The Scottish Clearances – A reign of terror

Review: The Scottish Clearances by T.M.Devine, Penguin 2018.

A colossal redstone statue stands 100 feet high, above Dornoch firth, on top of Ben Bhraggie, overlooking Dunrobin Castle, on the East coast of Scotland. According to David Craig, some people describe the statue as the murderer’s monument. Alternatively, it can be seen as the image of a great man of wealth, and power: the first Duke of Sutherland. In 1994, there was a campaign to demolish, preferably by dynamite, the symbol of Landlord power i . And “the police believe that there is an ongoing campaign to topple the edifice once and for all.” ii Tom Devine is critical of these attempts to vandalize the grand stone image of the Duke and to blame the Duke and the Countess of Sutherland for cruel clearances. Devine disagrees with John Prebble’s description of the clearances as a result of the Landowners’ passion for profit. Nor does he approve of the rhetoric of Karl Marx, who described the highland clearances as reckless terrorism, the last phase of the brutal methods of primitive accumulation in Britain. iii Yet, Devine’s own research reveals the horror of the dispossession of the lowland and highland peasants.

Devine regards John Prebble as a writer who did not carry out his own historical research into the highland clearances. However, he does give Prebble his due. He acknowledges that Prebble did deal with an important issue which most academic historians ignored. Devine reveals an astonishing fact: it wasn’t until 1982 that an academic historian, Eric Richards, gave the social consequences of the clearances the research and attention they deserved. Devine’s main criticism of Prebble is that the process of the clearance of peasant farmers from the land was more complex than his story of the betrayal by greedy Highland chiefs. But, whatever Prebble’s academic shortcomings, he did reveal some truth about the clearances. As David Craig discovered on his trail of the crofters in Rousay, he could fabulize the past and write that “the lord built a wall around the Island and cast all the people outside it. But, it was not as simple as and drastic as that. To simplify it so much, smacks of too much zeal to seek out tragedies. But the wall does exist.” iv

Ironically, Devine even uses the same word as Marx to describe the wave of widespread clearances and compulsory programmes of emigration unleashed on the impoverished communities of Gaeldom. He writes that “for a people already brought down by years of failing crops this must have seen like a reign of Terror.” v One of the perpetrators of social terror was the Duke of Argyll, who made his intention clear in a letter of 1851, “I wish to send out (emigration) those whom we would be obliged to feed had they stayed at home-to get rid of this class is the object.” vi John Gordon, who made a fortune from six slave plantations in the Caribbean, helped “ship off almost 3,000, destitute tenant and cottar families across the Atlantic to the port of Quebec.” vi Sir John Matherson, who made his riches from the Chinese opium trade, was the proprietor of most of Lewis. In the mid 19th century he instigated a huge programme of evictions and transportations to Canada. No fewer than 2,327, men women, and children were eventually given the bleak choice of being cleared and left destitute or boarding emigrant ships. vii

In Devine’s account, most of the landlord class in the 1840-1850s in the Scottish Highlands were not the traditional highland chiefs who had, in every sense, sold out. They were rich tycoons, merchant bankers, lawyers, accountants,, and financiers attracted by profits from agricultural improvement and the romance and sport of the highland environment. They were supported by Government officials and agencies and parliamentary acts. Sir Charles Trevelyan and his sidekick Sir John McNeil, through the Emigration Advances Act of 1851, were able to provide loans at low interest to landowners to encourage emigration in which coercion was accepted as a necessary evil. They were able to use their influence and involvement in the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society to facilitate the transport of 5,000 dispossessed people to Australia 1851-1856. For Sir Charles Trevelyan, “next to allowing people to die of hunger, the greatest evil that could happen would their being habituated to dependence on public charity.” viii The people were suffering, not from Landlord and government oppression, but lack of character.

