Clearing the Highlands

Robert "Rabbie" Burns

Robert “Rabbie” Burns

Robert “Rabbie” Burns

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.

Farewell to the mountains high covered with snow;
Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods;
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.

Robert’s Burns’s words have been set to music and sung by choral groups for many years. Most of the melodies are as hauntingly beautiful as Burns’s text. As a soprano with  the Texas Master Chorale, the Donna Gartman Schultz setting is my personal favorite (listen here). Burns paints a picture for us of wind swept mountains and the simple rural pursuits he left behind when he moved away to seek a more financially secure life than the one his father knew as a Highland crofter.

I wonder how many people in Burns’s day knew that the longing he expressed in his 1768 poem portended an era unlike any Scotland had ever witnessed, a period that would forever change the home Burns so clearly loved and missed? During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of his fellow Highlanders would follow in his footsteps, departing for America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and to the English plantation scheme in Ireland. While there had been a steady stream of emigration from the early seventeenth century onward, by the eighteenth century, it had become a flood.

To understand why the people of the Highlands deserted the lands that their families had lived on for generations, we must look much farther back in Scotland’s history.

glencoe-scottish-highlands1The Scottish Highlands were settled by Gaels from Ireland around 1,500 years ago. Although the Highlands were desolate and remote, by 1755 the area was the most densely populated in Scotland. 51% of Scots lived there and all were Gaelic speakers. Their neighbors to the south in the Lowlands and England considered Highlanders to be an uncouth, barbarous, untrustworthy, unwashed band of hooligans. The fact that the Highlands had its fair share of professional men, poets, artisans, and musicians and centers of learning and libraries scattered across the region was completely overshadowed in non-Highlanders’ minds by the harshness of Highland life.[1]
tradtional blackhouse reproduction

tradtional blackhouse reproduction

The rugged appearance of the croft families, usually kinsmen and members of the same clan, is not in doubt for they lived in huddled groups of “blackhouses”, low structures without chimneys. Smoke from the centrally placed fire ring escaped through the roof, leaving soot over the home’s interior. These houses were built of materials rarely used today: clay and wattle, cut turf, stacked dry stone walls, thatched roof – a very rustic form of structure dating far back in human history.[2] Blackhouses were built to fend off the harsh Highland winters for both man and beast. The examples I have seen in both Scottish and American folk history museums show flagstone or beaten earth floors and a large open rectangular interior with one end sectioned off to house livestock. One can only imagine what it must have been like to be cooped up in one of these homes for the duration of a Highlands winter.

Angus MacKay of Clam MacKay in traditional Highland dress

Angus MacKay of Clan MacKay in traditional Highland dress

The clan system that evolved in the Highlands brought together kinsmen for mutual benefit and served its people well for centuries. Each clan had its own lands, chief, tartan, rules, and customs. Clan members, usually related by blood and/or marriage, owed fealty to the chief who could call upon them for military service. Fighting among the clans was a time honored method for settling disputes. Clan lands were held in common by members of the clan who were free to farm and graze it, but the chief controlled it. He could lease out parcels to tacksmen or managers who then rented to tenant farmers who employed cottars or laborers. The chief’s most important job was to ensure that each clan member had sufficient land to support himself or herself. Equal and fair distribution of the clan’s land was honored by succeeding chiefs. Becoming clan chief was a heredity affair usually held within a deceased chief’s family. Highland life was stable with its own language, customs, culture, and sense of identity.[2]

Bonnie Prince Charlie

All of that changed, however, with the rise and fall of royal fortunes. Years of maneuvering to return a Stewart to the British throne beginning with the Jacobite Rising of 1715 and culminating in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the disastrous loss at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 came close to destroying Highland culture forever. Defeated Highlanders were hunted down and killed. Some were even sold as slaves to plantation owners on British held Caribbean islands. Highlnaders’ homes were destroyed and their families were murdered, including women and children. Wearing the tartan and speaking Gaelic became hanging offenses. Playing of bagpipes and “gathering” of the clan were also forbidden by law. Clan chiefs were given a choice: declare and demonstrate allegiance to England or forfeit one’s lands. By the end of the

Battle of Culloden

Battle of Culloden

eighteenth century, three fifths of the clan chiefs or Highland landlords preferred life in London to caring for their people.[3] It was only dogged determination and subterfuge that kept the memory of clan culture and heritage alive.

