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Scottish Clearances - the removal of an Indigenous people


In Australia over recent decades we have become increasingly aware of the dispossession of the Indigenous Australians. Perhaps what we are less aware of is that many of the immigrants that came to Australia and Canada, were themselves dispossessed Indigenous people. In particular I am referring to the Scots, especially the Highland Scots, who were cleared from their land to make way for Cheviot sheep.

Sheep on ruins of former villages.

Most people probably don't realise that the now desolate highlands were once densely populated, but the people were forcibly and violently removed to make way for Cheviot sheep. Few inhabitants of the highlands now are descended from that original race who had lived simply on the land for time immemorial.

Of those who removed, the young and fit were shipped off to Australia and Canada, the rest left often to die in the cold or starve with little or no support.

In this article I am giving some of the stories of this treatment of highlanders which was described at the time by Donald Ross (in 1853) as follows:


"It would insulting to the feelings and common-sense of right thinking persons to ask them if this is a fair and legal treatment of the poor. The injustice is so palpable, the inhumanity so great, that one can scarcely find language sufficiently strong to condemn it!'

The scene that Donald Ross was witnessing is described by historian John Prebble (in the 'Highland Clearances', 1963) as follows:

"On a golden day in September, with the Sherriff-Subsitute and a body of police, he [factor Mcdonald] came down the Portree road, crossed Loch Slapin from Straithaird, and began the removals. Most of the men of the township were away, working in Glasgow or on the railways that were crawling like vines across the lowlands, but some were in the hills with their cattle. They heard the crying of women, the barking of dogs, and a hammering as the officers nailed up the doors of the cottages. They came down in haste, and there was a short, brutal struggle on the shore by Boreraig. When it was over, Alexander MacInnes, John and Duncan Mccrae were in irons. They were dragged 30 miles to Portree and their families followed them weeping.

The evictions continued. 'The scene was truly heartrending', Donald Ross, the lawyer, wrote to the Northern Ensign. 'The women and children went about tearing their hair, and rending the heaven with their cries. Mothers with tender infants at the breast looked helplessly on, while their effects and their aged and infirm relatives were cast out, and the doors of their houses locked in their faces. No mercy was shown to age or sex, all were indiscriminately thrust out and left to perish.' There was word spoken of emigration, or of other land on Skye which, in an unguarded moment, Lord Macdonald had said might be theirs. The doors were nailed up and the people were told to go. When the officers left at dusk the women and children crawled into byres and sheep-cots. And waited."

Later on:

"Many of them were still there in February, living like animals in the open, when Donald Ross came from Glasgow with food and clothing. He found Flora Robertson, a widow of ninety-six, existing on half a crown a month from the Parochial Board. She had been living in a sheep-cot since the the September eviction, and was starving. 'Anything more wretched than the appearance of this old woman I have never yet witnessed. Her bed, a pallet of straw and some pieces of old blanket was on the bare floor. Her face and arms were the colour of lead. I asked her what was it she complained of most. She tried to raise herself up, and she repied: 'I complain of nothing, but weakness and the want of food'".


This is the type of houses the Scott's lived in, often the houses were shared with stock animals in winter.


This painting is called "The Last of the Clan" by Thomas Faed, painted in 1865.

But this is by far, not the worst treatment the Scott's experienced. Also in 1853 another clearance took place (on top of the many before that year) at Knoydart. It is described by Prebbles(1963) below:

"Four hundred people were cleared from their homes, and those who refused to go ran to the hills and hid in caves. Grant ordered the destruction of each house immediately it was evacuated. 'Not only the houses of those who had left,' said Ross, 'but also of those who had refused to go. The inmates were ordered out, the thatch was pulled off, picks were stuck into the walls, and levers removed the foundations, axes cut the couple trees, and then roof, rafters and walls fell with a crash. Clouds of dust rose to the skies, while men, women and children stood at distance completely dismayed. From house to house, hut to hut, and from barn to barn, the factor and his menials proceeded.' The few huts left standing belonged to paupers on the poor roll of Glenelg parish. Grant warned them that if they gave shelter to the evicted 'for one moment day or night' they too would have their homes levelled.

This still was not the worst they suffered. In earlier evictions in Sutherland, houses were burned whilst people were in them. One lady of 100 years old was dragged in clear from her burning house by neighbours, but sustained burns and died 5 days later. In another town around 70 women of the town rallied and stood before the police. The offered no violence beyond blocking the road, but they were brutally beaten so badly that bits of their skulls and scalps were able to be collected and taken as evidence of the brutality. There was a court case, the factor and police involved were exonerated.

The surprising thing is, that despite the reputation of Highlanders being fierce warriors, they were mostly gentle as lambs throughout all this (in fact the women offered more resistance than the men). It seems in some cases that they may have blamed themselves, and saw this as retribution for their sins. A site on the GelCalvie clearances states:

"Some of those broken individuals scratched their names and brief messages into the glass of the church, perhaps realising that they would soon vanish forever they attempted some small monument to mark their existence, others needed to share their thoughts and these are particularly poignant. ‘This House is Needing Repair’ seems to be a comment on the spiritual erosion of the community and ‘Glen Calvie People the Wicked Generation’ is also very telling as it suggests that these people who trusted their church and their chief for generations could not believe that those who had always protected them were now turning them out of their homes. To them their misfortune was the result of their own sinful behaviour! Another telling point is that these were native Gaelic speakers and yet their comments were written in English, almost as if they realised their highland culture would leave the valley with them."


Messages scratched in the glass of Glen Calvie church by refugees of the clearances who took shelter in the garden there in 1845.

In any case, many were sent to Canada, and there found themselves with no infrastructure, in the middle winter and fighting Indians. They wrote back to Scotland warning their families not to come.

