Transcript for HoS 88

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

Last time, then we launched out onto the history of the Highland clearances, and I think we got quite a long way. Not far enough maybe but it’s an important subject, and we did our duty by selecting the better of our feet to place forward. We talked about the importance of communal land ownership, Douthchas, to Gaelic clan society. But we talked about how that was gradually undermined, from as long ago as the Daunting of the Isles in 1493. We talked about the new commercialism that undermined it, the search for cash by Gaelic chiefs, and philosophy of Improvement that swept over Western Europe which seemed to offer a solution to the problems of a rising population, pressure on resources, and a demand by the elite for more glitter.

We talked about how all those things started to be implemented with the Duke of Argyll in the 1720s, and took off in the 1750s after the death of Jacobitism. We talked about the weapon that would cut the throat of Gaeldom – the sheep; the system supposed to replace it – Crofting was employed on a mass scale. I’d explained two reasons why Crofting ticked the landowners box. It provided a workforce for the new industries of fishing, whisky production and kelp farming. It was a way of using the labour force to bring plots of wasteland, moorland, into productivity by using the traditional method of lazybeds. So you know, everyone’s a winner.  Well some are more winners than others to be honest, but whatever. We’ll come to the people that paid the price today. It won’t surprise you to learn it’s not the landowners.

So we left it with the tantalizing idea that there was a third reason – that it allowed gaelic chiefs to start harvesting men – which sounds grotesque – What did I mean by that?

Well, you may remember that we have spoken about the recruitment of highland regiments, starting with Pitt the Elder for the Seven Years war? It seems that this followed a German military dogma, which followed the Enlightenment habit of pigeon holing peoples – you know, like primitive or civilised. Well this German dogma, said mountain people were good at fighting. And the ‘45 and Culloden seemed to have underlined that.  So raising kilted Highland regiments was popular for the government, and also became a very popular way for Jacobites to rehabilitate themselves with the Hanoverian government. You might remember that the young Simon Fraser raised such a regiment and went off to fight the American rebels. I have presented this largely as a positive story, that rehabilitated the Highlands within Britain, made them an object of pride rather than held in the fear generated by the ’45. And all that is true, I’m not going to change my story. But there is a darker side.

One reason recruitment was so successful in the highlands is at least in part due to the survival of old clan loyalties. I mean by the time of the French wars, the clan system had all the vitality of the Dodo in any meaningful practical sense, but in the hearts of the clansmen it lived on. The same approach was tried in the Borders, and without the shadow of the clan system they struggled to recruit enough men.

For the landlord it worked rather nicely. Everyone began to get very excited about this clan thing, ironically at the very time it was being torched; so the favoured approach was for raising regiments was keep clans together. So for the clan chief raising a regiment from the clan was a nice little earner. Either them one of their family, got themselves a nice commission in the army and a career, and also forged some useful connections with government, which itself could generate other valuable offices. So, Mackenzie of Seaforth, for example, who was still crippled with debt, landed himself the job of Lord Lieutenant of Ross through the connections he had forged. Plus, and he then became Governor of the slave colony of Barbados by 1800.

But the benefits were more direct and immediate. they earned a recruitment bounty per head, and this was substantial – ‘More fruitful than the soil’ as one said. Harvesting men, as Tom Devine calls it. So successful were the chiefs in raising regiments, that by the time of the French Wars maybe 45,000 men were under arms in Highland units – compared to a resident population of maybe 250,000. That is an extraordinary number. 1/6th of the total population. By ‘eck.[1]

It was also linked to the crofting system. Because a Croft was often a very nice way for the chief to reward service and help recruitment. So a new recruit might be promised a croft when they returned. Or a family might be given a croft in return for the recruitment of one of their sons. This adds an extravagantly emotional twist to the clearance stories. Because  when any of the clanship obligations were breached by the Landlord, for thee clansmen, it  it was as though a blood bond had been abused, a family member morally sacrificed. Also, so many soldiers were recruited in this way, that the availability of crofts were unable to cope. So chiefs cut them up into smaller and smaller units, making crofts yet more unable to support a family.

