An abandoned township in the Highlands Many Highland towns were abandoned Photo: Geograph

The history of the Highlands is steeped in the suffering of capitalism’s victims, writes Chris Bambery

A friend of mine recently returned from a week’s holiday in Wester Ross, in the Scottish Highlands, to tell me “we saw more seals than people.” Where they were staying is well known to me from family holidays as child. The beauty of the area is etched in my mind.  

But as you walk or drive through what seems a wilderness it’s important to know that it wasn’t always so and that the wonderful landscape is not natural, it is manmade. More accurately it is a product of capitalism’s development in 19th century.  

In 1750 a third of Scotland’s population still lived north of the Highland Line; today it is just five percent. In 1811 there were 250,000 sheep there; by the 1840s there were almost a million. Within that period sheep replaced people driven from their homes by direct eviction or through hunger and destitution. After the sheep and over-grazing came deer and the creation of hunting grounds for the elite.  By 1884 a tenth of Scotland’s land was given over to deer forests, greater than the size of Wales, and taking up the great majority of the land in the crofting counties (crofts were the small plots of land available to the remaining population).  

In England the clearing of the rural population from the land took place over three centuries – from Tudor times until the Napoleonic Wars. In Lowland Scotland it took place at a more rapid pace in the 18th century but largely escaped history because the cotters celebrated by Robert Burns tended to simply drift away to find work in the new industries and mines of the West of Scotland, or to immigrate to the Americas.  

The Highland Clearances saw all the brutality which had occurred in England over decades and decades concentrated into a short space of time. Britain was a fully capitalist state, and capitalism abhors the existence of older economic forms, these must be suppressed and destroyed, as they were in its colonies. Society must be re-forged in its own image.  

In this case the Gaelic speaking Highlands were essentially an off-shoot of Gaelic Ireland. By the early 18th century townships existed across the Highlands and Islands, even in what are now remote glens. Their ruins can still be found among the bracken and the heather. These were made up of clachans, a collection of stone and turf houses, and their outbuildings. Close to them lay the best land on which the people grew crops. Outside the settlements was a mix of arable, grazing and fallow land, and beyond that common grazing land. Cattle were sold or traded, alongside, to a lesser extent, horses and butter.  

This was a feudal society and hunger was never far away. The land was allocated by the tacksman, who was the main leaseholder from the landowner, and rent was paid to him. The inhabitants nominally belonged to a Clan whose chief could call on them for military service. To complicate the picture the Clan chief was not necessarily the feudal lord. MacDonald’s could live on land owned by the Dukes of Argyll, head of Clan Campbell.  

This Gaelic society and its language had long been in retreat but in the 18th century two things accelerated that process. Firstly a minority of the Clans who inhabited the region had joined the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion aimed at restoring the exiled Stuart kings to their throne. Booted out by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the Stuarts were tied to the Crown of France and the Vatican and looked to turn the clock back in Britain to the long lost days of autocratic royal rule.  

The 1745 rebellion ended with a crushing military defeat at Culloden less than a year after it begun. Previously the British state had let sleeping dogs lie after such rebellions but this time, scared by the fact the Jacobites had reached Derbyshire, it decided to break the military power of the Clans of the West Highlands, and to end feudalism throughout Scotland. In the Highlands vicious repression was deployed and laws put in place against carrying weapons and banning the feudal powers enjoyed by the nobles.  

This destroyed the link between clan chiefs and their followers. They had allowed a myth to gather that they held the communal land in trust. In fact they owned the land. After Culloden Highland nobles drifted south to Edinburgh or London and required cash not fighting men. They were quick to move towards renting land out at commercial rates.  

Many Highlanders chose to migrate but most remained eking out a living by raising cattle for sale down south and existing on potatoes and, often, money earned doing seasonal work in the factories of Central Scotland.  

The second factor in destroying the Gaelic communities of the Highlands were the missionaries deployed by the Church of Scotland and its various breakaways. They used Gaelic to convert people to their dour Presbyterian faith, but once that was achieved the new flocks were told the language was barbaric and all sermons, preaching and education had to be solely in English. This reflected the residual racism of Lowland Scots against the Highlanders.  

Meanwhile, hard pressed in its endless wars with France, the British army began raising regiments in the Highlands. Tough mountain men proved hardy shocktroops in countless wars, both against France and to carve out new colonial lands. Tartan and the bagpipes had been banned post-Culloden but were permitted in the British army. In time these would become the very symbols of all Scotland. By then the Highlanders were no longer seen as a threat and had long gone in most cases.  

What did for so much of the population was the breeding of new stocks of sheep, the Cheviot and the Blackface, which could thrive in the hardy conditions of the Highlands, producing a good fleece of wool for the woollen mills of the Lowlands and Northern England. Rents were driven up, and when the Highlanders could not pay they were served with eviction orders. In the final decades of the 18th century some 200,000 were cleared to make way for sheep.  

There had already been opposition to this. More than two decades before Waterloo, in 1792, Biadna nan Caorach (The Year of the Sheep), there was a virtual uprising in Ross against the new sheep walks, it being reported: “… a Mob of about four hundred strong are now actually employed in collecting the sheep over all this and the neighbouring county of Sutherland.” By early August some 6000 sheep were being driven south. When troops intervened the men simply melted away. A few were captured, some being banished from Scotland and one being transported to Botany Bay. The commander of the troops wrote to London, however, that:  

“… no disloyalty or spirit of rebellion, or dislike to His Majesty’s Person or His Majesty’s Government is in the least degree concerned in these tumults.”   

The collapse of the Highland economy after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, with the end of the demand for beef and for sea weed, meant landlords now looked to turning over all their lands to sheep grazing, removing the crofters altogether. The most infamous Clearances were on the huge estate of the Countess of Sutherland. Her husband, Lord Stafford, removed between 6000 and 10,000 tenants between 1807 and 1821. The Strath of Kildonan was cleared of its people between 1813 and 1819, with such savagery that it provoked a reaction.

In December 1812 an agent for Lowland sheepfarmers visited the Strath, asking questions of the tenants, who proceeded to run him off their land. He immediately claimed he had been threatened with his life and the Marquess of Stafford grabbed at his claims to mobilise his male estate workers as special constables, and to summon a detachment of soldiers. Faced with this resistance the locals melted away and the Upper Strath was cleared within three months. They were offered emigration or resettlement in the town of Helmsdale. Many of the young chose to leave for Canada.   

However, Stafford’s Agent, a Lowland Scot, Patrick Sellar, believed this response had been too soft. Worse was to follow in the parishes of Farr and Kildonan, where the land was in the hands of Sellar. Later in the century the Highland historian Alexander Mackenzie wrote a History of the Highland Clearances, published in 1883, which described Sellar’s illtreatment:  

“As the lands were now in the hands of the factor himself, and were to be occupied as sheep farms, and as the people made no resistance, they expected, at least, some indulgence in the way of permission to occupy their houses and other buildings till they could gradually remove, and meanwhile look after their growing crops. Their consternation was therefore greater, when immediately after the May term day, a commencement was made to pull down and set fire to the houses over their heads. The old people, women and others, then began to preserve the timber which was their own but the devastators proceeded with the greatest celerity, demolishing all before them, and when they had overthrown all the houses in a large tract of country they set fire to the wreck. Timber, furniture, and every other article that could not be instantly removed was consumed by fire or otherwise utterly destroyed. The proceedings were carried on with the greatest rapidity and the most reckless cruelty. The cries of the victims, the confusion, the despair and horror painted on the countenances of the one party, and the exulting ferocity of the other, beggar all description. At these scenes Mr. Sellar was present, and apparently, as sworn by several witnesses at his subsequent trial, ordering and directing the whole. Many deaths ensued from alarm, from fatigue, and cold, the people having been instantly deprived of shelter, and left to the mercies of the elements. Some old men took to the woods and to the rocks, wandering about in a state approaching to, or of absolute, insanity and several of them in this situation lived only a few days. Pregnant women were taken in premature labour, and several children did not long survive their sufferings.”   

In total two thousand people were removed from Kildonan. When Sellar was charged with murder for burning down an old woman’s house, a hand-picked jury of landowners found him not-guilty, but he had brought bad publicity to the Sutherland Estate and lost his job.  

James Loch was an Edinburgh lawyer who for 40 years, from 1812, was commissioner for the Marquis of Stafford. He would write an apology for his employers but his racism towards their tenants was never far from the surface, with him complaining:  

“… [their] habits and ideas, quite incompatible with the customs of regular society, and civilised life, adding greatly to those defects which characterise persons living in a loose and unformed state of society.”  His concern was to provide wool for the “staple manufactory of England” and to convert the people to “the habits of regular and continued industry.   

A young journalist sent by the “Scotsman” to the Highlands exhibited the same racism, writing in 1847 that the Highlanders were “an inferior race to the Lowland Saxon.”  Robert Knox, the Edinburgh surgeon who bought the bodies the gravesnatchers Burke and Hare stole, believed in the superiority of the “Anglo-Saxon race” and wrote that the Highlanders “must be forced from the soil.”  Sellar would have concurred with this because he regarded the Highlanders as racial degenerates. In his racist view they were, “the aborigines of Britain shut out from any general stream of knowledge… ”   

In the preface to his History of the Highland Clearances, Mackenzie raised this question, and answered it: “Some people ask ‘Why rake up all this inquiry just now?’ We answer that the same laws which permitted the cruelties, the inhuman atrocities described in this book, are still the laws of this land.”   

Of the Duchess of Sutherland, Karl Marx wrote this in Capital:  

“This person, well instructed in economy, resolved, on entering upon her government, to effect a radical cure, and to turn the whole country, whose population had already been, by earlier processes of the like kind, reduced to 15,000, into a sheep-walk. From 1814 to 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut, which she refused to leave. Thus this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land that had from time immemorial belonged to the clan. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6,000 acres on the sea-shore, 2 acres per family. The 6,000 acres had until this time lain waste, and brought in no income to their owners. The Duchess, in the nobility of her heart, actually went so far as to let these at an average rent of 2s. 6d. per acre to the clansmen, who for centuries had shed their blood for her family. The whole of the stolen clanland she divided into 29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single family, for the most part imported English farm-servants. In the year 1835 the 15,000 Gaels were already replaced by 131,000 sheep.”  

It might be argued the Clearances on the Sutherland Estate were the most excessive, and most people were removed with less savagery and on a smaller scale, but they were coerced off their land.  

At the height of the clearances there was resistance, but it was never organised or effective. Obedience to the Clan Chief still counted, even when he was the one ordering you onto the emigrant boat, while ministers stressed obedience to the law, even when they sympathised with their flock.   

In 1846 matters became desperate as the potato blight brought the likelihood of famine to the Highlands. In response Charles Trevelyan, Under Secretary at the Treasury, wrote: “The people cannot, under any circumstances, be allowed to starve.” Two years later he did the opposite in Ireland, letting hundreds of thousands die. Arguing the famine there was “a mechanism for reducing surplus population.”    

Yet, as starvation became apparent the British government did intervene to feed the population: just two deaths from starvation are recorded, both on the hard hit population of the Isle of Barra (whose people were largely cleared in 1853 and sent to Quebec). This contrasts with Ireland, where the Great Famine killed thousands. While Ireland was nominally part of the UK it was in reality a colony and seen as separate. The Highlands were regarded by the British government as part of the UK, and starvation could not be permitted there (although emigration was encouraged).  

The evictions went on despite the famine. In 1853 attempts were made to clear the people of Coigach in Wester Ross and Greenyards, near Ardgay, in Strathcarron. The summonses carried by the sheriff’s officer were seized and destroyed by a crowd of women and he was stripped naked and put in a boat to be sent back.   

At Greenyards, however, matters took a more violent turn. The sheriff’s officer, accompanied by 35 police, were confronted by a crowd of 300, two thirds women. They stood at the front armed with stones, while the men, carrying sticks, were at the rear. The police used their batons and 15 or 16 women were seriously injured. They were taken to the jail in Tain before being released. 

As the 19th century developed the growing popular resistance to evictions in Ireland helped spark resistance in the Highlands and Ireland which had a radical edge. That continued into the 20th century, especially in the immediate aftermath of the two World Wars. But emigration continued too.  

One result of all this is that the land issue remains a real issue in Scotland, in a way that is not the case in England. Because so many Highlanders ended up in the Glasgow and the West of Scotland, the searing memory of the Clearances and of resistance fed into the developing left and working class movement. It remains today. 

The Highland Clearances are a glaring example of injustice and deserve to be remembered. But they cannot compare, as previously noted, to the deaths imposed on the people of Ireland and Bengal by a series of manmade famines created by British colonialism (the last being in Bengal in 1943). 

But they all speak volumes about how capitalism came into being, dripping with blood and at the expense of common people. It ever was and ever will be while we allow it to remain.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.