According to Tom’s narrative, Sir Charles and his eminent friend had a racist outlook. They believed the Celts were an inferior lazy race. This prejudice was shared by The Scotsman, The Glasgow Herald, The Inverness Courier, and, The London Times. This racism held the victims of the clearances to blame for their tragic fate. It was God’s judgment on a feckless people. The Duchess of Sutherland’s factor, Patrick Sellar, also regarded the highland people as native aborigines and a lesser breed. It was not merely the passion for improvement or profit which motivated his ruthless and barbaric evictions and displacement of thousands of subsistence farmers and cottars from the land. But, Tom finds some economic rationality and justification for the landed class and their factors behind the drama of burnings of homes and crops. The improvers cannot simply be put in the dock and found guilty since impersonal market forces were at work, “directing investment in sheep walks and with it, policies of clearance of small tenants and cottars as the route back to financial stability.” ix

Devine doesn’t hesitate to hold Patrick Sellar responsible for pushing the people of the Strath of Kildonan to open revolt in his large scale clearances in 1812-1813. He notes the weight of eye-witness evidence, two years later, in the Strathnaver clearances, in the legal indictment charging Sellars with culpable homicide and oppression with real injury. The eye-witnesses said Sellars burnt hill pastures and violently turned out pregnant women, the aged and infirm from their homes, depriving them of shelter. Despite the weight of evidence, the jury of fifteen men – property owners, merchants, tacksmen, and lawyers – acquitted Sellars after the defence argued that a guilty verdict would be a blow against agricultural progress. The judge was relieved at the verdict and believed that the people had been wrongly agitated about the issue. But, Sellars was a hired hand. If Sellars was in any way guilty of mistreating the people, then so were his employers, the Duke and Countess of Sutherland, who planned the strategy. As the countess wrote on one occasion, “the people resist by force, who can complain if they are brought to reason by force.” x

Tom Devine defends the reputation of the Duke and Countess. “Their aim was not dispersal or expulsion but relocation.” xi But, a change of label does not alter the traumatic effects of “Sellars reign of terror,” xii Devine attempts to exonerate the honourable Duke and Duchess by asserting that “they were not unmindful of the needs of the people.” xii Yet he also admits that the Countess did not understand the values and customs of the people. That is to say, their needs. Not that the Duke or Countess entertained the idea of consulting the inferior sort of people. Devine informs us that between 1807 and 1821 the factors of the countess of Sutherland and her husband Lord Stafford removed several thousand people from the internal Straths to tiny crofts no more than three acres, established on the inhospitable Eastern coast. Relocation is a word that suggests an altogether smoother process than poorly prepared, overcrowded, resettlement zones. But, many peasant farmers did not want a potato patch and a fishing net. The resettlement scheme was so unpopular that many preferred to risk the dangers of taking a ship to Canada. At least there was hope and a promise of land to farm.

Devine seems to admire the aristocratic relocation plan. “In its scale and ambition, the Sutherland strategy was the most extraordinary example of social engineering in 19th Century Britain.” xiii However, the people cleared from the straths would not have taken pride in the noble persons using them in an experiment to increase profits which ended in tragedy. Eric Richards takes a different view of their aristocratic plans, “The highland clearances constituted the crudest type of social engineering and were, in the event, a blunt instrument wielded by landlords with only the most rudimentary understanding of the repercussions of their actions.” xiv The resettlement project was designed to avoid large-scale protests and a threat to property owners and lessen the indirect protest of sheep stealing and relieve the property owners of the burden of poor relief. The opinion of the Countess’s son was that resettlement would stop pleas of hardship. Resettlement conditions were very much a lesser priority than clearing the straths.

Tom Devine maintains that contrary to popular opinion, the uprooting of traditional communities did not begin in the Highlands. The dispossession of many tenancies and cottars began two generations earlier in the hill country of the Borders. There were extensive cattle and sheep farms. Some of these holdings had roots in the plunder of church lands, in the dissolution of the monasteries, by landlords such as the future Dukes of Buccleuch. Devine prefers to describe the stealing of Church land as the landlords taking possession of the land. In any event, in the vast Buccleuch estate, in 1718, there were holdings of 5,000 and 10,000 acres operating as commercial trading units. In Devine’s opinion the removal of tenants and cottars in the Borders and then the Lowlands, in general, was on the scale of the highland clearances. The plight of the dispossessed was expressed in poetry by James Chartes in his Lamentations of the People of Galloway, including the words: “the poor man says where shall we go? The rich man says: go to hell.”

