Transcript for HoS 86

Hello Gracious and honourable members again, and welcome to the History of Scotland, episode…

So, in an extraordinary period of Scottish history, we come to the change that will have most impact on the lives of ordinary Scots, over the next three episodes. Last week we talked about how industrial change and liftoff came to Scotland after 1760, along with an increasingly deep integration into the new Britain, and while there was the misery of conditions in urban growth, there was a positive background of gently rising incomes, and greater personal opportunities for individuals.

Now I’m afraid we get to an especially conflicted side of all of change, under the dreaded word Improvement, with a capital I. That clever historian once, and their question ‘who pays the price?’ and that’s what we are moving onto now. The price is, of course paid by ordinary people, the relatively powerless, in the lowland countryside and much, much more famously, the Highlands, and what have become known as the Clearances – a term not used by contemporaries, but was part of the mounting fury from the late nineteenth century.

So today I am going to cover two main topics. Firstly I am going to talk about the historiography of rural change in Scotland. Essentially that will largely mean the big and emotive topic of the Highland clearances, and some remarks also about how the focus on that, has led some to feel that Scottish history has been skewed.

Then I’ll talk about a few current trends and questions in the study of rural change and highland history; and then the last half of the episode we’ll spend talking about rural change in the lowlands, in the 18th and early 19th century.


Over the next three episodes then there’ll be a lot of talk about highland clearances, a subject with a lot of baggage and popular myth. And before we get into it I must climb into my suit of St George armour, and slay one particular mythical dragon, which has been thrown at my head frequently in my life and I cannot help but find a bit annoying. This is the charge that the Highland Clearances were all the fault of the English. So let’s scotch that arf arf, right here and now. Because it simply ain’t so. Tom Devine, as an academic expert has also expressed his dismay at the myth that

Against all the evidence, that English landowners and sheep farmers were mainly responsible for the draconian acts of eviction

There may be many reasons for this, most of which I really don’t want to go in to, but I think the reason is that the Scottish ruling classes became part of a British and European class, adopt European wide Enlightenment ideas, including agricultural improvement; many Scottish landowners and peers buy houses in England, send some of their children to English schools and even English universities, and identify with being British as well as Scottish. In their minds however they remain very much Scottish and continue to be directly responsible for their Estates and people.

A good example is the Duke of Sutherland, and the most infamous Sutherland clearances. The Duke was English ergo the Clearances are the fault of the English. However, as it happens and against reasonable expectations as Professor Eric Richards relates it was the Countess who drove the clearances in Sutherland, the Countess who was a fair dinkum Scot.[1] I mean the Duke is not blameless, he knew full well what was going on and it was his money that enabled it. But they did not happen because an unthinking, unfeeling Englishman came into a position of power in Scotland in order to eradicate it’s culture.

Anyway, that’s it then, my protest against fake history, I won’t mention it again, but you may like to note my bias! Irrespective of blame, some of the stories we will hear about are genuinely hideous, and you’d need a heart of stone not to be moved.




Now it would be good to move on a respectful distance and talk about the Historiography generally of rural change in the 18th and 19th centuries. I use that phrase rather than clearances, because one of the issues here is the complete and utter dominance of Highland history in Scottish studies, popular history and academic history of this period. I mean it’s insane. I eased myself into the bath of my research by listening to the BeeB’s In Our Time, with the estimable Melvyn Brag, and his guests Murray Pittock, Marjory Harper and Tom Devine. There’s a reading list of about 25 books[2]. One of those is specifically about the lowland clearances, another one includes coverage. Pretty much 20 are about the Highlands with a couple of general ones. In that same podcast episode – it is excellent by the way – there’s a bit of a barney between Tom Devine, who makes this very complaint, and Murray Pittock who expresses the view that this is fair enough, because Scotland has a national sense of guilt towards a people so badly treated. That guilt has been a powerful force for good in many ways – I am full of admiration of the land reforms the SNP have brought in, the Crowthers made an enthusiastic donation to the community purchase of land on the Langholm estates from the Duke of Buccleuch, and at the moment can only dream of something similar for England. We haven’t even got as far as confirming ancient rights on Dartmoor in the face of the vicious landlordism of wealthy hedge fund managers still in existence there. I weep.

