The Scottish Clearances
Henry Ford once famously said ‘History is bunk’. Or rather in 1916 he said ‘History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.’
In 2014, present day Scotland almost made history by voting to become independent. Almost, but not quite. Interestingly, while the Yes campaign talked mostly about Scotland’s possible future, the No campaign talked more about the past. The main thrust of the No campaign emphasised the security and stability of the Union and the risks and uncertainties of independence.
The result was that 55% of voters in Scotland chose tradition over the chance to make history on the day. On the other hand, a few months later voters in Scotland did make history by electing 56 SNP MPs to the ’Mother of Parliaments’. This was a huge blow to the Labour party in Scotland which was reduced to one MP. It was their worst result in over 100 years.
1918 Labour 6 MPs 22.1% of vote
1922 Labour 29 MPs 32.2 % * Largest party
1924 Labour 34 MPs 35.9% * Largest party
1929 Labour 36 MPs 42.3% * Largest party
1931 Labour 7 MPs 32.6%
1935 Labour 20 MPs 36.9%
1945 Labour 37 MPs 47.9 %* Largest party
1950 Labour 37 MPs 46.2% * Largest party
1951 Labour 35 MPs 47.8 % * Largest single party (Unionists 29 MPs, National Liberal 6)
1955 Labour 34 MPs 46.7 % * Largest single party (Unionists 30 MPs, National Liberal 6)
1959 until wiped out in 2015, Labour always largest party in Scotland.
The Labour party’s ability to dominate Scottish politics for so long is an indication of how profoundly Scotland had been transformed by the Industrial Revolution. But without the Lowland Clearances, Scotland could not have had an industrial revolution.
The traditional system of farming had been developed in the middle ages. It involved most of the population working on the land to produce just enough food to feed themselves. For an industrial revolution to happen, a way to produce more food with fewer people had to be found. Only then would there be enough people to work in factories and coalmines who then used their wages to buy food rather than have to grow their own.
Improving the quality of the soil and rationalising the way the land was farmed increased agricultural output. But to make farming more efficient, a whole class of rural workers- the cottars- had to be cleared from the land. But without a place on the land and without any alternative employment was a recipe for rural unrest. In Galloway in 1724 there were no factories or other forms of alternative employment. So when people were cleared from the land to make way for cattle there was an armed uprising and the Galloway Clearances which took a regiment of troops several months to subdue.
However, when the main wave of the Lowland Clearances began from the 1760s onwards, it was a more gradual process. Landowners also started building new villages and towns where the people cleared from the land could live and find work. By the 1780s, the first stages of the industrial revolution were underway, water-powered cotton m ills for example. By 1800, the steam-powered industrial revolution was underway. As it developed, it drew in more and more people. By the 1850s, Scotland was on its way to becoming an urban and industrial nation rather than a rural and agricultural one.
But the conditions the new working class in Scotland lived and worked in were extreme. Through the nineteenth century this led to the growth of trade unions and then, as working class men became able to vote in elections, to the birth of the Labour party.
In the Highlands very little of the land was arable. So when the same process of improvement was applied, large scale sheep farming was introduced. But in the Highlands, like Galloway in 1724, there were no factories or other alternative employment apart from fishing arounf the coast. In the Highlands, the clearances destroyed the traditional way of life but offered nothing in its place. This left a still powerful and bitter legacy. While some of the people cleared from the Highlands moved south to become workers in the industrial Lowlands, many more emigrated overseas.
The harsh reality of industrial Scotland also led to emigration. While the new system of agriculture in the Lowlands no longer meant that a bad harvest year would lead to hunger, a downturn in trade did. To keep up their profits during economic slumps and depressions, the new industrial capitalists would cut wages and lay-off workers. If the workers went on strike, they faced eviction and starvation.
So while in theory, nineteenth and early twentieth century Scotland was a far more wealthy and prosperous country than it had ever been before, in reality life for most Scots was as hard as it had ever been. The result was mass migration. Some 2 million Scots emigrated overseas during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and another 700 000 moved to England. Even during the post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s, half a million Scots emigrated.
Although the phrase ‘ Industrial Clearances’ has been used to describe the Margaret Thatcher’s devastation of Scottish industry in the 1980s, to describe the loss of population from industrial Scotland as ‘the Industrial Clearances’ is more appropriate.
Taken altogether, the Lowland, Highland and Industrial Clearances make up the Scottish Clearances. They are a central part of Scotland’s history. As history, they cannot be changed. But as Henry Ford said, what matters is the history we make today. That is the history that we can change.
It was the greyest of grey days in grey Galloway. It was January 2003. I was standing in the dreich drizzle on the Old Military Road on Kelton Hill just outside Castle Douglas, trying to describe what the landscape would have looked like on the same spot in 1724 for Andrew Cassell and Peter Aitchison.
There would have been none of the trees, none of the houses, none of the neat rectangular fields, not even the road, which wasn’t built until 1764. There would have been a newly built dry-stane dyke though, since in the summer of 1724, the laird of Kelton and the minister of Kelton managed to save it from being demolished by the Galloway Levellers.
Andrew and Peter were interviewing me for a BBC Scotland radio series they were making on the Lowland Clearances. Most of what I said that cold, damp day didn‘t make the final cut, but the saving of the dyke was included as a dramatisation, along with my answer to Andrew’s question ‘But was what happened in Galloway back then clearance?’. Yes, I said, yes it was. The people, the families, who were evicted from their homes to make way for cattle farms were cleared from the land. As a ballad written at the time put it
The lords and lairds they drive us out
From mailings (crofts) where we dwell
The poor man says ‘Where shall we go?’
The rich says ‘Go to Hell!’
However, although the people of Galloway rose up in armed resistance against the first of the Lowland Clearances, when the main wave of clearance took place between 1760 and 1830, there was no repeat performance. The Lowland Clearances were a silent revolution, evoking none of the passion and outrage which still mark the Highland Clearances. What happened in the Highlands has never been forgotten. What happened in the Lowlands has never been remembered.
This difference between what is remembered and what is forgotten is now deeply embedded in Scotland’s historical consciousness. Along with the Gaelic language and the Jacobite rebellions, ‘the Clearances’ are taken as marks of a historical as well as geographical division between Lowland and Highland Scotland.
Yet Gaelic was once spoken across virtually all of Scotland and support for the Jacobites was found where ever the Episcopalian church of Scotland resisted its Presbyterian twin.
If there is a difference between Highland and Lowland experience of what was called at the time ‘improvement’ it can be found in the soil.
On the brink of war in 1939, the reality the U-boats could starve the UK into submission hit home. The Ordnance Survey quickly produced maps showing ‘land-quality’, ranging from Grade 1 -high quality land capable of growing a wide range of crops to Grade III -low quality land only fit for low intensity livestock grazing. The poorest quality land was shaded yellow on the maps.
