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A Journey into Scotland : Part 50

This Empty Land

The road out of Tongue is one of the delights of British cycling. On the map it is marked as an A Road meaning that it ranks just one below motorways as a major route. On the ground you find something more resembling a country lane in both size and volume of traffic. Anyone trying to get anywhere in this part of the world uses it; it’s just that there aren’t many people, so unhappy with where they are, that they wish to be somewhere else. It occasionally spreads into two lanes but is often a single track with passing places and cattle grids. In winter, wind and ice are bigger dangers than snow and in summer motorbikes do their bit to destroy the peace and beauty that attracted them. Without these it is close to heaven.

Would that it had always been like this.

Here the coast is inlets and river mouths. The settlements are tiny ports and the emptiness is, at times, eerie. You cycle through a stand of birch trees and suddenly the road opens out under an enormous grey sky. On one side the world tilts up to the moors and on the other the northern sea. This is the last of Scotland for modern day travellers. For many this was, indeed, the last of Scotland. There is a reason why so few people live here and barely anyone away from the coast. The land, in the obscure legal tracts of history, ended up as the estates of the lowland wealthy. It had been the home of  thousands of crofters who scratched a living from the thin soil with the aid of a cow or two and some sheep. The new landlords saw the commercial possibilities. People were not economic at all. Strewth man, they barely produced enough food for themselves and their families. The people needed to be cleared away to make room for something with a bit of profit in’t.

dunnet headThere is a problem with the history of the Highland Clearances. The very term is emotive and sparks reactions that don’t always fit the facts. This hasn’t been helped by popular myth makers who have sold a history of Scotland that speaks to the emotions more than to the facts. The greatest offender has also been the most successful. John Prebble was a Canadian, born in England, who wrote a series of three books of Scottish history that  have variously been described as “faction” (i.e. fiction with some facts thrown in) by Professor Tom Devine and as “utter rubbish” by Gordon Donaldson. (Both are esteemed historians yet Prebble’s books have struck such a chord that some still choose to defend the populist against the experts.)  I’d bought all three books in the visitor centre while passing through Glencoe (the scene of book one) and had been roused to the utmost indignity at the wrongs done to the Highlanders by the agents and absentee landlords (often, at the end of the day, rich members of the English aristocracy). There is some truth in what Prebble writes. This has always been the problem with unreliable historians. Because there is truth some people make the mistake of assuming it is true. It isn’t.

The problem with Prebble is twofold. One, the stories of Glencoe, Culloden and the Highland Clearances are remarkable enough without being told through the silkscreen of mythology. His one-eyed histories do a dis-service to the events. Secondly, he does his job rather well and paints such a clear picture of heroes and villains that the reader doesn’t have to do great deal of sifting through the evidence. This is what happened, he declares in bold black and white.  These were the wrongs and these were the rights. These were the villains and these were the victims. We have grown, as a nation (and are not alone in this) in wanting to be able to appropriate blame. We haven’t always been quite so keen, at times, in ensuring that the blame falls in the right place.

The highlands were cleared and often forcibly. Crofters were removed from the interior of northern Scotland in two main phases: from the 1740s onwards they were moved off their small farms and into villages (often on the coast) where they were used as low paid labour in fishing and the processing of kelp. During the nineteenth century, they were forcibly removed from the land in order to allow the large scale farming of sheep in enclosed estates and the hunting of deer. It was a process that had been happening for over a hundred years throughout the British Isles. Small holders didn’t have their tenancy agreements renewed and either became labourers on larger farms or migrated to the industrial cities. There is a big question mark over how the lands fell into the hands of the estate owners in the first place. In the case of the highlands and islands of Scotland there is a point where lands owned by clans became lands owned by clan chiefs. Industrialists and lawyers, as well as the already landed gentry, moved in and bought huge tracts of the north. Sir James Matheson bought the Island of Lewis in the 1820s with money made by exploiting the opium trade in China and India. Having made millions as the biggest drug dealer of his time he had little compunction in clearing the crofters and cotters from his newly acquired lands.*

rannoch moor 5Where did the people go? In England and the Scottish lowlands (the clearances were a part of the huge social and economic change that goes under the joint names of the agrarian and the industrial revolutions) the small holders either ended up in villages that were (often) newly created for the purpose of housing them. (In Ayrshire alone there are 340 such settlements; on Mull, which is about the same size, there are 6)**, or they went to the rapidly growing industrial cities in search of work. In the Highlands of Scotland and throughout Ireland thousands sailed to a new life in Australia, Canada and the United States. The process took place across the whole of the country but was at its most brutal in the Highlands, The Hebrides  and in Ireland.

There were several factors that made the “Clearances” (The term was coined later by Sir Edward Pine Coffin) a major crime in the far north. To begin with there was nowhere for the people to go other than the emigration boats that took the displaced to the New World. There were no big industrial cities and they were not wanted as farm labour in the way that the landless and dispossessed were needed in the lowlands and England. Down south the big farms were labour intensive. Ditches needed to be dug for drainage, walls and hedges had to be built and maintained. There were also a lot more crops to harvest. In the north the estates were capital intensive but required very little labour. One shepherd per 600 head of sheep.

A second thing was a diabolical breach of trust. One traditional outlet for the mass unemployed has always been the army and in the later years on the eighteenth century crofters and cotters were given assurances of their long-term tenure, on the lands they regarded as ancestral, if they joined the army. Thousands enlisted. During the Napoleonic wars the Highlands provided proportionately more fighting men than any other part of the country. When Napoleon was safely out of the way, dying from the lead in his wallpaper, on St Helena, the promises were quickly forgotten. It added to the resentment at evictions which, in turn, led to greater force being used.

On top of this was the hideous speed of the evictions. Lowland and English smallholders had been cleared away over several generations and partly absorbed into the community. The Scottish Clearances were much quicker and this was down to tenancy agreements. In the south 5, 9 and 18 years agreements were the norm. In the Highlands these agreements were for a single year. This led to many tenancies expiring at the same time which, in turn, led to mass forcible evictions. In order to stop crofters and cotters returning to their homes the roofs were demolished and the houses set alight. Eye witness reports talk of being able to see over two hundred and fifty buildings burning in the twilight, on a single night, as wretched families sought refuge by making their way to the coast. A good number died on the way.

What turned a horror story into a catastrophe was the failure of the potato crops from 1846 onwards. The potato famine didn’t account for as many lives as across the sea in Ireland but hit very hard in the lands north of the Great Glen. In the ten years, following the arrival of serious blight in the crop, 16,000 Highlanders were forcibly transported to Australia and Canada.

pentland firthThe moors became empty of people and their place was taken by massive flocks of sheep. A tough way of life was done away with. Very few crofters made more than a third of their living from their farms. They needed to sell skills as wheelwrights, stonemasons, carpenters and soldiers to achieve subsistence. It is a way of life, under the old clan system, that has been romanticised and even glamourised by people such as Prebble. There wasn’t much to commend the clan system. Clan chiefs and chieftains were among the men who were ordering the clearances and who became incredibly rich on the suffering of the people who once lived on these hills and in these glens.


On a grey, overcast day I can feel the huge emptiness around me. The sheep and cattle still roam the fells which sweep down to the slate grey waters of the North Atlantic. In defiance I start to sing a Woody Guthrie song but it dies on the wind.

*His grave in Lairg in Sutherland is an ornate affair decorated with garlands of poppies. But not the sort that commemorate the glorious dead.

** Tom Devine
NB A bibliography for the Journey into  Scotland will appear at the end.