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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

VI. The Highlands

35. The Population of the Highlands, 1792

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1While attending college, Robert Heron (1764-1807) devoted some of his time to private teaching, as well as writing occasional essays for newspapers and magazines. In 1793 he went on a tour through the western parts of Scotland, and from notes taken on the road, he compiled a work in two volumes called A Journey through the Western Parts of Scotland. Robert Heron was also engaged by Sir John Sinclair to superintend the publication of The Statistical Account of Scotland.

2Robert Heron, Observations Made in a Journey through the Western Counties of Scotland in the Autumn of 1792 relating to the Scenery, Antiquities, Customs, Manners Population, Agriculture, Manufactures, Commerce, Political Conditions and Literature of these Parts, 2 vols., vol. 1, Perth: 1793, p. 248.

The prejudices of clanship have almost died away: Yet the Highlanders think it hard that a Highland Gentleman should let his lands to a stranger, in preference to one of themselves, even when tempted by the offer of higher rent. When excluded too from this, the only species of industry of which he is capable, a Highlandman has no other shift to follow, but to leave the country. He cannot prevail with himself to imitate in the management of his farm the practice of strangers. He cannot live upon it, if he manages it no better than formerly. There is no trade or manufacture to which the old farmer can turn himself. He leaves the place. And his friends who remain, complain, that the country is depopulated by the avarice of the landholders, and the intrusion of strangers.

By insensible degrees, however, the Highland farmers learn to imitate the practices of those strangers whom they see acquire opulence where they themselves can barely subsist. They find the same management which enriches strangers, succeed with themselves. The proprietors of the lands retain still so much of the old clanish spirit, that when a Highlander will pay the same rent for a farm as a Lowlander, the Highlander is always preferred. Nay at the expiration of a Lowlander’s lease, if the landlord can possibly find a Highlander to manage the farm upon the same principles, and pay nearly the same rent; the Lowlander is sure to be dismissed. So that, the lower Highlanders have little reason to complain of any unreasonable partiality in their landlords for stranger tenants. Nay, a farmer from the Low Country is apt, not without cause, to think himself extremely ill used, when, after having taught the Highlanders the art of enriching themselves, he is immediately dismissed with contempt.

One ground of complaint, however, still remains. It is asserted that many fewer families are maintained upon those farms in the Highlands which have been turned into sheep-walks, than they afforded subsistence to, in their former more cultivated state. This idea has gone out through the whole kingdom: and I have met with many otherwise intelligent and enlightened men who were, in this view, unfriendly to such a mode of improving the Highlands.

Yet none surely but superficial thinkers, can sit down in the belief, that any species of management which renders a country more productive, can be, in the whole, injurious to it.

It may have been hastily alledged, but has never been proved, or even coolly asserted, that the population of the whole island is diminished with the population of the Highlands of Scotland. The contrary is the true fact. Our population has increased in other parts of the kingdom, in a much larger proportion than that in which it may be pretended to have here declined. The nation has been, as it were, contracting its relaxed forces, with an energetic effort, into the centre; from which it will soon expand them with new vigour. In places peculiarly favourable to trade, to manufacturers and agriculture, and enjoying, at the same time perhaps some accidental advantages, not reaching to these regions,–population has rapidly increased within the present century. The prosperity of those places, will, by degrees, raise the price of labour and of provisions, and diminish their industry, and impair their healthiness,–so as to give such parts of the kingdom which are now, in some sort, deserted and neglected, comparative advantages that will attract to them no scanty share of the population and opulence which they must till then want–Thus have population, wealth, and industry been always spread, gradually over every country. Berwickshire was the first seat of improved agriculture in Scotland: Had not the tillage and crops of Berwickshire been eagerly adopted in several of the other more improveable counties in Scotland, it might have by degrees attracted as great a crowd of the husbandmen of Scotland, as it could well contain. The silk-manufacture originally established in Spittalfields, came at length to be tried also at Paisley, Halifax, and other places through Britain. The cotton-manufacture came from England to Scotland; and from those manufacturing towns in Scotland, in which it was first tried, is fast finding its way over the whole country. Only introduce trade and industry into a country: cherish them where they have first fixed themselves, without adding to the natural disadvantages of other places: They will, by degrees, diffuse themselves, more or less, over the country. Nor will their progress leave them less energy in their primary feats. The richest districts of a kingdom will ever attract population, to the disadvantage of the rest: But the heaped up fluid soon returns to its level.

Meanwhile, it is unreasonable to complain of the present depopulation of the Highlands of Scotland. It is much more inconsiderable than has been said. Those who are induced to leave the Highlands, find employment elsewhere, without being obliged to forsake their country. By those modes of managing the lands, which are complained of as depopulating, maintenance is obtained from them for a much greater number of mankind, than they could before maintain. And, all this maintenance is either consumed within the kingdom, or at least exchanged for commodities equally necessary, which are consumed within it. The natural course of human affairs, and the exertions of individuals, and of associated bodies, directed to this particular purpose will shortly be seen to restore to the Highlands, that population which they may seem to have lost.

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