The Highland Clearances: Reading History and Dispossession

This is not a history of Scotland, this is a history of much of the world where people have been displaced from ancestral lands and commons by bullies. People have been dispossessed from lands at various places and at various times by others who have stolen it by force or by cunning, but it all too often amounts to the same thing – sorrows and harms being unfairly visited upon those at a disadvantage.

Highland clearances denuded the land of its people and culture
Highland clearances denuded the land of its people and culture


Indeed, we also need to ask about what happened when any people in this story arrived in another place, such as Canada, and met with the indigenous peoples there.


The First Nations people have many hidden histories of violent and cruel dispossession from lands and ways of life which extended back into prehistory. That all human stories are interlinked is true, and that there is no single telling of the stories makes it complicated, but here and now I will be offering a particular telling of the Highland and Lowland clearances of Scotland.


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I am no expert on this history, but I am driven to try and understand what has gone before me and how our world has been shaped by the actions of people – some helping others, some foisting tyranny on others. The notes which I have drawn together mark the beginning of a journey of me understanding who and where I am – not by dint of anything other than knowing how I feel and think about human actions, how we treat each other and how we are treated.


I have to thank Virginia Blankenhorn, who gave a talk in the Ragged University for helping me know about the sources of knowledge which I have drawn upon today to learn about and share a bit of the history of the Scot’s people. In particular, I am drawing on the work of Professor Tom Devine – a fascinating scholar who has contributed a great deal to piecing together a fractured history of people. History, as he says, is a queen of all subjects.


Herodotus, often cited as the grandfather of the subject lived in the 5th century AD and wrote ‘The Histories‘, which translated at the time as his ‘inquiries’. What I hope comes of my sharing this with you, is not only that I learn something through teaching what I have gleaned, but I hope to fire something of an interest to further your own inquiries into the world we receive and remake.


I want an opportunity to voice this, my ongoing project of uncovering the histories so that you can add to it as you see fit. We learn together, and I learn through encountering what you carry, and also gain from being corrected in a friendly and constructive way. So, at any opportunity, if you have something to add to the picture, something which will enrich and build upon the presentation – please get in touch, write an article or comment.


Reading History

Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote the book ‘Silencing The Past: Power and the Production of History’. In it he talks about Historiography. For those who are unfamiliar, Historiography is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline. Part of Trouillot’s thesis in his book is that in the creation of every fact, there is the creation of a silence.


It is these silences that we are particularly interested in here. He goes on to make the point that “Effective silencing does not require a conspiracy, not even a political consensus. Its roots are structural”.


Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments:

  • The moment of fact creation (the making of sources)
  • The moment of fact assembly (the making of archives)
  • The moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives)
  • The moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance)


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I want to highlight that the history is not the most important thing. What I see as the most important thing is the acquisition of the skills to deconstruct, to research, investigate and make up our own minds on chosen matters. Otherwise we can end up slaves to ‘regimes of truth’ which silence important voices, stories, and histories which otherwise would enrich and broaden our world.


Harold Innes, teacher of Marshall McLuhan wrote about the concept of ‘monopolies of knowledge’ in his work as an Economic Historian and teacher of Communications Theory:


“What is monopolized is the control over the structuring of space and time. The ruling group, organized institutionally and backed by a particular type of communications technology (e.g. parchment), maintains its power by formulating a particular conception of time. It is a monopoly because the intricate rationalization of this conception are mastered and actively discussed by a relatively small group”.


Andy Wightman has written a book called ‘The Poor Had No Lawyers – Who Owns Scotland and How They Got It’. I’m going to be drawing from it now:


“I want to convey how the theft of Scotland’s commons has robbed us not only of extensive communal interests in land but of a sense of connection with place which is leading to all sorts of social and economic problems. In recent years, one of my colleagues in these matters, Alastair McIntosh, has been working assiduously on these questions to show that soil and soul are vital ingredients in recovering a sense of identity and belonging.


Likewise, we will benefit greatly from remembering that the struggle over land is a universal one that knows no geographic boundaries. We are all creatures who require shelter and nourishment and that comes from having a place to call home….


