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Massacre of Glencoe

Battle of Culloden

The Highland Clearances

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, as Britain’s pastoral heritage was augmented by the Industrial Revolution ’s steam, steal and bluster, the Scottish Highlands witnessed emigration en masse as its population sought economic refuge in Lowland Scotland, England and North America. What was happening in the Highlands echoed many demographic trends that had already took hold in agricultural Britain at large; the peasantry were subsumed into the working classes, toiling in factories producing chemicals or textiles rather than tending the land. The enclosure laws put the landowning middle classes in the box-seat. Jethro Tull ’s seed drill was a defining moment amidst an Agricultural Revolution that saw the peasantry own less land, and tenant farmers with margins squeezed until families were entrenched in poverty.
But the Scottish Highlands had always been different, misunderstood, misrepresented. Moreover, the Highland people were subjected to the most brutal of evictions, famine, and were ill-prepared for such radical change; for centuries, Highland society was demarcated into a a clan system, where chieftains of the clan families would do the bidding for all in the Highlands. In many respects, it was a quasi-feudal system, with the lower classes swearing fealty to the clan as much as the state. This was anathema to those in Lowland Britain. As early as the 16th Century, government officials sought to bring clan chiefs under the yoke of the state: the Highlands had always been a troublesome area to administer. As the firestorm of Jacobite Rebellions tore through the region in the 18th Century, with risings in 1715, 1719 and 1745, the government created a network of military roads to quell the lawlessness of the chieftains. Roads, which still exist to this day, stretch out through Tyndrum and Glencoe . If ever there was an example of the seemingly unbridgeable fissure between Highland and Lowland relations, the Massacre at Glencoe was it: 38 men of the MacDonald clan were murdered in cold blood, while woman and children were cast out into the Highland winter.
With Jacobitism dying in 1746 on the fields of Culloden , near Inverness , it could have been thought that Highland recalcitrance was no longer a problem. But to the landowning middle classes, inspired by the riches reaped by fellow landlords throughout the country, this was a time for renewal. It was a time that the Agricultural Revolution visited the overpopulated and poorer Highland regions. Sheep farming was rationalised. Crofters were displaced to the most infertile of lands. Improvements: that was the grounds for social upheaval. Those expelled from their land to reap a miserable pittance on the margins may have asked where and to what were these improvements. The early stages of the Clearances were thought to have taken place in the Isle Of Skye . The rationalisation that saw agricultural England transformed into a patchwork of enclosures, increasing the yield of the land exponentially. Enterprising landowners and chieftains, like Admiral John Ross and Sheriff Donald MacLeod, were keen to apply this economic rationale to the Highlands.
1792, The Year Of The Sheep, was typical. Crofters were expelled to the coastal extremities of the Highlands. Livestock and families perished. The Scottish Highlands is not the most hospitable of landscapes, even in the most favourable swathes of it; at its worst, it is exposed to high winds and driving rain. Fertile land is at a premium. Driven towards coastal towns with their cattle, the lower classes were exposed to the harshest of conditions. Still, landowners’ work on their land continued apace, with sheep replacing people. English factors presided over landowners estates. By the early 19th century, families were being displaced in their dozens, driving coastwards, to starvation and disease, or to seek an uncertain future in America. Those that stayed behind were living as serfs. The depopulation of the Highlands accelerated as Ireland starved with the 1847 Potato Famine , and cholera ravished the Highlands.
Landowners were not averse to violent evictions. Some like Elizabeth Gordon, the 19th Countess of Sutherland, in cahoots with her factor Peter Sellar, would expel families with fire, smoke burning in the nostrils of the displaced. As more Highlanders were forced to move south to secure their future, more sheep took their place. Highland villages lay deserted. Gaelic became a second language, a lasting symptom of the 19th century Clearances. In two centuries of economic turmoil, evictions, accusations of bigotry and mutual distrust, the Scottish Highlands were irreversibly changed, closing one of the most emotive and bitter chapters in the unhappy relationship between the Scottish Highlands and their Lowland kin.

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