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General History of the Highlands
The Living Conditions in the Highlands after 1745 - Part 2

In spite of all the emigration that has taken place from this country, no one has, we daresay, any real dread of depopulation; the population is increasing over all the land every year, not excepting the Highlands. As for soldiers, no doubt plenty will be forthcoming when wanted; if not so, it is not for want of men well enough fitted for the occupation. As every one knows, there is seldom a want of willing workers in this country, but far more frequently a great want of work to do.

That by far the larger part of the surface of the Highland districts is suited only for the pasturage of sheep, is the testimony of every one who knows anything about the subject. Those who speak otherwise must either ignore facts or speak of what they do not know, urged merely by impulse and sentimentalism. True, there are many spots consisting of excellent soil suited for arable purposes, but generally where such do occur the climate is so unfavourable to successful agriculture that no expenditure will ever produce an adequate return. Other patches again, not, however, of frequent occurrence, have everything in their favour, and are as capable of producing luxuriant crops as the most fertile district of the lowlands. But nearly all these arable spots, say those who advocate the laying of the whole country under sheep, it is absolutely necessary to retain as winter pasturage, if sheep-farming is to be carried on successfully. The mountainous districts, comprising nearly the whole of the Highlands, are admirably suited for sheep pasturage when the weather is mild; but in winter are so bleak and cold, and exposed to destructive storms, that unless the sheep during winter can be brought down to the low and sheltered grounds, the loss of a great part of the flocks would inevitably be the consequence. Hence, it is maintained, unless nearly the whole of the country is allowed to lie waste, or unless a sheep farmer makes up his mind to carry on an unprofitable business, the arable spots in the valleys and elsewhere must, as a rule, be retained as pasture. And this seems to be the case in most districts. It must not be imagined, however, that the surface of the highlands is one universal expanse of green and brown fragrant heather; every tourist knows that in almost every glen, by the side of many lochs, streams, and bogs, patches of cultivated land are to be met with, hearing good crops of oats, barley, potatoes, and turnips. These productions chiefly belong to the large sheep farmers, and are intended for the use of themselves, their servants, and cattle, and but seldom have they any to dispose of. Others of these arable spots belong to small farmers, the race of whom is happily not yet extinct. But, on the whole, it would seem that so far as agricultural products are concerned, the Highlands seldom, if ever, produce sufficient to supply the wants of the inhabitants, importation being thus necessary.

A curious and interesting point connected with the introduction of sheep into the Highlands may be mentioned here :—By means of this innovation, the whole aspect of the country seems to have been changed. Previous to that, the whole country seems to have borne a universal aspect of blackness, rarely relieved by a spot of green, arising from the fact that almost the only product of the mountains was dark-brown heath. Captain Burt and others who visited the Highlands previous to the extensive introduction of sheep, indulge in none of the raptures over Highland scenery, that the most common-place and prosy tourist thinks it his duty to get into at the present day. They speak of the country almost with horror, as a black howling wilderness, full of bogs and big boulders, and almost unfit for human habitation. They could see no beauty in the country that it should be desired ; it was a place to get out of as soon as possible. How far these sentiments may have been justified by facts it is impossible now to say; but it is the almost universal assertion by the writers in the Old Statistical Account, that the appearance of the Highland hills was rapidly changing, and that instead of the universal dark-brown heath which previously covered them, there was springing up the light-brown heath and short green bent or strong grass so well known to all modern tourists. If the Highland hills formerly bore anything like the aspect presented at the present day by the dreary black wet hills of Shetland, the remarks of Burt and others need not cause astonishment. But as the great outlines and peculiar features of the country must have been the same then as now, we suspect that these early English adventurers into the Highlands wanted training in scenery or were determined to see nothing to admire. But, indeed, admiration of and hunting for fine scenery seem to be quite a modern fashion, and were quite unknown to our ancestors in the beginning of last century, or were confined to a few crazy poets. Men require to be trained to use their eyes in this as in many other respects. There can be no doubt that the first impulse to the admiration of the Highlands and Highlanders was given by the poems and novels of Sir Walter Scott; it was he who set the sheepish stream of tourists agoing, and indirectly to him many a Highland hotel-keeper owes a handsome fortune. The fact at all events seems unquestionable, that the extensive introduction of sheep has to a large extent changed the external aspect of the Highlands.

