Transcript for HoS 87

Hello Gracious and honourable members again, and welcome to the History of Scotland, episode… If you are listening in real time then wow, it seems a long time since we’ve been in Scotland, over a month. So, welcome back!

Now, this is awkward. This is a subject on which the world has opinions, capital O, and I mean the world and her husband. It’s also rather painful, and so I feel the weight of history on my shoulders, so try not to shout at me – or not too loudly, anyway. It means you have two, long episodes ahead of you. I hope they will sparkle for you despite their length, and despite the subject matter, but I reflect it could easily have been so much longer.

In this first of these two episodes, I’m going to start off with some general points, then we are going to discuss the arrival of commercialisation into Highland society; what has become known as the long, slow death of clanship. We will then move on to the arrival of the chief villain in this story – the humble sheep, and the clearing of the straths and glens to make way for large scale sheep walks. We’ll finish by reflecting that despite the clearing of many inland parishes, landlords did not want to lose their best resource, which had always been the basis of their status and wealth – their people. And we’ll start to talk also about a new social and economic system – Crofting.

So; the Highland clearances then. Let’s start with a few general points.

Firstly, it might help to point out that the story has phases. Let’s think of the first phase as running up to the 1710s when the Duke of Arygll starts doing something innovative on his Campbell estates. The Second phase shall run from there for about 100 years until the 1820s.  In this phase relationships change dramatically and whole communities are moved and cleared from their traditional livings and herded into a new system of Crofts and towns. There was some emigration, but most of it during this phase was driven by the people themselves, in the face of opposition from their chiefs. The third phase starts with the end of the Napoleonic war from 1815 and the subsequent economic squeeze, and accelerates in the 1840s with the potato famine. This is a period of enforced expulsion from Scotland and much emigration to North America. There is a fourth phase I think in the 1880s,when the Highlanders grant us a gift in their agony, a gift in at least some restriction on the supremacy of the Landlord. So, that’s the overview framework for you. I hope alles is clear, she jolly well ought to be.

Another point to consider is that there are regional differences; there are probably quite a few when you get into it, but are two dig ones; the experience in the south and east of the Highlands, compared with outcomes in the north and west. I mean it’s not that different, but in some ways 9n the South East it might be seen as more akin to the lowland clearances we talked about last time, in terms of access to alternative working opportunities.

Finally, we are considering something on which there is for me a chasm of understanding – between the modern world, and the mind and outlook of the 18th century and 19th century rural labourer. It is a world away from comfortable middle class me, and indeed peculiarly absent for most of modern Britain; only 1% of us work on the land now. Even by the 18th century, English rural society as opposed to Scottish, was highly capitalised with a basic structure of Landowner, farmer and landless labourer. Even in Europe, although as I write, Paris is surrounded by revolting French farmers, the CAP has been designed to commercialise agriculture. So now even in Spain only 5% work on the land.

My point is, it is tricky to recapture attitudes and world view of rural peasantry dependant on the land, and to therefore understand the Highland Clearances; but we need to try and capture a flavour of it. One snippet which might give an insight is one made by a French sociologist who makes the point that any peasant, every peasant was pathologically attached to land. And no peasant would ever willingly give up the smallest parcel of it. Another might be to describe something of the way Highland and clan society worked, so let’s give that a whirl.

Clanship in Scotland is said to have developed in the face of a breakdown in central authority from the early middle ages, and the creation of clans as a way of banding together; it is a tradition that survived longest in the Borders and Highlands, where central authority was weakest. The Clans were by definition then militaristic; and indeed in places created a parasitic military caste whose role was purely fighting. When war was not around locally, rather than picking up the plough, they travelled to Gaelic Ireland to carry on their trade. The kindred of the clan was critical to personal loyalties and survival, and loyalty to the chief almost a religion; a loyalty based on status and blood, not land. An that’s important, not based on land tenure. As one visitor put it

The ordinary Highlanders esteem it the most sublime degree of virtue to love their chief and pay him a blind obedience, although it be in opposition to the Government, the laws of the kingdom or even the laws of God.

Edward Burt, for ‘twas he, also noted of chiefs, prophetically, that

They hold the same authority when they have lost their estates

This was not a commercial, land based relationship of landlord and tenant. It was a personal bond based on lineage and perceived kinship.

