The Highland Clearances

Published: 20th September 2019, last updated: 13th February 2024

To understand the Highland Clearances, remembered by history as an abominable act of capitalist cruelty, we must consider many pressures and events that led up to what actually took place. It might help us see how such an event could have happened.

Although we think of the period of the Highland Clearances being from 1750 to 1860, lets think back to the 1600s. The world was changing in the south by the beginning of the 1600s, the old feudal order giving way to a new economic model where the needs of the market gradually overtook feudal bonds of loyalty. This modern age had dawned under Elizabeth I, and upon her death, King James VI of Scotland embraced it.

The Clan System

It is often debated whether an event like the Highland clearances could happen if society weren’t reliant on the clan system. Feudalism survived in Scotland through the clan system. It was accepted that the clan chief should provide land for all his clansmen. The chief would divide the land between clansmen, and they would subdivide to other tenants. At the bottom of the pecking order were the cottars, given a cottage with a strip of land attached for payment in kind. A cottar was a kind of serf, their life part subsistence, part slavery.

In return tenants and cottars were required to fight for the clan. This system worked well in a land that was often in upheaval. The first major strain came with the Union of England and Scotland in 1603, under James VI and I (of England). The borders, a lawless feuding province, came under stricter controls, while commercial pathways with the south were encouraged. It didn’t take long for the Scottish lowlanders to seize on opportunities for trade instead of war.

Undermining the Clans

James never returned to Scotland after union, but he demanded the chiefs travel to London to pay an annual surety to the crown in return for his protection. These annual trips were expensive and meant that clan chiefs often spent months of the year in London, partaking in the expensive fashions of court, instead of overseeing their clans. Payment in kind for tenancies increasingly gave way to money rents. By the 1680s about half of Highland tenancies were rented for money rather than kind. This eroded the familial ties of clanship, especially when chiefs started raising rents to help finance their trips south.

The instability of clan culture was also affected by the weather. From 1647 to 1707 the whole of northern Europe was hit by a particularly wintery stage of the Little Ice Age (a period from about 1300 to 1870), known as the ‘Lean years’ in Scotland. Consecutive harvests failed and famine blighted the lands especially in the far north. Disease and mortality rates were high and estimates say the population of Scotland fell by around 15%.

Life for the Highlanders was a constant struggle for survival even before the Highland clearances began. Thousands of desperate famine refugees fled to Ulster. It was vital to the survival of remaining families that they each had a little land to work with, as this was a subsistence culture and the necessities of life could only come from the land.

Changing Times

By the 1700s emigrations across the Atlantic ocean were already taking place by families looking for a better life through choice before the mass Highland clearances began. The Scottish people responded to publicity campaigns in the press advertising cheap land in North America, and from 1700 to 1815 around 90,000 and 100,000 Scots emigrated.

As the smallholdings of lowland clan members were dissolved in the rural areas in favour of larger sheep farms, those without the means to travel had other choices: seek work in the towns or make their living in cottage industries. For many families weaving replaced farming.

State-imposed will, through the towns and the church, had less influence in the north. Lowland perception of the Highlands was of a barbarous and backward culture, a perception encouraged by state propaganda especially during the Jacobite uprising. A London magazine in the 1700s wrote:

“In this great extent of country [the Highlands] ignorance and superstition greatly prevail; … Inhabitants…are entirely ignorant of the principles of religion and virtue, live in idleness and poverty, have no notion of industry, or sense of liberty…”

The Jacobites

Against this background came the fateful Jacobite uprising. The Stuart dynasty was exiled in 1688 after the ‘Glorious Revolution’. James VII and II needed military support from his Scottish clans. Though some clans saw the turn of the tide in favour of Protestant monarchy and changed their allegiances, a large part of the Highlands, significantly those who could still raise an army, were willing to fight for the Stuarts.

Early in the uprising, the Duke of Argyll wrote:

‘Several thousand men armed and used to arms, ready upon a few weeks call is what might disturb any government. The Captain of Clanranald…has not £500 a year and yet has 600 men with him.’

Five attempts at counter-revolution between 1689 and 1745 initially served to strengthen clan cohesion, but their eventual defeat in 1745 under the misguided leadership of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the need for more cash, drove the clan chiefs in the years after 1745 into a rapid expansion of commercialisation.

Extreme Sanctions

Though it was by no means universal, the prevailing feeling amongst English and lowland Scottish landowners and authorities that the Highlanders were rebellious and disloyal, due to their traditional clan structures. A period of terrorism by the state followed, burning of towns, confiscation of their main asset: cattle, and other proscriptions, including a ban on the wearing of tartan or kilts. It was a crime to carry weapons or play bagpipes. Properties belonging to rebel clans were annexed to the crown through a commission that promoted ‘the Protestant religion, good governance, industry…and loyalty to His majesty.’

The dispossession that had already taken place in the borders became the model for the Highlands, but with one important difference. Many former lowland cottars and tenants went into the cities to seek employment, and the cities absorbed them in the shape of slum districts. In the mountainous isolation of the Highlands, that option was less available. Another solution was sought.

