Thursday, December 17, 2015

Eric Richards, The Highland Clearances

I have long known about the Highland Clearances as something bad that happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries -- bad, that is, except that they drove many Highlanders out of their impoverished Scottish homes to new lives in North America, Australia, and Glasgow. But I have never had a very firm grasp on what actually happened or when or why, and a few weeks ago I decided I wanted to know more. After a bit of internet review hopping I settled on Eric Richards' 2002 book as a good place to start, since people praised his evenhandedness and great knowledge of the subject.

Evenhandedness is important here because the clearances have inspired a much extreme rhetoric. People regularly speak of the clearances as one of the great crimes of British history, as a cultural genocide, and even as a genocide plain and simple. As Richards puts it,
The Highland Clearances is one of the sorest, most painful, themes in modern Scottish history. The events have now receded into the distant past, beyond the direct memory of any living person or even their parents. But the passionate indignation lives on, swollen rather than weakened by the passage of time. A rage against past iniquities has been maintained, fed by popular historians and every variety of media construction. A line of denunciation flows from the oral tradition of the early nineteenth century -- the samizdat of an oppressed and angry people -- to the electronic graffiti of the present day in the webs of retrospective indignation. The latter orchestrates the uninhibited passions and prejudices of a worldwide network of Highland sympathisers, many desperate to right past wrongs, some wanting the reverse the steps of their immigrant forbears and regain a foothold in their former clanlands. They see the Highlands as a potential escape from the anomie of modern society, a beckoning prospect of pre-industrial renewal on ancestral lands. And, somehow, the story of the High Clearances also provides fuel to the cause of Scottish nationalism. (3)
The last item is weird because while the people being cleared from the land were Scottish, so were most of the people doing the clearing -- but then anyone who knows working class Scots knows that to them wealthy Scots are honorary Englishmen.

So what were the clearances? In the classic type, a Highland landowner evicted all of his tenants from a large block of land so that the whole district could be turned into a sheep farm. Some of the clearances were very large; the Duchess of Sutherland, who owned most of a county in Scotland's far north, evicted more than 10,000 people from their homes in just two years. Clearances were done with varying degrees of concern for the evicted people. Some landowners worked hard to find new homes for their tenants, either on other parts of their own estates or elsewhere; others offered to pay for the tenants to emigrate. Some did nothing. Sometimes clearances happened suddenly, whole communities uprooted with less than a year's notice; in other places they happened gradually over many years. Most of the clearances took place between 1790 and 1855, although the first was recorded in the 1680s. The clearances were undoubtedly traumatic for many of the people involved. These were peasants, people rooted in their own soil, with little knowledge of the outside world. They were desperately poor, and famine remained a regular threat down into the 1850s, but this was the life they knew and most of them wished to keep it. When people had been evicted from their homes, the homes were always destroyed to keep them from coming back. At a minimum, the roofs were knocked in, and often the buildings were burned. The image of the clearances came to be a village of burned-out houses in an empty landscape now given over to sheep, their former inhabitants driven off to who knows where.

Over the course of this period, tens of thousands of Highlanders were driven from their homes by their landlords, who were sometimes also their own clan chiefs. Some of the evicted were over 80 years old, or sick, or pregnant. Many had never known any other home. Some saw the eviction notices but refused to believe them until the land agents and their men showed up to demolish their houses, tossing them and their meager furniture onto the high road. Pathetic encampments were set up in church yards, often the only land for miles around not under the control of the almighty landlords, and there the refugees huddled in tents until they drifted away to seek new homes.

The clearances were a great tragedy, but from a more removed perspective it is hard to see them as evil. This is the point that Richards keeps coming back to. Yes, the scenes of old women and men weeping as they are driven from the only homes they had known are awful. But the clearances did not happen because the landowners were wicked. They happened because peasant societies are always destroyed by modernization; in fact modernization pretty much means the destruction of peasant society and its replacement by something very different. Of all the job categories rendered obsolete by modernity, peasant was the most common and the most culturally significant. The great folk cultures of Eurasia were peasant cultures, created and sustained by centuries of peasant life. Their loss was a great one -- but on the other hand none of the gains of modernity, from dentistry to gay rights, would have been possible in a peasant society. Nor were peasants the only victims of modernization; from 1837 onward the people evicted from their homes by Highland landowners were far outnumbered by the tens of thousands of Britons uprooted to make way for new railroads. This is not to say that the transformation of the Highlands might not have happened more gradually and with less violence, because it certainly could have. But the anguish of American farmers driven off their land by falling wheat prices in our own lifetimes should remind us that these changes are always painful, no matter how they happen.

