ighland Clearances



written by Iain Kerr


© COPYRIGHT 1997 by Iain Kerr


Reproduced here with express permission of Iain Kerr.


The Glorious Revolution 1688

James VII and II was proclaimed King of Scots on 10 February 1685 but he omitted to take the Coronation oath to defend the Protestant religion. The Indemnity which he published to celebrate his accession omitted all his Covenanting enemies. By 1688, the King's open support of the mass and promotion of Roman Catholics to power and office confirmed the fears of the English and Scots Protestants. The birth of a Prince of Wales in June 1680 [Prince James Frances Edward Stuart - the 'Old Pretender'] convinced the English magnates that James's policy would survive his death. They therefore invited William of Orange, the husband of Queen Mary, to take the English and Scots Crowns. The battles of the "Glorious Revolution" included the Battle of Killiecrankie where "Bonny Dundee" was killed commanding the western clans against the Williamite army. The Revolution ended in King James' final defeat at the Battle of the Boyne achieving what the Covenanters and other dissidents had striven to achieve - the firm establishment of a Protestant Crown for Great Britain. James and his family fled to France where amongst other things they changed the spelling of their name to Stuart.

The Revolution Settlement including the Treaty of Limerick, by which William of Orange became King de jure as well as de facto, was not universally welcome in Scotland. Opposition came from various quarters. The Jacobites, seeking the return of James, were still active; the Episcopalians resented the establishment of the Presbytery; the Cameronians were outraged by the disregard of the Covenant; and disappointed politicians united themselves in the 'Country Party'.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The newly established government promised indemnity to all Scots who would eschew any Stuart loyalties and take the oath of allegiance before 1 January 1692. They clearly hoped that the recalcitrance of the Highland chiefs who sympathised with the deposed Stuarts, would provide a pretext for a crusade against them. MacDonald of Glencoe (the leader of a small branch clan of the Clan Donald), partly through truculence and partly due to bad weather, was a few days late in giving his pledge of allegiance. 'Letters of Fire and Sword' were issued against his small clan also known as MacIans, which had a reputation for thievery, and was hated by the Campbells, who were serving the Crown. On the night of 13 February 1692, thirty-eight MacDonalds, including two women and two children, were treacherously murdered by a party of Campbells which had been quartered in their midst. The few surviving MacDonalds fled over the snow-clad mountains; some to Ulster where they changed their name to McDonnell. This was the source of a long-lived feud between the MacDonalds and the Campbells.

War with France

Another source of friction was that from 1689 to 1697, King William III was at war with France, and France was Scotland's old ally. Scottish money was spent and Scottish lives were lost - the Cameronians, for example, suffered dreadfully at the battle of Steenkerk (in modern Belgium) in 1692 - in a quarrel which was repugnant to Scots sentiment.

The Darien Scheme

William Paterson, a Scot whose claim on history was the foundation of the Bank of England, was less memorable to his own countrymen. In 1693, he set up a company to establish an entrepot on the Ithmus of Darien (now known as Panama) which would command the trade of the two great oceans. Scots put up L400,00 - about half of the national capital available - every Scot who had L5 to spare invested in the Darien scheme. The colony of New Edinburgh was set up in 1698 but fever, dissension and English opposition ruined the venture. The colony was abandoned with great loss of life (over 2,000 men) and capital (over L200,000).

The Scottish distrust of the English was further fuelled by the Act of Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments of 1707; an Act intended to unite the two nations, but all too often to the advantage of the English side. Discontent in Scotland remained wide and deep, being intensified by the ascendancy to the throne of Great Britain of George I, a German from Hanover, while the 'legitimate' Stuart monarch - the 'Old Pretender' or James III, was still extant. Four times over the next three decades it seemed as if the Stuart White Rose would bloom again.

The Jacobite Attempts 1708, 1715, 1719 and 1745

After the punitive shock of Glencoe, the clans tuned their backs to the South, believing that they could continue to live as they always done, despite tax collectors and red-coat garrisons. But the irritations of English rule persisted. While the Hanoverian Kings ruled Britain, there were four attempts by Jacobite forces to restore the Stuart monarchy; the best known being the "Fifteen" and the "Forty-Five".

