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The History of the Highland Clearances
Sutherland - General Stewart of Garth on the Sutherland Clearances


On the part of those who instituted similar improvements, in which so few of the people were to have a share, conciliatory measures, and a degree of tenderness, beyond what would have been shown to strangers, were to have been expected towards the hereditary supporters of their families. It was, however, unfortunately the natural consequences of the measures which were adopted, that few men of liberal feelings could be induced to undertake their execution. The respectable gentlemen, who, in so many cases, had formerly been entrusted with the management of Highland property, resigned, and their places were supplied by persons cast in a coarser mould, and, generally, strangers to the country, who, detesting the people, and ignorant of their character, capability, and language, quickly surmounted every obstacle, and hurried on the change, without reflecting on the distress of which it might be productive, or allowing the kindlier feelings of landlords to operate in favour of their ancient tenantry. To attempt a new system, and become acceptable tenants, required a little time and a little indulgence, two things which it was resolved should not be conceded them: they were immediately removed from the fertile and cultivated farms; some left the country, and others were offered limited portions of land on uncultivated moors, on which they were to form a settlement; and thus, while particular districts have been desolated, the gross numerical population has, in some manner, been preserved. Many judicious men, however, doubt the policy of these measures, and dread their consequences on the condition and habits of the people. The following account of their situation is from the respectable and intelligent clergyman of an extensive parish in the county:-

"When the valleys and higher grounds were let to the shepherds, the whole population was drawn down to the sea-shore, where they were crowded on small lots of land, to earn their subsistence by labour (where all are labourers and few employers) and by sea-fishing, the latter so little congenial to their former habits. This cutting down farms into lots was found so profitable, that over the whole of this district, the sea-coast, where the shore is accessible, is thickly studded with wretched cottages, crowded with starving inhabitants. Ancient respectable tenants, who passed the greater part of life in the enjoyment of abundance, and in the exercise of hospitality and charity, possessing stocks of ten, twenty, and thirty breeding cows, with the usual proportion of other stock, are now pining on one or two acres of bad land, with one or two starved cows, and, for this accommodation a calculation is made, that they must support their families and pay the rent of their lots, which the land cannot afford. When the herring fishery (the only fishery prosecuted on this coast) succeeds, they generally satisfy the landlords, whatever privations they may suffer, but when the fishing fails, they fall in arrears, and are sequestrated, and their stock sold to pay the rents, their lots given to others, and they and their families turned adrift on the world. The herring fishery, always precarious, has, for a succession of years, been very defective, and this class of people are reduced to extreme misery. At first, some of them possessed capital, from converting their farm stock into cash, but this has been long exhausted. It is distressing to view the general poverty of this class of people, aggravated by their having once enjoyed abundance and independence; and we cannot sufficiently admire their meek and patient spirit, supported by the powerful influence of religious and moral principle. There are still a few small tenants on the old system, occupying the same farm jointly, but they are falling fast to decay, and sinking into the new class of cottars."

This mode of sub-dividing small portions of inferior land is bad enough certainly, and to propose the establishment of villages, in a pastoral country, for the benefit of men who can neither betake themselves to the cultivation of the land nor to commerce for earning the means of subsistence, is doubtless a refinement in policy solely to be ascribed to the enlightened and enlarged views peculiar to the new system. But, leaving out of view the consideration that, from the prevalence of turning corn lands into pasture, the demand for labour is diminished, while the number of labourers is increased, it can scarcely be expected that a man who had once been in the condition of a farmer, possessed of land, and of considerable property in cattle, horses, sheep, and money, often employing servants himself, conscious of his independence, and proud of his ability to assist others, should, without the most poignant feelings, descend to the rank of a hired labourer, even where labour and payment can be obtained, more especially if he must serve on the farms or in the country where he formerly commanded as a master.

