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Home Uncategorized Cruelty, Grievance, Denial

Cruelty, Grievance, Denial

William Kenefick

The Highland Clearances: The People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil, by Eric Richards, Birlin, Edinburgh, 377 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1841580401.

Clearances and Improvement: Land, Power and People in Scotland 1700-1900, by TM Devine, John Donald, Edinburgh, 284 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0859766951

The drama of Highland history since 1700 has attracted the interest of many historians and the legacy of the clearances in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still remains a live issue in Scotland. As Eric Richards suggests, the clearances were the “most rugged and painful of the many attempted ‘solutions’ to the problem of how to maintain a population on marginal and infertile land” at a time of rapid social and economic transformation of Scottish society, when even the most benevolent of landlords were faced with hard choices. Indeed, TM Devine stresses that the term “revolution” is entirely fitting when referring to the sheer pace and impact of this period of change and the drive in particular towards agricultural improvement.

Thousands of families lost land or were denied access to it and with this development and the rise of individualism the country witnessed the “death of old rural societies which had formed Scotland’s character for many generations”. As both authors note, this left a deep and lasting impact on the “folk memory of Scotland” and a “terrible scar on the Highland and Gaelic imagination” as people fell victim to enclosure and the growth of large-scale farming or moved to make way for cattle, sheep or deer. The days of the clearances are long gone and they may have passed from living memory, but the “passionate indignation lives on, swollen rather than weakened by the passage of time”, for as both authors would agree, the suject “rankles still in the collective memory of Scotland and especially among Scots abroad”.

Richards and Devine are two historians who between them have devoted well over sixty years of research and writing into the great transformation of the rural world of Scotland, and the Highlands in particular, between the middle decades of the eighteenth and those of the nineteenth centuries. Richards’s book concentrates overwhelmingly on the impact and process of rural change on the Highlands, and the nature of the clearances, but he also places these events within a broader European context of rural transformation during this period. He “draws liberally” on his earlier two-volume History of the Highland Clearances (1982 and 1985), but as he notes in his preface he has also called on new work by other historians over the last ten years to produce what is a very thorough and wide-ranging examination of the Highland clearances and population movement within and from Scotland. He also stresses that “Irish and Scottish history have much in common” in so far as in Ireland – as Mary Daly recently remarked – there is a tendency among the public to “wallow in the emotional horrors” of the Great Famine and, as far as Richards is concerned, “the same could be said of modern Highland history” in relation to the clearances. He notes that the issue of the Famine also resonates within Scottish history, but perhaps the main difference between his work and Devine’s is that he does not adopt a dedicated comparative approach to its investigation. In the last of the twelve essays which appear in Devine’s Clearances and Improvement, for example, he concludes on such a comparative note and provides a close analysis of why Ireland starved at the time of the Famine and the Highlands did not.

It is clear that the Irish Famine prompted another phase of clearance in Scotland, although as Richards points out this diminished considerably in the 1850s. But whether the narrative refers to famine or clearance “the story easily lends itself to melodrama”. Richards seeks to move attention away from “the mythology to the hard facts of what actually happened” for in truth “the clearances were tragic for almost all parties involved in the great Highland transformation”. As Richards’s current volume demonstrates, he is clearly neither a purveyor of popular history nor a revisionist of Highland history. His main aim is to “establish the story” of the clearances “as clearly as the surviving documentation allows” and in doing so challenge what today has become “a rage against past indignations [and] a line of denunciation [that] flows from the oral tradition of the early nineteenth century … to the electronic graffiti” posted on the web by a “worldwide network of Highland sympathisers”. Indeed, a quick search reveals the existence of many such websites, with some, as Richards suggests, providing “fuel to the cause of Scottish nationalism”. One site discusses “the brutal legacy of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries”, referring to the “often violent” eviction of “tens of thousands of men, women and children from their homes”, asserting that the memory of these events are “still etched in the minds of the people of Highlands today” (http://www.highlanderweb.co.uk/clearanc.htm). The language used is emotive and in this example the clearances are ranked alongside Glencoe and Culloden in the literature of condemnation and are associated with the chant of “genocide”.

Richards’s work has indeed more recently become implicated in an argument on the Why War? website discussing the history and definition of genocide, where both Ireland and Scotland figure prominently. The writers note that the Irish Famine – the “Great Hunger” – resulted in “the near destruction of the Irish language and the old Irish aristocracy”, and castigate those who would argue that this was not an act of genocide “because it did not amount to a deliberate [their emphasis] policy of extermination” as being blinkered and misled. Likewise with the Highland clearances! An event which can be traced back, according to this source, to the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in the eighteenth century and which is described as an “act of revenge” by the English in their efforts to quell the rebellious Scots. Ironically, they do not initially blame the Highland landlords, (generally viewed as the main villains). They also suggest too that Richards’s work acknowledges “both sides of the argument” regarding what might constitute an act of genocide, when in reality he makes only a brief passing reference to such accusations. It is clear that the grasp of history in evidence on this website is far from assured, and there are many other such examples (see http://why-war.com/encyclopedia/concepts/genocide/).