Now I am in danger of making a pigs ear of this because I don’t have the space to do the subject justice, but there are some crucial things here. Outside of the Highlands and Borders, elsewhere in Scotland the perception was that the society was violent and lawless. And they are not entirely wrong. It was militaristic; lawless is the wrong word, there were rules but they were from a different perspective to that emerging in the lowlands, and the execution of the rules was heavily vested in the chiefs.

Second was the concept of land ownership; it was personal and kindred loyalty which mattered, it was not a feudal relationship of service in return for land. As far as land was concerned, the deep and firm belief was that all land belonged to the whole clan. The chief was the boss and organised who had what, but he had a responsibility to provide for all. The word that gets used is duthchas, which I am sure has layers to which I am not privy, but seems to combine an hereditary, family and personal belonging to, and right to, the land of the clan.

You might think about its practical relevance here through another famous phrase created by E P Thompson, who talked about the moral economy. It is a theme which come through powerfully in the English Tudor period of the Commotion times, or the Pilgrimage of Grace or countless enclosure riots. It’s the idea of how society should work, what was due. The idea that inequality is not a problem, we can live with that, that’s the way of the world, but that the leaders and the elite of society have a duty to protect those under them. It is the way the world works. The rightness of things, a natural justice. And when the unspoken rules are broken, everyone knows the rightness of things has been perverted. It’s more than just physical hardship or injustice. The extraordinary strength and durability among the Gaels of the idea of duthchas will make what follows doubly outraging and incomprehensible to the dispossessed. The story of the clearances in a sense is how the chiefs offend against that deeply held belief, against the moral economy of Highland society.





The chiefs did not see it that way, and one reason for that, and an origin of the long decline of clanship and the enabling of the clearances tends to be attributed to James Vith. But in a sense it lay even further back than that, with the last king to speak gaelic who was of course… anyone? For points and Gold stars? No? Can’t hear you, so James IV. If you remember waaaaayy back when, episode 35, 5 years ago James IV made one of those periodic incursions to try and enforce the authority of the crown in Edinburgh on the Highland clans, the Daunting of the Isles I think it was called, 1493. There are a few things about this. Firstly by then a tradition was emerging of a separation between lowland and Highland, if John of Fordun in the 14th century is to be believed.[1]

Secondly, in his determination to establish royal authority James IV firmly impressed on the Highland chiefs that they held their land from him, just as a lord did in the lowland. By a feudal contract. None of this ‘oh it’s owned by the whole clan’, douthchas stuff. It is entirely logical from James’ point of view, but it’s a contractual form at odds with the idea of communal ownership. But in Scottish law now, none of the individuals of the clan had any legal right to land, whatever they might believe their moral right to be.

At the time no one worried about it, it was all just a bit of theory, something entered into to make the King leave them alone, and successive Scottish kings either tried and failed to establish central authority, or just let them be. But it meant that the Chiefs held absolutely enormous power. The cultural, judicial and social bonds of allegiance from their people, life and death. Plus legal right to all the land. They were the runaway winners under both systems.  By the time of the clearances, in Scotland 2% of people owned 90% of the land, with no tradition of peasant land ownership. Elsewhere distribution was much higher – even in England 90% of the land was held by 12% of the population, and in Sweden it was as high as 20%. That has a direct impact on how what follows unfolds.

There is a common European thread to what happens here in the Clearances as it happens; population growth causes land reform in many parts of Europe – Denmark, Catalonia, France, Sweden, parts of Germany. Countries deal with it differently; there is fundamental reform in Denmark, but the state drives change and therefore mitigates some of the impact. In France peasant ownership remains very high. But in Britain, the landlord’s power is king. Between the 1760s and 1820s in particular the power of the landlord is rarely challenged anywhere in Britain, and the rights of private ownership rigidly supported by the writings of Adan Smith, Riccardo and Mill.  The state government is also dominated by landowners. And it is that which will in the end be decisive. Landlordism was a curse. Still is is to a large degree, but that’s another matter.

Clan society survived much later in the Highlands partially because they were a difficult place in which to make a living, largely because of the topography. I imagine you have an image in your head of high hills and mountains, with Straths and Glens cutting through them. By the way, I am told a ‘strath’ is a wide valley, a glen a narrow one. I hope I have done my homework correctly. The amount of land suitable for arable cultivation has been reckoned at 9%; so while there were areas of fertile land in the Kintyre peninsular, the Islands of Tiree and Islay, and the North East areas of Easter Ross and the Black Isle, they are relatively far and few between. Also in 1755 it was estimated that the tree cover was only 3% or so; so the standard fuel was peat, and building material stone.

