The Highland Clearances


Glynn Currie
 

I have just finished reading The Highland Clearances by TM Devine and wanted to share it . Following this note is a review I wrote.




In The Scottish Clearances, TM Devine argues the Highland clearances are quite misunderstood. Popular fiction, sensationalist accounts and sentimental story telling have created a myth that clouds the facts and hides the truth behind a mist of romanticism. In this book Devine takes on the task of setting the record straight.

Devine believes the highland clearances were not a singular event, but a part of a broader action that covered the entire country. He studied the removal of people from land worked by generations of their ancestors across the whole of Scotland. Historical events of the time, as well as the social history and the economic patterns of the time are marshalled together to support his claim.

In anticipation of counter arguments, Devine looked at his thesis from many perspectives. Several times I formed an argument against his thesis only to read his response in a later chapter.

Because of the broad approach which Devine takes to his topic he provides the reader with an excellent view of life in 18th and 19th Century rural Scotland. For someone interested in genealogy, the opportunity to learn about farming practices and life on the croft is appreciated.

According to Devine, economic forces were the cause of the clearances, not only in the Highlands, but in the rest of Scotland as well. They were inevitable and lacked any moral concern. While hard on tenants, land owners had little choice and were forced to remove people from their land in order to play a role in the new agricultural economy.

This is where I diverge from Devine’s thesis. His history is sound, but he approaches it from a mechanistic viewpoint supporting free market capitalism. He assigns no blame to land owners, in their callous disregard for their farmers, because the impartial broom of the free market swept people away in an amoral pursuit of progress.

He doesn’t consider the theft of the land by the landlords as a concern. He accepts that as a given. But it is that theft which lies behind the problems faced by the tenant farmers who were removed from their land.

In an earlier time, clan chiefs were not the owners of land, but the leaders of a community. The land was owned by that community and the produce from it was shared among everyone, including the chiefs who didn’t actually work the land. Land was owned by the community and the chiefs were responsible to administer its use. So social was the community resource that individual farmers worked different patches of land from year to year in order to share the good and the bad land in a fair manner. For those farmers to be forced from their land so the descendants of the former chiefs could claim the land and increase their wealth was treachery on a grand scale.

For people who are interested in Scottish history and who wish to understand the lives of their ancestors this book is a must read. It is the story of the people of Scotland caught up in a changing world and forced to contend with forces beyond their control. With a stoic manner and the fortitude gained from a lifetime of suffering and hard work, they met the challenge thrown at them and persevered. That is the legacy they have left to us, their descendants.

 

Devine, T.M. The Scottish Clearances, Penguin Books, 2019.

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