Despite the passing of a couple of centuries, the Highland Clearances is still an emotive subject guaranteed to raise the hackles of anybody who knows anything about it, highlanders and southerners alike. The story is simple and well known: how evil and greedy landlords forcefully evicted thousands of poor working folk from their homes to make way for more profitable sheep farms, often accompanied by violence, extreme hardship and even death, especially at the hands of cruel Patrick Sellar, a sub-factor in Sutherland.
Having read several excellent books and knowing the area of Sutherland, I knew the story pretty well. Or so I thought until I was lent a copy of Richards' excellent book! Of those I have come across, this is the first to get under the skin of the subject, to go beyond the emotional melodrama and anger that naturally informs most writing on the Clearances. Richards presents us with a lengthy and well balanced insight into the origins of, and reasons for, the decisions taken by Highland landlords in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a story far more complex than the simple tale of woe outlined above.
Whilst never shying from acknowledged social implications of these events, Richards strips away the accumulated mythology to present and assess hard facts of what actually happened across the whole of the Highlands. He shows there were many types of removals other than the oft remembered violence encountered in Strathnaver and the lot of highland folk was far from cosy: the hills were overcrowded and unprofitable, famine and disease a constant accompaniment to subsistence living. Clearly there were rogues, but some benevolent landlords actively sought to support these people, either by improving their conditions or by assisting them to relocate.
Nobody denies an underlying chase for increased profits, but many clearances were undertaken fairly humanely on the one side and with dignity on the other. Indeed, Richards makes the point that in England the plight of tenants and labourers could sometimes be worse as landlords sought to improve yields while reducing costs. Highland Clearances are thus seen in a wider context of increased mechanisation, larger farm units, enclosure of common lands and industrialization.
It is said that history is made by the winners and this is true here. Generally, the common people do not have a voice, their plight and state of mind is known or imagined only from a few contemporary newspaper reports, or sporadically gleaned from other sources, but mostly they are anonymous figures in estate records. This is the enduring image of the Clearances: of humble and downtrodden refugees, on the point of starvation with few belongings, meekly accepting their fate as behind them their homes are torn down or burnt to make way for sheep pens. Sadly, we seldom get to know what they were thinking or what became of them as they simply disappear from records.
Richards' account is absolutely authoritative and probably definitive. It effortlessly explodes myths and preconceptions as it explores every aspect imaginable whilst never losing sight of the great hardships endured or difficult decisions faced on all sides. There are other authors who continue to fuel our rightful sense of passion and outrage of this infamous episode, but I heartily recommend Richards to readers who wish to get a little closer to the `whole truth'.