The Highlands, the Clearances
and the making of the Scotch Myth
It is one of the abiding curiosities of modern Scotland that despite the vast majority of the population residing in lowland areas, despite its modern economy based on manufacturing and new technology, despite a vibrant urban based culture, the images we use to define ourselves and to identify our country to others are almost exclusively based on a culture and way of life that was very nearly (and deliberately) exterminated in the 18th century.
Mountains and lochs, kilts and bagpipes have little or nothing to do with life in Scotland as it is lived by most of us in the 21st century. Apart from convenient branding advantages and a unique marketplace identity in the global tourist trade, the reasons for this go back 200 years and the events surrounding the worst and most tragic period in Scotland’s history.
For most of its history Scotland’s highlands were a no-go area, unless you happened to live there. For your average lowlander, anywhere north of the river Tay was wild, uncharted and lawless. It wasn’t somewhere you went on a weekend for a spot of fishing or a healthy hike up a hill – it wasn’t ever considered picturesque. The highlands were considered a brutal, dangerous place where it was a struggle to survive. People who lived in the highlands had to face a merciless climate; land which was difficult and in many places actually impossible to cultivate; heartless landlords who often charged exorbitant rents; and the worst, most abject poverty in Europe at the time. Besides that, highlanders had to endure the contempt and derision of their lowland compatriots: as far as lowland town dwellers were concerned, the highlands may as well have been a different country.
Highlanders had a reputation for violence, usually against one another, but their valour and fearlessness in battle was legendary and would later be used to great advantage by the commanders of the British army, as well as settlers in the new colonies in America. They were generally kept at arm’s length, and viewed by the state with suspicion and distrust – especially after the failed revolution in 1745 and the attempt by Charles Edward Stuart to claim the British crown for the Stuarts.
It was only when the highlands and the people who lived there were rendered powerless that the more romantic associations we have now with the north of Scotland began to flourish. In the 19th century, historical bestseller writer Sir Walter Scott would give the highlands a new respectability and romantic identity. But before that could happen an entire way of life had to be eradicated.
The trouble with the highlands was essentially that too many people were trying to make a living from a land which was simply unable to support them. It is no accident that the main population centres of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stirling, and Dundee are in lowland areas as this is where the best farming land is. Further north the land is suitable for growing only a limited number of crops, and is best suited for rough grazing.
The Clearances came about from an attempt by landlords to earn more money from their land. Faced with rising debts, an increasingly competitive agricultural market , and insufficient revenue from the rents they raised from their tenants the landlords were forced to act. They saw the solution in the form of grazing livestock which would get them a bigger return for their investment and which would endure the vagaries of the highland climate more robustly than crops. In order to do this, many, though not all, landlords drove their tenants out of their homes, even burned their houses and villages if they refused to leave, and in their place they brought in herds of cattle and sheep.
The results were immediate and catastrophic, often horrific. Some landlords were more ruthless than others, and some parts of the highlands were more badly affected than others, depending on the other possible sources of livelihood available to the tenants, such as fishing or textiles. But it meant the end of a way of life centuries old. Forever. Entire communities were eradicated, either through starvation, or emigration. Vast swathes of the country were emptied of people. Where hundreds of families worked and lived together, one or two remained. Families left in their droves, thousands choosing the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to an uncertain life in America or Nova Scotia rather than face starvation at home.
Sometimes when landlords attempted to resettle tenants on different parts of their land, the families were left with soil so poor that the only crop that would produce enough to support the people living there was the potato – and in 1846 the entire potato crop failed, as it had in Ireland the year before causing the worst famine Europe had ever seen. The only reason Scotland escaped a similar fate was because so many people had already emigrated.
The Clearances were economically motivated, and they eventually brought the highlands into the modern age, but at the cost of many, many human lives and at the expense of an entire way of life. They also rendered the highlands politically powerless. The political classes of the lowlands, as well as those in power in England, no longer had anything to fear from the rebellious highlands.
The deep and tragic irony is that, in 1822, while the Clearances were well under way, moves were afoot to welcome King George IV to Edinburgh, an event stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott, famous author and Tory, and ardent supporter of the monarchy. George IV was a vain and overweight man. When he arrived in Scotland in Leith docks aboard his royal yacht, he was met by Scott who had laid on a number of events designed to present the king in the most favourable light possible with the people of Scotland in order to bring about a more harmonious relationship with England. Scott chose the tartan, the kilt, the plaid, the sgian dubh (or short dagger) and the bonnet as typical Scottish dress – forms of dress associated with the highlands, but which no self-respecting highlander would have been seen dead wearing. But when the King got dressed up in this attire the concept of ‘full highland dress’ was born.
The new look was an instant hit both here and south of the border – assisted, bizarrely, by a couple of Polish brothers who published a tartan pattern book – and a craze for tartan took hold in the fashionable salons of England. The notion, which persists to this day, of the highlands as a romantic, misty land full of tartan clad twinkling-eyed lasses and brave bonnie laddies is a product of this time, of Walter Scott and his enormously popular romanticised historical novels, and some creative royal tailoring. And nothing at all to do with the highlands themselves.
In reality, in the highlands, landlords continued to burn tenants out of their homes, flocks of families continued to flee to the north American continent – those that survived the crossing – while everybody south of the Tay turned a blind eye and allowed the culture that had given birth to the images of modern Scottishness to continue to teeter on the brink of extinction.