In 1708, King Louis XIV of France, was anxious to avenge Marlborough's victories in Continental Europe and aware that Scotland was ill-defended. He launched a strong fleet destined for the Firth of Forth, but bad weather, faulty navigation and the arrival of the English ships prevented the invaders from making any landing. A seed had been sown.

With the accession of George I in 1715, the Jacobites had good reason to believe that the Stuart house might be restored through rebellion. The Scots were all tired of the Union. The Earl of Mar raised the Stuart standard at the Braes of Mar in September with the support of a few Scottish nobles, mainly Lowlanders. But he was soon at the head of a force of 12,000 men. By the end of the month he had occupied Inverness and Perth. Yet this venture failed completely. The towns, except for a few, held for the English Crown. The Earl of Sutherland raised the extreme North for the Crown, but no help came from France. Mar dallied at Perth sending aides to attempt to raise the country in Jacobite south-west Scotland and northern England. Mar then advanced on Stirling, engaged in an indecisive battle at Sheriffmuir, before retiring to Perth.

Fortunes ware not reversed by the arrival of the Chevalier, the Old Pretender, who while personally brave was not supportive of the campaign. The Chevalier and Mar slipped off by sea from Montrose in February 1716, leaving their supporters to shift for themselves. The Crown was markedly lenient with leaders of the rebellion, only two being executed. In 1717 an Act of Grace and Free Pardon was offered to all except MacGregors. The Crown's attempt to sell off forfeited estates was singularly unsuccessful; most of the land was returned to Jacobite landlords.

The attempt to raise the Jacobite cause in 1719 was very small in scale. Cardinal Alberoni assisted James Stuart to despatch two Spanish frigates and a force of 300 white-coat soldiers to Eilean Donan Castle on Loch Duich. They met with little support and in June were routed halfway up Glen Shiel and promptly surrendered.

The "Forty-Five" has attracted most interest because of its romance and because it seemed to come very near to success. It was not however, a spontaneous rising of a great part of Scotland but more a major diplomatic play in the greater business of Western Europe. The Jacobites had suffered badly in the 20 years after the Loch Shiel debacle. The Highlands were strongly garrisoned with locally raised regiments, including the Black Watch - regiments which also served with great success abroad. The garrisons were based in strong forts (such as Fort William) linked by new military roads. Overseas things had not gone well for the "King over the Water"; expelled from France by the Peace of Utrecht, he had sought refuge with the Pope at Avignon, then in Rome. George II had succeeded to the English throne in 1727 without any Stuart intervention.

In 1745, King Louis XV prepared an invasion fleet at Dunkerque; which actually failed through bad weather; he commissioned Charles Edward Stuart, son of the Chevalier to conduct a diversionary attack in Scotland. The Young Pretender seized the moment and with but a few aging companions landed at Arisaig in July 1745. He managed to raise a small army of clansmen, some unwilling recruits brought in by threats of eviction and burning. His force never exceeded 10,000 foot and often was half that number. Before the rebellion was finally crushed, there were more clans hostile to the Young Pretender and more Scotsmen in arms against him than had ever sworn to die with him. His stubborn adherence to the Church of Rome would lose him all but derisory support in the Lowlands and England. The Young Pretender's recruiting also suffered from some unwise actions by Highland chieftains during the previous two decades. They had organised their own clearance campaigns - driving out the crofters and runrig farmers in order to farm the more profitable sheep. Some of those evicted families were involuntarily sent to the Americas as "white slaves" or indentured labour. Resulting in most infertile recruiting ground!

Charles Stuart led his Army into Stirling plain in September, defeating the only government army in Scotland at Prestonpans. Charles occupied Edinburgh, although he failed to capture the castle, and then prepared for the invasion of England. The Jacobite Army advanced unopposed by way of Carlisle, Preston and Manchester reaching Derby on 5 December. But their logistics were desperately over-extended and they had failed to rally more than a small group of Manchester Episcopalians to increase their strength. Charles Edward Stuart found himself facing government Armies advancing from Yorkshire and Staffordshire and learned of a major force being raised for the defence of London. In the absence of a French invasion and the lack of English rising in support, there was little choice but to retreat the way they had come. By 15 January 1746, the Jacobite Army was drawn up at Bannockburn ready to receive an attack from the English force under Hawley. But Hawley remained at Falkirk, so the Jacobites fell on them and put a seasoned army to rout.

Culloden 16 April 1746

At dawn on Wednesday April 16, fewer than 5,000 hungry and exhausted Jacobite troops limped into their battle line on a bleak moor above Culloden House. They stood, faces into a sleeting gale, on ground which no senior officer but Charles believed could be defended. Facing them was an army of 9,000 men under the Duke of Cumberland including Lowland Scots troops and a battalion of Campbells. Winnowed by Cumberland's guns the clansmen at last charged through musketry and grape-shot, slashing their way into three ranks of levelled bayonets. This was the Highlander's only tactic - massed charge into the enemies ranks. Worn down, the stubborn withdrawal turned into a hysterical rout and the English marched forward to take ceremonial possession of the field of victory, bayoneting the Jacobite wounded before them. The Scots lost over 1,000 dead. The long brawl of Scottish history had ended in the terrible blood of its best remembered battle.

Charles Edward Stuart escaped the field of Culloden; while his followers were given over to the brutalities of Cumberland and Hawley, he wandered the Highlands and Islands until 20 September when he made his escape to France from Moidart. His flight was desperate business; he was an embarrassment to the chiefs into whose land he came. The remainder of his life was a sad decline into wife-beating, wine and decay. When the Old Pretender died in 1766, the Pope would not recognise Charles Edward Stuart as King of Scotland. He eventually died without legitimate issue in 1788; however the Stuart claimants continued in a bastard line.

Highland Clearances from 1747

Unlike after the earlier rebellions, the policy of government repression after the "Forty-Five" was inexorable. It began with the extermination of the wounded who still lay on the battlefield and was continued by the imposition of martial law, the shooting and hanging of fugitives, the driving of stock and the burning of house and cottage. The supporters of the Young Chevalier paid heavily for their loyalty to the Jacobite cause, apart from the ravages which the government army and navy which followed Culloden. The prisoners were all tried in England. One hundred and twenty of the prisoners were executed, the officers by the axe, common men by the rope; about 1,150 were banished or transported as slaves to the American plantations. The fate of another 700 men, women and children is unknown, but they probably died in gaol or in the abominable prison hulks anchored in the Thames off Tilbury.

The Highland clearances were then continued by three linked policies; the destruction of the warrior society; the development of hill sheep farming in place of traditional crofting and forestry; and the wasteful expenditure of Highland fighting manpower on government business - fighting English wars overseas.

The Destruction of the Clans

King George II's Fifth Parliament in 1747 passed the Act for the pacification of the Highlands. This was seen by the English as the means of putting to an end the "chronic condition of petty warfare in which the Celtic population of the Highlands lived". The structure of the clan was torn down and the powers of the chiefs taken from them. Rigorous laws were passed against the wearing of tartan, kilt or plaid; the carrying of arms was forbidden, with transportation for a repeated offence. The clansmen dipped their traditional cloth in mud or dye and sewed their kilt into ridiculous breeches. When the proscription of Highland dress was eventually lifted in 1782, few of the common people accepted it. The tartan became the affectation of the anglicised lands, the fancy dress of the Lowlanders and the uniform of the King's Gaelic soldiers. The whole concept of Highland dress was then elaborated by the Victorians who were fascinated with things Scottish.

Five years after Charles Edward Stuart boarded ship for France, kilted fugitives were still being hunted by patrols and British commanders pursuing the policy of fire and sword. Lieutenant Colonel James Wolfe, who later achieved immortality at the Heights of Abraham outside Quebec, is on record as seriously considering the massacre of the MacPhersons.

The Ascendancy of the "four-footed clansman"

The "Forty-Five" altered the economy of the Highlands. The lands owned by the Jacobite rebels were "annexed" by the Crown and redistributed to Government favourites. The new landlords and those chiefs who had remained loyal to the Crown, no longer reckoning their wealth in fighting men. The chiefs began to demand rents from their principal tenants, the "tacksmen" [lease-holders]. The tacksmen's previous main obligation had been to maintain the military strength of the clan and act as officers. Many tacksmen emigrated; those who remained demanded rents from their sub- tenants. Although the net population continued to increase until 1831, the family holdings became smaller and poorer. The introduction of the potato brought some relief, but the ordinary crofter could obtain ready money by going south to work in the harvest, by breeding black cattle which were driven south for sale, or emigrating. Meanwhile the encroaching sheep advanced.

The great Cheviot Sheep, richer in fleece and mutton than any other contemporary breed, was brought to the Highland glens in the aftermath of the "Forty-Five". It was the simple answer to the laird's problems - he had no need to deal with tenants and could contract the tedious business of herding and shearing to Lowland and Northumbrian graziers who were ready to lease his land. The increasing demand for meat during the French wars made mutton more economic than beef and profit supplanted the paternalism of the old chiefs. But before the sheep, the "four-footed clansmen", could take to the hills, the Highland men and women had to go - their townships from the glen and their cattle from the brae. In valleys where once a hundred young swordsmen had once been raised become home for no more than a Border shepherd and his dogs. The true Highlanders took their grief to the slums of Glasgow and the pains of an industrial work-place or to the emigrant ships at Fort William and Greenock.

The indiscriminate and selfish practice of eviction and clearance was seen by later economists as a benevolent plan for the national good. The bewildered Highlander was portrayed by Adam Smith as unproductive, slothful, superstitious and ignorant.

The Loss of Fighting Men

The raising of Highland regiments, upon commissions granted to their chiefs, took sullen and resentful men away from their despoiled glens, and used them in the creation of an imperial Britain. One of the first, mustered by Simon Fraser of Lovat, contained many of the men who had fought at Culloden, and some of them died with James Wolfe on the Heights of Abraham.

During the next fifty years, the Crown drained the Highlands for 27 line regiments and 19 battalions of fencibles [soldiers destined only for home service]. Frasers, MacLeods and Campbells, Macleans, MacDonalds, Camerons and Mackenzies, Gordons, Grants, Rosses and Munros, Atholl men, Sutherlanders and Mackays; all found their destiny wearing the red coat and a belted plaid of government approved tartan. They were raised in the way of the former clan levies; each chief and his tacksmen bringing in a number of his young tenants by persuasion or force. They were a unique and splendid corps. Crime and cowardice were rare, and when they mutinied, as they sometimes did, it was with dignity because the promises made to them by their chiefs had been broken by the government.

In 1757, Prime Minister Pitt established a national Militia and made further use of the "aye-ready" loyalty of the Highland people by enrolling regiments from the Highlands. Between 1757 and 1799, about a dozen Highland regiments were raised, whose performance form a bright page in the annals of the British Army. In the French wars at the turn of the 18th century, the Highlanders supplied the British Army with the equivalent of seven or eight infantry divisions.

The battle honours tell the tale of spilt Scots blood across the world -





"Improvement of the Highlands" 1813-1850s

The greed of sheep-rearing land-owners increased and became formalised in the 19th century. Justified in hindsight by such economists as Adam Smith, the British Government set in train a formal 'Policy for the Improvement of the Highlands' in 1813. The policy was to forcibly remove crofting people from the inland valleys and to settle them on the coast. The first great clearances began in 1814, the "Year of the Burning", in Sutherland and Ross. The dispersal lasted until the middle of the century and the sheep empire endured until it was destroyed by competition from the wool and mutton of Australia, where many of the Scottish exiles had fled.

For some years the kelp industry of the isles sustained a large population, and even encouraged immigration. But in the end it decayed and was replaced by sheep. Emigration to the colonies was now regarded by the Government as a noble purpose and supported by government funds and private subscription. [Similar activities took place, albeit on a smaller and less emotive scale, in Kent and Sussex in England, whose salt-marshes and downs were ripe for sheep farming.]

This period saw frequent famines, the worst of which followed the potato blight of 1846 which affected much of rural Scotland as well as Ireland. There were epidemics of cholera, and whole families were found dead in the rotting straw of their huts. In the food riots which followed both blight and pestilence, Highland regiments marched against Highland men and women. These last clearances of all, in Knoidart, were considered the most terrible, since they were intended to remove a vestigial pauper population before it became a Poor law liability for the incoming graziers.


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