…In 1909 Tom Johnston, later to become Secretary of State for Scotland and one of Scotland’s finest historians wrote:


“Show the people that our Old Nobility is not noble, that its lands are stolen lands – stolen either by force or fraud; show people that the title deeds are rapine, murder, massacre, cheating or Court harletry; dissolve the halo of diviinity that surrounds the hereditary title; let the people clearly understand that our present House of Lords is composed largely of descendent of successful pirates and rogues; do these things and you shatter the Romance that keeps the nation numb and spellbound while privilege picks its pockets…


…a democracy ignorant of the past is not qualitified either to analyse the present or to shape the future; and so, in the interests of the high Priests of Politics and the Lordly Money Changers of Society, great care has been taken to offer us stories of useless pageantry, chronicles of the birth and death of Kings, annals of Court intrigue and international war, while withheld from us wer the real facts and narrative of moment, the loss of our ancient freedom, the rape of our common lands and the shameless and dastardly methods by which a few selected stocks snatched the patrimony of the people”.


Land rights which appear legitimate and almost sacred today are, in fact, the product of a long and none-too-wholesome history. Whilst we’ve moved on a bit since then, the fact is that landowners today are the beneficiaries of the nefarious deeds of their ancestors, thanks to the legitimacy afforded by a land law system that their ancestors themselves constructed.


Andy Wightman argues that there were five main land grabs in Scotland – namely, feudalisation, the appropriation of Church property, legal reforms in the seventeenth century, the division of the commonties and the nepotistic alienation of the common good wealth of the burghs of Scotland.


He argues the case that the way in which law and economy around land have been structured is to benefit the haves at the expense of the have nots. To give you an idea of the current ownership of Scotland, if we look at the total land area of 19,469,433 acres, 258 privately estates owned 6,669,071 acres. Of a population of 5,295,000 (2011 statistics) it effectively means that 0.0049% of the population owns over 34% of the whole country


Historical Backdrop of Enclosures

“It is wise to stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own peoples, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so”

– On the Origins of Property in Land, George Orwell [Reprinted from Orwell’s column, “As I Please,” Tribune, 18 August 1944]


I will start the story by hinting on the rise of the histories of enclosure south of the border by the history of Gerrard Winstanley was born on 19 October 1609 and was baptised in the parish of Wigan, then part of the West Derby hundred of Lancashire. (19 October 1609 – 10 September 1676) was an English Protestant religious reformer, political philosopher, and activist during The Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.


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Winstanley was one of the founders of the English group known as the True Levellers or Diggers for their beliefs, and for their actions. The group occupied public lands that had been privatised by enclosures and dug them over, pulling down hedges and filling in ditches, to plant crops. True Levellers was the name they used to describe themselves, whereas the term Diggers was coined by contemporaries.


The Wars of the Covenant had taken place during the 1630s and 1640s which were then followed in the 1650s by the annexation of Scotland by Oliver Cromwell. After this period there was greater stability for people to build. In the Highlands full scale clan warfare had become a thing of the past and most unrest was confined to banditry and petty lawlessness.


Some land owners were showing greater interest in raising the revenue of their estates. The church convened on civil matters with kirk sessions where ministers and elected elders acted as a local moral tribunal supervising the conduct of the parishoners and punishing them according to a Christian code they had.


In the 1680s there was an intellectual flowering with Stair in Law, Bruce in architecture and Sibbald in Medicine. This was an era of rampant economic nationalism when the leading states tried to gain advantage at the expense of their trade rivals through the aggressive use of prohibitive tariffs. Scotland would be hit badly by high customs barriers but equally could not do much to retaliate.


In this same period happened Scotland’s ill fated expedition to Darien in central America to set up a colony. In 1695 there was national optimism, but by 1700 the attempt to found a Scottish colony on the Isthmus of Panama to trade with the Pacific and Atlantic simultaneously had resulted in disaster. The failure had happened for many reasons including poor planning to the devastating effects of tropical disease on the first settlers which had not been encountered before.


The Darien project was something which had taken a vast amount of investment from Scotland and English investment had been withdrawn from the original undertaking as a result of mercantile and political pressure from London. The possibility of bringing relief to the Scottish settlement in 1699 had come to nothing largely because the London government refused to send provisions in view of maintaining Spanish support against France.


The Darien failure had a serious impact because of the enormous national investment that had gone into it, and the political fall out had just as big an impact. The costs hit the pockets of the noblemen, lairds and merchants represented in the Scottish parliament precisely at the time when many landowners were already suffering from a collapse of rental income as a result of a calamitous harvest failures in the 1690s.