In a section on “Definitions”, Richards notes that the word clearance itself was a relative “latecomer to the story” but that it carried more emotional force than the words “eviction” or “removal”, which were more commonly used in the Highlands until the 1840s. He then raises an important question: when is it valid to use the word “clearance”? Should it be reserved to describe the “ejection of communities of large numbers of people at a single time, for example, or could it be applied to single cases of eviction … even the termination of a tenancy agreement”? Richards asserts that during the classic period of the clearances (mainly but not only between 1790 and 1855) people were more often “evicted” and “relocated” elsewhere within an estate rather than “cleared” off the land. Indeed, this distinction was made at the time of the parliamentary enquiry into the Conditions of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (commonly referred to as the Napier Commission: see Parliamentary Papers xxxii-xxxvi, 1884) when, in presenting evidence before the commissioners, one Rev Gustavus Aird declared:

I call it eviction when they (crofters and cottars) have to go off the estate and go elsewhere. Some of those removed may have been removed out of their places and found places upon the same estate. I make a difference between eviction and removal.

Indeed, it was argued that people who were pushed into relocating to another estate or farming region, or into the rapidly expanding manufacturing towns and cities between 1750 and 1850, did not constitute a clearance in the accepted sense of the word. Even if people did decide to leave the land, Richards notes, it was “rarely a simple response to poverty or eviction”. In the case of the Highlands, he writes, “it most often occurred when living standards were rising”. Indeed, in the attempt to reorganise their estates, Highland landlords went to great lengths to retain their tenants. They worked vigorously to push through the Passenger Vessels Act of 1803, which increased the cost of the sea voyage to North America from (the equivalent) of £3.50 to over £10.00. This was intended to push up the cost of an Atlantic crossing well beyond the reach of most ordinary Highlanders, and thereafter only the better off could afford to leave without the assistance of an outside agency or emigration society.

It is clear from much of the reading on the subject of rural transformation that Scotland’s powerful “landlord” class are deemed to be the root cause of the clearances – rather than it having been an act of revenge by the English for the Jacobite uprising in 1745. It is argued, for example, that the landlords relinquished their responsibility to their tenantry in order to extract as much surplus value from rents and agricultural production as possible, or conversely bought over huge tracts of land only to leave it to “degenerate into a depopulated wilderness”. Put simply, the history of the Highland landlord “is a record of barely relieved vilification and abuse” and even today ‘the clamour for retribution and restitution’ remains undiminished. The clearances they were ultimately responsible for came to be viewed as:

One of the great tragic anger-generating episodes in modern British history, to be invoked in the same breath as the Irish Famine, Peterloo, the enclosure movement and factory conditions in the Industrial Revolution.

To suggest that the landlords have had something of a bad press would, as Richards points out, “be a gross historical understatement” for it is clear that in Scottish historiography (indeed in novels, paintings and music as well as history) popular landlords are “as rare as hens’ teeth”.

There were of course landlords before the clearances, and there was also pre-clearance commercialism, and it is far from clear whether pre-clearance landlords were “any more tender to their tenantry than their successors”. But much of this is ignored for it is the “morality of the landlord actions” which continually comes under scrutiny (a theme considered at great length by Devine when comparing Irish and Scottish landlords at the time of the Famine) and even if in some cases blame occasionally falls on the excesses of over-zealous agents or factors (such as the infamous Patrick Seller, who perpetrated some of the most brutal clearances on the great Sutherland estate in the 1810s to make way for sheep), it is the landlords who are ultimately held responsible for the economic conditions that prevailed between the 1750s and the 1850s. As a result, and as Richards somewhat acerbically points out, Highland landlords became figures of hatred and “ogres even among landlords”.

Richards completes his survey of the clearances – the “small scale and [the] scarcely recorded” or (as on the great Sutherland estate) those “achieved by attrition” – with a final “Answers and Questions” chapter. By carefully blending the material covered in the foregoing chapters (eighteen in total) he provides answers to questions such as “How should the landlords, especially those in the Highlands, be judged?” or “Why did the Highlands suffer famine in the 1840s?” But his final question is perhaps more to the point. Given what we know of the better documented cases reporting on the impact of Highland rural change, “Do we need to revise the story of the Highland Clearances?” He readily accepts that the available evidence “broadly vindicates the popular version of the story” and that the Highland landlords acted with little restraint until the late nineteenth century – particularly in the decade of “unrestrained” landlord activity after the Famine, when the potato failure had demonstrated all too clearly the dangers of over-reliance on one main food source. Indeed, as Allan Macinnes succinctly put it: “The Great Famine had ended reliance on the potato as the dietary insurance policy for the crofting region” of Scotland. But in relation to the story of the clearances, as Richards concludes, there is also to be considered the role of posterity,

[which] has been to exaggerate and polarise the account and to diminish the underlying economic dilemma of everyone in the region. The exceptionalism of the Highlands has been over-rated at the expense of the significance of the Clearances as a well-documented exemplar of the dangers facing a poor society located on the edge of industrialisation.

