Skip to main content

Site Search Box
About Us
SRSM Constitution
Contact Us
Press Releases
Workers Control
1320 Arbroath
1638 Convenanters
1692 Glencoe
1707 Act of Union
Highland Clearances
Colonialism & Clearance
1797 Insurrection
1820 Radicals
Robert Burns
Thomas Muir
John MacLean
APG - The Tartan Army
Willie MacRae
Archives Library
Articles Library
Gallery 1
Song book


(Donnie Fraser)



The Highland Clearances probably rank as the most emotive subject in Scottish history, a question that, though over two centuries old, still generates passionate debate, and has left an indelible mark on Scottish working-class consciousness. Apologists for the landlords, including many sections of the British Left, have focused on whether the Clearances were a necessary component of the drive to industrialisation, the sweeping away of the old feudal structures in favour of a competitive capitalist economy and the creation of an industrial proletariat. However for a proper understanding of the nature of the Clearances it will necessary to look first at the structure of Highland society and the pressures being brought to bear on it up to the eve of Clearance because the nature of later events are rooted deep in this period.



Part 1 - The Basis of Clanship

 Celtic Cross

The origins of clanship are uncertain but it shared much in common with the older tuath society in Ireland from which it likely evolved over time. The clann (literally - children) formed the basis for all the economic, social and cultural activity of the people. As the name suggests it was essentially a society based on kinship, whether real or otherwise, on which rested the whole social order with the wider clansfolk, at all social levels, being afforded the same rights to land and justice as the elite.


The Ceann-cinnidh (chief) was the symbol of the clan, leader of the army, dispenser of justice, and defender of the clan's territories and honour. A position bound by customs and traditions in which the bearer was expected to show an ability to defend the clans' territories in war before being accepted as leader. In which the Chief was possessed of an arbitrary power but at the same time limited in his dispensal of it from the need to at all times have a fighting force at the ready. For the basis of the clan system was on its readiness for combat and its effectiveness as a cohesive military unit.


Indispensable to this need was the function of the middle layer of clan society, the daoine uasal, who would later become known as fir-tacsa or tacksmen. They were usually close kin to the clan chief and responsible for the administrative tasks vital to the clan's existence, such as the division of arable land between townships. As part of the social cohesion of the clan they were responsible for the schooling of the chiefs children, and in turn their children were raised by 'lesser' clansmen. In times of war they would become military officers with responsibility for raising the fighting forces, a commitment which ensured that their main function was to provide land for as many as could be supported.


Underpinning the whole structure of clanship however was the almost untranslatable Gaelic term of duthchas; a sort of collective heritage. A concept which guaranteed the right of the people to the land, not necessarily a specific plot of land but a permanent and hereditary stake in the clan territories as the common property of all. This concept was explicitly incompatible with feudalism or any notion of private ownership of land and its very existence ensures that any analysis of clanship as a 'feudal anachronism' fundamentally fails to understand the cultural significance of duthchas to clanship, the bonds of which were inextricably linked and would not be finally severed until the aftermath of Culloden. It articulated the responsibility of the clan elite to act as protectors and guardians and to guarantee secure possession of land for the people, and in a pre-industrial society, where ownership of land formed the basis of wealth accumulation, its exploitation was of supreme social, economic and cultural significance.


The basic unit of the clanspeople was the baile (a.k.a. clachan or township). When discussing such arrangements it is important to note that regional variations would have existed throughout the region, but all variations on a theme of common-ownership. It is the baile that concerns us most as the basis of life for the clan masses. In the Highlands, where arable land is at a premium, it was this arable land that laid the basis of land management. Each baile generally contained clusters of around 8-12 families. Their houses, barns and stables would be built communally using whatever local materials were available but usually some mixture of stone, timber or turf. Generally the arable would be divided into separate lots, known as rigs, depending on it's quality, and these would be regularly re-allocated to ensure that there was a fair distribution, and cultivated using the roinn ruith (runrig) method which was common all over Scotland until the 17th century.