One interesting fact about the clearances is that while they involved driving people off the land, and we associate them with vast, empty districts, the population of the Highlands was rising rapidly throughout this period. In some Highland counties the population tripled between 1790 and 1860. Although certain districts had indeed been emptied to make way for sheep, widespread population decline only set in after the clearances had ended. In fact some clearances were a response to a burgeoning population. In some districts population growth led to the subdivision of farms into pieces so small that they could barely feed their residents, who as a consequence could no longer pay their rent. These overcrowded villages of hungry people were a sight that cultivated Victorians could not bear, and many very liberal people sought desperately for some solution to the "Highland problem." The life that the Highlanders defended so fiercely struck outsiders as a desperate plight that needed to be redressed. Many of the clearance schemes were intended, in part, to help the Highlanders find some other kind of life -- fishing, collecting and burning kelp, tending sheep -- that would make them more secure than farming their tiny plots. The good intentions of reformers were part of the story.

When we think about terrible things done to the poor, we tend to assume that the rich must have been profiting. But for the clearances this is not really so. As the old Highland economy creaked into the industrial era, most landlords were not doing any better than their tenants. Hundreds went bankrupt, including some of the greatest lords. Switching to sheep farming was for many a matter of survival, not enrichment; for some it was the only alternative to debtors' prison. The last Lord Macdonnell of Glengarry emigrated to Australia in a desperate attempt to rebuild his family's fortune, but he failed at ranching there and came home in 1842 to die at his family seat. The following year the tenants were cleared and the estate was sold to a Glasgow ironmonger. In 1850 the Macleod of Macleod, the greatest clan chief on Skye, handed all his ancestral lands to his creditors and went to London to get a job. One close look at the dismal economics comes from a clearance carried out at Straithard on Skye in 1851. The 620 people of the community paid only £150 a year in rent, on an estate for which the owner paid £275 a year in taxes. By 1851, after years of potato failures, the tenants were £450 in arrears. Their landlord offered to forgive their back rent and subsidize their emigration with a grant of £1200. Think about that; the landlord's situation was so bad he was willing to pay his tenants 8 years' rent to go away (200-203).

The only reason the landlord class survived at all in the nineteenth century was a continual influx of outside money. Many Scots went overseas during the great years of empire, and some of them brought back fortunes that they invested in Highland estates. James Matheson of the Canton trading firm Jardine and Matheson was perhaps the most famous, but there were many others. Wealthy foreigners like Andrew Carnegie also bought Highland estates; even the queen got involved, building her own Highland castle. To summer in Scotland was the thing to do, and for the rich that meant summering on their own manors. Some of these new proprietors invested heavily in their Highland estates. The Duchess of Sutherland's great clearances were financed by her marriage into one of England's wealthiest families; she invested more than £250,000 of her husband's money in re-arranging her estates, to achieve in increase in rent from £10,000 to £22,000 a year. These huge inflows of capital did much to sustain the Highland economy, providing jobs in construction and caring for all of the new manors and so on, but on the other hand they accelerated the decline of traditional ways.

Besides these long-term investments by new landlords, the rest of Britain heavily subsidized the Highlands during the major famines of 1836-1837 and 1846-1851. Many Highlanders were as dependent on potatoes as the Irish, and the potato crops failed just as absolutely in Scotland as in Ireland. Yet in Scotland, no one starved. Literally; the government was not able to document a single case of starvation in Scotland in 1846-1851. No one starved because the rest of Britain, mainly Highland landowners and the commercial classes of Edinburgh and Glasgow, subscribed hundreds of thousands of pounds for famine relief. This part of the story seems to be missing from the angry narratives of Highlanders driven from their homes by landlords and their agents. One of the reasons that the traditional economy of the Highlands had to disappear was that the rest of the sensitized, Victorian nation, kept informed by a sensationalizing press, was not willing to let Highlanders starve, even if that meant destroying their way of life to preserve their bodies.

As to what happened to the people driven from the Highlands, it is hard to generalize. Many emigrated, but more went south to Glasgow or even England; at least at first a majority just went to some other part of rural Scotland. Some never got over the loss of their homes, but others prospered in new settings. One group of families evicted from North Uist in 1849 went to Australia much against their will, but a few years later they sent a bank draft to their former landlord repaying him for all the expenses of their emigration, along with a bit extra that they asked him to spend on a gold ring for his wife, in token of their thanks for starting them on a new life (235). It is true that they were not typical, but the most embittered and impoverished were not typical, either. Richards presents cases of whole glens and islands that were depopulated without any strife or evictions, the entire population opting to emigrate rather than hang on. Sometimes there was conflict among the tenants over whether to take a landlord's offer of subsidized emigration. If the landlord's aim was to clear his land for a sheep farm, it was no good to remove only some of the tenants; it was all or none. So if a majority opted to take the offer, the minority was not able to stay. The scenes of people forced onto ships bound for Canada mostly come from these cases, the forcing being done as much by the other tenants as by the landlord.