So going back to that Passenger Vessels Act of 1803, and the effort to prevent people from leaving. as you can see, all of these plans were based on one of the Highland’s core characteristics – lots of biddable, cheap labour, tied in as they were to the worship of the clan chief and loyalties, while those principles were increasingly abandoned by their chiefs. As far as the chiefs were concerned, if all those people left for a better life the whole system would crash and burn. And let us make no mistake – put all this together and this was a fantastic time to be a Highland landlord in a financial sense. One of the people instrumental in getting the Passenger Vessels Act passed was indeed a Highland chief, descendant of the man who had saved the Bonnie Prince from an early bath, an MP in 1803, the Lord Macdonald of Clanranald. His factor wrote to him

‘If emigration from Uist took place to a great extent, it would prove most hurtful to the interest of Clanranald as . . . the kelp would remain unmanufactured from which Clanranald at present draws his principal revenue.’[2]

Meanwhile, the families were beginning to cotton on, beginning to understood that this relationship was being exploited. Their poets had told them what to do

Depart now, my lads, to a country without want . . . to the country of milk, to the country of honey, to a country where you may buy land to your will.[3]

And yet even in that they were being denied. They knew that at bottom the economic deprivation that forced them into taking up a croft, or military service, was often caused directly by the actions of landlords. It is a very onion of outrage.






But, despite these sentiments, one of the stories of the clearances generally is a strange absence of revolt from the people concerned. There’s little record as in English stories of landlordism of the Commotions Time, or the enclosure riot or the Midlands revolt, or the Levellers. More directly relevant, there’s no sign of the land wars of Ireland, which is long and frequently violent, from local protests to outright rebellion in 1798 and the United Irishmen. There is by and large even little record of the kind of low level passive resistance; or if it is, it is so low level that it ever reaches the records.

But we should not underestimate the level of outrage about the fundamental abuse of traditions and the moral economy, and for those whose way of life was being destroyed. But one of the things, and the most tragic thing of all, in a way, was that this thing was being forced on them by their own leaders. In Ireland, the landlords were viewed very clearly as viciously exploitative aliens, outsiders; revolt was always more straightforward. But here that simply wasn’t the case. Everything was more confused, especially in the idiom of the deep respect in which leaders were held.

Nonetheless, the historian James Hunter has been very active in digging out evidence of protest or resistance. I will give you one example, from 1792, when Hector Munro rented out the land around the township of Kildermorie, in the Easteross area to two graziers – the Brothers Cameron. Oh – I should have said, no one lived in Kildermorie anymore, because Munro had moved them out to Crofts. In nearby Strathrusdale, the traditional practice of keeping cattle was still the way of life but the new tenant sheep farmers in kildermorie made it almost impossible for the cattle to be driven between their winter and summer pastures. the Camerons added to the general fury by impounding any cattle they found. More than that, the locals could see the writing on the wall. That these new, massive sheep walks were clearly the future. The grandees of the area had for years been raising rents anyway and so the MacKenzies, the Munros and the Ross were heartily disliked.

So the folk of Strathrusdale decided a statement must be made to defend their futures. Messages went too and fro, plans were laid, plots cooked, people whispered in ears at markets, at the kirk and gatherings and all that sort of thing. There was a plan.

On 31st July 1792, then, news came in. Hundreds of men had sprung up on the same day as if by magic in locations all around Strathrusdale. They had rounded up all the sheep they could find, and driven them southwards. On the way they met their colleagues, and hundreds of sheep  become thousands, and thousands became 10,000. 10,000 sheep, being driven southwards, off the hills and away from the land which did not want them.

Well the landlords, Munro, MacKenzie and Ross, met in Dingwall and gently panicked as you do, and demanded action, claiming hysterically that these were rebels, rising up against the authority of the state. The local military commander, Lord Adam Gordon was not inclined to hysteria. He wrote to Ministers that this had nothing to do with rebellion; but was instead to be laid at the landlords’ door, and

‘solely originated in a too well founded apprehension that a growing number of landlords were about to let their estates to sheep-farmers’.

None the less, Henry Dundas in London was more than happy to focus on the hysteria. By 8th August the troops had arrived and the Strathrusdale sheep drive was over.

1792 entered Gaelic tradition as bliadhna nan caoraich, the year of the sheep. There are almost certainly many other smaller events which never hit the history books, and are difficult to uncover. James Hunter also talks about such events from the perspective of a sheep farmer, Thomas Gillespie – who in 1796 lost 140 sheep to silent, clandestine protest, despite often sleeping in the open with his animals, just as the bible says you should. But of large scale, widespread protest there is none.





