Three centuries of oppression

Review of ‘The Scottish clearances: a history of the dispossessed 1600-1900’ by Tom Devine; Allen Lane, 2018, pp463, £25

This is a wonderful book. It follows on from earlier writing and research on the Scottish Highlands (north of the Central Belt and west of the north-eastern coastline, stretching roughly from the river Tay to the county of Nairn, which borders the Moray Firth).

The best known book on the more familiar Highland Clearances is probably that of John Prebble with that title, which appeared in 1963, but - not to put too fine a point on it - the title begs the questions, ‘What, precisely, should we understand by “clearance”?’ and ‘Are there comparable historical instances of such a process in other parts of Scotland?’ We are told that a book with the title The lowland clearances, authored by two former BBC Scotland journalists, came out in the 2000s (see page 9 of professor Devine’s book), based on a radio series using significant input from historians. Devine makes a convincing case that ‘clearance’ is the right word for comparable events since 1746 on both sides of the Highland line.

His book gives a balanced comparison between the two regions (pp352-54). The chief difference between the two would then lie in the speed and convulsion north and west of the line, as opposed to more gradual, evolutionary change to the east and south - related, naturally, to the degree of urban, industrial, capitalist development in Scotland from, arguably, 1760 onwards.1 Hence The Scottish clearances features not only Gaelic-speaking Highland tenants, displaced from inland straths to the coast, inland cities or further afield, but also prominent peasant or rural artisan-cum-labourer groupings. The focus, then, is on cottars2 (folk whose holdings were recognised by custom, but not by any contemporary law); on crofters (tenants of a legally recognised smallholding); and, over against these, on agents of oppression and eviction, comprising landlords, their ‘factors’ (land agents), military recruiters, cattle traders, sheep ranchers, agricultural improvers, the courts, and so on.

A wealth of detail leaps from the book’s pages, with the inclusion of passages dealing with similar processes in England and Ireland, plus coverage of Scots emigrants in Canada, the US and Australia, the mid-19th century potato blight and famine that struck Scotland as well as Ireland, together with illuminating examples of poetry and song in both Scots Gaelic and English.

Devine lists possible specific causes of clearance by human design, as opposed to acts of nature:

... influences and pressures ... included: the impact of increases in rental division of larger holdings to impose living space for soldier veterans among existing tenantry; landlord unwillingness to accept accumulation of rent arrears; refusal to provide relief when crops failed; prohibition of working on kelp3 shores; confiscation of cattle to meet accumulated arrears; refusal to assign leases to sitting tenants; relocation of cottars and small tenants to crofting townships and new villages; punitive prohibition of illicit whisky-making, so undermining local peasant economies; rigorous prevention of subdivision of land among kinsfolk; long-run attrition of multi-tenancies until single occupiers became the sole tenants on compact large farms ...

... all of these factors to a greater or lesser extent were common across the length and breadth of Scotland and not confined to any one region. This, therefore, was indeed the Scottish clearances. If so, a fundamental question then comes into focus. If the dispossession was Scotland-wide, why has loss of land come to be exclusively associated in the popular mind with the Highlands? (pp353-54).

I cannot pursue this last topic here.4 The remainder of this review will focus on sheep-ranching - in particular the notorious clearances on the Sutherland estates, highlighted, as readers will know, by (among others) Karl Marx in Capital volume 1; emigration from both sides of the Highland line in the 18th and 19th centuries; more on Highland-lowland differences regarding the fate of the Scots subordinate classes; the parallel processes in Ireland; a consideration of the impact of developments from, roughly, 1750 to World War II, as recorded in prose literature, poetry and folksong (much illumination from Devine here); and, finally, the Scottish lowlands, as compared with rural England from 1815 onwards.

Escape strategy

Competition for status between Highland aristocratic chiefs and their lowland and English counterparts appears to have led many of the former into what commentators have called a “luxury trap” (p131). Many traditional Gaelic leaders fell into debt, and by the mid-19th century some two thirds of Highland estates had changed hands (p132). Pressure was on for a viable economic escape strategy, and here sheep ranching offered an attractive way out: sheep walks were a way of cutting labour costs, but required the eviction of customary tenants from their holdings in low-lying areas.

