The Clearances

by Billy Roberson

The Clearances of the Highlands of Scotland have interested and mystified a myriad of people, so I asked Billy Roberson, a good friend, and a member of Clan Robertson, to enlighten us.

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In the years between 1785 and 1850, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were subjected to a social and demographic upheaval in which tens of thousands of people were removed from their homes to make way for sheep farming. This need to increase both the yield of the land and the income of the landowner had already swept the Lowlands in the 1700's. There were two types of removal of the people:

Resettlement within individual estates: Tenants were evicted from communal rigs and grayings to more marginal land usually on the coast. These were known as crofts. These were directed towards fishing and kelping.

Emigration to the Lowland and the Colonies: This type was not always forced and was prompted by the failure of the crofts to provide a living. Population increases, increase in rent, a drop in fishing and kelping and of course the potato famine of 1846 produced tragic results and starvation.

The Clan Chiefs and the government played down the second type of emigration because the Chiefs needed labor for Kelping and the government needed Highland troops for the Napoleonic wars. As the demand for cattle dropped the conditions worsened.

The Potato Famine was the climax - many saw emigration as their only solution and so the clearances were justified more for humanitarian reasons than for economic ones. The conditions of the 1840's relieved the pressures of over population and an increase in fishing and agriculture helped both the crofting income and landowners rents.

The greed of the landowners, the poor economic conditions led the mass exodus away from the Highlands. The Clansmen felt betrayed by their Clan Chiefs, the very ones they had regarded as their protectors. These feelings of betrayal were magnified when the estates changed ownership to both non-highlanders and non-Gaelic people. The gulf between workers and owners greatened because of the difference in class, language and religious beliefs.

 

This article was arranged for and edited by Anthony McGowan, who runs a web site called Highland Moon, for those interested in Scotland, past and present.

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