The Highland Clearances

Joseph Hyder: The Case for Land Nationalisation
Chapter XIII: The Highland Clearances

The Highland Clearances

Oh ! land where the heather blooms 
And the salt spray splashes the beach, 
Where only the wind and the sky above 
Are out of the landlord’s reach ! 

Oh ! wild birds that build in the brae 
And sweeten the air with your cries. 
Wave not your wings as you sail aloft, 
For you are the landlord’s prize ! 

And you, the antlered king, 
Who proudly rear your crest, 
You live to fall to a landlord’s gun 
With the warm blood wet on your breast. 

Ye remnant of the brave! 
Who charge when the pipes are heard, 
Don’t think, my lads, that you fight for your own, 
‘Tis but for the good of the laird ! 

And when the fight is done 
And you come back over the foam, 
“Well done,” they say, “you are brave and true, 
But we cannot give you a home. 

For the hill we want for the deer. 
And the glen the birds enjoy. 
And bad for the game the smoke of the cot 
And the song of the crofter’s boy.”

Mackenzie Macbride, in
the London Scotsman


God may have given the land to dress and keep 
Unto our hands, but then his lordship’s sheep 
Fetch more i’ the market. So with all our roots, 
Like ill weeds choking up the corn’s young shoots. 
He plucks us from the soil. His sovereign word 
Hath driven us hence. As with a flaming sword 
Doth he not bar the entrance to our glen? 

To him belonged the glens with all their grain; 
To him the pastures spreading in the plain; 
To him the hills where falling waters gleam; 
To him the salmon swimming in the stream; 
To him the forests desolately drear. 
With all their antlered herds of fleet-foot deer; 
To him the league-long rolling moorland bare, 
With all the feathered fowl that wing the autumn air. 

For him the hind’s interminable toil: 
For him he plowed, and sowed, and broke the soil. 
For him the golden harvests would he reap, 
For him would tend the flocks of woolly sheep, 
For him would thin the iron-hearted woods. 
For him track deer in snow-blocked solitudes; 
For him the back was bent, and hard the hand, 
For was he not his lord, and lord of all that land? 

Mathilde Blind, The Heather on Fire.


There’s gloom upon yon mountain brow. 
There’s darkness in yon glen; 
No more the white fall sparkles now 
In yonder hazy den. 
Hushed are the tuneful groves, the sun 
Beams not on babbling rills, 
Strong hands are taking one by one 
The freedom of the hills! 

Robert Bird,
The Freedom of the Hills, in Songs of Freedom


In too many instances the Highlands have been drained, not of their superfluity of population, but of the whole mass of the inhabitants, dispossessed by an unrelenting avarice, which will be one day found to have been as short-sighted as it is selfish and unjust. Meantime the Plighlands may become the fairy ground for romance and poetry, or the subject of experiment for the professors of speculation political and economical. But, if the hour of need should come, the pibroch may sound through the deserted region, but the summons will remain unanswered. 
Sir Walter Scott. 


THE tremendous power, which the possession of land confers upon its owners, has been strikingly exemplified in the case of Scotland, where it has resulted in the wholesale clearance of the ancient inhabitants from their native glens. The memory of those clearances still rankles in the minds of men whose fathers were driven from their homes at the will of the descendants or successors of the old Highland chieftains; and no account of the evils of private property in land would be complete which omitted a reference to them. 

In the time to come it will be regarded as almost incredible that such things could have been possible, except, perhaps, in the barbarous Middle Ages, when might was right and was unashamed. 

“Under the old Celtic tenures,” says Hugh Miller, in Sutherland as it Was, and Is, “the only tenures, be it remembered, through which the lords of Sutherland derive their rights to their lands, the Klaan, or children of the soil, were the proprietors of the soil; ‘the whole of Sutherland,’ says Sismondi, ‘belongs to the men of Sutherland, the head of the clan was a chief, not a proprietor.'” And so it was with all the rest. 

By the aid of the broadswords of the clansmen, the chiefs obtained the territories over which they ruled, and every clansman regarded himself as a co-proprietor of the land which he had helped to win and to guard. But time was to change all that, and the chiefs gradually usurped the rights of the common people, as men always do under similar circumstances. 