Even with the Highland way of life in shambles and the system of clan loyalties all but destroyed, it took betrayal to set Highlanders on the path to full scale emigration, some willingly, others driven out by their own kin. There had been a steady stream of emigration beginning in the seventeenth century, but it became a flood by the end of the eighteenth century. The history of the Highland Clearances is at its core a story of economic growth and financial gain vs family and/or clan loyalty. The Act of Union in 1707 paved the way for English attempts at dominating the Highlands resulting in acts of rebellion against the crown, including the aforementioned attempts to return Stewarts to the British throne.[4]
While Culloden sounded the death knell, the Highland Clearances, Fuadach nan Gaidheal or the expulsion of the Gael, can be traced back as early as 1732 and 1739, when “MacLeod of Dunvegan and MacDonald of Sleat sold (emphasis mine)selected Clan members as indentured servants to landowners in the Carolinas.”[5] By the late 1700’s, the majority of clan chiefs had come to view themselves merely as landlords over their clan holdings with little to no desire to fulfill their traditional clan roles. Instead, they became Anglicized, preferring to be absentee landlords living in the more moderate English climate and seeing their Scottish lands as nothing more than sources of revenue. Economic “improvements” were seen as a necessity.[6]
th_0051792 is marked as the Bliadhna nan Caorach, the Year of the Sheep, for that was when Sir John Sinclair introduced the Cheviot sheep in his estate in Caithness.[7] It is certainly an oversimplification of this complicated part of Scottish history, but many sources maintain that the introduction of Cheviot sheep and the wool industry was the final blow. Thereafter, clearing the Highlands of their traditional residents began in earnest.
Evicted family sitting atop the rubble of their destroyed home, 1895

Evicted family sitting atop the rubble of their destroyed home, 1895

The reports of the ills inflicted upon the people of the Highlands during the Clearances are too numerous to describe in detail here. For a chronology of these events, see the text box below the footnotes. In short, during the 18th and the 19th centuries, families were forcibly, sometimes violently, evicted from the land their ancestors had farmed for generations, homes were burned, and the people were deported. Many ended up on poor plots of land in the coastal regions of Scotland where they were expected to earn a living by collecting kelp for iodine production while paying ever rising rents. The result was ruination and starvation. Others emigrated to places thousands of miles from their ancestral home. By the end of the 19th century, the Highlands were essentially depopulated. Its once vibrant culture was destroyed and its people had been replaced by sheep and hunting estates. Even today, the population of the Highlands has not returned to pre-Clearance numbers. The 1755 census showed 266,000+/- residents. The 2011 census reported a Highland population of 232,00+/-. There are, of course, some who are of a differing opinion and are apologists for the wealthy landlords, claiming that their “improvements” should have been viewed as benefiting all.[9] After reviewing the sources listed below, it is my opinion that 18th and 19th century Highlanders of lesser political, financial, and social status were indeed harshly treated by their wealthier landlords and kinsmen.

Personally, I have a theory about some of my own ancestors. I suspect that my maternal grandmother’s people may have been among the indentured servants sent to the Carolinas by MacDonald of Sleat. My grandmother was a McDaniel, a sept or branch of Clan MacDonald. We know my ancestors appeared in North Carolina sometime in the early 1700’s. It isn’t much of a leap from reading about the sale of his people by MacDonald to wondering if my people were among them. Alas, time and finances do not permit the research it would take to prove or disprove my theory.

So what do you think? Were the Clearances necessary improvements or acts of betrayal?


Clearances 280_tcm4-568064

Eviction with use of battering ram

Eviction with use of battering ram









Highlands elk

Highlands elk


Highland, Scotland, UK --- Dornie, view of the castle, Eilean Donan Castle --- Image by © Olimpio Fantuz/SOPA/Corbis

Highland, Scotland, UK — Dornie, view of the castle, Eilean Donan Castle — Image by © Olimpio Fantuz/SOPA/Corbis








Highland Clearances 1

Highland Clearances 1




1., Scotland’s History, the Clearances, accessed July 26, 2015.

