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The Clearances, an Introduction

The Highland Clearances

by Niamh Wood


The Highland Clearances were the forced evictions of residents of the Highlands and the Western Islands of Scotland, beginning in the mid to late 18th century and continuing intermittently into the mid-19th century. The evictions destroyed the traditional clan society and began a pattern of rural depopulation and emigration from Scotland.

By the early 18th century, people in the Lowlands of Scotland were primarily urbanized. They tended to be more aligned with England in terms of culture, language, and politics than with their fellow Scots in the Highlands. Those in the Highlands (which encompassed the northern half of Scotland, as well as the Western offshore Islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides and Arran and Bute) were living rurally and trying to survive on infertile land. Unlike the people in the Lowlands, their culture and language were predominately Scots Gaelic.

Before the clearances were put into place, people in the Highlands lived and worked in places called crofts. These were small areas of land where people would work as farmers. The Highlanders who lived here would keep animals like cows and sheep as well as planting and growing their food. Crofters in one area would often be members of the same clans. The clan was ruled by one family, and from that family a chief was drawn. This chief would be in charge and control of the land, and the whole clan would live together in agricultural townships that functioned like joint tenancy farms. Despite this, the highlanders did not own the land, instead, they rented it from landowners.

The clans slowly but surely began to deteriorate over the years. The deterioration started during the reign of James I. He believed the Highlanders were plotting against him so he would order the chiefs away from their clans to attend prolonged court visits so that they would not have the time to plot anything. That deterioration soon accelerated when in 1745, Charles Edward led the fifth Jacobite rebellion to reclaim the British throne. Charles won the support of the Scottish Highlanders to battle the English and the Scottish Lowlanders for the British crown. Charles and his troops were defeated during this battle, known as the Battle of Culloden, on April 16th, 1746. During the Battle, thousands of Highlanders were killed, leaving whole Highland clans destroyed and, those who remained in danger were forced to flee.

In the years following the Battle of Culloden, the British government cleared the way for outsiders to acquire much of the land in the Highlands. The landowners of the Highlands discovered that they could make more money by grazing sheep on the land than they could from the crofter’s rents. With this in mind, they decided to forcefully evict the remaining crofters out of their houses to use the land for these other purposes. This was to be known as The Highland Clearances.

The Highland Clearances began on June 13th, 1819. The clearances started on the Sutherland estates. George Granville Leveson Gower, later duke of Sutherland, was the catalyst for the evictions that were to take place. Families were given 30 minutes to remove all their belongings before having their cottages set on fire. This left the crofters with nowhere to live or grow food. During this time, some people starved or even froze to death. Many went to try and find a new place to live on the Scottish coast and tried jobs in fishing. Others would move into cities like Glasgow and work in factories. But many highlanders left Scotland completely and started a new life overseas. Many of the Scots emigrated to Canada, America, Australia, and New Zealand (which is why many people living in these countries today have Scottish ancestors who were crofters). Some of the Highlanders that emigrated settled on farms or found work on cattle ranches. However, some others had to work in construction, gold mining, or try to start a business to earn a living for themselves and provide for their family.

In 1883, The Napier Commission was established to investigate conditions of the crofters evicted. This was done in response to the growing sympathy for the demanding situations the crofters were left in. In the meantime, the Highland Land Law Reform Association (better known as the Land League) was established. Finally, in 1886, the possibility of future evictions was legally eliminated with Parliament’s passage of the Crofters Holdings Act, which was grounded on the so-called three Fs: fair rent, free sale (the right to become an owner-occupier), and fixity of tenure.

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