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Clearances? What Clearances? – Scottish Review of Books
by Michael Fry

Clearances? What Clearances?

October 28, 2009 | by Michael Fry

THE CLEARANCES have become a defining piece of history not only for the Highlands but also for Scotland as a whole. They add a bit of colour, of lurid red or heathery purple or unnatural green, to one of our major modern images of ourselves, as a grey and wan victim-nation. The best Scottish blood is supposed to have been drained by the wicked aristocrats or the arrogant English or the heartless capitalists. Now all these owe us a living. One of the jobs of the Scottish Parliament is to make sure we get it and so to requite the injustices of the past.

Yet suppose the view of Highland history underlying that catalogue of complaint is a false one. Scotland has generated many dubious myths, after all – about Mary Queen of Scots as a sort of feminist icon, about Bonnie Prince Charlie and the whole Jacobite cause, about John MacLean and a missed revolutionary moment in George Square, Glasgow. Scots seem to need myths to make up for lack of reality as a nation. But probe the myths and they fall apart. Perhaps this process is necessary before reality can impinge and something can be done to start dealing with it.

That thought at any rate occurred to me as, in preparation for writing a new Highland history, I began to look more closely into some of its notorious episodes. A small but typical example was the voyage of the Hector. As one of the earliest known emigrant ships it made a transatlantic voyage which was significant also because the party on board would start the Highland resettlement of Nova Scotia, abandoned over a century before, and turn it into a kind of Scottish colony.

The Hector weighed anchor in July 1773 from Loch Broom in Wester Ross and steered a course for Pictou Harbour, 3000 miles away. The journey was a nightmare. The ship ran into a hurricane in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when the wretched emigrants, many already sick from dysentery and covered in sores, were thrown in heaps about the hold, awash in a soup of vomit, urine, liquid excrement and bilge-water. That went on for a fortnight. Life does not get much worse, and they prayed for death.

They at last arrived starving and exhausted in September to discover not the smiling landscape of fields and farmsteads they expected but a kind of wilderness never seen in Scot-land, with forests growing down to the water’s edge. When they asked after their designated plots of land they were told to go and look three miles inland, amid dense stands of pine.

It had turned too late in the year to plant a crop even if arable soil could have been found. Some of the emigrants set off carrying their luggage to walk two days and nights across trackless waste to the nearest existing settlement. Others opted to stay put, without an inkling of the ferocious Canadian winter about to hit them. They had to survive in flimsy huts, learning the hard way to fish through ice and hunt through snow.

The story of the colonists at Pictou is harrowing, indeed heartrending. It is, all the same, absolutely irrelevant to any discussion of the alleged clearances because these people had not been cleared. Most of them had answered ads placed late in 1772 in Scottish newspapers by the owners of the land in Nova Scotia. These included the Rev John Witherspoon, former minister of Paisley and now principal of the College of New Jersey (today called Princeton), later a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence: a radical rather than conservative hero. The respondents were conned about the prospects and we can pity their naivety. But that hardly makes theirs a story of forced rather than voluntary emigration. Many were tenants not of Highland landlords but of the British government, on the estates confiscated from Jacobites after the rebellion of 1745. They could have stayed home if they had wanted. But they chose to leave.

Struggle though they had to survive, survive they did: “That stream of Scottish migration which, in after years, flowed, not only over the county of Pictou, but over much of the eastern part of the Province, Prince Edward Island, portions of New Brunswick, and even the Upper Provinces, began with this voyage, and even, in a large measure, originated with it, for it was by the representations of those on board to their friends, that others followed, and so the stream deepened and widened in succeeding years.” That was the moral of the tale of the Hector as drawn by George Patterson of Montreal in a book published in 1877, while huge emigrations from the Highlands were still going on. No lamentations there, but rather admiration for the resilience of the people involved. These Highlanders were in the final analysis not to be pitied but to be praised. Is that an early example of clearance denial?

I can say from my own researches that it is certainly odd what the humble seeker after truth can turn up by poking round in Highland history. One of its most infamous chapters was written with the so-called Sutherland Clearances during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Their effect on the population of Scotland’s largest county was – well, as a matter of fact the population of Sutherland actually increased by several thousand between 1801 and 1831. If this was clearance of the hapless crofters it could not have been all that ruthless. In fact I soon came to wonder if it could properly be called clearance at all. The Tory rulers of Scotland at that time thought population a good thing. They made every effort to keep the Gaels in the glens.

They had on this view only to wait for improvement – or economic development as we would say nowadays – to bring the Highlands up to the level of the Lowlands just as, by leadership from above and hard work from below, the Lowlands had already been brought up to the level of England. Clearance was then to be deplored because it would deprive the Highlands of a workforce, as well as of a reservoir of brave soldiers for the war against Napoleon. So where the Tory rulers of Scotland could manage it, using their limited powers of the time, they deterred Highlanders from leaving.