2., accessed July 27, 2015.

3., Scotland’s History, the Clearances, accessed July 26, 2015.

4., accessed July 27, 2015.

5., accessed July 27, 2015.

6., accessed July 27, 2015.

7., Scotland’s History, the Clearances, accessed July 26, 2015.

8., accessed July 27, 2015.

9. gives us this chronology of the Clearances between 1800 and 1874.1800-1813 — Extensive clearances in Strathglass, Farr, Lairg, Dornoch, Rogart, Loth, Clyne, Gospie, Assynt, and lower Kildonan.
1801 — The first clearances of the Strathglass area by William, the 24th Chisholm. Nearly 50% of the Clan living there are evicted.
1801 — The emigrant ship The Sarah sails from Fort William to Pictou. By contemporary laws, only 489 slaves would have been allowed to be carried in the ship’s holds. But no such laws govern emigrants, and almost 700 people are crammed into the ship, with nearly 50 people dying on the journey and countless others falling ill.
1803 — Seeing their labour-base diminishing due to emigration, landowners in the Hebrides work for passage of the Passenger Act, this limits the number of people who can immigrate to other countries, trapping and keeping many tenants in poverty.
1807 (Whitsun) — Evictions at Farr & Lairg — the first major Sutherlandshire clearances.
1807 (October) — The Rambler, carrying 133 emigrants from Thurso, sinks in the Atlantic. Only three passengers survive.
1807 (November) — a gathering of The Northern Association of Gentlemen Farmers and Breeders of Sheep agree to move their activities into Ross-shire, Sutherlandshire, and Caithness. This decision would lead to massive clearances in those areas.
1809 — The Chisholm enacts another large clearance of his lands in Strathglass, advertising to interested sheep-farmers lots holding between 1,000 and 6,000 sheep.
1811 — More than 50 shepherds are brought into Sutherlandshire and made Justices of the Peace — thereby giving them legal control over the native tenants.
1811 – 1851 — The demand for seaweed (or kelp) falls. The harvesting of kelp was taken up by many cleared farmers who were relocated to the coast of Scotland. The lowering demands for kelp returns those farmers to poverty.
1813 — Lord and Lady Stafford, the landowners of Sutherlandshire, hire James Loch to oversee the clearing of their lands.
1813 — Nearly 100 tenants of Strath Kildonan emigrate to Canada aboard the Prince of Wales and settle near Lake Winnipeg.
1813 — Sir George  MacKenzie of Coul writes a book justifying the clearances, citing: The necessity for reducing the population in order to introduce valuable improvements, and the advantages of committing the cultivation of the soil to the hands of a few….
1813 (Spring) — Lady Stafford writes that she would like to visit her Sutherlandshire estate but: at present I am uneasy about a sort of mutiny that has broken out in one part of Sutherland, in consequences of our new plans having made it necessary to transplant some of the inhabitants to the sea-coast from other parts of the estate
1813 (spring) — a group of Strath Kildonan residents march towards Golspie in order to have their grievances against the clearances heard. They are met by soldiers and the Sheriff, who, aided by local church ministers, intimidate the tenants into returning to their homes to await their eviction notices.
1813 (December 15) — Tenants of the Strathnaver area of Sutherlandshire go to Golspie at the direction of William Young, Chief Factor for Lord and Lady Stafford. The tenants are told they have until the following Whitsunday to leave their homes and relocate to the wretched coastlands of Strathy Point.
1814 (April) — Under the direction of Patrick Sellar, a Factor for Lord and Lady Stafford, heath and pastures surrounding Strathnaver are burned in preparation for planting grass for the incoming sheep. The native tenants of Strathnaver make no motion of moving to Strathy Point, or anywhere else.
1814 (June 13) — Patrick Sellar begins burning Strathnaver. Residents are not given time to remove their belongings or invalid relatives, and two people reputedly die from their houses burning.
1815 — The Sheriff-Substitute for Sutherlandshire arrests Patrick Sellar for:willfull fire-raising…most aggravated circumstances of cruelty, if not murder. Not surprisingly, a jury of affluent landowners and merchants acquit Sellar in April of this year.
1816. Soon after, Sellar continues clearing vast areas of Sutherlandshire.
1818 — Patrick Sellar retires to his Sutherlandshire estate, given to him by Lord and Lady Stafford in acknowledgment of his work.
