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The History of the Highland Clearances
Notable Dicta - Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace


In his work on the Nationalisation of Land, Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace, in the chapter on "Landlordism in Scotland," says to the English people:-

"The facts stated in this chapter will possess, I feel sure, for many Englishmen, an almost startling novelty; the tale of oppression and cruelty they reveal reads like one of those hideous stories peculiar to the dark ages, rather than a simple record of events happening upon our own land and within the memory of the present generation. For a parallel to this monstrous power of the landowner, under which life and property are entirely at his mercy, we must go back to mediaeval, or to the days when serfdom not having been abolished, the Russian noble was armed with despotic authority; while the more pitiful results of this landlord tyranny, the wide devastation of cultivated lands, the heartless burning of houses, the reckless creation of pauperism and misery, out of well-being and contentment, could only be expected under the rule of Turkish Sultans or greedy and cruel Pashas. Yet these cruel deeds have been perpetrated in one of the most beautiful portions of our native land. They are not the work of uncultured barbarians or of fanatic Moslems, but of so-called civilised and Christian men ; and—worst feature of all they are not due to any high-handed exercise of power beyond the law, but are strictly legal, are in many cases the acts of members of the Legislature itself, and, notwithstanding that they have been repeatedly made known for at least sixty years past, no steps have been taken, or are even proposed to be taken, by the Legislature to prevent them for the future! Surely it is time that the people of England should declare that such things shall no longer exist that the rich shall no longer have such legal power to oppress the poor—that the land shall be free for all who are willing to pay a fair value for its use—and, as this is not possible under landlordism, that landlordism shall be abolished. . . .

"The general results of the system of modern landlordism in Scotland are not less painful than the hardship and misery brought upon individual sufferers. The earlier improvers, who drove the peasants from their sheltered valleys to the exposed sea-coast, in order to make room for sheep and sheep farmers, pleaded erroneously the public benefit as the justification of their conduct. They maintained that more food and clothing would be produced by the new system, and that the people themselves would have the advantage of the produce of the sea as well as that of the land for their support. The result, however, proved them to be mistaken, for henceforth the cry of Highland destitution began to be heard, culminating at intervals into actual famines, like that of 1836-37, when 70,000 were distributed to keep the Highlanders from death by starvation. . . . just as in Ireland, there was abundance of land capable of cultivation, but the people were driven to the coast and to the towns to make way for sheep, and cattle, and lowland farmers; and when the barren and inhospitable tracts allotted to them became overcrowded, they were told to emigrate. As the Rev. J. Macleod says:—"By the clearances one part is depopulation and the other overpopulated; the people are gathered into villages where there is no steady employment for them, where idleness has its baneful influence and lands them in penury and want.

"The actual effect of this system of eviction and emigration—of banishing the native of the soil and giving it to the stranger—is shown in the steady increase of poverty indicated by the amount spent for the relief of the poor having increased from less than 300,000 in 1846 to more than 900,000 now; while in the same period the population has only increased from 2,770,000 to 3,627,000, so that pauperism has grown about nine times faster than population! . . . . The fact that a whole population could be driven from their homes like cattle at the will of a landlord, and that the Government which taxed them, and for whom they freely shed their blood on the battle-field, neither would nor could protect them from cruel interference with their personal liberty, is surely the most convincing and most absolute demonstration of the incompatibility of landlordism with the elementary rights of a free people.

"As if, however, to prove this still more clearly, and to show how absolutely incompatible with the well-being of the community is modern landlordism, the great lords of the soil in Scotland have for the last twenty years or more been systematically laying waste enormous areas of land for purposes of sport, just as the Norman Conqueror laid waste the area of the New Forest for similar purposes. At the present time, more than two million acres of Scottish soil are devoted to the preservation of deer alone—an area larger than the entire Counties of Kent and Surrey combined. Glen Tilt Forest includes 100,000 acres; the Black Mount is sixty miles in circumference; and Ben Alder Forest is fifteen miles long by seven broad. On many of these forests there is the finest pasture in Scotland, while the valleys would support a considerable population of small farmers, yet all this land is devoted to the sport of the wealthy, farms being destroyed, houses pulled down, and men, sheep, and cattle all banished to create a wilderness for the deer-stalkers! At the same time the whole people of England are shut out from many of the grandest and most interesting scenes of their native land, gamekeepers and watchers forbidding the tourist or naturalist to trespass on some of the wildest Scotch mountains.

"Now, when we remember that the right to a property in these unenclosed mountains was most unjustly given to the representatives of the Highland chiefs little more than a century ago, and that they and their successors have grossly abused their power ever since, it is surely time to assert those fundamental maxims of jurisprudence which state that—"No man can have a vested right in the misfortunes and woes of his country," and that "the Sovereign ought not to allow either communities or private individuals to acquire large tracts of land in order to leave it uncultivated." If the oft-repeated maxim that "property has its duties as well as its rights" is not altogether a mockery, then we maintain that in this case the total neglect of all the duties devolving on the owners of these vast tracts of land affords ample reason why the State should take possession of them for the public benefit. A landlord government will, of course, never do this till the people declare unmistakably that it must be done. To such a government the rights of property are sacred, while those of their fellow-citizens are of comparatively little moment; but we feel sure that when the people fully know and understand the doings of the landlords of Scotland, the reckless destruction of homesteads, and the silent sufferings of the brave Highlanders, they will make their will known, and, when they do so, that will must soon be embodied into law."

After quoting the opinion of the Rev. Dr. John Kennedy of Dingwall, given at length on other pages, Mr. Wallace next quotes from an article in the Westminster Review, in 1868. "The Gaels," this writer says, "rooted from the dawn of history on the slopes of the northern mountains, have been thinned out and thrown away like young turnips too thickly planted. Noble gentlemen and noble ladies have shown a flintiness of heart and a meanness of detail in carrying out their clearings, upon which it is revolting to dwell; and after all, are the evils of over-population cured? Does not the disease still spring up under the very torture of the knife? Are not the crofts slowly and silently taken at every opportunity out of the hands of the peasantry? When a Highlander has to leave his hut there is now no resting-place for him save the cellars or attics of the closes of Glasgow, or some other large centre of employment; it has been noticed that the poor Gael is even more liable than the Irishman to sink under the debasement in which he is then immersed." The same writer holds:—"No error could be grosser than that of reviewing the chiefs as unlimited proprietors not only of the land, but of the whole territory of the mountain, lake, river, and sea-shore, held and won during hundreds of years by the broad swords of the clansmen. Could any Maclean admit, even in a dream, that his chief could clear Mull of all the Macleans and replace them with Campbells; or the Mackintosh people his lands with Macdonalds, and drive away his own race, any more than Louis Napoleon could evict all the population of France and supply their place with English and German colonists? "Yet this very power and right the English Government, in its aristocratic selfishness, bestowed upon the chiefs, when, after the great rebellion of 1745, it took away their privileges of war and criminal jurisdiction, and endeavoured to assimilate them to the nobles and great landowners of England. The rights of the clansmen were left entirely out of consideration. [Land Nationalisation, its Necessities and Aims; being a Cornparison of the System of Landlord and Tenant with that of Occupying Ownership, in their influence on the well-being of the People, by Alfred Russel Wallace, author of "The Malay Archipelago," "Island Life," &c. London: Triibner & Co., 1882.]


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