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    Scottish History: The Highland Clearances

    12 min read

    By Rhona Steel
    More by Rhona

    Life and Landscape Changed

    The Highland Clearances took place from about 1750 to 1860 and continue to arouse emotions in Scotland and its diaspora worldwide. People were moved from land that had been inhabited by generations before them, often with brute force, changing the way of life and landscape irrevocably. The episode influences politics and policy to this day.

    Straight To

    Why Did the Highland Clearances Happen?

    The first phase of the Highland Clearances started in the 1750s after the Battle of Culloden, the bloody finale of a series of rebellions. Lairds (landlords) who had been involved in the uprisings forfeited their estates, many of which were annexed and settled by soldiers to calm the locals.

    To further disempower Highlanders, laws removed their right to own arms and wear traditional clothing, like the kilt and plaid. The Scottish Enlightenment influenced public opinion, promoting ways to improve people and the land: in short, those who were unenlightened were deemed unreasonable and required either ‘improvement’ or removal.

    Agricultural Reform

    Like their lowland counterparts, landlords had become more interested in profits and their ‘tenants’ provided a workforce for industries like fishing, the military and kelping (extracting alkali from seaweed to make glass and soap).  Rental, previously paid in kind, was now preferred in money.

    Arable land and grazing were taken from tenants and consolidated into large farms, and lucrative sheep, adept at surviving on the poorest land, were brought in.

    Where people had lived in clachans or townships and farmed communally, they were now uprooted to the coast and each given land or ‘crofts’ for agriculture. These were inherently unviable, being too small and on poor-quality land. Crofters had to work in fishing or kelping to supplement their living and rent.

    At this stage of the Highland Clearances, the need for military personnel meant restrictions were put on migration. However, some people went overseas, and others made their own way to small urban centres like Inverness and Cromarty or south to the central belt around Edinburgh, Glasgow, or London.

    Sheep on the Isle of Skye

    Pre-Clearance Society

    Before the Highland Clearances, ownership of land was given through the ‘clan’ system.  The word comes from ‘claan’, meaning children in Gaelic, but a blood link was not a prerequisite. The system was established in the medieval period, with the clan chief providing protection and land in return for the rental of money, service, food, or military service.

    Due to the geography of the Highlands, with its high mountain passes and glens, it was difficult for the state to impose rule, so clans were self-governing.  By the 1740s, however, clan structure was collapsing.


    Integral to this clan system was the idea of ‘dùthchas,’ or protection within the boundaries of clan land. People trusted the clan chief: they paid rent and fought for him, and many would have lost loved ones in battle for him. To be dispossessed was an utter violation of trust.

    Who Was Behind the Highland Clearances?

    While landlords and managers were the enforcers of the clearances, they were driven by politics, economics and agricultural reform.

    Constitution of Creich

    Ahead of his time, George Dempster of Skibo was a politician and agriculturalist but did not see the Highlanders as inferior.  When he took on Skibo estate in 1786, people lived in wretched conditions, in houses made of turf.

    Landlords had been demanding payment in rent and kind, as well as insisting tenants hire the estate’s mill to grind their corn at elevated prices. This kept them in abject poverty as their only source of income was from spinning and seasonal farm work further south.

    Dempster released them from this service, convinced they could improve the land with the proper support. He set up the Constitution of Creich, which included fair rent and a lifelong lease. This encouraged inward settlement and improvement of poorer quality ground. His land management strategy came almost 100 years before Security of Tenure became law.

    Economic Instability, Forced Evictions and Brutality

    By 1815, towards the end of the Napoleonic wars, the clearances were escalating and entered a new phase. The kelp industry collapsed, inflation soared, and more profits were to be made from sheep than the income from the coastal communities.

    The Sutherland Estate

    Eventually, first-hand accounts of the atrocious way the evictions were carried out from across the Highlands and Islands were gathered in the Napier Commission of 1883. They tell of crops left unharvested, men and women being beaten, houses torched, the elderly and infirm
    being carried on backs.

    One of the most notorious accounts comes from the Sutherland estate, comprising over a million acres. Its auditor, James Loch was also an advocate of the Enlightenment and was instrumental in driving policy to reform the lives of ‘the ignorant and credulous people’. Patrick Sellar was hired as factor (land manager) to clear 15,000 tenants to give way to sheep. His methods were well documented: in 1814, he reportedly set fire to William Chisholm’s house, whose mother-in-law was still inside. She died three days later.