1819 (May) — Another violent clearing of Strathnaver residents. Donald Macleod, a young apprentice stonemason witnesses: 250 blazing houses. Many of the owners were my relatives and all of whom I personally knew; but whose present condition, whether in or out of the flames, I could not tell. The fire lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins.
1819 (May) — The Kildonan area is cleared. Donald MacDonald later writes: …the whole inhabitants of the Kildonan parish, with the exception of three families–nearly 2,000 souls–were utterly rooted and burned out.
1819 (June) — The Sutherland Transatlantic Friendly Association is formed to assist cleared tenants who wanted to emigrate to America. It generates little interest and soon folds.
1820 — James Loch publishes his account of enacting the clearances, or, as he calls them, the improvements. He declares that Gaelic will become a rarity in Sutherlandshire.
1820 — Journalist Thomas Bakewell severely criticizes both Loch’s book and his actions during the clearances.
1820 (February and March) — Hugh Munro, the laird of Novar, clears his estates at Culrain along the Kyle of Sutherland. A riot ensues when the Sheriff and military arrive to evict the tenants. Remonstrated by the minister Donald Matheson, the tenants eventually cease fighting and move away.
1821 (April) — Officials bearing Writs of Removal for the tenants of Gruids, near the River Shin, are stripped, whipped, and their documents are burned. Fearing another riot like Culrain, military and police accompany the Sheriff back to Gruids where, faced with such strong opposition, the tenants gathered their few belongings and moved to Brora.
1821 showed an increase over the census of 1811 of more than two hundred… the county has not been depopulated–its population has been merely arranged in a new fashion. The (Duchess of Sutherland) found it spread equally over the interior and the sea-coast, and in very comfortable circumstances–(but) she left it compressed into a wretched fabric of poverty and suffering that fringes the county on its eastern and western shores.
1826 — The Island of Rum is cleared except for one family. MacLean of Coll pays for the other natives to emigrate to Canada.
1826 — The emigrant ship James arrives in Halifax. Every person on board had contracted typhus during the voyage.
1827 — Lady Stafford visits her Sutherland estate and receives gifts from the tenants. Those gifts, wrote Donald Macleod, were provided by those who would subscribe would thereby secure her ladyship’s favour and (that of) her factors — and those who could not or would not were given to understand very significantly what they had to expect by plenty of menacing looks and an ominous shaking of the head.
1829 (September) — The Canada Boat Song, a poem protesting the clearances, appears in Scotland’s “Blackwood’s Magazine.”
1830 — Lady Stafford visits her Sutherlandshire estate and visits the tenants living in primitive sheds. Unable to comprehend how people could live under such conditions, but speaking no Gaelic, she is not able to ascertain the condition of her tenants lives.
1830 (October 20) — While stonemason Donald Macleod was off working in Wick, his wife and children were surprised in their home: …a party of eight men…entered my dwelling (at) about 3 o’clock, just as the family were rising from dinner.
The party allowed no time for parley, but having put out the family with violence, proceeded to fling out the furniture, bedding and other effects in quick time, and after extinguishing the fire, proceeded to nail up the doors and windows in the face of the helpless woman…. Messengers had (previously) been dispatched–warning all the surrounding inhabitants, at the peril of similar treatment, against affording shelter, or assistance, to wife, child, or animal belonging to Donald Macleod. …After spending most part of the night in fruitless attempts to obtain the shelter of a roof or hovel, my wife at last returned to collect some of her scattered furniture, and (built) with her own hands a temporary shelter against the walls of her late comfortable residence…(but) the wind dispersed (the) materials as fast as she could collect them.
Buckling up her children…in the best manner she could, she left them in charge of the eldest (who was only seven years old), giving them such victuals as she could collect, and prepared to take the road for Caithness (in search of her husband). She had not proceeded many miles when she met with a good Samaritan and acquaintance…Donald Macdonald, who, disregarding the danger incurred, opened his door to her, refreshed and consoled her, and still under cover of night, accompanied her to the dwelling of (a friend), William Innes…of Sandside.