The Gaelic for rent is mal duanglice, blackmail or highway robbery. The old clansmen lived on the land by right, their descendants live on it by sufferance, for practically every inch of the Highlands of Scotland is now private property, and none can live there at all except they have permission. The whole of the island of Lewis belongs to one man[i]. Nearly the whole of the vast county of Sutherland belongs to another. It is par excellence, a land of great estates.

The people are amongst the bravest in the world, but in the supreme matter of the right to land they are counted by the law as no better than the cattle, which browse on their native hills, which are the glory of Scotland. Men who were never beaten on the battlefield were powerless in the grip of landlordism. Men who were brave as lions were driven forth like sheep. For the insidious rights of property are deadly and irresistible, when once men have made the fundamental mistake of permitting them to include the one thing that is unmakeable by man and indispensable to him. 

The first of what are known as the Highland ‘clearances’ took place in 1784, and gradually the movement extended, the people being driven to the coast or shipped away to Canada. 

“A Duke of Athol,” says Donald Macleod, in Gloomy Memories, “can, with propriety, claim the origin of the Highland clearances. Whatever merit the family of Sutherland may take to themselves for the fire and faggot expulsion of the people from the glens of Sutherland, they cannot claim the merit of originality. The present (sixth) Duke of Athol’s grandfather cleared Glen Tilt, so far as I can learn, in 1784. This beautiful valley was occupied in the same way as other Highland valleys, each family possessing a piece of arable land, while the pasture was held in common. The people held a right and full liberty to fish in the Tilt, an excellent salmon river, and the pleasure and profits of the chase, with their chief; but the then Duke acquired a great taste for deer.

“The people were, from time immemorial, accustomed to take their cattle, in the summer season, to a higher glen, which is watered by the river Tarf; but the duke appointed Glen Tarf for a deer-forest, and built a highdyke at the head of Glen Tilt. The people submitted to this encroachment on their ancient rights. The deer increased and did not pay much regard to the march; they would jump over the dyke and destroy the people’s crops; the people complained, and his Grace rejoiced; and, to gratify the roving propensities of these light-footed animals, he added another slice of some thousand acres of the people’s land to the grazing ground of his favourite deer. Gradually the forest extended, and the marks of civilisation were effaced, till the last of the brave Glen Tilt men, who fought and often confronted and defeated the enemies of Scotland and her kings upon many a bloody battlefield, were routed off and bade a final farewell to the beautiful Glen Tilt, which they and their fathers had considered their own healthy and sweet home.” 

Hugh Miller says that, in the golden age of the Highlands, between the rebellion of 1745 and the commencement of the clearance system, the Highland peasantry were contented and comfortable, and continuously supplied those Highland regiments which were at once composed of the best men and the best soldiers in the service; and he declares that, when he has seen them labouring to extract a miserable crop from a barren soil of quartz rock and peat, he has been struck by their great industry. 

In Sir John McNeill’s Report on the Western Highlands and Islands, he describes the Crofter as often a permanent or even hereditary tenant, at a rent fixed for long periods, occupying a few acres of arable land, with right of peat and pasture on the mountain, and of fishing, if near the sea or a loch. His rude house was often built by himself, the byre for the cows and the barn for his crop being under the same roof. He usually possessed some cattle, sheep, and a pony or two, a boat, nets, and fishing gear, and a good supply of needful implements and household furniture. His croft supplied him with food and a great part of his clothing, his annual sale of cattle paid his rent, he had abundance of dried fish or salt herrings for winter use, and he thus lived in a rude abundance, with little labour, and knew nothing of the unremitting daily toil by which labourers in other parts of the country gain their livelihood. Dr. Norman MacLeod tells us, as a proof of the sterling qualities and high character of this class of Highlanders, that, since the beginning of the last wars of the French Revolution, the island of Skye alone sent forth from her wild shores 21 lieutenants and major-generals, 48 lieutenant-colonels, 600 commissioned officers, 10,000 soldiers, 4 governors of colonies, 1 governor-general, 1 adjutant-general, 1 chief baron of England, and 1 judge of the Supreme Court of Scotland. Besides such men as these, the same class supplied the whole of the clergy, doctors, and lawyers of the North of Scotland, as well as many to other parts of the Empire. Now, through the changes brought about by the despotism of the landlords, this class of men has almost entirely ceased to exist, and few soldiers or officers are supplied by the Highlands. 