For Scotland, the map is dominated by a huge block of yellow across the Highlands and western islands, with another smaller block extending across the Southern Uplands. The better quality land, shown brown and green, extends from around the Moray Firth and down the east coast where it expands inland to meet up with a broad band across the central Lowlands.
In the Borders, there is a eastern block extending in land from Berwick and another centred on Carlisle, but extending along the north Solway coast into Galloway where the yellow of the Southrn Uplands separates the fertile lands of Wigtownshire from those of Ayrshire.
The ebb and flow of Scotland’s history can be traced across the colours on the map. North of the Forth, the fertile lands to the east where the Kingdom of the Picts grew and flourished. The estimated population of Pictland is between 80 000 to100 000.To the west the Gaels of Dalriada possessed only a little good quality land. The estimated population of Dalriada is 10 000. When the two kingdoms joined to become Alba, expanding into the Lothians at the expense of the Northumbrian Kingdom was the next step. By the early twelfth century, David I of Scotland was able to make Carlisle his capital for a few years.
David is usually associated with the introduction of feudalism to Scotland, for example granting Annandale to a ‘Robert Bruce’ in 1124. But the deal with feudalism was that in exchange for grants of land, the new lords had to provide the king with an armed and mounted knight plus foot soldiers. This was an expensive- suits of armour did not come cheap.
So along with feudal grants of land- usually good quality land- came an agricultural revolution- the heavy plough. Made of wood but with an iron tipped cutting edge, these ploughs took a team of 6 or more oxen to pull. With these new ploughs, it was possible to grow more oats and barley. The trick was to build up the ploughed soil into long, wide raised beds called rigs, separated by drainage channels called furrows.
To manage the ploughs and their oxen took a whole team of workers who lived in new fermtouns, some of which still survive as modern day farms. Although it took more workers to manage the new ploughs than the old ‘Celtic’ foot ploughs and light ploughs, the new system provided enough oats to feed them and their families and a surplus for their feudal lord. The male farm workers also doubled up as the lord’s foot soldiers as required.
The new system worked fairly well in the more fertile areas, but not so well in upland and highland areas where there were only small patches of potential arable land. In these areas, cattle, sheep, horses (pony sized) and goats were grazed extensively on the poorer soils while the patches of better land were worked intensively to grow oats and barley. As a result, the upland and highland areas had a lower overall population density. In Galloway, the most mountainous area of about 100 square miles had farms around its edges, but none in its granite and raised bog heartland. It was probably only ever visited by deer-hunting expeditions.
The basic pattern of land use which emerged in the twelfth century continued for the next 500 years. It is possible that the population of Scotland reached one million before the impact of the Black Death in the mid fourteenth century knocked it back to only half a million and it took until the end of the seventeenth century to reach a million again.
By 1755 the population was about 1 250 000, with roughly 1/3 living in the Highlands and 2/3 in the Lowlands. But within 100 years, the census of 1851 showed that the population had doubled to 2 888 742. For such rapid growth to occur, something must have changed.
The medieval pattern of land use was able to sustain a population of up to one million, but only just. If the Black Death is discounted as a one-off, the limiting factor on population growth then becomes the medieval farming system itself. It produced just enough food to feed the farm workers and a small surplus for the feudal land owners.
While these landowners may have been better fed and wealthier than the farm labourers, as they discovered after the Union of Crowns in 1603 and again after the Union of Parliaments in 1707, compared to English landowners they were little more than ragged beggars.
As is very well known, virtually every Scottish landowner became convinced that the infamous Darien project would magically make them as rich as English landowners without having to do any more than invest a bit of money in it. What is less well known is that many of the landowners in Galloway had already found a way to become wealthy by using their land in a different way.
This was because in 1666, English landowners were able to get a law passed in the English parliament banning the import of Irish cattle. Before the law was passed, about 100 000 Irish cattle were imported into England every year. Most of these went to feed London which already had a population of 500 000.
From customs records of cattle crossing from Scotland to England at Gretna, about 10 000 of these Irish cattle had originated in the Plantation of Ulster and crossed over to Portpatrick in Galloway before being driven south. Some of these cattle came from Donegal where the Murray family of Broughton in Wigtownshire owned 60 000 acres of Plantation land.
After 1666, Galloway landowners began sending their cattle to England, although from evidence of fines and seizures of cattle in Galloway and in England, at least some of the cattle were originally Irish but had become ‘Scottish’ after a few weeks grazing in Galloway. This forced the landowners to start rearing authentically Scottish cattle in Galloway.
There was, however, a small problem. Between 1666 and 1688, Galloway along with most of southern and western Scotland was caught up in a low-intensity civil and religious war with Charles II and then James VII and II. During this period, only landowners who were Stuart loyalists could sell cattle to England. But if they wanted to increase the supply of cattle, they would have to clear both upland farms-where the cattle were grazed in summer- and lowland farms -where they were kept over winter. But if they tried to do this, they risked provoking a major conflict.
But after 1689, it became possible for landowners loyal to the new regime of William of Orange to begin clearing their lands to make way for cattle. Leading this move were the firmly Presbyterian and loyal Williamites the Herons of Kirroughtrie in Minnigaff parish. The Herons were able to export 1000 cattle year from their upland and lowland farms in the 1690s.
By selling their cattle in England, the Herons were able to earn hard cash- English gold guineas- with which they could buy up more farms where they could breed and fatten more cattle. From owning one small farm in the 1660s, by the Union of 1707 they owned 1/3 of all the land in Minngaff parish which, at 120 squares miles, was the largest in Galloway. However, as the Galloway Levellers pointed out in 1724, the Herons’ cattle herds had depopulated the parish and reduced the town (village) of Minnigaff to a ‘nest of beggars’.
That the Levellers had a point can be seen from a list of the inhabitants of Minngaff parish complied in 1684. This shows that while upland livestock farms in the parish supported only one or two families, arable farms along the fertile flood plain of the river Cree supported one tenant farmer and between five and ten cottar/ sub-tenant families. As the Herons bought up these farms and converted them from arable to pasture land for their cattle, most of the sub-tenant/ cottar families became redundant. Working a traditional arable farm needed a large workforce. Managing a herd of cattle did not.
Unlike most of Scotland, where land ownership was concentrated into a few hands, land ownership in Galloway had been fragmented into lots of small estates and even individual farms ever since the forfeiture of Douglas Lordship of Galloway to the Crown (James II) in 1455. Since then no one landowner had managed to acquire more than a small portion of the region. This led to a constant ‘churn’ of land ownership as the fortunes of several hundred minor lairds rose and fell.
The example of the Herons rise from small to large landowners on the back of the cattle trade was not lost on those Galloway landowners who were struggling to hang on to their estates. While their more successful peers could afford to stick with tradition, the fear of losing their lands persuaded some of the strugglers to have a go at the cattle trade and turn their arable farm into cattle pastures.
By 1724, what had begun as a trickle of evictions and clearance from the arable lands of Kirkcudbrightshire threatened to become a flood. The fear that their landlord might decide to enter the cattle trade and clear them from his lands united tenants and cottars across the county. What gave their uprising a militant edge was a recent event.
By 1714, the ‘Killing Times’ of the 1680s were beginning to fade into the background of everyday life in Galloway. But then in late 1715, a small group of local Jacobites joined a larger group of northern English Jacobites and two thousand Highlanders in an attempt to capture Dumfries. The focus of the Hanovrai9n government was on the main Jacobite rebellion in the north of Scotland, so the defence of Dumfries was left to a locally raised volunteer militia. Some 3000 volunteers were raised and armed. This level of resistance persuaded the Jacobites to turn south where they were defeated at the Battle of Preston in November 1715.
As a side-effect, it also meant that in 1724 there were a lot of folk in Galloway with a wee bit of military training. And muskets. And a grievance.
Although other landowners were involved, the grievance focused on Sir Basil Hamilton of Baldoon and St Mary’s Isle. In Hamilton’s case it was a triple grievance.
1. In 1723 he cleared several families of his land near Kirkcudbright to create a large cattle enclosure.
2. The 400 cattle in his enclosure were illegally imported Irish cattle.
3. In 1715, he was one of the local Jacobites who tried to capture Dumfries.
On point 3, by rights he should have had his head chopped off at the Tower of London and forfeited all his lands. However, Hamilton was only 18 at the time and his mother Mary Dunbar, and his grandmother, Duchess Anne of Hamilton managed to save both his lands and his head. His fellow Jacobite William Gordon, Lord Kenmure had been executed and William Maxwell, earl of Nithsdale’s wife had smuggled him out often tower of London dressed as her female servant…
On point 2, his great-great grandfather David Dunbar I of Baldoon had been fined as early as 1669 for trying to pass off Irish cattle as his own. In 1682, he was still at it when an English magistrate seized 100 of Dunbar’s cattle, having declared them Irish rather than Scottish. What made this a grievance is that by smuggling in cheap Irish cattle and then passing them off as his own, Basil Hamilton was undercutting the legitimate local cattle trade -which was a threat to the Herons of Kirroughtrie amongst others.
On point 1, when the future king James II and VII was living in Scotland in the early 1680s, his wife Mary of Modena had become exasperated by Galloway and its rebellious Whigs (Covenanters). The whole district she declared, should be cleared of its revolting inhabitants and turned into a great hunting park. Her husband was very keen on hunting. The Galloway Levellers quoted this in their (printed) propaganda broadsheets. Having failed in 1715, they said, the Jacobites (ie Hamilton) were now taking Mary of Modena’s advice and clearing King George I’s loyal subjects from the land so that they would face no local opposition when they next rebelled.
If the Galloway Levellers uprising had been a simple peasants revolt, the regiment of dragoons which arrived in June 1724 would have made short shrift of them. In a straight fight they would have been slaughtered. If they managed to avoid a direct confrontation, it would have been easy enough to capture a few ring-leaders and hang them.
None of this happened. Instead, in October 1724, the dragoons confronted a group of several hundred Levellers, but had been told by their commander to use ’only the flats of their swords’ against them. There were no fatalities and 200 Levellers were captured, but most were allowed to escape on the march back to Kirkcudbright.
A few Levellers did stand trial, but in a civil not a criminal case. The case was brought in January 1725 by Basil Hamilton who pursued a small group (25 out of the 1000 who had taken part) for damages to his cattle park dykes. He did win, but is unlikely to have received much in the way of damages from the Levellers, since only two owned any property and one was a 14 year old boy.
The subtitle of Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell’s book on the Lowland Clearances is ‘Scotland’s Silent Revolution-1760 to 1830. But if the first clearances began in Galloway in the 1720s, why was the main phase of clearance delayed for forty years?
Part of the reason is that the main Lowland Clearances took place in arable farming areas and were almost a side-effect of attempts to boost production of oats, barley and wheat. In Galloway and later the Highlands, the clearances were a direct effect of replacing people with cattle and sheep. The new style of livestock farming only needed a few cowherds and shepherds, but the new style of arable farming still needed at least some farm labourers.
The market for Galloway cattle in the 1720s was England, but at that time there was no equivalent English demand for Scottish oats. As Dr Johnson noted in his Dictionary (1755) ‘Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’ The traditional (medieval) system of arable farming produced just enough grain to feed the farmers and their workforce, pay the landowners the rent and leave enough to sow to produce the next year’s crop. As an old Scots saying put it ‘Ane to saw, and ane to gnaw, and ane to pay the Laird witha’.
In a good harvest year, this system could produce a surplus of grain, but this was balanced out by bad harvest years when hunger compelled people to start eating the seed corn, which reduced the next year’s crop. This vicious cycle acted as a limit on Scotland’s population growth. Another effect was to limit the growth of Scotland’s urban population since they depended on buying rather than producing their own food. Periodic harvest failures pushed the cost of their food up and a major harvest failure risked cutting it off altogether.
After the failure of the Darien Scheme, many influential Scots landowners and merchants became persuaded that the Union with England would stimulate the Scottish economy so it could break out of this vicious cycle. But it soon became obvious that the Union was not delivering on this hope. Scots would somehow have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. This led to the foundation in 1723 of the ‘Honourable Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture’. As its title suggests the Honourable Society’s main aim was to modernise Scottish farming. However it also planned to develop the Scottish linen industry. This was achieved in 1727 with the establishment of the ’Board of Trustees for Improvement in Manufactures’ which the Society of Improvers helped set up.
The Society’s attempts to modernise Scottish framing were less immediately successful. Robert Maxwell of Arkland in Galloway was the Society’s Secretary. In 1723 Maxwell had taken a 19 year lease of Cliftonhall farm near Edinburgh and set about trying to improve it. He succeeded in increasing crop production, but bankrupted himself in the process. He inherited Arkland in1745 but to cover his debts was forced to sell the farm in 1749 for £ 10 304 Scots (£857 sterling). Another leading member of the Society of Improvers, John Cockburn of Ormiston was also ruined by improvement and had to sell his estate to the earl of Hopetoun.
The difficulty these early improvers faced was that levelling the medieval raised rigs, enclosing the fields with new dykes and hedges, cutting drains and fertilising the new fields with lime was an expensive and labour intensive process. Once the new system was in place, labour costs could be cut by clearing the cottars from the land and re-employing a few as day labourers, but so long as demand and hence the price of grain remained static there was little profit to be made from their expensive improvements.
Although Robert Maxwell managed to produce a weighty 450 page long ‘Select Transactions of the Honourable Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in 1743, the Society faded away after 1745/6.Politics as well as economics played a part in its decline. Among its 400 members were several Jacobite landowners. These included James Steuart (1713-1780) of Coltness who was forced into exile in 1746 as a Jacobite supporter. After returning from exile in 1763, Steuart published ‘An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy’. Although overshadowed by Adam Smith’s ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ (1776), Steuart’s was the first Scottish book on political economy.
This where things started to get complicated, with a whole combination of factors overlapping and interlocking feeding in to what were to become the Lowland Clearances.
One factor is that after 50 years, the Union of 1707 had started to pay off- but only for a few Scots. To the west, the Atlantic trade in slaves, sugar and tobacco made some merchants, especially in Glasgow, very, very rich. To the east, other Scots were able to make huge fortunes in India. But although they were now very rich, these merchants lacked an essential requirement if they were to become ‘gentlemen’. They were not landowners and so could not become part of ‘society’.
To raise their social standing, the newly rich elite had to buy land, the more the better. At the same time, as Henry Home /lord Kames made clear in his book ‘The Gentleman Farmer’ (1776), as landowners the new Scottish elite had a moral and patriotic duty to increase the wealth and strength of the nation by improving their new lands.
Another factor which came into play had its origins in Adam Smith’s theory of economic and social development. Smith, along with Kames and other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers believed that there were four historical stages of social and economic development. The first was the hunting stage, the second the pasturage or livestock farming stage, the third the arable farming stage and the fourth the commerce or merchant trading stage.
Critically, Smith believed that while England and France had reached this the fourth stage, Scotland wasn’t there yet. Scotland was still in the process of transition from the second to the third stages of development. To reach the fourth stage, Scotland would have to increase the surplus produced by its arable farms so that towns manufacturing goods for trade could be developed. This is the gist of this quote from ‘Wealth of Nations’
As subsistence is, in the nature of things, prior to conveniency and luxury, so the industry which procures the former, must necessarily be prior to that which ministers to the latter. The cultivation and improvement of the country, therefore, which affords subsistence, must, necessarily, be prior to the increase of the town, which furnishes only the means of conveniency and luxury. It is the surplus produce of the country only, or what is over and
above the maintenance of the cultivators, that constitutes the subsistence of the town, which can therefore increase only with the increase of this surplus produce. [Smith, Wealth of Nations, Vol 1, page 402]
Between 1764 and 1766, Adam Smith was tutor to Henry Scott, 3rd duke of Buccleuch. As one of Scotland’s largest and wealthiest landowners, Scott’s step-father had expected him to live in London and become a British politician. But under Smith’s influence, Scott decided to live in Scotland and start improving his lands.
A final factor which influenced the Lowland Clearances can be traced back to the Society of Improvers and their promotion of the Board of Trustees for Improvement of Manufactures. In 1728, the Scottish linen industry produced 2.2 million yards of finished cloth. Supported and encouraged by the Board of Trustees, by 1768 this had risen to 11.8 million yards and by 1798 output reached 21.3 million yards. Although output then declined, this was partly due to the rapid rise of the Scottish cotton industry after 1780.
In 1780 there were 25 000 linen hand-loom weavers in Scotland. By 1800 there were 58 000 cotton and linen hand-loom weavers. These weavers and other textile workers needed to be fed. So did the population of Glasgow. Between 1700 and 1750, Glasgow’s population only grew by 10 000, but in the next 50 years it grew by 54 000.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, there was little reward for any landowner or their tenants for improving the land. In the second half of the century there was, as demand for food grew and prices increased.
What drove the Lowland Clearances from the 1760s onwards then, was this combination of new super-rich landowners able to afford to improve their lands, an Enlightened economic theory which called for improvement and, most importantly, the prospect of financial reward which encouraged even the most cautious and conservative of landowners to get involved.
Before the Lowland Clearances began, Robert Bruce and William Wallace would have had little difficulty recognising the Lowland landscape as Scotland. After the Clearances it would have seemed like a foreign country to them. Everything had changed, changed utterly.
Some changes had occurred since the Middle Ages, but these were invisible and not marked in the landscape. Fpr example, there is a rental-roll from 1375 for Buittle parish in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright which lists the tenants on each of 12 farms. Most have 3 or 4 tenants but the larger farm of Almorness has 9 and one, Breoch, has 11. However, by the seventeenth century in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright most farms had only one tenant, although a few had two (often father and son).
The farms didn’t need a smaller workforce, but a new rural class of cottars had been formed. They lived in cots (cottages) and had the use of a small parcel of land, their croft, on which they could grow their own food and/or graze cow or a few sheep. In exchange they provided the tenant farmer with labour on the farm as required- in the winter and autumn ploughing and thrashing grain, in the spring and summer planting, peat-cutting, harvesting and hay-making.
When the physical transformation of the landscape began, the cottars’ small plots of land were swept away. An example of what the rationalisation of the traditional farms involved was given by Andrew Wight, writing in 1782. This example of improvement was drawn up by Henry Home, lord Kames. In 1761, his daughter Jean had married Patrick Heron IV (1736-1803). Heron’s family had grown wealthy through Galloway’s cattle trade, but the farms to be improved were arable farms near Dumfries. Heron’s tenant was James Rome, described by Andrew Wight as ‘the most remarkable man in Scotland for enterprise and expedition’.
As Rome explained to Wight ‘I entered to these improvements at Whitsunday 1763, upon a thirty years lease, in partnership with the proprietor, Mr Heron of Heron. The plan was formed by Lord Kames…’
Rome then gave Wight a detailed description of the immense effort such improvement required. To improve the 144 acres of Ingleston Hill, 90 horses and 24 workers laboured for 32 days to carry and spread 48 346 bags of shell-marl. The hill was then ploughed, first with a team of 6 oxen led by 3 men followed by a team of 4 horses. The 200 acres of Clouden-park were similarly improved and planted with turnips. Kames monitored the progress of Rome’s improvements and in 1770 commented that he had never seen better work.
Part of James Rome’s work involved removing the existing broad rigs from Ingleston. Wight then discussed the improvement of Baldoon in Kirkinner parish, Wigtownshire. A hundred years earlier, Baldoon had been owned by the Dunbar family who had a cattle park built there covering 1.5 square miles and which could hold 1000 cattle. Through his mother, Mary Dunbar, the Galloway Leveller’s bête noire Basil Hamilton inherited Baldoon. By 1760, Hamilton’s son Dunbar Hamilton had become the 4th earl of Selkirk and a Mr Jeffray managed the lands for the earl.
As Jeffray explained in a letter to Wight, beginning in 1760 it took 3 years to level 300 acres of old crooked rig and replace them with narrower straight rigs. In 1455, Baldoon had been one of the Douglas lords of Galloway’s grange, that is arable, lands so these ‘old crooked rigs’ were definitely medieval. The new narrow rigs were needed because undersoil drainage by tile drains did not come into use until the early nineteenth century.