I had said that the clearances were very much a regional story, and before we get to the event that will lead directly to a group of Swedes winning the Eurovision song contest, despite the trousers they were wearing, let us just digress into another couple of examples. I said that things were different in south and East Highlands; though not necessarily easier as we have heard from Easteross. In parts of the southern Highlands, displacement was still high with the arrival of sheep and also large scale cattle ranching. But here government, landlord and market development of fisheries had made some progress to provide viable alternatives, such as the fishing industry in southern Argyllshire, and along the lochs of the Clyde estuary. So emigration to Crofts was less all pervasive, and emigration to Lowland towns was heavy to the new jobs in industry. The impact of that can been seen in population for the area which is much lower – because instead bpeople had left for opportunities elsewhere.

There’s a different story also in the Shetlands, but which has a link to the same spirit of Landlordism. There in the 18th century, the landlords who dominated the islands devised a different system to increase their income through their domination of the haaf, open sea fishing, which seems to share traditions all the way back to viking times.

The idea was this. In order that to compete commercially with the Dutch fishermen, whose busses dominated the trade from the 16th century, a low cost, highly organised alternative was needed. And so landlords made boats called fourterns and sixerns available to Shetlanders. These are open, undecked craft, designed to fish for Ling, by hook and line; the larger of the ships, the sixerns could go further out to sea, maybe 30 or 40 miles into the Atlantic which is something I plan never to do in an open undecked craft, of on account of being a midlands softie, and valuing my life. The ultra generous landlords would not only provide these luxury vessels, they would also provide a small croft at low rent. Wow. Sign me up.

Not. The system was deeply coercive. So, the amount of land attached to the croft was again insufficient for the purpose of maintaining a family, so it forced the locals to fish, which was the point. Also on the Shetlands villagers they had but one source of food – which was owned by, you guessed it, the landlords. Also do not think the sailors could go on to the open market to sell their catch for the highest price – they were forced to sell to the landlords who might admit to not giving the most generous price – or might admit to it if you happened to catch them on their own down a dark alley with 20 of your most burly mates. Trying to branch out to some other trade was impossibly high risk – there was little around, and if you tried to get out, your tenancy could be cancelled.

Coercion and exploitation then was embedded in the system. The same technique was used in the highlands and islands with kelping, and the government helped. Landlords made an application that all the produce of the coastline should belong to the landowner; and the government made it so. Therefore your kelper once more controlled nothing of the means of production; all was controlled by the landlord.

We need to leaven the bread just a little bit. It is clear that in many cases landlords were caught in a trap between rising costs of existence, the philosophy of improvements that surrounded them, and crippling debts. And they did worry about their responsibilities, and could claim they were providing alternative employment and crofts. Some went further. The Duke of Buccleuch ordered his factor to maintain and report on a list of all families on his estate to make sure they remained adequately housed through all the improvements.  MacKenzie of Seaforth received multiple offers from sheep farmers, to double or even triple his rents. But he tried hard to take a middle line.

I was so anxious to keep together the people I looked on as hereditarily attached to my family that in spite of all wishes and better advice I refused to deal at all with the sheep farmers

The results for Mackenzie though were not pretty; parcel after parcel of land had to be sold to keep is head above water. By 1862 it was almost all gone.

So there we go, landlords have some defence; the world was changing around them, the highlands were deeply connected to the world outside and change was coming like it or not. They were dealing with an increase in population not of their making. They faced their own pressures in debt and costs and competition. Most were motivated as much by a desire to improve the lot of their poverty-striken inhabitants as to increase their income. But even in the very kindest light, they took the most enormous and arrogant risk with the lives of the people in their charge. Even in its best light, all this change was based on a world where the market for products such as kelp was buoyant and the price high. Should that change there was no plan B.




This brings me, kicking and screaming, to the Sutherland estates. I have avoided it because it is always used as the example of the clearances, but in many ways it is not very typical. It was an enormous project; and was funded by the enormous wealth of the Duke of Sutherland. But I would not be doing my duty if you could not go from this place and at very least know what all the fuss was about, so let me tell you the story of Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, and Patrick Sellar, a man more unpopular in Scotland even than Margaret Thatcher or Boris Johnson. Or even will Carling. Yup, I know. Difficult to believe. Incroyable mais vrais.