1832 — Despite the fact that he forcibly evicted them, exiled members of Clan Chisholm swear allegiance to their chief back in Scotland.
1832 (late summer) — Cholera runs through the Inverness area, claiming almost 100 lives. Many fear the illness came from the impoverished cleared tenants who beg on the streets, and strict laws are enacted to persecute these itinerants.
1833 — At a party in honor of King William IV, Lord and Lady Stafford become the first Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.
1833 (winter) — After the Duke of Sutherland’s death, plans are made by some of the gentry for a monument to be erected in his honor. The tenants are “asked” to contribute, but Donald Macloed writes: all who could raise a shilling gave it, and those who could not awaited in terror for the consequences of their default.
1836 (autumn) — a famine strikes the Highlands and Islands, leaving thousands to starve, despite efforts to fund emergency rations.
1837 — The European historian/economist J.C.L.J. de Sismondi writes of Sutherlandshire: But though the interior of the county was thus improved into a desert–in which there are many thousands of sheep, but few human habitations, let it not be supposed by the reader that its general population was in any degree lessened. So far was this from being the case that the census of
1840 – 1841 — Donald Macleod publishes a series of letters in the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle, describing his own eviction and other eyewitness testimony of the clearances.
1841 (February) — Henry Baillie, Parliament Member for Inverness, forms a committee to investigate the situation in the Highlands. The committee concludes that there are too many people living in the Highlands and that a course of aggressive emigration should be established.
1841 (August and September) — Given writs of removal by legal officials, the tenants of Durness and Keneabin riot and attack police and sheriffs with stones and sticks. Only after being threatened with an onslaught of military troops do the tenants accept the writs and grudgingly move away.
1845 — Denied shelter within the church itself and believing themselves to be cursed by God, ninety evicted tenants of Glencalvie take temporary shelter in the churchyard at Croick, and leave messages scratched into the glass windows: …Glencalvie people the wicked generation… …John Ross shepherd… …Glencalvie is a wilderness blow ship them to the colony… …the Glencalvie Rosses…
1845 — The potato blight, which had devastated Ireland the previous year, wipes out most of the potatoes in the Highlands.
1846 (December) — The Reverend Norman Mackinnon of Bracadale Manse wrote to the Chaplain in Ordinary to Queen Victoria: Oh, send us something immediately…. If you can send but a few pounds at present, let it come, for many are dying, I may say, of starvation…
1847 (February) — James Bruce, a writer for “The Scotsman,” reports that the Highlanders’ problems are due to their own laziness and suggests the best solution is for the native tenants: as soon as they are able to labour for themselves, be removed from the vicious influence of the idleness in which their fathers have been brought up and have lived and starved.
1849 — Despite some rioting by the native tenants, Lord Macdonald clears more than 600 people from Sollas on North Uist.
1849 — Thomas Mulcok, a somewhat bizarre writer and journalist with the Inverness Advertiser arrives in the Highlands and vigorously attacks landlords and factors in print. So vigorously, in fact, that he eventually flees to France when faced with charges of slander.
1850s (early) — Clearances of thousands of tenants in the Strathaird district, Suishnish, and Boreraig on Skye; and Coigach at Loch Broom.
1851 — Sir John MacNeill, under the direction of the Home Secretary, tours the Highlands and reports back that the Highland poor are “parading and exaggerating” their poverty and are basically lazy. The only solution MacNeill sees is emigration.
1851 (August) — The clearance of Barra by Colonel Gordon of Cluny. The Colonel called all of his tenant farmers to a meeting to “discuss rents”, and threatened them with a fine if they did not attend. In the meeting hall, over 1,500 tenants were overpowered, bound, and immediately loaded onto ships for America. An eyewitness reported: “…people were seized and dragged on board. Men who resisted were felled with truncheons and handcuffed; those who escaped, including some who swam ashore from the ship, were chased by the police….” When officials in Glasgow complained to the Colonel about many of Barra’s homeless wandering their streets, he stated: “Of the appearance in Glasgow of a number of my tenants and cottars from the Parish of Barra–I had no intimation previous to my receipt of your communication. And in answer to your enquiry–what I propose doing with them–I say ‘Nothing’.”