Once the old crooked rigs had been done away with and the soil fertilised with shell-marl or lime, new square or rectangular fields enclosed with dykes or hedges were made and new farm buildings built of mortared stones with slate roofs were constructed. Networks of estate roads were built, linked to the growing network of substantially built turnpike roads, along which new villages and towns were built. In Dumfries and Galloway alone, 81 new towns and villages were built between 1750 and 1830.
The new villages were built to accommodate the cottars and tnant farmers who had lost their farms. This was a lesson Lowland landowners had been taught by the Galloway Levellers. But it also meant that there was a workforce close to the land but no longer living on it available at harvest time. Getting the harvest in as quickly as possible in case it was damaged by wet weather or storms was a vital and still labour intensive process.
The new towns had an additional function. With their larger population, fed by the new farming system, the landowners who planned them hoped they would become centres of commerce as Adam Smith proposed. The growth of Airdrie in Lanarkshire was encouraged by the Hamilton family who owned the surrounding lands. As early as 1695, they set up a market in Airdrie. First a village of 300 people developed and then it became a centre for linen weaving.
Weaving was a skill which could be transferred from the traditional to the new economy. By the first census of 1801 the population of Airdrie had grown to 4631 as it absorbed rural workers cleared from the land. Agriculture in Lanarkshire benefited from the growth of Glasgow, but this had the effect of encouraging landowners to step up the process of improvement, pushing more people off the land. The Hamilton family had a private act passed in 1821 giving ‘their’ town the legal status of a burgh. By this time Airdie’s population was 7362. This had doubled to 14 435 by 1851.However this growth was due to the ‘pull’ of the new iron industry and its associated coal mines industrialisation rather than the ‘push’ or Lowland clearance.
The new fields, farms, roads, villages and towns were also part of a new economy. After the Union of 1707, all the old Scots money circulating in Scotland was collected in Edinburgh ahead of the conversion to sterling. When this was done, it was discovered that 35% of the coins collected were not Scots at all. Some were English, but 30% were not even British but came from France, Holland, Spain and other countries.
The amount of foreign currency was high because apart from merchants trading with Europe, most Scots had little need for cash. They lived in a ‘self-provisioning’ countryside where they provided food, clothing and shelter for themselves rather than having to buy these basic essentials.
But in the new economy, farms were now focused on producing food for sale in a commercial system. Now rent had to be paid on the new farm cottages and the new houses in the new villages. Food, clothing and shelter were now commodities to be bought and sold. Tobacco, tea, coffee, sugar and clothes made from cotton had to be purchased. Gradually, everything in this new economy had to be paid for.
The other side of the new coin was that there was now a demand for carpenters and cobblers, brewers and tailors, road-menders and cart-builders, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. This was very different from the situation in Galloway a generation before when the Galloway Levellers claimed that –
Every year several tenants are exposed to the mountains and know not where to go or get any place; nay it is known that some years ago that some of these poor distressed people have, from despair, put hands in themselves and have been found hanged in their own houses about the term time when they were obliged to go away and did not know where to go…
In the old economy and society, to lose your place on the land was to lose the security of your place in the world. In the new society and economy, it was the old world that had lost its security. As a result hundreds of thousands of Scots had to find a new place in a world which was no longer their land.
Why has the clearance of the Highlands been remembered when the clearance of the Lowlands has not? One reason is that the Highlands were still being cleared in the 1850s and attracted the attention of Karl Marx.
The last process of wholesale expropriation of the agricultural population from the soil is, finally, the so-called clearing of estates, i.e., the sweeping men off them. All the English methods hitherto considered culminated in “clearing.” As we saw in the picture of modern conditions given in a former chapter, where there are no more independent peasants to get rid of, the “clearing” of cottages begins; so that the agricultural labourers do not find on the soil cultivated by them even the spot necessary for their own housing. But what “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland.
This revolution, which began in Scotland after the last rising of the followers of the Pretender, can be followed through its first phases in the writings of Sir James Steuart and James Anderson. In the 18th century the hunted-out Gaels were forbidden to emigrate from the country, with a view to driving them by force to Glasgow and other manufacturing towns. As an example of the method obtaining in the 19th century, the “clearing” made by the Duchess of Sutherland will suffice here. This person, well instructed in economy, resolved, on entering upon her government, to effect a radical cure, and to turn the whole country, whose population had already been, by earlier processes of the like kind, reduced to 15,000, into a sheep-walk. From 1814 to 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut, which she refused to leave. Thus this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land that had from time immemorial belonged to the clan. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6,000 acres on the sea-shore — 2 acres per family. The 6,000 acres had until this time lain waste, and brought in no income to their owners. The Duchess, in the nobility of her heart, actually went so far as to let these at an average rent of 2s. 6d. per acre to the clansmen, who for centuries had shed their blood for her family. The whole of the stolen clanland she divided into 29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single family, for the most part imported English farm-servants. In the year 1835 the 15,000 Gaels were already replaced by 131,000 sheep. The remnant of the aborigines flung on the sea-shore tried to live by catching fish. They became amphibious and lived, as an English author says, half on land and half on water, and withal only half on both.
As well as Marx, newspapers like the Inverness Courier, the Scotsman and the pre-Rupert Murdoch Times reported on the more dramatic, that is traumatic, incidents of clearance. But while there were expressions of public sympathy for the victims and outrage against the landowners, the absolute right of property owners to clear their lands of people remained. It was not until the 1880s, a hundred years since the process of clearance began in the Highlands and Islands that the ‘Crofters’ War’ brought it to an end.
The root of the problem in the Highlands was that there was very little arable land but a lot of rough grazing land. In the summer, the rough grazing land could be used to feed cattle and small flocks of sheep. The people, however, needed the arable land to grow enough oats to feed themselves through the winter. This limited the numbers of cattle and sheep the land could support. But if the arable land was used as pasture for cattle or sheep, larger herds of cattle or flocks of sheep could be kept. The livestock could be over wintered on the better quality land and then allowed to graze on the poorer quality land in the spring and summer.
On the other hand, any growth in the human population would be difficult to sustain without the risk of a bad harvest leading to starvation. Growing potatoes rather than oats as the staple crop was a way to support a larger population but a failure of the potato crop would also lead to starvation.
Alongside this problem of how the people who lived on the land were to be fed as their population grew was another one. This was the wider shift from an economy based on subsistence to an economy based on money. This was a gradual change in the Highlands. It was possible for landowners who saw themselves, and were seen by their tenants, as successors to the ceann-fine or ‘head of the clan’ to maintain traditional land-use practices and the traditional economy. In good harvest years their tenants would pay their rent, in bad harvest years they would not. In very bad years, the landowners would provide food to keep the tenants from starving.