It is not easy for those who live in a country like England, where so many of the lower orders have nothing but what they acquire by the labour of the passing day, and possess no permanent property or share in the agricultural produce of the soil, to appreciate the nature of the spirit of independence which is generated in countries where the free cultivators of the soil constitute the major part of the population. It can scarcely be imagined how proudly a man feels, however small his property may be, when he has a spot of arable land and pasture, stocked with corn, horses, and cows, a species of property which, more than any other, binds him, by ties of interest and attachment, to the spot with which he is connected. He considers himself an independent person, placed in a station in society far above the day labourer, who has no stake in the permanency of existing circumstances, beyond the prospect of daily employment ; his independence being founded on permanent property, he has an interest in the welfare of the state, by supporting which he renders his own property more secure, and, although the value of the property may not be great, it is every day in his view ; his cattle and horses feed around him.; his grass and corn he sees growing and ripening; his property is visible to all observers, which is calculated to raise the owner in general consideration; and when a passing friend or neighbour praises his thriving crops and his cattle, his heart swells with pleasure, and he exerts himself to support and to preserve that government and those laws which render it secure. Such is the case in many parts of the world; such was formerly the case in Scotland, and is still in many parts of the Highlands. Those who wish to see only the two castes of capitalists and day-labourers, may smile at this union of independence and poverty. But, that the opposite system is daily quenching the independent spirit of the Highlanders, is an undoubted fact, and gives additional strength to the arguments of those who object to the reduction of the agricultural population, and regret their removal to the great towns, and to the villages in preparation in some parts of the country.

It is painful to dwell on this subject, but as information communicated by men of honour, judgment, and perfect veracity, descriptive of what they daily witness, affords the best means of forming a correct judgment, and as these gentlemen, from their situations in life, have no immediate interest in the determination of the question, beyond what is dictated by humanity and a love of truth, their authority may be considered as undoubted.

The following extract of a letter from a friend, as well as the extract already quoted, is of this description. Speaking of the settlers on the new allotments, he says:-

"I scarcely need tell you that these wretched people exhibit every symptom of the most abject poverty, and the most helpless distress. Their miserable lots in the moors, notwithstanding their utmost labour and strictest economy, have not yielded them a sufficient crop for the support of their families for three months. The little money they were able to derive from the sale of their stock has, therefore, been expended in the purchase of necessaries, and is now wholly exhausted. Though they have now, therefore, overcome all their scruples about leaving their native land, and possess the most ardent desire to emigrate, in order to avoid more intolerable evils of starvation, and have been much encouraged by the favourable accounts they have received from their countrymen already in America, they cannot possibly pay the expense of transporting themselves and their families thither."

It has been said that an old Highlander warned his countrymen "to take care of themselves, for the law had reached Ross-shire." When his fears were excited by vague apprehensions of change, he could not well anticipate that the introduction of civil order, and the extension of legal authority, which in an enlightened age tend to advance the prosperity as well as promote the security of a nation, should have been to his countrymen either the signals of banishment from their native country, or the means of lowering the condition of those who were permitted to remain. With more reason it might have been expected that the principles of an enlightened age would have gradually introduced beneficial changes among the ancient race; that they would have softened down the harsher features of their character, and prepared them for habits better suited to the cultivation of the soil, than the indolent freedom of a pastoral life. Instead of this, the new system, whatever may be its intrinsic merits or defects, has, in too many cases, been carried into execution in a manner which has excited the strongest and most indignant sensations in the breasts of those who do not overlook the present inconvenience and distress of the many, in the eager pursuit of a prospective advantage to the few. The consequences which have resulted, and the contrast between the present and past condition of the people, and between their present and past disposition and feelings towards their superiors, show, in the most striking light, the impolicy of attempting, with such unnatural rapidity, innovations which it would require an age, instead of a few years, to accomplish in a salutary manner, and the impossibility of effecting them without inflicting great misery, endangering morals, and undermining loyalty to the king, and respect for constituted authority.

A love of change, proceeding from the actual possession of wealth, or from the desire of acquiring it, disturbs, by an ill-directed influence, the gradual and effectual progress of those improvements which, instead of benefiting the man of capital alone, should equally distribute their advantages to all. In the prosecution of recent changes in the north, it would appear that the original inhabitants were never thought of, nor included in the system which was to be productive of such wealth to the landlord, the man of capital, and the country at large,—and that no native could be intrusted with, or, perhaps, none was found hardy enough to act a part in the execution of plans which commenced with the ejectment of their unfortunate friends and neighbours. Strangers were, therefore, called in, and whole glens cleared of their inhabitants, who, in some instances, resisted these mandates (although legally executed), in the hope of preserving to their families their ancient homes, to which all were enthusiastically attached. These people, blameless in every respect, save their poverty and ignorance of modern agriculture, could not believe that such harsh measures proceeded from their honoured superiors, who had hitherto been kind, and to whom they themselves had ever been attached and faithful. The whole was attributed to the acting agents, and to them, therefore, their indignation was principally directed; and, in some instances, their resistance was so obstinate, that it became necessary to enforce the orders "vi et armis," and to have recourse to a mode of ejectment, happily long obsolete, by setting their houses on fire. This last species of legal proceeding was so peculiarly conclusive and forcible that even the stubborn Highlanders, with all their attachment to the homes of their fathers, were compelled to yield.