Again: “I know a glen, now inhabited by two shepherds and two gamekeepers, which at one time sent out its thousand fighting men. And this is but one out of many that might be cited to show how the Highlands have been depopulated. Loyal, peaceable, and high-spirited peasantry have been driven from their native land – as the Jews were expelled from Spain, or the Huguenots from France – to make room fur grouse, sheep, and deer. A portly volume would be needed to contain the records of oppression and cruelty perpetrated by many landlords, who are a scourge to their unfortunate tenants, blighting their lives, poisoning their happiness, and robbing them of their improvements, filling their wretched homes with sorrow, and breaking their hearts with the weight of despair.” 

The clearances were begun by the landlords because of their love of sport. Like William the Conqueror, they “loved the tall stags as if they were their fathers.” But during the scarcity of food caused by the wars with Napoleon, and accentuated by the Corn Laws, the southern lands were more and more devoted to cereals, so that grazing land was in great demand. It was the high price of cattle, and the consequent high rents obtainable for grazing land, that made the Highland lairds cast envious eyes upon the poor crofts of the Highland peasantry. Hypocritical reasons were sometimes invented, as, for instance, that the condition of the peasantry would be bettered under so-called “estate improvement” schemes, but the real reason was always either the desire for pleasure, or the greed for a higher rent. 

Dean Swift, writing of the wholesale clearances that went on in his time in Ireland, promoted by exactly the same causes, said: “The more sheep we have the fewer human creatures are left to wear the wool, or eat the flesh. Ajax was mad when he mistook a flock of sheep for his enemies; but we shall never be sober until we have the same way of thinking.” 

Certainly, it would seem to be the simplest common sense to say that the great question of deciding whether a country shall feed men on the one hand, or sheep, cattle, and deer on the other, should never be left in the discretion of only one man on an entire estate. “A baron,” says Professor Francis Newman, “in his highest plenitude of power, has rather less right over the soil than the King from whom he derived his right; and a King of England might as well claim to drive all his subjects into the sea as a baron to empty his estates.” 

But this emptying of estates has been going on, in Scotland and elsewhere, in one way or another, and for one reason or another, for over a hundred years. The twentieth-century landlord has, in fact, a far greater power than the King has; he is permitted to do with impunity that which would destroy monarchy if it were attempted by the King. For is not the land his “property,” and may not a man do as he likes with his own? Surely, of all claims that can be put forward by any human being, none is more preposterous than this. 

Between 1811 and 1820, 15,000 people were cleared off the glens of Sutherland, and their homes, which they had themselves built, and which were endeared to them by many tender associations, were burned to the ground. And many a Highland soldier came back from the wars to find himself shut out from the scenes of his childhood. 

“The country,” says Donald Macleod, “was darkened by the smoke of the burnings, and the descendants of those who drew their swords at Bannockburn, Sheriffmuir, and Killiccrankie – the children and Clearest relations of those who sustained the honour of the British name in many a bloody field – the heroes of Egypt, Corunna, Toulouse, Salamanca, and Waterloo – were mined, trampled upon, dispersed, and compelled to seek an asylum across the Atlantic.” 

The lesson of it all is thus clearly stated by Alfred Russel Wallace in his Land Nationalisation: Its necessity and its Aims

“And the power to do all this, be it remembered, is a necessary consequence of unrestricted private property in land. That such horrors do not occur mere frequently is due to the good feeling and humanity of landlords, and to the absence of sufficient motive; but that it should have been ever possible, that they should have actually occurred in hundreds of cases, and that a Government which claims to rule over a free, prosperous, civilised, and Christian people was not only utterly powerless to prevent them but was actually obliged to aid into carrying them into effect – for all was strictly legal, and the landlord was only enforcing his admitted rights – must, surely, make every one who is not unfitted by prejudice see that the possession of land for any other purpose than personal occupation is incompatible with liberty, and therefore necessarily leads to evil results.” 

