available, the evidence of settlement would not only be more durable than turf and clay, but less prone to damage by ploughing. However, in those areas where farming was restricted by royal forests such as Liddesdale and Jedburgh there are upstanding remains of rural settlements that are potentially medieval.
However even given the problem with archaeological evidence of desertion, Dixon is able to conclude that the medieval pattern of lowland Scotland was a mixture of large and small row villages, manors and granges, but in the upland areas there are farmsteads and shielings. In particular he finds that:
the relatively low-lying part of Scotland is recognisable as champion country by the 13th century … in contrast to this are the uplands, including the hinterland of Galloway, where a more dispersed pattern of settlement and shielings prevail.
To date, excavations of village sites indicate that they were newly planned settlements of the 12th century that underwent episodes of replanning, rebuilding, and late medieval desertion.
Deserted upland landscapes are nothing new. Anderson et al (1997) show that there was an abrupt change in climate to wetter conditions between 3500 to 3900 BP. Tipping et al (2007) record a significant shift to wetter mire surfaces by Loch Farlary c2900BP coinciding with a a change in land use with more population at lower levels which “may have been driven by an influx of people from other, less sheltered, upland areas. However Tipping did not find evidence the uplands were abandoned but instead inferred a change from subsistence farming to pastoral. However climate change was not all bad. Bonsall et al (2002) show a link between warming of the climate by around 1C and a move to drier conditions with the introduction of cereal to Scotland around 4100BC.
Amesbury et al (2008) find a similar effect occurring in SW England around 1395 to 1155BC and concludes that “a marked climatic deterioration occurred in the late Bronze Age which can be linked to the abandonment of reave systems.” O’Sulliven (1976) identifies a similar period around Loch Pityoulish where there was a period of forest regeneration around 1650BP followed by the establishment of the medieval pattern of land use around 1000BP.
Lamb in his wide ranging resume of the British Climate (1967 p.463) highlights the little ice age (a cold period between 1550 AD and 1850 AD) and quotes John Sinclair thus:
In his summary of the great Statistical Account of Scotland, Sir John Sinclair wrote, in 1825: There are grounds for contending that the climate of Scotland . . . was formerly superior to what it is at present. The hills were more covered with wood which skirted the arable ground [and] gave shelter to the crops . . . [There are] marks of cultivation . . . where nobody would now attempt to raise grain . . .’. It was to the eleventh to thirteenth centuries that later writers looked back as the golden age in Scottish history; and, as in England, it turns out that the most catastrophic events in the later chapters of Scottish history (Lamb, 1964 and 1965) fell close to the times of the worst climatie shocks reported elsewhere in Europe?in the fourteenth century and especially in the 1430’s and 1560’s.
Walton (1952) when examining the relationship between climate and the famines in NE Scotland again highlights the 1690s quoting Alexander 1877:
The ” Seven Ill Years ” or, as they were called by ardent Jacobites, ” King William’s Dear Years ” were years of dearth over the greater part of Scotland, though they were felt more severely in the north. According to the graphic description of one reporter in the South West of Scotland, ” these manifold unheard-of judgements continued seven years, not always alike, but the seasons, summer and winter (were) so cold and barren, and the wonted heat of the sun so much withholden that it was discernible upon the cattle, flying fowl and insects decaying, seldom a fly or a cleg was to be seen ; our harvests (were) not in the ordinary months ; many were shearing in November and December, some in January and February ; many contracted their deaths and lost the use of feet and hands working in frost and snow ; and after all, some of it was still standing and rotting upon the ground ; much of it was of little use to man or beast and it had no taste or colour of meal.” [Alexander 1877]
Grain had to be imported (although prohibited by an Act of 1672) and export was prohibited, but still there were wholesale deaths and depopulation. Walton states the effects were harshest in the interior whereas Moray and Buchan had less intense frosts and suffered less and there was a high mortality rate. He goes on to say:
Of sixteen families that resided on the farm of Littertie, thirteen were extinguished. On the estate of Greens which (in 1793) accommodates 169 individuals, three families, the proprietor’s included, only survived. The extensive farms of Touchar, Greeness, Overhill and Burnside of Idoch, being entirely desolated, were converted into a sheep-walk by the Errol family to whom they then belonged. The inhabitants of the parish in general were diminished by death to one half, or as some affirm, to one fourth of the preceding number.” (Walton quoting the Old Statistical Account Monquhitter. 6 (18):132)
Until the year 1709 many farms in the Monquhitter district lay waste and even at that time the landlord found great difficulty in getting tenants. It was also said by some eighteenth century writers that the Seven Ill Years led to wholesale depopulation of many other interfluvial tracts of the low Buchan plateau. At that time most of this land was still moss and moor, but it retained in places the marks of the plough. (Walton 1952 p.15)
The famines of the 1690s were widespread and Lamb (p.460) tells us that the the settlement of Daintoun (Davington), 9 miles east of Moffat and 260m above sea level was abandoned between 1690 and 1710. This was the worst period of what some call “the little ice-age age”. According to Lamb:
it has been estimated that all over the uplands of Scotland one third to a half of the population died; large areas which had been farmed until then were abandoned and covered by the heather.
