Anyone visiting northern Scotland today often begins by admiring the unspoilt wilderness,but soon notices the stone walls of former houses scattered on the landscape. Caithness was not as badly affected as Sutherland, but the population is still one third of the figure 100 years ago. It may be easy to think that the drift away from rural isolation to the cities, and emigration, was by choice, or economic necessity, but this is simplistic..
The Highland Clearances, a forced eviction from ancestral land mainly between 1810 and 1855, are a sad episode in Scottish history, with lessons for today.
Historically, in Britain as elsewhere, small communities of people living on the land have been surrendered in the name of economic progress and development. We may like to put the face of Adam Smith on our banknotes, but the author of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ may have shuddered to see the economic woes facing the poor of the ‘improved’ highlands.
Powerful landlords, in the case of the Clearances, most notably the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, convinced themselves they were benefiting their tenants, and distancing themselves from the misery through ruthless intermediaries, such as Patrick Sellar. They certainly spent money on the estates, accounts between 1803 and 1817, show in excess of £80,000 over the rents collected. The tragedy was never really a financial one.
John Prebble excels at drawing fine portraits of the characters involved, telling the story of a dispossessed people and a land that still bears the scars. A rare written testimony was given by Donald Macleod of Rossal, `Every imaginable means short of the sword or the musket was put in requisition to drive the natives away, to force them to exchange their farms and comfortable habitations, erected by themselves or their fathers, for inhospitable rocks on the seashore, the country was darkened by the smoke of the burnings, and its descendants were ruined, trampled upon, dispersed and compelled to seek asylum across the sea.”
The church might naturally be expected to defend the people, but at least in Kildonan in 1813, Macleod tells us ` the churchmen threatened the vengeance of heaven and eternal damnation on those who should presume to make the least resistance, no wonder the Highlander quailed under such influence’. Ironically, in 1815, the returning Highland soldier, having defeated Napoleon for England, found his homestead burnt to the ground, and sheep grazing where his cattle used to. By the time of the Crimea, in the 1850’s, there were no men to raise for war.
When we consider recent conflicts in Bosnia, so-called `ethnic cleansing’, or actions by ranchmen against Amazonian Indians, such an account is relevant. As John Preeble comments, `we have not become so civilized in our behaviour, or more concerned with men than profit, that this story holds no lesson for us’.
There are more recent books, possibly easier of access to school pupils, but John Preeble’s account paints the complete picture, especially if preceeded by ‘Glencoe’ and ‘Culloden’ as he intended, and rightly placed in their historical context.