In many places all the townships' labour was carried out on a collective basis and its produce divided equally. Their livestock would be confined to the communal grazings that surrounded the arable and taken to the higher altitude 'sheilings' in the summer months. Each baile would elect its own official and democratically decide the duties of the people including for the provision of skilled labour such as smiths or millers. Moreover for the common people clanship provided a form of social security in an inhospitable environment which would provide for them in times of sickness, famine and in old age. These self-sufficient communal townships thus organised were spread throughout the land wherever it was capable of supporting them and a far cry from the deserted glens and straths of northern Scotland today. In return for the physical and tenurial security provided by the clan the people were expected to provide military service, allegiance and tribute (a form of rental in kind) to the hierarchy.


A nominal proportion of the surplus produced by the township would generally be appropriated by the tacks-men as a tribute that supported the non-labouring tacksmen, clan hierarchy and retainers such as harpers, pipers and bards, who all reinforced the solidarity and identity of the clan. The bards had a long training, often at the leading bardic schools in Ireland, and had to commit to memory huge amounts of genealogical and historical information, study the ancient Gaelic scripts of the Columban monks and others, replete with the myths and legends of Celtic folklore - the Fenians, Conn of the Hundred battles, Niall and the Nine Hostages and so on. They were historians, orators and poets and maintained the focus of the clans towards a pan-Celtic Gaeldom of Scotland & Ireland. Moreover they maintained a largely oral culture that was as rich and vibrant as any in terms of its poetry, song, music and dance. In some cases, particularly along the west coast and islands, a warrior class of buannachan would be supported from this surplus for defence, protection and as mercenary soldiers.


Furthermore the surplus produced by the baile would help build castles (standing in marked contrast to the small temporary nature of the stone-turf dwellings of the people!) for the defence of the clan but also for hospitality and the communal feasting which again was a mark of the social cohesion which existed and could not have been considered under a feudal system where each social class had its own distinctive place and where the downtrodden masses were widely despised and oppressed by the Anglo-Norman nobility. Even though all of this was only made possible through the surplus labour of the clanspeople the basis of clanship was fundamentally opposed to feudalism, and more reminiscent of a 'primitive commu-nism'-giving giving rise to a more egalitarian and democratic perspective that has lingered through the ages.



People's War Against Feudalism


"For long centuries the common people clung doggedly to the old free institutions of their forefathers, recognising quite clearly that the acceptance of feudalism meant for them slavery and degradation"

                                                                                                                     Tom Johnson (1)


By the 11th century Gaelic language and customs had consolidated their position as far south as the Solway and Tweed. However in 1066 a gang of 30,000 Norman thieves boarded ship for the sack and plunder of England. For the Scottish crown, in reality king in name only of proud and independent clans offering a voluntary allegiance, here was a supreme lesson in the subjugation of the people, the rule of Kings and the benefits of centralised feudal state power. Invitations were issued and gradually Anglo-Norman settlers spread north usurping the Lowland clans and protecting themselves in their motte-and-bailey castles resplendent with dungeons and gallows for those who argued their claim. In 1230 a decree was issued stating that in any dispute over land anyone holding a feudal charter could fight a duel by proxy and under such circumstances many of these robbers hired professional duellers to fight on their behalf and expropriate the native Gaelic leaders.


In England the victory of feudalism was relatively swift and comprehensive in an already semi-feudalised country, but in Scotland it met with continued resistance. For at least two centuries struggle against the 'new order' was maintained throughout Scotland, particularly Moray in the north and Galloway in the south. Often taking the form of struggles for the throne between the Normanised and Celtic aristocracies they were at heart a struggle against the imposition of a repressive regime. These risings came repeatedly, generation after generation, well over twenty such risings, some lasting for decades, have managed to come through the 'landlord sieve' of history. So harsh was the repression meted out by the feudal usurpers that we learn, "in Galloway the tongues of the children were torn out so that the accursed clan legends of freedom should not be told to afresh generation" (2)