As figure 13 shows, England in the 1690s experienced the worst cold period in its recorded history.
These observations suggest temperatures 1.5-2.0 ‘C below twentieth century values averaged over the year, a lowering twice to three times as great as that which has been substantiated in central England from actual thermometer readings (Pfister 1994 referring to LAMB,1982).
The ill years occurred in the middle of a period of low sun activity which some (Svensmark) attribute to to a period of low solar activity that occurred between 1645 to 1715 known as the Maunder Minimum. A similar period occurred from 1790 to 1830 (Known as the Dalton Minimum) and yet again we see a dip in the temperature (albeit shallower) and find authors like Woods (1985) referring to the climate in his paper: “the complicity of the climate in the 1816 depression of Dumfriesshire” in which he concludes:
The lesson of the year 1816 is a simple and fundamental one. Major economic modifications were inevitable in Britain following the Napoleonic Wars. Through the working of numerous factors, living became more and more difficult in 1815-1816, especially for the relatively new masses in the industrial centres; yet the agricultural community could stand somewhat aloof from these difficulties because its produce was always needed. In 1816, however, the addition of an extraordinary phenomenon—the severe inclemency of the weather in all seasons—precipitated the agricultural community into its own depression; an almost totally ruined harvest was the dénouement of a year in which customers had not been able to pay prices in any way compatible with the high rents of agricultural land. As a result farmers went bankrupt and labourers in large numbers were deprived of work.
In work by Carter et al (1997) we see in the pollen analysis a clear transition occurring around 1700 corresponding with the ill years and the cessation of ploughing has a terminus ante quem of 1725 given by the date at which Lour Park was created. Whilst less clear we may also have evidence for another change at the end of the Dalton minima in 1825/50 when pollen analysis shows rough grazing & pastures ends in the area.
The evidence of famine and death in the 1690s is impossible to deny, but it is not (yet) supported by the archaeological evidence from those such as Parry (table 2) which although Parry states it is difficult to date early sites and that many 17th century ones have been missed, there is apparently no massive abandonment around 1700.
Far from illuminating events, the focus on clearances seems to to have created a false narrative which is completely at odds with the evidence. Whilst some events can be portrayed as landlord oppression of their tenants, these are not unique to the highlands or to Scotland. If anything the highlands are more resilient with changes happening later and active support from landlords for tenants. In the mid 19th century many landlords actively helped emigration from the NW region of Scotland. Devine tells us that during the 1840s and 1850s we see a series of clearance schemes with assisted emigration to Canada and Australia. The tea magnate James Matheson who owned Lewis helped 1,777 people to emigrate between 1851 and 1855. Gordon of Cluny who owned most of Barra, South Uist and Benbecula took no fewer than 2,715 of his tenants to Canada between 1848 and 1851, but only after a series of brutal evictions. On Skye and North Uist 2,500 of Lord McDonald’s tenants were helped to Canada and Australia between 1849 and 1856. Between 1840 and 1843 about 40% of emigrants from Scotland were from the Western highlands and the majority of these from the NW and Hebrides.
But we must not forget that whilst the impact on the population was benign if not beneficial, there was a huge impact on the highland culture, a culture than many highlanders sought to protect:
The highland emigrants of this period apparently sought to perpetuate a familiar style of life in better surroundings. Despite the distances involved in emigration, the world of the small farmer and fisherman on the Canadian islands was closer to that of the Hebridean crofter than a new life in the lowland towns. Highland emigrants from the north west were transplanting an entire society, an option not available to those who moved to the south. Above all, they were intent on obtaining land and re-establishing themselves in the status they had lost in the highlands. (Devine)
Given that in the 1690s there was mass starvation, by the standards of the time, the picture this portrays is of a highland way of life which is not only relatively prosperous & healthy as shown by the increasing population, but one which the participants wished to maintain. Moreover, even when the economic opportunity for improvement via emigration presented itself, the populace often preferred to remain. The strong social and cultural bonds remained despite the economic advantages presented by emigration.