Elizabeth Sutherland was the only child and heir of William Earl of Sutherland; he had married into wealth in the form of slave plantations in Jamaica, but nonetheless when he and his wife Mary died in 1766, he left his one year old daughter with a mountain of debt. When she was 20 Elizabeth married well, a chap called George Leveson-Gower, described as ‘the richest man who ever died”, who therefore became the Earl of Sutherland, and would become the Duke of Sutherland just before his death, and have a statue called the wee mannie constructed of him apparently by his grateful tenant, which is still standing despite the best efforts of many.

However, George does not seem to have been much connected to the management of the Sutherland estates; in fact he handed them over to his wife’s management. The British PM George Canning, shortest serving until Liz Truss came along with her world beating performance, thought her the best thing ever; most others thought her rather opiniated and over bearing. I imagine having a million acres in what was at the time the largest landed property in private ownership in all Europe – would do that to you. Not me though – give me a million acres and I promise to be as good as gold.

Elizabeth spent her time between Edinburgh and London essentially, and set to it with a will, introducing massive changes on the estate between 1807 and 1821. I shall summarise, but essentially Sutherland employed two factors from Edinburgh to do the necessary, Patrick Sellar and William Young. Young generally seems to get a pass for some reason but I suspect all three held all the finest qualities of the enlightenment, because they certainly held the towering and absolute belief in the inevitable triumph of improvement. Though Sellar’s view of Gaeldom reflects a much longer tradition as a barbaric race of ignorant savages.

The plan was to transform income from these million acres in the far north of Scotland, by the creation of truly humongous sheep farms, to be worked by graziers from lowland Scotland and Northern England. By the close, 8,000 people would have been turfed out from the fertile straths they and their forebears had inhabited for generations. It was the most comprehensive of clearances which obliterated vast numbers of townships. There was a mix of reasons why people left their land – rent racking increases, emigration, military service; in many places the richer tenants are retained, and townships survive, if smaller that they had been; or are turned into nucleated villages. In one survey we’ll look at, about 25% of people were outright evicted.

In Sutherland, it’s the intensity of what happens that is part of the horror. I have mentioned the 8,000 people, I should mention the brutal thoroughness with which evictions were completed. House were burned to make sure no one ever returned; 48 townships were deleted this way in one parish alone. There was quite frequently resistance, despite what I just said a few minutes ago. In 1813, there were riots in the Strath of Kildonan, resulting in a six week stand-off. The Army were called in and that ended it. Eric Richards records the words of a visitor to the area in 1826

All was silence and desolation. Blackened and roofless huts, still enveloped in smoke; articles of furniture cast away as of no value to the homeless; and a few domestic fowls scraping for food among hills of ashes: [these] were the only objects that told us of man. A few days had sufficed to change a countryside, teeming with the cheeriest sounds of rural life, into a desert.

The Sutherland clearances are news now, they were also news at the time. There was a healthy degree of public fury. This confused Sutherland and Sellar, I mean genuinely. They were after all using George’s money to invest to create a better future for the people. They would not be expelled from Scotland, no one wanted that, they would simply be relocated, and given new, brighter better opportunities than those antiquated hovels and life they had followed. At one point Sutherland, confused at all the criticism, asked a neighbour what he had done – and received the answer that he’d just turfed people out without providing alternatives; and so by that standard Sutherland’s view that she was behaving impeccably was reinforced.

After all, they paid John Rennie to build an entirely new village on the coast at Helmsdale with an excellent harbour. Just so happens that there was no kelp, but no matter the people could fish for herring instead. Go on then go get, nothing to it, what are you waiting for. They invested in fish curing facilities, and planned brick works. Everyne would all be rehoused in crofts. Ok, so those crofts were the wildly inhospitable windswept coast with barely 3 acres of thin stony ground rather than an inland, fertile and sheltered strath, but look they had industry to help too.

Sellar for one was thoroughly impressed with his mistresses plans and wrote

the proprietors humanely ordered this arrangement, because it surely was a most benevolent action to put those barbarous hordes into a position where they could better associate together, apply to industry, educate their children and advance in civilisation

Most of the Sutherland clearances came to end by 1821. Elizabeth lived to 1839, her son would inherit and transform into a monstrosity that which is the family seat of Dunrobbin castle. Before all that though, the anger had caught up with Patrick Sellar, accused of murder through one of his more vicious evictions. As it happens he was acquitted, but remains guilty in the court of popular memory.





We now need to get to Phase Three. You might recall that a few minutes ago I gently chided the landlords of Scotland for their arrogance in playing God with the lives of their people, on the assumption that economic growth was eternal and improvement a sure fire winner.