So that is part of the historiography; the extent to which Highlandism dominates Scottish society and historical study, and we’ll come to that with the lovely Walter Scott and Robbie and Tartan and philibegs and all of that in a future episode. Part of the problem this creates for someone like me is that I simply cannot even scratch the surface of all that has been written of the Highland clearances, and the different perspectives. It means I am overly influenced by a few; Tom Devine is one, who is very lovely; a top drawer academic, openluy patriotic but thoroughly rigorous and even handed. James Hunter is another, a beautiful writer and historian, very different and a real activist for the highlands. Then I pick up others such as Alan McInnes as I go. And in dealing with the historiography, I am very dependent on an article written by one Professor Annie Tindley called ‘This will always be a problem in Highland history’.[3]

The historiography of the Highland Clearances needs to include fiction and faction as well as academic history really, more than pretty much any other topic I can think of, off the top of my head. The debate started pretty much contemporarily with some of the clearances especially the negative publicity around the Sutherlands’ estate reforms – which didn’t stop them erecting the vainglorious statue now called locally the Wee Mannie, which was erected by locals apparently in 1834 which is in itself interesting. By the 1870s, after the evictions were over, there was a furious debate about landlordism and Land rights which culminated in the Crofters Act of 1883, a first step in both British Government attitudes towards the Highlands, and towards maybe possibly perhaps clipping the terrifying power of the landlords in Britain. Alexander MacKenzie published his ‘History of the Highland Clearances’ in that same year, but then, largely, the field was left open to fiction and faction. Authors like Neil Gunn in the 1930s and 40s, mentioned by Martin of this parish recently and coincidentally, was particularly harrowing, Fionn MacColla, and there are just a load more – John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil in 1974. Basically the Clearances became a Scottish cultural and political phenomenon and still are.

The big one though was John Prebble’s Highland Clearances trilogy which started in 1963. He also wrote the article on which the film Zulu was based as it happens, so he certainly can’t be all bad. He was an English and Canadian Journalist and his books I think are the most popular ever on the subject – quarter of a million sales I think, and I suspect there is more than one person out there for whom Prebble is their one and only guide; apparently much read in North America. The fact that it is so popular must in some ways drive historians up the wall; because, hate it or loathe it, one beautifully written and moving fictional work like Prebble which creates mental images and emotional responses, will always be way more powerful than countless academic tomes and carefully researched papers.

I was thinking about this recently, because I read a debate about revisionism in Irish history, which I took to be about the introduction of the principles of academic history into 17th & 18th century Irish history – that sense of balance, distance and objectivity. That of course is an argument largely won in favour of the later in England and Scotland for the most part; but if I have understood correctly, less so in Ireland, since this paper said why? Creating that distance takes away from allowing professional historians from giving expression to events like the Great Hunger or English oppression in Ireland which are genuinely horrific, get in the way of hearing the voice and real experience of the oppressed and powerless. It was interesting I thought; and the extremity of some events at very least in the clearances must allow space for that.

And that’s what Prebble achieves; at the cost of research and historical accuracy though; Geoffrey Donaldson the eminent Scottish academic described Prebble’s books as utter rubbish; Tom Devine is rather kinder actually, recognising that while not based on original research, it played a role in making people aware and engaging them. Prebble’s explanation of what he was about is really rather compelling of its own account; here’s what he said

This is the story of how the Highlanders were deserted and then betrayed. It concerns itself with the people, how sheep were preferred to them, and how bayonet, truncheon and fire were used to drive them from their homes

It’s great writing, and I stand in awe – Prebble himself never called himself a historian, but a historical writer. He was motivated by much of the writing against landlordism in the late 19th century, and by the dark side of the impact of capitalism on ordinary people, as befits a once member of the British Communist party. It started a debate for land reform, which still goes on, and about which the SNP, as already related, has taken some action.