Squeezed by proscription, landowners consolidated their estates in an effort to extract profit; under the threat of bankruptcy, they found the many sub-divisions of tenancies unconducive to efficiency. Where estates were bankrupted trustees moved in. These trustees, lowland lawyers who lacked any clan-based fidelities, were motivated by profit and couldn’t be sympathetic to the poor on the land. Some of the more brutal mass evictions that took place were under the auspices of trustees.

Those large landowners who managed to keep their land did it by consolidating farms into larger estates for sheep rearing; it had a higher return than traditional cattle rearing. In the years after the ‘45 uprising, everyone’s way of life was under threat. Unused pieces of land, unsuitable for cattle and used traditionally by cottars, could be re-purposed for sheep, ditches drained, copses levelled. Every acre of land must be used to better advantage.

As sheep farming advanced so evictions rose in a pattern that was to become the beginning of the Highland clearances. In one extreme account, several thousand cottars and tenants from the estate of the Countess of Sutherland were removed to a small parish on the Eastern seaboard, told to bring the barren land into cultivation and take up fishing. In a pattern that was to repeat with crofting, the size of strips allocated were deliberately insufficient to support a family, forcing tenants to take up fishing to survive. Meanwhile, the fertile land their ancestors had farmed for centuries were re-purposed for sheep farming.

The Highlands had moved from feudalism to capitalism in less than two generations. The communal townships inhabited by tenants and cottars were disappearing fast to be replaced with crofts, single occupancy small farms, and everywhere large scale farming was on the rise. The small size of the crofts meant that crofters were labourers to the landowners first and peasant farmers second.


Another disaster was to have a more decisive effect on policy. In 1846, the potato blight, which had devastated Ireland, came to the North West Highlands and Islands. Cottars were living in increasingly cramped conditions and the burden of poverty underpinned the disaster. Potatoes had been adopted as a monoculture crop throughout the North West. Famine and disease became widespread. It was a crisis the nation as a whole would take a great interest in. The Scotsman reported that the numbers dying of dysentery among the cottar class were increasing with ‘fearful rapidity.’

At first, landowners gave as much help as they could to the poor, then called on the state to assist. As the crisis deepened and entered its fourth-year donor fatigue set in, and a rather sinister development. Due in part to the ideas of the enlightenment, the Highlander, or Gael, was seen as a weaker, indolent race, in contrast to the strength and industry of the lowlanders. Why, people began to ask, when they have been given every assistance, do the Highland poor continue to starve?

Charity was not the answer. In the Highland mentality, there was an expectation that social superiors would provide aid in times of need. They were incapable of saving themselves because of this fundamental error in attitude. A strong political case was made in favour of mass emigration to avert a humanitarian disaster. And thus the Highland clearances began.

Enforced Emigration

This led in 1851 to the Emigration Advances Act, giving financial incentives to those landowners willing to ‘assist’ emigration of the poor from their estates. The political class were convinced that large-scale emigration was the only answer to the social ills of the Highlands.

The Scotsman went as far as to condone ‘the removal of a diseased and damaged part of our population.’ Unfortunately for the poor, this forced emigration came on the back of years of famine and hardship, a bitter pill to swallow.

On record, during the Highland clearances over 10,000 emigrants were sent to Canada never to return. 5000 went to Australia. There are many more stories of forced emigrations that have not been accounted for in the records. In 1847-51, the new owner of the island of Ulva cut back his population from 500 to 150, and at Knoydart in Invernesshire particularly brutal evictions reduced the population from 600 to around 70 in just 5 years.

Cost of passage was paid by the landowners; this was deemed a small price to pay to rid themselves of their poor, and it was the poor who were most targetted. But prime land was targeted as well. The township of Shiaba boasted some of the most fertile land in the district of Ross, and since medieval times tenants had worked the land and paid their rents regularly. The Duke of Argyll served all the inhabitants with notices of eviction. This sent shock waves throughout the district. The tenants appealed, but the evictions went ahead. It seemed no one was safe from the Highland clearances.

On board an Australian Emigrant Ship. Photo by Illustrated London news / Public Domain

In all the population of the Western Highlands fell by a third during the worst of the Highlnad clearances. Because the change in land use did not take place gradually, as in the lowlands, the memory is particularly bitter among the descendants of those dispossessed. In a couple of generations, life in the Highlands had utterly transformed and today the Highland landscape is dotted with ruined cottages.

But as the historian T. M. Devine says in his excellent book The Scottish Clearances, we must not put all the blame on greedy commercial landowners for the Highland clearances; some must be given to outside forces, changing economics, the weather, the potato blight, and the pressures of a hostile state after Scottish clans backed the wrong side. These were desperate times for all levels of Scottish society.

Softening of Opinion

In the late 1800s, the political will moved away from the thought process that motivated the Highland clearances, but security of tenure was still a problem. Sub-divisions of land by tenants was prohibited. If a son of a family married he must leave the family home that very day and seek a tenancy elsewhere. As cottages were being pulled down in great numbers after the Highland clearances, finding new tenancies was a problem not solved by emigration.

Changing public opinion, however, saved the remaining crofters as the Highland clearances began to be seen as brutal and inhumane. The Crofters Holdings Act of 1886 protected them from arbitrary eviction or extortionate rents. Today the crofters too are a dying breed, and the land they work is still owned by a tiny percentage of large landowners. Feudalism in another guise.

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