The ethnic cleansing of the Highland Clearances
The ethnic cleansing of the Highland Clearances


The Highland Clearances in Scotland were part of a process of agricultural change throughout Britain, but the late timing, the abruptness of the change from the Clan System in the Scottish Highlands and the brutality of many of the evictions gave the Highland Clearances particular notoriety.

The enclosures that depopulated rural England in the British Agricultural Revolution started much earlier, and similar developments in Scotland have lately been called the Lowland Clearances, but in the Highlands the impact on a Gaelic speaking semi-feudal culture that still expected obligations from a Chieftain to his Clan led to vocal campaigning and a lingering bitterness among the descendants of the large numbers forced to emigrate, or to remain and subsist in crofting townships on very small areas of often marginal land. Crofters became a source of virtually free labour to their landlords, forced to work long hours, for example, in the harvesting and processing of kelp.

Clan chieftains

From the late 16th century the Scottish Privy Council required clan leaders to regularly attend at Edinburgh to provide bonds for the conduct of anyone on their territory, bringing a tendency for Chieftains to see themselves as landlords and become part of the British aristocracy. The lesser clan-gentry increasingly took up droving, taking cattle along the old unpaved drove roads to sell in the Lowlands. This brought them wealth and land-ownership within the clan, though the Highlands continued to have problems of overpopulation and poverty. The Jacobite Risings brought repeated government efforts to curb the clans culminating after the Battle of Culloden with brutal repression and legislation from 1746 leading to the destruction of the traditional clan system and of the supportive social structures of small agricultural townships.

From around 1725 clansmen had been emigrating to the Americas with clan gentry looking to re-establish their lifestyle, or as victims of raids on the Hebrides looking for cheap labour. Increasing demand in Britain for cattle and sheep and the discovery that sheep could be reared in the mountainous country gave the landowners and Chieftains the opportunity of higher rents to meet the burden of costs of an aristocratic lifestyle. As a result, many families living on a subsistence level were displaced.


What the landlords thought of as necessary Improvements but became known as the Clearances are thought to have been begun by Admiral John Ross of Balnagowan Castle in Scotland in 1762, although MacLeod of Dunvegan had done some experimental work on Skye in 1732. Many Chieftains engaged Lowland, or sometimes English, factors with expertise in more profitable sheep farming, and they ‘encouraged’, sometimes forcibly, the population to move off the land. The people were accommodated in poor crofts or small farms in coastal areas where farming or fishing could not sustain the communities, or they were directly put on emigration ships, all of this being seen as a necessary improvement for their own good. A particularly poignant example is that of Clan MacDonell of Glengarry, where the clan chieftain portrayed himself the last genuine specimen of a Highland chief and laid on lavish pageantry while his relative, a Catholic missionary, tried to find his displaced clansmen work in the lowlands, organised the raising of a regiment to get them employment in the British Army and when the regiment was disbanded got the government to grant its members a tract of land in Canada and emigrated with them.

To landlords ‘improvement’ and ‘clearance’ did not necessarily mean depopulation. At least until the 1820s, when there were steep falls in the price of kelp, landlords wanted to create pools of cheap or virtually free labour, supplied by families subsisting in new crofting townships. Kelp collection and processing was a very profitable way of using this labour, and landlords petitioned successfully for legislation designed to stop emigration. This took the form of the Passenger Vessels Act passed in 1803. Attitudes changed during the 1820s and, for many landlords, the potato famine which began in 1846 became another reason for encouraging or forcing emigration and depopulation.

Potato Famine

As in Ireland, the potato crop failed in the mid 19th century, and a widespread outbreak of cholera further weakened the Highland population. The ongoing clearance policy resulted in starvation, deaths, and a secondary clearance, when families either migrated voluntarily or were forcibly evicted. There were many deaths of children and old people. As there were few alternatives, many emigrated, joined the British army, or moved to the growing urban cities, like Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee in Lowland Scotland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Liverpool in the north of England. In many areas people were given economic incentives to move, but few historians dispute that there were also many instances where violent methods were used by the landlords to clear the indigenous population. Elizabeth, First Countess of Sutherland and her factor, Patrick Sellar, were especially cruel and their names are reviled in Sutherland to this day.

Donald McLeod, a Sutherland crofter, later wrote about the events he witnessed:

“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. During one of these days a boat actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing-place by the lurid light of the flames.”

Accounts like those of McLeod and General David Stewart of Garth brought widespread condemnation and The Highland Land League eventually achieved land reform in the enactment of Crofting Acts, but these could not bring economic viability and came at a time when the land was already suffering from depopulation.

Ethnic cleansing

It is debatable whether the Clearances could be considered as genocide, but from McLeod’s accounts they would certainly appear to be an early instance of ethnic cleansing, for although both the dispossessors and the dispossessed were Britons, Highlanders were regarded as foreign, as Erse (Irish), with a culture, language and traditions distinct from the rest of Britain. While the collapse of the clan system can be attributed more to economic factors and the repression that followed the Battle of Culloden, the widespread evictions resulting from the Clearances severely affected the viability of the Highland population and culture. To this day, the population in the Scottish Highlands is sparse and the culture is diluted, and there are many more sheep than people. However, the Clearances did result in significant emigration of Highlanders to North America and Australasia — where today are found considerably more descendants of Highlanders than in Scotland itself. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Highlanders arrived in such numbers that it is now one of the few areas outside Scotland where Scottish Gaelic is spoken.

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