Richards ultimately views the Highland clearances as “a particularly severe type of enclosure … one of the last and most turbulent acts in the transformation of British agriculture”.

Indeed, what was occurring in the Highlands before 1760 was part of a movement sweeping across Europe, where eviction and changing land use “were universal elements in virtually every agrarian society”. Population pressure further forced the pace of agrarian change and led to more intensive farming methods, and this would continue to impact across Europe well into the nineteenth century. The Highland experience of economic change was thus “a regional variant” of a broader European movement and while this might have affected certain areas at different times – whether it was England, Ireland, Silesia, Spain or indeed Lowland Scotland – “the consequences were remarkably similar”, and it was usually done without complaint, resistance, destruction of property, violence or publicity. It would seem that from Richards’s analysis that it is entirely valid to suggest that the exceptionalism of the Highlands is exaggerated and that rural change there must be viewed as part of a wider European movement. What Richards’s analysis does not readily reveal is that because the subject of the Highlands has attracted such a great deal of historical attention since the 1850s the study of Scottish agricultural history more generally – until relatively recently – has suffered from selective neglect. Richards does consider the Lowlands, but only in a limited fashion. This is most certainly not a claim that can be made of Devine’s book, or indeed his research and publication record as a whole.

Devine states clearly from the outset in Clearance and Improvement: Land Power and the People in Scotland 1700-1900 that the twelve essays that appear in the book “represent at attempt to deal with an historical conundrum”: how economic and social change in the Highlands (Gaeldom) is associated with “failure, famine and clearance”, while in the Lowlands it is “remembered” as a period of “improvement”. Both parts of Scotland were equally affected by the economic and social revolution taking place in part under “the powerful influence of a landlord class”, yet the Lowland experience receives scant attention from historians – and to this list we can reasonably add Eric Richards himself. Devine’s approach is a comparative one, in which he examines the impact of rural transformation as it affected both the Highlands and the Lowlands, with four chapters on the Highlands, five on the Lowlands and three in which both regions are treated together. He compares and contrasts these developments with those taking place elsewhere, specifically Ireland and particularly at the time of the Famine.

In his second chapter Devine charts the first advancement of the comparative historical method when in the mid-1970s Professors Louis Cullen and Christopher Smout organised a joint seminar series at Trinity College Dublin for the study of Irish and Scottish history. Since then several major scholarly conferences have been held where publication of the proceedings followed soon afterwards, and coupled with Devine’s drive to deal with Scotland’s “historical conundrum” became part of a flourishing scholarly interest in a burgeoning field ranging from “history to language, literature and culture”. In the 1990s an Irish-Scottish academic consortium was formed consisting of Aberdeen and Strathclyde universities and Trinity College, Dublin – and some time later Queen’s University Belfast. Later, dedicated research institutes devoted to the comparative study of Ireland and Scotland were established at Aberdeen and Trinity. Indeed, as a student studying at Strathclyde in the 1980s and early 1990s, I gained a considerable insight into Irish and Scottish history through presentations by prominent Irish and Scottish historians such as Louis Cullen and Cormac Ó Gráda, Christopher Smout, and Professor Devine. This kindled an interest in comparative history and resulted in a research project on the role of the Irish and migrant Scottish Highlanders in emergent general dock trade unionism in Scotland from the late 1880s – inspired as much by the issue of land reform and home rule as by a genuine desire for industrial combination.

Devine’s research into rural transformation is set against the backdrop of an economic revolution driven by powerful commercial forces and looks well beyond the geographical confines of Scotland towards the British Isles and Europe. We get a real sense of the bigger picture through this approach with chapters on the “Great Landlords” and early agrarian change; “Empire and Land” and Glasgow’s colonial merchants; “Dispossession” of subtenants and the cottar class; “Highland Migration to Lowland Scotland” between 1760 and 1860 (very important in the Scottish demographic context and arguably averting a potential Malthusian crisis in the Highlands). The book also importantly compares the impact of Highland and Lowland clearances and concludes by treating the question: “Why the Highlands did not starve: Ireland and Highland Scotland during the Potato Famine”. Devine suggests that in many respects the failure of the potato in both areas in the 1840s had remarkably similar effects and to better explain the “exceptional” impact of the potato failure he places this event in a European context. The estimated shortfall in the potato yield across Europe was generally “no more than a third”, with the largest observed deficiency experienced in Germany, France and the Netherlands consisting of shortfalls of 31 per cent, 36 per cent and 50 per cent respectively. In Ireland, he notes, three-quarters of the potato crop was lost, while in the most distressed Highland districts “67 per cent experienced complete failure and in another 20 per cent blight destroyed the potatoes almost entirely”.

