The pattern of society in the Highlands had
come to differ profoundly from that prevailing in the Lowlands, but these
differences have been dwelt upon in modern times rather more lovingly than
the historical facts warrant. There was no particular distinction between
Highland and Lowland as such in the early days of Scotland's existence.
Differences were not fundamental; they developed, in consequence of
certain facts of a practical nature, not from any mutual hostility, acts
of will or racial distinction. The real point was that the medieval
Scottish state and its rulers moved as far towards centralising authority
as they reasonably could, but their success was limited by technology.
Kings anxious to impose order and obedience could succeed within limited
distances from the centre of royal power. At greater distances the task
became increasingly difficult. Policing and supervision were more
difficult to organise the further one went towards the periphery of
Scotland. That is why the exercise of local independence as, for instance,
by the Lords of the Isles, was feasible; and why the best that kings of
Scots from Alexander II to James VI could do was to mount expeditions from
time to time, to reassert the principle that the Highland areas were part
of a greater whole. Between such periodic demonstrations however, the
facts of time and distance took over, and power in the Highlands reverted
to those who were strong enough to claim and exercise it in their own
Even this feature was not unique to the
Highlands. Lowland nobles often enjoyed considerable freedom of action in
their own areas; and in England too, the further north and west from
London one might travel, the more immunity from royal control one would
find. What did perhaps make a rather different case of the Highlands was
that, unlike Lowland aristocrats in Scotland, or territorial magnates in
England, the Highland chiefs are found very seldom playing any significant
role in affairs of state or national politics. Of the truly Highland,
Gaelic chiefs, only the Campbells of Argyle were consistently involved in
such matters. Partly, therefore, indifference to Council, Parliament and
state business in general on the part of the chiefs was responsible for
the detachment of the Highlands from the rest of the country. Detachment,
arising from the facts of geography and the purposes of the chiefs, was
reinforced by developments over generations. In particular, English, the
language of administration and commerce, came in time to dominate the
Lowlands and the eastern seaboard, but Gaelic prevailed elsewhere, and a
linguistic border is a very difficult barrier to surmount.
Then, Protestantism gained the upper hand
in the country, and, especially after 1690 and the Presbyterian victory,
Gaelic became suspect as 'the Irish language' - a description habitually
employed by the eighteenth century - and the Irish language was, by many,
seen as some sort of adjunct to the Irish religion. The Catholicism of
some of the chiefs had become another factor encouraging a sense of
In their comparatively isolated
territories, the chiefs and their followers had evolved a society whose
assumptions and purposes differed greatly from the rest of the country.
The chief's power, and his own sense of his power, was measured by the
number of followers at his command, not so much because they could be
organised to raise produce for his consumption, and deploy skills for his
comfort, but because they could be commanded as fighting men. The clan was
essentially organised for war, not for commerce.
That is why the legislation after Culloden
proved destructive to Highland society. The chiefs now had to maintain
themselves as any other landowners had to do, and their lands had to be
made to pay. As one observer has put it as a southern socialite the chief
needed money, but as a tribal patriarch he could do little to raise it. So
the clan as a kind of extended family, encouraged to think of itself
communally, would have to give way to a society in which the owner of the
land lived off rents, and the tenants' job was to pay these rents.
Oddly enough, in the half century after
Culloden the new relationship worked reasonably well. Estates of Jacobite
chiefs were forfeited to the Crown, and placed in the control of
Commissioners, who carried out in the Highlands many of the improvements
which elsewhere had been sponsored by the Board of Trustees, and some of
the men responsible for improved agriculture in the Lowlands served terms
of office as Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates.
Money was spent organising surveys and
prospecting for coal and minerals; on land reclamation and afforestation;
on premiums and bounties for linen and hemp production, and on public
works programmes aimed at providing roads, bridges and harbours. Attempts
were also made to develop a fishing industry, with villages being
constructed, or reconstructed, at, for instance, Lochinver, Ullapool,
Plockton and Tobermory.
So, though the chiefs had found their
status profoundly changed, the economy of the Highlands did not at all
collapse after Culloden. In fact there were indications that things
promised to go rather well.
In 1755 more than half of the population of
Scotland lived north of the Tay, and almost one third of the total were
natives and residents of the Highland, Gaelic area. For the next fifty
years or more the population continued to rise, in some places at a quite
staggering rate. Overall, the Highland population by 1830, had risen by
about 50 per cent, and in the Outer Isles it had actually more than
doubled. A population growth of this sort is usually taken to be an
indicator of rising prosperity and such indeed was the case.