However a series of poor harvest years combined with population growth could lead to an accumulation of rent arrears. This reduced the landowners income from the land/people. If there was then a harvest failure and the landowners had to buy food to keep the people from starving, debts rapidly mounted. This either bankrupted the landowners, forcing the sale of the land or pushed the landowner into the new economy. In either case the result was the same- the new landowners or the existing landowner would start clearing the people from the land to make way for sheep.
The advantages of replacing people with sheep were two-fold. Firstly, from the end of the eighteenth century until wool started arriving from Australia in the later nineteenth century, the price of wool remained high. This was a result of greater demand as the industrial revolution was applied to the woollen industry. This made sheep farming a profitable form of land use.
Secondly, in the new economy, poor people who were at risk of starvation were seen as a financial burden on landowners. Either the landowners had to buy food directly for their starving tenants or indirectly via parish poor rates. Overseas or internal emigration relived the wealthy of this oppressive burden and made their lands more valuable. Thanks to the Reverend Thomas Malthus, it could also be argued that landowners who allowed their tenants to multiply beyond the ability of the land to support them were immoral if not outright criminals.
The new economy acted like a slowly tightening vice on the Highlands and Islands. In its iron grip, the old world and its Gaelic culture was year by year, eviction by eviction, township by township forced to the brink of extinction.
Was there an alternative? Was clearance inevitable?
In terms of land-use, there were alternatives. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were six iron furnaces working in the Highlands. They were fuelled by charcoal made from wood felled from trees up and down the west coast of the Highlands and on many of the islands. Keeping a charcoal based iron industry going would have been difficult, but its existence does show that there were areas of forest and woodland in the Highlands and Islands.
If the areas of forest had been extended through new plantations combined with improvement through liming and drainage of the arable areas along with a more mixed (cattle and sheep) form of livestock farming, the ecology of the region would have benefited in the long term. Small scale industrial developments -wood-working, boat-building, leather-making, woollen mills and the like- could have provided sources of employment and income.
This would have required adopting and pursuing a region-wide economic development strategy, alien to the spirit of the times. Landowners would have had to agree to forgo the instant profits generated by sheep-farming. And, as the Lowland Clearances showed, the necessary social and economic changes would still have led to the loss of traditional ways of life and culture.
As the later nineteenth century experience of the Lowlands, especially the rural south showed, the increasing tempo of the industrial revolution had the effect of undermining the viability of the non-farming rural economy. The tanneries, small cotton mills, breweries, brickworks, slate-quarries and other rural industries could not compete with the cheaper costs of larger scale rivals once the railway system cut transport costs.
By 1830, the Lowland Clearances were over. The countryside had been transformed. Apart from the spread of dairy farming in the south west which followed the growth of the railway network, the farmed landscape has changed very little since then. In the Southern Uplands, especially in Galloway, since the 1960s forestry has replaced sheep farming which is a striking change of land use and appearance.
In the Highlands, the clearances continued into the 1850s.
In both the rural south and rural north, despite the clearances, it was only after 1851 that the overall population began to decline. This seems puzzling. The explanation is that in the Highlands, many of the people cleared were re-settled around the coast while in the Lowlands they were re-settled in new towns and villages. The new coastal settlements in the Highlands were supposed to prosper through fishing, but most failed to do so. The new towns and villages in the Lowlands were more successful to begin with, but then lost out as growth became more concentrated in industrial areas.
Today, Helmsdale in Sutherland, Gatehouse of Fleet in Galloway and Airdrie in Lanarkshire have populations of 640, 990 and 42 000 respectively.
Helmsdale was developed from 1812 onwards to provide housing and employment for people cleared from the land. Gatehouse was likewise developed as a planned town from 1766 onwards. About the same time, the existing village of Airdrie was developed as a centre for the linen weaving industry, becoming a Burgh in 1821. Gatehouse had become a Burgh in 1795. Helmsdale did not become a Burgh.
Helmsdale’s main industry was herring fishing, but in 1790 a cotton spinning mill was built at Spinningdale about 30 miles away. This burnt down in 1808 and was nor rebuilt. Closer to Helmsdale, at Brora 11 miles away, there was a coal mine. Coal had been mined there on a small scale since the late sixteenth century and used for salt making. Between 1812 and 1820, in an attempt to provide employment for people cleared from his lands, the 2nd Duke of Sutherland spent £31 000 in an attempt to revive the mine. The attempt failed in 1825, but another was made in 1872 after the railway reached Sutherland. This was more successful and the mine survived for 100 years until it closed in 1974.
In 1724, the dykes of Alexander Murray’s cattle park at Cally in Kirkcudbrightshire were thrown down by the Galloway Levellers. Forty years later, when his son James was busy improving Cally estate, he made sure that history would not repeat itself by planning a new town called Gatehouse of Fleet. Within 30 years, as well as two cotton mills, the new town had a tannery, a brewery, a brickworks and a brass foundry. From zero the population had grown to 1150 and reached 1370 by 1841.
By 1850 however, the water-powered cotton mills had closed, unable to compete with their steam-powered rivals. Then, despite the best efforts of local landowners, the railway from Castle Douglas to Stranraer by-passed the town when it was opened in 1861. ‘Gatehouse station’ on the line was 6 miles from the town it claimed to serve.
For the next 100 years, from being the very model of a modern minor general commercial community at the heart of an improved (and cleared) agricultural landscape, Gatehouse slowly fossilised. By 1974, the Open University were able to use this once thriving town for an educational film ‘Gatehouse of Fleet – a study in industrial archaeology’.
If Lanarkshire had followed the pattern of Sutherland and Galloway, then Airdrie’s growth would have petered-out in the 1840s once the mechanisation of weaving had been perfected. That Airdrie continued to grow through the nineteenth century was in part due to an accident of geology. As well as coal, beneath the fields around the town there was also ironstone.
In 1769, ownership of Airdrie and the lands around it passed from the Hamilton family, who had begun the towns development, to John Aitchison. After his death, his daughters continued to live at Airdrie House and encourage the development of the town into a Burgh, which it became in 1821.
In 1816, Alexander Baird, a tenant farmer who had prospered as the crops on his improved land fetched record prices during the Napoleonic wars, decided to diversify into the coal industry. He persuaded the Miss Atchison’s to lease the Rosolloch coal field near Airdrie to his son William. His son John continued as a farmer, but another son, Alexander was sent to Glasgow to sell the coal from Rosolloch. Later Alexander’s fourth son James was put in charge of another mine at Merrystown.
In 1826, the Baird family leased the coal fields of Gartsherrie estate to the west of Airdrie. In 1828 they leased an ironstone mine nearby. Their next step was to build an iron furnace at Gartsherrie which was completed in May 1830. This was built using a new system which replaced the ‘cold blast’ of traditional iron furnaces with superheated air. Under the old system it had taken 8 tons of coal to produce 1 ton of iron. Under the new system it took only 3 tons of coal. This cut the cost of the iron produced. By 1839, the Bairds had 8 furnaces in blast. By 1843 there were 16 and Gartsherrie was the largest iron works in the world.
