Clan System
Jacobite Rebellion
The Clearances
Clans Today

The Clearances

Of all the misfortunes to befall the Scottish Highlanders, the Clearances are probably the worst and the one that still engenders great bitterness down to this day. Whether it was economic necessity as described by some, or ethnic cleansing,  as described by others, the nett result was that between 1783 and 1881 man's inhumanity to man resulted in a documented 170,571 Highlanders being ejected from their traditional lands. Records are very sparse and it's been estimated that the true total was very much greater than this.

The catalysts for the Clearances had been the Union of 1707 with which many Scots were disallusioned; the uprising of 1715; the near successful uprising of '45 which resulted in the Battle of Culloden and the resultant ban on Highland dress, tartan and weapons. These and the continuing internal strife between Catholic and Protestant finally broke the Highland spirit. The last straw in 1747 was the 'Hertitable Jurisdictions Act' which stated that those who did not accede to English jurisdiction were to have their lands forfeited to the Government.

It's said that the few remaining Highland landlords had no option but to bend the knee to this legislation. This was the death knell of the clan system and the traditional Highland way of life where the people rented land from their Chiefs and in turn pledged their allegiance to them. By the end of the 18th century, 60% of Hebridean landlords were reported absent - reputedly preferring the softer social life of London to that of the spartan Highlands.

In his book 'The Making of the Crofting Community', J. Hunter writes:

"Many chiefs were as at home in Edinburgh or Paris as they were in the Highlands, and French or English rolled off their tongue as easily as - perhaps mores easily than - Gaelic. Moreover, while away from his clan the typical chief, conscious since childhood of his immensely aristocratic status in the Highland society whence he came, felt obliged to emulate or even surpass, the lifestyle of the courtiers and nobles with whom he mingled. And it was at this point that the 18th century chief's two roles came into irreconcilable conflict with one another. As a southern socialite he needed more and more money. As a tribal patriarch he could do very little to raise it."

The economics of the Clearances or the Improvements as the landlords euphemistically called them, were simple. They had for many years supplied beef to Government forces but when the demand dropped once the United Kingdom's overseas wars diminished, they were left economically vulnerable.  Demand for wool had risen dramatically - its price tripled between 1800 and 1818 - so rearing sheep made sense. Regrettably it meant that on average, one shepherd covered as much land as had been worked in the past by 12 to 16 families - possibly 80 people - and the income from these new  'four-legged clansmen' more than replaced the meagre rents they had gathered in the past.. The return was attractive enough for the absentee chiefs and landlords to start moving people away from their traditional homelands.

To achieve this they used their 'factors' - their estate managers - and at the height of the clearances it's said that as many as 2,000 crofts a day were being burned to the ground - some of which had been inhabited by the same families for as long as 500 years. Because many crofters were still loyal to their chieftain, they often placed the blame for the Clearances and their hardships on the factors. It was beyond their comprehension that their chief - their father figure - would treat them in such a manner (ref: Scottish Highland Clearances, Memorial Committee).

The instigator of such barbaric methods of 'clearing' the traditional clan lands of humans was said to have been Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland (1765 -  1839) who, with her husband the Marquis of Stafford (later made 1st Duke of Sutherland) employed Patrick Sellar a lawyer and James Lock their factor, to carry out the 'improvements'. These two set about their task with great relish and 'cleared' 15,000 people to make way for 200,000 sheep. With no shelter remaining for the cleared families, many starved and froze to death huddled in the rubble of their former homes. In 1811 more than 50 new shepherds employed in Sutherland were made Justices of the Peace with legal control over the native tenants and in their contracts  was often a requirement to 'clear' a certain number of additional families from the land each year.

It is difficult to ascertain the true extent of the clearances since, as in modern times, good news (i.e.chiefs who did not support the clearances) did not warrant reporting. Historical accounts differ depending upon the teller but the figures do themselves reflect the enormity of the problem and give veracity  to the many personal reports of those involved. The following selective diarised entries from put some flesh on the bones although it is not always known if it was the Clearances or other economic factors that prompted some of the large migrations of crofters.


1739. MacDonald of Sleat and MacLeod of Dunvegan sell selected Clan members as indentured servants to landowners in the Carolinas.
1780s. Donald Cameron of Lochiel begins clearing his family lands which stretch from Loch Leven to Loch Arkaig.
1791. The Society of the Propagation of Christian Knowledge reports that over the previous 19 years more than 6,400 people emigrated from the Inverness and Ross areas.
1801. The first clearances of the Strathglass area by William, the 24th Chisholm. Nearly 50% of the Clan are evicted. The emigrant ship The Sarah sails from Fort William to Pictou with 700 people crammed into the holds resulting in almost 50 people dying on the voyage..
1814. Patrick Sellar begins burning Strathnaver. Residents not given time to remove their belongings or invalid relatives and two people reputedly die from their houses burning.
1815. The Sheriff-Substitute for Sutherland arrests Patrick Sellar for 'willful fire-raising . . . most aggravated circumstances of cruelty' if not murder.' Not surprisingly, a jury of affluent landowners and merchants acquit him.
1819. Another violent clearing of Strathnaver residents. Donald MacLeod, a young apprentice stonemason witnesses: '250 blazing houses. Many of the owners were my relatives and all of whom I personally knew; but whose present condition, whether in or out of the flames, I could not tell. The fire lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins.'
The Kildonan area is cleared. Donald MacDonald writes: " . . .the whole inhabitants of the Kildonan parish, with the exception of three families - nearly 2,000 souls - were utterly rooted and burned out."
1826. The Island of Rum is cleared except for one family. MacLean of Coll pays for the other natives to emigrate to Canada. The emigrant ship James arrives in Halifax. Every person on board had contracted typhus during the voyage.
1851. The clearance of Barra by Colonel Gordon of Cluny. The Colonel called all of his tenant farmers to a meeting to 'discuss rents' and threatened them with a fine if they did not attend. In the meeting hall' over 1500 tenants were overpowered, bound, and immediately loaded onto ships for America. An eyewitness reported: "...people were seized and dragged on board. Men who resisted were felled with truncheons and handcuffed; those who escaped, including some who swam ashore from the ship, were chased by the police..."
1853. Knoydart is cleared under the direction of the widow of the 16th Chief of Glengarry. More than 400 people are suddenly and forcibly evicted from their homes, including women in labour and the elderly. After the houses were torched, some tenants returned to the ruins and tried to rebuild their villages. These ramshackle structures were then also destroyed. Father Coll MacDonald, the local priest, erected tents and shelters in his garden at Sandaig on Loch Nevis, and offered succour to as many of the homeless as he could.

1854. The clearing of Strathcarron in Ross-shire. Some Clan Ross women tried to prevent the landlord's police force by blocking the road to the village. The constables charged the unarmed women, and, in the words of journalist Donald Ross: ". . . struck with all their force. . . . not only when knocking down, but after the females were on the ground. They beat and kicked them while lying weltering in their blood . . . . (and) more than twenty females were carried off the field in blankets and litters, and the appearance they presented, with their heads cut and bruised, their limbs mangled and their clothes clotted with blood, was such as would horrify any savage."
The arguments between both sides show no sign of abating but perhaps the last word can be left to the Highlander in the following report of 1854 which tells of landowners seeking to gather troops for the Crimean War from amongst their remaining tenants:
'should the Czar of Russia take possession of (these lands) next term, we couldn't expect worse treatment at his hands than we have experienced in the hands of your family for the last fifty years.'

Article by Brian Wilton of the Scottish Tartans Authority, reproduced here by kind permission of the House of Edgar, Perth.