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The Highland Clearances - An Introduction
by Steve Blamires
About the same time that the demand for beef and cattle dropped, the demand for sheep and wool rose dramatically. The price of Highland wool in 1801 had been 15 shillings per stone but in 1818 it had more than doubled to 40 shillings per stone. The landlords saw their chance to renew their fortunes and immediately started to replace the herds of Highland cattle with flocks of hill sheep. These highly profitable sheep were being offered by the British Wool Society for ridiculously cheap prices in an attempt to corner the world market for meat and wool. They did not take as much looking after as the cattle did, they could be left to roam the bleak hills and glens with only a small handful of people to tend them. On average, one sheperd took up as much land as had been worked by 12-16 families (roughly 80 people). Soon the Highlands and Islands were echoing to the high-pitched sound of the bleating sheep, whereas once they had been lulled by the soft lowing of the great shaggy Highland cows. It soon became clear that the small holdings of the remaining clansmen were getting in the way of the highly profitable sheep so the landlords started moving the people out of their homes and out of their jurisdiction. In 1800 there had been 355,700 indigenous Highland sheep farmed in Argyllshire, Inverness, Caithness and Sutherland. By 1880 the number had risen to over 2 million, nearly all of them imported hybrid Cheviots.
In 1826 McLean of Coll, owner of the Isle of Rhum, paid five pounds and fourteen shillings passage for each adult to go to Canada. He evicted 300 people this way, but this apparently large investment was well worth the cost as the income of the island rose from 300 pounds Sterling per annum in rent to 800 pounds Sterling per annum from sheep.
Whereas the chieftain had once been the father figure, the protector and provider of the clan, and "clan" means family in the Gaelic, now they were the abusers and repressors. They still wielded considerable power over the ordinary clan members and they had the legal right to make these forced evictions. They also had the right to say who married who or, more often than not, who didn't marry who. As late as 1857 the records show that in the Parish of Clyne on the Duke of Sutherland's estate there were 75 bachelors, ranging in age from 35 to 75, there had only ever been two marriages and one baptism recorded for the whole parish.
The landlords called this replacing of people with sheep "The Improvements" because they saw it as a way of improving the profitability of their land. The people referred to the improvements as "The Clearances" for they were simply cleared away to make way for the hated sheep. To be "Cleared" usually meant that, often without warning, the factor, or landlord's agent, would arrive one morning at your home, order you out and burn down the house without even allowing sufficient time to remove people or property. Roof timbers were destroyed so that houses or even temporary shelters from the cruel Scottish weather could not be built in an area where trees are scarce. At the height of the Clearances as many as 2,000 homes were being burned in a day. Many of these small crofts had been occupied by the same family for as many as 500 years. Because of the crofters' loyalty to their chieftain they often placed the blame for the Clearances and their hardships on the factors. It was beyond their comprehension their chief would treat them in such a manner.
This barbaric and unnecessarily cruel method of Clearing the people from the land was started by the Duchess of Sutherland (1765-1839, earlier the Countess of Sutherland until she married Lord Stafford, 1758-1833, who was created 1st duke of Sutherland in 1832. He was one of the richest men in the United Kingdom and certainly did not need to worry about his income from either crofters or sheep) and her factors Patrick Sellar and James Loch. The Duke of Sutherland Cleared 15,000 people to make way for 200,000 sheep. Evictions at the rate of 2,000 families in one day were not uncommon. Many starved and froze to death where their homes had once been. The Duchess of Sutherland, on seeing the starving tenants on her husband's estate, remarked in a letter to a friend in England, "Scotch people are of happier constitution and do not fatten like the larger breed of animals."
Stories which have come down to us from those dreadful times are horrific and beggar belief. In 1811 sixty new tenants had been brought in as shepherds on the Sutherland estate and they were all immediately sworn in as Justices of the Peace, thus giving them a legal authority over the remaining tenants. It was also common, in later years after much adverse publicity about the mass Clearances, for these important sheperds to have clauses inserted in their rental agreements binding them to personally Clear one or two families a year in order to lessen the publicity that mass evictions caused.
People were too scared to help their own friends and family who had been Cleared for they knew that to do so would mean the same fate for them. The sheep farmers who were brought in mainly from the Scottish Lowlands and Borders regions were made Justices of the Peace or, in many cases, Special Constables which meant they were literally a law unto themselves. The people were totally powerless to do anything about this long drawn out genocide.