“I have seen,” says Mr. Rollo Russell, “in many parts of Scotland the ruin remnants of once pleasant villages; I have seen mere grassy mounds where a century ago there were thriving dwelling-places; every one may find, in almost every direction from the central Highlands, great wastes of fine country sold over the heads of Scottish people for the sport of strangers, the solitude of unprofitable beasts. On the borders of such an estate, if a few tenants are allowed to remain, they may hardly stray on to the mountainside; they may scarcely keep a pet lamb without the landlord’s leave. The people of the land, the rightful immemorial owners, emerging from the towns for a gasp of fresh air on their native mountains, their once free heather, are warned off by hired keepers, railed off by miles of fencing, refused passage of their rivers, for bridges and boats are locked, and confined, in the midst of grand moors and forest, strictly to the high road. A once flourishing and beautifully situated hamlet, with many small farms surrounding it, I have known reduced to one-third of its former population by the decision of the landlord, mistaken even in his own lower interest, to convert the small holdings into large farms.” 

And the same heartlessness that has continually been shown in turning the people off the land whenever it has pleased the landlord to do so, has been exhibited in the rack-renting of those who were permitted to remain. Free contract between the Crofter and the landlord, who was often an absentee, and whose interests were entrusted to a factor, was a mockery. 

The Crofters’ Commission at length came to the help of the weak and defenceless, and put an end to the unscrupulous rack-renting and confiscation that had become well-nigh universal throughout the crofting counties. 

Giving evidence before the Commission in 1883, Professor Blackie, referring to the continued depopulation which had been going on, said: “All this has been done in perfect accordance with English laws, which give all power to the strong and no protection to the weak members of society. It was not only the honest Crofters that must retreat before the omnipotent Nimrods of these sporting preserves. Their purple bens and green, winding glens, that were once as free to the foot of the pedestrian as the breeze that blows over them, were now fenced round with iron rails, and guarded by jealous gamekeepers. Not a botanist can pick up a fern, nor a geologist split a rock, nor an artist sketch a cascade, nor a rhymer spin a verse, nor a traveller in search of health whiff the mountain breezes, for fear–the sacred fear–of disturbing the doer, and curtailing the sport of some idle young gentleman. And all this in an age when the tide of democracy is advancing all round at a rapid pace, and requires no additional momentum from artificial rights, which plant the self-indulgent pleasures of the few in direct antagonism to the best interests of the mass of the population.” 

At that time the deer forests of Scotland covered an area of 1,711,892 acres. 

In 1898 they extended to 2,287,297 acres. 

And a Government Return, which was ordered to be printed by the House of Commons, on March 6, 1913, showed that they now cover no less than 3,599,744 acres. 

It is not, of course, contended that the whole of this area is suitable for cultivation, but much of it is, and much of it has been. 

Meanwhile, in the season, the emigrant ships are filled with the very pick of the countryside, and it behoves the nation to offer every possible facility for the satisfaction of their land hunger in their native country. 

“Breathes there a man, with soul so dead, 
Who never to himself hath said. 
This is my own, my native land? ” 

Their native land it is, but their own land it is not. It belongs to a handful of men, not always their own countrymen. An American millionaire has more legal right on it than they have. 

The most cursory study of the results of landlordism in Scotland must convince any unbiased mind that it has been the greatest curse, which has ever blighted that fair country. For it is a breach of Nature’s laws, and no breach of her laws goes unpunished. Scotsmen are proud of their country and its history. Let their pride be based upon a sense of part-ownership in their native land, and of the security and equal opportunity which will inevitably result from a recognition of the great truth that the land of glorious mountains and brown heather is the common and inalienable inheritance of all her children. 

[i]No more. Around Stornoway and the adjacent east coast of the island, the land is owned by the resident community who elect a management Board of Trustees. This land was given to the community by the previous owner, Lord Leverhulme, before he disposed of his estates in 1923. (The Western Isles. History of Settlement. Eachdraidh Tuineeachaidh). But note: The land is still privately owned – now just a number of owners. The community took the land for themselves – and not for the generations to come. Because the Trust Fund established does not charge the full rental value./pma