It must not be imagined that, previous to the changes we are speaking of, there were no sheep in the Highlands; there were always a few of a very small native breed, but the staple stock of the Highland farmer was, as we previously mentioned, black cattle. The sheep, however, have also to a very large extent superseded them, a fact which is deplored by those who lament the many innovations which which have been introduced since 1745. But by all accounts much of the country is unsuited to the pasturage of black cattle, and as cattle and sheep do not thrive well together, the only alternative seems to be the introduction of sheep alone into those districts unsuited for cattle. "More than one-third of the country consists of mountains and declivities too steep and abrupt for black cattle, and the grass they produce too short and fine to afford them a tolerable pasture except in the height of summer. The greater part of the pasture is therefore lost, though it might all be beneficially consumed with sheep. A flock of sheep will thrive where cows and oxen would starve, and will go at all seasons of the year to such heights as are inaccessible to black cattle... In a situation of this kind the very wool of a flock would amount to more than the whole profit to be obtained by black cattle." The only conclusion to be drawn from these statements is, that the wisest thing that could be done was to introduce sheep into those districts which were being wasted on black cattle.

Along with the introduction of sheep, indeed, to a great extent caused by that, was the enlargement of farms, which with the raising of rents led to the depopulation of many districts. The old system of letting farms in the Highlands has already been sufficiently explained, and the introduction of sheep seems to have rendered it necessary that this old system should be abolished, and that a large extent of country should be taken by one man. The question between large and small farms does not appear to us to be the same as between the old and new system of letting land. Under the old system, a farm of no great extent was often let to a large number of tenants, who frequently sub divided it still more, by either sub-letting part, or by sharing their respective portions with their newly-married sons and daughters. The testimony as to the perniciousness of this old system is universal; it was, and until recently continued to be, the chief source of all the misfortunes that have afflicted the Highlands. As to whether, however, this old system should have been entirely abolished, or whether some modification of it might not have been retained, has been a matter of dispute. Some maintain that the Highlands can be profitably managed only on the large farm system, and only thus can sheep be made to pay, while others assert that, though many districts are suitable for large farms, still there are others that might with great profit be divided into small holdings. By this latter method, it is said, a fair proportion of all clases would be maintained in the Highlands, noblemen, gentlemen, farmers large and small, cottars, labourers, and that only when there is such a mixture can a country be said to be prosperous. Moreover, it is held a proprietor, who in this country should be considered as a steward rather than the absolute owner of his estate, has no right to exclude the small farmer from having a chance of making a respectable living by the occupation for which he is suited; that he stands in the way of his own and his country’s interests when he discourages the small farmer, for only by a mixture of the two systems can the land be made the most of and that, to say the least of it, it is selfish and wrong in proprietors not to consider the case of the poor as well as the rich.