Wallace MonumentThe effect of this continued resistance was to halt the spread of feudalism beyond the 'Highland line' where knightly armies on horseback could hope for no success. In the Lowlands the feudal usurpers were eventually able to consolidate their position and set about reducing the lives of the common people to a 'state of absolute slavery' (3). In this context the start of the Wars of Independence should be looked at as the renewal of hostilities in the Scottish class war. For when the barons were pledging allegiance to Edward and the Anglo-Norman class system, Wallace and de Moray were raising a peasant army of Highlanders, dispossessed clansmen and freemen from the burghs not just to fight the feudal might of this early English Imperialism, but also the wishes of their own feudal overlords. It was this army who scored the famous victory at Stirling Bridge and won the day at Bannockburn in the charge of the 'sma' fowk'. Afterwards there would be no going back to the chattel slavery of the past for as one historian has noted, "So it is that immediately after 1314, as the charter records and assize records betoken, there is everywhere a slackening of the bonds, and a disposition evinced by the serfs to demand rights and privileges." (4)


While the Wars of Independence may have weakened the power of the feudal barons in the Lowlands and forced them to give up their lands in England, the part they eventually played alongside Highlanders, Lowlanders and burghers in the battles with the English helped cement a feeling of Scottish national consciousness. And while the Highlands may have resisted the imposition of the feudal system some Norman families did find their way north where they gradually assimilated into the Gaelic culture and heritage. At the same time the clans accepted the recognition of the Crown's overlordship (land was never confiscated to the Crown in Scotland as it was in England following the Norman conquest), expansionist clans were able to utilise feudal charters to gain land but in practise this was nothing more than a legalistic mechanism and feudalism played little role in the organisation of society. Little role because gradually over time certain aspects came to be adopted such as the feudal succession of primogeniture, i.e. succession through the first son, as opposed to earlier clan tradition when chiefs were elected, though always from within the immediate kin group. However the Chiefs were still bound by the traditions and customs of the clans and still expected to prove themselves worthy leaders before being accepted - or else face deposition.


Assault on Gaeldom


Meet it is to rise against Saxons ...

ere they have taken our country from us.

Let us not yield up our native country....

Let us after the pattern of the Gael of Banbha [Ireland]


watch over our fatherland...

Fight roughly.

Like the Irish Gael,

we will have no English Pale...

Drive the Saxons westward over the high sea,

that Scotland may suffer no division ".


Gaelic poem, 1513 (5)


A sort of standoff developed between the semi-feudalised south and communal north until the post-reformation period. The crown realised that military subjudication of the north was impossible and so began the process of patronage towards favoured clans on the edge of the Highlands, such as those of Campbell and MacKenzie. But the north remained Celtic in spirit and practise and indeed there was a great resurgence of Gaelic culture, and peace, under the Lordship of the Isles from the mid-14th century.


So distinct was the culture of the Gael from the Lowland ruling class, and the accompanying weakness of Crown authority in the north, that from the end of the 14thcentury we find the hirelings of this feudal class, the medieval chroniclers, first inventing the myth of the Highland/ Lowland divide based upon two distinct cultures and languages - seemingly oblivious to the large Gaelic speaking populations of the south, still reaching as far down as Galloway on the west and Fife on the east! On the one hand was the socially and culturally inferior Gaidhealtachd home of the "savage and untamed race, rude and independent", whilst their subdued Lowland counterparts were 'civilised' and 'peaceful' (6). Of course ruling class lackeys have long spoken in such terms of those they wished to suppress, deliberately dehumanising 'inferior' peoples - in this case ostensibly on the grounds of language and culture but ultimately because they refused to accept the feudal order. Significantly at this stage it was the Gaelic language that these lackeys referred to as 'Scottish' whilst the speech of the southrons was simply 'teutonic'.


During the post-reformation regime Gaelic culture and language came under renewed and strengthened hostility from the Crown in the figure of James VI. The Reformation and accompanying English bible had given edge to the pro-English language bigotry of the Lowland barons. Gaelic was now increasingly referred to not as 'Scottish' but as 'Erse' (Irish), whilst the English variation was now a more patriotic 'Scots'. The reformation saw the effectual collapse of the church in the north and whilst the Highlands became nominally protestant the parish system was not suited to the scattered population. Amongst ruling class circles a renewed vigour is detected in the dealings with the 'papish' or 'heathen' north. And there was an added factor for James was set for Union between the Scottish & English Crowns, and so able to draw on greater military and naval resources in his quest to suppress the communal system of the clans. Moreover the context in which James launched his attacks on first Scottish, and after 1603 Irish, Gaeldom was one in which the English had spent decades subduing the Irish clans and robbing their lands.


