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The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900 Hardcover – 4 Oct 2018
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A superb book ... Anybody interested in Scottish history needs to read it(Andrew Marr Sunday Times)
The definitive word for an academic generation at least on this most controversial of topics in Scottish history ... Dramatic (Herald Scotland)
Persuasive... A necessary book (Scotsman)
Powerful ... admirable lucidity ... important. (Ewen A Cameron Irish Times)
If Sir Tom Devine hadn't chosen to be a historian, he'd have made a great historical novelist. That choice may have been a loss to literature, but The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, is worth it. The scope of this book - the Lowlands, the Highlands and the diaspora from the 17th century to the 20th - is impressive, and the detail and depth of knowledge displayed are remarkable - but what's truly amazing about it is how damn readable it is. (Diana Gabaldon Telegraph)
At the end of this superb book, a much more nuanced picture emerges of what might be called the great demographic revolution of Scotland. (David Aaronovitch The Times)
Scotland's foremost historian ... a major publication. (Kathleen Jamie New Statesman)
About the Author
T. M. Devine has written four books for Penguin: The Scottish Nation, Scotland's Empire, To the Ends of the Earth and Independence or Union. He is Sir William Fraser Professor Emeritus of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh. In 2001 he was awarded the Royal Gold Medal, Scotland's supreme academic accolade, and has won all three major prizes for Scottish historical research. He was knighted in 2014 for services to the study of Scottish history. In 2018 he received the UK Parliament's All Party History and Archives Group Lifetime Achievement Award for Historical Studies.
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The first section deals with the “Long death of clanship” from James VI/I onwards. The odds were stacked against the Highlands agriculturally – with only 9% in cultivation and good only for raising black cattle too valuable for the people to eat, the poverty of the region was one reason it took the Scottish state so long to gain control over it – it wasn’t worth it. Clan-based society was undermined by acquisition, crown charters and intermarriage, while more and more clan gentry pursued expensive lifestyles in the capital which the incomes from their poverty-stricken estates couldn’t support. The Napoleonic Wars provided some relief with the demands they created for beef, men and kelp (for chemicals). By the mid-19th century two thirds of Highland estates had changed hands following the bankruptcies of their traditional owners. Edinburgh lawyers acting for the new owners were unsympathetic to the plight of their tenants.
Two generations before the Highland Clearances, the Lowlands underwent a clearance which resulted in the disappearance within a few decades of an entire social class, the cottars. But this went with a rapid expansion of towns and villages, and new economic activities which meant leaving the land was a positive choice. Between the 1871 and 1911 censuses the trickle leaving the Lowlands countryside became a flood, “caused not by destitution but by the lure of opportunity”. Protest against enclosures took place in Galloway, but most protest was around religious, not agricultural, matters.
The background to the clearances in the Highlands was a rapid and sustained population increase, a fact ignored by Prebble and his ilk. And, unlike in the Lowlands, the population stayed put – they moved to overcrowded, tiny holdings and to the coast, where they were expected to take up fishing, kelp gathering and whisky distilling. The potato came to the rescue until the potato famine of the 1840s added a new level of misery. Crofting was a new system. The recruitment of Highland regiments (with recruitment bonuses for landlords) provided some relief in the late 18th century, but this reached its limits.
Villains – the Countess of Sutherland, of course, and her agent Patrick Sellar, “whose name lived on in infamy”. Devine explores the racial overtones of the Clearances – the view of the Gael as an inferior race, and the role of CM Trevelyan who saw mass, forced emigration, to rid the Highlands of Gaels, as the only answer. For a while the Scottish press supported the landlords, but in the final chapters he explores how the tide turned in the 1880s with the Highland Land Law Reform Association, the Napier Commission, the 1886 Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act, and the vilification of the landlords in the press – and in Alexander Mackenzie’s book.
Just one thing: coming from a long line of MacDonells of Glengarry I couldn’t help noticing a cluster of related editing mistakes: “Macdonnel of Glengarry” has three page references in the index, and a further three mentions (not picked up in the index) on pages 53, 226 and 271 where the name appears as MacDonnell of Glengarry. Both are incorrect: it’s MacDonell of Glengarry (one n, 2 l’s). On the facing page to the last one (270), it’s spelt Macdonnel (as per the index), so it’s surprising this wasn’t picked up at the proof-reading stage. And I’m not sure who the “Alexander Macdonnell” mentioned on page 264 as “warning out” some tenants from his Knoydart estates is? Not the 15th chief (Walter Scott’s friend Alastair Ranaldson, whose portrait by Raeburn hangs in the Scotttish National Gallery), nor his predecessor (Duncan), nor his successor (Aeneas). The official clan history, “The Clan Ranald of Knoydart and Glengarry” by Norman H MacDonald, discusses the name and includes an appendix of facsimiles of chiefs’ signatures from the 16th century onwards. Aeneas, 9th Chief (1645-1680) was the first to sign himself “Macdonell”, as all have done since, some opting for the upper case “D”. “MacDonnell” (two n’s) is the name of the Co. Antrim branch of Clan Donald.
But, this is a trifling blip in a superb book.
The blurb describes Devine as the “greatest living historian” of Scottish history, and from his CV this seems a reasonable claim. As he says in the Introduction, he has covered parts of the topic in other books, but aims here to pull it all together.
There are two common errors about the Clearances which Devine highlights at the start: that they are associated only with the Highlands (thus the title, “Scottish” instead of “Highland”), and that they were the overwhelming and direct cause of the depopulation of and emigration from the Highlands. Devine succeeds in both of these:
-He contends “the dispossession of people in the Highlands has always had a high profile; in the Lowlands it is low to the point of virtual non-existence”. To drive the point home, he says that the 19th century evictions in the Highlands “left a deep mark and their memory endured”, “while most of those that had gone before were lost to history”.
and that landlessness became greater in the Lowlands. He explains that, in the Lowlands, despite a comparable level of landlessness, its people adopted more easily to a wage-based economy, partly because of a higher demand for agricultural labour. However, he mentions many side-effects of this, for example that Lowlands women “became a significant part of the workforce because the heavy industries … drew off so many men to jobs in the cities”.
-As for the Highlands, he argues, from 1745 to about 1820 most emigration was voluntary, motivated by a desire to gain land which had been lost due to over-population and the start of the enclosure process. The Government was resistant to emigration, because of the need for labour for profitable work such as kelping and the wish to retain a pool of men for army recruitment. By 1850 this view was reversed, and instead “mass emigration, including, if warranted, the use of coercion, was the only corrective for the deep-seated social ills of the Highlands”, caused by such factors as poverty, illness and the potato famine. Thus “the policy of clearance changed from resettlement to expulsion”.
Many other historians have expounded upon the evils of the Highland Clearances, but Devine helps us to see events from different viewpoints. For example, it is fairly well-known that the re-settlement of inland Highlanders to the east coast with small holdings sufficient “for the maintenance of an industrious family” but also “pinched enough” to force crofters to take up fishing as well [quotations from an estate manager of the time]. Devine points out this means that many men were forced into an occupation for which they had no experience.
One of the many strands he covers is the relative lack of opposition to the clearances, and the differing causes of this in the Highlands and Lowlands. He correctly identifies as a landmark the start of organised opposition in Skye in the 1880s, which helped to lead to laws improving crofters’ rights.
An essential source for a comprehensive picture of why and how the clearances happened and what changes they produced.