But there’s then really a bit of a desert in academic fields, despite Malcolm Gray in the 1950s, until Eric Richards in the 60s and his History of the Highland Clearances. Annie Tindley quotes Richards’ ‘Leviathan of Wealth’ in 1973 as her pick of the river of books. Her reasoning is that he places the changes into the mindset of those with power, at an extraordinary time – of a transforming industrial economy, railroads and communications, empire and world trade. When everything seemed to be changing, and anything seemed possible.





Writing on the Clearances then exploded, and came at a time when nationalism in Scotland began to gain electoral purchase, and then outright supremacy, so sometimes become very embroiled in that nationalist debate. But it’s also a thoroughly rich subject which yields so many lines of debate; and maybe it’s because the society and way of life in the Highlands is so different, which makes it so fascinating.

This has led then to one strand of concern; one professor wrote an exasperated article complaining there was ‘too much highland history’; R.H. Campbell argued that the plethora of writing on the Clearances and Highlands and Islands more generally was distorting modern Scottish historiography. Tom Devine seems to have been concerned with ensuring that the story of lowlanders is also heard, especially given that this is where the vast majority of Scots now live. And then Michael Fry in 2005 published Wild Scots, which landed him in really deep water. I read some very vitriolic articles about him – a Tory Candidate apparently – and he was branded a denier in the Scottish parliament, just like David Irving. A denier not of the holocaust, but a Clearance denier.

So there we are…we are in a world where highland history is still compelling and proving rich lines of enquiries. There are some themes in the recent writing and history about rural change, and I have done my best to highlight a few of those for your interest and possibly your delectations.

Devine in his recent book has been concerned to ensure that the economic drivers and motivations of Landlords are properly assessed, and understood, and understand the pressures they faced; there is a danger that Landlords are simply demonised. Beter obviously to understand – and then demonise…not really, not really. Devine’s  view, and a common argument, is that population growth was a massive issue, and was always going to present an issue for the Highlands.

James Hunter on the other hand believes that the Highlands was perfectly capable of absorbing population change and maintaining a vibrant economy; argues that it was the Clearances themselves that brought structural poverty to the area. He carries out practical work to try and bring population and prosperity back to the highlands.

Other academics such as Allan MacInnes have stressed the long term changes that underpinned change in the highlands – we have heard from McInnes in this podcast series actually, about the decline in clan warfare long before the 17th century, and the arrival of economic change and adaptation with the likes of the Black Cattle trade. Part of that work does something to reduce the exceptionalism of the Highland clearances. I was tempted to take that route myself in what follow – so for example I could quote Thomas More from 1519 writing about sheep eating people. But although the Clearances do indeed share many themes with economic change and enclosure across England, Ireland and indeed across Europe, they have an exceptional flavour all of their own; the clan expectations of dautchas in particular, and their betrayal by the very people they looked up to as their leaders. Exceptionalism is a good thing, most nations and histories have their exceptional flavour.

The question of resistance is a live issue in historical study. The problem is that the evidence is easy to find from the landlord’s side, much harder from the evicted and disposed; partly because Gaelic oral traditions are hard to recover. So historians are trying to do so, and to recover the stories of resistance that are often lost. Up to now it’s been thought that there was eerily little resistance to the clearances; James Hunter in particular, but also others, have done a lot to put flesh on the bone, because resistance was often clandestine, or passive and therefore hard to find. We’ll have a couple of examples of those as we go through.

