Population changes in 19th Century Gaelic society

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What were the issues affecting population changes in the nineteenth century Gaelic society and what sources of evidence can we cite for these changes?

The 19th century was one of the most turbulent times in history for the Highlands of Scotland and for the Gaelic-speaking community and society that lived there.  The effects of land clearances and emigration began to take a real toll on the demographic of the Gaelic world at the start of the 19th century – as people were left without their traditional homes and villages and moved to lowland Scotland or overseas to Canada, America or Australia.  These clearances were caused themselves by a number of economic and social factors.  We can learn about these causes in a variety of ways, with accounts from the time from the landlords and from the people as well as scholarly reviews of the period from historians and economists.

The Highland Clearances was by far the largest event that affected population chance in the 19th century Gaelic society.  These clearances came as the result of the emergence of different ways of using and managing land from the traditional Highland way.  Under the clan system, which existed before the Battle of Culloden in 1746, clan chiefs owned the land of their clan and leased it to their people for subsistence farming.  Chiefs would take a portion of any surplus as their own, by way of payment.  With the dismantling of the clan system, the traditional link between the paternal clan chief and his people was broken – and chiefs, more au fait with the nouveau riche of lowland Scotland, began to demand more from their people.  They began to demand full surpluses from crofters, before asking for a monetary rent as well.  (Hunter, 1976) The first wave of the Highland Clearances between the late 18th century and the 1820s saw people leave their traditional lands because their chiefs demanded too much from them.  Some landlords forcibly removed people from the land when they could not pay their dues; with some factors, acting on behalf of the landlords, doing so in a brutal fashion by razing homes to the ground and assaulting those who refused to leave.

The reasons why the Gaels could not keep up with chiefs’ demands were also varied.  The Highlands was not immune from the nationwide agricultural revolution that had begun in England as early as the 16th century.  New methods of farming including mechanisation and use of artificial fertilisers were becoming far more productive than traditional methods and therefore the yields of Highland crofts were lower in comparison to those of the south.  This meant a fall in the price of goods, at the same time as chiefs were demanding higher rent, leaving the crofters with little choice but to seek another, more profitable, career.

The kelp industry in the Highlands collapsed between the start of the 18th century and the 1830s.  Many Highlanders, especially in the Hebrides, made a living from harvesting sea kelp, which was transported south to be used in the production of soaps, glass and other materials.  Despite being a very labour-intensive occupation, it was something that all people in the family could do – including women and children – while also keeping control of a croft.  The collapse of the industry came as the industrial revolution in the south created a greater demand for alkali.   The government took the action, against continued and strong Scottish dissent, to lower the import tariffs on Spanish barilla, a high source of alkali, and plentiful Norwegian kelp.  This meant that far more kelp was being harvested than necessary in the Highlands and the price fell drastically.  From between an average price of around £10 a ton at the start of the 19th century (Hunter, 1976, p17) to a low of £3. 15s. 4d. in 1828 (Hunter, 1976, p35).  People could no longer afford to make a living from kelping and either left or were forced to leave the Highlands for seasonal work in jobs where they had some limited prior experience (fishing for instance) or permanent factory work in the lowlands, most commonly Glasgow, which was completely alien to them.

None of the people wanted to leave the land that was their home, but many were forced to.  Landlords began to see the gains of sheep farming on large tracts of land that had shallow soil and could not sustain agriculture.  The cost benefit of having these low maintenance and high profit farms outweighed the alternative of keeping the people of the land in their homes.  People were forcibly removed from their homes and directed away from the estates. Some left for the towns that were being built (Withers, 1988, p93) all over the Highlands as part of the ‘modernisation’ and of the local economy.  Some people left for the Lowlands, where cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh offered the prospects of jobs in the growing industrial sectors.  Some people, of course, left Scotland entirely for the “New World” – with thousands leaving on ships to far-flung British colonies in Canada, Southern Africa and Australia.

Another factor in the population changes in the Highlands was the Great Highland Famine of 1846-48.  Also known as the Highland Potato Famine, taking place at a similar time to the infamous Irish equivalent – the famine came from a blight of the potato crop, on which the Highlanders were overly reliant, and an exceptionally harsh winter.  (Devine, 1995) This left a population unable to feed themselves or produce enough in the way of rent payments to landlords that were largely unsympathetic to the misfortunes of the people.  Some left voluntarily, believing that they had more chance of finding a sustainable life elsewhere – and others were cleared for not being able to serve their only useful function to the landlord, to pay rent.  This led to another wave of emigration to the lowlands and to colonies much like there had been with the clearances.

These population changes have been well documented in different ways.  Accounts from the time give different views on the clearances and the population changes, largely depending on whether they come from the landlords or the people.  Accounts from landlords tend to be in English prose, whereas accounts of the people tend to be in Gaelic poetry.