An anonymous Gaelic speaker saw what was coming: “Mo thruaighe ort a thir, tha’n aoraich mhor a’ teachd!” (‘Woe to thee, oh land, the great sheep is coming!’)5

The sheep in question was the Cheviot breed, developed in the south-eastern Border region:

The specialist region for sheep was Roxburgh and Peebles in the central and eastern Borders, while cattle rearing and fattening was more dominant further west in Galloway and the surrounding districts. What happened in these areas eventually generated the model for the later and more familiar clearances in the Highlands. Indeed, it was Border-reared and improved Cheviot breeds which from the last quarter of the 18th century began to stock numerous farms across the north-west and the islands in a seemingly inexorable white tide, which led to the uprooting of many peasant communities (p83).

The most extreme example of the process in the Highlands is undoubtedly that of the Sutherland estates, where the traditional clan chieftainess also enjoyed feudal title as the Countess (later Duchess) of Sutherland:

Between 1807 and 1821 the factors of the Countess of Sutherland and her husband, Lord Stafford, removed several thousand people from the internal parishes to tiny crofts of no more than three acres established on the inhospitable eastern coast. There they were to labour to bring barren land into cultivation by spade husbandry and at the same time take up fishing in a harbourless maritime environment ... Meanwhile the fertile inland straths, where their ancestors had lived since time immemorial, were converted into large holdings for sheep. In its scale and ambition the Sutherland strategy was the most extraordinary example of social engineering in 19th-century Britain (p226).6

Devine has also some interesting details on the Sutherland’s agent, Patrick Sellar - a native of the lowland part of Morayshire, who was a lawyer by profession (p301). Devine’s assessment is that:

The Countess ... [and especially her estate managers] had apparently little understanding of the values and culture of the people and their attachment to a time-honoured way of life [in which it was held that the chief’s duty to protect his clan - literally ‘children’ - was paramount]. To these non-Gaels, their attitudes were not only archaic, but wholly irrational. Sellar, for example, had nothing but racialised contempt for the people, dismissing them scathingly on more than one occasion as primitives or ‘aborigines’ (p228).7

Sellar was determined that the original cleared settlements of the Gael were to be rendered uninhabitable from clearance onward (p227). Such was his zeal that he was eventually tried in 1815 at Inverness High Court in connection with his handling of the clearance of Strathnaver, on a charge of “culpable homicide, oppression and real injury”. Devine publishes a contemporary aoir (satire) in Scots Gaelic composed against Patrick Sellar, both in the original and in English translation (pp296-99).


Devine draws attention to the amount of Scottish emigration to Ulster at the close of the 17th century, as a result of poor harvests and famine, with a total of some 40,000 Scots crossing to Ireland in the period 1695-1700 (pp66-67). Emigration due to clearance seems to have commenced from Campbell territories in the 1730s - Argyll estates, Mull, Tiree, Breadalbane estates, with small parties leaving also from Sutherland, bound for Georgia and the Carolinas across the Atlantic (p45). Roughly contemporaneously there was a scheme devised by Macleod and MacDonald of Sleat to deport clansmen and their families from the isle of Skye.

Major transoceanic emigration seems to have started with the end of the largely Anglo-French Seven Years War in 1763 (Peace of Paris), which opened the prospect of British colonisation of large stretches of territory previously controlled by the French. This was aided by the desire of Glasgow merchants to finance the outward half of the Atlantic crossing, as well as profiting from tobacco, timber and rice imports from the New World. Devine asserts that between 1700 and 1815 some 90,000-100,000 Scots left for North America, mostly in the period 1763-1775. They came not only from the Highlands, but from the western lowlands also (pp157-58).8

However, such uprooting was not as traumatic as compulsory emigration, which occurred again from the Highlands in the mid-19th century - such as, for example, the ejection by command of some 3,000 destitute tenant and cottar families from Barra, Benbecula and South Uist to Quebec in 1848-51, whose members arrived in a weakened state (see p323).