Living on the land

Scotland was a rural based society. The produce of the land – skins, grain, wool and coal – were vital trading commodities and influenced much of the social interactions which took place. There was greater stakeholdership in the land as people would have to generate what they needed to live, work, eat and socialise. Artisans, industrial workers and fishing communities would have a plot to independently cultivate food supplies.


Between 1500 and 1600 the proportion of the nation’s population living in the larger towns nearly doubled, and it did so again by 1700. The population was more widely dispersed before 1700 than it was to become after industrialization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when mass migration was to alter the national demographic profile decisively in favour of the central lowlands and the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh and their booming satellite towns.


Scotland in the later seventeenth century had an estimated population of a little more than a million inhabitants. This was about one fifth the population of England and only one eighth that of Spain. Much of Scotland was dominated by mountain and moorland, and habitation therefore tended to concentrate on more favoured areas where intensive arable farming could take place. Even in the later twentieth century, after nearly 300 years of improvement and drainage, around two thirds of the country is still suitable only for rough grazing.


One estimate suggests that in 1700 only 5.3 per cent of the population lived in towns with over 10,000 inhabitant – a long way behind more urbanized societies like found in places like England, the Netherlands, Belgium. Edinburgh was the biggest town with a population of about 30,000 by the early eighteenth century. Aberdeen and Dundee had about 10,000 inhabitants each, while Glasgow had emerged as a second burgh in the land by the later seventeenth century, with a population reckoned at 15,000 and growing.


There was generally massive levels of emigration to Europe and Ulster during the 17th century. The links with continental Europe were strong and we can see this influence in both the legal system and the system of education which prevailed. Scots travelled as soldiers and traders from early medieval times far and wide. In the second half of the seventeenth century emigration levels reached between 78,000 and 127,000.


Most tasks, both in agriculture and industry, continued to be done by hand; even in cotton, the most advanced manufacturing sector of all, two of the three core processes, weaving and finishing, remained mainly labour-intensive until the 1820s. The cost of labour was therefore an absolutely crucial factor in Scottish industrialisation.


Undeniably, wages in certain trades were rising in the later eighteenth century. For instance, agricultural workers experienced a substantial growth in real income, in the central Lowlands averaging between 40 and 50 per cent between 1750 and 1790. Nevertheless, most Scottish wages remained below those of England, and it was partly because of this attraction that English tycoons like Richard Arkwright boasted that the lower costs of production in Scotland would enable him to take a razor to the throat of Lancashire. Almost a century later, in the 1860s, when the first rigorous wage censuses became available, Scotland was still unequivocally a low wage economy in most occupations compared to England.


Historically the Scots were a migratory people. But in the eighteenth century internal migration became more common precisely at the time when industry needed to attract more workers. Seasonal movement for harvest work from the southern and central Highlands for work in the Lowland harvests was significant after c1750.


Sheep farming has been an unmitigated disaster not only for the people but also the environment (


In the same region the first clearances for sheep, the transfer of people from the inland straths to the coastlands as the new crofting system was established, and the social strains coming from rampant commercialization all led to more internal migration as well as promoting a large scale exodus of people across the Atlantic after c. 1760.


In the Lowlands agricultural improvement was radically altering the traditional social order and in the process drastically cutting back the large numbers who had always had a legal or customary right to land. The tenant class contracted further and cottar families with smallholdings possessing skills in spinning an weaving were steadily replaced by landless servants and labourers.


Lowland Scotland certainly had larger numbers of people detached from land holding by c 1800 than ever before and the resulting rates of short distance migration were truly remarkable…. Scottish internal mobility was a decided bonus for manufacturers keen to hire more labour.


The mills crystallized the conflict between the culture of work in the old order and the new. E P Thomson showed that the traditional pattern was one of alternative bouts of intense labour and idleness. Full time work, though not unknown, was unusual outside the towns and the majority of people had little interest in labouring for much longer than their basic needs required.


In Lowland Aberdeenshire and Renfrewshire, around half the possessions were under 30 acres, and even in the more ‘advanced’ county of Midlothian over a third fell into this category. The majority of famres like this must have devoted their energies above all to a subsistence husbandry in order to pay the rent and feed their families. Sellling in the market was a decidedly secondary consideration.


The tenant class was steadily contracting in size, with thrusting individuals bettering themselves at the expense of others by absorbing individuals bettering themselves at the expense of others by absorbing more land in the townships. The significant illustration of this trend was the expansion of holdings held by one tenant and a fall in the number of farms possessed by several husbandmen.


