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Highland Clearances

Scottish American Society

Presented at the meeting on January 9th, 2011
by Margaret Frost


BackgroundThe highland clearances were events which took place after the Scottish under the leadership of Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated by the English at Culloden in 1746. Culloden was the final act in a long-running series of events that became known as the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. The battle led to the largest uprooting of Highlanders in history, and the complete alteration of the highland way of life.

The clan chiefs prior to Culloden had been more or less elected by the members of the clan. The best leader was chosen and other titles were given to other selected clan individuals. Examples would be the Seannachie or story teller who related the history of the group from memory. The "tutor" who taught the young people the ways of the clan - including perhaps swordsmanship and fighting. The lands on which the clan members were located was communal land - owned by the clan in total, and not by individuals.

After Culloden, the English felt it was best to "Anglisize" the chiefs. They swept them up and took them south to England to educate them. Lands which had once been held communally were granted in total to the chiefs. Where once they had been only the temporary custodians, now they were landed and began to consider themselves "gentry."

The result was the death toll for the clan system. This was the goal of the English and they were largely successful. The highland clearances, therefore, were ripple effects of the Scottish defeat in battle. Large areas of land were cleared of their tenants by the landowners to make way for sheep and the people were moved to poor agricultural land and to the coast. These areas couldn't support the people and many facing starvation and burdens of high rent emigrated to the new worlds.


The clearances were confined mainly to the less populated areas of Scotland. They included the Northern Highlands, Strathnaver, Skye, Lochalsh, Fort William, Lochaber, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. Orkney and Shetland, Lewis, Barra, West Aberdeenshire, east side of the Grampians and the island of Arran, among others.

There were certainly clearances in the lowlands as well, and the results were almost as nasty. In the lowlands they accomplished the goal by raising rents and imposing impossible conditions for the crofters to manage.


In Scotland before the 1800s there was a Clan System where everyone worked together for the good of the clan. Elements of this still existed in the 19th century.



Land Use Hierarchy

The cottars - worked for sub-tenant farmers.
Sub-tenant farmers or crofters - lived in croft houses and leased land from the tacksman. .
Tacksmen - leased land from the Clan Chief and made sure things ran smoothly on the land.

Chief - owned the land

Landlords - many landlords decided they wanted the land for animals not people as this would make more money.

Factor (or property manager) is a person or firm charged with superintending or managing properties and estates -- where the owner or landlord is unable to or uninterested in attending to such details personally

Highland Clearances.
After Culloden and the change in the status of Chiefs, the ties of kinship and mutual trust between chiefs and people dissipated. The chiefs now regarding themselves as landed gentry, tended to associate with the high life of Edinburgh and London. Soon they realized that the life they had chosen could not adequately be supported by the revenues from their estates.

Thus came the beginning of the clearances. They felt that sheep could bring in more income than the small farmers or crofters now occupying what they considered their rightful property.

This is clearly a case where legality and morality part company. They were definitely within their legal rights to evict people living on their land as, basically, renters. Was it the moral thing to do ? Was it done in a moral manner? I will leave that judgment up to you.

Patrick Sellars, a professional lawyer who had been Procurator Fiscal, decided to make a fortune for himself in helping the landlords clear the land. His harshness and his burnings to clear the southern straths led to his becoming the most hated man in the Highlands. It was rumoured (and widely believed) that his body became riddled with lice as a result of the many curses put upon him.

William Young was responsible for the northern Strathnaver clearances - where no trace of burning has been found at Rossal, Dunvidon or Borgie. There the people left voluntarily. Not happily, but voluntarily.


People were allocated small plots of land which many occupied for generations. Often they didn't even know how long a family had lived in a particular place or plot of ground. It didn't occur to them that they could ever be asked to leave.

Though their homes were not elegant, they were comfortable. In fact, the kind of dwelling they lived in was still occupied until fairly recently.