The islanders of Lewis went through a comparable experience between 1851 and 1855:

The wealthy owner, Sir James Matheson, the China opium magnate of Jardine, Matheson & Co, decided to ‘emigrate’ many of his destitute tenants and cottars through a huge programme of evictions and ‘assisted’ transportation to Canada. No fewer than 2,327 men, women and children were eventually given the bleak choice of being cleared and left destitute or of boarding the emigrant ships for supported passage across the Atlantic. In 1851, just before the emigration, the population of Lewis outside the town of Stornoway stood at 17,320 men, women and children. The population ‘emigrated’ accounted for just over 13% of that total (p235).

Mention should also be made here of the Emigration Advances Act (1851), introduced in response to the potato blight and famine under Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the treasury, who played a major role in the British government’s response to the parallel, but even more devastating, events in Ireland.

Trevelyan was assisted by Sir John MacNeil in the Highland and Island Emigration Society, which arranged finance for the exodus of some 5,000 people to Australia between 1851 and 1856 (see p319). We get a glimpse of Trevelyan’s thoughts on page 320, where he is recorded as being of the opinion that people of Teutonic stock might possibly take the place of the Scots and Irish natives, as they are “an orderly, moral, industrious and frugal people, less foreign to us than the Irish or Scotch Celt; a congenial element which will readily assimilate with our body politic”.

A theme running through the book is that, compared with the at times cataclysmic disruption caused by some of the Highland clearances, as far as the lowlands were concerned, the process was more gradual and less intense in its effects. For example, Devine writes:

By comparison with the north-west and the islands, ... dispossession seems to have caused much less dislocation in most parts away from the upland districts of the Borders and other zones of hill country, where pastoralism offered the most profitable option by the late 18th century ...

In addition, the consolidation of farms under single husbandmen in arable districts was a gradual and protracted process, mainly carried out by the normal method of letting and reletting of holdings at the end of term. Cottars were forced to surrender their plots of land, but there was the possibility of finding work in rural villages and small towns, which, unlike those of the same type in the Highlands, often had a sustainable economic future because of the successful expansion of country textile industries.

But the vexatious nature of the process should not be underestimated. Cottar families left the traditional townships for an uncertain future, in which new opportunities existed, but could not necessarily be guaranteed. The experience was one of dispersal and not always carefully planned transfer to a new environment. The silence of the people should not be interpreted as the happy acceptance of a life-changing process (pp356-57).

Furthermore, Devine suggests, the level of landlords’ investment, leading in certain cases to a dramatic rise in their rental income,9 was appreciated by those lowland farmers who welcomed their escape from the thickets of traditional communally organised agriculture (the so-called run-rig, separate strip farming subject to periodic redistribution of holdings), since, once such ‘strong farmer’ tenants were in place, investment from landowners was needed by way of enclosure, funds for erecting farm buildings and outlay on roads, in order to market the product (p154). This investment and oversight was necessarily a long-drawn-out one, and also conducive, to dampening social unrest (p155) - inasmuch as it was successful, which it was on the whole, despite a number of poor harvests in the later 18th century.10

A third salient point is that the lowland and Highlands clearances were not, in fact, one synchronised process. The clearances from the Highlands began later than those from the south, and, moreover,

still had only limited impact by the last quarter of the 18th century. They also lasted for nearly a hundred years - a much longer time frame than dispossession in the lowlands. Not until the later 1850s did mass removals come to an end in the north-west Highlands and islands. Indeed [as we have seen], some of the most controversial and highly publicised evictions took place earlier in that decade (p358).


Devine’s remarks on the parallel Irish experience of famine and eviction of tenants are illuminating, but surely need a broader anthropological and historical context as well. Here the Marxian notions of ‘mode of production’ and ‘social formation’ are also illuminating, since all social development is both uneven and ‘combined’ in terms of existing features - any particular combination being one with a chance of becoming the future norm or else one in which the past dominates.

