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A Balanced View on the Highland Clearances


Emigration from the Highlands to America seems to have fairly commenced shortly after 1760, as, in a pamphlet published in 1784, it is stated that between the years 1763 and 1775 above 20,000 Highlanders left their homes to settle on the other side of the Atlantic. The first apparently to suffer from the altered state of things in the Highlands, the decreasing value of men and the increasing value of money, were the tacksmen, or large farmers, the relations of the old chief, who had held their farms from generation to generation, who regarded themselves as having about as much right to the land as the lairds, and who had hitherto been but little troubled about rent. After a time, when the chiefs, now merely lairds, began to realize their new position and to feel the necessity of making their land yield them as large an income as possible, they very naturally sought to get a higher rent for the farms let to these tacksmen, who, in most cases, were the only immediate holders of land from the proprietor. These tacksmen, in many cases, appear to have resented this procedure as they would a personal injury from their dearest friends. It was not that the addition to the rents was excessive, or that the rents were already high as the land could bear, for generally the addition seem to have been trifling, and it is well known that the proprietors received nothing like the rents their lands should have yielded under a proper system of management. What seems to have hurt these gentlemen was the idea that the laird, the father of his people, should ever think of anything so mercenary as rent, or should ever by any exercise of his authority indicate that he had it in his power to give or let his farms to the highest bidders. It was bad enough, they thought, that an alien government should interfere with their old ways of doing; but that their chiefs, the heads of their race, for whom they were ready to lay down their lives and the lives of all over whom they had any power, should turn against them, was more than they could bear. The consequence was that many of them, especially in the west, threw up their farms, no doubt thinking that the lairds would at once ask them to remain on the old terms. This, however, was but seldom done, and the consequence was that many of these tacksmen emigrated to America, taking with them, no doubt, servants and sub-tenants, and enticing out more by the glowing accounts they sent home of their good fortune in that far-off land.

In some cases, the farms thus vacated were let to other tacksmen or large tenants, but in most instances, the new system was introduced of letting the land directly to what were formerly the sub-tenants, those who had held the land immediately from the ousted tacksmen. A number of these sub-tenants would take a large farm among them, sub-dividing it as they chose, and each becoming liable for his proportion of the rent. The farms thus let were generally cultivated on the run-rig system, the pasture being common to all the tenants alike.

That certain advantages followed these changes there is no doubt. Every account we have of the Highlands during the earlier part of the 18th century, agrees in the fact that the Highlands were over-peopled and over-stocked, that it was impossible for the land to yield sufficient to support the men and beasts who lived upon it. Hence, this drafting off of a considerable portion of the population have that which remained breathing-room; fewer people were left to support, and it is to be supposed that the condition of these would be improved. Moreover, they would probably have their farms at a cheaper rent than under the old system, when the demands of both tacksmen and laird had to be satisfied, the former of course having let the land at a much higher rate than that at which they held it from their superior. Now, it was possible enough for the laird to get a higher rent than before, and at the same time the people might have their farms at a lower rent than they had previously given to the tacksmen. There would also be fewer oppressive services demanded of these small tenants than under the old system, for now they had only the laird to satisfy, whereas previously they had both him and the tacksman. There would still, of course, be services required by the laird from these tenants, still would part of the rent be paid in kind, still would they be thirled to particular mills, and have to submit to many similar exactions, of the oppressiveness of which, however, it was long before they became conscious; but, on the whole, the condition of those districts from which emigrations took place must to have some extent have been the better for the consequent thinning of the population. Still no alteration appears to have taken place in the mode of farming, the nature of tenures, mode of paying rent, houses, clothes, food of the people. In some parts of the Highlands and islands, no alteration whatever appears to have been made on the old system; the tacksmen were allowed to remain undisturbed, and the people lived and held land as formerly. But even in those districts from which emigrations were largely made, little, or no improvement seems to have been the consequence, if we may trust the reports of those who saw how things stood with their own eyes. Pennant, Johnson, Buchanan, Newte, the Old Statistical Account, all agree that but little improvement was noticeable from 1745 down till near the end of the 18th century.