Well, in 1815 Napoleon was defeated and we won the war, and promised to love him for evermore. Which brings me ponderously back to abba and waterloo. With the end of the Napoleonic War, as always seems to happen, came economic downturn. All those soldiers were demobbed and sent home – including many of the Highland regiments. All those government contracts for buttons and guns were cancelled, and the government started worrying about debt. William Cobbett had dared anyone to agitate a man on a full stomach – well now there were rumbling tumbilies all over the shop and there was much agitation; this is the time of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and the Radicals war in Scotland in 1820. But more importantly for the dispossessed of the Highlands, world trade was opened up, all those blockades were lifted. As far as kelp was concerned, Alternative and cheaper Alkaline products like Spanish Barilla became available. For a while the government kept tariffs high, to try and protect local industry, but by 1822 the doctrine of Free Trade was Queen, and the needs of the manufacturing and associated proletariat paramount. The price of kelp fell from £22 to £5.

It was an economic disaster. Some had actually seen it coming; the 5th Duke of Argyll had written to his factor furious at the policies he had followed on Tiree; quite why he hadn’t stopped him I do not know, but the bollocking he delivered was remarkably prescient.

In place of recovering the rent from the natural products of the island.. you have…taught them to trust the payment of their rents to the price of kelp …whenever a market for an article like that fails I am getting nothing for my land

I mean obviously his perspective is not for the health of his people but for the health of his wallet but at least he saw the dangers. Unlike his son who was a waster, who spent his time partying with the Prince Regent ruinously subdivided the plots on his estates and is thought to have personally reduced the Argyl fortune by £2m, which is today a cool £95m. Which is the sort of party you need to be at.

The loss of kelp hit the highlands like a hammer blow. Maybe it needn’t have done so; if the proceeds of all those good years had been ploughed back into the economy, maybe a middle class could have developed, some diversification been achieved that would have given the economy some resilience in the hard times. But no, all the profits had been creamed off and invested in fripperies – grand houses, nice tapestries and silk knickers.

It was worse than that; the middle classes that might have risked new business ventures, the tacksmen, had been systematically expunged from society. In addition the structure landlords had constructed purposefully ensured that the people who had at least previously grown enough to sustain themselves, if only just, now had holdings that by design could not sustain them, making them dependant on oats and grain from outside. Fpr which they personally had no money.

Now you might expect the floodgates to be opened and emigration to begin. Well for a while it doesn’t. Some noble families do crash and burn, with the income they’d relied on slashed, other ancient families sell up. But those landlords that remain often actually show some sign of a sense of responsibility. Rent arrears sky rocket; which is basically the landlords absorbing their tenants losses. And landlords buy in grain to tide people over the hardest times. Meanwhile wherever possible the people themselves get on their bikes and migrate to find seasonal work. So although emigration does increase, nothing like what you would expect.

The other reason is man’s best friend. I speak of course of the potato. The reason that the crofting experiment had worked at all owes a lot to the potato…so let us talk of one of most important gifts one World gave the other. The first reference to the tater in Scotland comes from the Hebrides in 1695. From 1750 it began to gain ground, and by 1800 no one would leave home without one – metaphorically speaking. It is credited with saving many lives in the times of dearth, such as 1782-3.

The thing is that the potato grows most places, and while we like to head off somewhere warm and follow the sun and German towel stealers, your humble potato loves it cool and moist. Although pound for pound its calorific value was lower than grain, it had a much greater yield, and  you don’t need to do all that messing about to have it edible. Just add baked beans and you’re away. It did beautifully well on those crofters mean and hard won lazy beds. Without the potato, lord knows what would have happened when economic disaster hit in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. Phew.

But hang on; in 1836 to 7 nature fired a warning shot across British bows; there was a partial failure of the potato crop. Most of Victorian Britain was now famine proof, such a flexible economy, subsistence and famine was a distant nightmare. Worried by the failure, the London government sent an envoy to carry out some research; Victorians love reports and surveys more than life itself. Robert Graham reported back that the size of population was out of hand. There were far too many people who lived close to famine. Action was taken, immediate disaster averted in the Outer Hebrides and Lewis by government, landlord and charitable help; but the basic problem remained unsolved.

In 1845 the greatest disaster in the British Kingdoms started in Ireland, with the great hunger, which would clam a million lives; the potato blight. A year later it came to the Highlands of Scotland, where the economic conditions of the Cottars and Crofters was similar to those in Ireland; the potato blight would stay for close to 10 years.