A starting point in modes of production is what I would call the basic or initial ‘tribute mode’, which would directly follow original communism (usually referred to as ‘primitive communism’, which is a misleading description). This ‘basic tribute mode’ is to be distinguished from the so-called ‘Asiatic mode’, which would include the ancient Incas of America, as well as ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, etc. The basic tribute mode, I would argue, appears as control by male patriarchs or elders, out of which a tribal aristocracy can develop. Pre-Roman Celtic Gaul and pre-Norman Celtic Ireland are examples of the latter (the ancient Romans never conquered Ireland).11

In the Irish case, a full, native-based feudalism did not develop, and moves in that direction were overtaken by the Norman conquest in the 12th century. Anglo-Saxon England, and Scotland, did go further along this road (witness King Edward the Confessor and, in Scotland, David I, who reigned from 1124-53 and was a conduit of Norman influences12). What seems to have occurred subsequently in both Ireland and Scotland was a movement by the mediaeval English and Scottish kings to impose ‘high feudalism’ over the Gaelic inhabitants of each realm, as seen in Ireland by the policy of ‘surrender and regrant’, revived by Henry VIII,13 and in Scotland by King James III (1460-88), who forced John MacDonald, Fourth Lord of the Isles, to surrender Kintyre and the earldom of Ross and hold his whole lordship feudally. Gaelic rulers in this position still had to reckon with the expectations of their clan folk that their chief was responsible to them in a conflict with the demands of the state power, as constituted by the English and Scots monarchies.

The route to the establishment of capitalism was not entirely the same also: the Plantation of Ulster under James VI created the basis for the emergence of that province as an industrial stronghold as well as a bastion of the ‘British-Irish’; despite some analogous colonisation schemes in Scotland (eg, on the Isle of Lewis), the industrial development of Scotland occurred in the lowlands (principally in the central belt).

The point I wish to make is that a ‘national superiority complex’ to the detriment of Gaelic culture in both Ireland and Scotland was in many ways an expression of differences, leading back ultimately to a fundamental difference in the historic mode of production between the Gaelic areas, on the one hand, and the English-speaking and lowland areas - the former closer to tribalism,14 the latter based on high (Norman-style) feudalism and, subsequently, capitalism.

Just as predominantly Catholic Ireland generated a huge peasant problem up until the beginning of the 20th century, so the consolidation of rule by the English and Scots ruling classes was impeded in the Scottish Highlands by geography, by the remnants of a distinct proto-nationality (the Scottish Gael) and a lack of viable industrial centres in that region. As we have noted, emigration was being canvassed as a remedy in Scotland, and it was also seized upon in Ireland both in 1847 by destitute Irish small farmers and in 1848 by strong farmers eager to escape the tragedy.15 A passage in Cecil Woodham Smith’s classic work on the Irish potato famine can be read as an indictment of capitalism pure and simple:

The influence of laissez faire on the treatment of Ireland during the famine is impossible to exaggerate. Almost without exception the high officials and politicians responsible for Ireland were fervent believers in non-interference by government, and the behaviour of the British authorities only becomes explicable when their fanatical belief in private enterprise and their suspicions of any action which might be considered government intervention are borne in mind.

... [Hence] there was to be ‘no disturbance of the ordinary course of trade’ and ‘no complaints from private traders’ on account of government competition.

The flaw in the plan was the undeveloped state of the food and provision trade in a great part of Ireland. Large numbers of people, especially in the west and south-west, hardly purchased food at all; they grew potatoes and lived on them. Shops and organisations for importing foodstuffs and distributing them on the English model were generally found only in more prosperous districts in north-east Ulster, Dublin, some places in eastern Ireland and the larger towns, like Cork. Where relief would be most needed, the means by which it was to be supplied seldom existed.16

Did this not apply to some extent also in the Scottish Highlands? Perhaps, but, as Devine points out, there were differences - not only in the sheer scale of the problem in Ireland by comparison, but in actual state intervention, which in the Scottish case did actually station one vessel at Tobermory on Mull and another at Portree on Skye, where landowners could purchase grain at set prices to provide relief. “This initiative ran from 1846 to 1847, and after that the burden was borne by Church charities,” writes Devine (p308).17 Back in 1836 and 1837 the Highland crofters lost a quarter to a half of the usual potato crop, plus a half to a third of the oats crop (p251).


One of the most informative features of the book is the observations on the lowlands - post-clearances, from around 1750 to World War II, which are full of interest concerning the popular literature and folk culture of Scotland. Consider the following passage on ploughmen, whose prowess was celebrated in song:

The horsemen might have seen themselves as princes of the farm, but they could not function without the support of many other hands. Of crucial importance were women workers. By 1871 over a quarter of all permanent farm servants in Scotland were women, and they also formed the majority of the seasonal labour force at the busy times. The reliance on female labour was distinctively Scottish, as nothing like the same dependency existed in the southern and Midland counties of England.

By custom females were paid half the male wage. They carried out all the work on the farm except those which directly involved the management of horses: sowing, reaping, weeding, hoeing, singling and pulling turnips, gathering in the potato crop and spreading manure. Women also had a monopoly of milking and cheese-making. Small, family-run farms in the south-west region especially depended on the labour of wives and daughters.

The lives of these women were likened by some observers to those of black slaves, so all-consuming were the hours of work and so tiny the pittance paid by fathers to unmarried daughters under the ‘tyranny of family labour’. It was said that women were such a significant part of the workforce because the heavy industries in Scotland of iron, steel, engineering and shipbuilding drew off so many men from the countryside to better-paid jobs in the towns and cities (p195).

Not that mechanically expert male workers were absent from these farms: “The ‘orra man’ or ‘other man’ was also a master of all trades. He could plough, manage cattle, and put his hand to the repair of the farm tools” (p195).

Seasonal workers for the grain and potato harvests - day labourers from nearby villages, plus Highlanders and Irish for the same works, and shepherds - complete the picture (pp195-96).

Devine mentions Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy of novels with the title A Scots quair (‘A Scottish book’), consisting of Sunset song (published in 1932), Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey granite (1934), that evokes this world. The quotations from Robert Burns are also used pointedly, and set some of Burns’s poems in context.

Finally, on differences between the Scottish lowlands and rural England in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, Devine stresses to start with that the situations of farm labourers were at opposite poles here: in England there was a labour surplus on the land, resulting from the southern areas exhibiting increased grain production, market prices rising in wartime, and the introduction of the threshing machine, which led to less labour being required by the farmer in winter, when threshing had traditionally been carried out by hand (p199). The result was a growth in casual labour at harvest time, but such labourers lived in nearby villages separate from their workplace, and were paid by day or by the week. ‘Long hiring’ (by comparison) survived in Scotland, with workers hired for six months or for a year. Moreover,

Payments in kind, though they varied in detail, still formed a very substantial part of the wage reward for most workers. In the south-eastern lowlands and parts of the east central district ... most permanent farm workers were married ploughmen, or hinds. As far as life’s necessities were concerned, they were insulated from the market when fee’d [hired]. The allowances for the hind included stipulated measures of oats, barley and pease, the keep of a cow and ground for planting potatoes. The rental of the cottage was paid for by the labour of his wife and daughters during harvest. Fuel was carted from town at the master’s expense and, by law, he was also obliged to provide for the hind for six weeks when he was unable to work because of ill-health (pp198-99).18

All this contrasts markedly with the parallel English experience. Further, in lowland Scotland there was competition close by for available labour: that is to say, in the form of urban industry, while spinning and weaving continued to operate rurally (pp199-200). Yet again, the upkeep of horses was paramount and expensive, and it was necessary to keep them working throughout the year. Climate was also a factor, leading to mixed farming in Scotland rather than cereal monoculture.

