The Highland Clearances Re Examined Essay

1562 words - 7 pages

The popular conception of the Highland clearances depicts a simple, clear-cut tale of injustice depicted through sensational images of massacre and destruction. The clanship is often romanticised and the issues surrounding the clearances often trivialised to the extent that process of homogenisation occurs whereby all historical data becomes subsumed into one overriding dominant narrative. Usually glorifying the Higlanders and villifying the Southerners. Unsurprising as most accounts were written by one side or the other. Thus it is important to keep an objective viewpoint. For instance, many accounts talk of the years before the clearances having been a golden age.

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I have seen misery in Wales, but till I came into the country, I had no idea of humans or indeed other creatures existing in such habitations as I have seen and their food, if possible, still worse.’ (Grenville quoted in Richards 1982:95)

Thus it can be argued that the days before the clearances were anything but a golden age. The Clanship was a politically unstable, violent society wrought with war and poverty. Famine and starvation were commonplace before the clearances even began.

It is clear that the Highlands were economically and politically backward with no central planning or fiscal policy. Each autonomous tribe made its own rules and people very much relied on subsistence agriculture for food. Methods of farming were thoroughly pernicious and unproductive. At the same time, the South of Britain was relatively wealthy with a centralized industrialized economy. Britain was arguably the most powerful country in the world.

Clearly there was great need for change in the Highlands. The motivation for parliament to make these changes was national security. After all a Highland lead army had gotten as far South as Derby whilst attempting to overthrow the British King. The fifth such rebellion in a relatively short space of time. One parlimentarian tabled a motion that all Highland women should be sterilized so that the cursed Highlander race be wiped from the face of the earth. Whilst such a policy was not pursued it was reflective of the strength of anti Highland feeling which existed at the time.

Immediately after the 1745 Battle of Culloden the clearances began. ‘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.’ ( Their initial purpose was to eliminate any Jacobite threat. They aimed to destroy the clanship society. Prisoners were

taken and tried in England. Some were executed by axe or rope. Many more were transported as indentured servants to the American colonies.

Highland chiefs were executed for the mere suspicion of insubordination, thus eventually all clan chiefs became answerable to the Southern administration as opposed to their own people. They were granted legal ownership of the lands which their peoples occupied as part of the process of bringing in law and order to a previously chaotic region. Many mixed with the English upper classes and lived the high life in London.

To pay for their new lifestyles many chiefs began to abuse their newfound legal powers exploiting their own people. They decided to make their land yield as high an income as possible regardless of humanitarian cost. For example in one case tenants were banned from making their own bread and forced to buy any bread from mills at an inflated price. Landlords letted the best land to the highest bidders, usually for cattle grazing.


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