Then there’s the diaspora from highlands and lowlands, another fascinating story, and one which hear about on Facebook from listeners, and more of that please. Some argue though, that this story has been skewed towards a traditional one all about emigration being a function of expulsion and victimhood. This has a few problems. Firstly it rather makes the people of the time card board cutouts; many, many of them drove their own destiny, and it’s important to understand why they made their decisions.  Many well off families left Scotland before the clearances to seek a better life; Many took a decision to leave not because it was forced on them they just did not like the cut of their clan chief’s jib and the way things were going, others left for reasons of poverty well before rural change reared it’s head  – emigration had been a factor of Scottish society since the year dot. It is not until the 1840s that landlords look to expel people from their estates completely, until then they broadly try to relocate them. Population did not peak in the highlands until 1841, and far more Gaels leave the highlands after removals came to an end after 1860 than left during the age of clearances themselves. So, as very often in history, don’t you find, the story is more nuanced than bearable sometimes. After all some people think it’s even possible to argue that Richard III wasn’t a villain.

And on the diaspora, the modern focus is now changing; reflecting that Highlanders often had a very powerful impact on indigenous peoples when they arrived, and indeed are involved in slavery and the slave trade.

And another couple of rich veins, are uncovering voices which have been hidden do far in the historical record; that’s unsurprisingly true of women, but also interestingly of the middling sort – tacksmen, church ministers, lesser lairds. So…there is without doubt life in the old dog of Highland history yet.


Ok, so that concludes the history of history, and hopefully I have built your interest to a veritable fever pitch, fever pitch I tell you, I think I can hear your eyes swivelling in your sockets. So, on with the actual history. As you may now one of the big stories, as John Prebble told the world, is that sheep were preferred to people in the Highland Clearances. So,  Let me read you a snippet of a poem then:

The lords and lairds may drive us from out mailings where we dwell

The poor man says: where shall we go?

The rich says: Go to Hell

These words they spoke in jests and mocks

That if they have their herds and flocks

They care not where to go

Yoi might think this sounds pretty typical of a highland sheep situation displacing people. But if that’s what you thought then ha ha! I have tricked you! This is from Galloway, in the lowland South West, in the early 18th century; and sadly I am now going to give you a swerve of the hips, and we are not going to talk about the Highlands any more this time; instead we are going to talk about the rural lowlands. I’m sure you’ll love it just as well. Maybe possibly perhaps. Or maybe not. Anyway, onwards.




To start, let me give you a couple of bits of context. Firstly – the Scottish Landowner. Let us say you were creating a hierarchy of the power of Landowners in Europe – not sure why, you were feeling bored or something – well you would put the Scottish landowner right at the tippy top. If you were pinning the country names in order on a snake, you’d be right up there by the fangs, the bity bit. We have talked about this before, and the extent of the power of Scottish landlords and magnates was remarkable, given the range of heritable rights they had possessed. It had taken a small hit under Cromwell, who’d been a bit horrified at its extent, and of course in 1746 the act of prescription had removed those antiquated feudal heritable rights of justice to boot. But in terms of landownership it remained immense. In the 11th century, there had been 1500 families who owned every inch of land. There had been much change; so by 1800, the number of landowners had grown to 7,500 – but that hides the really truth – which is that still 90% of the land was yet owned by just 1,500 families. Meanwhile, there’s consolidation going on – and the lesser smaller laird, the ones who often farmed their own land, the ‘bonnet laird’ as they had been called – they were disappearing. So 2% of the population owned 90% of the land. In England the corresponding figures was 12% in Sweden 20%. So even by contemporary standards magnate power in Scotland was remarkable[4].

The second bit of general context is the ‘I’ word – I speak of improvement. The Scottish Enlightenment, well the enlightenment generally, was a wonderful thing in many ways, but it wasn’t short of self confidence. And its adherents used their rationality and sense of enquiry to tell them that things needed to change in the way agriculture was carried out, and it must be done with logical and hard faced reason, not sentiment and wibbling..