Landlords kept official records of their estates in the 19th century which can be accessed today.  Sutherland’s estate papers are a particularly rich resource of information about one of the most brutal clearances in the Highlands and “shows the growth of one of the largest landed estates in Scotland at the time of the controversial clearances.” (Inventory of the Sutherland Papers) These include accounts from the Duke of Sutherland himself at the time of the clearances as well as reports from the Duke’s factors that carried out the events.  It is said that in the 19th century “scarcely any aspect of estate business is left unrecorded”.

Another important account of the Highlands during the 19th century is that of the Napier Commission.  This public inquiry was commissioned in 1883 by William Gladstone’s government looking into the living and working conditions of crofters in the Highlands in response to the growing land agitation movement – often known as “The Crofter’s War” – as crofters began to radicalise and politicise to stop further damage to their industry.  The results of the report were divisive, as both landowners and crofters disagreed with some of the findings.  However, the report paved the way for the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886, which granted tenure to crofters for the first time ensuring that “A crofter shall not be removed except for breach of statutory conditions.”  (Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886) The Act was seen as a step in the right direction, but did not fully end the crofters’ quest for justice.

The Statistical Accounts of Scotland are another good source of information about the change in population in Scotland at the time.  The first was published in 1792 by Sir John Sinclair, and the accounts are often known as the Sinclair Statistical Accounts, and the second was published by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland between 1834 and 1845.  Local clergy were asked to complete an account of their parish and the life of the people living there.  Interestingly, many Highland parishes do not report the drop in living standards and emigration that has been proven to have occurred by modern historical research – as priests did not want to diminish the reputation of their parish through the accounts.  However, in Glasgow and other central belt parishes there is evidence of an influx of Highlanders.  These Highlanders were often considered poor compared to the local population as their lifestyle was much less ‘sophisticated’ than that of the city dwellers and unemployment was more of an issue as they adapted to a completely new life. (Statistical Accounts of Scotland)

Gaelic was still the language spoken by the majority of Gaels even after leaving the Highlands and with literacy and education levels rising (with the 19th century being at the heart of the Enlightenment), the people began to commit their opinions and feelings to poetry.  During the start of the century, these poems tended to look solemnly over the land that is lost and blamed, if anyone, the factors of the landlords for the actions taken.  Poems such as Fios Chun a’Bhaird by William Livingstone (Uilleam MacDhùnLèibhe) express this sentiment particularly strongly, whilst showing the role of the poet in transmitting the feelings of the people around the country. The first half of the poem is panegyric about the landscapes of the Highlands, whilst the second half conveys the emptiness both physically and emotionally of the places after the clearances have taken place (Meek, 1995, p69).

As the 19th century progresses, the poetry of the time looked more harshly upon the factors and landlords and became more political in nature – expressing the disbelief of the people that they allowed such actions to be taken against them.  Satire is very prominent, in displaying important figures involved in the clearances in a different light, whilst conveying the anger felt towards them. A particular example is found in Aoir air Padraig Sellar, where it describes him as a “madadh-allaidh” (wolf) with a nose “mar choltar iarainn” (like an iron plough-share), teeth “na muice biorach” (of the long-beaked porpoise) and “rugaid mar chòrr-riabhaich” (a long neck like a crane).  The 7th verse, though, takes a dark turn and describes viscerally how the composer would attack Sellar if the two were ever to meet (Meek, 1995, p54). Poems such as this convey the extremely strong emotions that the Gaels felt about the clearances and towards the perpetrators even generations afterward.

A range of factors, both social and economic, led to the population changes that occurred in the Gaelic society of the 19th century.  Although true first-hand accounts of the clearances are rare because of the lack of literacy among the Gaels that were cleared – plenty of research has been completed and more colloquial evidence found to cite these changes.

Word Count (excl. bibliography): 1,814


Books Consulted:

Devine, T. M., 1995, The Great Highland Famine: Hunger, Emigration and the Scottish Highlands in the Nineteenth Century, John Donald Publishers: Edinburgh

Hunter, J., 1976, The Making of the Crofting Community, John Donald Publishers: Edinburgh

Meek, D.E., 1995, Tuath is Tighearna/Tenants and Landlords:  An Anthology of Gaelic Poetry of Social and Political Protest from the Clearances to the Land Agitation, 1800-1890, Scottish Academic Press: Edinburgh

Withers, C., 1988, Gaelic Scotland, Routledge: London

Other Resources:

Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886, c.1 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Vict/49-50/29 (Last accessed: 5th March 2014)

Statistical Accounts of Scotland, Universities of Edinburgh & Glasgow, http://edina.ac.uk/stat-acc-scot/ (Last accessed: 4th March 2014)

Inventory of The Sutherland Papers, National Library of Scotland, http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/online/cnmi/inventories/dep313.pdf (Last accessed: 5th March 2014)

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