Devine notes that the scale of potato dependence in Ireland was much greater than in Scotland and that in the Highland districts “potential victims of crop failure could be numbered in their thousands” rather than millions, as was the case in Ireland. In many respects, however, the potato blight was as potentially as devastating to the Highlands as to Ireland, but in terms of numbers the Highlands crisis was more easily dealt with. “Superficially there were pronounced similarities between the development of the Irish and Highland economies before 1840” in so far as the western Highlands, like western Ireland, was overpopulated, largely redundant and comprised areas of land where subsistence and chronic poverty were the norm. But he also sounds a note of caution, arguing that this “pessimistic analysis” can only be taken so far. For example, population growth in both areas showed a marked deceleration in the decades before 1840, but migration from the Highlands was already under way well before then – and it was not due in any great measure to a determined policy of clearances. Moreover, there was also a significant temporary, or seasonal, migration from the Highlands, and while there is evidence of temporary migration from Ireland (Irish harvesters, for example, were an important source of labour in lowland Scottish agriculture from the 1820s) temporary migration was much more extensive in Scotland.

Commercial and subsistence fishing also persisted longer in the Highlands, as did kelping (two reasons why Highland landlords were determined to hold on to their tenantry and discourage overseas migration rather than clear them off the land). It is true, as Patrick Hickey and Cormac O Gráda suggest, that fishing off western Ireland was still a viable pursuit, but as Devine argues “the riches of the sea were more easily harvested by the majority of Highlanders” than by their Irish counterparts. Devine also examines lines of communications, which because of the “underdeveloped nature of trade in the far west” were primitive in nature, and this factor, as many Irish historians now argue, played a part in constraining famine relief. Lines of transport and communication in the Highlands were – and had been since the end of the Napoleonic Wars – much more effective because the western Highlands were a “major source of meat, wool, mutton, fish, kelp, timber, slate and whisky” which served the demands of the growing southern economy. Add to this the early growth of tourism and the emergence of steam as the new source of propulsion and we see the beginning of “a new era in Highland navigation”. This prompted one Thomas Mulock, writing in the 1850s, to suggest: “[that] a bridge of boats now unites the southern mainland with the northern coast and very specially with the western Isles” of Scotland.

A major and contentious issue in this narrative of events – one that clearly drives much of Richards’s research – is the role of the landlords and their response to potato failure, famine and population pressure. While the landlords are clearly viewed by posterity as “the villains of the famine years”, Devine stresses that recent historical opinion suggests that some landowners were very active in famine relief and a good few went bankrupt in their struggle to help distressed people on their estates. As early as 1843, for example, out of an estimated 7,000 estates in Scotland “one twentieth” were already in the hands of the receivers, accounting for land with a total rental value of over £700,000 – and this was to rise to £1,300,000 in 1847 and increase further to £2,000,000 by 1849. This type of “systematic research on the Irish landed classes during the Famine years” has yet to take place in Ireland, but from what we know, Devine argues, it would seem that landlord response in Ireland and Scotland was markedly different and that this was determined by the “contrasting financial position of the two groups”. The Highland elites – particularly a new crop of very rich landlords “acquiring insolvent estates” – provided aid and food relief, and also funded many assisted emigration schemes. Irish landlords were also active in this area, but because of their precarious financial position, Devine argues, they could only support a much smaller proportion of the famine emigrations.

There are clearly stark contrasts between the fate of the Irish and Highland tenantry at the time of the potato famine and this is partly explained in terms of scale; that the level of potato dependency was not as great in the Highlands and that population pressure was of a much less significant order of magnitude in the Highlands than in Ireland. The Highland landed elites, despite a great many bankruptcies, were also better able to provide relief and economies of scale, and better transport and communications aided them in their task – augmented by the work of a host of philanthropic agencies. Devine completes his history of Clearance and Improvement in Scotland by stressing the one important factor that was missing in the Irish context, the “proximity of an industrialised society to the south and east” of the Scottish Highlands. This was of “singular importance”, for Scotland was an advanced economy and in terms of the European league of industrialised and urbanised nations second only to England and Wales by the mid-nineteenth century. The Lowlands provided “a host of seasonal work opportunity for Highland temporary migrants” and due to the great wealth being generated and amassed due the aggressive promotion of commercialism “this help raise the necessary funds to alleviate starvation in the north west”. Put simply, Scotland was in a much better position to deal with the very real problems that resulted from the Great Famine.

The clearances were clearly part of a bigger and more complex picture which chronicles the impact of revolutionary economic and social change in eighteenth and nineteenth century European society. They largely came to end in the 1850s, although the struggle over eviction continued until after the passing of the Crofters Holding Act in 1886. Both Devine and Richards give less treatment to the post-famine period in their respective publications, but it is clear from other work – where the post-famine years are more comprehensively and systematically covered – that both see the eruption of crofter agitation in the early 1880s, and in particular in relation to the “Battle of the Braes” in Skye in 1882, as an important turning point in the struggle over the land question in Scotland. There had been sporadic episodes of violence before this period but these were “politically unsophisticated, poorly organised and highly localised”. Indeed, prior to this outbreak of popular protest, and as far back as the 1840s, Devine noted in Clanship to Crofters’ War: The Social Transformation of the Scottish Highlands (1994): “It became common to contrast the violent truculence of the Irish and their bitter struggle against an alien landlord class with the passive stoicism of the Scottish Gaels.” This all changed at the time of the Battle of the Braes in 1882 and was to prove the “catalyst for a much wider crofters’ campaign”.


