The Highland Clearances:
People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil

Eric Richards

Birlinn 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
In the Scottish Highlands, the century to 1880 saw the eviction of tenants in many areas, largely to make way for sheep farming. These clearances have entered into Scottish legend and a "passionate indignation" about them lives on. Eric Richards is not a revisionist, but he offers a more nuanced approach than the popular history.

He begins with a glance at the legend and accounts of two classic clearances from the 1840s, in Glencalvie and Strathconan. He then looks at the demographics and economics of the Highlands, going back before Culloden, and at Malthusian issues of food supply and population. And he explores parallels and precedents elsewhere in Europe, elsewhere in Britain, and in the Scottish lowlands. The "quiet march of the sheep" was the single biggest part of the rural revolution that swept the Highlands: Richards describes the introduction of new breeds, Blackfaced and Cheviot, the need for capital and the importance of farmers from outside the region, and the driving forces behind the steady spread of the sheep.

Richards then covers most of the major — or better documented — clearances, proceeding chronologically and regionally. The chapter titles illustrate the approach: "The Insurrection of 1792" (Easter Ross), "Aftermath and the Widening Sheep Empire", "Clearing Sutherland: Lairg, Assynt and Kildonan 1807-1813", "Sensation in Strathnaver 1814-1816", "The Greatest Clearances: Strathnaver and Kildonan in 1818-1819", "The Last of the Sutherland Clearances", "Sweeping the Highlands: The Middle Years - Lewis, Rum, Harris, Freswick and Strathaird (Skye)", "Colonel Gordon, Barra and the Uists", "Trouble in the Islands: The Macdonald Estates in North Uist, Benbecula and Skye", "Frustrated Lairds and Bloody-Minded Crofters: Lewis, Durness and Coigach", and "Landlords Unrestrained: Knoydart and Greenyards" (1853 and 1854).

This overview concentrates on those episodes for which records are available.

"Most small clearances passed unnoticed. Local historians are thrown back on the evidence of oral traditions and of the empty landscapes."
Richards focuses on local events, teasing out fascinating details from a range of sources, and attempting to compensate for the shortage of crofter perspectives. He attempts to uncover what the circumstances of the evictions were, how many people were evicted, and how much violence was employed.
"It was the common paradox that the more desperate the condition of the people the more rational became their expulsion."

The constraints faced by landlords are also covered: some fruitlessly plowed fortunes made in industry or Empire back into Highland estates; many really did try to help their tenants; and some went bankrupt, leading to clearances carried out by receivers. And events are set in their broader context: famines and relief schemes, the realities and rhetoric of emigration, the influence of media attention and public opinion in Inverness and Edinburgh but also in London, changes in commodity prices, the development of hunting and shooting tourism as alternatives to sheep farming, and so forth.

Closing chapters look at "Nervous Landlords, 1855-86" and the lead up and background to the Crofters' Holdings Act 1886. This put a definitive end to clearances, but did little to help the poorest inhabitants of the Highlands and was of mixed benefit for the region's longer term economic prospects.

The final chapter is in "question and answer" format, synthesising the preceding material. The final question Richards asks is: "Do we need to revise the story of the Highland Clearances?"

"The contemporary documentation of the Highland Clearances ... broadly vindicates the popular version of the story. The iron fist of landlord power was employed with little restraint in many cases. ... But the extent of violence and bloodshed was small by historical standards. The role of posterity has been to exaggerate and polarise the account and to diminish the underlying economic dilemma of everyone in the region. The exceptionalism of the Highlands has been over-rated at the expense of the significance of the Clearances as a well-documented exemplar of the dangers facing a poor society located on the edge of industrialisation."

November 2004

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%T The Highland Clearances
%S People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil
%A Richards, Eric
%I Birlinn
%D 2000
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 1841580406
%P 379pp