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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

XI. The Highlands

74. The Highland Clearances, 1845

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1In Scottish historiography the terms “Highland Clearances” refer to the process by which between the end of the eighteenth century and the middle of the nineteenth century thousands of inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands were displaced and evicted from their lands to make way for agricultural improvement—mainly for grazing of sheep and deer.

2The Highland Clearances are one of the most emotive events in the history of Gaelic Scotland. One historian has written that “the clearances have been the subject of greater controversy and more myths than perhaps any other theme in Scottish history” (Donnachie, 2001, p. 65). Contemporary historians offer very different analyses of the events; some of them stress the economic dimension of the clearances and argue that they have to be seen in the wider context of capitalist modernization whereas others highlight the sufferings of the displaced population, some historians going as far as comparing the clearances to a genocide.

3The following article is taken from the Inverness Courier, the newspaper which was the faithful spokesman of the Highland landowners.

4“Scottish Poor—Rural Improvements”, The Inverness Courier, 20 August 1845.

But the object we have chiefly in view in the present paper, is the grossly misrepresented subject of Highland clearances, and the distress and injustice of which they are said to be the cause. […] The whole matter might be reduced in the form of a single question: – Is it desirable that the moral and physical condition of a people should enjoy the same chances of improvement as the rest of the civilised world; or should they, in spite of the general advance, be left in the same semi-barbarous state in which they slumbered for ages? If it is, how can it best be accomplished?

  • 3 Scottish word for ‘moor’.
  • 4 See text 64.

Now, what was the real condition of the greater part of the small tenants, cottars, and others, of the northern counties of Scotland—Ross-shire, Inverness-shire, Sutherland and others where these “clearances” have taken place some sixty years ago, or before the introduction of sheep farming? Located upon a bleak muir3 or hill-side, or amongst bogs of peat-moss and heather hags, or at best on the bank of a stream in some glen or ravine; but for the most part unsheltered from the blasts which in these mountainous regions sweep alike over muir and through hollow–their black bothies4, built of round stones mingled with heather turfs, were scarcely distinguishable from the waste on which it stood; or chiefly so from the smoke which, after filling every part from the interior, found an exit at last through the holes left or worn in the roof of divots. All inside was as dark as the peats which yielded the smoke, and covered everything with a black pitchy crust. There the blear-eyed inmates and half-naked children cowered over the embers, and consumed the scanty pittance of potatoes, or occasionally meal […] their cattle generally occupying their share of the same hovel, faring little better in the winter time; and the frequent failures of their miserable crops, from utter ignorance of the rules of husbandry, as well as from habitual ignorance, occasioning so complete a famine, that, had their landlord not sent succour in the shape of meal, their very existence would have terminated from want.

  • 5 A piece of cultivated land.

Thus, wretched in bodily circumstances their minds were no better off. Remote from one another as these clusters of huts were, and most of them more so of course from the parish schools, such as they were, few could avail themselves of that insufficient means of education, so that the children grew up as idle, indolent, and ignorant as their parents, to lead the same useless and comfortless lives. Their knowledge of agriculture confined to the rudest operations, and aided by instruments as rude—for scarce a plough was in use—was unequal to reduce to common tilth5 their common patches of water-logged land, where the scanty crop grew up among a wilderness of weeds often to be cut down by mildew and frost. No attempt was ever made at improvement, for they neither knew how to set about it nor could have gone to the smallest expense if they had; and the pittance demanded as rent, if paid at all, was raised from the sale of “the beast”, or the few sheep that pastured poorly on the waste around them. Such we affirm is a fair description of the condition of most of the Highland cottars as they existed at the period of the “clearances”, and as many do still where the new system has been but partially called into operation; and we would appeal to the great majority of Highland proprietors to say whether it is exaggerated. Nay, we could point to many samples of the sort, in spots by no means far removed from high improvement and cultivation. If this, then, is the case—and who can deny it–could such a state of things be too soon brought to a close; could a people in such a condition fail to be improved by a change?


3 Scottish word for ‘moor’.

4 See text 64.

5 A piece of cultivated land.

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