In the first instances of this mode of removing refractory tenants, a small compensation (six shillings), in two separate sums, was allowed for the houses destroyed. Some of the ejected tenants were also allowed small allotments of land, on which they were to build houses at their own expense, no assistance being given for that purpose. Perhaps it was owing to this that they were the more reluctant to remove till they had built houses on their new stations. The compensations allowed in the more recent removals are stated to have been more liberal; and the improvements which have succeeded those summary ejectments of the ancient inhabitants are highly eulogised both in pamphlets and newspapers.Some people may, however, be inclined to doubt the advantages of improvements which called for such frequent apologies; for, if more lenient measures had been pursued, vindication would have, perhaps, been unnecessary, and the trial of one of the acting agents might have been avoided.

This trial was brought forward at the instance of the Lord Advocate, in consequence of the loud cry of indignation raised in the country against proceedings characterised by the sheriff of the county as "conduct which has seldom disgraced any country." But the trial ended (as was expected by every person who understood the circumstances) in the acquittal of the acting agent, the verdict of the jury proceeding on the principle that he acted under legal authority. This acquittal, however, did by no means diminish the general feeling of culpability; it only transferred the offence from the agent to a quarter too high and too distant to be directly affected by public indignation, if, indeed, there be any station so elevated, or so distant, that public indignation, justly excited, will not, sooner or later, reach, so as to touch the feelings, however obtuse, of the transgressor of that law of humanity written on every upright mind, and deeply engraved on every kind and generous heart.

It must, however, be a matter of deep regret, that such a line of proceeding was pursued with regard to these brave, unfortunate, and well-principled people, as excited a sensation of horror, and a conviction of culpability, so powerful as only to be removed by an appeal to a criminal court. It is no less to be deplored that any conduct sanctioned by authority, even although productive of ultimate advantage (and how it can produce any advantage beyond what might have been obtained by pursuing a scheme of conciliation and encouragement is a very questionable point), should have, in the first instance, inflicted such general misery. More humane measures would undoubtedly have answered every good purpose ; and had such a course been pursued, as an enlightened humanity would have suggested, instead of depopulated glens and starving peasantry, alienated from their superiors, and, in the exacerbation of their feelings, too ready to imbibe opinions hostile to the best interests of their country, we should still have seen a high-spirited and loyal people, ready, at the nod of their respected chiefs, to embody themselves into regiments, with the same zeal as in former times; and when enrolled among the defenders of their country, to exhibit a conduct honourable to that country and to their profession. Such is the acknowledged character of the men of these districts as soldiers, when called forth in the service of their country, although they be now described as irregular in their habits, and a burthen on the lands which gave them birth, and on which their forefathers maintained the honour, and promoted the wealth and prosperity of the ancestors of those who now reject them.

But is it conceivable that the people at home should be so degraded, while their brothers and sons who become soldiers maintain an honourable character? The people ought not to be reproached with incapacity or immorality without better evidence than that of their prejudiced and unfeeling calumniators. If it be so, however, and if this virtuous and honourable race, which has contributed to raise and uphold the character of the British peasantry in the eyes of all Europe, are thus fallen, and so suddenly fallen, how great and powerful must be the cause, and how heavy the responsibility of its authors? But if at home they are thus low in character, how unparalleled must be the improvement which is produced by difference of profession, as for example, when they become soldiers, and associate in barracks with troops of all characters, or in quarters, or billets, with the lowest of the people, instead of mingling with such society as they left in their native homes? Why should these Highlanders be at home so degenerate as they are represented, and as in recent instances they would actually appear to be? And why, when they mount the cockade, are they found to be so virtuous and regular, that one thousand men of Sutherland have been embodied four and five years together, at different and distant periods, from 1759 to 1763, from 1779 to 1783, and from 1793 to 1798, without an instance of military punishment? These men performed all the duties of soldiers to the perfect satisfaction of their commanders, and continued so unexceptionable in their conduct down to the latest period, when embodied into the 93rd regiment, that, according to the words of a distinguished general officer, "Although the youngest regiment in the service, they might form an example to all" and on general parades for punishment, the Sutherland Highlanders have been ordered to their quarters, as "examples of this kind were not necessary for such honourable soldiers."