    By 1816, Sellar was before Inverness High Court, accused of arson, culpable homicide and oppression. However, in the political climate of the day, his acts were deemed humane, and he was acquitted by a jury of his peers. The commemorative statue of Sellar’s laird (landlord), the Duke of Sutherland, dominates the northeast coast and the town of Golspie and is seen by many as a symbol of political oppression and occasionally targeted in protest.

    Destitution and Famine

    The potato blight hit Scotland in 1846 and lasted well into the 1850s.  The Highland crofting communities were severely affected due to being heavily dependent on potatoes.

    In sharp contrast to Ireland, where people were mostly left destitute, the government, charities, and Scottish diaspora raised money to help the 200,000 Highlanders at the highest risk during this period, some estimates to be the equivalent of £17 million today.

    Perhaps due to the traditional obligation of ‘dùthchas’, many landlords stopped demanding rents and did what they could to feed the starving. Destitution roads and famine walls were built eight hours a day, six days a week, in return for oatmeal. The government also pressured less compliant landlords to help.

    However, assisted migration was also seen as a solution, and many were keen to leave, lured by promising reports from those already settled. Threats of the dire consequences of built-up rent arrears also spurred them on.

    Visit a Clearance Village

    Badbea Clearance Village

    Badbea Clearance Village

    Badbea, the now ruined clearance village in Sutherland from 1792, is worth a visit. Perched on exposed clifftops, it’s easy to imagine the displaced arriving and building their own houses and animal shelters from whatever stone they found.

    It is said that crofters used to tether their cattle and even young children to stop them from toppling over the edge. They worked nearby in coal mining and the herring industry until the 1890s, when it died out, heralding an end to the village.

    A First-hand Account

    Suishnish Clearance Village

    Suishnish Clearance Village

    On Skye, geologist Sir Archibald Geike was working in the area and was able to give a first-hand account of the eviction of Suisnish in 1852:

    “As I was returning from my ramble, a strange wailing sound reached my ears at intervals on the breeze from the west. On gaining the top of a hill on the south side of the valley, I could see a long and motley procession wending along the road that led from Suisnish. It halted at the point in the road opposite Kilbride, and there the lamentation became long and loud… Everyone was in tears; … and it seemed as if they could not tear themselves away. When they set off once more, a cry of grief went up to heaven; the long plaintive wail, like a funeral coronach, was resumed; and, after the last of the emigrants had disappeared behind the hill, the sound seemed to re-echo through the whole wide valley of Strath in one prolonged note of desolation.”

    Visit Suisnish with us on our Isle of Skye Walking Holiday.

    Where Did the Highlanders Go During the Clearances?

    To the South

    At the start of the Highland Clearances, it was thought that about one-third of Scotland’s population still lived in the Highlands and Islands, north of the boundary line that runs from Arran in the west to Stonehaven in the east. Despite outward migration, the population mostly continued to grow; however, in some areas like Ardnamurchan and Cape Wrath, there was a reported decrease in local populations by up to 40%. Meanwhile, the displaced labour force crowded into the south, powering Scotland’s growth during the Industrial Revolution, the fastest of any European country of similar size.


    The end of the wars saw a reduced need for a military force, and by the 1830s, people were being loaded onto ships at times forcefully but also coerced as economic migrants. It is thought that around 70,000 people migrated from Scotland, principally to Canada, North America, Australasia, and South America.

    Conditions were basic, people being crammed into bunks in the holds of cargo ships. There was a 20% death rate, often from smallpox, with burials held at sea. Ships sailed to Australasia, Canada and North America. These latter countries were not only closer, but a cultural link had been established by Scottish ‘tacksmen’ (sub-landlords and military organisers of the clan system) who had already migrated and set up systems more akin to familiar clan structures.