Copying the tactics of Irish Land League – exploiting links that were said to have be forged in the 1870s (perhaps even as far back as the 1860s between Ireland and the Scottish Highland and Western Islands) – the crofters initiated and extended the use of “rent strikes, the occupation of sheep farms, the destruction of farm fences, deforcement of sheriff officers and the mutilation and killing of stock”. But importantly, this was a sophisticated political movement and through the efforts of John Murdoch in particular – who Devine and Richards note “was a Scot who had lived in Ireland and knew Parnell and Davitt personally” – a press and political propaganda campaign was launched which helped shape public opinion in favour of the crofters’ actions and against the landlords, who as a group argued that the crofters movement had to met by force or the situation in Sutherland and the rest of the Highlands and Islands would “soon be as bad as that of Ireland three years before”. Dovetailing the political movement with the proactive movement of rent strikes and land raids the crofters’ campaign attracted national publicity, but more importantly it gathered widespread public sympathy and support. The details of this agitation are best left to another time, but the immediate short-term result was the establishment of the Napier Commission and the parliamentary enquiry into the Conditions of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in 1883 (the report appeared in the following year) and it is important to give this some consideration before drawing this review to a conclusion.

The Napier Commissioners heard a great deal of evidence, including that drawn from the writings and reminiscences of many popular writers which, as Richards notes, generated a “literary anger” that “created an atmosphere profoundly sympathetic to the aspirations of the crofters” and hostility towards the landlords. The growth of Celtic Societies and the establishment of the Land League before 1884 – particularly strong in Glasgow – helped further generate a groundswell of support among a broad range of Scottish society for what became known as the Crofters’ War and was viewed “as a great triumph of popular protest”. The Napier Commission was important in this because it gave the crofters and their allies, backed by a formidable propaganda operation, the opportunity to set the record straight and expose the vindictive cruelty of the Highland landlords and the Sutherland family in particular.

There can be no doubt that the crofters had plenty of ammunition when it came to the subject of the clearances and the accounts of poverty and oppression pricked the Victorian conscience sufficiently that it proved difficult for the landlords to attract much sympathy for their case. The writings of Donald Macleod, who had experienced at first hand the Sutherland clearance, first published in the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle as “The Sutherland Clearance” in the early 1840s, were used to considerable effect forty years later. This was initially based on a series of letters sent to the Chronicle and later the material for Gloomy Memories, a popular book which highlighted the “attendant cruelty” and “accompanying atrocities” caused by the Sutherland clearances over the first decades of the nineteenth century. The first edition of Gloomy Memories appeared in Edinburgh in 1841, a second edition in Greenock in 1856, and a third “enlarged and improved” edition was published in Toronto, Canada in 1857 where Macleod had by then settled. In the aftermath of the Napier Commission, and with interest in the book rekindled, a fourth edition (based on the Canadian book) was published widely through printing outlets in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Oban in 1892. The events chronicled by Macleod, and as related by his supporters variously between the 1840s and 1880s (indeed, as witnessed still today by reference to this work on many websites) were presented as first hand evidence of the attempted “extirpation of the Celtic race from the Highlands of Scotland”, and as such his account perhaps represents the first example of clearance being conflated with notions of genocide. The preface to the 1892 edition of Gloomy Memories celebrated the passing of the Crofters Act of 1886 and stressed how this act alone would have “cheered the heart of Donald Macleod had he lived to see its passing”. But his joy would have been doubly felt on discovering that as a result of the politicisation of the crofters, and after the extension of the franchise in 1885, “the electors of his native country” sent a crofter’s son (representing the Crofters’ Party) to represent their interests in the British parliament.

There is little doubt that the Sutherland clearances were often brutal, and that was how they were perceived by many, but it is still a much contested issue. Were people actually “cleared” in the strictest sense of the word when they were not removed from an estate and forced to leave their county or country of birth? However one might define the term clearance, there is little doubt that the Crofters’ Holding Act (1886) brought the classic period of Highland clearances to an end.

The Crofters’ War was clearly “a great triumph for popular protest” but what did it ultimately accomplish? Eric Richards suggests

[that the Crofters’ War] produced a revolution in land tenure and social conditions in the Highlands and led to the creation of the first independent “labour” party in the British parliament, the Crofters’ party . The Crofters Act of 1886 was a decisive and unambiguous piece of class legislation on behalf of the common people: it was specifically designed to prevent clearance. It was also meant to solve the ‘Highland problems’.