After the 1603 Union of Crowns there was an intensified attempt to pacify the north as James' anti-Gaelic bigotry reached new heights. Even before Union his regime had launched failed attempts to colonise Lewis and areas of the west-coast with Lowland settlers - a policy later enacted against Ulster with great cruelty. The colonisation of Ulster eventually broke the links between Scottish & Irish Gaeldom and served as a warning to the Scottish clans as his regime launched a massive cultural and legalistic assault on clanship and the Gaelic language, which was to be "abolishet and removit".


The most notorious measures taken by the regime were the infamous Statutes of lona in 1609. After the failed colonisation a naval expedition was and shipped to the slave plantations of the West Indies. Conditions that were so bad contemporaries wrote of a mass Lowland army of some 100,000 dispossessed who chose a life of hunger and destitution rather than succumb to the inhuman conditions in the early factories and mines. Feudalism and capitalism had only brought new forms of oppression for the common-people of the Lowlands and the clans' defence of their system has to be viewed as part of this struggle. As one contemporary put it "the Scots generally, but the Highlanders in particular looked upon the Union with England as a slavish subjection" (8) and if Scottish Society as a whole was still hostile to Union in the 1740s the Highlands were still operating outwith the limits of British jurisdiction until 1746.


So when Charles Edward Stuart landed at Glenfinnan and read out a Manifesto promising an end to the Union many clansmen flocked to him. After gathering support and marching south they defeated Government troops at Prestonpans and proceeded to Edinburgh where a Proclamation was issued declaring Scotland independent. Charles however was nothing if not opportunist and at the first chance he pushed for a march on London to claim the British throne. The clans were opposed but outvoted and many returned home having no interest in a fight for the British throne. The Jacobite army turned back at Derby and following a long retreat, and victory at Falkirk, met Cumberland's troops at Culloden. The battle itself was not a comprehensive victory for the government forces but in a typical tactical blunder Charles gave the order to disperse rather than take to the hills and regroup. A price of £30,000 was placed on his head but he was escaped, while the Highlands fell victim to the full might of British Imperial retribution and the reality of colonial occupation.


This had been the fourth general Scottish uprising against the Union in little under four decades, not to mention the anti-Union riots amongst the fledgling working-class of the towns. The contemporary English ruling class had a loathing of the Scots who they regarded as potential Jacobites, especially the Highlanders whose alien communal-based clan system was an affront to 'progress', and a haven of barbarity. After all who can forget the words of 'our' national anthem, which was written at this time:


God grant that Marshall Wade May by his valour rush

Rebellious Scots to crush God Save the King"


Moreover they now found themselves in a position where they could and would seek to destroy not just those who had participated in the rising but the very social structure of the clans themselves. The British military dictator Cumberland noted that the "rebellious spirit is so rooted in the nations mind that this generation must be worn out before this country will be quiet."(9) 'Internal' resistance was not going to be tolerated in an Empire that stretched from the Americas to India.


While Cumberland ordered his forces to 'harry and burn' all before them after Culloden similar tactics were eagerly suggested by other Imperialists. Cumberland's successor as 'Commander in Chief of Scotland', the Earl of Albemarle, urged the wholesale devastation of northern Scotland, the deportation of the people and their replacement with "decent God-fearing people from the South" (10) . In turn his successor Major-General Bland was to urge a total massacre of the clans to prevent further rebellion. During the rebellion Lord Chesterfield, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, had urged a naval blockade of the Highlands to prevent the import of food and to 'starve the loyal with the dissent up the west coast and local chiefs were invited to speak to the Commander, when they were kidnapped, imprisoned for the winter and forced to sign up to a series of measures designed to undermine the structure of clanship and drive a wedge between the clan elite and the people. For the most part these measures were agreed to without being enacted, but over time the forcing of chiefs into constant contact with Lowland values, customs and politics we see a gradual move, over generations, towards a more distanced elite whilst the clansfolk remained rooted in the customs and traditions of their forefathers as a simple means of survival. This ultimately contradictory state of affairs persisted until the aftermath of Culloden when these factors would be crucial to the later counter-revolution in Highland land-ownership.