One reason why emigration made so little difference in the way of improvement on the condition in the way of improvement on the condition of those who remained in the country was, that no check was put upon the overstocking of the farms with men and animals. In spite of emigration, the population in many districts increased instead of diminished. A common practice among those tenants who conjointly held a large farm was for a father, on the marriage of a son or daughter, to divide his share of the farm with the young couple, who either lived in the old man's house or built a but for themselves and tried to make a living out of the share of the pendicle allotted to them. To such an extent was this practice carried, that often a portion of land of a few acres, originally let to and sufficient to maintain one family, might in a few years be divided among six or eight families, and which, even if cultivated in the best manner possible, would not support its occupants for more than two or three month a year. On account of this ruinous practice, Skye, which in 1750 had 15,000 inhabitants, most of whom were in a condition of misery and want, in 1857, in spite of large and repeated emigrations, had a population of about 23,000. This custom was common in many Highland (chiefly western) districts down to the late 19th century, and was fruitful of many consequences - of frequent famines, the constant impoverishing of the soil, the over-stocking of pasture-land, and continual wretchedness.

In some cases, the farms vacated by the old tacksmen, instead of being let to the old sub-tenant, were let to whatever stranger would give the highest offer. On farms so let, the condition of the sub-tenants who were continued on the old footing, appears often to have been miserable in the extreme. These newcomer tacksmen or middlemen cared nothing either for chiefs or people; they paid their rent and were determined to squeeze from those under them as large a return as possible for their outlay. In confirmation of these statements, and to show the sad conditions of many parts of the Highlands in their state of transition, we quote the following passage from Buchanan's Travels in the Hebrides, referring to about 1780. Even allowing for exaggeration, although there is no reason to believe the writer goes beyond the truth, the picture is almost incredibly deplorable:

"At present they are obliged to be much more submissive to their tacksmen than ever they were in former times to their lairds of lords. There is a great difference between that mild treatment which is shown to sub-tenants and even scallags, by the old lessees, descended of ancient and honorable families, and the outrageous rapacity of those necessitous strangers who have obtained leases from absent proprietors, who treat the natives as if they were a conquered and inferior race of mortals. In short, they treat them like beasts of burden; and in all respects like slaves attached to the soil, as they cannot obtain new habitations, on account of the combinations already mentioned, and are entirely at the mercy of the laird or tacksman. Formerly, the personal service of the tenant did not usually exceed eight or ten days in the year. There lives at present at Scalpa, in the Isle of Harris, a tacksman of a large district, who instead of six days work paid by the sub-tenants to his predecessor in the lease, has raised the predial service, called in that and in other parts of Scotland, manerial bondage, to fifty-two days in the year at once; besides many other services to be performed at different though regular and stated times; as tanning leather for brogues, making heather ropes for thatch, digging and drying peats for fuel; one pannier of peat charcoal to be carried to the smith; so many days for gathering and shearing sheep and lambs; for ferrying cattle from island to island, and other distant places, and several days for going on distant errands; as many pounds of wool to be spun into yarn. And over and above all this, they must lend their aid upon any unforeseen occurrence whenever they are called on. The constant service of two months at once is performed at the proper season in the making of kelp. On the whole, this gentleman's sub-tenants may be computed to devote to his service full three days in the week. But this is not all: they have to pay besides yearly a certain number of cocks, hens, butter, and cheese, called Caorigh-Febbin, the Wife's Portion! This, it must be owned, is one of the most severe and rigorous tacksmen descended from the old inhabitants, in all the Western Hebrides: but the situation of his sub-tenants of those places in general, and the exact counterpart of such enormous oppression is to be found at Luskintire".


Another cause of emigration and of depopulation generally, was the introduction of sheep on a large scale, involving the junction into one of several small farms, each of which might before have been occupied by a number of tenants. Those subjects of the introduction of sheep, engrossing of farms, and consequent depopulation have occupied, and still to some extend do occupy, the attention of all those who take an interest in the Highlands, and of social economists in general. Various opinions have been passed on the matters in question, some advocating the retention of the people at all costs, while others declare that the greatest part of the Highlands is fit only for pasture, and it would be sheer madness, and shutting our eyes willfully to the sad lessons of experience, to stock a land with people that is fit only to sustain sheep, and which at its very best contains more specks of arable ground, which, even when cultivated to the utmost, can yield but a poor and unprofitable return.