Devine asserted that the Act was hailed as the “Magna Carta of the Highlands” for the crofter could no longer be evicted from his holding and was now allowed to pass it on to his sons. But it was first and foremost “a political solution to a social crisis”: it was not intended to solve the evident economic problems that had dogged the Highlands since 1700. In the decades that followed the Crofting Act, however, despite the crofter having more protection than at any time in the past, more people than ever left the Highlands. Before the Famine hit in the 1840s it was estimated that the population was 400,000; by the time of the 1931 census this had fallen to 242,000: indeed, 90,000 left over the first three decades of the twentieth century. This was perhaps presaged in the preface of Gloomy Memories where it was stated that the 1886 Act was noted for “its imperfections and aggravating limitations”, for it clearly did not adequately address the “deep-seated problem of underdevelopment and rural congestion” as both Devine and Richards argue. But viewed in a positive light it was a vindication of “the historic rights of the Celts” and gave clear evidence of what the Highlander could achieve once “united in their desires and persistent in their demands”.

There is also little doubt that the crofters’ popular protest inspired other groups and particularly Scottish Highland migrants and Irish emigrants, who lived and worked cheek by jowl in Glasgow and urban and industrial west Scotland. Radical Scottish liberals and a growing cadre within the radical left of the trade union and independent labour movement were passionate and vocal supporters of land reform and of the American Henry George – whose book Poverty and Progress was particularly influential. This can be seen at the time of the formation of the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) in Glasgow in February 1889 – the first mass union of dock workers in Britain. The Catholic Irish dominated dock work in western Scotland and Protestant Scottish Highlanders formed the next biggest group (about 60 per cent and 20 per cent respectively). They coalesced around the issue of land reform and Irish and Scottish home rule in the 1880s, and were led by two prominent Irish-born land reformers, trade unionists and early socialists, Edward McHugh and Richard McGhee, who were both also personal friends of Henry George. Indeed it was reported in the North British Daily Mail at the time of the summer strike of 1889 that Edward McHugh was to be heard regularly “spouting in George Square in Glasgow on Home Rule and Land Restoration”.

The summer strike referred to above was doomed to failure for the dockers could not stop the great influx of scab labour (imported labour) brought in by the employers to replace strikers. It was well publicised at the time of the strike that the scabs had taken four to five times as long to load or discharge a vessel, but that the employers had expressed the view that they were generally happy with this situation. When the strike ended and the dockers returned McHugh and McGee instructed them to “go slow” or what they termed “ca-canny” and to work at the same pace as the scabs. They also took a lead from the activities of the Land League in Ireland in pioneering the use of the boycott as a new industrial strategy whereby the union cut off the supply of labour to an employer or shipping line and in doing so completely disrupted their business. Ca-canny and the use of the boycott were so successful that the dockers secured wage rises and improved working conditions – something they had failed to achieve by strike action – and McHugh and McGee were widely regarded throughout the Scottish trade union and labour movement for their novel and daring industrial strategies.

With the assistance of Charles Kennedy and Hugh Johnson, two other prominent Irishmen in Glasgow, the NUDL went on to organise the entire west of Scotland and leading east coast ports, the western English seaboard from the Scottish Borders to Liverpool, much of Ireland including Belfast, Derry, Dublin and Cork. Indeed, Hugh Johnson – who organised the Irish ports – speaking during the fledgling days of the NUDL at Glasgow stressed their weak position at that time but assured his audience they would get stronger: “I know no one [feels] able to open their mouths just now, but when [we have] been six or eight weeks connected”, he told them, they would all be Dan O’Connells and Henry Grattans. On that concluding note the Glasgow Herald reported there was heard much laughter. The actions of the Land League at the time of the Land War in Ireland (1879-1882), focusing on the issue of tenants’ rights, land tenure and control and land management, influenced the crofters and their campaign.

This was clearly demonstrated when Michael Davitt visited Skye on in May 1887 to commemorate the passing of Crofters’ Holding Act the year before. The Glasgow Observer on May 2nd reported that:

the distinguished Irishman was met by a large crowd, who waved banners enthusiastically. Such mottoes in Gaelic and English [read] “The Land for the People” … A procession was quickly formed, and proceeded by a piper, and followed by a surging crowd, Mr Davitt walked to the Portree Hotel.

He was “heartily cheered” every inch of his journey and when he reached the hotel the crowd demanded a speech. In response Davitt appeared on the balcony of the first floor. He thanked the crowd for the “kind welcome” and their support for Irish home rule and the Irish struggle to abolish landlordism and noted that “in many respects we are not only identical in race, but in political and social aspirations as well”. To great cheers he proclaimed that it was a “natural right” that the people assumed “the ownership of the Island of Skye”. The crowd was also addressed by Angus Sutherland MP of the Crofters’ Party and a stalwart supporter of the crofters, John Murdoch (who had a long and close friendship with Davitt). The Land League helped unite rural Ireland and consolidate Irish opinion across Scotland (and Britain) and when linked to the crofters’ agitations a strong bond of unity was established between the Scottish Highlanders, Ireland and the Irish in Scotland, and a broad swathe of industrial workers across Lowland industrial west Scotland.