Many people cleared from Highland farms were settled in coastal villages like this one

There was an interesting coda to the clearances. In the early 1880s, more than twenty years after the last significant clearance, the poor people of the Highlands began to demand their land back. There had been scattered resistance to clearances over the years, most famously a 1792 incident in which the people of several villages in Inverness and Ross herded together all the sheep recently brought by big sheep farmers into their districts and drove them back across the Great Glen. But by and large the Highlanders submitted to their evictions with more grumbling than violence. In the 1880s that changed. The Crofter Movement sprang into being, and people who had submitted to power for generations began to organize and resist. They even elected five members to Parliament from the Crofters' Party. Of course this new activism was driven partly by modernization, in particular mandatory schooling, the spread of literacy and newspapers, and the acceptance by Highlanders of the Victorian habit of organizing to demand change. The government responded by sending the Napier commission, as it is now called, to conduct a thorough investigation of conditions for poor Highlanders. Their multi-volume report is a fabulous document on social and economic conditions of the time. The end result was the Crofters' Holdings Act of 1886, which made it pretty much impossible for landowners to evict farming tenants thereafter, so long as the tenants were up to date on their rent. Of course, this happened just as the population of the Highlands was beginning its rapid decline, and the act did nothing to reverse the decline, but at least the remaining crofters could feel secure in their homes. For as long as they wanted them, which in many cases was not very long.

That people fled the Highlands in droves after their right to stay there had finally been established says much to me about the underlying historical forces. The process was cruel, sometimes much more cruel than it needed to be. Until the 1850s the law was uniformly on the side of the proprietors, who could count on the help of soldiers if necessary; London regarded any trouble among the Highland peasantry as a possible Jacobite resurgence and responded accordingly. The wonderful culture of the Highlands really was hastened into a sharp decline. This decline was celebrated by some Englishmen and especially lowland Scots, who found the Highlanders a national embarrassment.

For the evicted, clearance was awful. But look at places where this did not happen, such as large districts of Ireland. The people left anyway, the language has nearly disappeared, the culture is fading, the landscape is dotted with abandoned houses and villages. The notion that any political change could have or will change the economic imperatives of modernity strikes me as bizarrely naive. If we care about great inequalities of wealth and power, about the dignity of poor people, about the overturning of lives by distant economic forces, then we should stop obsessing about long past injustices and figure out how to make things better for poor people now.

The Scotsman's summary article on the clearances is short but much better than wikipedia's, which bears the traces of clashing interpretations from "the clearances were genocide" and "lets be reasonable" factions.

My historian friends may be interested to hear that Parliament passed the Crofters' Acts partly because they were persuaded to a new view of Scottish history. The historians, led by Karl Marx, argued that the absolute authority wielded by Highland landlords in the 18th and 19th centuries was a historical mistake. In medieval Scotland, they argued, all the members of the clan had some rights to the land, which belonged to the whole community. As the clan structure declined and the Highlands were legally and economically integrated into the rest of Britain, it was decided that the clan chief was the owner of the land. But this was, the historians said, an inappropriate, foreign notion. Gladstone in particular laid much stress on this argument. So Parliament acted to reverse the changes of the 18th century and restore what they believed was the actual tradition of the Highlands.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I can't blame the Scottish for lamenting the past, and the loss of those things they valued and those dreams which they fostered. Every people and every culture has their regrets, and often I find myself sympathizing with the vanquished of history.

I think reflection on what has been lost is healthy and in many ways necessary. The trick is in finding acceptance, even within lamentation - in learning how to not cling to anger over things lost past, but to instead ensure that we learn from the mistakes and tragedies of the past and try to prevent it all happening over again.

I can't help but be reminded of The Skye Boat song, a beautiful and moving piece of music written in support of Charles III, the second Jacobite pretender. I wouldn't truly wish to somehow undo the past and put Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne, but I can appreciate the anguish and the sorrow of the defeated people who believed so strongly, so desperately in that cause that it inspired them to compose this touching piece of music.

And I think in listening to the song and even in singing it when the mood catches me, I can reflect upon the nature of humanity and remind myself of the wrongs and mistakes of the past, and perhaps in some small way help us avoid repeating them in the future.

Speed, bonnie boat
Like a bird on the wing
"Onward!" the sailors cry
Carry the lad
Who's born to be king
O'er the sea to Skye

I hope folks will listen to and perhaps enjoy the song, so here's a link to my favorite rendition of it, by The Corries.