The measures of this reactionary post- reformation regime should not be ' viewed out of context with events in the Lowlands where the barons divided up the former church lands amongst themselves and began the appropriation of huge tracts of the common-grounds still prevalent in the Lowlands. They further passed anti-labour legislation including condemning salters and colliers into hereditary life-serfdom to be bought and sold as any other commodity. They wanted no opposition to the powers of the barons, and the rights of private property, be it from Lowland workers or the communal north.


Glencoe, Union and Culloden


"[It is] seen to be a rapproach to a Highlander to be seen without his Musket, broad Sword, pistol and Dirk. These by a long Custom were esteem'd part of their Dress... worn by the Meanest of inhabitants, even in their Churches, Fairs and Markets' (7)

General Wade, 1727


Map of Scotland circa 1800Ironically within 20 years of James' death the clans would be defending their heritage on behalf of the crown in return for less interference in the affairs of the Highlands. The Covenanters had embraced much of the militant Presbyterian hostility to the 'heathen' north and Cromwell's victory saw the Highlands garrisoned until the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660. The 1689 'Glorious Revolution' spelt a new threat for the clan-system, renewed attacks on the principle of common-ownership of land, and a greater push from the ruling class for Union with England. On 13 February 1692 a division of British crown soldiers who'd been billeted in Glencoe for two weeks beforehand turned on their hosts under the orders, authorised by King William, to 'put all to the sword under seventy' as an example to the clans of the renewed vigour of the Anglo-Scottish ruling-class in stamping its authority on the Highlands. It was a vigour that would be strengthened by the 'Union' of Parliaments in 1707.


Within two years of Union the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) was formed to teach Gaels, 'their duty to God, their king and country and rooting out the Irish language', believing that Anglicisation should be at the root of all policies to subdue the Highlands. However this was just one strand of the renewed attacks and between 1725-40 some 250 miles of military roads were built linking a series of forts and barracks as the British prepared for a military onslaught against the rebel north.


Following participation in the rebellions of 1708, 1715 and 1719 futher measures were taken by the London government to undermine the power of the clans such as the Disarming Acts of 1716 and 1725. These were generally obeyed only by the pro-government 'Whig clans' and effectively served to weaken government authority in the north by disarming their own supporters.


The Jacobite cause had many complex motivating factors but post-1707 it became an opportunistic vehicle for Scottish nationalism and repeal of the hated Union. Clan society had been in a protracted decline since the early 17th century and by the time of the final Jacobite uprising in 1745 was already teetering on the brink of its own social contradictions and increasingly operating at two separate levels. Clearances had already taken place in the Highlands beforehand notably on the Campbell clanlands of Morvern, Mull and Tiree in 1737. Indeed the disarming of the Campbells had rendered them incapable of opposing the wishes of the chief who had already effected the transition from Clan Chief to commercial landlord before Culloden; moreover it meant that the Campbells couldn't raise the clan to fight on the government side. In other areas too, including Jacobite estates, there had been growing commercial ventures. The increasing contact with the south meant many of the clan elites had adopted lavish southern lifestyles with increased consumption, expenditure and debts. For the most part this was accommodated within the traditional communal framework by the growth in the black cattle trade from the 17th century onwards.


At the bottom the people still clung steadfastly to the old-way of life, their attachment to the land, and the heritage of duthchas. And it was as a defence of this way of life, in opposition to the slavery their brothers in the Lowlands faced, that many clansmen joined the final rebellion. And the slavery was real. In Aberdeen from 1740-46 British Whig agents ran a profitable slave trade in which at least 600 locals were rounded up loyal'. He even refused to lift the ban on exports from Ireland to feed Highlanders fighting with the government forces. Westminster discussed plans to sterilise the women of the Highlands and rewarded 'Butcher' Cumberland with the title Baron Culloden and a 200% increase in his civil list allowance! The notions of racial superiority over the Scots, and Irish, would easily be adapted to justify African enslavement and the genocide of American tribes.