All of this meant that people were constantly on the edge of lean years; and poverty is probably one reason why the Scottish crown had never really imposed its rule in the same way as it had in the lowlands; there wasn’t quite the economic prize to be won.

The organisation of the rural economy of the Highlands has many similarities to the Lowland one we talked about last time pre-enclosure; the same division of Infield and outfield, of arable land managed in strips, organised communally, or run rig. Critical to the system was the ability to make absolutely as much as possible of the small amount of arable land in the straths, while any livestock made use of the less fertile pasture higher up. Settlement was again organised around townships, or Baile, of between 4 and 20 families, mostly dispersed along the straths. Small Highland sheep breeds provided all the needs for spinning and weaving. Communities were held together by deep ties of kinship; indeed the word Clan itself comes from family, and there was a sort of agreed fiction of blood ties to the clan chief. Given all the takeovers and wars of imperialistic clans like the MacDonalds and the Campbells, it was just that, a fiction, but it was part of the shared fable.

The tradition of doutchas had a direct economic impact. Everyone felt a firm belief that everyone in the clan had a right to some land, and that land was essential to the existence of all. So landholdings were constantly subdivided – farmers with married children gave them all a plot. In a sense, land was managed not so much as to maximise the output of the agricultural economy, but to support a social structure; with the aim that all the clan shared in the land, and the clan was geared to provide men to the chief to help them make war and gain wealth by raiding.

The clan chief delegated the role of land allocation and management to his right hand men, his trustees – the tacksmen. That by the way is tack, tacksman, not tax, taxman as in revenue collector. The tacksman was the chief tenant, and a tack, T A C K, is a lease.


But really, the tacksman was the chief’s managing director. The tacksman would allocate land to sub tenants and arrange rent and collection. They would identify markets for products like cattle, and organise the annual droves. But also, it was the tacksman who made sure that when the chief’s call came, the clan could be mobilised for war. In recognition of the critical role of their tacksman, chiefs were wont to give him land on a peppercorn rent. It was not the value of the rent that really mattered to the chief traditionally speaking; it was the loyalty the tacksman could give to him, his ability to mobilise the clan. This was not a commercial relationship, so the word tenant is a bit misleading.





The Tacksman rented out lands to tenants, but those tenants, as per that imperative for everyone to hand have their own patch, split up their patch to sub tenants, all the way down to cottars and servants. Everything relied on intensive cultivation of the limited arable; one local technique was the lazy bed; raised ridges of soil, sandwiched with manure and seaweed for fertility, with deep furrows often metres high to drain away the water. It was massively labour intensive worked with wooden spade or foot plough so lord know whence the word lazy bed; but there was plenty of labour, it was fertile land that was the problem.  In addition to their access to their tiny square of arable, everyone must have access to less fertile common land for the goat or cow or sheep.

I think the scene is set therefore are you all happy you have a picture? A deeply communal, Kinship based society, organised on traditional common farming approaches, strong loyalty and personal allegiance to all-powerful chief with no restrictions on their power really; a society traditionally organised as much for war as anything. Into this community comes change.

One of the changes was about an increasingly commercialised economy, and one which was increasingly connected to, and dependent on, the lowland economy, and even the economy of England. By the latter half of the 17th century, Highland lords were increasingly making their resources sweat harder and yield more; there was slate to be mined in some areas, woodland to be cut in others. Many chiefs started to invest in business ventures, especially after Union opened up those opportunities. But far and away the most significant was the strong and growing demand from the lowlands for Highland black cattle. This trade ticked most boxes. It was a cash based trade, so it satisfied the Chiefs demanded for hard cash, and as a traditional part of the rural economy it was manageable within the existing social and economic structures. By the 1720s, something like 30,000 cattle were driven to the entrepots at the edge of the Highlands, towns like Perth and Crieff. There were some other consequences; the extent of grazing encroached on the time and land available for arable cultivation; and so communities began to rely on huge quantities of imported grain. It also meant that by the 1720s, large parts of the Highlands were already locked into the economy of the lowlands.

