scottish history
A service from

One, Two

The Highland Clearances

Scottish Origins... up to William Wallace

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

Battle of Falkirk & Execution of Wallace

History of the Kilt

Patrick Geddes

Tragedy at Glencoe


The Highland Clearances, and their causes, effects, and results
Chapter One

One, Two
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More than any single battle; more than any one event in Scottish history that I've had numerous requests for -- is a realistic look at the Highland Clearances.

Being of Highland descent myself, I have always had an interest in finding as much of the truth of this tragic event as possible. But there is a danger for a historian writing about ones own ancestors, who were, literally, purged from their own country as the Highlanders were. I accept this danger -- the danger of presenting a personal, but historically accurate, look at the Highland Clearances -- rather than a cut, dry and brittle year by year accounting of numbers of emigrants, evicted tenants and statutes.

In this work, we shall look at the awful truths of the Highland Clearances, if ocassionally from a Highlanders perspective. I don't apologise for this approach -- rather, it is one that is sorely needed.

If readers find a perspective look at history objectionable, then they are forwarned ahead of time. If, however, one falsely deduces that a perspective is subjective and thus flawed by its very nature, then I invite those readers, and all others, to read the story of the Highland Clearances and the truths of the matters.

This account will always stay true to historical facts and conventions, even if ocassionally, given from a Highland point of view. After all, I owe this much to my own Highland ancestors, most of whom were forcibly expelled from their picturesque, ancient Highland glens and lochs by unsympathetic and uncaring eighthteenth and nineteenth century "Improvers". The only thing the 'Improvers', improved, were their own greedy pocketbooks. To tell this emotional and terrible story of our ancestors sufferings -- unknown or dismissed by careless historians for centuries -- I shall willingly endure the slings and arrows of the history critic. After all I am one and I know how critical we can be. Many of these historians and history story tellers' preferred versions, until fairly recently, have been the uncaring and excuse-making perspectives of the 'improver' southrons and sheep fattened Clan Chiefs. In the end, I know I have told the truth of it, and my Highland soul is no longer bound to the revisionist and 'blameless' historians, who would have you believe it was simply a tragic circumstance -- no-one's fault. It simply isn't that simple, nor is it blameless. It was, however, inevitable.

Part One:

Before any words can even begin to attempt to describe the 'ethnic cleansing' of the Highlands of Scotland, one must be aware of the circumstances that occured prior to the atrocities of the Clearances. This is especially true for understanding the two nations of Scots and their relationship; the clan systems; the Jacobite wars and most especially that event that led directly to the Clearances. That event is the anti-climatic destruction of the great and proud Highland army, the very last Highland army -- under the command of a young Prince Charles Edward Stuart or "Bonnie Prince Charlie" at Culloden in 1746.

End of the Clan System

Cleared Highlander
[Cleared Highlander]

The 'pacification' of the Highland clans which followed the disaster of Culloden destroyed the ancient life of the glens. The 'pacification' of the Highlanders and the Clearances which followed a generation later, completed the ruin of that once proud and ancient tribal society known as the Highland Clan System.

Before 1745, the bulk of Scottish Regiments (a relatively new idea), mostly the Blackwatch, had been drawn almost entirely from the Lowlands, where hatred of the Gael ran deep. Aside from the independent companies raised by General Wade, later in the 18th century, Highlanders were viewed as barbarians or called "wild Irish" and seen with about as much compassion, sympathy or understanding as the Zulu's were a century later.

Yes, today Scots, both Highlander (the few that are truly of Highland blood) and Lowlander are equals and get along smashingly. But we are looking now at mid-eighteenth century Scotland and England. One must keep this in mind throughout this history. Indeed, at the time there were in truth two distinct Scotlands. One, the ancient Gael, descended from Celtic origins with dashes of Norse, Flemish and even some Norman blood. Whereas the Lowlander had been a more Germanic-English (genetically speaking) or Saxon, Angle, Norman, Celtic, Dane, Flemish and other European blooded racial mix since before the days of William Wallace. The kings of Scotland since MacBeth were more in line with English beliefs than the older Celtic ones -- and the kings of Scotland now ruled from the Lowlands. Therefore, what evolved in Scotland were two different peoples, using the same name and Nationality, but being fundamentally different both racially and linguistically. The Highlander had retained his native Irish tongue (Gaelic), manner of clothing and was by every aspect, very Gael and very Celtic. The Lowlander had adopted many Anglo customs since the days and arrival of Malcolm Canmore (Cean more), Malcolm III, and early Lothian English had become the primary tongue of Edinburgh and other great cities of the Lowlands in the 11-12th centuries.

The Highlander saw the Lowland Scot as a 'foreigner' and more (in their early view) like the English than any Scot. This in itself was offensive to the Lowland Scot who was anything but English!

However, the Lowlander, of this time, saw the Highlanders even worse; as tribal barbarians -- not the 'noble savage' painted in words by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th century. Highlanders were odd, barbaric and 'clannish' to the city dwelling Lowlander, who naturally saw them as more like 'wild Irish' (as they called them), more than Scottish.

Even had there been common ground for both, it seems as if a tragic barrier of mutual incomprehensibility was built between them -- they could not, and did not really ever attempt to understand each other. Is it all the fault of the Lowlander? No, of course not. That would obviously be too simplistic an answer. The tragedies that would occur in the Highlands between Scots, Lowlander and Highlander, were long in the blood of these uneasy allies. A clash of cultures was inevitable at some point. It had flared in some cases before, as in the battle of Harlaw, or "Red Harlaw". But the disasterous depths of the clash coming could never had been predicted by the two races of Scots who never truly understood the other to begin with. Yet, the Highland leaders, the Chiefs, are as much to blame, if not moreso, for the calamity of the Highland Clearances once the horrible process had begun.

Scots-English and Gaelic

Throughout the centuries, Scotland acquired a rich mixture of races through both invasion and immigration. The newcomers were always absorbed into a fairly homogeneous breed. The forms of speech varied widely between Lowland Scots cities, but they were all forms of the English, or the sub-division known as Scots-English, and that is partially the situation even today. Auld Scots is and has been spoken in Lowland Scotland for centuries, but when they write, it is generally in English. Why? This dichotomy is largely due to the translation of the Bible which was carried out in the south of England. It was carried out in that majestic 17th century style, and this helped to introduce, or rather, impose, 'Standard' English as the written language.

There have been periods between then and now when Scots have tried to eradicate the 'Scottishness' of their speech, feeling (under heavy pressure from England) it inferior or somehow lower-class than Standard, even whilst they revered the Scots poetry of Robert Burns, usually very briefly, once per year on the celebration of his birthday on 25 Janurary.

Lately, Auld Scots is enjoying something of a revival and a new respectability. An event this author is pleased to see and promote. The nature and history of old Scots is emotional, turbulent and complex, changing even faster than the history of those who use it.

One group of Scots, those Northern Scots, stubbornly remained outside the homogenizing process; the Gaels. Their ancient language and its cousin languages in Ireland, Wales, Isle of Man, Brittany in France, and to a lesser extent in Cornwall, are descended from the lost tongue of the ancient Indo-European. It tended to move, or be driven, to the Western extremities of Europe, and, much like its people, has regularly been under threat.

Some estimates show that Gaelic is spoken by perhaps as few as 100,000 Scots, out of a population of over four million. Although attempts are underway to revitalise this ancient tongue of the Gael, it is still a very small minority.

But the language divide has always been there, and remains. Children in the Highlands and Islands today learn English as well -- Standard English rather than Scots-English. Thus, the country is still partially separated by language and culture, into English speaking Lowlands and Gaelic-speaking Highlands and Islands, though this division is not nearly as extreme as it was in the mid-eighteenth century.

The language gap or division was much more profound in older times, and played a bleak part in the great tragedy of the Highland Clearances, which left the Highlands void of most, possibly 85-90%, of its people, trees and forests...leaving vast areas bare and deserted even today.

But language was only another part of the great jigsaw puzzle of Scottish division. The Jacobite wars figure greatly in this story and we shall look at them briefly next.

A Brief History of the Jacobite Wars

Although to attempt to view the devastation of the Highlanders and their life-style as a sole result of Culloden and the Jacobite Wars is a vast oversimplification, it is still a very important factor in the end of the Highland Clan System. No attempt is or will be made to make the Clearances solely linked to Jacobitism. This is a large part of British history that did effect all of Scotland, especially the Highlands. It should be seen as another of many factors, albeit an important one, alongside language and cultural differences. These then, hastened the end of the Gael's way of life.

Lowland Covenant (a predominantly Lowland religious belief) failure of the 17th century was also marked by the loyalty of the Scottish Clans to the Royal House of Stewart, a loyalty remarkable for surviving 25 years of neglect from London after the Restoration of the Monarchy. The last of the Catholic Stewart Kings, James VII and II of Scotland and England respectively, was forced into exile in 1688. It was from his former realm of Scotland (the Highlands), that the 'King Over the Water' and his heirs drew most support. In fact the word 'Jacobite' may be the most lasting (and only real) success of James VII and II. He gave his name -- James -- converted to Jacob -- to the Stewart loyalists -- the Jacobites.