Devine describes the clearance in the lowlands of Scotland as a silent social revolution. This clearance by stealth and attrition was less dramatic than highlands, in a process of gradual dispossession. The cash nexus was already beginning to replace traditional relationships, though as “late as the 1750s most people in the rural lowlands had a stake in the land, however small, as single tenants, sub-tenants or cottars.” xv But, by the first half of the nineteenth century the subsistence economy had been eradicated. In William Cobbett’s words, “Everything is abundant here but people who have been swept from the land.” xvi Devine emphasises impersonal capitalist market forces. Clearance was composed of multiple economic pressures, including increases in rentals for the small tenant, the landlords’ unwillingness to accept rent arrears, landlords seizing cattle as payment for rent arrreas, the improvement movement to larger, compact, more productive farms with the reduction of the number of tenants. In other words, the cash nexus replaced subsistence farming and traditional obligations between lord and tenant.

Tom Devine is anxious to stress the quiet nature of the Lowland clearances. Yet there was the 1724 Levellers’ Revolt in Galloway. “Armed gangs roamed the countryside at night breaking up the dykes of enclosed parks and fields which were believed to have resulted in the eviction of peasant families.” xvii They were armed with guns, clubs, and pitchforks. But, landlords were not their target, their aim was to destroy the landlords’ property which had encroached on their collective interests. The Galloway Levellers were not against progress per se. Furthermore, “they believed the oppressed tenants and cotters….had a god-given right to be supported by the fruits of the earth.” xviii The Levellers were eventually suppressed by the social and political elite’s dragoons. Devine uses the word ‘complex’ to describe the military and legal repression. But, the word complex does not lessen the force of the system’s aim to level the levellers. Class conflict is selective, not everyone and everything can be crushed and punished.

The new capitalist agrarian structure was a social revolution. In Devine’s words, “the process was part of a broader strategy which led landowners to exploit all the territories of the estates at value.” xix But, a strategy has a human face, and history is not abstracted from human actions. This is why John Prebble has a point: “the choice made by the lords was real, sheep walks instead of men. And this was the cause of their exile and sorrow.” xx Eric Richards explains the arguments of the political economists of the time, that the ultimate cause was the market demand for food. In this view, “the landlords, therefore, were, in a sense, functionally the intermediaries in this structural change.” xxi So, the landlords were not directly responsible for the change they instigated and carried out with the help of their government. Behind their profit motive and rent rolls was the hidden hand of the market ensuring, not the benefit of a landowning class, but the needs of the population. Everyone would benefit, except the majority: the Cottars and small tenants.

The use of colourful language by observers shocked by the scale and force of social change is noted by Devine. A minister in Fife referred to the annihilation of the Cottars xxii . Devine is less tolerant of historians who make colourful comparisons. He has a list of shame in his book which includes David Craig. David wrote that the treatment of the highland peasants was more like shipping off the Polish and German Jews in cattle trucks than anything in British history. There is a grain of truth in this historical parallel. One witness of the Knoydart evictions said, “the people were driven like cattle aboard the waiting transport supplied by the British Government.” xxiii But Craig’s invocation of the holocaust stretches fascism too far and muddles up any clear definition of fascism. It also seems to be a naive comment which overlooks examples of inhuman treament of the poor in British history. Craig’s comparison with the treatment of ‘Oakies’ or Oklahoma small farmers, in the American depression of the 1930s, seems more appropriate.

The main thrust of Tom Devine’s critique of John Prebble is that he opted for a simple explanation of human wickedness:  a lust for riches xxiv . Yet Devine does identify how the temptations of consumerism got the better of financial rectitude for many Lords. Prebble puts it more colourfully as spending on great art collections and huge financial outlays on impressive stone structures, fine dining, and gambling, all of which often outstripped spending on poor relief. Whatever the shortcomings of Prebble’s research, its incompleteness, and the simplicity of his narrative, Prebble does identify a crucial fact about the clearances: “they were introduced for the benefit of the few.” xxv Eric Richards recognises that the story of the clearance is most of all about the extreme concentration of the ownership of land.” xxvi Devine’s focus is on the unintended consequences of the overwhelming power of market forces. Thomas More, in the late 15th early 16th century, where Marx found the roots of Capitalism in the countryside, once mocked this perspective: sheep had now apparently developed a raging appetite and turned into man-eaters. xxvii