Another significant change lay in the population growth that came to all of Scotland after 1750. Population as a whole increased by two thirds in the 65 years between 1755 and 1820 – that incidentally is the retained population, excluding emigration. The population increase in the South and east Highlands was actually rather modest.  The population increase therefore was concentrated on the more isolated communities of the North and West Highlands and Islands. And that difference will keep on going. More stats now, ready? So between 1801 and 1841 the increase in the North and West  was about 53% – and that is a big big number. To give a more specific example, the island of Tiree supported 1,500 people in the 1740; and three times that in 1831, 4,500. In the western Islands the population increase was 80%. In south and East Highlands, the figure was just 7 percent.

This then is when we come to that regional difference thing; the most negative impacts of economic change in the Highlands would  concentrate on the north and west. South and east the lower population increase does not suggest that people were more inclined to have a quiet evening with a nice cup of coca rather than, you know, getting it on, rather it reflects the greater mobility of the population there, and the availability of alternative employment in the big cities of the central belt.

So that meant there was consolidation and growth of townships earlier, fewer people were clinging on to tiny, uneconomic plots of land. People were able to take up rural crafts to support the big Urban centres which were close by, and particularly it was easier to up sticks and move to areas of greater opportunity, such as Glasgow, Aberdeen or Dundee in particular. Some have also argued that the greater levels of literacy and better schooling in the south and east gave people wider opportunities. In 1826 the Church of Scotland did a survey. They estimated that 70% of folk from the western Highlands could not read and write, in the south highlands that fell to 30%.

This increase in population then. I have two Big and Important points to make, written in letters of fire in the hills, with angels and archangels and, if available, all the company of heaven singing them in.

Firstly, big and important point number one, until the 1830s at least the increasing population was seen as a very good thing by landlords. John MacDonald of Sleat said in 1763 that he could not help rejoicing

In the flourishing condition of the country when it overflows with people[2]

John Sinclair, the Champion of Improvement we heard about last week declared that productivity could be transformed

Without diminishing the numbers of people.

Though fair dos he’d changed his mind by the 1820s, but there’s a reason for that we’ll come to.

You might find this a little difficult to understand, because the general story of the clearances is, of course, clearance, people thrown off the land, the dispossessed. But initially at least that was very much not the intention; indeed the whole philosophy had always been and remained, that the greater the population the Higher your status; more people = more military power, more people = more wealth. So lords gloried at this growing population, they celebrated it, and even as they swept them from their traditional livelihood, they set them up in new situations, as we will hear. It’s not until the joint hammer blows of the post Napoleonic war recession and then the potato famine that this attitude changes. But I am getting ahead of myself, down boy.

The Other Big and Important Point, is that these often enormous increases were accompanied by galloping subdivision of land, increasingly titchy tiny plots and lazybeds. The pressure on limited resources was intense. In the view of some historians there is no way that the traditional way of life of Highlands could have absorbed this anyway. It was inevitably going to have to change. Others disagree; or at least disagree to the extent that depopulation occurs, the empty landscape you see now.

There’s something very poignant about that. I think usually when most people visit the Highlands, they celebrate the wilderness.  Some however view the highland not as a wild landscape, but as a derelict one, stripped of the people that once lived there. I have some more stats for you on that point – are you ready again? So sorry,

In 1801, the population of the highlands about 265,000; that grew to 300,000 in 1861, it’s now about 240,000. In 1801, 17% of Scots lived in the Highlands; now only 4% do. It’s not just that the population of the Highlands has actually fallen; but that now it’s population is such a small part of the whole. For many people, that is a situation that could have been avoided, and should be changed, with the right investment and land reform. But that is modern politics rather than history, so I’ll leave that where it is!






Change was coming then – increasing commercialisation, population growth. There was a cultural one as well, in the attitudes of the traditional leaders of society, the clan chiefs. So let’s talk about that.

James VI and I tried and failed to create one British state. But he did succeed in bringing the elites of both countries together. Often this is called the Anglicisation of the Scottish nobility; it might also be called Europeanisation. In the building of country homes designed for comfort and elegance, with rich furnishings in the very latest style, the highland elite were simply joining a trend marked all over Europe and Lowland Scotland since the 16th century and even earlier.

It did not go unnoticed by their people. Gaelic Bards were very very reluctant to criticise their chiefs, but their dismay does creep through on occasion

‘I would prefer you in a coat and plaid than in a cloak which fastens.’