Red-coated British soldiers scavenged the Highlands in its aftermath, burning villages, raping women, killing all the 'vermin', 'banditti' and 'scum' suspected of being rebels even those who had fought on the government side. One English officer wrote to Cumberland that several hundred homes were "burned already... [but] still so many more houses to burn" (11). Another reported that his troops had, "carriedfire and destruction as they passed, shooting the vagrant Highlanders that they met in the mountains and driving off their cattle".(12) The black cattle, the basis of the Highland economy, were driven to Fort William and sold onto Yorkshire traders in order to starve the people and devoid them of any means of support.

 Sawney in the Boghouse

Thousands of prisoners were rounded up and taken to England for trial. Many hundreds died in captivity and hundreds more were shipped to the slavery plantations of the West Indies. Proscription Acts were passed to systematically destroy the symbols of clanship whilst leaving in place enough of the old structures for administrative purposes. So scared was the English government of the symbols of communal resistance clanship represented that even the tartan clothing of the Highlanders was banned under threat of imprisonment or seven years transportation. Moreover a new Disarming Act was rigorously enforced leaving the Highlands completely vulnerable for the time when the plans of Albemarle would be put into place. 41 Jacobite estates were forfeited, and 13 annexed, to the Crown, 'for the purposes of civilising the Inhabitants' by promoting 'the Protestant religion, good government. .. and principles of Duty and Loyalty to His Majesty'. A Board of Commissioners ran the estates and used the proceeds to fund the SSPCK and build prisons in Stonehaven and Inverness for detention of rebels. Some estates were sold to speculative land investors in London. Enclosure was introduced, runrig abolished, tacksmen eliminated and the people driven off. All measures which would form the basis of the coming Clearances across the north.


Even under these genocidal maniacs small-scale resistance continued but the Clan elites had had enough taste of Lowland values that such endemic unrest and social instability as would come from continued resistance was not for them. Moreover they had the example of the Irish clans, and the expropriation of their leaders, to know the fate that might await them. Within a short period the clan elites had embraced the new capitalist era, or else were replaced by close relatives who would! They then set about forging their place in British imperial grandeur as the clan system was split irrevocably along class lines.


'Sawney in the Boghouse' typical piece of anti-Scottish prejudice in 18th century London Press


So it was that everywhere after 1746 there was a massive social, cultural and economic assault launched on the clan system, communal labour and Gaelic culture. A concerted system of state terrorism imposed a revolutionary change onto the Highlands.The self-sufficient economy was reduced to colonial subordination; land transformed from common to private property, and the chiefs into commercialised landlords intent on wringing every last drop of profit from 'their' land to subsidise their assimilation into the ranks of the Anglo-Scottish ruling class.


The counter-revolution in landown-ership left the people culturally alienated from the new system, but by not expropriating the clan leaders, as they had in Ireland, the British left no obvious symbols of colonial rule as targets for resistance. By thus masking the reality of the colonial situation the British to some extent imprisoned the clans within their own culture. Moreover the Chief's land grab and assimilation into the ranks of British landed oligarchy paved the way for the mass Clearances that would shortly remove the Highlanders from the land and send them to the four corners of the globe. Factors that simply cannot be extracted from the experience of British colonialism.




1)Thomas Johnston, The History of the Working Classes in Scotland , (1974), p.l61

2) ibid p.20
3) ibidp.l3

4) ibid p. 16

5) Michael Lynch, Scotland A New History, (1992), p68

6) T.C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830, p.39

7)Robert Dodghson, The Age of the Clans, p.42-3

8) P. Berresford Ellis, S. Mac a' Ghobhainn, The Scottish Insurrection of 1820, p.47

9) Tom Steele, Scotland's Story,p.192

10) ibid p. 192

11) James Hunter, Last of the Free, (1999) p.19

12) James Hunter, The Other Side of Sorrow, (1995), p29-30