In essence, therefore, the north-west highlands and islands was still a peasant society and the inhabitants had the tenacious attachment to land characteristic of all such societies. It was this which caused them to emigrate across the world to seek a reinstatement upon land and to cling to minute crofts rather than move in large numbers to an alien life in the towns of the south.(Devine)
What was it that created such a relatively prosperous area of the NW highlands. Before 1815 there was an expansion of the Herring fishery, kelp manufacturing and cattle prices rose steadily during the Napoleonic wars and military service was available for the young men. New crops, particularly potatoes and new breeds such as black faced sheep suitable for mountainous country increased agricultural output. Even after 1815, when military employment ceased, when cattle prices slumped, when there were rent arrears, evictions and landlord bankruptcies,the fact was that the population continued increasing thus showing that highland farming was prosperous
Whilst there were some bad landlords, it is difficult to believe that the aim of evictions was the politically portrayed expulsion of population which modern narratives attempt to force onto the events. Instead the evidence supports the view of a resettlement of population to provide a specialism of labour creating a more economically beneficial system for the benefit of both landlord and tenant. E.g. the mass expulsions of the Sutherland estates resulted in a redistribution rather than an exodus. In 1819 according to Devine 3,331 individuals were removed of which 2,304 were resettled on the estate, 223 moved to adjoining properties; 661 migrated to neighbouring counties; 83 emigrated and the estate administration was unable to trace 57 (Richards 1973 p.208)
However it is equally clear that famine and starvation did have a demographic effect. According to Flinn, the potato famine of the 1840s provided an incentives for landlords in the western isles and NW mainland to rid their estates of what they increasingly saw as a redundant population. Flinn (1977 p.57) estimates the consequence loss of population in the western isles as a quarter to a third of the resident population. Cameron indicates that between 1852 and 1857 about 16,000 persons were assisted to cross the Atlantic from the north-west highlands.(Cameron 1970 p.317-18)(Cameron 1972) But note the word is “assisted”, not compelled. These are not the acts of heartless landlords. More importantly we should question the motives of some commentators who liken the clearances to genocide and contrast the assisted emigration schemes which began around the 1830s and which commentators assert continued on a “massive scale synchronised with widespread eviction of peasants” (Hunter 1997 p.73-88)(Richards 2002 p.363-471) with the reported genocide of the indigenous groups in Australia and America which these highlanders were replacing. Emigration did occur, but the evidence in Sutherland with only 2.5% of those being evicted leaving the area (not even Scotland) with 69% staying on the same estate doesn’t support the narrative of forced emigration by clearance particularly when brutal evictions were common throughout England and Scotland at the time.
But a stronger reason to suspect the popular accounts such as the year of the sheep in 1792 is that there is a lack of correlation between the spread of sheep farming and population as shown by Gray who if anything shows that the introduction of sheep was reducing the rate of population decline. In other words the improvements in the agriculture in this area was having net beneficial effects and preventing population decrease.
3.1 Rewriting history
Whilst the Sutherland clearances were clearly brutal, the real question we must ask is whether they were unusual for the time? As late as 1902 George Sims was writing of very similar scenes clearing London slums:
After notice had been served upon them some began at once to look about for other accommodation. But the larger number, because it is the nature of the slum dwellers to live only for to-day and to trust to luck for to-morrow, did nothing. At last came the pinch. The authorities served the last notice, “Get out, or your walls will crumble about you.” The tenant who after that still remained obstinate soon realised that the end had come. The roof, the doors, and the windows were removed while she (it is generally a woman) still remained crouching in a corner of the miserable room which contained the chair, the table, the bed, the frying pan, and the tub that were her furniture.
Eventually the position became dangerous. When bricks and plaster began to fall in showers about her, and the point of the pickaxe came through the wall against which she was leaning, then at last she scrambled for her belongings and went out unto the street, where a little crowd of onlookers and fellow sufferers welcomed her sympathetically. … Sometimes a whole family, the head having failed or neglected during the period of grace to find accommodation elsewhere, is turned into the street. I have seen families sitting homeless on their goods, which were piled on the streets.
If Sutherland is evidence of mass genocide in the highlands is such an account as that above evidence of genocide in London? Could an account of families having their houses torn down around them and being turfed out onto the street explain the massive clearance of London? Of course not! London grew before, during and after the slum clearances, so why are accounts in Sutherland that differ little from other contemporary texts taken as evidence of genocide?
How can those who so readily highlight the evictions on the Sutherland estate fail to compare this to similar clearances in the 18th century like the London slums. Particularly when as stated, of the 3,331 individuals removed in 1819, 2,304 were resettled on the estate and only 83 emigrated. The idea that landlords systematically forced people into emigration is hard to square with e.g. The introduction of the Passenger Act in 1803 passed according to Brown “to stuanch the ‘people’s clearance’ … [by] rendering the costs of emigration prohibitively expensive”. Even on St Kilda we find that the landlords are hardly enthusiastic to see their tenants leave:
In 1853 one-third of the population of St Kilda snapped up the opportunity to emigrate to Port Phillip (Melbourne); they were accompanied as far as the Broomielaw in Glasgow by their distraught landlord who pleaded with them to stay, and wept tears on their departure.(Richards 2002 p.5)
Much of the “highland clearances” is the inference drawn from an almost blatant misinterpretation of a number of high profile events such as those in Strathnaver in 1814, Glengarry (1785-1802) (McLean 1991), Gruids (1821), Skye (1853), Knoydart and Greenyards (1855).
Whilst these events were undoubted displays of landlord power pitted against the wishes of those removed, we should perhaps draw parallels to modern events such as the closure of Scottish Iron, Coal and other industries and those bitter struggles. Strife in itself is not the same as “oppression”. All change is to some extent opposed by at least some of those involved, and if we focus on the high profile instances of strife without trying to see the bigger picture we may be forgiven if e.g. we were to read from the economic strife of the miner’s strikes on 1984/5 as a massive decline in the general prosperity of Scotland, whereas the facts of figure 15 show otherwise that the economy grew both before, during and after the “disaster” of the miner’s strike.
So, we must be able to justify rather than accept the common consensus as portrayed by Fergus Ewing MSP:
there is no doubt that they happened and that they led to the destruction of the Highlands that Boswell and Johnson saw in their celebrated tour of the Hebrides. At the time of their visit to the north, that process was already in hand, but the clearances were responsible for its completion. (Fergus Ewing (SNP))
There were certainly regional differences, but if anything the greatest discrepancy in growth was in the areas closest to the lowlands and not those typically related in the clearance narratives such as Skye and Knoydart. This certainly is not the holocaust of popular portrayal. So, how does this compare with “the genocide and ethnic cleansing” spoken of by Fergus Ewing to the “Indians in America and the Aborigines in Australia”? Estimates put the number of Tasmanian aborigines before British colonisation in 1803 at 3,000–15,000, in 1833 due to disease and warfare there were approximately 200 remaining (Wikipedia). According to Wikipedia (Population history of indigenous peoples of the Americas):
Repeated outbreaks of European infectious diseases such as influenza, measles and smallpox (to which they had no natural immunity), combined with dispossession from European/Canadian settlements and repressive policies, resulted in a forty to eighty percent aboriginal population decrease post-contact.[Wilson, Donna M; Northcott, Herbert C (2008)] For example, during the late 1630s, smallpox killed over half of the Wyandot (Huron), who controlled most of the early North American fur trade in what became Canada. They were reduced to fewer than 10,000 people [Robertson, Ronald G (2001)].
And lest we forget, in 1933 it is estimated some 522,000 Jews lived in Germany. On the eve of WWII only 214,000 (41%) remained. In May 1943, Nazi German authorities reported that the Reich was “judenrein” (“free of Jews”). By this time, mass deportations had left fewer than 20,000 Jews in Germany.
3.2 The real highland clearances
The truth is that as a region, there were no highland clearances before the mid 19th century and that the evidence available suggests that the improvements actually stemmed emigration from the highlands rather than accelerated it.
Whilst there is evidence that smaller settlements suffered more than larger ones, the strongest driver appears to be economic pull from the lowlands and foreign territories rather than clearance evictions or improvements.
The evictions which occurred, whilst brutal by our standards, were not out of character with the time. Indeed, if anything the landlords showed incredible care for their tenants and concern for their welfare – if for no other reason than that their own economic prosperity relied on the abundant supply of labourers.
For obvious reasons given the lack of any real evidence of a systematic “clearance” and the way these events have been falsely used to create a narrative of the “Fuadach nan Gàidheal” (expulsion of the Gael), few commentators put a date to the end of the highland clearances.
Wikipedia lists events up until the actions of Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland, and her husband who conducted brutal clearances between 1811 and 1820. McNeil citing Prebble (1982) lists the last clearances as of Glenelg, Sollas in 1849 and South Uist and Barra in 1851. So we can safely say the following graph shows highland and island population after the clearances showing a dramatic decline from the 1850s until the 1970s of 22%.
According to some: “What the Clearances started, however, the First World War almost completed.” (Wikipedia Highland Clearances). The claim is that the 1921 census shows a “significant” decrease in Gaelic speakers because Scotland lost over 147,000 men in WWI amounting to 20% of Britain’s losses whilst Scotland only has 10% of the total British population). However this claim that WWI “completed” the highland clearances is hard to justify.