‘He comes out of the shop with the latest fashion from France, and the fine clothes worn on his person yesterday, with no little satisfaction, are tossed into a corner.’[3]

James Hunter in his book Last of the Free, uses the example of Donald Cameron of Lochiel, one of the Bonnie Prince’s closest and most important supporters in the ‘45. He starts off his tale by delightfully relating the behaviour of Donald’s grandfather Ewen, who in the 1750s engaged in hand to hand combat with a Cromwellian officer, and won by biting through said Cromwellian’s throat, which probably wouldn’t have gone down a storm in an Edinburgh Assembly Room in the age of Enlightenment. Anyway, Hunter makes the point that 100 years later, his grandson may have fought for the Stuarts, but he was far more fluent in English than Gaelic, he lived not in a castle but a smartly appointed mansion house, and was deeply engaged in a range of commercial activities.

Highland chiefs had always been up for display as gaudy as possible, but the massive stone walled castles, and the feasts they threw had always been based on the economy of the Highlands, based as much on food renders as cash. These new demands for goodies and display of the latest fashions, required not only more wealth than they had imagined before, but also it was tricky to turn up at a fashionable Edinburgh tailor with a small herd of Black Cattle you’d driven from Lochaber to pay the bills. You needed hard cash, and therefore your tenants needed to pay their rent in hard cash, not in agricultural produce.

So three things to remember from this bit. Firstly, greater expenditure meant highland estates would just have to produce more income. Secondly more of that income would need to be in cash which meant commercial activity, and thirdly it anyway still wasn’t enough and the debt by the end of the 17th century, and indeed even earlier, was a crushing burden on pretty much every Highland chief. They faced ruin at every turn, and none of them wanted at that point to return to the old ways.

The impact of commercialisation even by 1700 was having an impact on Highland society. We have already seen that after the Stuart Restoration in 1660, the violence of clan society was decreasing, and largely restricted to the more lawless areas of Lochaber and young lordless cateran raids. And, it has to be said, the cynical use under Charles and James of clan militarism, using independent highland companies to enforce central authority, and the infamous Highland Host of 1678, unhelpfully reinforced negative lowland attitudes toward the Highland clans.

But more than that, chief were no longer interested in the imperialistic expansion of territories such as had been the historical occupations of the clans, such as the MacDonalds, Campbells, MacKenzies and others. The last major clan battle had been in 1688, and the clan chiefs were much more interested in exploiting commercial activities to increase their status and wealth than in war. Which does have its upside you’d have to say.

But it was still not sufficient to generate enough cash. With all this conspicuous expenditure the debts of the chiefs were rising ever higher, and if they could not maintain their grand lifestyle on the level of their lowland and English peers, they would be forever shamed. The attitude is carried on to almost kamikaze levels, and it doesn’t stop with the Clearances. In 1841 Duncan Campbell of Barcaldine was forced  to sell his 30,000 acre estate to pay off his debts. He’d been in trouble for some time, and yet just a few years before the guillotine fell he’d had a massive extension made to his Barcaldine House, an act described as one of financial suicide. From the chiefs’ point of view, something had to be done.





Possibly typically, it was the Campbells who started actively implementing solutions on a large scale. So from 1720 John Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, implemented a startlingly radical strategy, which I have already mentioned, but just to make sure you didn’t miss it. Archibald Campbell and his kinsman John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane, started to issue tenancies on the basis of who would offer them the highest rent – the highest bidder basically. Not on the loyalty of their tacksman. This did not only undercut the economic welfare of the tacksmen who had been used to a peppercorn rent; or undermine their role as sort of middle managers with a range of functions, economic and military. It completely bypassed them and deleted their roles, especially if they were not the ones to win the bidding war.

And coupled with this were the increasingly high rents the Campbells were demanding helped by this spirit of competition; between 1740 and 1760 rents in some areas of their domains rose 60%. At the same time they started putting rules in place to prevent the endless subdivision of tenancies.

Now this was mainly about the Campbells, and only a few other chiefs in the South and east Highlands followed suit. And by the time of the ’45 the ordinary clansmen were probably rarely affected by these changes, it was the tacksmen taking the hit. But the pressures were all there, all the same, throughout the Highlands. In the 1730s there were some already saying look, stuff this, there are more important things than loyalty to chief who appeared not to be sticking by the rules any more. So there are the first signs of emigration, small parties from Argyll, Sutherland and the central Highlands to Georgia and the Carolinas.

