The motivating factors that led to the Highland Clearances are manifold and complex. The roots of the clearances lay mainly in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion in which the highland levies formed the backbone of Charles Edward Stuart's army. That rebellion ended with the slaughter of the Jacobite army on Culloden moor.
The clearances have sometimes been portrayed as simply the result of evil unconstrained capitalism and greed. They weren't, although greed was certainly a factor.
It has been suggested that the clearances were racially motivated. They weren't. The lands were generally cleared by factors, or agents. In many cases, these factors were acting on behalf of the same Scottish lords whose families the victims of the clearances and their kin had served for generations.
Some modern authors like to characterise the clearances as some kind of "land grab". They weren't that either. The ownership of the land often didn't change, just the uses to which it was put.
There were two main phases to the highland clearances. The first of these happened broadly from about 1760 to 1815. In this phase, people were generally relocated from the Scottish glens and straths to the coast. There, they were found new employment in the fishing and kelp industries.
The lands that had been cleared were then turned over to sheep farmers. 1792 was to become notorious among highlanders as "The Year of the Sheep".
The second phase began after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and continued to the 1860s and beyond. It was during this phase that the more brutal tactics used by landlords to drive tenants from their lands became widespread.
"We have no country to fight for. You robbed us of our country and gave it to the sheep. Therefore, since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep now defend you".
Some of the main motivations behind the clearances are listed here:
- The destruction of the "Highland culture", and the breaking of the bond between the clan chiefs and their peoples.
- Overpopulation in the Scottish highlands.
- The Scottish Agrarian Revolution.
- The Scottish Potato Famine of 1846.
- The "integration" of the highlands into Great Britain.
- The "profligacy" of many Scottish landowners in attempting to maintain their positions in London society.
They will be discussed in more detail below.
As noted above, the Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746 marked the end of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The battle is often characterised by nationalists as one between an "English" army commanded by "Butcher Cumberland", and a "Scottish" army commanded by Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The truth is very different. Four of the Duke of Cumberland's 16 infantry battalions were actually Scottish, and another was Irish. The vast majority of the Jacobite army was made up of highlanders, reinforced by French regulars and Irish units.
The armies were also broadly divided along religious lines. The Jacobites were a largely Roman Catholic army, together with some clans who were Scots Episcopalian. The government army was Protestant, and a number of the Presbyterian highland clans sided with the government. This distinction is important, particularly since the Scottish lowlands had, by-and-large, been staunchly Protestant since the Scottish Reformation.
In the aftermath of the uprising, the government began to pass a series of laws intended to "integrate" the Scottish highlands with the rest of Britain. In this enterprise, they were aided by the network of roads that had been, and were being driven into the highland under General Wade, and his successor, Major William Caulfeild.
This project had been initiated in the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion (by the "Old Pretender", James Francis Edward Stuart). These roads opened up the highlands, and without them much of what followed would not have been possible.
The Power of the Clan Chief
Over many centuries, the people of the Scottish highlands had developed a unique "Highland culture" based around the concept of the Highland clan. The clans were built upon ancient traditions of loyalty to family and fealty to the clan chief. These clans maintained a network of allegiances, and internecine warfare was endemic.
Although they were part of the Kingdom of Scotland, and later of the Kingdom of Great Britain, the sheer inaccessibility of the Scottish highlands meant that, in practice, royal authority was often only notional.
The power, prestige and status of the Highland Chiefs was measured in the number of men who owed them allegiance. The land belonged to the chief, and the clan were his tenants. In practice, the chief would lease land to tacksmen who normally owed loyalty to the chief by family and clan ties. Writing in 1775, Samuel Johnson described tacksmen thus:
"Next in dignity to the laird is the Tacksman; a large taker or lease-holder of land, of which he keeps part as a domain in his own hand, and lets part to under-tenants. The tacksman is necessarily a man capable of securing to the laird the whole rent, and is commonly a collateral relation."
The tacksmen also mustered the tenants when the clan chief raised his army, and acted as the officers within that army.
The power that the highland lords wielded over their followers was considerable. Their word was quite literally law, including the frequently-quoted power of "Pit and Gallows". They had the right to demand military service from their tenants. This was a feudal society and the rule of the Clan Chief was absolute, as was the loyalty they demanded from their clan.
The erosion of the absolute power of the Highland Chiefs had begun in the early 17th century. Raiding for Cattle, goods (and even women) had been commonplace in the highlands, and these raids frequently extended into parts of lowland Scotland. Such raids were not unique to the Scottish highlands, as the tales of the Border Reivers on the Anglo-Scots border testify. However, from the early 17th century, highland chiefs were required to appear periodically in Edinburgh to provide bonds for the conduct of their tenants. This began a subtle change in the relationship between the chiefs and their tenants.
After the first Jacobite Rising in 1689, William III offered a royal pardon to all highland chiefs who swore an oath of loyalty to the crown (with the promise of severe reprisals against those who refused to sign). Almost all clan chiefs swore the oath ahead of the deadline set by the government. An exception was MacIain, the chief of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe.
The story is an unedifying one, and few people emerge from the episode with any honour, but the end result was the Massacre of Glencoe on 13 February 1692. (If you are interested in finding out more about the massacre, the book Glencoe, by John Prebble provides a fairly balanced narrative with an extensive list of sources and bibliography).
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the massacre, the events at Glencoe in 1692 demonstrated that royal authority had returned to the Scottish highlands.
The Decline of the Highland Chief in the Aftermath of Culloden
The 1689 Jacobite Rising was just the first of many attempts to restore the line of James II and VII to the throne. Most of the clan chiefs remained loyal to the Jacobite cause throughout. These were the clans that would suffer most in the immediate aftermath of Culloden.
Following the 1745 uprising, rebel Highland chiefs were stripped of their lands. This wasn't unusual. The confiscation of lands belonging to those judged to be rebels or traitors was normal practice. The chiefs who had remained loyal to the government were rewarded for their loyalty. Again, this was nothing unusual.
What was new was the methodical dismantling of the Highland culture that followed. The British government passed a series of acts intended to "modernise" the Scottish highlands and integrate them with the rest of Great Britain.
In 1746, the government passed the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746. This removed most of the traditional military and judicial rights of the Clan Chiefs. Alongside this, parliament passed the Act of Proscription of 1746 which reiterated and expanded the earlier Disarming Act of 1716. This was the act that banned highland dress and allowed government troops to forcibly disarm highlanders without fear of prosecution.
In effect, these measures reduced the status of the clan chiefs to that of mere landlords and the men and women of their clans became simply tenants. The bonds of loyalty between the clan and the chief were being broken. Power was increasingly to be measured by wealth, rather than by the number of men who followed the chief.
"Once the chiefs lost their powers, many of them lost also any parental interest in their clansmen. During the next hundred years they continued the work of Cumberland's battalions. Land which they had once held on behalf of their tribe now became theirs in fact and law. ... So that they might lease their glens and braes to sheep-farmers from the Lowlands and England, they cleared the crofts of men, women and children, using police and soldiers where necessary."
The first to feel the effects of these changes would be the tacksmen.
The End of the Tacksmen
The system of Tacksmen had been under threat from the early 18th century. In 1717, the Duke of Argyll had put the lease (or "tack") for the Campbell property in Kintyre up for auction, rather than granting it to someone connected by clan loyalties. This increased the lord's revenues, but weakened the clan structure. Although some clan chiefs followed the Duke of Argyle's lead, most did not. As James Hunter observed,
By insisting on commercially letting his tacks, Archibald Campbell was both abandoning the role of Chief and taking on the role of landlord. But in so doing, as he and his aides were quickly to discover, the duke - while indubitably adding to his revenues - was jeopardising the armed support on which his family had previously relied in times of trouble.
However, after Culloden, and with the decline of the military role of the clan chiefs, the roles of the tacksmen were considered to be less important, and by the early nineteenth century most had lost their land and positions and had emigrated to the New World. Most people living in the highlands now held land directly from, and paid rent directly to, the Highland lords (usually via their factors).
The Scottish Agrarian Revolution in the Highlands
The agricultural revolution in Scotland had begun in the 17th century in the Scottish lowlands. There was a conscious attempt to improve agriculture in Scotland and make the land more productive. Before this, many aspects of agriculture in Scotland would be familiar to students of European medieval farming. Ridge-and furrow fields (known as "run-rig" in Scotland) and common land for grazing were the norm.
Following the union of Scotland and England in 1707, the improvers began to introduce new crops and new techniques into Scotland. They also began a programme of enclosures of common land that broadly mirrored what had happened in England. Initially, this had little effect on the highlands. Many clan chiefs felt bound by the loyalties of the highland culture, and were resistant to change.
After the 1745 rebellion, however, most of the best land in the highlands was controlled by just a few powerful families. These were, by-and-large, the same families who had taken the lead in dismantling the system of tacksmen (e.g. the Duke of Argyle, the Duke of Atholl, the Duke of Buccleuch, and the Duke of Sutherland). They also effectively controlled Scottish politics and the Scottish economy. Under their leadership the process of improvement gained momentum in the highlands.
The change in the highlands was much more rapid than it had been in the lowlands. The lessons learned in the Scottish lowlands were applied wholesale to the highlands. Although the people remained loyal to their chiefs, by this stage, the people seem to have become just one component in the estates that generated the revenues of the chiefs.
Of course, those who lost most when the land was enclosed were the lowest strata of society, the crofters and especially the landless cottars.
The Scottish Highlands were an agriculturally marginal area. As such they were prone to famines. Notable famines had occurred in the 1680s, the 1690s, the 1740s, the 1750s and the 1780s.
The potato had been introduced as a new crop as part of the agricultural improvements in the highlands from the 1750s. The yield that could be obtained from farming potatoes was four times what could be expected from oats [Sinclair, 1814, p 437], and it quickly became an essential element of the highland economy.
A severe outbreak of potato blight struck the highlands in 1846, a year after the better known Irish Potato Famine. It was estimated that three-quarters of the population of the Highlands and the Hebrides had nothing at all to eat by the end of the year. This famine was to last until 1850.
Unlike in Ireland the year before, relief for those suffering the effects of the Highland Potato Famine was forthcoming. However, despite huge humanitarian efforts, often including support from the landlords themselves, thousands of people suffered and died during those years. For the landlords, their revenues from the land were drastically reduced while their expenses increased.
Many landlords went bankrupt, while many more sold their estates. It was becoming clear to many that the traditional methods of farming the highlands - even with the improvements introduced by the agrarian revolution - were no longer tenable.
As mentioned above, much of the power, prestige and status of the Highland Chiefs had been measured in the number of men who owed them allegiance. People were considered to be an asset. The government of the day shared this view, since the highlands were a fertile source of recruitment for the British Army and Royal Navy. Highland soldiers and seamen had played a prominent role in the Seven Years War (1756 – 63), during the American Revolution (1765 - 1783), and the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815).
As a result, landowners and the government made various attempts to discourage emigration. These began in the 1750s and culminated in the clauses in the Passenger Vessels Act of 1803 intended to limit the ability of people to emigrate [Devine, 2011, p 91].
Attitudes changed dramatically in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, and especially after the 1846 potato famine. Surplus population began to be thought of as a liability. Another link in the bond between the clan chief and his people was being broken.
From the mid 18th-century, the highland landed gentry began to socialise increasingly with landowners from the south. In an attempt to keep up with their richer southern neighbours, the highland landowners accrued huge levels of debt. J. M. Devine has described this in the following terms:
"The demise of Highland families in the period 1770 - 1850 suggests that, in financial terms, the class committed suicide"
A consequence of this debt was that landlords needed to raise funds quickly. Estates might be sold to clear the debt (completely breaking the link of the clan chief with his people), rents might be significantly increased, or the tenants might be replaced with sheep farmers who could afford to pay higher rents.
New breeds of sheep began to appear during the eighteenth century. The "Cheviot" appears to have evolved around the Anglo-Scottish borders, while the "Blackface" (now known as the "Scottish Blackface") came entirely from south of the Border [Ryder, 1968].
These new breeds began to be introduced to the highlands from about 1750. By the turn of the century they had reached the Great Glen. They were well suited to the conditions in the Scottish highlands, and the Napoleonic Wars meant that their wool could fetch a high price. Even land which had previously been found largely unsuitable for farming could support these new breeds. As Ryder observed:
"It has been said that the sheep happened to pay best owing to the high price of wool during the Napoleonic wars, and that any economic form of farming would have caused evictions. True as this may be, it ignores the fact that much of the land in question can support only sheep."
- Devine, T M: Clanship to Crofters' War: The social transformation of
the Scottish Highlands, Manchester University Press, 1994.
- Devine, T M: To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland's Global Diaspora,
1750–2010, Penguin, 2011
- Hunter, James: Last of the Free: A History of the Highlands and
Islands of Scotland, Random House, 2011
- Johnson, Samuel: A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland,
- MacKenzie, Alexander: The History of the Highland Clearances,
2nd Edition, Glasgow, 1914.
- Prebble, John: Culloden, Penguin, 1967.
- Prebble, John: Glencoe, Penguin, 1966.
- Prebble, John: The Highland Clearances, Penguin, 1963.
- Ryder, M.L: Sheep and the Clearances in the Scottish Highlands: a
Biologist's View, in The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 16,
No. 2 (1968), pp. 155-158
- Sinclair, Sir John: General Report of the Agricultural State, and
Political Circumstances, of Scotland, Drawn Up for the Consideration
of the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement, Vol. 2,