The concentration of land ownership and the right of the owners to do as they wished with the land, irrespective of the wishes of the commoners do not weigh heavily in Devine’s narrative. The ideology of improvement and the idea that everyone would benefit in the long run, prominent in estate papers, weighs greater in the scales of his interpretation. Yet it was the prospects of enhanced profits that were the incentive for the Sutherland plan. As Eric Richards reveals, the Duke and Countess knew that “farmers were prepared to pay vastly enhanced rents for the mountain glens and interior.” xxviii It was also cheaper and more reliable to collect rents from a few dozen capitalist tenants than from thousands of tenants and cottars. The countess was imposing or planning to impose capitalist agriculture, yet this did not stop her shamelessly invoking the old traditional obligations of the highland community and raising young sons for her regiment during the war with France. She later betrayed their parents’ loyalty by removing them from the interior for agricultural profits.

Devine’s emphasis on the lowlands tends to diminish the distinctiveness of the highland clearances. Eric Richards maintains the highland clearances were unique in scale and velocity. This view is compatible with the analysis of the clearances in Marx’s Capital, that “the expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant from the soil was the basis of the whole process.” xxix It was a process of maximising profit, accumulating capital, and concentrating land ownership in the hands of a handful of immensely rich landlords; the process of the establishment of the capital relation. T C Smout points out, that “this feeling that the landowners had somehow deserted a historic role and they were just out for what they could get was a cause of bitterness at the time and of recrimination later.” xxx Smout balances this criticism of the landlords with a supportive comment, “It may not always be by benevolence paternalism that economic good is maximised for the community.” xxxi But the landlord class was not the farming community, which was destroyed for the Landlords’ gain.

The campaigners’ ambition to topple the symbol of landed power, the Duke of Sutherland’s statue is bound up with opposition to the concentration of landed ownership in Scotland in a few privileged hands. The percentage of land in Scotland owned by the top ten landowners is 22%, and 90% of the land is owned by 1,380 private landowners. xxxii Daubing the word monster in green paint on the monument, or removing blocks of stone, is an expression of the resentments and anger against the landed elite which echos the enduring resentment about the clearances. When the Stalinist system in Eastern Europe and the USSR was toppled, so were the icons of Soviet leaders. Recently we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement in Bristol destroy respect for the Society of Merchant Venturers and the slave trader Colston and his statue. The symbol of landlord power still stands high above Ben Bhraggie.  If a movement emerges to explode the social power of the landed elite, will the symbol of their power be toppled?

This article first appeared on

  1. Eric Richards, The Highland Clearances, Berlinn, 2019, p153[]
  2. Tom Devine, The Scottish Clearances, Penguin, 2018, p7[]
  3. Karl Marx, Capital Vol 1, Progress, 1986, p668[]
  4. David Craig, On The Crofters Trail, Johnathan Cape, 1993, p328[]
  5. Tom Devine, ibid, p325[]
  6. Tom Devine, ibid, p323[][]
  7. Tom Devine, ibid, p235[]
  8. Tom Devine, ibid, p310[]
  9. Tom Devine, ibid, p314[]
  10. Eric Richards, ibid, p166[]
  11. Tom Devine, ibid, p227[]
  12. Tom Devine, ibid, p22[][]
  13. Tom Devine, ibid, p226[]
  14. Eric Richards, ibid, p415[]
  15. Tom Devine, ibid, p143[]
  16. Tom Devine. ibid, p144[]
  17. Tom Devine, ibid, p102[]
  18. Tom Devine, ibid, p107[]
  19. Tom Devine, ibid, p168[]
  20. John Prebble, The Highland Clearances, Secker and Warberg, 1971, p129[]
  21. Eric Richards, ibid, p409[]
  22. Tom Devine, ibid, p65[]
  23. Eric Richards, ibid, p72[]
  24. Tom Devine, ibid, p361[]
  25. Eric Richards, ibid, p324[]
  26. Eric Richards, ibid, p433[]
  27. Thomas More, Utopia, Penguin, p25[]
  28. Eric Richards, ibid, p156[]
  29. Karl Marx, ibid, p668[]
  30. TC Smout, A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830, Fontana, 1969, p281[]
  31. TC Smout, ibid, p281[]
  32. Brett Christophers, The New Enclosers, Verso, 2019, p84[]

Related Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *