The Scottish Clearances by TM Devine

A history of the dispossessed…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Highland Clearances of the 19th century are one of the great factors in the Scottish psyche, a period which has left a legacy of bitterness against landlordism, and about which we can still become outraged, even while being proud of the Scottish Diaspora of which it formed a considerable part. The legend is that landowners and clan chiefs, in pursuit of profit, turned the land over to sheep and forcibly evicted the crofters who had traditionally eked out a precarious subsistence from their small portions of land. Some were driven to emigrate semi-voluntarily for economic reasons; some were forced into emigration by landowners who simply wanted to rid themselves of these inconvenient hindrances to “improved” land use. The story is made worse by the feelings of betrayal – the breaking of the bonds of kinship that were at the heart of the clan system.

Tom Devine doesn’t exactly aim to overturn the legend in this scholarly and convincing work. Rather, he sets out to expand and explain – to strip out the emotion and look more closely at the historical factors that led to the Clearances, and to give an accurate, and therefore more balanced, picture of what actually happened. He also seeks to answer the question of why the similar patterns of altered land use and emigration that took place in the rural Lowlands were neither as traumatic at the time, nor have the same emotional resonances today.

(The Corries lamenting the Clearances in Hush Hush)

He starts by looking at Highland society in the centuries prior to the Clearances, debunking some of the myths embedded in the later romanticisation of the clan system. For example, he points out that bonds of kinship weren’t as strong as we like to think, since warring clan chiefs regularly took territory from their opponents and inherited the occupants of the land as they did so. However, in return for their military service, the clan leaders were seen as having a responsibility to provide clan members with land. Rents were initially paid in kind, but over the years this gradually changed to cash transactions, so that eventually the relationship became more akin to landlord and tenant. Devine suggests, therefore, that the clan system had begun to decline long before the 19th century, helped on its way by the repressive measures various monarchs used against their unruly Highland subjects, culminating in the deliberate attempt to break the power of the clan chiefs following the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745.

Devine then discusses the similarities and differences between Lowland and Highland society. Geographical factors made the Lowlands more suitable for arable farming while the Highlands were largely given over to livestock farming. This led to longer leases in the Lowlands, which in turn meant that evictions could only happen more slowly. In the Highlands leases tended to be annual so that large numbers of people could be evicted in short spaces of time. Arable farming required more labour, especially in the early stages of improvement, giving more time for the rural population to adjust and to develop other marketable skills, such as the small cottage industries that grew up in Border villages around this time. The Lowlands had the further advantage of proximity to the towns which were beginning to grow in response to the industrial revolution, absorbing some of the excess population from the rural areas.

(The Emigrants – the statue at Helmsdale laments the Clearances while recognising our national pride in the achievements of the resulting Diaspora)

Devine also points to religion as a factor, with the Presbyterian church acting as a socially cohesive factor in the Lowlands, while in the Highlands their Episcopalian and Catholic religions were out of favour and seen as a focus for disloyalty and rebellion. There was also a level of racism involved that reduced the sympathy for Highlanders – Celts were seen as throw-backs, aborigines, lazy, while Anglo-Saxon Lowlanders were hard-working achievers. So, following the years of famines when Highlanders depended on various charities to survive, charitable impulses ran dry and there was a general feeling that ridding the country of these sub-standard parasites would be of benefit to the nation as a whole. (I’m glad to say that I think that particularly vile strand of racism doesn’t exist any more, though I feel there were still remnants of it around during my childhood).

(The Proclaimers comparing the Thatcherite industrial devastation of Scotland in the 1980s to the Clearances of a century and half earlier in Letter from America)

Even in the Highlands, though, Devine does a little to absolve the landlords of their reputation for callous greed. He makes the point that many of the hereditary chiefs by this time were in severe financial straits. Some had sold out to incomers, others had had to put their bankrupt estates in the hands of trustees, usually based in far-away Edinburgh and with a legal responsibility to return the land to profitability regardless of the human cost. He gives examples of how some landlords tried to mitigate the effects of the changes, with varying degrees of success. And he makes the point that a system that depends on small land-holdings only works as long as population numbers remain stable – if the population rises, as it began to do when healthcare and general conditions improved, then the system of subsistence crofting is bound to fail.

This is only a brief flavour of what is covered in the book. It’s very well written and all the points are clearly explained, so that it’s easily accessible to the general reader, but it also has plenty of tables of facts and figures for those who are looking at it more academically. I have a reasonable familiarity with Scottish history of this period but still learned a great deal and appreciated the comparisons between the two very different societies which make up our small country. I also found it put the period into context with events happening elsewhere in Britain and the western world. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Scottish history.