It was Liberals, such as the Duke of Sutherland, who pursued the opposite course, in a naive belief that radical policies could put the world to rights, the Highland world in particular. Since governments of the period had so few powers, it seemed obvious to the duke that a lead had to come from great aristocrats like himself with more or less absolute command over their land and the people living on it. Such power would in today’s terms only be approached by the Scottish Executive. Sutherland shared with this modern counterpart a deep faith in planning. He had his factor James Loch draw up a master-plan for his county. The people were to move away from the long straths of the interior where they eked out a bare subsistence. Down on the coast they would have new homes and new livelihoods from new industries: it sounds like nothing so much as a more bracing East Kilbride. In fact the duke’s actions did resemble the programme of clearing slums carried out by Glasgow and other Labour councils in the period after the Second World War. Even the distance the people were moved from the middle of Strathnaver down to Bettyhill on the northern shore of Sutherland was about the same as from Townhead to Castlemilk. Both types of plan were well-meaning but in the event misconceived. They were typical examples of social engineering which met neither the hopes of the benefactors nor the needs of the beneficiaries, but produced social disaster.

The modern authoritarianism of municipal housing departments perhaps does not quite so well compare with the behaviour of Patrick Sellar, the man employed by the duke to organise the removals. Sellar was the one who in person threw people out if they showed any reluctance to go, and burned down their crofts to make sure they never came back. Two old people Sellar evicted were too ill to go far. He left them exposed to the chill northern air and they died. For this he was tried, though acquitted on a charge of manslaughter by a jury which had to be drawn from outside the county of Sutherland because of the emotions the affair aroused. Today some professional Highlanders affect to speak of genocide, but that is surely taking the matter a bit far: two million people can be the victims of genocide but two individuals cannot, however deplorable the circumstances of their deaths. And even if Sellar had been found guilty this need not have reflected directly on his employers because he exceeded his instructions. The duke’s wife wrote: “The more I hear and see of Sellar the more I am convinced that he is not to be trusted more than he is at present. He is so exceedingly greedy and harsh with the people, there are very heavy complaints against him from Strathnaver.” In the end he was to get the sack.

Nowadays we tend to be impatient of arguments that superiors were ignorant of their inferiors’ misdeeds. We rejected it when Heinrich Himmler pleaded he could not be held responsible for all that went on in the concentration camps just because he did not know and sanction every detail. Yet the guards certainly assumed they were acting on his orders. He, while he had the authority, never did anything to stop them. That was enough to hang him.

A parallel with the Sutherlands is far-fetched, though. Their aim was not to exterminate the population of their estate but to guide it in heavy-handed and paternalist but still do-gooding fashion towards a better way of life. Sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind: this would be a better defence of Sellar. The Sutherlands did not accept it in any event. That was why Sellar had to look for another job.

To say all this is not to deny that there existed landlords who just threw their tenants off their estates and left them to shift for themselves. Examples are given in the works of John Prebble and other Highland historians. Yet the Sutherlands were not like that, though Prebble jumbles them up with the rest. The Sutherlands did everything possible to make sure their tenants would still have a place on their estates: not the same place as before, not perhaps the same place as the tenants would have chosen for themselves, but a place all the same.

The evidence of this lies not only in the fact that the population of Sutherland continued to rise during the alleged clearances. It is also shown by the fact that the county weathered the next big Highland crisis much better than other parts of the region. When the potato blight struck in the 1840s, only one of Sutherland’s 13 parishes had to apply to the fund set up by the government for official aid in relief of the distress, and this was the parish of Clyne – the one parish where the duke had no property. Like clearance, famine is another term bandied about in Highland history with little regard for its meaning. Just as two corpses do not make a genocide, so in a famine, in my estimation, people have to die. It is not enough for them to be threatened with hunger, or even to go hungry for a spell, before relief comes. Search as you will in the Highlands, there are no mass-graves to be found full of skeletons from those who starved miserably to death.

In Ireland there was certainly a famine caused by that same potato blight, and there over a million people perished. But no statistical inquiry has revealed any great rise in the Highland death-rate at the relevant period. Nor, to take an entirely different type of evidence, is there any poetry of lamentation of the hunger from a race that always expressed its deepest emotions by exploiting the lyrical range of the Gaelic language.

The conclusion must be that in Scotland there was no famine. There was shortage, certainly, for a couple of seasons because of the failed harvests of potatoes. But Scots showed themselves well-organised enough to take this in their stride: could anything less be expected of the nation which invented the steam-engine, tar macadam and anaesthesia? Lowlanders saw to the supply and distribution of food or other aid to their Highland cousins. They felt sorrow but also contempt for the Irish who could not manage to do the same.