The situation was dire; but the hideous slaughter in Ireland was avoided by a combination of landlord and charitable relief; and indeed government relief, albeit the hideous Charles Trevelyan appears with his dangers of idleness tripe. And so a large scale disaster was averted in Scotland. The reason why it was so much better dealt with than Ireland is largely one of scale; at its height only a quarter of the Highlands were badly affected which put about 70,000 people at risk. The corresponding number in Ireland was 3 million. But another reason was a much better reaction by Landlords; and ironically that is partly because many of the landlords were no longer the traditional families of the Gaelic chiefs. Over three quarters of estates in the Highland zone had been acquired by outsiders by the 1840s driven by the large scale failure of the old families and the economic and kelp failure. There’s a poetic justice there. So for example James Matheson of Tai Pan and Opium fame had bought heavily in Lewis. These kind of Landlords may not have understood traditional Gaelic society, but they had money, and to be fair to them, they used it in a good cause for a while.




However, attitudes began to change in what became probably the nastiest part of the whole process, and particularly towards emigration.

After the 1803 act, emigration from the Highlands had not completely stopped, carrying on mainly to Canada, also some parts of the US and to Australia. But it was a bit haphazard. It might be wealthier people, the old tacksman class for example. Or individual landlord or philantropists might have a more enlightened view and support those that wished to leave.  One of the more famous examples is the work of the 5th Earl of Selkirk, who organised groups of emigrants to Prince Edward Island – which I didn’t think went well though, and again in 1812, to the Red River colony in Manitoba which by the looks of things was not straightforward by any means, but in the end I believe thrived.

Less high minded were actions like those of the McClean of Coll, who had bought Rum, and wanted the Crofters out of the way for sheep farming. So in 1826 he paid for most of their passage to Canada; an investment which apparently paid off within two years from the profits of sheep farming. Similar events like this happened during the 1820s and 1830s, on Arran, Islay, Mull, Skye, Harris and Lewis. But emigration was not the desire of landlords or encouraged by government.

After 3 years of highland famine relief in the wake of the potato famine, attitudes were changing, and has echoes of the nastiest attributes towards the Irish famine. Despite a lot of money spent on relief, they did not seem to be changing the fundamental problem of poverty. Nor did it help that the price of Black cattle had fallen too – and this was a major alternative source of Crofter income. The pressure towards sheep walks was even stronger.

People were horrified by the level of destitution and misery they encountered, and of course we are in a society now with the resources to investigate and a vibrant press to report. One of the people who had bought up estates was John Gordon, ‘the richest Commoner in Scotland’ as he was called. He had bought Barra and South Uist, and a minister Norman McLeod went to investigate on his behalf. A short snippet of the horrors he found was this:

I never witnessed such countenances: starvation on many faces; the children with their melancholy looks, big-looking knees, shrivelled legs, hollow eyes, swollen-like bellies; God help them, I never did witness such wretchedness.

But it’s also a period of the flourishing of the long held racial attitudes towards Gaeldom, now further reinforced by the rise of the theories of the racial superiority of lowland and Anglo Saxon races. The Scottish antiquarian John Pinkerton described Celtic peoples as aborigines – and that mirrors the language of Patrick Sellar. The same attitudes were all the rage in London and the British government; they fuelled a perception that famine relief was just reinforcing the supposed laziness of the inhabitants, an extraordinary concept particularly promoted by the landlord friendly paper, the Scotsman. And all of this went hand in hand with Victorian free market zealotry. It’s been pointed out that much of this has the feeling not of domestic politics, but the Colonial attitudes and policies towards indigenous people. Which brings us to the English civil servant Charles Trevelyan’s infamous quote

Next to allowing the people to die of hunger, the greatest evil that could happen would be their being habituated to depend upon public charity

All of this meant that the central relief Board gave warning that its support could not continue, and that relief would fall once more entirely on existing public support – which meant the Poor Law.

This put the wind right up places Landlords didn’t want to go. In 1845, the Scottish Poor Law had been changed. It had never included the responsibility to support the able bodied previously; and now it would be brought into line with the poor laws south of the border, and all would be eligible for local support. Many of the surviving older family Landlords, already looking at financial ruin realised this would push them over the edge. Over an edge many had already gone. One of the factors in what follows is that many estates were managed by boards of trustees for estates in administration. Their responsibility was to pay off creditors; and in many cases therefore their attitudes were even less driven by humanity.