I should introduce you to John Sinclair, born in Caithness in 1754, and an MP for 30 years, spending his life between London, Caithness and Edinburgh. His biographer Rosalind Mitchinson describes him thus:

He was a man of iron constitution and enormous energy, public spirit, and optimism; abstemious and conscientious, with wide interests in practical matters, he had a very limited sense of humour and a total lack of self-criticism[5]

A serious bloke. John Sinclair and many others like him believed that new farming techniques could transform the lives of ordinary people and the national wealth, that government should legislate and that rigorous enquiry and statistics would help support reform and inform the outcome of initiatives. He therefore produced his 21 volume Statistical Account of Scotland.

Sinclair and his fellow improvers were contemptuous of traditional farming methods; they saw them as archaic, wasteful and primitive. Improvement was needed, and rationalism lay behind their plans. No longer was nature and its rythmns accepted; it could be trained, altered improved; cultivation must be ordered and intensified to force nature to be better behaved, more productive.  They published, publicised debated and tweaked their ideas constantly. They directly advocated reform – not always successfully, as in 1796 when they proposed the government introduce a single bill to enclose all open farming.

What was the situation that the Improvers were working with? First of all it’s worth noting that Scotland remained highly dependent on agriculture; even by 1750 only 15% lived in towns; 2/3rds of the income of labouring classes were spent on food, and in the lowlands in 1700 most farmers were focussed on subsistence – food to feed the household, not for commercial markets and cash sale.

Right from the stat of our story, there is no sign in the lowlands of the king of clan-based society and expectations we’ll meet in the highlands; society was organised on landlord-tenant commercial relationships. Landowners were generally not involved in food production; there were a few owner farmers, particularly around fife, with small 100 acre farms – the so-called bonnet lairds we mentioned. Not sure what the rest wore on their heads, but they basically leased out their land – the lease was called a ‘tack’ in Scots, and commonly leases varied from 9 to 19 years. This is important – leases were therefore relatively short, none of this 3 lifetimes stuff you had south of the border. So it made changes relatively easy to make – if one set of tenants wasn’t producing the improvements and extra rents required, well, you could find one that would – we will hear soon of the ‘improving lease’ – a lease given with specific requirements on the new tenant.

There was little peasant ownership left, and little survival of customary rights – though there was a lot of land held broadly with rights of common; about 50% of land gave rights to holdings that stood on their edge. Tenancies were often very small. Even more interestingly the majority were multiple tenancies, more than half of them. So more than half were tenancies held by more than one family of husbandmen, which is very interesting.

Still the number Tenants made up a relatively small percentage of the population – maybe 12-30%. So you might expect there would be a large number landless wage labourers, but that wasn’t the case. The backbone of the rural population, from 40% to 60% in some places, was the family of the Cottar.

The cottar family was the mainstay of the traditional lowland economy.  They had a small amount of land, usually less than 5 acres. They held that land held from the tenant farmers or Landowners, and in return they owed a number of days service each year. Making ends meet was hard for the Cottar, so they might hold down a trade as well – ploughman, or smith, weaver or carpenter which would supplement their cash income. Some way of earning cash was important – because much of their pay from their farming boss was in kind.

The Cottar was so much part of the landscape, that Robbie wrote a poem about them, the Cottar’s Saturday Night.


I need not give you Robbie’s surname, I assume. Here is Davie, so that I don’t need to try an authentic Ayrshire accent:



November chill blaws loud wi angry sugh;

The short’ning winter-day is near a close;

The miry beasts retreating frae the pleugh;

The black’ning trains o craws to their repose:

The toil-worn Cotter frae his labor goes,

This night his weekly moil is at an end,

Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,

Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,

And weary, o’er the moor, his course does hameward bend.






The Cottar’s role was designed for a system which needed a readily available labour force at very specific intense periods of time, such as grain harvesting, fuel gathering. They were largely at the Landowner’s beck and call, but actually that small parcel of land, access to the common, rural craft skills – well, they were as poor as church mice but had a smidge of independence with it all. They could at least hold out for a better deal when the landlord came to call.

