Some History

The Highland clan was a society or social unit designed for war. . . In unstable times, groups centered around great men for protection, and of course great men, nobles, members of the landed elite sought followers for the same purpose. (Sir Thomas Devine, OBE, Author of Clanship to Crofter’s War)

Ruined Village no black borderBefore the industrial revolution, the clan society was patriarchal with the clan chieftain as father figure. The clan provided men to fight for the chieftain in return for land (the Gaelic concept of “dùthchas”). They lived by subsistence farming and cattle rearing, and Gaelic was the main language. It has been said that poetry, music and dance were part of clan life. “Highlanders” were an identifiably different group with little in common with the rest of Britain.

Gaeldom was one of the great civilizations of Europe and encompassed Ireland and much of Scotland during the early medieval period. Although confined to the western isles and Highlands within Scotland by the later medieval period, this was a culture that enjoyed many cultural and intellectual accomplishments, having its own native professional classes (doctors, lawyers, literati, musicians, etc) and its own indigenous features. (Michael Newton, author of Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders)

Dol-sios na Gaidhealtachd (Death of the clan):

As the industrial revolution swept through western Europe, chieftains began to experience the wider world. Their role changed from that of a leader of their people to that of a landlord extracting rents. Chieftains adopted English language and customs, dress and habits, which set them apart from the rest of their clan. Landlords became absentee, seeing first-hand how English landlords made fortunes from their estates.

Mixed Clan StoneAfter the Act of Union (1705), all Scots now had rights to the English colonies. By this time, the Roman Catholic Stuart monarchy had been replaced by the protestant Hanoverian dynasty. The Highlands became a rallying point for attempts to restore the Stuart king leading to the Jacobite Rebellions (from “Jacobus,” Latin for “James”). They were the only people who could raise an army in sufficient numbers to be effective. The last Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 saw a Jacobite army raised in the Highlands made up of supporters from Scotland and other countries, including England, France and Ireland, marching down to Edinburgh, conquering Scotland and then invading England. Jacobites were finally defeated at Battle of Culloden in April 1746. After this, the British Government banned the use of Gaelic and tartan to repress Gaelic culture and to bring Highlanders into line with rest of Scotland. Clan chiefs no longer had jurisdiction over their people.

SheepBy 1762 a new breed of sheep had been developed that could withstand harsh winters of the Highlands and still provide plenty of meat and wool. Landlords began moving tenants from hills onto coastal margins providing them with a small area of land insufficient to support their families. The tenants were now expected to develop fishing, kelp-farming etc. to supplement their farming. This is the development of crofting. For people in the Highlands, no alternative employment opportunities on the scale of those created for other rural populations are to be found. Many tenants emigrated overseas, others moved to cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh. Tenants began to protest “invasion of the sheep.” The law sided with landlords and the British Army was mobilized to quell uprisings.

Many emigrants had settled predominantly in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. During the American War of Independence they largely sided with the British Loyalists and when the war was over, this led to anti-Scottish sentiment in the American South. Some relocated to Canada, others moved West as the frontier opened up.

Helmsdale Harbour c1890s copyIn Sutherland, the Countess of Sutherland had married the wealthiest man in Britain who was determined that the Sutherland estate would become very profitable. Patrick Sellar, her factor, was ordered to clear land by any means necessary. Tenants’ houses were burned after they left, to make sure that they didn’t return. Some tenants died when houses were burned with sick and elderly people still inside. Sellar was eventually brought to trial but found not guilty.

On my way thither, I passed through the scene of the campaign of burning. Of all the houses, the thatched roofs were gone; but the walls remained. The flames of the preceding week still slumbered in their ruins, and sent up into the air spiral columns of smoke. (The Reverend Donald Sage, missionary at Achness, Sutherland)

Inscription with tree reflectedThere was an increase in famine amongst tenants, which required landlords to provide some relief. Some landlords chartered ships to take tenants away, absolving themselves from further responsibility for their people. Some tenants left for economic self-improvement, others as a desperate last resort when all else failed. Poverty and overcrowding in coastal areas, and the failure of new industries except fishing, caused tenants to plant mainly potatoes. Potato blight struck, and many starved. The Transatlantic Highland Emigration Society was formed to raise funds to help people leave for North America and Australia. Thousands of Highlanders boarded ships, which became big business for speculators. Overcrowding on ships resulted in death and disease being commonplace. They arrived in North America with little property, to find harsher winters in which to build new houses and plant crops. Some stayed where they first landed — others moved quickly on to established Highland settlements.

America is constantly portrayed as the next best thing to paradise on earth.  What was particularly striking about America to Highlanders, something they emphasize over and over and over again, and could scarcely believe to be true, was that there are no landlords in America, and that a family can get hold of a piece of land, and that piece of land will be their own and nobody will be able to take it away from them. (James Hunter, Author of A Dance Called America; The Scottish Highlands, The United States and Canada)

Most emigrants would never return but kept traditions and culture alive. From this pride in their homeland, bitterness in their departure and eagerness to rebuild their lives came the Scottish diaspora. Spreading all over the globe, they brought clan loyalty, toughness of spirit and the willingness to work hard. Today Highland and Clan Societies keep alive old songs, poems, customs and traditions. For descendants of expatriate Scots, the past remains an important part of who they are today.  There are over 11 million citizens of Scottish descent in the U.S., according to the 2004 American Community Survey. There are now over 1,000 Scottish clubs and organizations in America alone. The United States is the largest recipient of Scottish exports, and more Americans visit Scotland than ever before. Scottish associations are present in all 50 states. Clan associations have a large network of members in each state where they organize local Highland games. Some games are attended by up to 60,000 visitors each.

The views of the history and culture are varied and complex.

If people as a result of leaving the Highlands have prospered, that wasn’t what was intended.  That’s an accident.  That maybe the case, but it does nothing, in my view, to justify the hardship and the misery that was so much involved in the destruction of so many communities right across the northern half of Scotland. (James Hunter, Author of The Making of the Crofting Community)

Download our Highland Clearances timeline here: