When I asked my hairdresser if she’d been away on holiday, I received an unexpected reply. She said: “Have you ever heard of the Highland clearances?” and explained that she had never heard the phrase until her daughter studied the subject in school. “But I was fascinated,” she continued. “So in the holidays we took the caravan up to Sutherland. Helmsdale. Beautiful there.”
“Did you go on to that village perched right on the cliff edge? That place folk were cleared to? Badbea?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “You had to walk miles to get there.”
I wasn’t surprised the hairdresser hadn’t heard of the clearances. When she and I were at school Scottish history didn’t feature much. If we learned about such episodes it was by word of mouth and, for readers, the books by John Prebble, an English-Canadian author who wrote popular, if partisan works on Scottish history. Academic historians were avoiding the subject. Tom Devine credits Prebble’s The Highland Clearances (1963) as a “dramatic saga of betrayal, loss, tragedy and forced exile of the Highland clans”, but it is very light on academic research. Since the re-establishment of the Scottish parliament, with its stated interest in land reform, there has been a rise in serious scrutiny of land ownership, land use and history. Tom Devine is regarded as Scotland’s foremost historian; The Scottish Clearances is a major publication.
The clue is in the title. Devine’s central tenet is that clearance, in a particularly Scottish manner, was not only a Highland episode but one that occurred the length and breadth of the country, and created the land we know. His book tracks the wholesale removal of the indigenous peasant or “cottar” class before the northward drive of “the sheep frontier”. Prior to 1750 the vast majority of Scots had some small stake in the land. But by the early 18th century, landowners in the Borders were already planning the removal of their poorest subsistence tenants to create large sheep holdings, so beginning an Enlightenment-approved, landlord-driven march of “improvement” and profit, which reached its apotheosis on the vast northern estates of the Duchess of Sutherland.
Meticulously, Devine explores the various ways these clearances were conducted, and, especially, the different fates of Highlanders and Lowlanders, as the “frontier” pushed north. There are surprises. Devine writes that in its “scale and ambition Sutherland was the most extraordinary example of social engineering in 19th-century Britain”. In Assynt in the far north-west alone, 48 townships were cleared. But much less well known is the evidence which suggests that even in the south, in the Lammermuirs, between 1800 and 1825, 54 settlements were abandoned.
In numerical terms, more people were dispossessed in the south than in the north. Further, contrary to popular belief, many Highlanders actually managed to retain some land in the form of crofts, but “total landlessness became the lived experience of the vast majority of people in the rural Lowlands”. Again, contrary to myth, Highland emigration reached its height after, not during, the clearances. Landlords did not at first throw people on to ships, they still needed wage-labourers and servants after all.
Of the landowning class, some were utopian. Some, like the old Highland clan chieftains, had bankrupted themselves trying to match the swank of their southern peers, and had sold up to tycoons who had no familial links to the tenants. Some thought themselves enlightened, some were just plain greedy for quick profits. “Stubbornly conservative” in their politics but “revolutionaries” economically, they went all out for sheep, consolidating small farms into huge sheep-walks, removing tenants and their dependents so their few fields could be turned into low-level grazing, until the countryside was strewn with ruined dwellings. A quarter to a third of the population was dispossessed, an entire social class.
Devine teases out puzzles: why, for example, was protest not more widespread? After all, “the silence of the people should not be interpreted as the happy acceptance of a life-changing process”. These people were hardly meek; present-day Ulster Protestants are descended from migrating Lowland Scottish cottars. But in the south, only in Galloway can armed resistance be detected. There, where cattle rather than sheep replaced the people, the dispossessed formed groups of up to 2,000 who attacked the huge new ranches, pulling down the dykes built to contain the animals.
In the Lowlands, resistance was more muted because the fate of the evicted was very different to that of Highland families. In the Lowlands, poverty and destitution were not inevitable. The evicted could migrate internally and be absorbed into towns, some specially created. Employment was high, trades were in demand, mines and mills were opening. By the late 18th century the peasantry had become a proletariat.
The reason we associate clearance so firmly with the Highlands is because of the protests there, and the notorious acts of cruelty on the part of landowners. Because clearance began in earnest that bit later, it’s also slightly closer in time and memory.
In the far north, without towns or much industry, utter poverty and destitution was a common fate; in due course many did indeed emigrate. And in the Highlands especially there still exist the overgrown, poignant ruins; rickles of stones visible to all. My hairdresser went to visit lost settlements and cultivation beds, in now quiet Highland glens, with signposts and leaflets to guide her. Had she headed south to the Borders, she would have found modern farms, with no trace of the cottars at all.
Kathleen Jamie is a poet and co-author of “Who Built Scotland: A History of the Nation in Twenty-Five Buildings” (Historic Environment Scotland)
The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900
Allen Lane, 496pp, £25
This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain