"The day will come when the big
sheep will put the plough up in the rafters . . .
The big sheep will overrun the country till they meet the northern
sea . . . in the end, old men shall return from new lands"
The Brahan Seer ( 17th century Highland Prophet)
Of all the misfortunes to befall the Scottish Highlanders, the
Clearances are probably the worst and the one that still engenders
great bitterness down to this day. Whether it was economic
necessity as described by some, or ethnic cleansing, as described
by others, the nett result was that between 1783 and 1881 man's
inhumanity to man resulted in a documented 170,571 Highlanders
being ejected from their traditional lands. Records are very sparse
and it's been estimated that the true total was very much greater
The catalysts for the Clearances had been the Union of 1707 with
which many Scots were disillusioned; the uprising of 1715; the near
successful uprising of '45 which resulted in the Battle of Culloden
and the resultant ban on Highland dress, tartan and weapons. These
and the continuing internal strife between Catholic and Protestant
finally broke the Highland spirit. The last straw in 1747 was the
'Hertitable Jurisdictions Act' which stated that those who did not
accede to English jurisdiction were to have their lands forfeited
to the Government.
It's said that the few remaining Highland landlords had no
option but to bend the knee to this legislation. This was the death
knell of the clan system and the traditional Highland way of life
where the people rented land from their Chiefs and in turn pledged
their allegiance to them. By the end of the 18th century, 60% of
Hebridean landlords were reported absent - reputedly preferring the
softer social life of London to that of the spartan Highlands.
In his book 'The Making of the Crofting Community', J. Hunter
"Many chiefs were as at home in Edinburgh or Paris as they were in
the Highlands, and French or English rolled off their tongue as
easily as - perhaps mores easily than - Gaelic. Moreover, while
away from his clan the typical chief, conscious since childhood of
his immensely aristocratic status in the Highland society whence he
came, felt obliged to emulate or even surpass, the lifestyle of the
courtiers and nobles with whom he mingled. And it was at this point
that the 18th century chief's two roles came into irreconcilable
conflict with one another. As a southern socialite he needed more
and more money. As a tribal patriarch he could do very little to
The economics of the
Clearances or the Improvements as the landlords euphemistically
called them, were simple. They had for many years supplied beef to
Government forces but when the demand dropped once the United
Kingdom's overseas wars diminished, they were left economically
vulnerable. Demand for wool had risen dramatically - its price
tripled between 1800 and 1818 - so rearing sheep made sense.
Regrettably it meant that on average, one shepherd covered as much
land as had been worked in the past by 12 to 16 families - possibly
80 people - and the income from these new 'four-legged clansmen'
more than replaced the meagre rents they had gathered in the past..
The return was attractive enough for the absentee chiefs and
landlords to start moving people away from their traditional
To achieve this they used their 'factors' - their estate
managers - and at the height of the clearances it's said that as
many as 2,000 crofts a day were being burned to the ground - some
of which had been inhabited by the same families for as long as 500
years. Because many crofters were still loyal to their chieftain,
they often placed the blame for the Clearances and their hardships
on the factors. It was beyond their comprehension that their chief
- their father figure - would treat them in such a manner (ref:
Scottish Highland Clearances, Memorial Committee).
The instigator of such
barbaric methods of 'clearing' the traditional clan lands of humans
was said to have been Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland
(1765 - 1839) who, with her husband the Marquis of Stafford (later
made 1st Duke of Sutherland) employed Patrick Sellar a lawyer and
James Lock their factor, to carry out the 'improvements'. These two
set about their task with great relish and 'cleared' 15,000 people
to make way for 200,000 sheep. With no shelter remaining for the
cleared families, many starved and froze to death huddled in the
rubble of their former homes. In 1811 more than 50 new shepherds
employed in Sutherland were made Justices of the Peace with legal
control over the native tenants and in their contracts was often a
requirement to 'clear' a certain number of additional families from
the land each year.
