The Scottish Highland and Lowland Clearances; When sheep became more profitable than people

Remains of a clearance on Skye

Title of talk:

The Scottish Highland and Lowland Clearances – When sheep became more profitable than people by Alex Dunedin


Bullet points of what you would like to talk about:

  • Crofting: How people lived and worked on the land in Scotland
  • What was involved in the idea of ‘improving the land’ for landlords
  • Highlands and the lowlands – the big plan of the population
  • Hill maggots: how sheep were more profitable than people
  • Dividing the people from the land; the enclosures and building of walls
  • Clearing the land of obstacles to improvement – getting rid of the people
  • Following orders: Patrick Sellar and the hand of the people who did the deeds


A few paragraphs on your subject:

The Highland and Lowland Clearances were a terrible moment in Scotland’s history where the crofting peoples, families and communities were displaced from their traditional farmsteads and livings so that the landlords could institute their plans to make the land more profitable for their ends.  This is a history of land enclosure and forced eviction of massive stretches of land in single swoops leaving people destitute and wandering the earth to far afield places like north America, Australia, New Zealand and other places.


It was a move to enclose the lands common to the people and take from them their living during the 18th and 19th centuries by the aristocracy of Scotland.  Cruel and heartless, the law failed to represent the people in these robberies and significantly damaged the Gaelic culture pushing people towards the towns, cities and mills which waited for them.  Known in Gaelic as ‘Fuadach nan Gàidheal’ this translates to ‘expulsion of the Gael’.


As a relatively recent part of Scottish history it has great explanatory power for understanding the way that the Scottish culture and landscape exists today.  The highlands are denuded not only of the flora and fauna which were abundant sources of wealth, but also of its people and cultures.  Now vast stretches of Scotland is owned by absentee landlords as managed assets that contribute little if anything to the eco-system or culture of Scotland.


If we look through the tourist histories and handbooks that gets shoved to the fore as the expression of Scotland’s past we see nothing of the deracination of its people.  Deracinate is the transitive verb to uproot, to remove or separate from a native environment or culture; especially : to remove the racial or ethnic characteristics or influences from.  Many of the people who have been born in and lived in Scotland for their whole lives do not know anything about the history of the clearances, and this illustrates the silence in which the history is stored.


A few paragraphs about you:

I was born in Edinburgh and have lived my whole life in Scotland not having traveled much beyond its border. I’ve never known much more than the ‘shortbread tin’ version of Scotland’s history as promoted through the popular versions promoted to tourists which flood the city year after year.  An old friend who spoke Gaelic and could still recount traditional stories and folk music told me how I was ‘uprooted from my culture’ – deracinated.  Will Martin prompted me to think more about where I have come from, as without knowing this, it is hard to see where I am going to..


Learning that the Scotland which I knew from tourist guides was a constructed identity I started to piece together a way to get to a better understanding of the land and my connection with it.  Discovering things like the fact that tartans as we know them are largely a Georgian invention; it was not until the late 17th or early 18th century that the kind of systems we recognise came into being, after The Dress Act of 1746 banning “the Highland Dress” had been repealed.


The more I looked at my ‘identity as a Scot’, the more I saw it was one lacking any connection with the past. Having discovered ‘The Historians Craft’ by Marc Bloch through a friend (Roy Wilsher) who was a teacher of history, I started to develop a taste for understanding perspectives of the past.  History became a passion, but more so Historiography – the study of the methods of historians.  The question of ‘which story was the true one’ gave way to ‘what stories am I unaware of’ as I researched more about the unspoken history of Scotland.


What free internet knowledge resources would you recommend?


thesis on highland clearances

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Highland Clearances:


Dress Act 1746:



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What are your weblinks?

  • T. M. Devine, The Scottish Nation 1700-2007. This is a general history of Scotland in the modern period; Part 2 deals with the time of the Clearances
  • T. M. Devine, Clearance and Improvement: Land, Power and People in Scotland 1700-1900. By the same author, a closer focus on the period of the clearances and beginnings of the land reform movement
  • Ian Grimble, The trial of Patrick Sellar. Sellar was the Duchess of Sutherland’s agent responsible for the horrible clearances in the northwest Highlands.
  • Iain Fraser Grigor, Mightier Than a Lord: The Highland Crofters’ Struggle for the Land. This deals with the land reform movement that started in the 1880s — well after the period of the Clearances — and ended with the settlement that we now have.

This event took place on 30th March 2017

by Alex Dunedin