Of all the misfortunes to befall the Scottish Highlanders, the Clearances are probably the worst and the one that still engenders great bitterness down to this day. Whether it was economic necessity as described by some, or ethnic cleansing, as described by others, the net result was that between 1783 and 1881 man’s inhumanity to man resulted in a documented 170,571 Highlanders being ejected from their traditional lands. Records are very sparse and it’s been estimated that the true total was very much greater than this.
This was the death knell of the clan system and the traditional Highland way of life where the people rented land from their Chiefs and in turn pledged their allegiance to them.
At the height of the clearances it’s said that as many as 2,000 crofts a day were being burned to the ground – some of which had been inhabited by the same families for as long as 500 years.
Those responsible for subjecting the Scottish Highlands to many generations of poverty were themselves Scotsmen . . . members of the landed class including many clan chiefs. The transformation of clan chiefs into landowners and landlords was a direct consequence of the Anglicisation of the Scottish gentry, particularly after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746.
Following the horror of Culloden, the Hanoverians initiated legislation, the consequence of which was the collapse of the clan system, the conversion of clan chiefs and their agents into a landed gentry (or in some cases, aristocracy), and the downgrading of clansmen and women – in many cases claiming descent from the same name-father as the clan chief – into mere tenants and sub-tenants on their own land. (A process the Irish were already well acquainted with).
As the Gaelic poet John MacCodrum wrote –
‘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’.
The numbers of Highlanders who suffered eviction, so that the land they worked could be turned over to sheep, ran into the tens of thousands. In many cases, the evictions were sudden and violent, affording their victims not even the opportunity of gathering together their belongings.
This first phase of the Clearances culminated in “the Year of the Sheep”, 1792, when so many estates were given over to sheep runs, so many clansmen and their families uprooted and cleared from the lands they had occupied for generations, that a great wave of emigration occurred. Nova Scotia , Canada, and the Carolinas were the most frequent destinations for Highland emigrants.
In some cases, victims of brutal landowners were bound as they stood, and delivered to emigrant ships there and then. In 1851 the infamous Colonel Gordon of Cluny cleared the Hebridean island of Barra. The Colonel’s tenants were summoned to a meeting, supposedly to discuss rents. There, more than 1 500 tenants were overpowered and loaded immediately onto ships for America.