It is difficult to ascertain the true extent of the clearances
since, as in modern times, good news (i.e.chiefs who did not
support the clearances) did not warrant reporting. Historical
accounts differ depending upon the teller but the figures do
themselves reflect the enormity of the problem and give veracity to
the many personal reports of those involved. The following
selective diarised entries from www.macgowan.org put some flesh on
the bones although it is not always known if it was the Clearances
or other economic factors that prompted some of the large
migrations of crofters.
1739. MacDonald of Sleat and MacLeod of
Dunvegan sell selected Clan members as indentured servants to landowners in the
1780s. Donald Cameron of Lochiel begins clearing
his family lands which stretch from Loch Leven to Loch Arkaig.
1791. The Society of the Propagation of Christian
Knowledge reports that over the previous 19 years more than 6,400
people emigrated from the Inverness and Ross areas.
1801. The first clearances of the Strathglass
area by William, the 24th Chisholm. Nearly 50% of the Clan are
evicted. The emigrant ship The Sarah sails from Fort William to
Pictou with 700 people crammed into the holds resulting in almost
50 people dying on the voyage..
1814. Patrick Sellar begins burning Strathnaver.
Residents not given time to remove their belongings or invalid
relatives and two people reputedly die from their houses
1815. The Sheriff-Substitute for Sutherland
arrests Patrick Sellar for 'willful fire-raising . . . most
aggravated circumstances of cruelty' if not murder.' Not
surprisingly, a jury of affluent landowners and merchants acquit
1819. Another violent clearing of Strathnaver
residents. Donald MacLeod, a young apprentice stonemason witnesses:
'250 blazing houses. Many of the owners were my relatives and all
of whom I personally knew; but whose present condition, whether in
or out of the flames, I could not tell. The fire lasted six days,
till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking
The Kildonan area is cleared. Donald MacDonald writes: " . . .the
whole inhabitants of the Kildonan parish, with the exception of
three families - nearly 2,000 souls
- were utterly rooted and burned out."
1826. The Island of Rum is cleared except for one
family. MacLean of Coll pays for the other natives to emigrate to
Canada. The emigrant ship James arrives in Halifax. Every person on
board had contracted typhus during the voyage.
1851. The clearance of Barra by Colonel Gordon of
Cluny. The Colonel called all of his tenant farmers to a meeting to
'discuss rents' and threatened them with a fine if they did not
attend. In the meeting hall' over 1500 tenants were overpowered,
bound, and immediately loaded onto ships for America. An eyewitness
reported: "...people were seized and dragged on board. Men who
resisted were felled with truncheons and handcuffed; those who
escaped, including some who swam ashore from the ship, were chased
by the police..."
1853. Knoydart is cleared under the direction of
the widow of the 16th Chief of Glengarry. More than 400 people are
suddenly and forcibly evicted from their homes, including women in
labour and the elderly. After the houses were torched, some tenants
returned to the ruins and tried to rebuild their villages. These
ramshackle structures were then also destroyed. Father Coll
MacDonald, the local priest, erected tents and shelters in his
garden at Sandaig on Loch Nevis, and offered succour to as many of
the homeless as he could.
1854. The clearing of Strathcarron in Ross-shire.
Some Clan Ross women tried to prevent the landlord's police force by
blocking the road to the village. The constables charged the
unarmed women, and, in the words of journalist Donald Ross: ". . .
struck with all their force. . . . not only when knocking down, but
after the females were on the ground. They beat and kicked them
while lying weltering in their blood . . . . (and) more than twenty
females were carried off the field in blankets and litters, and the
appearance they presented, with their heads cut and bruised, their
limbs mangled and their clothes clotted with blood, was such as
would horrify any savage."
The arguments between both sides show no sign of abating but
perhaps the last word can be left to the Highlander in the
following report of 1854 which tells of landowners seeking to
gather troops for the Crimean War from amongst their remaining
'should the Czar of Russia take possession of (these
lands) next term, we couldn't expect worse treatment at his hands
than we have experienced in the hands of your family for the last