More than any single battle; more than any one event in Scottish history
that I've had numerous requests for -- is a realistic look at the Highland
Being of Highland descent myself, I have always had an interest in finding
as much of the truth of this tragic event as possible. But there is a
danger for a historian writing about ones own ancestors, who were,
literally, purged from their own country as the Highlanders were. I accept
this danger -- the danger of presenting a personal, but historically
accurate, look at the Highland Clearances -- rather than a cut, dry and
brittle year by year accounting of numbers of emigrants, evicted tenants
In this work, we shall look at the awful truths of the Highland Clearances, if
ocassionally from a Highlanders perspective. I don't apologise for this
approach -- rather, it is one that is sorely needed.
If readers find a perspective look at history objectionable, then they are
forwarned ahead of time. If, however, one falsely deduces that a
perspective is subjective and thus flawed by its very nature, then I invite
those readers, and all others, to read the story of the Highland Clearances
and the truths of the matters.
This account will always stay true to historical facts and conventions,
even if ocassionally, given from a Highland point of view. After all, I owe
this much to my own Highland ancestors, most of whom were forcibly expelled
from their picturesque, ancient Highland glens and lochs by unsympathetic
and uncaring eighthteenth and nineteenth century "Improvers". The only
thing the 'Improvers', improved, were their own greedy pocketbooks. To tell
this emotional and terrible story of our ancestors sufferings -- unknown or
dismissed by careless historians for centuries -- I shall willingly endure
the slings and arrows of the history critic. After all I am one and I know
how critical we can be. Many of these historians and history story tellers'
preferred versions, until fairly recently, have been the uncaring and
excuse-making perspectives of the 'improver' southrons and sheep fattened
Clan Chiefs. In the end, I know I have told the truth of it, and my
Highland soul is no longer bound to the revisionist and 'blameless'
historians, who would have you believe it was simply a tragic circumstance
-- no-one's fault. It simply isn't that simple, nor is it blameless. It
was, however, inevitable.
Before any words can even begin to attempt to describe the 'ethnic
cleansing' of the Highlands of Scotland, one must be aware of the
circumstances that occured prior to the atrocities of the Clearances. This
is especially true for understanding the two nations of Scots and their
relationship; the clan systems; the Jacobite wars and most especially that
event that led directly to the Clearances. That event is the anti-climatic
destruction of the great and proud Highland army, the very last Highland
army -- under the command of a young Prince Charles Edward Stuart or
"Bonnie Prince Charlie" at Culloden in 1746.
End of the Clan System
The 'pacification' of the Highland clans which followed the disaster of
Culloden destroyed the ancient life of the glens. The 'pacification' of the
Highlanders and the Clearances which followed a generation later, completed
the ruin of that once proud and ancient tribal society known as
the Highland Clan System.
Before 1745, the bulk of Scottish Regiments (a relatively new idea), mostly
the Blackwatch, had been drawn almost entirely from the Lowlands, where
hatred of the Gael ran deep. Aside from the independent companies raised by
General Wade, later in the 18th century, Highlanders were viewed as
barbarians or called "wild Irish" and seen with about as much compassion,
sympathy or understanding as the Zulu's were a century later.
Yes, today Scots, both Highlander (the few that are truly of Highland
blood) and Lowlander are equals and get along smashingly. But we are
looking now at mid-eighteenth century Scotland and England. One must keep
this in mind throughout this history. Indeed, at the time there were in
truth two distinct Scotlands. One, the ancient Gael, descended from Celtic
origins with dashes of Norse, Flemish and even some Norman blood. Whereas
the Lowlander had been a more Germanic-English (genetically speaking) or
Saxon, Angle, Norman, Celtic, Dane, Flemish and other European blooded
racial mix since before the days of William Wallace. The kings of Scotland
since MacBeth were more in line with English beliefs than the older Celtic
ones -- and the kings of Scotland now ruled from the Lowlands. Therefore,
what evolved in Scotland were two different peoples, using the same name
and Nationality, but being fundamentally different both racially and
linguistically. The Highlander had retained his native Irish tongue
(Gaelic), manner of clothing and was by every aspect, very Gael and very
Celtic. The Lowlander had adopted many Anglo customs since the days and
arrival of Malcolm Canmore (Cean more), Malcolm III, and early Lothian
English had become the primary tongue of Edinburgh and other great cities
of the Lowlands in the 11-12th centuries.
The Highlander saw the Lowland Scot as a 'foreigner' and more (in their
early view) like the English than any Scot. This in itself was offensive to
the Lowland Scot who was anything but English!