The small village of Arnol lies on the north west coastal side of the main part of the Isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides. At the far end of the village is the Blackhouse Museum, an unmissable visit for anyone wanting to understand a way of life once widespread in Lewis. My cousin Annie could remember many pleasant evenings spent around the fire in this house. When we first visited it just after it had been made into a museum, it looked very much as if the occupants were outside somewhere and would soon be back.

A blackhouse was usually comprised of a long narrow building, often with one or more additional buildings laid parallel to it and sharing a common wall. The walls were made from an inner and outer layer of unmortared stones, the gap between them filled with peat and earth. The roof would be based on a wooden frame, resting on the inner stone walls, giving the very characteristic wall-ledge. Over the frame would be laid an overlapping layer of heathery turf, and over this would be laid a layer of thatch. The thatch would be secured by an old fishing net or by twine, attached to large rocks whose weight held everything down. More rocks would be laid around the bottom of the roof, where it met the inner wall.

The roof traditionally had no chimney, the smoke from the peat fire in the central hearth simply finding its own way out as it could. The smoked thatch was considered an excellent fertilizer and it was normal to strip it off for this purpose and rethatch the roof each year.

The floor of the living area of the blackhouse would usually be flagged. The animals would be at one end of the house, and in the byre area there would be earth flooring, usually with a drain for some of the animal waste. Part of the blackhouse would also be used as a barn for storage and processing of grain and other products.



Who were the Sutherlands? In 1235 the first Earl of Sutherland was appointed by King Alexander II. The family split - with those in Moray taking the name Murray and those further north taking the name Sutherland.

Kenneth, the 4th Earl, was killed at the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 fighting the English army led by Edward III. The 5th Earl was married to the daughter of Robert the Bruce and at one stage their son was heir to the throne but died of the plague. The 6th Earl built the original Dunrobin Castle.

There were frequent disputes with the Gordon family to the south and at one stage the Gordons took over the Sutherland earldom. In the 18th century the dispute over succession was heard in the House of Lords and the Countess of Sutherland was confirmed in the title in her own right. She married the Marquis of Stafford (an Englishman) who was created 1st Duke of Sutherland in 1833. The Duke and Duchess were responsible for the "improvements" to the estates which resulted in the notorious Clearances and depopulation there.

The 19th Century is known as the age of improvement, a time when all the landlords looked at their estates to see how they might be made more productive and financially rewarding.

It was in this desire for progress that three men were employed by the Duke and Duchess in 1809. They were:—

James Loch, William Young (To deal with all their regular business), and

Patrick Sellar.

Patrick Sellar was a lawyer, hired as the Factor of the Duke of Sutherland, in 1809 to assist with the improvement of the Duke's lands. His tactics led to him standing trial at Inverness for culpable homicide when he presided over the burning of a croft in Strathnaver which still contained an old woman who refused to leave.

In one incident, a woman of perhaps more than ninety years old, was to old and weak to be moved from her home. The neighbours pleaded for Patrick Sellar, the agent, to show mercy for the old woman. Sellar responded,

"Damn her, the old witch. She has lived too long. Let her burn."

Her house was put to the torch, even the sheets on her bed were set ablaze. Local clansmen and clanswomen tried to rescue her by taking her burned body to a nearby barn, but she died five days later in agony, as surely murdered as anybody could be.

He was tried for the act, but acquitted after there was found to be little evidence of his direct involvement. He was most prolific in the area of Strathnaver and presided over the "improvements" of much of the Highlands, becoming a successful sheep farmer and one of the largest landowners in the area around the lands he had cleared for the Duke.

Patrick Sellar wrote:

"Lord and Lady Stafford were pleased humanely to order the new arrangement of this country. That the interior should be possessed by Cheviot shepherds, and the people brought down to the coast and placed in lots of less than three acres, sufficient for the maintenance of an industrious family, pinched enough to cause them to turn their attention to the fishing. A most benevolent action, to put these barbarous Highlanders into a position where they could better associate together, apply themselves to industry, educate their children, and advance in civilisation."