True the 1921 census shows a larger than usual decrease, but as the figures show the slightly higher decline in this period is part of a general post 1891 trend. Even if the 1755 figure of Walker can be taken as Monolingual speakers of Gaelic rather than bi-lingual as drawn below, the story seems to be more one of steady decline rather than precipitous fall. Above table (fig 19) shows numbers of Gaelic speakers taken from MacAulay (1992) and s plotted below (fig 20). MacAuley figures come from Sinclair, Websters and census data (Scottish Government 2011)
However, MacAudley makes some rash assumptions about the 1881 and 1755 figures as being monolingual, which do not make sense when it was plotted as there would be a sudden precipitous fall between 1881 and 1891 which is not explained. Looking deeper, the 1881 census question was whether they “Habitually spoke Gaelic”. This did not exclude speaking English. Similarly the 1755 result produced by Walker reflected those areas where Gaelic was “either preached or spoken by the natives”. John Sinclair recounting the area of Lochgoil-head and Kilmorich illustrates that many “Gaelic speakers” were bilingual:
The Gaelic language is most generally spoken in this district. The greater number of the people speak English, but not in general with so much ease and fluency as they speak Gaelic. Many of the old people understand no English. (John Sinclair)
When taken as “bilingual” the overall trend of the graph roughly follows the general population of the highlands (fig 16) with a steady drop and precipitous decline after 1910. However, it should not be forgotten that the 1881 figure included monolingual Gaelic speakers and excluded those who could speak Gaelic but did not do so habitually. But whether or not the 1755 result is taken as monolingual or bilingual, there was clearly a massive decline in Gaelic speaking in Scotland in the 20th century. Is this what really lies behind the claims of the “highland clearances”?
3.3 The clansman as noble savage
I started this essay referring to Custer and his portrayal in Buffalo Bill’s wild west show. Custer was not a Scot: we know this because US historians (with little history of their own) have an obsession with their European origins – second only to their obsession with the repression of evil British state that “forced” them into independence. Everyone with a Scots sounding name in the US seems to be descended from someone who was oppressed by the evil British. But what of the native Americans whose lands were stolen by the “poor” Scots forced out by the evil British empire?
When Custer was still at school in 1853 Charles Dickens wrote his essay on “The Noble Savage”:
To come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage. I consider him a prodigious nuisance, and an enormous superstition. His calling rum fire- water, and me a pale face, wholly fail to reconcile me to him. I don’t care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth. I think a mere gent (which I take to be the lowest form of civilisation) better than a howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage. It is all one to me, whether he sticks a fish-bone through his visage, or bits of trees through the lobes of his ears, or bird’s feathers in his head; whether he flattens his hair between two boards, or spreads his nose over the breadth of his face, or drags his lower lip down by great weights, or blackens his teeth, or knocks them out, or paints one cheek red and the other blue, or tattoos himself, or oils himself, or rubs his body with fat, or crimps it with knives. Yielding to whichsoever of these agreeable eccentricities, he is a savage – cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, monotonous humbug.
Yet it is extraordinary to observe how some people will talk about him, as they talk about the good old times; how they will regret his disappearance, … they will either be determined to believe, or will suffer themselves to be persuaded into believing, that he is something which their five senses tell them he is not. (Dickens)
Today, Dickens is primarily associated with the concept of “Dickensian London”, the place of Fagen, Oliver Twist, the workhouse and the slum. Why is his views on Victorian London so vividly remembered, but not his views on the noble savage? In no small part, his portrayal of the slums & grime of early industrial Britain have coloured our picture of the past so that most see the industrialisation of Britain and Scotland as an unwelcome intrusion into an idyllic “Braveheart” countryside inhabited by the noble savage Dickens so openly despised.
This is part of a fabricated history. The fact is that people did not move to places like New Lanark (founded 1785) because of evil oppression by British, English, lowlanders, climate or even green tentacled aliens. They moved to the industrial cities by choice: better housing, better jobs, better pay. Shops did away with the “daily grind” of processing cereals and coal did away with back breaking job of peat cutting in the midges. They moved because working in a factory, however bad it may seem to us today, was far better than the upland countryside we townies now see as an idyllic retreat. The life in a factory was far better than the dirty grimy countryside from which these factory workers were desperate to escape. The factories gave them the opportunity to better themselves.
Why is it then, that so many people see this period in Scotland’s history through the tartan tinted spectacles of the clearances? The facts don’t back up this narrative of oppression, so why is this view so compulsive?
For any who have been taught the history of Scouting, that countryside was the very birthplace of Scouting. This was not an isolated social phenomena.