However, the Lowlander, of this time, saw the Highlanders even worse; as
tribal barbarians -- not the 'noble savage' painted in words by Sir Walter
Scott in the 19th century. Highlanders were odd, barbaric and 'clannish'
to the city dwelling Lowlander, who naturally saw them as more like 'wild
Irish' (as they called them), more than Scottish.
Even had there been common ground for both, it seems as if a tragic
barrier of mutual incomprehensibility was built between them -- they could
not, and did not really ever attempt to understand each other. Is it all
the fault of the Lowlander? No, of course not. That would obviously be too
simplistic an answer. The tragedies that would occur in the Highlands
between Scots, Lowlander and Highlander, were long in the blood of these
uneasy allies. A clash of cultures was inevitable at some point. It had
flared in some cases before, as in the battle of Harlaw, or "Red Harlaw".
But the disasterous depths of the clash coming could never had been
predicted by the two races of Scots who never truly understood the other to
begin with. Yet, the Highland leaders, the Chiefs, are as much to blame, if
not moreso, for the calamity of the Highland Clearances once the horrible
process had begun.
Scots-English and Gaelic
Throughout the centuries, Scotland acquired a rich mixture of races through
both invasion and immigration. The newcomers were always absorbed into a
fairly homogeneous breed. The forms of speech varied widely between Lowland
Scots cities, but they were all forms of the English, or the sub-division
known as Scots-English, and that is partially the situation even today.
Auld Scots is and has been spoken in Lowland Scotland for centuries, but
when they write, it is generally in English. Why? This dichotomy is largely
due to the translation of the Bible which was carried out in the south of
England. It was carried out in that majestic 17th century style, and this helped to introduce, or rather, impose, 'Standard'
English as the written language.
There have been periods between then and now when Scots have tried to
eradicate the 'Scottishness' of their speech, feeling (under heavy pressure
from England) it inferior or somehow lower-class than Standard, even whilst
they revered the Scots poetry of Robert Burns, usually very briefly, once
per year on the celebration of his birthday on 25 Janurary.
Lately, Auld Scots is enjoying something of a revival and a new
respectability. An event this author is pleased to see and promote. The
nature and history of old Scots is emotional, turbulent and complex,
changing even faster than the history of those who use it.
One group of Scots, those Northern Scots, stubbornly remained outside the
homogenizing process; the Gaels. Their ancient language and its cousin
languages in Ireland, Wales, Isle of Man, Brittany in France, and to a
lesser extent in Cornwall, are descended from the lost tongue of the
ancient Indo-European. It tended to move, or be driven, to the Western
extremities of Europe, and, much like its people, has regularly been under
Some estimates show that Gaelic is spoken by perhaps as few as 100,000
Scots, out of a population of over four million. Although attempts are
underway to revitalise this ancient tongue of the Gael, it is still a very
But the language divide has always been there, and remains. Children in
the Highlands and Islands today learn English as well -- Standard English
rather than Scots-English. Thus, the country is still partially separated
by language and culture, into English speaking Lowlands and Gaelic-speaking
Highlands and Islands, though this division is not nearly as extreme as it
was in the mid-eighteenth century.
The language gap or division was much more profound in older times, and
played a bleak part in the great tragedy of the Highland Clearances, which
left the Highlands void of most, possibly 85-90%, of its people, trees and
forests...leaving vast areas bare and deserted even today.
But language was only another part of the great jigsaw puzzle of Scottish
division. The Jacobite wars figure greatly in this story and we shall look
at them briefly next.
A Brief History of the Jacobite Wars
Although to attempt to view the devastation of the Highlanders and their
life-style as a sole result of Culloden and the Jacobite Wars is a vast
oversimplification, it is still a very important factor in the end of the
Highland Clan System. No attempt is or will be made to make the Clearances
solely linked to Jacobitism. This is a large part of British history that
did effect all of Scotland, especially the Highlands. It should be seen as
another of many factors, albeit an important one, alongside language and
cultural differences. These then, hastened the end of the Gael's way of
Lowland Covenant (a predominantly Lowland religious belief) failure of the
17th century was also marked by the loyalty of the Scottish Clans to the
Royal House of Stewart, a loyalty remarkable for surviving 25 years of
neglect from London after the Restoration of the Monarchy. The last of the
Catholic Stewart Kings, James VII and II of Scotland and England
respectively, was forced into exile in 1688. It was from his former realm
of Scotland (the Highlands), that the 'King Over the Water' and his heirs
drew most support. In fact the word 'Jacobite' may be the most lasting (and
only real) success of James VII and II. He gave his name -- James --
converted to Jacob -- to the Stewart loyalists -- the Jacobites.
In the "Great Civil War', the prowess of the clans under the great Montrose
were stirred in the first real Jacobite war of 1688-89, when Montrose's
descendant John Graham, 'Bonnie Dundee', led Jacobite Highland clansmen to
victory over the army of Dutch William at Killecrankie (1689). Dundee added
immeasurably to his and the Jacobite cause and legend by getting himself
killed in the monent of his greatest victory.