So the point most historians make now is that by the time of the ’45, all the factors were in place that would transform Highland society so dramatically. We have spoken at some length about the 45 and the harsh repression that followed it, and maybe it hastened the decline of clanship. And indeed maybe the terror of seeing the Jacobite army defeat the Government in Scotland and advance on London, hardened attitudes against Highlanders, who were disproportionately blamed.  But the general agreement is that what Samuel Johnsons saw in 1773 on his tour of the Western Isles, owed more to economic and social change than it did to Culloden and its aftermath. Here are those words, as a preface to the next stage of our story:

The clans retain now little of their original character. Their ferocity of temper is softened, their military ardour is extinguished, their dignity of independence is depressed, their contempt for government subdued and their reverence for their chiefs abated

The Historian W Speck wrote that the absence of another Jacobite rebellion after the 45

Owed more to a disinclination to rebel than to the Government’s repressive measures


So, now then, we come back to the ‘I’ word – improvements and Improvers. Their attitude to what they saw in the Highlands was not positive on a number of dimensions, as you can imagine. I remember doing a 2 part series for members on origins of Tourism – you might want to look it up, it was fun to write. Not sure it was fun to listen to, but you can tell me! Look it up, Shedcast 40a and 40b. Anyway, the point I made was that before the later 18th century and early 19th century the view of wilderness was not the one we have today, of the romantic beauty of wildness and nature. Nope. Back in the day when your life depended on it, everyone liked to see nicely manicured productive fields. Even Samuel Johnson  wrote of the ‘wide extent of hopeless sterility’ of the Highlands. Travellers and officials found the highlands wild, dangerous, scary, barbaric and depressing. It’s not until the arrival of Romanticism, with writers of the likes of William Gilpin and those fey and wind blown romantic poets types that attitudes began to change. And after, I suspect, nature had proved rather more tamed, and the constant threat of death from famine had been banished.

Improvers meanwhile found the agricultural practices of the Highlands incomprehensibly inefficient in the context of all the changes going on elsewhere and the increases of productivity being achieved. They were genuinely horrified at the poverty they saw in the Highland bailtean. And imbued with all of this philosophy, the landlords were also convinced that, like Tommy Lehrer’s old dope pedlar, they could do well by doing good; that by radical reform, they would improve the lot of their tenants and clan, they would improve their lives – as well as their own incomes. They would have been horrified at the accusations and general shade being thrown at them in this day and age. Which isn’t to say that the shade isn’t justly thrown, just that the road to hell often does have some paving stones laid with good intentions.

By the 1750s and 1760s there had been a significant amount of public and private investment infrastructure and the economy; towns like Inverness had been transformed, and new towns founded or developed. There are a load of them actually – Grantown-on-Spey to the south of Inverness; Bowmore or Port Charlotte on Islay; Tobermory on Mull; Ullapool in Wester Ross; Bonar Bridge and Lochinver in Sutherland; Thurso in Caithness. There were more effective roads in into the highlands to help enable trade; government development bodies sponsored the building of bridges, they and improving landlords would build harbours, villages and towns, even canals were proposed.  And there were opportunities now in addition to black cattle. The Highlands might have been lacking the biggest ingredients of the industrial revolution, coal and iron, but there was slate, whiskey, and the chemical products of kelp, which will be particularly important. Landlords saw no reason why the highlands should not profit from the new economy just like everywhere else. After all this was a period when anything seemed possible.



But the word I have studiously avoided, is the S word. Sheep. Last time we heard about the experience in the Borders, where the large scale sheep farming was introduced, and generated some of the strongest protest of the whole agricultural revolution in Scotland – the Leveller Revolt of the 1720s. But the demand driven by the urban markets in the lowlands and northern England for wool and mutton was too strong, and the introduction of new industrial scale sheep farming had continued. In the lowlands, sheep farming had competitors from other kinds of agricultural improvement – more intensive arable farming; but in the highlands, outside of places like easter Ross, sheep farming would be very much the dominant model of improvement.

The Borders’ experience had shown landlords that they could more than double their rent by moving to large scale sheep farming. Such a massive increase in income was impossible for most Landlords to resist; it was not just sheep farming by the way, large scale cattle ranching, was also implemented in parts of Argyll, Dumbartonshire and Perthshire, with the same huge gains in rental income. But sheep was the big one, and the sheep frontier gradually advanced northwards.