In 1814 known as the Year of the Burnings Sellar gave orders to burn the hill grazing areas so there would be no food for the tenant’s cattle and the people would have no choice but to leave.

One tenant, Hugh MacBeth, sought an interview with Sellar, and told him that he had to leave for his godmothers funeral. He asked that his house and sick father might be left alone until he came back. Sellar sent him packing. MacBeth partially demolished the cottage before leaving, hoping that this would satisfy the factor. When he came back he found the house destroyed and his sick father lying in the open, to die very soon.

Another incident tells of a house occupied by a young woman named Christy MacKay, described in the "Northern Ensign" as a "harmless, inoffensive but sensible girl." The constables and a factor accused her of giving shelter to an aged evicted pauper. After finding the person in her home, the officers dug a hole in the cold earth and put the old woman in it - still alive --then nailed up Christy's house, leaving her weeping against a dry-stone wall.

Not even animals were spared the barbarity. One account tells how a terrified cat, which tried to escape the flames of a burning croft, was thrown back again and again until it finally perished.

Between 1814 and 1818, Rosal was cleared, to make way for sheep farms, by the infamous Patrick Seller. It was one of the villages untouched by burning but settlements round about were all fired as they were cleared.

In the Strath of Kildonan alone, just one small part of this vast county, between 1811 and 1831 the population was decimated, from 1574 people to just 257.

The overpopulation and poverty, would have led to emigration for many, even if there had been no clearances. Later on, the Duke helped indirectly by waiving rents and giving good cattle and timber prices. He was by then, well aware of his unpopularity.

Eye witness accounts of the clearances:

The Rev. Donald Sage, missionary at Achness:

“To my poor and defenseless flock the dark hour of trial came in right earnest. It was in the month of April, 1819 that they were all, men, women and children, from the heights of Farr to the mouth of the Naver, on one day to quit their tenements and go — many of them knew not whither, for a few some miserable patches of ground along the shore were doled as lots without anything in the shape of the poorest hut to shelter them. They were supposed to cultivate the ground and occupy themselves as fishermen. Many had never set foot in a boat."


Donald Macleod, Rosal:

“I was an eye witness of the scene — strong parties led by Sellar and Young commenced setting fire to the dwellings till about 300 houses were in flames, the people striving to remove the sick, the helpless, before the fire should reach them. The cries of women and children — the roaring of cattle — the barking of dogs — the smoke of the fire — the soldiers — it required to be seen to be believed!"



Clearances - Croick, Ross Shire

[Account of the clearances by John Prebble and Alexander MacKenzie]

Eighteen families, 88 people, lived here in Glencalvie in turf cabins indistinguishable from the brown hills, growing barley and oats, herding cattle and sheep on a total holding of no more than 20 acres. The most incredible rent, almost four times what a farmer in England would pay for the same land, was paid for this land for generations without arrears except for some weeks during the famine in 1836. The little community had no paupers on the poor roll and no inhabitant of this valley had been charged for any offence since years back. During the wars it had furnished many soldiers.

After departing their homes, the people were seated for a church service on a green brae by the Carron, the women all neatly dressed in net caps and wearing scarlet or plaids as shawls; the men wearing their blue bonnets and having their shepherds' plaids wrapped around them. This was their only covering, and this was the Free Church. There was simplicity extremely touching in this group on the bare hillside, listening to the Psalms of David in their native tongue and assembled to worship God. They sang the 145th Psalm. In the Parliamentary Church at Croick there were two families who had not followed their neighbours into the Free Church, ten men, women and children holding a service in English and the Gaelic.

The week-end the only refuge for the people was the churchyard at Croick, a little walled enclosure sheltered by a few trees. Although it was May, the weather was wet and cold. Behind the church, a long kind of booth was erected, the roof formed a tarpaulin stretched over poles, the sides closed in with horsecloths, rugs, blankets and plaids. Their furniture, excepting their bedding, they got distributed amongst the cottages of their neighbours; and with their bedding and their children, they all removed on Saturday afternoon to this place. They had been round to every heritor and factor in the neighbourhood, and 12 of the 18 families had been unable to find places of shelter. With the new Scotch Poor Law in prospect, other cottages were everywhere refused to them. Many of them, indeed, wished that their lot had landed them under the sod with their ancestors and their friends, rather than to be treated and driven out of house and home in such a ruthless manner.