Nor did the Highlanders forget - ever - the appalling iniquity of the
Glencoe Massacre of 1692: the treacherous, government ordered slaughterous
attack by forces led by the Campbells on thier MacDonald hosts.
This first Jacobite defeat did no more to weaken the pro-Stewart loyalties
than had the defeat of Montrose at Philipbaugh back in 1645.
Increasing Lowland pressure for full Union with England, was indeed fertile
soil for Jacobitism in Scotland as the 18th century opened. The effects of
this Union (1707) are still being debated today, but clearly it was the
will of a few powerful merchants, bankers and buisnesmen in the Lowlands
that eventually pushed the Union of Parliaments to fruition. You will often
find a much different explanation in most of Scottish and English history
books -- even today -- suggesting that all Scots wanted this Union, when in
fact it caused riots in Glasgow and Edinburgh and the Highlands were never
in favour of any sort of Union with England....but then the Highlands were
never asked. It, in turn, nearly destroyed Scottish independence and was
the death-knell for the Highland way of life.
One important but often overlooked aspect of Jacobitism was that it was far
more than a sustained nostalgia on the part of a few Highland Chiefs for
the return of their 'real' king. In reality, Jacobitism was the ONLY
'opposition party' in Britain. The very idea of a party of opposition,
sounded, to many British of the time, like treason in itself. The Stewarts
were often Catholic, unpredictable and quick to draw on Highland support
when in dire need of an ally. Unfortunately, the Highlanders, or many of
them, seemed all to willing to go to their graves for the ungrateful
Stewart Regime. This truly frightened England and many Lowland Scots. Nor
was Jacobitism limited to Scotland. English Catholics, in particular, shut
out from religious office, oppressed and yearning for religious toleration
in a non-tolerant era, looked to the exiled Stewarts to restore some
balance in their favour. They were seen as natural Jacobites (although, as
in Elizabeth I's time, most preferred to argue their case as loyal subjects
'from within the system', rather than resort to outright rebellion). One
must keep this in mind: in the Jacobite rebellions (wars, really) of 1715
and 1745, Prince James Edward and Price Charles Edward Stewart were not
merely seeking to establish themselves in Scotland; their eyes went past
Edinburgh to London.
One of the great ironies of the Jacobite rebellions is the tremendous
starts only to be followed by sputtering and sometimes disasterous endings.
The clans who rallied to the Royal Standard of the Stewarts in the
'Fifteen' and the 'Forty-Five' had uncannily similar runs of fortune to
their forebears who had fought for Montrose and Dundee. After intial
successes from Tippermuir to Kilsyth in 1644-45, and Killiecrankie in 1689,
so there were initial Jacobite victories at Sheriffmuir in 1715 and
Prestonpans in 1745 before the inevitable turning of the tide.
"Bonnie" Prince Charlie
The Bonnie Prince lost miserably on that awful day in 1746 at Culloden
Moor. But more than men of war and soldiers were lost.....an entire race
and culture were about to be 'improved' for sheep and money. Even though
the would-be Prince lost that battle, and ended his life in 1788, an exiled
drunken embarrassment to all, he had, in his great days, succeeded where
even the mighty Montrose had failed, and led a Highland army south into
England. It got as far as Derby, and had King George packing and fleeing
south, before the Prince came to the realisation that NO English uprising
in his favour was going to happen. It was during the ill-fated retreat
back to Scotland that Cumberland caught up with the Bonnie Prince and his
Highland army near Drumoisse Moor -- Culloden.
The clan system as it had been for perhaps 1,000 years ended on the
afternoon of 16 April, 1746, when the attenuated battalions of half-starved
clansmen composing the army of Prince Charles Edward Stewart suffered their
first and final defeat at the hands of the troops of the Duke of Cumberland
on the disasterous fields of Culloden.
The Prince, after much hiding and sheltering, finally made his escape back
to France to become on of histories forgotten men, forgotten except for
the fact that he was "Bonnie" and that Flora MacDonald helped him escape,
which gave a misleading air of 'romance' to his escape.
Pacification of the Highlands
Memorial Marker at Culloden
But the final bill was footed by the unfortunate Highlanders. Cumberland
rightly earned his name "the Butcher" for his post-battlefield atrocities.
He ordered his Red Coats to kill every surviving clansman on the field,
even burying some of the wounded Highlanders alive in hugh pits of death
and suffocation. He also earned the flower 'Sweet William' named after him
by the English and 'Stinking Willy' in Scotland.