Again, I do not deny that the crisis at this point was a real one. I just want us to use our language more carefully than we are accustomed to do in speaking or writing of the Highlands – in other words, with the purpose of describing facts rather than arousing emotions. The basic crisis lay in the soaring population, not in any famine. The soaring population was fed and it survived, which only made the basic crisis worse. Between the unofficial Scottish census carried out by Dr Alexander Webster in 1755 and the official Scottish census of 1841 the number of people enumerated in the Highlands rose from about 250,000 to near 400,000. Then suddenly the population levelled off. It did not do so because of famine, for the failure of the potatoes never killed anyone. What it did do was prompt the Gaels to abandon their hills and glens and islands for the Lowlands or England or the Empire, after understanding through bitter experience that improvement was never going to take place.

The authorities no longer sought to stop them either: Britain now had a Liberal government. On the contrary it became accepted that all attempts to solve the old Highlands’ problems, on lines similar to the unimaginably successful Lowland improvement, had been a complete waste of time, effort and money. Highlanders could only get on by getting out, and get out they did. An interesting thing is that the history of clearance, such as it was, also ended at this point. Prebble, who popularised that history and who searched out clearance wherever he could find it (even in places where the population increased), brings his narrative to a close in 1854, with the last removals from the Outer Isles and from Easter Ross.

Recent books by the more sober Eric Richards, professor of history at Adelaide in Australia, point out how for a variety of reasons the landlords were no longer willing to expel the people en masse, though opportunistic evictions of individuals carried on. With his habitual deference to political correctness, this most reliable of Highland historians seems unwilling to go further than that.

The question which struck me in sifting through the evidence afresh was this: how come the exodus of Highlanders accelerated in the late nineteenth century, creaming off a natural increase in population of about one per cent a year, if clearance had halted? Or to put it the other way round, how come the exodus was now greater than during the heyday of the supposed clearances?

The obvious answer was that other factors came into play. They are not hard to find. Highlanders had always left their ancestral homes under their own steam, defying the disapproval of landlords and government. Now, with rising literacy in both Gaelic and English, they could read about the industrial revolution in the Lowlands and the unlimited freehold land in America. Railways arrived. Towns grew. The new industry of tourism arose. As strangers could get in so Gaels could get out, faster than before. They could go to work for a season on Clydeside. Indeed they could go to work for a season in New York, and plenty did. If they prospered, they could summon their families. If not, they could always return home. The net result was depopulation because so many better opportunities offered elsewhere.

Who would want any longer to subsist by throwing excrement over a patch of moorland and planting potatoes in it, while winds howled and winds lashed? Only a posterity which knew nothing of such vile conditions could invest them with a glow of golden nostalgia.

Every modernising society suffers strains and sometimes excruciating pains, as we see today in Asia and other rapidly developing parts of the world. The strains and pains are endured because the final rewards are so enormous. In this the Highlands differed not one whit from regions in Europe where the same process went on in the nineteenth century, with the land divided into holdings getting smaller and smaller in line with the increase in the population. These regions were at length deserted by their peasants for the cities or the wide open spaces of North America and other distant continents. But these regions have not made their common history an obstacle to progress, as we have in Scotland.

Here the unique consequence and conclusion of the development was the Crofters Act of 1886. It sought to bring an unhappy Highland history to an end. What it did instead was shunt the natives into reservations and doom them to stagnation. While till the 1840s the Highland population had been rising steeply and till the 1880s levelled off, after the Crofters Act it plunged. The greatest depopulation of the Highlands took place not in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries but in the twentieth century, only being halted towards the end.

Another contributor to Highland myths has been the socialist literary critic, David Craig. He numbers among his books one called On the Crofters’ Trail. It tells of a journey he made to Canada to collect oral history of the supposed clearances. He felt puzzled when the original settlers’ descendants would not confirm the stories he carried with him: “The people we met were proud to have been part of the migration rather than troubled that it had ever been necessary.” Craig also found it peculiar of them to insist that their forefathers had not been cleared, but had come to the New World of their own free will and made the most of things. The ambition and mobility of the colonists escaped him too: “I had not expected that the Scottish settlers would move on, most of them, so soon, having used Cape Breton as a stepping stone to the American Middle West, the Canadian prairies, British Columbia”.

A great paradox in the Scottish myths of clearance is that descendants of those who went away think their departure was a good thing, while only the descendants of those who stayed behind think it was a bad thing. Those who suffered rejoice, while those who were spared lament. Yet who has got the better deal from history? Who has the greater sense of reality? Who has the more useful myths? Perhaps these questions and their answers are connected, in the new Scotland as they were in the old.

Michael Fry’s, WILD SCOTS: FOUR HUNDRED YEARS OF HIGHLAND HISTORY, is to be published by John Murray in July.

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