    A commemorative stone in Cromarty inscribed by words of local stonemason, writer and geologist Hugh Miller evokes the emotional departure of the ship, the Cleopatra, sailing to the Americas in 1831. It also lists the 39 ships that sailed from there in the 1830s and 40s.

    as she swept past
    the town of
    was greeted
    with the cheers
    by crowds of
    the inhabitants
    the emigrants
    the salute
    but mingled with
    the dash
    of the waves
    and the murmurs
    of the breeze
    their faint
    huzza seemed
    rather sounds
    of wailing
    than of a

    The Emigration Stone

    The Emigration Stone

    Highland Clearances Impact on Land Management

    Changing Public Opinion

    By the end of the Potato Famine in 1855, markets became more favourable, and life was more stable with clearances petering out.

    However, in 1880, there was an agricultural depression and storms. That year, the last mainland eviction took place at Leckmelm near Ullapool in the northwest. The industrialist landlord wanted to make improvements and cleared 100 people from his land, however, public opinion was against him.

    In 1882, the MacDonalds of Skye attempted to remove grazing land from crofters of the Braes near Portree, but they successfully resisted, and the Crofters War spread throughout the islands. The Napier Commission of 1883 was set up to record first-hand accounts of the Clearances and recommendations, including assisted passage for the poorer crofters.

    The report led to the Crofting Holding Act in 1886, which gave Security of Tenure, meaning evictions were now illegal. Nowadays, the Crofting Commission continues to be responsible for regulating and promoting crofting.

    A Changed Landscape

    Much of the Highlands and Islands land is rough grazing, with exceptions such as Islay. The grazing of cattle had already inhibited tree regeneration, but sheep were even more adept, being able to access most areas.

    The inhabitants of the glens had kept bracken in check as it had many uses, such as for bedding. However, prolonged overgrazing by sheep reduced heather and lack of management meant bracken was seen as a menace for the first time during the Highland Clearances.

    The landscape is recovering due to measures like afforestation and subsidies to manage grazing. However, bracken continues to cause issues. In many glens, you can still see the scattered ruins of cleared townships, still visible outside the forestry plantations.

    Longer Term?

    The terrible injustices of the Highland Clearances have been handed down through generations, and changes in demographics and agricultural practices evoke the memory.

    There is a continuing imbalance of land ownership; for example recent figures show about 430 people own 50% of rural land in Scotland. Many landlords are absent from their estates, and some are registered in tax havens. There is still a hierarchy of rules: while landlords can live anywhere in the world, crofters (on registered land) must live within 20 miles.

    The landscape of the Highlands and Islands attracts many incomers, and there is a buoyant market for holiday homes. Locals are priced out of the market, and many are forced to leave, taking crofting traditions and local knowledge with them.

    There have, however, been positive developments. In 1997, the community of the Isle of Eigg fundraised and was able to buy the island from a problematic landlord. In 2003, the government introduced the Land Reform Act, giving communities the right to purchase and Scotland a right of access, which is often praised as one of the best in the world.

    Highland Clearances Impact on Scottish Identity

    Some believe that if the Highland Clearances had not happened, people would have left anyway as the way life was so impoverished. What is left behind, however, is an overwhelming sense of cultural and personal loss.

    Impact on the Scottish Diaspora

    In some areas of mass migration, like Cape Breton, Gaelic culture is vibrant; indeed, some argue the dances and music that are still practised today have been preserved and are closer to the original styles that were suppressed in Scotland post-Culloden.

    An accurate figure is impossible, but estimates suggest some 30 to 40 million people worldwide claim Scottish roots, with ancestry tourism attracting around 800,000 visitors to Scotland each year. The descendants of migrants feel attached to Scotland and its culture, and perhaps the injustice of the Clearances has empowered the connection.

    Scottish Country dances and Burns suppers occur in many countries worldwide. In 1820, auditor to the Countess of Sutherland and proponent of the Clearances, James Loch, wrote:

    “The children of those who are removed from the hills will lose all recollection of the habits and customs of their fathers.”

    It is quite heartening to know how wrong he was.

    Emigration statue, Helmsdale

    Emigration statue, Helmsdale

    Immerse Yourself in Scotland's History With Us

    Meet the Author: Rhona Steel

    “Variety and people are big motivators for me, so I have worked in health care, education and most recently agriculture. In the 90s, I went to work in Europe but missed the diverse landscape and proximity to the sea. One of my best decisions was to return to live in the Highlands.”

    View profileMore by Rhona

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