General Stewart adds the following in the third edition of his Sketches, published in 1825:--

The great changes which have taken place in the above parishes of Sutherland, and some others, have excited a warm and general interest. While the liberal expenditure of capital was applauded by all, many intelligent persons lamented that its application was so much in one direction ; that the ancient tenantry were to have no share in this expenditure ; and that so small a portion was allotted for the future settlement of the numerous population who had been removed from their farms, and were placed in situations so new, and in many respects so unsuitable,--certain that, in the first instance, great distress, disaffection, and hostility towards the landlords and government, with adminution of that spirit of independence, and those proper principles which had hitherto distinguished them, would be the inevitable result. So sudden and universal a change of station, habits, and circumstances, and their being reduced from the state of independent tenants to that of cottagers and day-labourers, could not fail of arresting the notice of the public.

Anxious to obtain the best information on this interesting subject, I early made the most minute enquiry, careful, at the same time, to form no opinion on intelligence communicated by the people of the district, or by persons connected with them, and who would naturally be interested in, and prejudiced against, or in favour of those changes. I was the more desirous for the best information as the statements published with regard to the character, capability, and principles of the people, exhibited a perfect contrast to my own personal experience and knowledge of the admirable character and exemplary conduct of that portion of them that had left their native country ; and I believe it improbable, nay impossible, that the sons of worthless parents, without religious or moral principle—as they have been described---could conduct themselves in such an honourable manner as to be held up as an example to the British army. But, indeed, as to information, so much publicity had been given by various statements explanatory of, and in vindication of these proceedings, that little more was necessary, beyond what these publications afforded, to show the nature of the plans, and the manner in which they were carried into execution.

Forming my opinions, therefore, from those statements, and from information communicated by persons not immediately connected with that part of the country, I drew the conclusions which appeared in the former editions of these Sketches. But, with a strong desire to be correct and well informed in all I state, and with an intention of correcting myself, in this edition, should I find that I had been misinformed, or had taken up mistaken views of the subject, in the different statements I had produced, I embraced the first spare time I could command, and in autumn, 1823, I travelled over the "improved" districts, and a large portion of those parts which had been depopulated and laid out in extensive pastoral farms, as well as the stations in which the people are placed. After as strict an examination as circumstances permitted, and a careful inquiry among those who, from their knowledge and judgment were enabled to form the best opinions, I do not find that I have one statement to alter, or one opinion to correct; though I am fully aware that many hold very different opinions.

But however much I may differ in some points, there is one in which I warmly and cordially join; and that is, in expressing my high satisfaction and admiration at the liberality displayed in the immense sums expended on buildings, in enclosing, clearing, and draining land, in forming roads and communications, and introducing the most improved agricultural implements. In all these, the generous distribution of such exemplary encouragement stands unparalleled and alone. Equally remarkable is the great abatement of rents given to the tenants of capital—abatements which it was not to be expected they would ask, considering the preference and encouragement given them, and the promises they had held out of great and unprecedented revenue, from their skill and exertions. But these promises seem to have been early forgotten; the tenants of capital were the first to call for relief; and so great and generous has this relief been that the rents are reduced so low as to be almost on a level with what they were when the great changes commenced. Thus while upwards of £210,000 have been expended on improvements, no return is to be looked for from this vast expenditure; and in the failure of their promised rents, the tenants have sufficiently proved the unstable and fallacious nature of the system which they, with so much plausibility and perseverance, got established by delusions, practised on a high-minded, honourable individual, not aware of the evils produced by so universal a movement of a whole people. Every friend to a brave and valuable race must rejoice that these evils are in progress of alleviation by a return of that kindness and protection which had formerly been so conspicuous towards that race of tenantry, and which could never have been interrupted had it not been for those delusions to which I have more than once alluded, and which have been prosecuted, within the last twenty years, in many parts of the Highlands, with a degree of assiduity and antipathy to the unfortunate inhabitants altogether remarkable.


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