Highland Clearances and the future

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 6 comments

The Highland Clearances are undoubtedly one of the defining moments in Scottish history, no other event has had the long lasting impact both psychologically and geographically as they have done. Collectively, even among those without specialist knowledge we have a shared sense of outrage that binds us together as a nation. So what can we learn from the past? Is it time to move on or should we instead try to right one of the most powerful historical wrongs.

The Highland Clearances took place over a period of about 100 years, the seeds of which took place in the aftermath of the battle of Culloden in 1746 and the disintegration of the traditional clan system. In basic terms, landowners (many facing financial hardships) forcibly evicted crofting tenants from their land with little warning or compensation. This was to enable the land to be used for much more profitable sheep farming. Whole glens were completely cleared, houses burnt and people violently forced to relocate to unfertile coastal locations. Many chose to emigrate and hundreds of thousands made the journey to North America, Australia or New Zealand. We can consider that what was Scotland’s loss was certainly their gain, as Scots pioneers played a vital role in the building of each of these countries.

Remains of a clearance village on Skye

Today the remains of clearance villages in places like Rosehall are testament to the long lasting effect of this brutal event. Places that were once vibrant centres of rural life with people living and working off the land have never recovered and still remain desolate to this day. In contrast, travel around eastern Canada and when you see the amount of prosperous towns with highland names, you can only imagine what might have been if people had been allowed to remain on their land. Emigrants to Nova Scotia in particular never really, in their own minds thought they were leaving Scotland. Instead they would pretend that the islands off the east coast of Canada were more like remote outposts of the Western Isles. It is from this idea that the Gaelic motto for these emigrants was “Ach an cuan” which translates as “but for the sea.” Indeed, in the early 20th century there were over 100,000 Gaelic speakers there. Contrast that with the 60,000 Gaelic speakers that are left in Scotland today.

Part of the reason for the resonance we have with the suffering of those involved in the clearances is the way the events have been chronicled in our art, song and poetry. Hallaig by Sorley Maclean, one of the greatest Scottish poets of the 20th century is a stunning commentary of the desolation of his native Raasay, while Consider the Lillies by Iain Crichton Smith, regularly voted as one of the best ever Scottish books, is now a set text in schools. Whilst essential reading, neither are, quite understandably uplifting.

So where does that leave us today? Land reform is now one of the hottest topics on the political agenda. Scotland has today, without question one of the most unequitable distributions of land in Europe. Massive estates all over the country are owned by absentee landlords or are registered to holding companies in tax havens overseas. The Duke of Buccleuch, for example, owns nearly a quarter of a million acres on various estates in the borders, indeed only 608 people own half of the entire country’s land.

People with a large amount of money at their disposal have, in the past, treated the glens and forests of Scotland like a land bank. A risk free long term investment, made without taking into consideration what the impact on local communities would be. Is this not a legacy of the attitude so common all these years ago? Not all landlords are evil and the Scottish government has tried to support community buy outs of large estates whenever possible, such as in South Uist or Eigg, but there is simply not enough money available purchase every estate that comes to the market.


The spectre of the clearances hangs over the new Land Reform Bill that is currently venturing through the Scottish parliament. It is not going to provide an instant solution, nor cannot it undo the crimes of the past, but it can be a focus for a new generation to try and do something positive to address the issue. Lesley Riddoch in a speech given this summer, talked about organising a mass trespass, a protest to demonstrate the momentum that has developed in the land reform campaign. Is it finally time to stop looking backwards?

The Scottish Parliament in 2003 passed legislation incorporating the outdoor access code which changed Scotland overnight from having some of the most restrictive access laws in Europe to having some of the most open. It seems to me that tackling land ownership is the next logical step.

Clearance Monument at Helmsdale

We can’t go back in time or change what happened, but as a nation it seems that Scotland is finally ready to come to terms with the legacy of the clearances. Rather than have the clearances as a defining feature of the rural Highlands, just maybe we can move beyond this and have the 21st century legacy of the clearances be a progressive and equitable land distribution programme that does more than just redress the balance. The glens are waiting to be repopulated again. The optimist in me thinks that the time is now right, a country should not be judged on failures past but by how it corrects them.

A short film is currently being made, depicting a young woman’s ordeal during the clearances of the 1800’s.

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Comments (6)
  1. Pingback: Viena iš priežasčių kodėl škotai nemėgsta anglų – Atrasti Škotiją

  2. Sheena M Wheeler says:

    So interesting to read an educated view and documentation of “The Clearances”. The history from an educated view has assisted me to separate from my Fathers deep sadness of what happened to our original family of MACKAYs from Strathnaver Skerray Caithness all those years ago.
    Many emigrated to Canada,USA,New Zealand and Australia.
    We chose to come and live in Western Australia in 1951.
    Thank you so much.Inwill get some suggested reading from the Library
    Sincerely yours,
    Sheena Mackay Wheeler

  3. Billy Mackay says:

    A few years ago, I took my daughter round the museum up there to look at the children’s documentation of the clearances. It was very moving as my family originally from Totegan and Reay.

    I grew up in Thurso and spent a lot of time ‘past the split stone’.

  4. Carol Ireland says:

    We are making it our mission to visit all the abandoned villages and have visited quite a few already……we would love to know more about who lived there and where they went etc…. such a sad situation…….

  5. Mary Karlik says:

    My grandfather came from Glasgow to work the shipyards in Virginia. I never knew him, but my mother often talked about way the Scots were treated. I never really understood the depth of mistreatment until my recent visit to the highlands. Now, I’m obsessed with researching more about it. Thank you for this insightful article.

  6. Owen Hughes says:

    Repopulating the glens can be done with renewable energy and a universal basic income. Indeed, I believe there are a great many people who would jump at the chance if the circumstances were right.

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