1853 — Knoydart is cleared under the direction of the widow of the 16th Chief of Glengarry. More than 400 people are suddenly and forcibly evicted from their homes, including women in labor and the elderly. After the houses were torched, some tenants returned to the ruins and tried to re-build their villages. These ramshackle structures were then also destroyed. Father Coll Macdonald, the local priest, erected tents and shelters in his garden at Sandaig on Loch Nevis, and offered shelter to as many of the homeless as he could. Donald Ross, a Glasgow journalist and lawyer wrote articles outlining the clearance of Knoydart, which generated little sympathy.
1854 — The clearing of Strathcarron in Ross-shire. Some Clan Ross women tried to prevent the landlord’s police force by blocking the road to the village. The constables charged the unarmed women, and, in the words of journalist Donald Ross: “…struck with all their force. …Not only when knocking down, but after the females were on the ground. They beat and kicked them while lying weltering in their blood….(and) more than twenty females were carried off the field in blankets and litters, and the appearance they presented, with their heads cut and bruised, their limbs mangled and their clothes clotted with blood, was such as would horrify any savage.”
1854 — Archibald Geike, describing a recent clearance on Skye, states he saw: (The house was) a wretched hovel, unfit for sheep or pigs. Here 6 human beings had to take shelter. There was no room for a bed so they all lay down to rest on the bare floor.
On Wednesday last the head of the wretched family, William Matheson, a widower, took ill and expired on the following Sunday. His family consisted of an aged mother, 96, and his own four children – John 17, Alex 14, William 11, and Peggy 9 – the old woman was lying-in and when a brother-in-law of Matheson called to see how he was, he was horror struck to find Matheson lying dead on the same pallet of straw on which the old woman rested; and there also lay his two children, Alexander and Peggy, sick! Those who witnessed this scene declared that a more heart
Matheson’s corpse was removed as soon as possible; but the scene is still more deplorable. Here, in this wretched abode, and abode not fit at all for human beings, is an old woman of 96, stretched on the cold ground with two of her grandchildren lying sick, one on each side of her.
1854 — An emigrant ship is described by “The Times” as: The emigrant is shewn a berth, a shelf of coarse pinewood in a noisome dungeon, airless and lightless, in which several hundred persons…are stowed away, on shelves two feet one inch above each other…still reeking from the ineradicable stench left by the emigrants on the last voyage… After a few days have been spent in the pestilential atmosphere created by the festering mass of squalid humanity imprisoned between the damp and steaming decks, the scourge bursts out, and to the miseries of filth, foul air and darkness is added the Cholera.
1854 — Highland landowners are asked to gather troops from their tenants to fight the Crimean War. Most of the Highlanders refuse, one telling his laird: “should the Czar of Russia take possession of (these lands) next term that we couldn’t expect worse treatment at his hands than we have experienced in the hands of your family for the last fifty years.”
1856 — The writer Harriet Beecher Stowe visits Sutherlandshire. Her tour is carefully orchestrated by the current Duchess of Sutherland to avoid sites of eviction, and so Stowe erroneously proclaims the tales of the clearances to be mostly fictional.
1872 — A Parliamentary Select Committee is established to investigate claims that tenant farmers are being evicted in the Highlands to make room for deer. As the people had been cleared for sheep and not deer, the Committee finds no evidence.
1874 (spring) — Starving tenants of Black Isle, Caithness and Ross areas attempt to commandeer grain shipments going from Lairds’ estate farms to export ships. Military forces are called in to guarantee safe shipment of the grain.

“As you can see in the chronology above, all the various events which occurred through the 18th and 19th centuries there are no words that could explain how tough life would have been. In some areas, whole glens were cleared, which today are as silent as they must have been when the landlord’s factors had finished ruthlessly carrying out the orders of their masters. Homes were burnt and tenants forced to leave at the point of a sword or musket, carrying little or nothing as they headed towards a life of poverty and hunger. “