The enlarged single tenancy was geared more to serving markets and less constrained by communal working practices. The farm under one master was to become the ideal of the Improvers later in the eighteenth century. A wide sample of holdings in five lowland counties carried out by Prof T. M Devine suggests that more than half the farms were still in ‘multiple tenancy’ at the time of the union.


However, in the next few decades this form of tenure was seen to be in rapid decline. Indeed, in most of the estates examined, by the 1740s single tenancy was overwhelmingly dominant, with only around one fifth of all holdings now containing two or more possessors. Even within the old world, therefore, an embryonic rural middle class was emerging in some areas.


The impact of the new tenantry was nowhere more apparent than in the Borders, where great sheep ranges with large areas of hill grazing and limited arable holding sin the valleys were well established in the eastern Borders by the late seventeenth century. One result of this territorial expansion was the unrelenting squeezing out of the rural population.


Abandoned towns which were inhabited into the early eighteenth century can be found throughout the Tweed valley and in Eskdale. Similarly, a number of the parish entries for this region in the Statistical Account of the 1790s describe once-populated settlements which were now visible only as moldering remains. Over 100 years before the Highland Clearances, the advance of the commercialized sheep farms in the deep south of Scotland was causing widespread depopulation.


In the western Borders, Sir David Dunbar at Baldoon near Wigtown built a great cattle park over two and a half miles long and one and a half in breadth to winter over 1000 beasts. Dunbar was only one of several Borders proprietors who let their estates to commercially minded tenants for specialist stock rearing.


This process reached its climax in the 1720s, when several lairds accelerated the process by clearing out many small tenants and enlarging the stock farms held by richer possessors. The arable lands were laid down to grass and the touns, now cleared of their inhabitants, were enclosed by dykes, with the aim of taking further advantage of favourable cattle prices in England after the union.


This strategy provoked open rebellion from the people. A rising of several hundred armed men in the summer of 1724 broke down the dykes, killed and mutilated cattle and then confronted a military force of six troops of dragoons hurriedly sent in by a worried government.


Nocturnal attacks went on for over six months until the turmoil subsided. This, the so-called Levellers Revolt was the most serious rural disturbance in eighteenth century Scotland. It was a telling reminder how, in the south west in the 1720s the conflict between traditional ways and market pressures, poor tenants, and farmers with an eye for commercial opportunity was already a reality before the more fundamental changes coming after 1760.


Much more numerous than the tenants in most of the farm settlements of the period were the cottar families. A cottar (in Scotland and Ireland) was a farm labourer or tenant occupying a cottage in return for labour. Cottars held a few acres (usually less than five) from tenants in return for providing labour services for a number of days in the year, and occasionally, also making some rent payments.


The tenant ploughed their smallholding and allowed them the keep of a cow. Tradesmen, such as weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths and other artisans, were also cottars, with tiny plots of land and a house within the ferm toun. There was an extraordinary numerical prevalence of the cottars throughout the length and breadth of Lowland Scotland.



Cottar families formed the reserve army of labour in an agricultural system in which peaks of work were concentrated in only a few periods of the year, at the times of ploughing, harvesting and the gathering of peat. They were a guaranteed workforce at the busy times but could easily be laid off in slacker periods.


Enclosures were few, the land was open and much labour had to be employed in herding. Peat gathering demanded a huge effort from the local community thorough the summer months. Ploughing with the ‘old Scots plough’ could involve a few oxen, horses, and several men. It was useful for tenants, especially as their holdings increased in size, to have many hands ready to assist in the neighbourhood.


As the technological revolution shaped the towns and cities of Britain with new processes, buildings and mills, increasingly people were living in concentrated masses. The industrial revolution was changing the landscape in terms of air and water quality, living conditions and opportunities, and profits – massive massive profits as also world trade increased.


In less spectacular but equally important fashion, significant developments were seen in rural society. Commercial forces were now undeniably having a much greater impact, both in the Highlands and Lowland countryside.


The black cattle trade from the central and western Highlands was in boom and by the 1750s exports of timber, slate and fish were significant. The country was stripped for its assets and the land had offered up its forests and ecosystems as unwitting loot for cash profits. Thinking of renewal and preservation of important habitats and timber stocks was not a factor of the time despite deforestation and the issues of this practice having been known about and noted since early Greek times by the Ionic cultures.