Now sheep had always been part of the Highland economy, but different, smaller, hardier breeds. The new breed from the Borders, were the Blackface and Cheviot breeds. They were much bigger – heavier carcase weight, and greater wool yields. They were however more delicate flowers than the hardy traditional breeds; they needed to come down from the hills when they were young and old, and during the winter. So, together with the scale of the new sheep walks, there was a direct and disastrous impact on the structure of traditional farming. The sheep competed for space with the cattle of the tenants; and more importantly they pushed tenants off the arable land in the straths. Furthermore of course, pastoral farming demanded a fraction of the labour when compared to the arable farming. And worse, this was not a farming method the clansmen and tacksmen knew how to manage; so sheep farmers and graziers often came from outside, from Lowland Scotland. They came knowing what could be achieved, offering Landlords lip smacking rivers of regular cash rent for massive sheep flocks, providing a full service, all the shepherds needed, who knew their trade.

Now we have been here before of course, in England. Here is Thomas Moore expressing his outrage back in 1519, through Utopia

Your sheep, that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I hear say, be become so great devourers, and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves.

The sheep walks and Cattle ranches were established on a massive scale which swept away the small existing farms. Sheep farming was much more efficient when practised on a large scale, and almost none of the locals had the capital or knowledge needed to set up for themselves and compete with the outsiders. In the 1770s, rather tragically, there were abortive attempts to do just that, with so called club farms organised by the peasantry – but generally landlords simply took the easy prize on offer, and at low risk to boot, offered by experienced professional graziers with money up front.

I said that the Highland story is one of regional differences, and at Easter Ross in the north east the picture is different in a few ways. In Easter Ross it was not sheep farming that disrupted traditional ways; Easter Ross was very unusual in having a slug of low lying, fertile land, perfect for arable. So improvement there was a lowland style enclosure process, the destruction of the old communal run rig organisation, the removal of small tenants and cottars for large farms, the removal of townships to be replaced by big farms and farmhouses.

The result though was very much the same; there was no room for the existing townships and small tenants so they were swept away. They had some choice probably as to what they did; as we will discuss, many landlords would do their very best to provide an alternative in one of the highland industries. Or some could simply take up work on the new farms as labourers; but to do that usually meant a fall in income and status, and would offend against that deeply held peasant desire for a patch of land of their own. Essentially they would become landless agricultural labourers, where once they had been small holding farmers. This was particularly hard for the tacksmen of course. These folks had been the backbone of Highland society, respected and looked up to as professionals, the chief’s right hand man. In this process they were completely bypassed by farmers from lowland Scotland who came along and stitched up a deal with the chief. It added humiliation to economic ruin. So the third option was to leave and seek pastures new – in the North Americas, and that would be what many did.

In 1773, the lad from Lichfield really did see with clear eyes. It’s remarkable really from an outsider. Here’s what he said

‘The Chiefs have already lost much of their influence; and they gradually degenerate from patriarchal rulers to rapacious landlords’

He was reflecting what the bolder of the Gaelic bards were also saying

Look around you and see the nobility without pity for poor folk, without kindness to friends; they are of the opinion that you do not belong to the soil and, though they have left you destitute, they cannot see it as a loss[4].

The way this happened varied a little, but was everywhere brutal, and everywhere the end result was the removal of many of the old townships from the landscapes. In the early years after the 1750s this might involve rent racking; landlords knew they could use new ways of cattle ranching or sheep farming to increase rents so they increased rents anyway. In Skye they trebled  between 1750 and 1775, trebled in 25 years; in Westeross it was a tenfold between 1777 and 1895.[5] For a few years maybe some of the tacksmen could cope with it; after all grain prices were rising, and more importantly cattle could command more money, justifying some of the increases imposed by Landlords. But when downturns came, the tacksmen and their tenants and their subtenants  were blown away, they had no reserves to fall on; this happened in 1772-3 and again 1784-5. But the biggest agent of change was the clearing of townships to make way for big farms servicing large scale sheep farming.

So, the story I have given you is that in the Western and Northern Highlands, none the less the population kept rising strongly; and that there, clan chiefs were thoroughly delighted at this. Also I have to tell you that landlords, with the help of the government, actively prevented people from emigrating. One of the more iniquitous things the Government did to help the Landlords, in addition to simply providing the forces of law and order to enforce eviction, was to pass the 1803 Passenger Vessels Act. Now On the face of it, this was a public spirited piece of legislation, making sure ships taking emigrants abroad were safe and properly maintained. But the balance of opinion of Historians is that the reality is very different; it was designed to hike transportation costs until they were out of the reach of ordinary people. So they could not leave.