Whatever opinion may be passed upon the general question, there can be no doubt that at first the introduction of sheep was fruitful of misery and discontent to those who had to vacate their old home and leave their native glens to find shelter they knew not well where. Many of those thus displaced by sheep and by one or two lowland shepherds, emigrated like the discontented tacksmen to America, those who remained looking with ill-will and an evil eye on the lowland intruders. Although often the intruder came from the South country, and brought his sheep and his shepherds with him, still this was not always the case; for many of the old tacksmen and even sub-tenants, after they saw how immensely more profitable the new system was over the old, wisely took a lesson in time, and following the example of the new lowland tenant, tool large farms and stocked them with sheep and cattle, and reduced the arable land to a minimum. But, generally speaking, in cases where farm formerly subdivided among a number of tenants were converted into sheep farms, the smaller tenant had to quit and find a means of living elsewhere. The landlords in general attempted to prevent the ousted tenants from leaving the country by setting apart some particular spot either by the sea-shore or on waste land which had never been touched by plough, on which they might build houses and have an acre or two of land for their support. Those who were removed to the coast were encouraged to prosecute the fishing along with their agricultural labors, while those who were settled on waste land were stimulated to bring it into a state of cultivation. It was mainly by a number of such ousted Highlanders that the great and arduous undertaking was accomplished of bringing into a state of cultivation Kincardine Moss, in Perthshire. At the time the task was undertaken, about 1767, it was one of stupendous magnitude; but so successfully was it carried out, that in a few years upwards of 2000 acres of fine clay-soil, which for centuries had been covered to the depth of seven feet with heath and decayed vegetable matter, were bearing luxuriant crops of all kinds. In a similar way, many spots throughout the Highlands, formerly yielding nothing but heath and moss, were, by the exertions of those who were deprived of their farms, brought into a state of cultivation. Those who occupied ground of this kind were known as mailers, and, as a rule, they paid no rent for the first few years, after which they generally paid the proprietor a shilling or two per acre, which was gradually increased as the land improved and its cultivation extended. For the first season or two the proprietor usually either lent or presented them with seed and implements. In the parish of Urray, in the south-east of Ross-shire, about the year 1790, there were 248 families of this kind, most of whom had settled there within the previous forty years. Still the greater number of these, both tacksmen and sub-tenants, who were deprived of their farms, either on account of the raising of the rents or because of their conversion into large sheep-walks, emigrated to America. The old Statistical Account of North Uist says that between the years 1771 and 1775, a space of only four years, several thousands emigrated from the Western Highlands and Islands alone. At first few of the islands appear to have been put under sheep; where any alteration on the state of things took place at all, it was generally in the way of raising rents, thus causing the tacksmen to leave, who were succeeded either by strangers who leased the farms, or by the old sub-tenants, among whom the lands were divided, and who held immediately from the laird. It was long, however, as have already indicated, before the innovations took thorough hold upon the Hebrides, as even down almost to the present time many of the old proprietors, either from attachment to their people, or from a love of feudal show, struggle to keep up the old system, leaving the tacksmen undisturbed, and doing all they can to maintain and keep on their property a large number of sub-tenants and cottars. Almost invariably, those proprietors who thus obstinately refused to succumb to the changes going on around them, suffered for their unwise conduct. Many of them impoverished their families for generations, and many of the estates were disposed of for behoof of their creditors, and they themselves had to sink to the level of landless gentlemen, and seek their living in commerce or elsewhere.