The scare that the 'Forty-Five' had given the British Hanoverian Regime may
be measured by the subsequent Governmental attempt to root out the
Highland clan tradition forever. In this, they were determined. Banning
Highland dress, Highland music and language; executing and exiling clan
leaders, and finally driving roads into the heart of the Highlands -- but
none of these ploys were entirely successful.
Immediately after Culloden, and in the years to follow, great numbers of
people in the Highlands, men, women and children, were killed on mere
suspicion of disloyalty to the Government, or even on general principle
that the 'only good Highlander was a dead Highlander'. Their outlandish
language and their alien customs made it possible to regard them as
'Other', as less than full human beings. The Irish were to suffer this same
treatment in the next half-century in the Great Potato Blight, which also
affected Scotland badly, and which was allowed to fall the hardest on the
The powers of the Clan Chiefs were taken from them. Although it has been
said it was not the Clan System that died at Culloden, for it still exists
today, it is a fool who believes that the surviving Clan Chiefs hold any
power as their predecessors had held before Culloden. Modern Clan Societies
now are more formal and social organisations existing out of desire and
contribution, rather than by any necessity. Indeed, the old clan system did
die at Culloden. More so than any factor it was the powers of the Chiefs,
Chieftains and their place as 'fathers', the leaders, of their people that
died. The clans were left without anyone to direct them and became easy
prey to grim missionaries determined to teach them a relentless Lowland
Presbyterianism which would bind them forever to the Government. These
missionaries from the Lowlands had such names as 'Society for the
propagation of Christian Knowledge' and came to the Highlands in 1791
(seeking Godlessness in the Highlands, but finding something more
alarming). They sent a message back stating:
"The secretary was assured upon authority which appeared to him conclusive
that since the year 1772 no less than sixteen vessels full of emigrants
have sailed from the western parts of the counties of Inverness and Ross
alone, containing, it is supposed, 6,400 souls, and carrying with them in
specie at least 38,000 pound Sterling."
From that point onward, few Highlanders ever left Scotland with their monies, possessions, or their dignities intact. If they were to
emigrate, apparently they would be forced to do so as penniless indentured
servants, slaves or beggars.
The numbers of landless men increased as the merging of small holdings
into large single units under one tenant increased. The clansmen were now
destitute of the only possession they'd ever had...the land. But for these
men and women, "Improvement" in the Highlands had no sympathy. Compassion
makes expensive calls on the conscience, and thus it seemed a comfort to
find compassion undeserved. Said one great 'Improver', Sir George MacKenzie
"They [the landess Highlanders] live in the midst of filth and smoke. That
is their choice. They will yet find themselves happier and more comfortable
in the capacity of servants to substantial tenants than in their present
To exploit the land, the chiefs and leaders of the clans had first to
remove his tacksmen, or bring them to heel as tenants, for they, not he,
held most of his property.
The Tacksman, simply put, was a man of the clan who held 'tacks', or
leases, granted to him by the chief in the old clan tradition and on his
property. Thus these tacksmen were the key to all the land. Many tried to
help their fellow clansmen and clanswomen, but could not make it
themselves. Unfortunately, many did as the chief was now doing and treated
his tenants (like the chief often treated the tacksmen) as annoying
children who should be encouraged to move off the land so that he could
sell it for profit. What they were supposed to do...or where they were
supposed to go seems to have been given little care or thought by many of
the chiefs and tacksmen. They....in time, would become the evictors that
sent hundreds of thousands of Highlanders to the New World or to death.
Immediately after Culloden, the roads were policed; tartans, weapons and even the bagpipes were all
made illegal. Even speaking Gaelic was disallowed and made punishable by
death or imprisonment. Highlanders were subjected to every imaginable
savagery whilst being encouraged to emigrate (penniless) to another
country. It is a psychological twist that has justified the the British
urge to Colonise. The American Indians also suffered from it. In the case
of the Highlands it has an even blacker tinge since the victims, inspite of
their language, were compatriots of the killers, and that the killers had
no intention of taking over the rather forbiding land and settling it; they
were merely engaged in an act of violence for its own sake and an act of
greed and rape of all the Highlands and Islands.
1746 has often been described as the end of the separate history of the
Highlands. And in many ways it was. But for more than a century
afterwards, history went on, and became even blacker.
It was, on the other hand, the end of the Jacobite cause, the end of all
hope for that legitimate but unfortunately Catholic Royal family and all
those Highlanders who remainded loyal to her, to the end (and even those
who did not suffered the same fate).
It was also the beginning of legends of the great smoke-screen of nonsense,
of high flown sentiment and downright bad history. The Highlands were
romanticised whilst at the same time the Highlanders were being forced into
dreadful exile or death. What follows in the next several sections, is
history that most everyone would prefer to forget -- and why we must