It was a most wretched spectacle to see these poor people march out of the glen in a body, with two or three carts filled with children, many of them mere infants; and other carts containing their bedding and their requisites. The whole countryside was up on the hills watching them as they silently took possession of their tent. No one dared to succour them under a threat of receiving similar treatment to those whose hard fate had driven them thus among the tombs.

A fire was kindled in the churchyard, round which the poor children clustered. Two cradles with infants in them, were placed close to the fire, and sheltered round by the dejected looking mothers. Others busied themselves into dividing the tent into compartments by means of blankets for the different families. Contrasted with the gloomy dejection of the grown-ups and the aged was the, perhaps, not less melancholy picture of the poor children thoughtlessly playing round the fire, pleased with the novelty of all around them. There were 23 children in the churchyard, all under the age of ten, and seven of them were ill. There were also some young and unmarried men and women, but most of the refugees were over forty.

Within a week the churchyard was empty. Where the people went, to what southern town or what emigrant colony is not known. The six families for which it was claimed settlement was found, were as thus: David Ross and his son got a piece of black moor near Tain, 25 miles off, without any house or shed on it, out of which they hoped to obtain subsistence. Another old man was given a small lot at Edderton, and these three alone received anything from which they might confidently expect to get the barest of livings. The other three families were given turf huts near Bonar Bridge. The rest are hopeless, helpless.

When they took shelter in the graveyard at Croick, some of the people scratched their names and brief messages on the diamond-paned windows of the church. They wrote in English, as if acknowledging that their own tongue would pass with them and would not be understood in time. The words they wrote are still there:

"Glencalvie people was in the church here May 24, 1845..."
"Glencalvie people, the wicked generation..."
"John Ross shepherd..."
"Glencalvie people was here..."
"Amy Ross..."
"Glencalvie is a wilderness blow ship them to the colony..."
"The Glencalvie Rosses..."

The most telling window etching is "Glencalvie people the wicked generation Glencalvie." - Generations of trust, obedience and faith in their church and their chiefs had left the clansmen unable to believe that these were the very people had betrayed and deserted them. Rather than blame their chiefs, the system or the church, they felt that it must really be their faults. They had sinned in someway and were now being punished.

At least, unlike some, they left their story and a memorial of sorts at Croick.



Clearances - Battle of the Braes

On the island of Skye, the cruelty of the clearances and the disregard for human life and values festered in the minds of the people for many years until eventually the worm began to turn.

In the 1880's, as clan chiefs were clearing crofters from their lands to concentrate on more profitable sheep farming, Skye crofters rebelled against Lord MacDonald.

Those crofters remaining at the time were denied access to Ben Lee to graze their stock. Although the crofters had agreed to pay a generous rent at the expiry of the old lease, the tenancy was let to the sitting tenant. In the face of this injustice, the crofters decided to go ahead and graze their stock regardless, some even refusing to pay rent until the problem was resolved.

Lord MacDonald decided to have the leaders evicted, but when the authorities moved to carry out the order, the Braes people demanded that the documents be burnt. Against this insurrection, fifty policemen were sent and arrived at the Braes, a district near Portree on Skye. The crofters were surprised at first, but soon around a hundred men, women and children met the policemen armed with sticks and stones. Several people were injured; five men were arrested and fines were imposed on some at Inverness court. This confrontation became known as the Battle of the Braes. Its claim to be the last land battle fought on British shores is an exaggeration – it was more of a land dispute than any pitched battle.