None of this was popular with the Improvers though. They sucked their teeth at the though of all that land held in little parcels, all split up. Terribly inflexible, no economies of scale, everyone doing their own thing. Dear oh Dear. And that common land they needed – well that was all going to waste, basically, Shocking. And there was no flexible land force – no tradition of landless wage labourers as there was in England. Seriously, even many servants had a small parcel of land. To make efficiencies, the new farmers would surely need a flexible workforce.

Cottars and the rural population lived overwhelmingly in ferm-touns, small settlements of little more than 20 households spread across the countryside. They organised agriculture communally, with great open fields held in raised strips, ‘rigs’ or ridges, with furrows for drainage between them. They organised their land into infield and outfield; infield was intensively cultivated and manured, producing crops year after year. Outfield had more pasture and much less cropping, and indeed manuring. The commonties, common land,  would support Cottars make a living. Farms used the old Scots plough, big things which required large teams and a lot of manpower to run and maintain.

And so life passed by as it had ever done. But things were changing. Markets were changing. There was a rising population and a mushrooming of small villages and towns with an commercial emphasis as the economy grew and urbanisation with it, and those guys needed feeding. Transport was being transformed, with toll roads but also general improvement on quality across all roads, so it was easier to move more produce faster and further. The demand for wool and cattle was growing in the lowland towns and northern England too. This was an increasingly commercial market, demanding an opportunity for landlords to exploit.

Meanwhile, landowners had other temptations that was making the palms of their hands itchy; this was increasingly a time of conspicuous consumption; more and grander houses were being bult by magnates and richer lairds, with elaborate furnishing. They were exposed to the expensive world of the British elite, and they liked what they saw. Plus there were new entrants into this competitive society as the Imperial context grew stronger. That meant office holders from the army or colonial service came home with a bit of cash to spend and a reputation to maintain, and they bought land. A prime example are the Mathesons of Jardine Matheson fame. If you have read James Clavell’s Noble House you will know the name and the type. They had the money to spend on improvements too, but far less emotional and historical connection with the land. All in all – landowners were more and more prepared to see their estates mainly as a resource to be exploited to the full rather than their traditional home operated by ways of ancient custom.[6]

So as the century advanced there was opportunity and incentive to demand more rent, bring more land into cultivation and make that land more productive. As a result -0 more money, more things, more happiness. Now in England it’s generally agreed that despite the likes of turnip Townsend, improvements had been and was being delivered by enterprising tenants and lesser gentry. In Scotland though, change would be driven by the major landowners. And change things they would, and they had plenty of Improving literature from the likes of John Sinclair to tell them how to do it. Their agent of change was the improving lease; quite specific and detailed leases for new tenants, defining exactly what must be done; all at a higher rent of course, since all those improvements would make the tenant so much richer. Hungry for higher rents and greater profit, if the terms of the leases were not fulfilled – and landowners frequently used the law to enforce them – tenants might well find themselves evicted.

Improvers had done their work, and a couple of favourite targets of the inefficient old order were those small tenancies and multiple tenancies. The farm under one master was the objective, and over the course of the century, multiple tenancies disappeared. Small farms were squished together too, to create larger farms. Both these changes squeezed out a significant proportion of the rural population – there were simply fewer tenancies to go around.

Furthermore, in some areas, particularly the Borders, large sheep walks began to take over; sheep of course demanded far fewer people to look after them. Cattle was the same, and was also increasingly popular. Both often had needs for overwintering in the valleys – lands that would normally have been used for arable. So, a lot of arable land was grassed over, population fell because there were fewer jobs, touns were even abandoned and dykes built on their ruins to manage livestock instead.

These changes, with their impact on the way of life, were hated. And Large sheep walks in particular caused early resistance – in the 1720s there were a series of riots, with several hundred men destroying the dykes and fences killing and driving off cattle. The Dragoons were called in to establish order with truncheon and fire.

