Have We Forgotten the Clearances?

This is an English translation of the original post “Na Fuadaichean: Air Dhiochuimhneachadh?

In school, whether you like it or not, we all learn about the history of our country.  It’s extremely important that we know about what happened to our ancestors and why our country and the world around is how it is.  But in the history at school, in Scotland as a whole, one subject is neglected more than it should be.  That subject is the Highland Clearances – and I’m of the opinion that they were the darkest days in the history of Scotland and well worth knowing more about.

As a Highlander, I know a little about the Clearances, but only some of that knowledge came from history at school.  We learned a little about the Jacobite War and how things went for Bonnie Prince Charlie.  It was very interesting to see Scotland as a strong and important force in Britain, for better or for worse.  But after learning in a bit of depth about the Battle of Culloden, perhaps the worst day in the history of the Highlands, little time was spent covering the century and a half of pain that came afterwards.  Most people know little about how bad the situation was in the Highlands at that time.  It’s an embarrassment that our schoolchildren and our population know nothing about the disaster that happened on our own soil.

What were the Clearances then?  After the Battle of Culloden, the government forces wanted to put a conclusive end to the rebellious Scots that wanted a Stuart king of Britain and for Scotland to be its own nation again.  Every part of Highland life was suspected of promoting these feelings.  Important cultural symbols, like tartan, were banned.  Gaelic, and everything to do with it, was stamped out.

The worst change for the Highlands, though, was that the Battle of Culloden brought about the end of the clan system that ruled supreme in the Highlands at the time.  Before the Jacobite uprisings, each clan owned its own land which was ruled and administered by a chief.  People didn’t need to pay rent to live and work on the land – the only thing that was asked of them was part of any farming surplus in a good year and that they would fight if they were asked to.  This all changed after Culloden.  The chiefs that sided with the Jacobites were hunted down for their crimes against the government and their land was captured to be given to the upper classes.

It wasn’t just the clans that were alongside the Jacobites that folded, though.  When other clan chiefs saw that the landlords around them were growing rich by demanding rents from their tenants they wanted a piece of the action for themselves.  These chiefs were now very comfortable with the lifestyle of the upper classes with which they mingled in Edinburgh and London, and their clan was a great way of giving them more reputation and money.  They didn’t feel guilty, even though they had ended centuries of a lifestyle that worked and served the people well.  They are just as guilty as the factors and outsider landlords for what happened in the Clearances.

Landlords and clan chiefs began to ask for rents for living and working their land but the Gaels had no money, they never had a need for it before and had no way of earning it.  None of them wanted to leave their home, as they would have to if they didn’t pay their rent.  They had no idea what life was like outside of the Highlands at the time.  None of this mattered in the end, though.

Some left for the coast on the east side of the country, where there was some land to be had and small towns where they could live, and some left for the big cities in the south, where factories were starting and needing a new workforce.

Even though they didn’t have the money, many people stayed on their landlord’s estate because they had no way or chance of leaving.  These were the people that suffered the brutality and evil of the factors and bailiffs.  When the rent was too high to afford, the landlords recruited factors and they went around the estate and destroyed settlements.  They set houses on fire with people still in them, raped women and killed those that stood up against them.  There was nothing that the people could do.  It was a horrific situation.  People once again left for the coast or the big cities but also they started to travel overseas to Canada, America and Australia.  They took with them the culture and spirit of the Highlands.

In 1831, after a decade or two of people leaving the area, the population of the Highlands according to the census was 200,955.  From there, there was a dramatic drop and in 1931 the Highland population was only 127,081 – down nearly 40% in a century where Scotland’s overall population doubled.  Ten years ago, in 2004, the Highland population was estimated at only 211,340.  We’re almost two centuries on from the Clearances and still the Highlands hasn’t quite got past the damage that its population received.  People still leave the Highlands to go where there are jobs because there isn’t a large enough population here to sustain industry.  There isn’t a shortage of intelligent people or of people with the enthusiasm to start businesses – but there simply isn’t enough people in general.  This is entirely because of the number of people that were cleared.

Even though census data is unreliable for most of the 19th century, the number of Gaelic speakers as a percentage of Scotland’s population fell from 22.9% in 1800 to 6.1% in 1881.  There was even more setbacks for the language than that through that time, though, with English overwhelming Gaelic as the popular language of the Highlanders because of the new economy that came in whilst people were leaving in the opposite direction.  Still Gaelic suffers from the attitudes that insult and derogate the language – ideas that were spread throughout Scotland after Culloden that weren’t based on substance but because it was the easiest way of pulling the Highlands apart.  Without faith in their own language, why would the people have faith in their culture or their own region?  Highlanders and Gaels still have an inferiority complex today and that all stems from the Clearances.

We can develop and grow both the Highland economy and the Gaelic language again to be as successful as they once were.  If we want to do that, though, we need to know why things went wrong in the first place.

The Highland Clearances changed the region forever.  A culture, way-of-life and group of people were killed during the events of the century.  People all over Scotland, not just in the Highlands, need to know what happened on the moors and fields of the Highlands in the 19th century.  People need to know about our darkest days in history so that they will never happen again and so that we can learn from them.

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