Highland Clearances

Highland Clearances

Brief History Of Highland Clearances


The Clearances began in 1760 and ended over a century later. During this time tens of thousands of men, women and children were evicted, often with violence and cruelty, from their homes in order to make way for sheep farming. In some parts of the Highlands entire glens were cleared, homes were burned down (as were nearby trees to prevent rebuilding) and tenants were often forced to leave at sword or gun point, being allowed to take very little with them as they began a life of poverty and hunger.

There were 2 types of clearance, one following on from the other. The first kind was compulsory settlement on desolate and infertile land near the sea. The Highlanders who were moved to the coast were given a small piece of land – the croft. If this land was bad, the crofter was forced into kelping (collecting seaweed, the ashes of which were used to make soap and glass) to make a living. But if the land was good, then the crofter had to pay a high rent for it and so was still forced into kelping to pay for this. For the Highlanders who had been moved to the coast life was hard. They had to try to get used to a new lifestyle and to earn their living from fishing and kelping – which they had no experience of. Usually they tried to continue farming on their small plots of land. The second form of clearance was often provoked by the failure of the croft to provide the Highlanders with a living. The situation for many was hopeless – the numbers of people who were made to live on the coast along with huge increases in rent, over-fishing of coastal waters and over-kelping, resulted in starvation and poverty. When the kelp industry fell apart and the price of cattle decreased, this left a huge number of poor and needy people who were not able to pay their rent or to buy food.

By the 1850s the Clearances were effectively at an end for several reasons – first of all there were no people left to evict, secondly the population had decreased, thirdly the economy was starting to pick up and finally the fishing industry was improving. Also the crofters were beginning to act on their own behalf. It had taken them so long to act for a number of reasons. They were slow to organise themselves effectively and the protests that there had been against the Clearances had been unplanned and disorganised. The loss of the traditional leaders in the Highlands and the destruction of the clan system as well as the actual shock of the effects of the Clearances meant that it had taken some time to produce new leaders from amongst themselves. The Church also influenced events because it described the Clearances as God’s retribution of their sins on earth and it actively discouraged the Highlanders from protesting. The final end to the Clearances was the Crofters Act in 1886 which was passed after a struggle lasting for four years.


Enlightenment of the Highland Clearances and a basic insight is necessary for any understanding of highland history. The clan system had been the determination of the life style. Since the defeat of the rebellion rising, the clans were shattered and the Highlanders were restrained in all their business. The Clearances were very convoluted and involved actions. The data of the fundamental episodes are not easy to retrieve and have usually been viewed and recorded through estate and official offices. Land rights were family and clan controlled with local interpretation and understanding of privilege and claim. Ancestral rights were no longer applicable. Puzzling and complicated agreements gave some people favourable conditions while others had little security.


Tenants and property owners interests were regulated by an Act of the Scottish Parliament passed in 1555, modified by the Court of Session in 1756. The legal process of evacuation was a common occurrence and most tenants moved peacefully. The removal of people to instate sheep farms had the most devastating effect on all the natural cultural progressions of highland people. Between the late 1700s and mid to late 1800s when simple and hard life styles, but long established and complex township structures were in existence, thousands of people were forcibly removed from their homes. Most of the county of Sutherland was owned by one man George Leveson-Gower, Marquis of Stafford who was known as the ‘Leviathan of Wealth’ and later became the First Duke of Sutherland. Between 1810 and 1820 about fifteen hundred of his tenants were evicted. The Sutherland clearances were part of a vast modernisation scheme that also included building four hundred and fifty miles of public roads, the first in the county.


From medieval times into the 18th and 19th centuries, prolonged occupation of a piece of land gave the right to permanent tenancy known as dutchas. This was established and recognised by the whole community when a family had managed to maintain occupation of a township or joint farm for three generations or more. The tacksmen of these farms followed each other in succession from father to son. Any attempts by the feudal superior of the land in question to establish another family was fiercely resisted by both family and clan. The social form of life was based on the bonds of kinship and not on economic dependence. The tacksmen to the chief’s principal role was to muster soldiers rather than ensure good financial return from the soil. They paid only a nominal rent for the farms and sublet most of it to subtenants who did the day to day farming and to cotters and mailers subtenants of subtenants constituting the lowest order of the clan.


The townships were well established and organised to supply the needs of all. A lazy bed was constructed where there was little soil. A strip of turf and soil would be cut and laid on top of the adjoining piece of ground. Gradually these grew into ridges with ditches in between. Lazy beds were manured with sea weed or old thatch and were particularly good for growing potatoes. The runrig system was the method of farming on good arable land. The ground was divided into strips rather like lazy beds but longer and wider. A person in a township owned each strip and every so often, the ownership was changed giving everyone a chance on wet or dry land. All available manure was put on the runrigs, which in the main were used for growing grain. The best land near the township was known as the infield and land further away, usually less arable was the outfield, commonly used for grazing animals.


The poorer people and subtenants were forced to work for the factors of the estates. They were oppressive and gave no acknowledgement of the services given to them. They were ordered to work thirty to forty days a year with no pay or food in return. Their rents were doubled at the same time as the price of cattle had halved. There was scarcity of bread and yet the unscrupulous factors extracted work from people and forced them to sell their cattle at prices that suited the factors. If for any reason of sickness a person could not perform work he was charged a shilling a day. Property owners despised the people and treated them as slaves or beasts of burden. They were treated with contempt and not worthy of saving or leaving in the hovels of their ancestors. The improvers believed that the people of Sutherland should be pulled out of the past by the scruffs of their necks. It was criminal to oppose any reform of the system of land tenure in the highlands. Those resisting deserved the chastisements from a constable’s truncheon or an infantryman’s bayonet.


Durness Village Square, in 1841 was the site of one of the first serious uprisings against the Highland Clearances, the forced eviction of tenants to make way for sheep farming. see Ceanabeinne Township

Eliot Rudie from Strathnaver Museum talks about the Highland Clearances