The greater demand for sheep and cattle was one thing; but from 1760s change really accelerated, as improvers targeted greater intensification of agriculture. All this shared land and endeavour was horribly inefficient in their view, and true enough they had low crop yields to prove it. Enclosure was one  solution;  common land must be enclosed; farms must be larger and the infield outfield system abandoned. Much more of the land needed to be intensively cultivated, and this could be achieved by crop rotation on almost all land; the use of a new smaller plough was introduced, which saved the farmers costs and time, since it needed fewer people to manage. Although technology wasn’t a big thing in the 18th century for agriculture, the James Small plough had a significant impact in bringing more land under cultivation.

Enclosure therefore spread to support this intensification. Common land was brought into direct management of the landowner and brought into the rationalised rotation process. The law helped with the effective dispossession of the rights of local Cottars. It’s interesting that the legislation required to take away common rights had been passed through the Scottish parliament some time ago – back in 1695, the law anent land farmed run-rig it was called, so this is a process foreseen some time ago. By 1815 the process was very well advanced, by 1870 virtually all Scottish common land had been formally brought into private ownership.

These changes had a massive impact on society and working practices, and change fell hardest on the Cottars. The Cottars were absolutely in the way of all this improvement. Their patch of land was deeply inefficient and could yield much more if brought into the rotation system. Their livelihood depended on the common land, and that was going. Also they were no longer the kind of workforce the new tenant farmers needed. The farming year was expanding with greater variety of method and crop, the Cottar system delivered an intense work force for specific periods.

Also, the Cottar’s bit of land gave them some measure of independence from the demands of landowners and farmers; not a lot, but room to bargain and negotiate terms. Tenant farmers wanted landless labourers on contracts they could more easily control and redeploy according to need; and who they could employ on the terms they wanted since labourers didn’t have even the limited level of independence of Cottars. And of course, lay off as when they wanted so they didn’t have the cost of supporting them. Sweet.




We can therefore apply the word Clearance now in the lowlands; and it was the cottars who were cleared. A reporter in Lanarkshire commented in 1798

It is vain to say anything of the ancient cottages…for they may be said to be now no more

A Minister in Fife  referred to

The annihilation of little cottagers

Others spoke of cottages being systematically demolished and the stone used to construct walls.

Cottars were removed for other reasons too. They had always lived close to the poverty line, and they placed a constant demand on poor law costs; so if you got rid of them, evicted them, and moved them on out of the parish – their poor law costs would be moved elsewhere. Which for your landowner looking to maximise their profit and income makes sense – silly not to. Also, there was a rising worry about vagrancy, that was a worry. In some parishes the lists of the poor asking for relief were growing, as strangers came in attempting to gain possession of those old cottages. So it was important to get rid of the cottages completely they didn’t come sniffing around – several reports of the 1790s show therefore that Cottages were not just left to moulder – they were actively levelled and destroyed to stop squatters moving in[7].

Oddly enough, many of the stones appeared in new cottages around larger farm complexes – tied cottages. And their inhabitants often received a patch of land, or a garden, fuel privileges and the keep of a cow. Sounds a bit like Cottars just brought in to the farm complex, but the difference was that the patch of land was just that, a garden, not five acres. Also the inhabitants were full time workers, who could be hired and fired as needed. They didn’t have time for rural crafts or cultivating as much as five acres of their own. The level of subordination was critical – they were completely dependent. The Cottars had control of some independence, almost enough to live on, some cash from their craft. Agricultural labourers just had to do that they were told, especially at a time of rising population and therefore good availability of labour.

What the lowlands saw therefore, in summary, was this. Over time, from the 1720s and into the 19th century, commercial market opportunities grew – both for the breadth of products – grain, cattle sheep – price and location. Meanwhile there were pressures on landowners to raise their rents and increase their income. In some areas, such as the Borders it was sheep; in others such as Ayrshire it was cattle and dairying; in the South East it was arable. But to a degree the outcome was the same. The number of tenants was reduced – multiple tenancies removed, fewer, larger farms with a single master. Rents were increased and Improving leases imposed to force through change; and many landowners also invested heavily in improvements as well. Common land, outfields and Cottars’ acres were enclosed and farmed more intensively through crop rotation. Cottars were replaced by landless agricultural labourers.