There is some emigration then, but before 1815 it is not the flood it will become. So – what happened to them all, where did they all go?

Landlords were inspired by improvers to make the economy stronger and more diverse, and take part in the expansion going on elsewhere; and thereby meet two priorities – improve the lives of their people and increase their rental income. Not necessarily in that order. But definitely both, because although we are currently in an orgy of anti landlordism here on the History of Scotland shedcast, let it be noted that Landlords were not unaware of their past and culture, they were not entirely cold blooded. Many did very much recognise their obligations; and in the Crofting system they could kid themselves they were living up to those obligations by providing alternative employment, and squaring the circle. So let us talk about the Croft.


Improvers had been arguing that the sea was where the greatest wealth of the Highlands lay; in fishing and on the coast line. Fishing is quite self explanatory, so fine, but the other coast line resources, and the big idea was kelp manufacturing. I’ve always thought kelp is just a fancy word for seaweed, and it may be I suppose, but here, it is an alkaline chemical useful for a number of manufacturing processes, soap and glass manufacturing. It is made by burning seaweed, a lot of it. And to be fair, whoever thought of it in the 1720s was not an idiot, there is a lot of seaweed in the highlands and there was a big demand for kelp. Manufacturing kelp is a highly labour intensive process, but given that the European wars made the supply of competing substances difficult to get hold of and expensive, the price of kelp was as sky high as the demand.

It wasn’t easy or life-enhancing work it has to be said; the kelper would normally have to walk a few miles to get to the coastline, the best kelp grew underwater so there you were half naked in the freezing cold water cutting kelp. Then you’d drag it out of the sea to a roughly built kiln, burn it, and cart off the residue. And at the end of the day you’d drag yourself home.

And the place, more often than not, that you would go home to, was the Croft. I was looking on a website about Crofting when researching this, and I have been conscious that the Croft has become a unique and much loved institution of the Highlands. But it has a chequered history I might say because it was a central part of the clearances.

Crofts are small holdings – a house and a small patch of arable land attached. There had been crofts before, notably in the haaf system in the Orkney Islands which we might come to, but this is the first time it had been used as a system on the mainland, and the way it was deployed was new, seen by the agronomists as an innovation, part of this brave new world where anything was possible. An Improvement.

There were 3 reasons why landlords and improvers felt smug about the Croft. Firstly it was seen as a way making heath and moorland productive. Because the piece of land granted to the crofter newly alienated from their township was no lovely prime arable land, o dearie me no, it was rubbish land. The poor crofter was expected to work it hard with spade or foot plough, and create lazybeds, and turn wilderness into a small patch that flowed with milk and honey. At which point they might well be moved on to a new bit of derelict heath, and the improved land added to a larger patch of arable, which is an outrage all of its own. Secondly, the Croft it was a way of providing a tied and dependant workforce for some other pet landlord project designed to make them more money for fine things; whiskey production was one; fishing another, and kelping of course third. Because the croft provided was not only on rubbish land, it was specifically designed to be too small to maintain a family on its own. So, the Crofter would needs must go and take up a job in the Landlord’s favoured industry.

There we go then. The far from glorious start of the Croft. There was another reason for landlord smugness and Improvement; because this mass movement of population from inland straths to dependant Croft opens the door into yet another outrage; which has been called the harvesting of men. A supply of men for the war machine of the growing Empire.

But I think you have had sufficient outrage for one day, so I am going to break off then, and we will return to men harvesting next time. In the next episode then we will carry on with the story of the Highland Clearances. We will talk about the large scale of recruitment of highlanders for the British army; we will talk about the extent protest and resistance to the whole scale changes in highland life brought by the process of so called improvement, and also take a trip further north to the Orkneys and the iniquitous haaf system. We’ll look at some of the more egregious clearance projects – and no history would be complete without the Sutherland estate. Then things ramp up yet more; the twin disasters of economic downturn and the potato famine. And at last, though far too late, some response in the form of the Crofters act of 1886.

[1] McGregor, M: ‘Gaelic Barbarity and Scottish Identity in the Later Middle Ages’

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

[3] Hunter, James. Last of the Free (Kindle Locations 4098-4103). Mainstream Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[4] Hunter, James. Last of the Free (Kindle Locations 4492-4493). Mainstream Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[5] Devine, T: ‘The Scottish Nation’, p173

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