Today few even connect “Scouts” with army offices, far less realise that this organisation was accompanied by many similar schemes: the Woodcraft Indians by Ernest Seton 1902, Boys Brigade (1884), the Boys’ Guide Brigade (1902) and the German “Wandervogel” (1901). In particular Seton wrote a manual which he sent to Baden Powell which clearly was inspirational: “The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians” (1906). This was a general movement:
the arts and crafts revival and the related enthusiasm for nature study and the woodcraft movement, all in some ways connected with tourism, emerged in the early decades of the twentiest century as an ambiguous antimodernist reponse to the increasing fragmentation and rationalisation of modern urban-industrial living. Just as Teddy Roosevelt advocated for rural living and the strenuous life, upper and middle-class Americans sought “authentic” experience, “real” life, and self fulfillment through handcraftmanship, romantic nature and the noble savage. (Rothman & Studies 2003)
In the same way Buffalo Bill’s portrayal of the attempted massacre of indigenous Americans at Custer’s last stand was a complete betrayal of the real history of that people, so many modern historians have rewritten the history of the Scottish uplands to fit a sanitised “arts and crafts” views of an idyllic countryside of “noble savages”. The countryside is good, the town is bad, the clansman is a noble savage, those improving the lot of the Scots through factories are bad … even oppressive.
Scouting today is part of a culture that has so sanitised the “noble savage” that e.g. modern “Scouts” do not even realise Scouts were an elite military force – part of Custer’s last stand – part of the genocide of Native peoples worldwide. Likewise whilst the clansman of the 17th century was a military solider, but the clansman of the highland clearances is an idyllic “noble savage” in harmony with the countryside. The clansman didn’t change, only the tartan tinted glasses of the Scottish arts and crafts revival of the 20th century. Today the (American) tourist is treated to a compelling story of (English) oppression of noble clansmen (savages) and their crafts displays (backbreaking work) before being lead into the shop to buy their “highland clearance book” and Edinburgh woollen (mill) sweaters.
This rewriting of history was there right at the time of the first accounts when the Reverend Donald refers to the highlanders as aborigine:
It was a very short time previous to my residence in Mr. MacKid’s family that the first “Sutherland Clearance” took place. This consisted in the ejection from their minutely-divided farms of several hundreds of the Sutherlandshire aborigines, who had from time immemorial been in possession of their mountain tenements. … the Sutherland Clearance of 1819 was not only the climax of their system of oppression for many years before, but the extinction of the last remnant of the ancient Highland peasantry in the north. (The Rev. Donald Sage on the Sutherland Clearances in MacKenzie 1883)
This is part of a long tradition starting with early portrayals of the Picts such as De Bry’s to portray the natives of Scotland in the form of the “noble savage”.
It is therefore an obvious trap to believe that just as the indigenous people of Australia, the Americas, Africa, etc. were repressed, then so were the Highlanders by the English/Lowlander.
Much of the uplands of Scotland have always been a wilderness, however there have been periods when they have seen more people than now. The bronze age was such a period when a warmer climate allowed viable agriculture on the higher slopes and we see numerous examples of hut circles throughout Scotland. Climate clearly continued to influence the highlands as shown by the abandonment of Daintoun and evidence that around a quarter of the highland population died in the 1690s. Indeed, given the suggestion that the situation in Scotland was twice to threes times worst than England, and that England had the worst period of cold on record, it is hard to believe that there is so little evidence of abandoned villages at this time. Given the apparent lack of detailed work on abandoned settlements and the subsequent lack of chronology of abandonment, is it possible a substantial number identified as being abandoned during the “clearances” were abandoned after the 1690s famines? All we can say, is that further research is necessary to fully understand the role of climate at this time.
What we can say with certainty, is that the popular story of the “highland clearances” as “genocide” is totally at odds with the evidence of a growing population and growing economic prosperity as new urban centres developed in the late 18th century. Whilst many evictions were brutal, in comparison to those in other areas like London, many Highland landlords appear to be almost the paradigm of virtue (for their time). Not only did they provide alternative accommodation on their estates, but in some cases they paid the families to emigrate (although perhaps out of self interest to secure labourers for their own expanding estates abroad). But we cannot underestimate the traditional clan bond that encouraged a more benign attitude to the tenants in Scotland than was found in similar slum clearances in London. A better understanding of the distribution and chronology of clearance can only be obtained through detailed and widespread excavation.
The irony of the highland clearances is that many of the actions of the clan chiefs which should have been seen as beneficial caused their actions to be recorded and portrayed so badly. They helped establish schools, brought in ministers for the church, courts were established such as that which tried Patrick Sellar. There was a general opening up of the highlands to the view of the world outside so that the slum clearances in the highlands which were typical of the time were recorded not only by visiting outsiders but by those involved. They result is that we have a record of what appears to be typical behaviour of the period which now is used to condemn highland landlords.