It became clear after the struggle that the Highlanders would not be evicted without military assistance. The confrontation received widespread publicity, sympathetic to the Highlanders, from journalists who had traveled with the policemen to Skye. Parliament, unwilling to use the army to force the crofters to comply and pushed by public sentiment, passed a series of measures granting the crofters more security in their tenure. The confrontation is celebrated with a monument on Skye and through Scottish folk songs.

The government was weary both with the demands of arrogant Highland proprietors and the agitation of the crofters. A commission of enquiry called the Napier Commission was set up to investigate "the conditions of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands.... and everything concerning them."

It had wide powers to call witnesses, demand any document, and to visit any place deemed necessary in order to obtain the fullest possible information. Starting in 1883 the commissioners traveled widely among the Highlands and Islands, interviewing hundreds of witnesses, both crofters and landlords. In April 1884 they made their report, less than a year after they had carried out their first interviews in Skye.

Post Clearances - The Crofters Act

Though the Napier Commission's recommendations were less sweeping than some of the crofters had hoped, there was much they could be pleased with. London was slow to act, however, and there was further trouble and more rent-strikes on Skye, to the extent that the Government felt it necessary to send ships and around 400 marines to keep order. Four out of five Highland Members of Parliament were now committed to land reform, and the Liberal Government's slim majority gave them bargaining power. In 1885 the Crofters Act was passed through Parliament, and brought the crofting community substantial benefits. For the first time they had security of tenure, and this could be passed on to another family member. They had the right to compensation for any improvements they carried out, and a Land Court was set up to fix fair rents. It had taken over a hundred years of evictions and banishments, grief and separation, and finally anger and rebellion, but at last the remaining Highlanders had a right to a life in their own country. The Act became known as the ‘Magna Carta of Gaeldom’.



The Highland Clearances transformed the cultural landscape of the Highlands of Scotland, probably forever. In the space of less than half a century, the Highlands became one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe.

Even the sheep, which replaced the people, have gone - to a large extent. The sheep farmers were undercut by cheaper, often better quality products from Australia and New Zealand. ( ironically those very lands that were so heavily settled by the people cleared from the Highland glens).

In recent years a strong Crofters' Union has emerged, inspiring crofters to seize the advantages of new transport systems, new communications networks and new technology, to build a better way of life for themselves. In the last decade crofters involved in community buy-out schemes have not only taken full possession of their own lands, but of whole landed estates like Assynt, or whole Islands like Eigg.

In 1993, the 130 tenant residents of Assynt raised 130,000 pounds, and with the assistance of various grants and loans, purchased their 21,000 acre homeland when it went up for sale by the landowner. The Assynt Crofters Trust was established to oversee the land, instead of the traditional laird. A spokesman for the trust stated, “On the 1st of February, 1993, we became the first crofting communities to take complete control of our land."


But in a way, we should be grateful for the clearances. Though the highlands of Scotland were changed forever and large areas of land were cleared for the landowners to make way for sheep and grouse hunting, many of those facing starvation emigrated to the new worlds

During the eighteenth and nineteenth century many thousands of highlanders left their beloved Scotland to seek a better life. In doing so they contributed vastly to the economies and culture of their adopted countries. The Scots opened up huge areas of North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Though Scotland lost some of it's valuable population, the rest of the world benefited. Americans of Scottish descent have played a vibrant and influential role in the development of the United States. From the framers of the Declaration of Independence to the first man on the moon, Scottish-Americans have contributed mightily to the fields of the arts, science, politics, law, and more. Today, over eleven million Americans claim Scottish and Scotch-Irish roots -- making them the eighth largest ethnic group in the United States.



The Highland Clearances by Eric Richards, Birlinn publishers.

Highland Clearances Trail by Rob Gibson, Highland Heritage Books, publisher

The History of the Highland Clearances by Alexander MacKenzie [Forward by John Prebble.]

Gloomy Memories of the Highlands by Donald MacLeod

Isle of Skye in 1882; and a Verbatim Report of the Trail of the Braes Crofters.

Personal notes and observations obtained from various visitor centers and sites in Scotland. Notes and information obtained from web sites.