To keep the furnaces blazing required a constant flow of coal from the Bairds coal mines. To keep their profits up, the Bairds also had to keep the cost of coal down. In April 1837 there was a downturn in the Lanarkshire coal trade. Since their wages were based on the price of coal, the miners in Lanarkshire started working a three-day week to reduce coal supplies so the price and their wages would rise. The Bairds responded by sacking all their miners and evicting them from their company houses. The strike last 15 weeks, during which the Bairds sent surface workers down the mines to keep the iron furnaces going. This is James Baird’s version of the events.
In April 1837 the colliers were receiving five shillings a day, but as trade was looking rather unfavourable, they took it into their heads that they would be able to keep up their wages by working only three days in the week, and they continued to do this for some time. The other coal masters took no steps to resist it ; but we resolved that we would not, if we could help it, have our output limited in this way, and we accordingly gave every man notice to quit in fourteen days…This strike taught the poor men a lesson which they did not soon forget. It was as determined and prolonged a strike as any we have ever had at Gartsherrie. Many of the wives and children suffered greatly during the fifteen weeks of their foolish idleness. When they returned their condition was sadly changed. The best their furniture was gone. Most of the people who returned were in squalid wretchedness, and some of those who had left us had succumbed to their sufferings, and were in their graves. All the time I remained about Gartsherrie—down to 1851 or 1852—I never again saw the colliers up to the same mark of health and comfort as that in which they were before this strike. [From ‘The Bairds of Gartsherrie’ 1879, pp 67-69.]
Of the miners forced to return to work by hunger, only some were re-hired since the Bairds had already filled most of the miners’ former houses with new workers. What James Baird does not mention is that it was only after troops were brought in, stationed in Airdrie, that order was restored and the strike physically broken.
Altogether, between 1816 and 1874 there were 23 strikes in the Lanarkshire coal field. most of which affected the iron industry as well. As these realted industries grew, so did employment and output. By 1913 Scotland produced 43.2 million tonnes of coal and 140 000 people or 10% of the Scottish population were employed in the industry. In the same year, Scotland produced 1.3 million tons of pig iron and 1.4 million tons of steel. On the Clyde, 756 973 tons of shipping were launched equal to 1/3 of UK production and 18% of world wide production.
But along with locomotive building for export, another Scottish speciality, this industrial growth was frequently interrupted by periods when trade was ‘depressed’. This led to lay-offs and wage cuts. While one response to this roller-coast ride of good times and bad times was the growth of trade unions and then a Labour party, another was emigration. Over the course of the nineteenth century, 1. 9 million Scots left the country. This figure includes those directly forced from the land by the Highland Clearances, but most came from the Lowlands.
Of the Lowland emigrants, some left directly as a result of the Lowland Clearances in the early part of the century. But most of those who left later were a generation or more removed from the land. Even as late as the period 1951-1960 which was an ‘interlude of comparative prosperity’ for the west of Scotland, 127 000 people emigrated from the region. As Anthony Slaven put it ‘The region failed to generate enough jobs to offer the economically-active age groups.’ [The Development of the West of Scotland 1750-1960’ (London, 1975)]
While the term ‘the Industrial Clearances’ has been used to describe the loss of Scotland’s heavy industries in the 1980s and 1990s, this period marked the end rather than the beginning of the Scottish Clearances.
The problem at the end of this rapid run through of the Scottish Clearances remains the same as it was at the beginning. As far as most people in Scotland and wherever Scots have emigrated to around the world, the only clearances they know about are the Highland Clearances.
To talk about the Lowland Clearances let alone the Industrial Clearances is therefore quite confusing. To bring in these other clearances cannot help but make what happened in the Highlands (and Islands) less unique. If the Highland Clearances were not a unique event, then, while their injustice remains, their significance as part of Scotland’s history is diminished.
If history was a neutral subject, such rebalancing of the relative importance of past events would not be controversial. But in Scotland history has become a mirror in which the ghostly presences of Independence Past and Independence Future are reflected.
In this mirror, the Highland Clearances have become part of a ‘Jacobite Interpretation of History’. In this, the rejection of James VII as Scotland’s rightful king in 1689 set in motion a string of disasters which included the loss of Scotland’s independence in 1707 and a Highland Clearances which were driven not by economics but by politics. After the Jacobites almost managed a second Stuart Restoration in 1745, their defeat at Culloden in 1746 was followed by a decision to destroy the last vestiges of Scotland’s independence by clearing the Highlands of their Gaelic people and culture.
This is a very powerful story with deep roots. The Roman historian Tacitus quoted Calgacus, leader of Caledonian resistance to the Roman Empire, as saying
there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.
But this powerful story of the Highland Clearances starts to lose its strength if what happened in Galloway a century earlier is examined. Here a very similar process of clearing people from the land began before the Union of 1707. In Galloway the people were cleared from the land to make way for cattle as landowners took advantage of the 1666 English ban on Irish cattle.
The people cleared from the land were not Gaelic speakers nor were they Jacobites, if anything they were anti-Jacobites who supported king George I in 1715. Although the immediate trigger for Galloway Levellers uprising in 1724 was fresh wave of clearance, some of the dykes levelled that year had been built around cattle parks 30 or 40 years earlier.
While what happened in Galloway can be seen as a one-off event, the later Lowland Clearances cannot. The Lowland Clearances saw the disappearance of a whole class of rural workers, roughly a third of the workforce, from the land. These were the cottars and along with the cottars their cots and croft lands also disappeared. But unlike what had happened earlier in Galloway and later in the Highlands and Islands, the cottars were not driven from the land by cattle and sheep.
The cottars lost their place on the land because the new system of arable farming was based on ’enlightened improvement’. This combined a rational or early scientific approach to land-management with the economic theories of Adam Smith and his contemporaries. The aim was to increase both the quantity and quality of arable crops and thus the economic value of the land.
The expectation was that this would modernise the Scottish economy so it could catch up with the English economy. The cottars and traditional tenant farmers were part of pre-modern (medieval or feudal) Scotland and so had to be eliminated along with their ‘superstitious’ rather than enlightened methods of farming.
According to Adam Smith’s theory, increasing the surplus produced by the land while reducing the number of farm workers would cut the cost of food. This would encourage the growth of ‘manufactures’ by cutting the cost of labour- since cheaper food meant wages could be lower. With lower labour costs, Scottish manufactures would be more competitive, stimulating Scotland’s commercial economy.