Gradually, however, most of the proprietors, especially those whose estates were on the mainland Highlands, yielded, in general no doubt willingly, to change, raised their rents, abolished small tenancies, and gave their lands up to the sheep farmers. The temptation was, no doubt, often very great, on account of the large rents offered by the lowland grazers. One proprietor in Argyleshire, who had some miles of pasture let to a number of small tenants for a few shillings yearly, on being offered by a lowlander who saw the place 300 a year, could not resist, but, however ruefully, cleared it of his old tenants, and gave it up to the money-making lowlander. It was this engrossing of farms and the turning of immense tracks of country into sheep-walks, part of which was formerly cultivated and inhabited by hundreds of people, that was the great grievance of the Highlanders during the latter part of the last century. Not that it could aggravate their wretchedness to any great extent, for that was bad enough already even before 1745; it seem to have been rather the fact that their formerly much-loved chiefs should treat them worse than they could strangers, prefer a big income to a large band of faithful followers, and eject those who believed themselves to have as great a right to the occupancy of the land as the chief themselves. "The great and growing grievance of the Highlands is not the letting of the land to tacksmen, but the making of so many sheep-walks, which sweep off both tacksmen and sub-tenants all in a body". The tacksmen especially felt naturally cut to the quick by what they deemed the selfish and unjust policy of the chiefs. These tacksmen and their ancestors in most cases had occupied their farms for many generations; their birth was as good and their genealogy as old as those of the chief himself, to whom they were all blood relations, and to whom they were attached with the most unshaken loyalty. True, they had no writing, no document, no paltry "sheep-skin", as they called it, to show as a proof that they had as much right to their farms as the laird himself. But what of that? Who would ever have thought that their chiefs would turn against them, and try to wrest from them that which had been gifted by a former chief to their fathers, who would have bitten out their tongue before they would ask a bond? The gift, they thought, was none the less real because there was no written proof of it. These parchments were quite a modern innovation, not even then universally acknowledged among the Highlanders, to whom the only satisfactory proof of proprietorship and chiefship was possession from time immemorial. Occasionally a chief, who could produce no title-deed to his estate, was by law deprived of it, and his place filled by another. But the clan would have none of this; they invariably turned their backs upon the intruder, and acknowledged only the ousted chief as their head and the real proprietor, whom they were bound to support, and whom they frequently did support, by paying to him the rents which were legally due to the other. In some cases, it would seem, the original granters of the land to the tacksmen conveyed it to them by a regular title-deed, by which, of course, they became proprietors. And we think there can be no doubt, that originally when a chief bestowed a share of his property upon his son or other near relation, he intended that the latter should keep it for himself and his descendants; he was not regarded merely as a tenant who had to pay a yearly rent, but as a sub-proprietor, who, from a sense of love and duty would contribute what he could to support the chief of his race and clan. In many cases, we say, this was the light in which chief, tacksmen, and people regarded these farms tenanted by the gentlemen of the clan; and it only seems to have been after the value of men decreased and of property increased, that most of the lairds began to look at the matter in a more commercial, legal, and less romantic light. According to Newte - and what he says is supported to a considerable extent by facts - "in the southern parts of Argyleshire, in Perthshire, Aberdeenshire, Moray and Ross, grants of land were made in writing, while in Inverness-shire, Sutherland-shire, the northern parts of Argylshire, and the Western Islands, the old mode was continued of verbal or emblematical transference. In Ross-shire, particularly, it would appear that letters and the use of letters in civil affairs had been early introduced and widely spread; for property is more equally divided in that country than in most other counties in Scotland, and than in any other of the Highlands. Agreeably to these observation, it is from the great estates on the northern and western side of Scotland that the descendants of the original tacksmen of the land, with their families, have been obliged to migrate by the positive and unrelenting demands of rent beyond what it was in their power to give, and, indeed, in violation of those conditions that were understood and observed between the original granter and original tenant and their posterity for centuries". These statements are exceedingly plausible, and we believe to a certain extent true; but it is unnecessary here to enter upon the discussion of the question. What we have to do with is the unquestionable fact that the Highland proprietors did in many instances take advantage of the legal power, which they undoubtedly possessed, to do with their land as they pleased, and, regardless of the feelings of the old tacksmen and sub-tenants, let it to the highest bidders. The consequence was that these tacksmen, who to a certain extent were demoralized and knew not how to use the land to best advantage, had to leave the homes of their ancestors; and many of the small farmers and cottars, in the face of the new system of large sheep-farms, becoming cumberers of the ground, were swept from the face of the country, and either located in little lots by the sea-side, where they became useful as fishers and kelp-burners, or settled on some waste moor, which they occupied themselves in reclaiming from its native barrenness, or, as was frequently the case, followed the tacksmen and sought a home in the far west, where many of them became lairds in their own right.

