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Highland Clearances - ethnic cleansing or outcome of progress

Were the Highland Clearances ethnic cleansing or did the landlords really think it was done for the good of the locals? An emotional topic still.

Highland Clearances

The Highland Clearances, sometimes in Scotland's history just referred to as 'The Clearances', were a period of huge social upheaval throughout the Highlands of Scotland. Some commentators interpret the evictions that took place as a form of ethnic cleansing. Other historians see the uprooting of a native population as inevitable, given the changing economic and political climate in the north that gained momentum towards the end of the 18th century.

The change and disruption to Highland communities and the creation of the emptiness we associate today with large tracts of the Highlands – the picture below is of Glen Callater, Aberdeenshire – took place as landowners found new ways of making money from their land. This necessitated re-settlement of tenants cultivating communal land.

The native people, with their Gaelic culture firmly embedded in the places where they had lived for generations, had little say in the new regime. They were either forced to move to Scotland’s cities to find work, to emigrate and start again in the New World, or they were sometimes allocated coastal marginal land in order to clear the inland grazings for the estate owner’s sheep – at the time regarded as profitable and innovative in farming terms.

The new coastal settlements were intended to be sustainable through fishing and kelp-gathering. (The kelp or seaweed was processed and used in chemical and soap making industries.) When these activities proved to be unsustainable, a further wave of emigration followed on.

Glen Callater, Aberdeenshire

Glen Callater, Aberdeenshire

A Dance called America

Some of the emigration was voluntary – a circumstance remarked upon by James Boswell, touring Scotland with the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson in 1773.

On Skye, for example, he records in his Journal ‘We performed, with much activity, a dance, which, I suppose, the emigration from Sky has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couple, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to shew how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat.


The Highland Clearances and Dunrobin Castle

Aside from voluntary emigrations – and not all Highland landlords were tyrants – many episodes of the Highland Clearances were carried out with much brutality – for example, the forced removal of tenants irrespective of age or infirmity, and the burning of their townships.

The Strath of Kildonan is one such notorious place, where between 1813 and 1819 the entire glen was cleared, in the name of the Sutherlands of Dunrobin Castle, the then owners of most of the country of Sutherland. (Kildonan in Canada was where some of the Highlanders eventually settled.)

Helmsdale, at the coastal end of the strath, grew from a 'planned village' of 1814.

Coastal scenery at Badbea, Clearance Village, Sutherland

Coastal scenery at Badbea, Clearance Village, Sutherland

Gable-end of clearance village croft

Gable-end of clearance village croft

In any tour of these northlands it is worth taking the short walk from the roadside down to the site of the Clearance village of Badbea, north of Helmsdale. It was settled by cleared Highlanders from the neighbouring straths. They were forced to build new homes here.

(It is said their young children had to be tethered in cased they strayed near the cliffs.) Badbea’s location on the open ground above rugged cliffs is obviously very exposed.

In the pictures here, the white dot half-hidden by bushes on right of picture is an interpretation board, while a ruined gable end is all but swallowed up by the flowering gorse. There is also a monument on site (dated 1911), commemorating the final departure of the folk who finally left for New Zealand from here. (You should also visit Timespan, the heritage centre, in Helmsdale – it’s a must see for the story of the area.)

Other parts of Easter Ross also saw violent evictions, while it is even said that many with the name Sutherland, whose families to this day live along the south coast of the Moray Firth, all came from the cleared settlements along the north side of the Firth.

Patrick Sellar, the Duke of Sutherland’s notorious estate manager, wrote “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.” He was actually charged with arson and homicide, as his men set fire to tenants’ houses in Strathnaver with old people still inside them. He was acquitted.

Highland Clearances Memorial, Helmsdale

Highland Clearances Memorial, Helmsdale

In any case, a guidebook to Dunrobin Castle, printed as recently as 1991, explains it differently. In a reference to the role of the Duke of Sutherland and his improving policies, the guide states... 

Much the same thing is done today by town councils who uproot people from their old shabby but neighbourly streets and place them in ultra-modern, clinically clean but often high-rise flats, usually against their will’.

That crass piece of insensitivity should be reason enough for any of you with the slightest socialist leanings to give this least stately of stately homes a miss!

This page provides the briefest of introductions to the episodes of the Highland Clearances, which were widespread right across the Highlands. The Isle of Skye is another location in Scotland with a shameful story of forced emigration; Barra, also, where the name Gordon of Cluny is still infamous.

However, it would be wrong to think of the Highland people as living in some kind of rural Arcadia until wicked landlords came along. Nothing is that simple. The world was changing, the Industrial Revolution was impacting on lives - and even the Sutherland dynasty spent large sums of money in trying to find solutions to the issue of a growing population living on marginal land.

Were the Highland Clearances in Scotland’s history really ethnic cleansing or done to the native people ‘for their own good’? It all depends on your point of view.