In the Lowlands Smith’s theory worked. Improving the physical quality of the soil while rationalising the management of the land increased crop production. The ‘surplus’ people cleared from the land found new occupations in Lowland towns and villages, many of which were themselves the creation of improving landowners. The new economy began to grow and was then given extra impetus by the industrial revolution. At first the industrial revolution was powered by water. Then coal became its fuel source, creating yet more jobs in mining and the production of steam engines.
In the Highlands and Islands however, the virtuous cycle of economic growth which offset the impact of the Lowland Clearances did not happen. Instead a vicious circle of economic decline set in. With only enough good quality land available to feed the existing population in good harvest years, attempts to modernise the region’s economy focused on livestock grazing inland and fishing around the coast. Neither activity provided sufficient employment for the existing population, let alone a growing one.
So while the region’s economy could become part of the new economy by providing wool for mechanised factories and fish to help feed the new industrial workforce, most of the people could not. Even after Thomas Telford oversaw the construction of 1200 miles of roads in the Highlands between 1803 and 1827 and the construction of the Caledonian Canal at a cost of £1 million, clearance continued into the 1850s and emigration into the second half of the twentieth century. However over the past 30 years the population of the Highlands and Islands has recovered. At 448 392 (2011 census) it is approaching its 1831 level of 504 955. [Note- this figure includes the Northern Isles.]
But even in the rural south of Scotland- South Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders- where the Lowland Clearances were over by 1831, a similar pattern of population loss followed by recent recovery can be seen. In Dumfries and Galloway, there was a population peak in 1851 of 158 890. The population then declined but by 2011 had recovered to 151 324.
What such region wide figures miss is the fine detail. In 1851, the population of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway was just over 44 000. It is now only 24 000. In Wigtownshire the population was 39 000 in 1851, today it is 29 000, with 10 000 living in the (former) ferry-port of Stranraer. In other words, even where there may appear to be a recovery of rural population, the reality is that the growth has mainly been concentrated towns like Inverness in the rural north or Dumfries in the rural south.
For at least some of the Scots cleared from the land in the Highlands and many of those cleared in the Lowlands, the growth of industry in west central Scotland provided an alternative to overseas migration.
In Lanarkshire, north Ayrshire and Renfrewshire between 1825 and 1840, iron production grew by 2000% from 25 000 tons to 500 000 tons. 15% of the iron was exported to the USA while the other main markets were the rapidly expanding shipbuilding and railway industries. By 1913, west central Scotland produced half of the UK’s marine steam engines, a third of all steam locomotives and a third of all ships built in the UK. The shipyards on the Clyde were able to build more ships than all the shipyards in Germany combined. This growth in industrial production was matched by a rapid increase in Scotland’s overall population.
Between 1830 and 1911, the population of Scotland doubled from 2.3 million to 4.8 million. But during the same period, 2 million Scots emigrated overseas and 750 000 moved to England. If the economy was booming, why did so many Scots decide to leave? Part of the answer is that in Scotland wages were 10% lower than in England. Since as much as two thirds of the cost of building a ship were labour costs, this gave Scottish shipbuilders an advantage. But at the same time food and housing costs were higher than in the industrial areas of England. In 1911, over 50% of the Scottish population could afford only one or two room dwellings, compared with 7 % in England.
In the 1830s and 40s, apart from England and Wales, Scotland was the only industrialised country in the world. By the end of the 19th century most European countries as well as the USA and Japan were producing iron and steel, ships and locomotives. Faced with this competition, Scottish industrialists tried to keep their costs down by reducing wages. The 19th century global economy was also subject to booms and slumps leading to surges in unemployment. So while the few Scots who owned the coal mines, iron works, shipyards and locomotive works became millionaires, millions of ordinary Scots voted with their feet, abandoning the industrial hell that was North Britain to make new lives in new lands.
The two world wars of the 20th century and the recovery from them provided some respite from the decline of Scotland’s Victorian industries. Yet even during the post war boom of the 1950s, half a million Scots left the country. Despite nationalisation of the coal, railway and steel industries and state led attempts to diversify the economy, through the 1960s and 1970s all that had once seemed so solid continued to melt into air. The Industrial Clearances of the 1980s and 1990s marked the (almost) final withering away of Scotland’s Victorian industries.
To conclude: when placed in a wider context which includes both the Lowlands Clearances which came before and the Industrial Clearances which came after, the Highland Clearances lose their uniqueness. They become part of the Scottish Clearances.
The Scottish Clearances were initially an attempt by Scotland’s landowning and intellectual (Enlightened) elite to catch up with England by modernising Scotland’s economy. The aim was to transform Scotland’s economy and society by boot-strapping the country from an agricultural to a commercial nation. In the arable Lowlands this worked. In the pastoral Highlands and Southern Uplands it failed, creating huge swathes of depopulated ‘wilderness’ which remain empty of people to this day.
However, even before the process of Enlightened improvement was completed in the Lowlands with the clearance of the cottars from the land, it had already been superseded by an even more revolutionary revolution- the Industrial Revolution. This revolution was not the commercial revolution anticipated by Adam Smith and his fellows. It was an energy revolution.
To meet the demands of this revolution, the newly improved fields of central Scotland were dug up to gain access to the coal and iron ore which lay beneath them. First canals and then railways were constructed across the corn fields linking mines, iron works and industrial towns in a dense network which all but erased the Enlightened landscape.
It was within this darkened industrial landscape, not the Highlands, that the real tragedy of Scotland’s history was played out. A tragedy that embraced not only Scots who had been cleared from the land, but over 200 000 Irish people who had been cleared from their land by famine as well as landlords.
Over successive generations, children, women and men laboured in the factories and coal mines, shipyards and iron works. But only a fraction of the wealth their labour created was ever returned to them. In despair, millions left Scotland- clearance on an industrial scale.
What drove Scotland’s industrial clearances was not just the appalling physical conditions Scotland’s working class had to endure. Through the power of their trade unions, the condition of the working class in Scotland was slowly improved. What helped drive the later industrial clearances was the conservatism of Scotland’s capitalist class. This class failed to heed the advice of the Communist Manifesto : ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production’.
Instead, Scotland’s industrial capitalists tried to preserve their early Victorian instruments of production even as Scotland entered the twentieth century. As a consequence, from the 1920s onwards their economic role was replaced by that of the State until they were ultimately extinguished by nationalisation. But although nationalisation did bring new investment, it could not reverse the decay of Scotland’s Victorian industrial infrastructure and an economy built on coal. Long before Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, coal mines were being closed, railway lines ripped up and steel furnaces blown-out.
If the wealth from North Sea oil had not been squandered by Margaret Thatcher and her successors in pursuit of their neoliberal fantasies, it could have been used to help build a new Scotland. But it wasn’t and now, after the failure of the 2014 independence referendum and the failure of neoliberalism, Scotland’s future is as bleak as it has ever been.
In the past, the prospect of a future of endless austerity would have led to a wave of migration, of economic clearance. Will things be different this time?
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