At the same time there is evidence of changes in rental structure, where payments in kind were tending to become less common and were being steadily replaced by cash rents. On a number of estates a radical change in tenure was under way as proprietors converted more and more smaller holdings into larger individual tenancies which meant that the capitalist farming class of the Agricultural Revolution of later years was already emerging in embryonic form.


Recent research has shown how active the Highland elites were in profit making across the Empire in the East and West Indies and the American colonies, and how much of this capital was channeled home to support ambitious schemes of “Improvement” on family estates.


We know from the talk given by Kevin Williamson on the radical Robert Burns, that he was working on Scottish held sugar plantations as a book keeper which helped him develop his sense of ethics and poetry.


What money built the fine fair buildings of Edinburgh and Glasgow’s boom ? Sugar, tobacco, slavery, wool… these are some of the foundations of the Scottish elite which don’t get included in the modern fairy tales the nobility has spun on their shortbread tins. Various euphemisms were used included that of ‘improvement‘.


Perhaps the most visible social effect of Improvement was the removal of the cottars. In Lanarkshire, over a quarter of parishes reported in the Statistical Account in the 1790s described tehir extensive dispossessions; for Angus, the figure was 22 per cent, and for Fife around one third.


Witnesses were at pains to emphasize the radical and comprehensive nature of the removals, and this was shown in their colorful use of language. The minister of Kilmany in Fife referred to ‘The annihilation of the little cottagers’. The reporter for Marikie in Angus described how ‘many of the cottagers are exterminated’.


Other observers noted the existence of numerous buildings in their parishes, formerly inhabited by cottar families, which were gradually falling into ruins. Elsewhere, cottar dwellings were being systematically demolished and the stone used to construct dikes and walls in the new farms.


All of this has a familiar ring, as these are the features usually associated with the notorious Highland Clearances, yet the social dislocation in the rural Lowlands in the later eighteenth century has virtually been overlooked.


A full scale process of commercialization was under way and one important indicator was the movement of rentals. Starting in the 1760s but speeding up drastically during the Napoleonic Wars, rentals throughout the region soared to unprecedented levels.


It was the speed and scale of rent inflation that was new and different from the earlier eighteenth century and in addition, most of it reflected surging external demand rather than a return on landlord improvement investment. Skye rents trebled in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, while whose of Torridon in Wester Ross rose tenfold between 1777 and 1805.


On the Lochiel estate in Inverness, the rental jumped from £560 in the 1760s to £863 in 1774, an increase of 54 per cent, with even more dramatic rises later. Glengarry rentals stood at £732 in 1768 but by 1802 had spiralled by 472 per cent to £4184.


The raising of rents to this extent demonstrated that the Highland elites were now subordinating their lands to market production and new profit imperatives. The growing commercial economy of the decades before 1760 could be uneasily accommodated within the old social structure but the traditional order was no longer compatible with wholehearted agricultural production for the market at competitive prices.


The transition of clan chiefs and gentry to landed gentlemen, which had been under way for several generations, was finally achieved. Land came to be allocated through competition to those bidders able and willing to offer the highest return.


There was a sustained and widespread assault on the traditional township or baile. These group settlements of multiple tenant farmers, cottars and servants had formed the basic communities of Gaeldom from time immemorial, but over the space of two to three generations, starting in Argyll and Highland Perthshire in the 1760s and quickly spreading north and west in subsequent decades, the baile was broken up and virtually eliminated.


By the 1830s and 1840s only a few remnants of a once universal pattern of settlement and cultivation remained. Thus, in much of Argyll, Highland Perthshire and the eastern parishes of Inverness, lands were often consolidated into single tenant farms, some pastoral but many arable, with their dependent servants and labourers.


The communal townships were steadily replaced by individual smallholdings or crofts with the arable land possessed by single small tenants and the grazing land still held in common. The core of the new structure, was division of the scattered strips or rigs of arable, which were the basis of the old system of joint farming, into separate holdings of only a few acres. Throughout the whole Highland area, but especially before 1815 in the central and western mainland, commercial pastoral farms were advancing rapidly.


The coming of the Na Caoraidh Mora or ‘big sheep’ posed a particular thread to the old society. Before the 1750s there were few commercial, specialist sheep ranches anywhere in the Highlands. Yet, as early as 1802, an official report of the Highland Society described how the hill country of Perth, Dumbarton and Argyll and the entire west coast from Oban to Lochbroom were already under sheep.


Most of Mull had been invaded, and the sheep frontier was also starting to advance in Skye. The report concluded ominously that ‘In Ross and northwards all parts capable of sheep are or soon will be occupied’.


As the delicate and graduated social hierarchies of the baile are shattered and replaced by the virtually uniform small tenancies of the new crofting townships. Equally significantly, the traditional tacksman or gentry class was gradually reduced in number and social significance as the deliberate destruction of subtenure became a central theme of landlord policy from the 1770s.


Sharp increases in rental also put acute pressure on many as in the 1750s much of the rent on many Highland estates would be directly paid by the tacksmen. A century later they were but a minor part of the social structure, and their decline was one of the clearest signs of the death knell of the old Gaelic society.


The new middle class in many areas invariably comprised southern sheep farmers and cattle ranchers with little hereditary or ethnic connection with the people. The new landlord priorities and incessant market pressures produced a massive and relentless displacement of population. Eviction and forced removal became an integral part of the destruction of the traditional settlements throughout the Highlands.


This was the most direction violation of duthchas. What is meant by Gaelic as ‘duthchas’ and in Welsh as ‘cynefin’ is impossible to accurately translate into English, but it expresses a sense of belonging to a certain area of land, of being rooted by ancient lineage to a particular place that was communally held by all the people of the clan.


This idea of holding the land communally was never written down as was the custom of the time, it was simply an idea that was accepted by all as being the natural order of things. The duthchas included the obligation on clan elites to provide protection and security of possession for their people within their lands.


The tenant group over the 50 to 60 years of the improvement dynamic in lowland Scotland became smaller. It became an elite. The numbers with direct access to land through tenancy dwarfed – they actually collapsed over that period.


It became almost routine for estates in the north west and the islands to move people from inland glens to the sea and to areas of moorland where new crofts were planted in the waste and the settlers encouraged to reclaim it by potato cultivation. Removal of the bailtean – those who lived in bailes – to create larger arable holdings was a marked feature of the southern Highlands.


This was a vivid illustration of the subordination of the human factor to the new needs of productive efficiency. Possession of individual areas of land head never been permanent in the old society, when clan territory had been lost by conquest, annexation and insolvency. It was common for subtenants and cottars, and even for principal tenants, to be moved from one farm to another.


The later eighteenth century brought dispossession on a truly unprecedented scale all over Gaeldom, with people in the move everywhere. Sometimes the pressures did not come by direct removal. The jacking up of rentals in a peasant economy in which the balance between sufficiency and failure was a fine and precarious one also caused immense strain.


The detailed research by Marianne McLean on western Inverness-shire shows that often rent increases were pushed above the rise in cattle prices and when the markets collapsed, rent arrears spiraled and small tenants came under great pressure to surrender their holdings. Similarly when farms were offered for letting at higher rents, reflecting the new commercial realities of the time, the poorer men had profound difficulty in competing. Loss of land was an inevitable result.


Undoubtedly it was large scale pastoral husbandry that led to the greatest social dislocation. Extensive cattle ranching was increasingly practised in parts of Argylll, Dumbarton and Perthshire and dislodged many peasant communities. Much more significant was sheep farming. The new Blackface and Cheviot breeds were greedy for land and required different levels and types of land for the different ages and sexes of the flocks.


Cheviots in particular had special needs. Initially they enabled sheep farmers to pay twice the rent that was usually possible on land grazed by Blackfaces, but they could not easily survive the Highland climate without access to low ground for wintering, and this posed a potent threat to the arable lands of the traditional townships. At the same time the sheep competed for grazing with the small tenants’ black cattle.


Between 1780 and 1855 more than 50 acts of defiance against landlord authority occurred, and further intensive investigation will doubtless reveal even more instances of collective protest. Sometimes resistance took place on a considerable scale, as in 1792 in Easter Ross, when the people of several districts came together and tried to drive the hated sheep flocks that threatened their way of life out of the region. More often, opposition was highly localized, sporadic and uncoordinated, a spontaneous and desperate response to imminent eviction.


Women – and men dressed as women – were often to the fore. Sticks and stones were the usual weapons. Estate factors, police and sheriff officers were assaulted and humiliated but protest usually crumbled when the army became involved.


The greatest single collective act of defiance of landlordism was probably the emergence of the Free Church in 1843 which drew many communities in the western Highlands and Islands from the established Church of Scotland. This was the climax to a long series of patronage disputes as congregations in the crofting region opposed the induction of unpopular ministers appointed by lay patrons (invariably landowners) who did not share the evangelical commitments of the ordinary people.


Poulouriskaig, Sutherland
Poulouriskaig, Sutherland



Evictions continued through various means – hard and soft, in times of famine and in times of plenty. By the time of 1848 the senior government relief officer during the crisis, Sir Edward Pine Coffin, a career civil servant, was so concerned about the sheer magnitude of the removals of peoples from lands that he wrote to his superiors bitterly condemning landowners for seeking to bring about ‘the extermination of the population’ and that in his view it would lead to ‘the unsettling of the very foundations of the social system’.


The whole process was enforced by the threat of the dread summons of removal. The factors on several estates came to resemble petty tyrants who ruled the people with an iron hand. One of the most notorious was John Campbell, the Factor Mor (Big Factor), Chamberlain of the Duke of Argyll’s lands in Mull and Tiree.


When he died in 1872, emigrant communities across the Atlantic celebrated in unhibitied style, as reported in the satirical poem ‘Lament for the Factor Mor’:

When they heard in Canada that that beast had expired

bonfires were lit and banners attached to branches

the people were cock-a-hoop with joy

as they met one another

and they all got down on their knees and praised God that you had died


Another example of a cold handed factor is the story of Patrick Sellar. Born and lived in Elgin, he was a lawyer, as was his father, who was to become employed by Elizabeth Sutherland, the 19th Countess of Sutherland, and her husband, the 2nd Marquess of Stafford as their factor. They owned around 1.5 million acres which formed the biggest private estate in Europe.


To clear the people of the land tried dealing with overpopulation by raising the 93rd Regiment of Foot, the Sutherland Highlanders, which in August 1800 mustered in Strathnaver before marching off to service in the Napoleonic Wars. War and death had been turned to as an answer by drawing on the old clan allegiances.


Between 1811 and 1821, some 15,000 people were cleared from the Sutherland estates, largely through the efforts of Patrick Sellar. Sellar later gave his account of what happened:


“Lord and Lady Stafford were pleased humanely to order the new arrangement of this country. That the interior should be possessed by Cheviot shepherds, and the people brought down to the coast and placed in lots of less than three acres, sufficient for the maintenance of an industrious family, pinched enough to cause them to turn their attention to the fishing. A most benevolent action, to put these barbarous Highlanders into a position where they could better associate together, apply themselves to industry, educate their children, and advance in civilisation.”


This contrasts starkly with an eyewitness account of Sellar’s clearance of the Strathnaver township of Rosal in 1814: “The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description, it required to be seen to be believed.


A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself – all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o’clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition – whether in or out of the flames – I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins.”


On 13 June 1814, Sellar was involved in the eviction of William Chisholm and his wife from their croft in Strathnaver. During the eviction, the roof was set on fire, with Chisholm’s mother in law, Margaret MacKay, still inside. She was rescued by her daughter and taken to a nearby shed, where she died five days later. As a result, Patrick Sellar was put on trial in Inverness in 1816 accused of arson and culpable homicide. He was acquitted at 1.15am on the morning of 24 April 1816. Clearly Sellar’s view of the rights of “barbarous Highlanders” was shared by the judicial establishment of the day…




The courtroom at Inverness was densely crowded as the Lord Commissioner of Justiciary, Lord Pitmilly, addressed the prisoner at the bar: “Mr Sellar, it is now my duty to dismiss you from the bar; and you have the satisfaction of thinking that you are discharged by the unanimous opinion of the Jury and the Court. I am sure that, although your feelings must have been agitated, you cannot regret that this trial took place; and I am hopeful it will have due effect on the minds of the country, which have been so much and so improperly agitated.”


The crimes of which Patrick Sellar had been acquitted were culpable homicide, real injury and oppression. The jury had taken a quarter of an hour to reach their unanimous verdict. Eight of them were local landed proprietors, two of them merchants, two tacksmen, and one of them a lawyer.


Sellar later became a sheep farmer and a tenant of the Sutherlands, making use of part of the deserted landscape he had largely created. He died in Elgin in 1851 and is buried in the grounds of Elgin Cathedral.


This article owes an intellectual debt to the scholars and historians who have written elsewhere, but especially to Prof Tom Devine.  Here are some sources used in the article:

  • 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 article was written by Alex Dunedin