All of this then resulted in the Emigration Advances Act of 1851, positively advancing emigration as the answer to the poverty and despair, providing loans at low interest to landlords. Trevelyan himself was involved in the Highland and Island Emigration Society which supported 5,000 to flee to Australia by 1856.

The Scotsman paper joined in with Trevelyan’s racist determination. The paper declared that the departure of the Gaels

is a relief to the rest of the population to be rid of this part.

One extraordinary additional twist to this, by the way, is that we are in the very heyday of Victorian Highlandism by this stage. Inspired by Walter Scott earlier in the century and the Prince Regent’s visit to Edinburgh, everyone was swathed in tartan and proclaiming their clan history. It’s deeply two brained; and our next episode will be on the fascinating subject which Eric Hobsbawn wrote about in his book, the Invention of Tradition. Something to look forward to.






Over the next ten years is where the majority of the forced expulsions and clearances happen. There is no attempt now to relocate on different parts of the estate. We know that over 10,000 Highlanders were funded to emigrate to Canada, plus the 5,000 to Australia. But this is clearly only a small part of the story, where records survive; and the bigger story is that nearly 77,000 left or were forced to leave.

The old tradition of Douthchas still lived on; there’s a letter from the people of Shiaba in Ross, threatened by eviction, to the Duke of Argyll. after pointing out they had paid all their rent, it concludes that if they are forced to move they

Trust that they will be accommodated with land on other parts of the estate

It was not to be; the eviction went ahead, some to Canada, some to Glasgow some to other parts of Ross.

Evictions were increasingly brutal and hard hearted; there are so many stories I could of course go on all day, but let me do one quote from Knoydart in the west highlands, which has seen its townships progressively reduced over the decades; the depopulation was completed in 1853. The Scotsman paper reported that the very last inhabitants had huddled together under the only remaining building, which was the Boathouse. The factors came and they dealt with that:

Fire was immediately applied to the roof, and the structure burned down. This completed the work of destruction, and eleven families were left absolutely without shelter

Comprehensive clearances went on in Uist and Benbecula, now owned by the aforementioned enormously rich John Gordon. An Englishman, John Coffin complained to him about the absence of relief and threatened to appeal to parliament. Gordon was bothered not one whit, and responded with large scale eviction, including a chartered fleet to transport 1,700 people from his Hebridean properties to Canada.

On the way, conditions for emigrants was often grim

‘The accommodation on board was very rough. The whole lower decks were cleared and two rows of sleeping berths were erected on each side of the ship . . . Into this den – for it could not be called anything else – were huddled some 200 or 300 men, women and children.’

When they got there of course also there was often no support from the home country; in John Gordon’s case he was asked to make a contribution to the Canadian communities at the other end. He refused.

The story of what greeted the Gaels when they arrived is another story which one day I really must tell, bit I think the time has come to close this. It needs a slightly more optimistic ending than all this misery, and also a summary. One day I will come back to tell that final stage of the story of lives in Canada, james hunter often does a good job.

By the 1860s most of the evictions were over. There appears to have been some economic recovery, though poverty and insecurity continued, and a pattern of comfortable years followed by years of distress became the norm. Meanwhile Victorian society was moving on; it would take a while to shift scientific racism, but attitudes to Landlordism were changing, and the tide of anti Landlordism rising. This is the time of the ‘Condition of England’ question, and a tide of social reform. This sea change also saw vitriolic condemnations of landlordism in the Scottish press by the likes of Hugh Miller and others.

Evictions did continue though, as landlords became more rigorous in preventing subdivision which had caused so many problems; so the poorer Cottar class almost disappeared from Crofting communities. Crofters were forbidden from dividing their inheritance, which again offended against deeply engrained social beliefs; and the utter power of landlords meant the rules were brutally applied. One tacksman on the MacLeod estate wrote that

If a son married in a man’s family, the father dared not give him shelter even for a night

And so tensions continued. On Skye in 1882 then came the protest known as the Battle of the Braes. The crofters there petitioned their Landowner, Lord MacDonald to return grazier rights to them; when the answer was ‘uummm…not not going to do that’ they withheld rent. In the spirit of not compromise, MacDonald then went for eviction, resulting in a crowd of 500 people preventing the sheriffs removing people, along with a running battle with 50 Glasgow policemen sent in.