On the question as to the expediency of large or small farms we cannot pretend to be able to judge ; we know too little of its real merits. However, it appears to us that there is no reason why both systems cannot be very well combined in many parts of the highlands, although there are many districts, we believe, totally unsuited for anything else but sheep-farms of the largest dimensions. Were the small farms made large enough to sufficiently support the farmer and his family, and remunerate him for his outlay and labour, were precautions taken against the subdivision of these moderate-sized holdings, and were leases of sufficient duration granted to all, it seems to us that there is nothing in the nature of things why there should not be farms of a small size in the Highlands as well as farms covering many miles in extent. We certainly do think it too bad to cut out the small respectable class of farmers entirely, and put the land of the country in the hands of a sort of farmer aristocracy; it is unfair and prejudicial to the best interests of the country. But the small farmers must first show that they deserve to be considered; certainly the small farmers under the old Highland system, which we believe is not yet quite extinct in some remote districts, deserved only to have the land they so mismanaged taken from them and given to others who could make a better use of it. Some consideration, we think, ought to be had towards the natives of the country, those whose ancestors have occupied the land for centuries, and if they are able to pay as good a rent as others, and show themselves willing to manage the land as well, in all humanity they ought to have the preference. But these are matters which we think ought to be left to adjust themselves according to the inevitable laws which regulate all human affairs. Interference in any way between landlord and tenant by way of denunciation, vituperation, or legislation, seems to us only to make matters worse. It seems to us that the simplest commercial maxims—the laws of profit and loss, if they have fair play—will ultimately lead to the best system of managing the land of the Highlands and of every other district, both in the interests of the proprietors and those of the tenants. If proprietors find it most profitable to let their lands in large lots, either for agriculture, for cattle, for sheep, or for deer, there is no reason why they should not do so, and there is no doubt that in the end what is most advantageous to the proprietor is so to the tenant, and vice versa, as also to the country at large. If, on the other hand, it be found that letting land in small lots is more profitable than the other practice, few proprietors, we daresay, would hesitate to cut up their land into suitable lots. But all this, we think, must be left to experiment, and it cannot be said that the Highlands as a whole have as yet got beyond the stage of probation; changes from small to large and from large to small farms—mostly the former—and changes from sheep to deer and deer to sheep are still going on; but, no doubt, ere long both proprietors and tenants of land will find out what their real common interest is, and adjust themselves in their proper relations to each other. It is best to leave them alone and allow them to fight the battle out between themselves. Interference was attempted at the end of last century to stop emigration and to settle the ousted tenants on small lots by the sea-shore, where both fishing and farming could be carried on, but the interference did no good. Emigration was not diminished, although curiously it was the proprietors themselves, who subsequently did their best to promote emigration, that at this time attempted to stop it. The people seem generally until lately to have been quite willing and even anxious to emigrate at least those of most intelligence; not that they cared not for their country, but that, however much they loved it, there was no good in staying at home when nothing but misery and starvation stared them in the face. We say that the landlords and others, including the Highland Society, interfered, and endeavoured to get government to interfere, to prevent the great emigrations which were going on, and which they feared would ere long leave the country utterly peopleless. But the interference was of no use, and was quite uncalled for. Emigration still went on, and will go on so long as there is a necessity for it; and the country will always have plenty of inhabitants so long as it can afford a decent subsistence. When men know better the laws of sociology—the laws which govern human affairs—interference of this kind will be simply laughed at.

The scheme of the landlords—who, while they raised the rents and extended their farms, were still loath to lose their numerous tenants and retainers—of settling those on the coast where they could combine farming and fishing, failed also, for the simple reason that, as it has been fairly proved, one man cannot unite successfully the two occupations in his own person. In this sense "no man can serve two masters." "No two occupations can be more incompatible than farming and fishing, as the seasons which require undivided exertion in fishing are precisely those in which the greatest attention should be devoted to agriculture. Grazing, which is less incompatible with fishing than agriculture, is even found to distract the attention and prevent success in either occupation. This is demonstrated by the very different success of those who unite both occupations from those who devote themselves exclusively to fishing. Indeed, the industrious fisher finds the whole season barely sufficient for the labours of his proper occupation." It seems clear, then, that the Highland proprietors should be left alone and allowed to dispose of their land as they think fit, just as the owner of any other commercial commodity takes it to whatever market he chooses, and no harm accrues from it. If the Highland peasantry and farmers see it to be to their advantage to leave their native land and settle in a far-off soil where they will have some good return for hard work, we do not see that there is any call for interference or lamentation. Give all help and counsel to those who require and deserve them by all means either to stay at home or go abroad; but to those who are able to think and free to act for themselves nothing is necessary but to be left alone.