In 1840 Donald MacLeod finally found a champion when the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle published 21 of his letters, which helped to transform Lowland public opinion on the clearances. These letters were later published (in expanded form) as the “History of the Destitution of Sutherlandshire.”
At this point, the Sutherlands received some literary support from an unexpected quarter. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, visited Dunrobin in 1856, and shortly after published her “Sunny Memories”, stating, despite criticisms of the Clearances, that:
“To my view it is an almost sublime instance of the benevolent employment of superior wealth and power in shortening the struggles of a civilisation and elevating in a few years a whole community to a point of education and material prosperity, which, unassisted they might never have obtained.” (BBC 2004)
The truth of the upland clearances is that all areas of Britain experienced similar changes as farming changed from small tenancies dispersed in the landscape, to a smaller number of larger farms with many tenants finding better situations in the growing urban centres. In England and the lowlands this movement was marked by a change in distribution, in Scotland, because the urban centres naturally congregated in the valleys where transportation links and building land was best, this change in distribution is marked by a change from upland to lowland. But the evidence does not show a general decline in population until after 1830. Only then does the growing economic pull of the large cities like Glasgow and the growing economies of the British colonies attract the population due to higher wages.
The new economy of the 18th century highlands was now inter-clan based. Local towns began springing up, goods and services were no longer at the beck and call of the clan leader, but could be secured by travelling to local centres of trade. The result was that the guild and market structures that had long existed in the lowlands sprung up in the highlands in towns creating a pull for workers to move out of the relatively economically disadvantaged valleys.
Whilst the evidence shows that growing economic prosperity elsewhere pulled population away from the highlands and that neither the clearances nor the improvements were to blame for large scale depopulation of the area, they did have local effects: population migrated toward urban areas, large numbers of outsiders were brought in and there was a breakdown in the traditional “family” and meta-family economic unit of the clan. But the popular narrative of the clearances is false. Yet it is almost as if the facts do not matter when it comes to this history. Some wish to portray Scotland and particularly the Clansmen in the image of the noble savage: a repressed group whose virtue was that they were “closer to nature” or as Dickens puts it a: “ howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage(s)”.
The real story of Scotland in this period is not that of the oppressed noble savage of the clearances but people like James Watt who invented the steam engine in 1775. But what is it that every museum and book of the period remembers? The oppressed noble savage! And where is that steam engine? It is dumped round the back of Kinneil House beside the roofless cottage where James watt lived covered in graffiti. It is as if Scotland does not want to admit that Scotsmen like James Watt led the world and it was they who were attracting the highlanders away from the uplands – not by whinging about oppression, but by creating a vibrant economy based on great thinkers like Hume and Smith and engineers like Watt. Yet where are we now? After decades of emigration, we are led by whinging politicians whose first act in power is to seek an apology for mythical genocide apparently seeking to blame the economic problems of modern Scotland on the clearances rather than their own inability to understand the ingredients that are necessary to create a vibrant economy utilising the engineering skills that once made Scotland great.
Whether or not Scotland goes for independence, any government policy needs to be based on a real understanding of the ingredients that create success. From an archaeological viewpoint, deserted settlements are a time capsule from a period in history, a culture and a landscape for which few records exist. Our modern view of the highlanders comes to us through the distorted lens of Celticness, clans, tartans and most of all “highland oppression”. That lens paints a picture of a clansmen in the Noble savage tradition as a victim. In doing so, it portrays Scotland as an oppressed backward country: a huge Disneyland theme park for tourists to come a gawk as the quaint Scots in the Victoriana Kitch of Kilt, Sporran and whisky.
The real truth is that many of the highlanders who emigrated were themselves responsible for oppression of indigenous peoples throughout the world. Is that the reason for this obsession with repression? Is it some kind of guilt complex by home-coming Scots trying to claim that they were the victims and not the indigenous peoples they forced of their own lands?
The Battle of Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand is an iconic battle between the Europeans and native Americans which was later re-enacted by Buffalo Bill portraying an entirely false image of the native American allowing further repression and racial stereotyping. The highland clearances is now an iconic battle between the oppressed Gaelic culture of the highlands and the lowland/English oppressors which is likewise falsely portrayed by those seeking to politically capitalise such as those fanning the sectarian divide of catholic highlander and protestant lowlander that continues to undermine modern society.