The “eviction struggle” continued until it was finally brought to an end after the passing of the Crofters’ Act in 1886. But as Devine and Richards stress the clearances “rankles still in the collective memory of Scotland” – particularly among the Scots abroad. Indeed, in April 1998, almost 150 years after those events, the landowners in Scotland considered making “a collective apology for the Highland clearances” in an attempt to improve their public image. Two years later, on September 27th, 2000 the issue of the clearances was discussed in the fledgling Scottish parliament. It was raised by Jamie Stone – the MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross – and moved by Sir David Steel (the presiding officer) who addressed those gathered on the motion:

That the Parliament expresses its deepest regret for the occurrence of the Highland Clearances and extends its hand in friendship and welcome to the descendants of the cleared people who reside outwith our shores.

In the discussion that followed, the history of those events was gone over and it was stated that the clearances precipitated the mass movement of people off the land and away to locations across the globe (although mainly to Canada). Some MSPs wished to apologise for the clearances and argued that it was an event of such magnitude that it ranked alongside the Great Famine in Ireland. Others felt it inappropriate to apologise because it was the economic changes taking place across Scotland – indeed, across Britain and Europe as a whole – that ultimately caused the clearances. Jamie Stone, the MSP who first raised the motion, closed what was a lengthy and complex debate by concluding:

It may be worth underlining … that it was from Lochalsh that there sailed in 1847 the emigrant family whose fate I touched on earlier. When, one and a half centuries ago, that family joined the long, long list of folk who fell victim to the Highland clearances, it would have seemed completely inconceivable that there would one day be public funds available to help Highland communities to take on the ownership and management of the land from which so many of our people had been evicted.

Proceedings of the Scottish Parliament on September 27th, 2000


This was indeed a sea change and for the first time those who lived and worked the land had the opportunity to purchase it should it be put up for sale. But what is clear is that the whole issue of the clearances still resonates in Scotland today. Brendan O’Brien wrote in The Scotsman of February 8th, 2005 that the subject was so emotive that “many writers denounce the clearances as the first act of modern ethnic cleansing” – although he asserted that he himself believed “the clearances were not a single act of genocidal intent”. On March 7th, The Scotsman ran another article, by Shan Ross, with the headline: “Historian throws down gauntlet on ‘Clearance myth’”. This concerned the work of sometimes controversial author Michael Fry and his book Wild Scots, Four Hundred Years of Highland History, in which he claimed that the mass evictions from the Highlands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were “greatly exaggerated and ignored the desire of the people to leave their poverty-stricken homeland to improve themselves”. This attracted some scathing criticism, including that of Labour MP Brian Wilson, who described Fry as “a buffoon” and “the David Irving of the clearances”. Fry, he argued, had set out to write a “Clearances denial book” and as such his conclusions were worthless and his book “should not be treated as serious history”. Professor Devine became embroiled in the issue, suggesting that Fry’s comments were likely “to provoke a war of words that could make discussion on sectarianism look tame”. The clearances historian James Hunter said Fry was “playing with words” and ignoring the responsibility of historians “to honour those who endured trauma and suffering”. Fry responded by accusing Hunter of being a lazy historian who did not look at the facts and was all too happy to blame the landlords.

A recent conference held at Dundee University in January 2007 took as its them the “state of Scottish history” three hundred years after the union of 1707. The event attracted several leading Scottish historians, including Tom Devine, Christopher Smout, Chris Whatley and Ted Cowan. Smout spoke of the great developments that had taken place in Scottish historical studies since the 1970s in economic, social and gender history; Devine stressed the pivotal role Smout himself had played in this movement and in the burgeoning interest in comparative Irish and Scottish studies while Whatley stressed the significance of the union to subsequent Scottish history. Ted Cowan would not have disagreed with these sentiments, but he raised other issues, such as how some choose to remember the past, interpret particular events and the emergence of what he suggested was a blame culture – a grievance identity – particularly evident among the Scots community abroad. He drew upon a long association with Canada both in teaching and research, noting that over the last four decades a sea change in attitude had taken place. Canadians of Scots descent, he argued, had seemingly assimilated a “grievance identity” in relation to their ancestral past. Forty years ago they viewed themselves as pioneers and adventurers; now they see themselves as victims of the Highland Clearances.

The debate continues to be played out in other arenas, generally in relation to the role of public memory, and specifically in relation the growth of people’s museums and other memorial sites. This is borne out by the work of Alex Tyrell, in a short article “What Shall We Do with the Duke? Public Memory and Culture Wars in the Scottish Style” (2003) where he considers museums and other sites dedicated to the Highland Clearances and role of the Duke of Sutherland in particular. These museums, he notes, say nothing about the extent of historical debate and discussion on this matter:

[They] have been established to commemorate the Clearances … they impart what has been described as ‘notions of trauma, dislocation and oppression, as well as a sense of betrayal’. Visitors are presented with ‘coercive’ narratives based on this interpretation. Evidently this is a disjunction between academic history and public memory [for the] term ‘Highland Clearances’ has entered the Scottish sense of national identity so strongly as an unmitigated story of wretchedness … that for most people it has been beyond challenge.

