The Scottish Clearances by TM Devine

A history of the dispossessed…

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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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Entry Island by Peter May

“The blood is strong.”

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He crouches down to touch the earth, and in doing so feels a direct connection with history, communing with ghosts, a ghost himself haunting his own past. And yet not his past. He closes his eyes and imagines how it was, how it felt, knowing that this is where it all began, in another age, in someone else’s life.

entry islandIn the tiny community of Entry Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, a man has been brutally murdered. The local police don’t have the expertise to investigate such a serious crime, so the Quebec Sûreté send a team to the island. Unusually for this French-speaking province, the islanders are English-speaking, so his Scottish descent means that Detective Sime Mackenzie is included in the team to carry out interviews. But when Sime (pronounced Sheem) meets Kirsty Cowell, the wife of the victim and the chief suspect, he is struck with an unshakeable feeling that he knows her…although they have never met.

Peter May has been a long-term favourite of mine. As scriptwriter and producer, he was involved in some of the best television produced in Scotland during the ‘80s and ‘90s, before returning to his original sphere as a novelist. He has produced three main series of novels since then – his China thrillers, the Enzo Files set in France and most recently the Lewis Trilogy. Always with a steady following, he rocketed into the limelight when the Richard and Judy Bookclub (the UK equivalent of Oprah) picked The Blackhouse, the first of the Lewis books. (An overnight success story that only took half a lifetime to achieve!)

May’s books are always meticulously researched with a very strong sense of place. But since he started writing about Lewis this strength has taken on an extra layer – it feels as if he is really now writing with his heart as well as his head. He spent a good deal of time on Lewis while producing a Gaelic-language drama serial, Machair, and he seems to have absorbed the landscape and the community of this remote and weather-beaten island until it has become an integral part of him. As a result, the Lewis Trilogy stood head and shoulders above his previous work, adding a feeling of emotional connection that had perhaps been absent in the previous series. I have been saying for the last few years that the trilogy was his best work. Until now…

Blackhouse, Isle of Lewis Photo credit: Robert Harding
Blackhouse, Isle of Lewis
Photo credit: Robert Harding

Like the Lewis Trilogy, Entry Island has a double time-line – the present day investigation set in Canada, and a historical storyline set on Lewis. Sime, struggling with severe insomnia after the break-up of his marriage, begins to have vivid dreams about stories he was told as a child, of the life of his ancestor, also called Sime, on Lewis – dreams that seem to be connected in some way with his feelings of recognition for Kirsty. Through the original Sime’s stories, we are given an account of the hand-to-mouth existence of the crofters, fishing and farming their tiny plots of land with barely enough to sustain their families. We see the very different life lived by the landlords – English-speakers in these Gaelic communities. And Sime tells us about the Highland Clearances – the barbarous and brutal dispossession of crofters already weakened by the potato famine to make way for more profitable sheep-farming. There is a feeling of biting anger in May’s writing as he allows Sime to describe the inhumanity of this scar on British history – a history that led to the destruction of communities and a whole way of life, and to the involuntary exile of thousands of Highland Scots to the North American colonies, sent with nothing, to fend as best they could in the New World, if they survived the horrors of the voyage.

“And then I catch sight of the pitiful figure of old blind Calum staggering about, his Glengarry trampled in the mud, arms raised to shield himself from blows he cannot see. A man who once fought for Britain at the Battle of Waterloo. Struck down now by a vicious blow from a young man not even born when Calum was fighting for his freedom.”

Peter May
Peter May

As the book progresses, we discover why these childhood memories have been awakened for the present-day Sime and gradually the links between the two time-lines become clearer. The present-day story provides some contrast and relief from the bleakness of the past, and for me present-day Sime is the most filled-out and believable character May has written. The quality of the descriptive writing is first-class and, though by coincidence both the quotes I have chosen are present tense, most of the book is in fact written in the past tense. The plotting of the murder and investigation is well done and it wasn’t till near the end that I began to get an inkling of the solution – a solution that I found satisfying on every level.

In my opinion, this is the best book May has ever written and one of the best crime novels I have read – with an authenticity and depth of emotion that reduced this sentimental lowland Scot to tears on more than one occasion. Hard for me to be completely objective about it, but I believe it will be just as effective for non-Scots, who are perhaps not familiar with this small part of history, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it gets reviewed elsewhere. Highly recommended.

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

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