These then are the great results of the measures which followed the rebellion of 1745-6, and the consequent breaking up of the old clan system - extensive sheep-framing, accompanied with a great rise in the rent of land, depopulation and emigration. as to the legality of the proceedings of the proprietors, there can be no doubt; as little doubt is there than the immediate consequence to many of the Highlanders was great suffering, accompanied by much bitterness and discontent. As to the morality or justice of the laird's conduct, various opinions have been, and no doubt for long will be, expressed. One side maintains that it was the duty of these chiefs upon whom the people depended, whom they revered, and for whom they were ready to die, at all events, to see to it that their people were provided for, and that ultimately it would have been for the interest of the proprietors and the country at large to do everything to prevent from emigrating in such numbers as they did, such a splendid race of men, for whose services to the country no money equivalent could be found. It is maintained that the system of large farms is pernicious in every respect, and that only by the system of moderate sized farms can a country be made the best of, an adequate rural population be kept up, and self-respect and a high moral tone be nourished and spread throughout the land. Those who adopt this side of the question pooh-pooh the common maxims of political economy, and declare that laws whose immediate consequences are wide-spread suffering, and the unpeopling of a country, cannot be founded on any valid basis; that proprietors hold their lands only in trust, and it is therefore their duty not merely to consider their own narrow interest, but also to consult the welfare and consult the feelings of their people. In short, it is maintained by this party, that the Highland lairds, in acting as they did, showed themselves to be unjust, selfish, heartless, unpatriotic, mercenary, and blind to their own true interests and those of their country.

On the other hand, it is maintained that what occurred in the Highlands subsequent to 1745 was a step in the right direction, and that, it was only a pity that the innovations had no been more thorough and systematic. For long previous to 1745, it is asserted the Highlands were much over-peopled, and the people, as a consequence of the vicious system under which they had lived for generations, were incurably lazy, and could be roused from this sad lethargy only by some such radical measures as were adopted. The whole system of Highland life and manners and habits were almost barbarous, the method of farming was thoroughly pernicious and unproductive, the stock of cattle worthless and excessive, and so badly managed that about one half perished every winter. On account of the excessive population, the land was by far too much subdivided, the majority of so-called farmers occupying farms of so small a size that they could furnish the necessaries of life for no more than six months, and consequently the people were continually on the verge of starvation. The Highlands, it is said, are almost totally unsuited for agriculture, and fit only for pasturage, and that consequently this subdivision into small farms could be nothing else than pernicious; that the only method by which the land could be made the most of was that or large sheep-farms, and that the proprietors while no doubt studying their own interest, adopted the wisest policy when they let out their land on this system. In short, it is maintained by the advocates of innovation, the whole body of the Highlanders were thoroughly demoralized, their number was greater by far than the land could support even if managed to the best advantage, and was increasingly every year; the whole system of renting land, of tenure, and of farming was ruinous to the people and the land, and that nothing but a radical change could cure the many evils with which the country was afflicted.

There has been much rather bitter discussion between the advocates of the two sides of the Highland question; often more recrimination and calling of names then telling argument. This question, we think, is no exception to the general rule which governs most disputed matters; there is truth, we believe, on both sides. We fear the facts already adduced in this part comprise many of the assertions made by the advocates of change. As to the wretched social condition of the Highlanders, for long before and after 1745, there can be no doubt, if we can place any reliance on the evidence of contemporaries, and we have already said enough to show that the common system of farming, if worthy of the name, was ruinous and inefficient; while their small lean cattle were so badly managed that about one half died yearly. That the population was very much greater than the land, even if used to the best advantage, could support, is testified to by every candid writer from the Gartmore paper down almost to the present day. The author of the Gartmore paper, written about 1747, estimated that the population of the Highlands at that time amounted to about 230,000; "but", he says, "according to the present economy of the Highlands, there is not business for more than one half of that number of people... The other half, then, must be idle and beggars while in the country".


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