The duke is the first Duke of Sutherland, whose statue stands atop a 100-foot pillar, situated on the slope of Ben Bhraggie in Golspie overlooking the vast Sutherland estate. An inscription informs the visitor simply that the statue was erected by “His Tenantry And Friends” in honour of a man “Of Loved Revered and Cherished Memory”. The statue is important to Tyrell’s story because of the campaign to destroy it, for its very presence has given rise to “conflictual” feelings generated by the public memory of the clearances and the duke’s own role in them. Indeed Tyrell notes that the campaign to have the statue destroyed has spawned a profusion of websites, one of which described the duke as “Scotland’s own Joseph Stalin”, while another asserted that “his horrible long shadow” (a reference to the height of the pillar on which his statue stands) “darkens all of Canada” as well as the USA. The attempt to topple the duke ended in failure, but Tyrell stresses that “some campaigners have taken consolation from the passions they have aroused in favour of ‘atonement’ for the ‘unfinished business’ of the Highland Clearances”.

The resurgence of a strong sense of national identity and the restoration of the Scottish parliament in 1999 brought the question of land ownership and access to the land back to the fore. In 2003 a Land Bill was passed by the Scottish parliament granting the “right to roam” over almost all land in Scotland, including the queen’s estate at Balmoral, but more importantly “it gave communities first refusal on land that was offered for sale; and it gave crofters the right to force land sales”. Indeed, even before the Act was passed the Scottish Land Fund, in league with the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Unit, helped the inhabitants of the island of Gigha take ownership of the island in July 2002. To commemorate that takeover the islanders started work on the erection of a cairn “humbler than the Duke’s pillar” perhaps, but an act that “spoke volumes for the changing outlook of a new era”. The deputy first minister of Scotland stated that the monument was “a symbol … that the islanders were no longer hapless victims of the historical past”. And this statement in itself brings us back full circle for it assumes that they were indeed “hapless victims” and that the true story of the clearances has been fully established. It is clear that the subject is not going to slip away from the public memory for too much has been invested in the telling of this story – even if it largely disregards the work of “heavily qualified historical research” of the type promoted by Devine and Richards and their search for the truth. Eric Richards has just released his latest book, Debating The Highland Clearances (Edinburgh University Press, 2007) under the series title Debates and Documents in Scottish History, so it would seem clear that this subject will stay with us for some time to come, for as Devine and Richards stress, the public memory of the Highland Clearances has swollen rather than weakened with the passing of time.

On Friday 17th, 2006, 119 years after he visited Skye in support of the crofters’ movement, a plaque was unveiled in honour of Michael Davitt, attached to the side of the Portree Hotel to commemorate the centenary of his death and the speech he delivered from the hotel balcony to a “great assembly of Skye crofters”. The West Highland Free Press reported that he was so popular with the crofters that they wanted him so stand as their parliamentary candidate. Davitt’s grandson, Father Tom Davitt, was invited unveil the plague. Perhaps the most significant factor about Michael Davitt was that he was an Irish Catholic and yet was welcomed into the heartland of the Protestant Highlands. It is no accident that the Catholic Irish and Protestant Scottish Highland dockers came together to form the National Union of Dockers in Glasgow in February 1889 – less than two year after Davitt visited Skye – when religious differences were clearly set aside in order to build a trade union. Jim Larkin was also very close to the Glasgow and west Scotland dockers when he became national organiser for the NUDL in 1907. But that’s another story.

Bibliography: (other than those reviewed)

RH Campbell, “Too Much of the Highlands: A Plea for Change”, Scottish Economic and Social History Review, 14, 1994.

TM Devine, Clanship to Crofters’ War: The Social Transformation of the Scottish Highlands (Manchester University Press, 1994).

Michael Fry, Wild Scots, Four Hundred Years of Highland History (John Murray, 2005).

William Kenefick, “Irish Dockers and Trade Unionism on Clydeside” (Scotland), Irish Studies Review, 19, Summer 1997.

William Kenefick, Red Scotland! The Rise and Fall of the Radical left, c 1872 to 1932 (Edinburgh University Press, 2007).

Allan Macinnes, “Highland Society in the Age of Improvement”, in A Cooke (et al) Modern Scottish History: 1707 to the Present, Volume 1: The Transformation of Scotland, 1707-1850 (Tuckwell Press, East Lothian, 2nd edition, 2003).

Donald MacLeod, Gloomy Memories in the Highlands of Scotland [versus Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Sunny Memories In (England) in a Foreign Land Or A Faithful Picture of the Extirpation of the Celtic Race from the Highlands of Scotland] (1892 edition, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Oban – first published 1841).

Eric Richards, History of the Highlands Clearances (London, Vol 1 1982; Vol 2 1985).

Eric Richards, Debating The Highland Clearances (Edinburgh University Press, 2007).

Alex Tyrell, “What Shall We Do with the Duke? Public Memory and Culture Wars in the Scottish Style”, Humanities Research Vol 10, 2, 2003.

Conditions of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (The Napier Commission: Parliamentary Papers xxxii-xxxvi, 1884).

William Kenefick teaches Scottish and British history at the University of Dundee. His most recent book is Red Scotland! The Rise and Fall of the Radical Left, c.1872-1932 (Edinburgh University Press, 2007)



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