As a result it was easier for the lowland Scots farmer to control his workers than it was for his English counterpart.19 And there is this telling comparison:

As in the crofting districts of the Highlands, the root cause of the social crisis in southern England was the emergence of a gross imbalance between a rising population and limited employment opportunities. Indeed, fewer labourers were leaving the agricultural districts of East Anglia, Suffolk, Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex, Kent and Hampshire precisely at the time when grain farming was itself in acute difficulty after the Napoleonic wars. There was thus increasing pressure on the regional Poor Law at a time when farmers and landlords were less able or less willing to raise their rate subsidies to provide support. Indeed, the attempts to cut the Poor Law dole was a major factor in the discontent which triggered the ‘Captain Swing’ riots all over the south and east of England in 1830 (p206).

Do read this book if you are not too busy. It is a timely reminder that Scotland, as a whole, is a very different country from England.

Chris Gray



  1. 1760 is convenient as a marker, being the year when the Carron Iron works began production (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Carron_Company).

  2. As in Burns’ poem, ‘The Cottar’s Saturday night’, excerpted on pages 78-79. See also glossary, ppxx-xxi. There is also a revealing passage reproduced from ‘Tam o’Shanter’, where the wives curse husbands drinking at a hostelry in the evening (pp188-89).

  3. This brown seaweed yields soda and iodine.

  4. Devine discusses it in his introduction, conclusion (pp352-63) and also annex A - ‘Excerpts from popular histories 1974-2000’, p365.

  5. Quoted in J Prebble The Highland clearances London 1969, p24.

  6. Cf K Marx Capital Vol 1, chapter 27, Moscow, pp729-30. See also J Prebble The Highland clearances London 1969, chronology/timeline.

  7. For the racist element in early 19th-century medical and scientific thought in the UK, and its reflexion in prominent organs of the contemporary Scottish press, see pp316-17: The Scotsman, The Glasgow Herald and the Inverness Courier (a pro-landlord Highland paper) are mentioned.

  8. See the references to the United Company of Farmers, and the Scots-American Company Farmers - tenants clubbing together to raise the passage money (p158).

  9. Eg, the average increase on the Douglas estate in Lanarkshire between 1737 and 1815 was an eightfold one, while the Earl of Eglinton in Ayrshire enjoyed an annual rental of £11,054 in 1797 - more than doubling to £25,992 in 1815.

  10. Compare the policy tsar Nicholas II’s advisor, Pyotr Stolypin, which the latter called “banking on the strong” (O Figes A people’s tragedy London 1997, p99).

  11. A passage in Devine illustrates this, relating to before 1746: “... rentals in kind of cattle, sheep, meal, cheese, hens and geese, which were paid the chief by clansmen in their role as tenants, were sometimes converted back into the provision subsistence support in seasons of shortage. In this way, the clan elites were able to provide a form of social insurance in a volatile environment. It was an expected obligation which endured as expectation among the people after the ethic of clanship had passed into history” (p34). The continuation of this passage highlights another activity that chiefs were expected to organise: “Feasting at the behest of the leading families also had a vital social purpose. As well generating the chief’s capacities for generosity and hospitality, collective eating and drinking also generated a sense of communal harmony for all clan families, no matter their rank.”

  12. See C Bambery A people’s history of Scotland London 2014, p14.

  13. See GR Elton England under the Tudors London 1962, p384.

  14. ‘Tribalism’ will do as a descriptive term, if understood as referring to the basic tribute mode, and not merely pejorative.

  15. See C Woodham Smith The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 London 1991, pp325, 371.

  16. Ibid pp54-55.

  17. Four-fifths of Hebridean islanders’ nourishment in 1811 possibly consisted of potatoes and oats (see p239).

  18. Single men and women servants were also given accommodation on the farm (p199).

  19. Exceptionally, those men given accommodation on the farm in bothies (separate buildings for unmarried males) did tend to embrace radical politics: that is to say, Chartism (p201).