The people turned to the church for help but the Church of Scotland was the church of the landlords and told the common people that all the evictions were God's will and a chance for the ignorant sinners to repent. The Free Church of Scotland came about as a result of this as the people broke away from the Church of Scotland and set up a church which would recognise their own unique way of life and satisfy their needs for spiritual succour. In an act of retaliation the landlords told the people that when they were Cleared and re-settled on new land they were expressly forbidden from building Free Churches. They were also forbidden from giving a Free Church minister shelter or refreshment.
Today, the Free Church of Scotland is more oppressive than anyone. The christian church as a whole, Free Church of Scotland, Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic, has played a huge role in this cultural genocide. Some quotes collected from people living in the Highlands and Islands and written down by Alexander Carmichael at the start of this century show just how quickly a people can be made to forget their old, traditional ways -
"Our weddings are now quiet and becoming, not the foolish
things they were in my young day. In my memory weddings were great
events, and singing and dancing and piping and amusements all
through the night and generally for two or three nights in
succession. There were many sad things done then for those were
the days of foolish doings and foolish people. When they came out
of the church, the young men would go to throw the stone, or toss
the caber or play shinty, or to run races or race the horses on
the strand, the young maidens looking on all the while. It is long
since we abandoned those foolish ways in Lewis. In my young days
there was hardly a house that did not have one, two or three who
could play pipe or the fiddle and I have heard it said that there
were those who could play things called harps, but I do not know
what those things were. A blessed change came over the place and
the people when the good ministers did away with the songs and
stories, the music and the dancing, the sports and the games that
were perverting the minds and ruining the souls of the people
leading them to folly and to stumbling. The good ministers and the
good elders went amongst the people and would break and burn their
pipes and fiddles. Now we have the blessed Bible preached and
explained to us earnestly." "A famous violin player died in the
Isle of Eigg a few years ago. He was known for his old style
playing and his old world airs which died with him. A preacher
denounced him saying 'Thou art down there behind the door (of
Hell), thou miserable man with grey hair, playing thine old fiddle
with the cold hand without, and the devil's fire within.' His
family had pressed the old man to burn his fiddle and never play
again. A pedlar had offered ten shillings for the violin which had
been made by a pupil of Stradivarius. The voice of the old man
faltered and a tear fell. He was never again seen to smile." "In
Islay I was sent to the parish school to obtain a proper grounding
in arithmetic. But the schoolmaster, an alien, denounced Gaelic
speech and Gaelic songs. On getting out of school one evening we
resumed a Gaelic song we had been singing the previous evening.
The schoolmaster heard us and called us back. He punished us until
the blood trickled from our fingers, although we were big girls
with the dawn of womanhood on us."
Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael
Another blow was soon to rock the fabric of Highland culture. First they had been betrayed by the very people appointed to protect them and their lands, the chiefs, now they discovered that their new spiritual representatives were accepting substantial sums of money from Southern US slave-owners despite the fact it was known that Cleared Higlanders who were forced to emigrate to America were being sold into slavery in the southern United States. The lay members of the church, the Press and the people of Scotland generally were abhorred that they should even contemplate taking money from slave- owners and they were regaled with cries of "Send back the money." After due deliberation The Free Church of Scotland's official response was, "Neither Jesus Christ nor His holy apostles regarded slaveholding as a sin" - and kept the money. Some of the landlords even attempted to resort to the slave trade in an effort to get rid of their unwanted crofters. The Duke of Athol had to press-gang his own clansmen to go and fight in America as he had been unsuccessful in raising a regiment as the men refused to go because of his earlier Clearings. Once the fighting was over, instead of sending them home to their families and glens, he attempted to sell his own people as slaves to the East Indian Company. The men were only saved from slavery by staging a mutiny. When they eventually returned home the Duke evicted every single one of them in an act of vengeance. In 1803 the Rev. James Hall commented, "The state of our Negroes is paradise compared to that of the poorest Highlanders" Ironic words considering that many of these poor Highlanders would soon become slaves themselves working beside the enchained Negro slaves.
Between 1820 and 1840 the rate of evictions slowed down but this was when the Highlands became very popular with the English aristocracy and especially Queen Victoria. The tartan which had virtually disappeared thanks to the Act of Proscription, was re-introduced in a bastardised form. Highland games and Highland dancing (which did not actually exist prior to then) became very popular amongst the landowners and wealthy English merchants and the traditional Highland culture became the "Brigadoon" type of romantic rubbish that most non- Scots still believe today.