Sir Tom Devine

But I’d go further, and say that it’s a real insight into how societies react to major changes in economic circumstances, relevant to many of those communities currently being hit by the advances from the industrial 20th century to the technological 21st. The comparisons between the impacts on the Lowlands and the Highlands of changes in land use and economic systems surely have lessons we can learn about how such changes can be managed to minimise the trauma for the people caught up in these often unavoidable shifts.

So I’m not ready to let go of my bitterness completely nor to entirely forgive, but I have a fuller understanding now of the historical forces behind the events, and that can only be a good thing.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane.

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28 thoughts on “The Scottish Clearances by TM Devine

  1. I feel like anything I say will sound trite after that stellar review. This is a period of history I’m sadly ignorant of. This book seems an excellent way to learn about a very sad time.

    • Why, thank you! 😀 It’s one of those episodes of history all Scots tend to get misty-eyed about, but it was good to learn more about the actual events rather than just the legend, though in this case, the legend is mostly true…

  2. Now, that’s the sign of a good book, FictionFan – when it can get you to think more deeply about something so important and that left so many scars. It sounds as though it’s quite accessible, too, which is a plus to me. I don’t know enough about the Clearances, and certainly not that nuanced information. This one may have to go on the wish list…

    • I did find it a good cross between the accessible and the academic, with most of the academic stuff stuck in tables and so on that were easily skipped when I didn’t feel I needed to know the exact figures. These bits of history that become legends because of their impact really need to be revisited from time to time to get an anchor on what actually happened. Otherwise it’s too easy to let the emotion distort the facts…

  3. The clearances were covered in a Peter May novel I read, it must have been horrendous – I can’t even imagine. I imagine this book goes into much north depth 😢

    • Yes! Entry Island, wasn’t it? I thought he did an excellent job of bringing the period to life and it seemed to me he stuck pretty closely to verifiable historical fact. While I enjoy this type of history book, I do think that well written fiction can be even more effective at telling the story in a way that’s easier to relate to… 😀

  4. Hmm wow! I love how I learn more about Scottish history through your blog FF, it’s definitely something I wouldn’t come across on my own. And OF COURSE the church had something to do with it, they can’t seem to keep their fingers out of anything in history can they?

  5. Not sure this would be an enjoyable read for me, but I appreciate your review. It seems you got a lot out of this book, where I’d probably be stranded in the weeds, wondering what’s going on. My knowledge of Scottish history, sadly, borders on nil.

    • Like my knowledge of American history! This one is definitely for Scottish history nerds, or at the very least, history nerds. But the Clearances are so important to the country we are now, which is why they still turn up regularly in songs and novels.

    • Thank you! It’s one of those periods that defines Scotland and has actually had a huge impact on all the English-speaking countries of the old British Empire even if they’re not really aware of it.

  6. I learned a lot just from reading your review! It’s all so interesting, isn’t it? Especially how it all ties in with the rest of the world. If I had hordes of time, I’d love to read a big fat book about the history of the world. But only if it’s good!

    • I’d love that too! I find reading books specifically about one period or event means I never kind of connect them up with things going on in different places at the same time. But this one taught me a lot about a subject I’m already interested in, so that’s always good… 😀

  7. I have only the vaguest knowledge of the Clearances. I’d be really interested to read this, it sounds fascinating. And as you point out, history repeats itself and there’s always something to learn relevant to today.

    • I knew the legend better than the history, but Devine pretty much confirms the legend isn’t too far from the truth, although by filling in the background he makes it feel less black and white, like most history when you look at the causes behind the events…

  8. I’ve been thinking about this book since I read your review. I also had to do some basic research to remind myself about Highland and Lowland differences and along the way I found out what an interesting commentator Devine is. Since two of my family lines are Highland clans (McCallum, Ross), I think this is a book I’ll read. It’s not easy to get hold of here (the Kindle is very expensive), the best deal will be to wait six months so I can purchase the paperback version through Book Depository. I await with interest! Thanks for your engaging review FF.

    • Devine is undoubtedly the top living Scottish historian, so it was well past time I read at least one of his books! And I’ve always had an interest in the Clearances because they resonate through so much of our culture in books, music, theatre, etc. I only have a little Highland blood myself – Cameron – but my own family is spread through Canada and America. They emigrated later than the Clearances, and theoretically voluntarily, but it’s all part of the same trend of the economic struggles of the country driving people out. These last few years, though, happily more people are immigrating to Scotland than emigrating. Though who knows what will happen after Brexit…

      I hope you enjoy this one when you get hold of it – I think you’ll find it interesting.

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