Class and Dispossession; The Lowland and Highland Clearances by Alex Dunedin



This was a presentation which due to the conversational style where people were invited to interject, did not get to the end. The conversation discusses the enclosure of land in Britain, first through the development of statutory law before the more significant impositions on historical rights to the commons which were imposed leading up to the lowland and highland clearances of Scotland.


The aim was to end up discussing the decampment of financially poor populations to sink estates on the fringes of Edinburgh comparing policy documents describing these as visions of Patrick Geddes with the autoethnographic account written by Helen Crummy pointing out the failure of these estates as habitable landscapes. For detailed documentations of this study please visit the knowledge resources found at this link:



Edinburgh Gentrification
Edinburgh Gentrification

Title of talk:

Class and Dispossession; The Lowland and Highland Clearances


Bullet points of what you would like to talk about:

  • The history of dispossession of people from land in Britain
  • Some of the statutes introduced to disrupt ancestral law
  • The lowland clearances of Scotland
  • The highland clearances of Scotland
  • The clearance of people from the center of Edinburgh


A few paragraphs on your subject:

This talk examines some key moments in Scottish and British history which worked towards creating the class-caste system we see today by dispossession of the people from the means of sufficiency.  This presentation takes people through an exploration of what pre-1000 Britain looked like and the introduction of laws over the centuries. Following the talk will be a discussion about how the colonial project produced and crystallized the massive, normalised inequality we see today in the landscape we live in, just in more technocratic forms.


Britain has a long history of colonialism and that colonial rule was practiced on the peoples of the island for a long time.  In this presentation I am going to be taking people through a view of landownership existing from around the 11th century up to the present day.  I will be talking about key statutes which were introduced to superimpose a new regime over the ancestral rights of peoples to use commons land and indenture people to labor for the landed gentry.


I will talk a little about the Lowland Clearances of Scotland which pre-dated the Highland Clearances where land was bought up, and farms amalgamated to produce the first ‘superfarms’.  The major difference between the infamous Highland Clearances and the lesser known Lowland Clearances was the span of time over which the uprooting of the people from the land occurred. Over a longer period of time rather than people being forcibly removed, landlairds would not renew tenancies forcing people from their sufficiency farming into urban centers.


The Highland Clearances came abruptly as the privileged of the land decided on a series of “land improvements” having realised that sheep farming was more profitable for them than people.  People’s were forcibly evicted with violent power and moved into the urban centers to work in factories, or found themselves on long journeys abroad to colonize other lands and displace other peoples such as the First Nations peoples in the Americas. This was a center piece of the new world vision which the privileged classes had carved out for Scotland, following on from the enclosures of England and clearances of the Lowlands of Scotland.


For the final part of the talk I am going to talk about a bit of the history of Edinburgh and what happened when the gentrification of the old town became a project of the wealthy and privileged.  Using the written history of Helen Crummy I am going to pull out key moments of the displacement of communities from the center of Edinburgh into sink estates on the fringes of the capital.  I will bring this history into view with the work of Prof David McCrone’s sociology work which describes Edinburgh as a “city of castes”.


A few paragraphs about you:

I am an independent learner who got interested in history and sociology when I realised I knew little about the land I grew up other than the pageantry and story telling of the privileged.  Discovering historiography (the critical reading of history) and action research (research done by the people who need change) made me think more about how the world is the way it is and how I am positioned in it.


I started the Ragged University project because I could not get into formal higher education but felt that learning was important in my life.  The Ragged University project comes from the history of the Ragged Schools and how before formal education existed in Britain communities pooled their resources and shared what they knew with each other. Inspired by this I decided to continue the social tradition in my own life.


What free internet knowledge resources would you recommend?

Working Classness: Class as a Topology of Finance and Status


The Tragedy of the Commons People: A Marmot Overview


The Highland Clearances: Reading History and Dispossession


Class, Opportunity and the Lesser Minds Problem


Excerpts illustrating contrast between Geddes vision and reality:

“A ‘conservative’ housing strategy was reinforced by the policies and practices of successive burgh engineers whose remit incluced building houses. A. Horsburgh Campbell was a burgh engineer from 1910 until 1926, and appointed as director of housing in 1920 by the Housing and Town Planning Committee, and strongly advocated the continuing use of tenements in slum clearance. Campbell pursued a policy of ‘Geddesian small-scale redevelopments’ making use of small in-fill schemes, and low-rise suburban estates (such as those in Niddrie Mains – not to be confused with Craigmillar and Prestonfield).”

David McCrone, Who Runs Edinburgh ? Page 46-47

“Nor were we aware that we were taking part in an experiment in social engineering! Not that any of our families who went with such high hopes and aspirations would have had a clue what such jargon meant. No city father saw fit to inform us that they were guinea pigs, far less consult us, or gear the experiment to our families’ aspirations. They thought it was enough to house us! We cannot deny those city fathers put a lot of thought and enthusiasm into their task. It is said that before embarking on the undertaking, a delegation made visits elsewhere to study the latest trends in housing the masses. The delegation came home, seemingly greatly impressed and stimulated with what they had seen. So they put the planners to work on the drawing board and with meticulous precision planned a housing estate of three storied blocks of flats, devoid of character, idealism or feeling.”

Helen Crummy, (1992), Let The People Sing: A Story of Craigmillar pp. 22-23


“If only these city fathers had been blessed with the imagination and vision of their 18th century counterparts who built Edinburgh’s architecturally famous New Town, then years later there would have been no need to hide from view the vast soulless housing estate and hope the social ills they helped create would go away…Instead, closeted in the Council Chambers they were instructed to design, not an extension of the city’s New Town – not a new village – nor even a small self contained town, but something new – a vast housing estate, devoid of a heart, amenities, work and social mix, yet with the potential to house a small town population. This was to prove a recipe for social disaster!”

Helen Crummy, (1992), Let The People Sing: A Story of Craigmillar pp. 23-24


Investigating this contrasting reality I approached a notable expert on the work and vision of Patrick Geddes – Murdo MacDonald – in order to get his thoughts on whether the housing estates as constructed could be understood as conforming to the principles Geddes laid out in town planning. This is part of the response I got:


I draw your attention to this passage from my book:

As a pioneer of sociology, of planning and of ecology, Geddes would have been keenly aware that academic disciplines emerge from the interaction of earlier formulations of study. It is an irony that as disciplines develop into recognisable areas of endeavour their interdisciplinary origins may no longer be seen as relevant, and the significance of their relationships to other disciplines may no longer be perceived. Indeed it is often in the professional interests of the practitioners of a new discipline to demarcate it clearly from other disciplines. Geddes’s ‘diluted legacy’ in planning, geography and sociology has been noted by B. T. Robson,[i] who comments that ‘the bones, not the spirit’ of Geddes’s thinking were taken up in those disciplines.[ii] That lost spirit was, in large part, Geddes’s interdisciplinarity.

[i] Robson, B. T., ‘Geography and Social Science: The Role of Patrick Geddes’, Geography, Ideology and Social Concern, edited by D. R. Stoddart, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), pp. 186–205, p. 200 and p. 203.

[ii] Ibid. p. 200.


You can read more about Murdo Macdonald’s work and his book ‘The Intellectual Origins of Patrick Geddes’ by clicking HERE


This event took place on 29th June 2023 at Southside Community Centre (117 Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9ER)