As we have already said, another cause of emigration besides sheep-farming, though to some extent associated with it, was the raising of rents. Naturally enough, when the number of tenants upon a laird’s estate ceased to make him of importance and give him power, he sought by raising his rents to give himself the importance derived from a large income. There can be no doubt that, previous to this, farms were let far below their real value, and often at a merely nominal rent; and thus one of the greatest incitements to industry was wanting in the case of the Highland tenants, for when a man knows that his landlord will not trouble him about his rent, but would rather let him go scot-free than lose him, it is too much to expect of human nature in general that it will bestir itself to do what it feels there is no absolute necessity for. Thus habits of idleness were engendered in the Highlanders, and the land, for want of industrious cultivation, was allowed to run comparatively waste. That the thinning of the population gave those who remained a better chance of improving their condition, is testified to by many writers in the Old ,Statistical Account, and by other contemporary authorities, including even Dr Walker, who was no friend to emigration. He says, "these measures in the management of property, and this emigration, were by no means unfriendly to the population of the country. The sub-tenants, who form the bulk of the people, were not only retained but raised in their situation, and rendered more useful and independent." It is amusing now to read Dr Walker’s remarks on the consequences of emigration from the Highlands; had his fears been substantiated,—and had they been well grounded, they ought to have been by this time, for sheep-farming, rent-raising, depopulation, and emigration have been going on rapidly ever since his time—the Highlands must now have been "a waste howling wilderness." " If the [Highlanders]," he says, "are expelled, the Highlands never can be reclaimed or improved by any other set of men, but must remain a mere grazing-field for England and the South of Scotland. By this alteration, indeed, the present rents may, no doubt, be augmented, but they must become immediately stationary, without any prospect of farther advancement, and will in time from obvious causes be liable to great diminution. All improvement of the country must cease when the people to improve it are gone. The soil must remain unsubdued for ever, and the progress of the Highlands must be finally stopt, while all the cultivated wastes of the kingdom are advancing in population and wealth.." How these predictions have been belied by facts, all who know anything of the progress of the Highlands during the present century must perceive. All these changes and even grievances have taken place, and yet the Highlands are far enough from anything approximating to depopulation or unproductiveness, and rents, we believe, have not yet ceased to rise.

Notwithstanding the large emigration which has been going on, the population of the Highlands at the census of 1861 was at least 70,000 greater than it was in the time of Dr Walker. The emigration, especially from the west, does not seem to have been large enough, for periodically, up even to the present day, a rueful call for help to save from famine comes from that quarter. "This very year (1863) the cry of destitution in Skye has been loud as ever, and yet from no part of the Highlands has there been a more extensive emigration. From the very earliest period in the history of emigration down to this date, Skye has been largely drawn upon, and yet the body of the people in Skye were never more wretched that at this moment." Walker himself states that, in spite of an emigration of about 6000 between the years 1771 and 1794 from the Hebrides and Western Highlands, the population had increased by about 40,000 during the forty years subsequent to 1750. Yet though he knew of the wretched condition of the country from an over-crowded population, practical man as he was, he gives way to the vague and unjustifiable fears expressed above. It is no doubt sad to see the people of a country, and these possessing many high qualities, compelled to leave it in order to get room to breathe; but to tirade against emigration as Dr Walker and others do in the face of such woeful facts as are known concerning the condition of the Highlands is mere selfish and wicked sentimentalism.

Another fact, stated by the same author, and which might have taught him better doctrines in connection with some of the border parishes, is worth introducing here. The population of seventeen parishes in Dumbartonshire, Perthshire, and Argyllshire, bordering on the low country, decreased in population between 1755 and 1795, from 30,525 to 26,748, i.e., by 3,787; these parishes having been during that time to a great extent laid out in cattle and sheep. Now, according to the Old Statistical Account (about 1795), these very parishes were on the whole among the most prosperous in the Highlands, those in which improvements were taking place most rapidly, and in which the condition of the people was growing more and more comfortable. It appears to us clear that the population of the Highlands did require a very considerable thinning; that depopulation to a certain extent was, and in some places still is, a necessary condition to improvement.

The main question is, we think, how to get these districts which are in a state of wretchedness and retrogression from over-population rid of the surplus. Unless some sudden check be put upon the rate of increase of the general population, there never will be a lack of hands to bring in the waste places when wanted, and to supply all other demands for men. No doubt, it is a pity, if it be the case, that any extensive districts which could be brought to a high style of cultivation, and would then be better employed than in pasture should be allowed to lie waste, when there is every necessity for the land being made to yield as much as possible. And if the Highlanders are willing, it certainly does seem to be better to keep them at home and employ them for such purposes rather than let them go abroad and give their services to strangers. We should fancy the larger a population there is in a country where there is room enough for them, and which can give them enough to eat and drink, the better for that country. All we maintain is, that it being proved that the population in many parts of the Highlands having been redundant, so much so as to lead to misery and degradation, it was far better that the surplus should emigrate than that they should be kept at home to increase the misery and be an obstruction to the progress of the country. Keep them at home if possible; if not, permit them without any weak sentimental lamentation to go abroad. It has been said that if the Highlander is compelled to leave his native glen, he would as soon remove to a distance of 4000 as to a distance of 40 miles; and that indeed many of them, since they must move, prefer to leave the country altogether rather than settle in any part of it out of sight of their native hills. There is no doubt much truth in this, so that the outcry about keeping the Highlanders at home is to a great extent uncalled for; they don’t wish to stay at home. Still many of them have been willing to settle in the lowlands or in other parts of the Highlands. We have already referred to the great services rendered by the ousted tenants on the borders of the Perthshire and Dunbartonshire Highlands who settled in the neighbourhood of Stirling and reclaimed many thousand acres of Kincardine moss, now a fertile strath. Similar services have been rendered to other barren parts of the country by many Highlanders, who formerly spent their time in lolling idleness, but who, when thus given the opportunity, showed themselves to be as capable of active and profitable exertion as any lowland peasant or farmer. Many Highlanders also, when deprived of their farms, removed to some of our large towns, and by their exertions raised themselves and their families to an honourable and comfortable position, such as they could never have hoped to reach had they never left their native hills. By all means keep the Highlanders at home if they are willing to stay and there is work for them to do; but what purpose can be served in urging them to stay at home if the consequence be to increase the already enormous sort of pauperism?