Britain was involved more or less
continuously in wars between 1742 and 1815. These wars were fought by
British armies and warships in America and in India as well as on the
European continent, and many Highlanders were recruited into the army,
forming Highland regiments, and beginning the tradition of military
service to the British crown which has endured ever since. Recruiting
soldiers from among their tenants brought advantages to the landowners.
Sometimes they were actually rewarded for their recruiting zeal, and, at
least, if men went off to fight there were fewer mouths requiring to be
fed from the produce of the estate.
Feeding the rapidly rising population on a
traditional diet of oatmeal, cheese and meat was an increasing problem, as
output of these items could not keep pace with the growth in numbers. One
solution had been found in the humble but remarkable potato. In 1743 the
Improvers had urged their members to increase production of this plant,
which could produce a far greater volume of
The Village of Plockton,
Wester Ross. (Photo: Gordon Wright)
food per acre than any other crop. One of
the early converts to the idea of potato-growing was the chief of
Clanranald, who returned from a visit to Ireland in 1743, enthusiastically
committed to potato growing. By 1800 potatoes provided 80 per cent or so
of the diet of the Highlanders.
With their own people thus provided for,
the chiefs were able to make substantial profits by selling the other
products of their land to meet the needs of the armed forces, a vast
market for meal, cheese, meat, fish, leather, all of which the Highlands
provided. Also, a new product was in great demand - seaweed or kelp -
which, when dried and burned, left ash which was essential to a wide range
of industries, notably glass and soap production. The chemicals necessary
in these industries had been traditionally imported, especially from
Spain, but that import trade had been greatly impeded by the succession of
wars, and a home-produced substitute like kelp was a godsend, for which
generous prices would be paid. In 1720 kelp ash was selling at £2 per
ton. By 1790 the price was £10 per ton, and by 1800 it stood at £22.
This was a boon to landowners. Lord Macdonald was reported to have earned
£20,000 per year from the kelp produced from the seashores of his lands,
and Clanranald made £98,000 annually. The landowners controlled the new
industry totally, and naturally sought to expand it.
Such expansion depended upon the
willingness of the tenants to leave their fields and go kelping along the
shores. This they were not always willing to do, particularly since the
landowners paid wages which were absurdly low in proportion to the profits
earned. The chiefs were not willing to reduce their profits by paying more
generous wages to their tenants, so some other means had to be found to
force the tenants to work in whatever way would bring greater advantage to
Kelp burning in Orkney
around 1900. (Photo: Tom Kent)
The first tactic was to raise rents to
levels which produce of the land could not meet. The tenants were thus
forced to spend time gathering and burning kelp to meet their new
obligations. Secondly, and more damagingly, landowners altered the leases
of their tenants, restricting the acreages of their holdings, and thus
making it more necessary for them to take up some extra occupation, like
kelping or fishing. In 1799 Lord Macdonald reorganised the tenures on his
estates, leasing land in individual holdings too small to maintain a
family. Such plans were warmly approved by professional estate managers,
notably two from the other side of the country on the estates of the
Countess of Sutherland. James Loch, the Sutherland factor, urged
landowners to ensure that future holdings were 'of a size to induce every
man to engage actively in the prosecution of the herring fishery.' His
subordinate and ally, Patrick Sellar, echoed his sentiments, advising
holdings 'pinched enough to cause them to turn their attention to the
A further method employed in Sutherland and
on Skye was to remove tenants altogether from their traditional lands, and
grant them holdings on inferior land, by the shore, most convenient to
kelping and fishing. The landowners thus gained twice. They drew vast
profits from the kelping and fishing labours of their tenants, and they
drew high rents from new tenants invited into the lands vacated by their
former occupants. These new tenants were usually sheep farmers - 'flock-masters'
- mostly Lowland Scots or Englishmen who would pay well for the grazing
rights in Highland glens.
Whatever discontent these developments
caused, most landowners neither knew or cared. Forty-six Highland
landowners lived on their estates, but one hundred and forty-nine were 'absentees'.
As the Earl of Seaforth put it, 'What Hebridean proprietor lives in his
estate that can live elsewhere?' Discontent showed itself in various ways.
Some tenants sought to emigrate, as many Highlanders had done in the 1760s
and 1770s. The Highlands then had been abandoned especially by the
tacksmen, the traditional right-hand men of the chiefs, their overseers
and rent-collectors in peacetime, and their subordinate officers when the
clan went to war. For these men, especially, the post-Culloden Highlands
held little, and they had left in large numbers, leading many of their
people to America and Canada, or to Lowland Scotland. Though the journey
to the New World was long, it was often preferred. In Glasgow and the
Lowlands, the Highlander was entering an established, English-speaking
community, where he would be alien. In Canada or America he and his
friends could establish their own Gaelic-speaking communities.