Just as we should not deny the reality of genocides such as the Jews, indigenous Americans or Aborigines, it is equally wrong to portray events that were not genocide as such because such assertions only seek to question the authenticity of genuine oppression. The highland clearances were probably no more notable in their time than the clearances of the Gypsies of Dale farm. Such rent evictions were common; what was new was the wealth of commentators who felt they had a right to comment. This in itself marked a change in economics: a wealth that not only allowed individuals to travel for pleasure to the highlands, but one that allowed the printing of their work and enough people willing and able to pay to read their work.
Those early tourists have now had their place taken by the home-coming Scots and it cannot be denied that a large chunk of Scotland’s economy now relies on this “tartan tat”. But by pandering to this myth we are hiding a far more important reality: intellectually and economically Scotland thrived in the 18th century. Only since 1850 has there been significant population decline. It is important that we understand the reasons for this decline, as only via such self knowledge can we hope to revive the Scottish economy. But that is not possible so long as some seek to create a false narrative of repression and guilt at a time when all the evidence shows that Scotland’s population was booming. The real story is that only after the improvements and clearances did the bulk of people leave Scotland …. and perhaps it is that very Victorian patronising myth of a Scotland filled by the (un)deserving “noble savage” that so many were trying to escape?
So dig! Dig to find the real truth of the deserted settlements: a vibrant independent culture with a clan-based culture making Scottish landlords better than most and a country capable of bringing forth some of the greatest minds in history, but a culture subject to the vagaries of the climate from the Bronze age to the 1690s. So dig and expose the truth and expose those who paint Scotland as a victim culture for the political & historical carpet baggers they are.
Fig 1: Cadet George Armstrong “Autie” Custer, c1859 4
Fig 2: Change in Highland population 1755 to 1790s (Meyer 1987 p.49)
Note Anderson (2011) suggests a 6.5% error in Webster’s figures. 6
Fig 3: Inverness Population 1831-1911 7
Fig 4: Caithness Population 1831-1911 7
Fig 5: Sutherland population. Figures are stacked with largest parish lowest so that the top represents the total population for the shire. 7
Fig 6: Long-term population trends in Lochaber (1801-1961) by parishes (Turnock 1967) 8
Fig 7: The distribution of population in the Glen Roy/Glen Spean area (Kilmonivaig parish) in 1851, 1891and 1966. (Turnock 1967) 8
Fig 8: The distribution of population and land use in Knoydart (Glenelg parish) in 1841, 1891 and 1966. (Turnock 1967) 9
Fig 9: Perthshire Population 1831-1911 9
Fig 10: Argyll Population 1831-1911 9
Fig 11: 21 September 1931 12
Fig 12: 29 August 2006 12
Fig 13: Central England Temperature (F) since 1680 with 1690 highlighted in blue.From lamb Fig 1. p. 446 15
Fig 14: Chronological synthesis of the documentary, archaeological and palynological interpretation for Lour (Carter et al 1997) 16
Fig 15: Scottish GDP 1979-2010 at basic prices (Scottish Government) 19
Fig 16: Population Change, Highlands and Islands 1851-2001 (Scot Exec 2005 Chart 4.3) 20
Fig 17: Gaelic Speaker 1755- 2001 (Table amended from MacAulay 1992) 20
Fig 18: Scottish Gaelic Speakers 1755-2001 21
Fig 19: Mel Gibson, Braveheart 22
Fig 20: Scout Movement founder Robert Baden-Powell with Sioux Indian Chief
Dr. Charles A. Eastman in Queens’ College, Cambridge, UK, in 1928. 23
Fig 21: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Date 1890 23
Fig 22: Hand-colored version of Theodor de Bry’s “The true picture of one Pict,” was originally published as an illustration in Thomas Hariot’s 1588 book “A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.” 24
Fig 23: From Theodor de Bry’s America 1590″A Werowan or great Lorde of Virginia” (detail) engraved by Theodor De Bry after a painting by John White. 24
Fig 24: Macquarrie Costumes of the Clans of Scotland. 1899. The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, (R. R. McIan 1845) 24
Fig 25: James Watt Cottage and Graffitied Steam Engine Cylinder (Canmore) 26
Index of Tables
Table 1: Graphs of population. Figures are stacked with largest parish lowest so that the top represents the total population for the shire. 7
Table 2: settlement abandonment on Lammermuir Hills based on figures from Parry (2008) 11
Table 3: Changes to Calligarry Township (Webb et al 2010) 12
Amesbury, M.J., Charman, D.J., Fyfe, R.M., Langdon, P.G. & West, S. (2008) Bronze Age upland settlement decline in southwest England: testing the climate change hypothesis. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35, pp.87-98.
Anderson, M. (2011) Guesses, Estimates and Adjustments: Webster’s 1755 “Census” of Scotland Revisited Again. Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 31, pp.26-45.
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