That the landlords, the representatives of the old chiefs, were not accountable for much of the evil that flowed from the changes of which we have been speaking, no one who knows the history of the Highlands dining the last century will venture to assert. Had they all uniformly acted towards their old tenants with humanity, judiciousness, and unselfishness, much misery, misunderstanding, and bitter ill-will might have been avoided. It is, we venture to believe, quite against the spirit of the British constitution as it now exists, and quite out of accordance with enlightened reason and justice, not to say humanity, that these or any other landed proprietors should be allowed to dispose of their land as they choose without any consideration for the people whose fathers have been on it for centuries, or without regard to the interests of the country to which the land belongs. Many of the Highland proprietors, in their haste to get rich, or at least to get money to spend in the fashionable world, either mercilessly, and without warning, cleared their estates of the tenants, or most unreasonably oppressed them in the matter of rent. The great fault of many of the landlords—for they were not all alike—was in bringing about too suddenly changes, in themselves, perhaps, desirable enough. Rents seem to have been too suddenly raised to such a rate as tended to inspire the tenant with despair of being able to meet it. Some also, in their desire to introduce the large farm system, swept the tenants off the ground without warning, and left them to provide for themselves; while others made a show of providing for them by settling them in hamlets by the seaside, where, in general, they were worse off than ever. It was in their utter want of consideration for these old tenants that many of the Highland landlords were to blame. Had they raised the rents gradually, extended the size of their farms slowly, giving the old tenants a chance under the new system, and doing their best to put these necessarily ejected in a way of making a living for themselves, tried to educate their people up to the age in the matter of agriculture, social habits, and other matters; lived among them, and shown them a good example ;—in short, as proprietors, rigidly done their duty to their tenants, as descendants of the old chiefs treated with some tender consideration the sons of those who worshipped and bled for the fathers of their clan, and as men, shown some charity and kindness to their poorer brethren, the improvement of the Highlands might have been brought about at a much less expense of misery and rancour. That these old Highlanders were open to improvement, enlightenment, and education, when judiciously managed, is proved by what took place in some of the border and other districts, where many improvements were effected without great personal inconvenience by any one, and without any great or sudden diminution of the population. Especially in the Western and Northern Highlands and the Islands, the landlords went to extremes in both directions. Some of them acted as we have just indicated, while others again, moved by a laudable consideration for, and tenderness towards the old tenants, retained the old system of small holdings, which they allowed to be now and then still more subdivided, endeavouring, often unsuccessfully, to obtain a rise of rent. In most cases the latter course was as fatal and as productive of misery and ruin as the former. Indeed, in some cases it was more so; for not only was the lot of the tenant not improved, but the laird had ultimately to sell his estate for behoof of his creditors, and himself emigrate to the lowlands or to a foreign country. This arose from the fact that, as the number of tenants increased, the farms were diminished in size more and more, until they could neither support the tenant nor yield the landlord a rent adequate to his support. In this way have many of the old hospitable chiefs with small estates dropped out of sight; and their places filled by some rich lowland merchants, .who would show little tenderness to the helpless tenantry.

But it is an easy matter now to look calmly back on these commotions and changes among the Highlanders, and allot praise or blame to chiefs and people for the parts they played, forgetting all the time how difficult these parts were. Something decisive had to be done to prevent the Highlands from sinking into inconceivable misery and barbarism; and had the lairds sat still and done nothing but allowed their estates to be managed on the old footing, ruin to themselves and their tenants would have been the consequence, as indeed was the case with most of those who did so. It was very natural, then, that they should deem it better to save themselves at the expense of their tenants, than that both land and tenants should be involved in a common ruin. They were not the persons to find out the best mode of managing their estates, so that they themselves might be saved, and the welfare of their tenants only considered. In some cases, no doubt, the lairds were animated by utter indifference as to the fate of their tenants; but we are inclined to think these were few, and that most of them would willingly have done much for the welfare of their people, and many of them did what they could; but their first and most natural instinct was that of self-preservation, and in order to save themselves, they were frequently compelled to resort to measures which brought considerable suffering upon their poor tenants. We have no doubt most did their best, according to their knowledge and light, to act well their parts, and deal fairly with their people; but the parts were so difficult, and the actors were so unaccustomed to their new situation, that they are not to be too severely blamed if they sometimes blundered. No matter how gently changes might have been brought about, suffering and bitterness would necessarily to a certain extent have followed; and however much we may deplore the great amount of unnecessary suffering that actually occurred, still we think the lasting benefits which have accrued to the Highlands from the changes which were made, far more than counterbalance this temporary evil.

What we have been saying, while it applies to many recent changes in the Highlands, refers chiefly to the period between 1750 and 1800, during which the Highlands were in a state of universal fermentation, and chiefs and people were only beginning to realise their position and perceive what were their true interests. We shall very briefly notice one or two other matters of interest connected with that period.

The only manufacture of any consequence that has ever been introduced into the Highlands is that of kelp, which is the ashes of various kinds of sea-weed containing some of the salts, potash, and chiefly soda, used in some of the manufactures, as soap, alum, glass, &c. It is used as a substitute for barilla, imported from Spain, America, and other places during the latter part of last century, or account of the American and continental wars, as well as of the high duties imposed on the importation of salt and similar commodities. The weeds are cut from the rocks with a hook or collected on the shore, and dried to a certain degree on the beach. They are afterwards burnt in a kiln, in which they are constantly stirred with an iron rake until they reach a fluid state; and when they cool, the ashes become condensed into a dark blue or whitish-coloured mass, nearly of the hardness and solidity of rock. The manufacture is carried on during June, July, and August; and even at the present day, in some parts of the Islands and Highlands, affords occupation to considerable numbers of both sexes. This manufacture seems to have been introduced into some of the lowland parts of the Scottish coast early in the eighteenth century, but was not thoroughly established in the Highlands till about the year 1750. At first it was of little importance, but gradually the manufacture spread until it became universal over all the western islands and coasts, and the value of the article, from the causes above-mentioned, rose rapidly from about £1 per ton, when first introduced, to from £12 to £20 per ton about the beginning of the present century. While the great value of the article lasted, rents rose enormously, and the income of proprietors of kelp-shore rose in proportion. As an example, it may be stated that the rent of the estate of Clanranald in South Uist previous to 1790 was £2200, which, as kelp increased in value, rapidly rose to £15,000. While the kelp season lasted, the whole time of the people was occupied in its manufacture, and the wages they received, while it added somewhat to their scanty income, and increased their comfort, were small in proportion to the time and labour they gave, and to the prices received by those to whom the kelp belonged. Moreover, while the kelp-fever lasted, the cultivation of the ground and other agricultural matters seem to have been to a great extent neglected, extravagant habits were contracted by the proprietors, whose incomes were thus so considerably increased, and the permanent improvement of their estates were neglected in their eagerness to make the most of an article whose value, they did not perceive, was entirely factitious, and could not be lasting. Instead of either laying past their surplus income or expending it on the permanent improvement of their estates, they very foolishly lived up to it, or borrowed heavily in the belief that kelp would never decrease in value. The consequence was that when the duties were taken off the articles for which kelp was used as a substitute in the earlier part of the 19th century, the price of that article gradually diminished till it could fetch, about 1830-40, only from £2 to £4 a ton. With this the incomes of the proprietors of kelp-shores also rapidly decreased, landing not a few of them in ruin and bankruptcy, and leading in some instances to the sale of the estates. The income above mentioned, after the value of kelp decreased, fell rapidly from £15,000 to £5000. The manufacture of this article is still carried on in the West Highlands and Islands, and to a greater extent in Orkney, but although it occupies a considerable number of hands, it is now of comparatively little importance, much more of the sea-weed being employed as manure. While it was at its best, however, the manufacture of this article undoubtedly increased to a very large extent the revenue of the West Highlands, and gave employment to and kept at home a considerable number of people who otherwise might have emigrated. Indeed, it was partly on account of the need of many hands for kelp-making that proprietors did all they could to prevent the emigration of those removed from the smaller farms, and tried to induce them to settle on the coast. On the whole, it would seem that this sudden source of large income ultimately did more harm than good to the people and to the land. While this manufacture flourished, the land was to a certain extent neglected, and the people somewhat unfitted for agricultural labour; instead of looking upon this as a temporary source of income, and living accordingly, both they and the proprietors lived as if it should never fail, so that when the value of kelp rapidly decreased, ruin and absolute poverty stared both proprietors and people in the face. Moreover, by preventing the small tenants from leaving the country, and accumulating them on the coasts, the country became enormously over-peopled, so that when the importance of this source of employment waned, multitudes were left with little or no means of livelihood, and the temporary benefits which accrued to the Highlanders from the adventitious value of kelp, indirectly entailed upon them ultimately hardships and misfortunes greater than ever they experienced before, and retarded considerably their progress towards permanent improvement.

By all accounts the potato, introduced from Chili into Spain about the middle of the sixteenth century, was first introduced into Ireland by or through the instrumentality of Sir Walter Raleigh about the end of that century. From Ireland it seems shortly after to have been introduced into England, although its cultivation did not become anything like common till more than a century afterwards, and its use seems to have been restricted to the upper classes. Its value as a staple article of food for the poorer classes remained for long unappreciated. According to the Old Statistical Account of Scotland, potatoes were first cultivated in the fields there in the county of Stirling, in the year I 739, although for long after that, in many parts of the country, they were planted only as a garden vegetable. According to Dr Walker, potatoes were first introduced into the Hebrides from Ireland in the year 1743, the island of South Uist being the first to welcome the strange root, although the welcome from the inhabitants seems to have been anything but hearty. The story of its introduction, as told by Dr Walker, is amusing, though somewhat ominous when read in the light of subsequent melancholy facts. "In the spring of that year, old Clanranald was in Ireland, upon a visit to his relation, Macdonnel of Antrim; he saw, with surprise and approbation the practice of the country, and having a vessel of his own along with him, brought home a large cargo of potatoes. On his arrival, the tenants in the island were convened, and directed how to plant them, but they all refused. On this they were all committed to prison. After a little confinement, they agreed, at last, to plant these unknown roots, of which they had a very unfavourable opinion. When they were raised in autumn, they were laid down at the chieftain’s gate, by some of the tenants, who said, the Laird indeed might order them to plant these foolish roots, but they would not be forced to eat them. In a very little time, however, the inhabitants of South Uist came to know better, when every man of them would have gone to prison rather than not plant potatoes."

By the year 1760 potatoes appear to have become a common crop all over the country; and by 1770 they seem to have attained to that importance as a staple article of food for the common people which they have ever since maintained. The importance of the introduction of this valuable article of food, in respect both of the weal and the woe of the Highlands, cannot be over-estimated. As an addition to the former scanty means of existence it was invaluable; had it been used only as an addition the Highlanders might have been spared much suffering, instead of this, however, it ere long came to be regarded as so all-important, to be cultivated to such a large extent, and to the exclusion of other valuable productions, and to be depended upon by the great majority of the Highlanders as almost their sole food, that one failure in the crop by disease or otherwise must inevitably have entailed famine and misery. For so large a share of their food did the common Highlanders look to potatoes, that, according to the Old Statistical Account, in many places they fed on little else for nine months in the year.

The first remarkable scarcity subsequent to 1745 appears to have been in the year 1770-1 arising apparently from the unusual severity of the weather, causing the destruction of most of the crops, and many of the cattle. That, however, of 1782—83 seems to have been still more terrible, and universal over all the Highlands, according to the Old Statistical Account. It was only the interference of government and the charity of private individuals that prevented multitudes from dying of starvation. Neither of these famines, however, seem to have been caused by any failure in the potato crop from disease, but simply by the inclemency of seasons. But when to this latter danger there came subsequently to be added the liability of the staple article of food to fail from disease, the chances of frequently recurring famines came to be enormously increased. About 1838 potatoes constituted four-fifths of the food of the common Highlanders. However, we are anticipating. It is sufficient to note here as a matter of great importance in connection with the later social history of the Highlands, the universal cultivation of the potato sometime after the middle of the eighteenth century. Even during the latter part of last century, potato-disease was by no means unknown, though it appears to have been neither so destructive nor so widespread as some of the forms of disease developed at a later period. New forms of disease attacked the root during the early part of the present century, working at times considerable havoc, but never apparently inducing anything approaching a famine. But about 1840, the potato disease par excellence seems to have made its first appearance, and after visiting various parts of the world, including the Highlands, it broke out generally in 1845, and in 1846 entailed upon the Highlands indescribable suffering and hardship. Of this, however, more shortly. One effect attributed frequently in the Old Statistical Account to the introduction and immoderate use of the potato is the appearance of diseases before unknown or very rare. One of the principal of these was dropsy, which, whether owing to the potato or not, became certainly more prevalent after it came into common use, if we may trust the testimony of the writers of the Statistical Account.

In looking hack, then, by the aid of the authority just mentioned, along with others, on the progress made by the Highlands during the latter half of the eighteenth century, while there is much to sadden, still there is much that is cheering. The people generally appear in a state of ferment and discontent with themselves, and doing their best blindly to grope their way to a better position. While still there remain many traces of the old thraldom, there are many indications that freedom and a desire after true progress were slowly spreading among the people. Many of the old grievous services were still retained; still were there many districts thirled to particular mills; still were leases rare and tenures uncertain, and rents frequently paid in kind; in many districts the houses were still unsightly and uncomfortable huts, the clothing scanty, and the food wretched and insufficient. In most Highland districts, we fear, the old Scotch plough, with its four or five men, and its six or ten cattle, was still the principal instrument of tillage; drainage was all but unknown; the land was overstocked in many places with people and cattle; the ground was scourged with incessant cropping, and much of the produce wasted in the gathering and in the preparing it for food. Education in many places was entirely neglected, schools few and far between, and teachers paid worse than ploughmen! The picture has certainly a black enough background, but it is not unrelieved by a few bright and hopeful streaks.

On many parts of the border-Highlands improvements had been introduced which placed them in every respect on a level with the lowlands. Many of the old services had been abolished, leases introduced, the old and inefficient agricultural instrument replaced by others made on the most approved system. Houses, food, and clothing were all improved; indeed, in the case of the last article, there is frequent complaint made that too much attention and money were expended on mere ornamentation. The old method of constant cropping had in not a few districts been abolished, and a proper system of rotation established; more attention was paid to proper manuring and ingathering, and instead of restricting the crops, as of old, to oats and barley, many other new cereals, and a variety of green crops and grasses had been introduced. Not only in the districts bordering on the Lowlands, but in many other parts of the Highlands, the breed of sheep, and cattle, and horses had been improved, and a much more profitable system of management introduced. By means of merciful emigration, the by far too redundant population of the Highlands had been considerably reduced, the position of those who left the country vastly improved, and more room and more means of living afforded to those who remained. A more rational system of dividing the land prevailed in many places, and sheep-farming—for which alone, according to all unprejudiced testimony, the greater part of the surface of the Highlands is fitted — had been extensively introduced. The want of education was beginning to be felt, and in many districts means were being taken to spread its advantages, while the moral and religious character of the people, as a whole, stood considerably above the average of most other districts of Scotland. In short, the Highlanders, left to themselves, were advancing gradually towards that stage of improvement which the rest of the country had reached, and the natural laws which govern society had only not to be thwarted and impertinently interfered with, to enable the Highlanders ere long to be as far forward as the rest of their countrymen. From the beginning of this century down to the present time they have had much to struggle with, many trials to undergo, and much unnecessary interference to put up with, but their progress has been sure and steady, and even comparatively rapid. We must glance very briefly at the state of the Highlands during the present century; great detail is uncalled for, as much that has been said concerning the previous period applies with equal force to the present.

Return to Social History of the Highlands | General History of the Highlands


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