In the "Great Civil War', the prowess of the clans under the great Montrose were stirred in the first real Jacobite war of 1688-89, when Montrose's descendant John Graham, 'Bonnie Dundee', led Jacobite Highland clansmen to victory over the army of Dutch William at Killecrankie (1689). Dundee added immeasurably to his and the Jacobite cause and legend by getting himself killed in the monent of his greatest victory.

Nor did the Highlanders forget - ever - the appalling iniquity of the Glencoe Massacre of 1692: the treacherous, government ordered slaughterous attack by forces led by the Campbells on thier MacDonald hosts.

This first Jacobite defeat did no more to weaken the pro-Stewart loyalties than had the defeat of Montrose at Philipbaugh back in 1645.

Increasing Lowland pressure for full Union with England, was indeed fertile soil for Jacobitism in Scotland as the 18th century opened. The effects of this Union (1707) are still being debated today, but clearly it was the will of a few powerful merchants, bankers and buisnesmen in the Lowlands that eventually pushed the Union of Parliaments to fruition. You will often find a much different explanation in most of Scottish and English history books -- even today -- suggesting that all Scots wanted this Union, when in fact it caused riots in Glasgow and Edinburgh and the Highlands were never in favour of any sort of Union with England....but then the Highlands were never asked. It, in turn, nearly destroyed Scottish independence and was the death-knell for the Highland way of life.

One important but often overlooked aspect of Jacobitism was that it was far more than a sustained nostalgia on the part of a few Highland Chiefs for the return of their 'real' king. In reality, Jacobitism was the ONLY 'opposition party' in Britain. The very idea of a party of opposition, sounded, to many British of the time, like treason in itself. The Stewarts were often Catholic, unpredictable and quick to draw on Highland support when in dire need of an ally. Unfortunately, the Highlanders, or many of them, seemed all to willing to go to their graves for the ungrateful Stewart Regime. This truly frightened England and many Lowland Scots. Nor was Jacobitism limited to Scotland. English Catholics, in particular, shut out from religious office, oppressed and yearning for religious toleration in a non-tolerant era, looked to the exiled Stewarts to restore some balance in their favour. They were seen as natural Jacobites (although, as in Elizabeth I's time, most preferred to argue their case as loyal subjects 'from within the system', rather than resort to outright rebellion). One must keep this in mind: in the Jacobite rebellions (wars, really) of 1715 and 1745, Prince James Edward and Price Charles Edward Stewart were not merely seeking to establish themselves in Scotland; their eyes went past Edinburgh to London.

One of the great ironies of the Jacobite rebellions is the tremendous starts only to be followed by sputtering and sometimes disasterous endings. The clans who rallied to the Royal Standard of the Stewarts in the 'Fifteen' and the 'Forty-Five' had uncannily similar runs of fortune to their forebears who had fought for Montrose and Dundee. After intial successes from Tippermuir to Kilsyth in 1644-45, and Killiecrankie in 1689, so there were initial Jacobite victories at Sheriffmuir in 1715 and Prestonpans in 1745 before the inevitable turning of the tide.

"Bonnie" Prince Charlie
[Prince Charles Edward Stuart] The Bonnie Prince lost miserably on that awful day in 1746 at Culloden Moor. But more than men of war and soldiers were entire race and culture were about to be 'improved' for sheep and money. Even though the would-be Prince lost that battle, and ended his life in 1788, an exiled drunken embarrassment to all, he had, in his great days, succeeded where even the mighty Montrose had failed, and led a Highland army south into England. It got as far as Derby, and had King George packing and fleeing south, before the Prince came to the realisation that NO English uprising in his favour was going to happen. It was during the ill-fated retreat back to Scotland that Cumberland caught up with the Bonnie Prince and his Highland army near Drumoisse Moor -- Culloden.

The clan system as it had been for perhaps 1,000 years ended on the afternoon of 16 April, 1746, when the attenuated battalions of half-starved clansmen composing the army of Prince Charles Edward Stewart suffered their first and final defeat at the hands of the troops of the Duke of Cumberland on the disasterous fields of Culloden.

The Prince, after much hiding and sheltering, finally made his escape back to France to become on of histories forgotten men, forgotten except for the fact that he was "Bonnie" and that Flora MacDonald helped him escape, which gave a misleading air of 'romance' to his escape.

Pacification of the Highlands

Memorial Marker at Culloden
[Culloden] But the final bill was footed by the unfortunate Highlanders. Cumberland rightly earned his name "the Butcher" for his post-battlefield atrocities. He ordered his Red Coats to kill every surviving clansman on the field, even burying some of the wounded Highlanders alive in hugh pits of death and suffocation. He also earned the flower 'Sweet William' named after him by the English and 'Stinking Willy' in Scotland.

The scare that the 'Forty-Five' had given the British Hanoverian Regime may be measured by the subsequent Governmental attempt to root out the Highland clan tradition forever. In this, they were determined. Banning Highland dress, Highland music and language; executing and exiling clan leaders, and finally driving roads into the heart of the Highlands -- but none of these ploys were entirely successful.

Immediately after Culloden, and in the years to follow, great numbers of people in the Highlands, men, women and children, were killed on mere suspicion of disloyalty to the Government, or even on general principle that the 'only good Highlander was a dead Highlander'. Their outlandish language and their alien customs made it possible to regard them as 'Other', as less than full human beings. The Irish were to suffer this same treatment in the next half-century in the Great Potato Blight, which also affected Scotland badly, and which was allowed to fall the hardest on the landless Highlanders.

The powers of the Clan Chiefs were taken from them. Although it has been said it was not the Clan System that died at Culloden, for it still exists today, it is a fool who believes that the surviving Clan Chiefs hold any power as their predecessors had held before Culloden. Modern Clan Societies now are more formal and social organisations existing out of desire and contribution, rather than by any necessity. Indeed, the old clan system did die at Culloden. More so than any factor it was the powers of the Chiefs, Chieftains and their place as 'fathers', the leaders, of their people that died. The clans were left without anyone to direct them and became easy prey to grim missionaries determined to teach them a relentless Lowland Presbyterianism which would bind them forever to the Government. These missionaries from the Lowlands had such names as 'Society for the propagation of Christian Knowledge' and came to the Highlands in 1791 (seeking Godlessness in the Highlands, but finding something more alarming). They sent a message back stating:

"The secretary was assured upon authority which appeared to him conclusive that since the year 1772 no less than sixteen vessels full of emigrants have sailed from the western parts of the counties of Inverness and Ross alone, containing, it is supposed, 6,400 souls, and carrying with them in specie at least 38,000 pound Sterling."

From that point onward, few Highlanders ever left Scotland with their monies, possessions, or their dignities intact. If they were to emigrate, apparently they would be forced to do so as penniless indentured servants, slaves or beggars.

The numbers of landless men increased as the merging of small holdings into large single units under one tenant increased. The clansmen were now destitute of the only possession they'd ever had...the land. But for these men and women, "Improvement" in the Highlands had no sympathy. Compassion makes expensive calls on the conscience, and thus it seemed a comfort to find compassion undeserved. Said one great 'Improver', Sir George MacKenzie of Coul,

"They [the landess Highlanders] live in the midst of filth and smoke. That is their choice. They will yet find themselves happier and more comfortable in the capacity of servants to substantial tenants than in their present situation."

To exploit the land, the chiefs and leaders of the clans had first to remove his tacksmen, or bring them to heel as tenants, for they, not he, held most of his property.

The Tacksman, simply put, was a man of the clan who held 'tacks', or leases, granted to him by the chief in the old clan tradition and on his property. Thus these tacksmen were the key to all the land. Many tried to help their fellow clansmen and clanswomen, but could not make it themselves. Unfortunately, many did as the chief was now doing and treated his tenants (like the chief often treated the tacksmen) as annoying children who should be encouraged to move off the land so that he could sell it for profit. What they were supposed to do...or where they were supposed to go seems to have been given little care or thought by many of the chiefs and tacksmen. time, would become the evictors that sent hundreds of thousands of Highlanders to the New World or to death.

Immediately after Culloden, the roads were policed; tartans, weapons and even the bagpipes were all made illegal. Even speaking Gaelic was disallowed and made punishable by death or imprisonment. Highlanders were subjected to every imaginable savagery whilst being encouraged to emigrate (penniless) to another country. It is a psychological twist that has justified the the British urge to Colonise. The American Indians also suffered from it. In the case of the Highlands it has an even blacker tinge since the victims, inspite of their language, were compatriots of the killers, and that the killers had no intention of taking over the rather forbiding land and settling it; they were merely engaged in an act of violence for its own sake and an act of greed and rape of all the Highlands and Islands.

1746 has often been described as the end of the separate history of the Highlands. And in many ways it was. But for more than a century afterwards, history went on, and became even blacker.

It was, on the other hand, the end of the Jacobite cause, the end of all hope for that legitimate but unfortunately Catholic Royal family and all those Highlanders who remainded loyal to her, to the end (and even those who did not suffered the same fate).

It was also the beginning of legends of the great smoke-screen of nonsense, of high flown sentiment and downright bad history. The Highlands were romanticised whilst at the same time the Highlanders were being forced into dreadful exile or death. What follows in the next several sections, is history that most everyone would prefer to forget -- and why we must remember.

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