The result was often heavy depopulation with the old cottars forced off the land; many old ferm touns essentially turned into large farms[8]. In the Lammermuir Hills, 48 ferm touns disappeared by 1750, and by 1825 a further 75 had gone. Despite the general background level of population growth, many rural parishes saw population fall.

There’s a process of consolidation of settlement therefore; from ferm touns disappeared with people moving to large farms, or alternatively some ferm touns disappeared while other grew, into proper large larger villages, where itinerant labourers and rural crafts families gathered – places like Lamington, Newton and Abington, where the ‘ton in the name reflects the old ferme toun. Sometime entirely new towns and villages start to appear, taking up the dispossessed and migrant population. It’s also likely that there’s an extensive movement from the lowlands to north America from the 1770s, and above all to England, whether permanently or temporarily. One parish minister wrote

10,000 journeymen, wrights, carpenters, bakers, gardeners and taylors go yearly to London

The period from 1750 to the early 19th century therefore saw the social and physical landscape of lowland Scotland transformed; there had been signs and pressures from the 1690s, but it exploded from 1750, dizzying in its speed. The term Agricultural revolution is much more suitable in Scotland than England, where agricultural evolution is more applicable – so similar to the industrial story really.

The last remaining question really is about resistance. So there was the Galloway thing in the 1720s; after that, given the furious pace and nature of change, you’d have thought there’d be rick burning, fence smashing, enclosure riots the full works. And yet there is tumbleweed. Almost nothing. Nor was the Scottish family, men and women, averse to making their views known; there are plenty of food riots, and just try and impose a dicey minister on them and see what you get in return! Lift up your skirts and run for the hills.

But rural social unrest against these fundamental and transformational changes? Not a sausage, not even the sizzle of a sausage, not even a vegan version. In other contexts, research has uncovered passive resistance, clandestine low level stuff – but apparently not even that. So why? is the question? Why?

One answer may lie in the availability of other opportunities. Despite the clearing of the land of Cottars and small tenants, there was general agricultural growth, and so jobs were available for landless labourers, and new classes will gradually emerge – we’ll talk of bothymen I think in the future, something to look forward to. It appears there is a general rise in real incomes; though still behind England, Scotland is moving towards becoming a high wage economy.

And finally, there is access to the new industrial market. This might involve moving to the big four cities, as part of the inward migration we spoke of last time. But equally it might be to these rural villages and towns springing up and growing, because much of the industrial revolution is still driven to the 1830s by rural crafts. And many Cottars already had a deal of skill in rural trades from their previous lives, and probably adapted to that relatively easily.

This gives me a link to the next episode as it ‘appens, when we go north to the Highlands. Because when we talk of the Highlands, it’s important to remember that there will be very strong regional differences between the North and West areas, and south and east Highlands. In the latter – there was, like the lowlands, the opportunity to move, or even commute for work in the new industries. In the former – that was much harder to do.

OK, so that’s it for this week. Next time we are off to the Highlands of Scotland, for the first of two episodes on the Highland clearances. I hope have enjoyed it, and will be back for more next time, Thank you, as ever, for being members, I am most grateful, and do let me know what you think, it is always nice to get comments.

Ok, that’s all for now, good luck everyone, and have a great week

[1] Philips, T: ‘Gower, George Granville Leveson-, first duke of Sutherland’; Richard, E: ‘Gower, Elizabeth Leveson’; ODNB


[3] Tindley, A: ‘This will always be a problem in Highland history: a review of the

historiography of the Highland Clearances’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 2021

[4] Devine, T ‘The Scottish Clearances’, p122

[5] Mitison, R: OPDNB John Sinclair.

[6] Lynch, M: ‘Scotland: A New History’, p368

[7] Devine, T: ‘The Scottish Nation, 1700-2000’, p149

[8] Devine, T ‘The Scottish Clearances’, p151

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