So, emigration was seen by some as a
preferred alternative to the increasing drudgery and dependence of life at
home. But by now, in the early 1800s, men were valuable to the landowner,
because they could earn money for him. Thus the landowners used their
political influence and parliamentary power to place obstacles in the way
of those who might wish to emigrate. In 1803 Parliament passed the
Passenger Vessels Act, which, under the guise of enhancing safety on board
ships crossing the Atlantic, set the fare for the passage at a level so
high as to be beyond the capacity of escaping Gaels to pay.
The government too did not look favourably
upon emigration, which might reduce the number of potential recruits.
Already enthusiasm for military service had declined, as resentful
Highlanders, driven to small unproductive holdings and forced to engage in
unwanted tasks, took a modest revenge by ignoring the pressures of their
chiefs when the recruiting officers came round.
Things changed very rapidly when the wars
ended in 1815. Fighting men were no longer wanted. The price of kelp fell
again to £2 per ton, and landowners quickly found that tenants were no
longer an asset but were likely to become a burden. Thus in 1827 the
restrictions of the Passenger Vessels Act were removed, and emigration was
not only permitted but vigorously encouraged.
A family evicted from their
home in North Uist in 1891. (Photo: A Goodrich-Freer)
The one promising source of income for the
landowners remained the sheep farmers; and it became the policy of the
chiefs to substitute sheep for tenants as quickly as possible. The
Sutherland estates had pioneered the work, evicting tenants from their
holdings throughout Strathnaver and Kildonan between 1799 and 1813. Now
the example of Loch and Sellar was followed in South Uist and Wester Ross
in the 1820s, in Skye in 1826, and in North Uist in 1828. Volunteers were
encouraged to take passage for Canada and America, and when volunteers
were not forthcoming, evictions and expulsions followed.
One event which had frightened the
landowners was a harvest failure in 1816, which had seen the people
survive on shellfish and wild plants until the 1817 crop was safely
gathered. A disaster of similar sort, but on a scale undreamed of, now
struck the Highlanders.
In 1845, just as in Ireland so also in the
Highlands, the potato crop was struck by blight. The damage, though
widespread, was not complete, and everyone relaxed until in 1846 blight
struck again, and the whole potato crop was left rotting in the fields.
All the consequences of famine then quickly followed. Scurvy and typhus,
diseases of malnutrition, killed hundreds. The famine-stricken population,
weakened and listless, fell victim to cholera outbreaks, and only help
from outside could relieve the situation.
Private charity might provide some help,
and so might the state, but, in the first instance, the sufferers looked
to the chiefs for protection as generations of experience had taught them
to do. Some landowners responded with admirable sense of obligation.
MacLeod of Dunvegan bought in food for his people, some eight thousand of
them, and permanently damaged the fortunes of his family by so doing.
MacLean of Ardgour provided food, and introduced new crops into the area -
peas, cabbages and carrots - to replace the potatoes. Sir James Matheson
on Lewis spent £329,000 on improving his lands, hoping to provide a more
secure future for his people.
Others did nothing. Gordon of Cluny, owner
of the Uists and Barra, was later reported as 'most negligent'. On Skye on
the estates of Baillie of Dochfour, 'fertile land (was) lying waste -
peoplewas seen a starving.' In Knoydart, around Arisaig, Lord Cranstoun
showed total indifference to the situation, leaving attempts at relief to
a tenant, MacDonald of Glenaladale, and to the parish priest, Father
One who particularly disgraced himself was
Lord MacDonald, who was publicly denounced by the depot officer at Portree.
MacDonald had bought meal, which had been made available for relief
purposes, in Liverpool, but re-sold it at a profit instead of bringing it
The government was reluctant to act. These
were years when the economics of laissez-faire prevailed, and politicians
felt unclean if they had to interfere with the workings of the market,
where supply and demand should dictate the terms of trade, and where any
action by the state was seen as a distortion of natural processes. The
scale of the disaster was so great however that the Assistant Secretary to
the Treasury, Sir Charles Trevelyan, already in charge of relief measures
in Ireland, had his powers extended to Scotland as well. Using the
resources of the Admiralty, depots for food distribution were established
at Portree and Tobermory, supervised by an official whose name was
improbably apt - Sir Edward Pine Coffin. A Central Board of Management to
co-ordinate charitable efforts was established in February 1847, and from
its offices in Glasgow and Edinburgh, supplies were despatched to the
affected areas. A ration was fixed of 11/2lb. of meal per day for a man;
12oz. for a woman and 8oz. for a child. Donations in cash and in kind came
from America and Canada, and by mid 1847 the crisis had passed, and the
depots were closed.
The harvest showed great promise, but gales
caused widespread damage, and potato blight struck again. The Board began
all over again, but showing a new approach. Its members had been
criticised as being too concerned for the suffering, and not alert enough
to the need to keep everyone up to scratch. So now the victims had to make
some gesture towards earning their rations. They were to work an
eight-hour-day for six days a week in return for their meals. Meal
supplies would be reduced as a punishment for any 'idleness', because, as
Trevelyan put it, 'dependence on charity is not to be made an agreeable
mode of life'. At the prices of the time the meal on offer to a man, his
wife and six children cost three shillings and two pence per week -
sixteen pence. The lowest working wage of the time was thirty pence. There
seemed very little risk that Trevelyan's fears would be realised.
In 1848 and 1849 the crops failed again,
and all the devices to provide work whereby meal might be earned became
more and more absurd for half starved people. In 1850 the Board's funds
were exhausted, and its members simply announced that its activities must
So, at the last, responsibility for the
people fell again on their own social leaders, the landowners, who were
now faced with having to pay extra local rates - the Poor Rate - of almost
six pence per £1 on the value of their five estates. In Skye and the
Hebrides the rate was almost fourteen pence. The Poor Law Board, under
whose scrutiny the conditions in the Highlands now fell, saw the mass
removal of a surplus population as providing the only answer to the
problem. In 1857 Parliament encouraged this removal by the Emigration
Advances Act, and in 1852 there was formed the Highlands and Islands
Emigration Society. The best that chiefs could now do for their people was
to make arrangements for emigrant ships to call, to take away into the
refuge of exile the people who might have made their land sustain them,
but had never been allowed to hold enough of it to make success possible.
Except for a few scattered acts of
resistance on South Uist, Barra and Benbecula, the deportees went quietly;
and where a pathetic defiance was offered, the owners and their agents
destroyed all shelter, and the law backed them up. The lack of resistance,
unlike the behaviour of the Irish, was later admitted to be 'an important
reason for official neglect.' Hugh Miller - labourer, geologist and
theologian - summed up by writing 'the poor Highlander will shoot no one .
. . and so they will be left to perish.' There was no resistance because
there was no notion in the Gaelic community of such a thing. The clan had
deferred to its chiefs, had honoured them, followed them to death itself.
They had never combined against their chiefs; the very concept was beyond
them. Homesick, and emotionally scarred forever, they boarded the ships
for Canada, and elsewhere, where they could recreate their glen, living
off the land and using their own tongue.
But the Atlantic was wide, and the journey
for most was for ever. The people who went, exploited, rejected and
betrayed, suffered all the mental sorrows and physical hardships which
their exile brought. The country from which they were evicted suffered
too. Scotland lost half her heritage, and the desolation which then began
has never found a remedy.
Jacobite defeat at Culloden had brought
about the destruction of the old social system in the Highlands, and these
further disasters had removed any hopes that a successful new way of life
could be devised for the people who remained. It is remarkable, therefore,
that the image of Scotland, which the rest of the world holds, is a
Highland one, with tartan and bagpipe, the most immediately recognised
symbol of a Scottish presence.
In part this is due to the regard quickly
earned by the Highland regiments in the British army, where the military
traditions of clans were encouraged and directed against Britain's
enemies. This war-like, chivalrous side of the Highland story, whether
fact or myth, was given world-wide credibility by the work of Sir Walter
Scott, in the poetry which formed the bulk
of his early work, had chosen to write on themes of a romantic and heroic
character, frequently with a Highland setting; and he quickly captured the
attention and admiration of the literary and literate world. In 1814 he
published, anonymously, his first novel, Waverley, set in the period of
the 1745 Rising. The impact of Waverley was sensational throughout Europe
and America. It was the most influential book of its time; the qualities
of its characters were taken to be desirable examples of behaviour, and
the favourable image of Highlands and Highlanders which it conveyed
brought respect and goodwill to the whole country. Such goodwill was even
extended by the Crown. George III moved emotionally away from the
Hanoverian loyalties of his predecessors; George IV, persuaded by Walter
Scott, made a dramatic royal visit to Scotland in 1822, and Victoria found
her preferred holiday home in the Highlands.
Even economically, Scott, with Waverley and
then Rob Roy, helped to create a branch of the textile industry producing
tartan cloth which had become suddenly fashionable. Scott's political
sympathies were Cavalier, Royalist and Jacobite, and it is fitting that he
brought some comfort to the region and the people who had suffered for
these very sympathies.
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