Once upon a time that would have been it. But the Battle of the Baes sparked a movement with widespread acts of protest and insubordination across the Highlands – rent strikes, damage to fences, assaults on sheriff officers, killing of livestock. Land war was here at last, although it doesn’t do to talk it up; this is relatively low level when compared to an Irish context. But troops were even sent over the seas to Skye, although it seems the only violence they were faced with was the offer of oatcakes. The key was not necessarily this protest, but the political movement that grew up to support it, and the Highland Land Law Reform Association.

It bore fruit eventually in the form of the Royal commission under the Scottish peer Lord Napier, looking at the condition of the Crofters. The report published in 1884 was criticised from both ends – Landlords who saw the spirit of Communism in it, and reformers who thought it was weak. But the Crofters Holdings Act of 1886 guaranteed security of tenure, a land court to fix fair rents; crofts could not be sold by the crofter because they did not own it, but it could be bequeathed to a relative, and other stuff.

Obviously people wished for more, but the point has been made that the act breached the previously unassailable wall of Landlord rights. Crofts were now heritable and that made an enormous difference; the state had intervened on their behalf against the Landlord interest, and that was a massive change. Doesn’t happen often.

Now then, shall we have a brief, very brief summary? How would you feel about that? I mean you must be desperate to leave by now, it’s been an age. But let me first of all reflect that when you take the time to look at any area of history in detail, the black and white ness of even the most seemingly outrageous injustices often fades to colour, nuance and variety. I constantly remind myself that I don’t need to give itnto the one-eyed hysterical stuff, this is my podcast and I mean to be fair to everyone, oppressed and oppressor alike. So The common villains in this story have always been pure and simple, the Landlords – and of course my lot, but I promised not to mention us again three episodes ago.

What emerges is that there were events going on that no one could have controlled fully. There was a massive population increase; there is the uncomfortable truth that the Highlands were not blessed with the kind of advantages designed for the modern industrialised economy, and therefore alternative employment. We can romanticise the way of life of traditional highlanders, but there was desperate poverty. There was the bankruptcy faced by landlords – though some of that self-inflicted it must be said – and the lack of any long scale alternative to large scale pastoral farming by way of economic solutions.

There is then some variety of response from landlords at different times. Some showed a reluctance or even refusal to take up the offers of graziers; most planned a better future for their people somewhere else; and the initial response to the potato famines was pretty generous. So, you know, doesn’t do to be too mean.

But there’s no getting round it; we didn’t cover ourselves in glory. There was a focus on personal wealth, consumerism and status as an absolute non negotiable requirement, whatever the cost on peoples’ lives. The outrageous gamble taking on kelping and fishing, an outrageous gamble made with the highest of stakes, the reckless subdivision of estates. The constant inhumanity of eviction, the racial attitudes, both the old and enduring lowland one toward the Gael, to be joined then by the British. And the lack of investment; all the money made in the good times were spent, as one poet had it, spent on baubles.

So it’s difficult to be too generous, and of course the modern focus in quite right – the focus on the lives of the powerless and the balance of fairness must tip their way. In a way it is a timeless and common story; it is almost always the powerless that pay the price. and equally you couldn’t argue against there being something very specific in their suffering, given their history, and the offence not just against their persons, but their very culture by the people they looked up to as their traditional protectors.

Well that’s me done then, I hope it was OK do come onto the History of Scotland website or the facebook site and speak your mind, I have done my best. Next time, I come on to the second most extraordinary story in the entire history of Scotland – the most extraordinary of course being the disappearance of the Picts. Next time we are going to talk about the disappearance of the Lowlander and Eric Hobsbawn and Hugh Trevor Roper’s invention of tradition.

Oh and let me say though that if you are listening in real time, the next episodes will be in a brand spanking new series. I am finally doing that which ought to have been done, but which I had left undone; the history of Britain before the adventus saxonum. So, next time we can say hello to Bob – the Birth of Britain, covering years 800,000 BC to 410 AD . Roll up roll up, first come first served, devil take the hindmost.

Until that time gentle listeners, thank you so much for being members – I am eternally grateful. Good luck everyone, and have a great week.

[1] Devine, T: ‘The Scottish Clearances’, p254

[2] Hunter, James. Last of the Free (Kindle Locations 5140-5142). Mainstream Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[3] Hunter, James. Last of the Free (Kindle Locations 4496-4497). Mainstream Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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