There are many other horror stories from the period of the clearances, I have just mentioned some. But you can find more if you wish. The striking thing is that these people were treated as badly as Indigenous people anywhere - and this by their own countrymen - in particular their Lairds - whom they trusted and looked upon as their protectors! What a shocking betrayal! In the case of Sutherland, the Countess there threatened all the young men, that if they did not join her regiment in the Napoleonic wars, their families would be evicted. These young men returned home to find their villages destroyed and their families gone in any case.


A memorial to McCleod who spoke against the clearances. Whilst he was away on work, his wife and young children were evicted, for fear themselves no neighbours could help them. His wife - like many women in the clearances - went insane.

The Crimean War - and the lack of troops

the following is paraphrased from Prebbles (1963)

Between 1793 and 1815 the Highlands had provided 72, 385 troops. These were cheaper and easier to raise than English troops, as the Lairds simply threatened to evict the families of anyone who didn't enlist.

But come the Crimean war, across British society the question was being asked "Where are the highlanders?", There was only one infantry battalion from Sutherland (who fought bravely).


The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb, a battle fought by the Sutherland highlanders in the Crimean war.

The young Highland men of Sutherland (the few that were left) produced the following statement when called to service:

"We have no country to fight for, as our glens and straths are laid desolate, and we have no wives or children to defend as we are forbidden to have them. We are not allowed to marry without consent of the factor, the ground officer being always ready to report every case of marriage, and the result would be banishment from the county. Our lands have been taken from us and given to sheep farmers, and we are denied any portion of them, and when we apply for such, or even the site of a house, we are told that we should leave the country. For these wrongs and oppressions, as well for others which we have long and patiently endured, we are resolved that there will be no volunteers or recruits from Sutherlandshire. Yet we assert we are as ready as our forefathers were to peril life and limb in defence of Queen and country were our wrongs and long endured oppression redressed, wrongs which will be remembered in Sutherlandshire by every true Highlander as long as grass grows and water runs"

Only one man enlisted, believing he would be looked after by the Duke for ever after. But after he left his house was pulled down and his wife and family turned out by the factor.

Prebble (1963) concludes his book with the following statement:

"At Culloden and during the first military occupation of the glens, the British government first defeated a tribal uprising and then destroyed the society that had made it possible. The exploitation of the country during the next hundred years was within the pattern of colonial development - new economies introduced for the greater wealth of the few, and the unproductive obstacle of a native population removed or reduced. In the beginning the men who imposed the change were of the same blood, tongue and family as the people. The used the advantages given them by the old society to profit from the new, but in the end they were gone with their clans." (wiped out by cheaper sheep and wool from Australia and Canada)

"The Lowlander has inherited the hills and the tartan is a shroud."

It turns out that the old agricultural practices over the generations had left the land in good condition, but as time went on, the sheep degraded the pastures, and productivity fell drastically. Combine this with the produce coming from Australia and America (where all the Highlanders were forcibly emigrated to) and the prices also dropped. Rents tanked, and many leasees bailed out, leaving the landowners obliged to buy their quickly devaluing stock. The landowners switched business models to target game hunters, and that helped for a while, but after WWII, that industry also declined, but there was no going back (Hunter, n.d). And Lords who could once raise a military force consisting of thousands of men within 48 hours, found that even by the middle 1800's they could hardly raise a man of their clan name (Prebbles 1963).

What led to the clearances?

It is fairly clear that what led to the clearances was the the desire for luxury and status in English society of the Scottish lairds. The growing cities of people who produced nothing themselves, but grew rich from the extractions of Empire offered opportunity for the sale of excess product, and good profits.

The native Scots themselves were 'stubbornly resistant' (Aitchison and Cassell, 2003) to agricultural change and improvement (wisely so it seems). They were focussed more on improving their own morals:

"The ambition of the people at that time was not to improve the soil, but to reform the church [...] to tread down the Whore of Babylon, and the Man of Sin". (William Aiton, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Ayr, 1811).

Robert Burns maybe captured something of the spirit of the average Scot at those times in his poems which lauded the poor cotters and derided the luxury loving rich:

"The cottage leaves the palace far behind;
What is lordling's pomp? A cumbrous load,
Disguising oft the wretch of human kind,
Studied in arts of hell, in wickedness refin'd!


O Scotia! My dear, my native soil!
For whom my warmest wish to Heaven is sent,
Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil
Be blest with health, and peace and sweet content!

And O! Heaven may their simple lives prevent
From luxury's contagion, weak and vile!
Then howe'er crowns and coronets be rent,
A virtuous populace may rise the while,
And stand a wall of fire around their much-lov'd isle"

And true to Burn's poem, the rich lairds were to show how studied they were in "arts of hell, in wickedness refin'd" as they ruthlessly evicted their own countrymen, whose forefather's had fought many a time for their laird.

The Scottish were so badly effected it seems because they had the weakest rights and protections, weaker even than England, whose people suffered the loss of land through the enclosure movement. The English in turn were far worse off than those on continent - such as the French and the Swedish - whose peasants had title to their own land.

I leave you to read more if you wish. There is plenty to find.

Here is a video where Mark Nicol goes searching for a lost village in Scotland.

Nb: the book "Gloomy Memories" mentioned on the memorial stone above was written in response to the book "Happy Memories" written by Harriet Stowe, lauding the 'improvements' on the Highlands and the good character of the Duchess of Sutherland who hosted her in Scotland. According to Prebble (1963), Mrs Stowe spent more time in Scotland than she did in Virginia, and Donald Mcleod, made sure she was better informed about suffering in Scotland than she was about slavery in Virginia which led to her largely ill-informed book "Uncle Tom's Cabin" the book that made Mrs Stowe famous

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