The Great Theft
"But what "clearing of estates " really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property: under which the embezzled lands were held. "
As we have seen the defeat of the Jacobite army at Culloden paved the way for the British state to launch a systematic 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 economy was reduced colonial subordination; land transformed from common to private property, and clan 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.
If the droving trade in black cattle had helped incorporate the Chiefs to the fringes of the Scottish ruling class before Culloden it soon became apparent to them that only a complete revolution in the whole system of communal land ownership would be necessary to complete their elevation to the ranks of the British landed oligarchy. They found intellectual justification from Scottish Enlightenment thinking to impose 'cultural improvement' and Anglicisation on the highlands. Emulating the actions of the oppressors they abandoned the Gaelic language, sent their children for the finest English education and quickly assumed positions as army officers and colonial officials in order to plunder other peoples under the flag of British imperialism.
What bolstered the landlords in this transition was that while the Highlanders had traditional and cultural rights to the land they had no legal right, nor the help of servile lawyers. The concept of Duthchas had guaranteed their right to a stake in the clan territories and was woven into the very fabric of clan society. The counter-revolution in land-ownership enforced by British imperialism transformed them into one of the most oppressed sections of peasantry across Europe. The rise of feudalism elsewhere had brought with it centuries of disputes and violence in which peasants had often acquired some form of legal rights to land but the Highlands had operated on a different cultural system and after the imposition of colonial rule these cultural rights were ruthlessly suppressed. And this lack of previously established legal rights meant Highland landlords did not have to seek parliamentary approval for their actions, still less the co-operation of the people.
The destruction of the clan system coincided with Europe-wide changes in agricultural production as communal systems of land-management and peasant communities were replaced by a commercialised capitalist system of agriculture. This accompanied a mass rise in population across the continent from around 1750 onwards at the take-off of the industrial revolution. Many apologists for the landlords point to this population rise as some form of evidence of the inevitability of the Highland Clearances as part of a Euro-wide phenomenon. But in reality the experience of northern Scotland was unique in its sheer scale, brutality and speed of change, and not least of all in its largely unrestrained persecution of a colonised people.
In other areas of Europe, such as Norway and Sweden, peasants emerged in virtual control of the land. In Denmark communal land was enclosed and populations shifted but state funds were made available for relocation and legislation introduced to prevent the division of land too small to support a family, measures which prevented the huge social problems created by the destruction of the Highland economy.The rise in the Highlands population was smaller than that in either Scotland or Europe as a whole. Indeed within the Highlands there were substantial local variations in the rise in population, which were most severe in the remote areas of the north and west Highlands and Islands - and as we shall see below these were largely down to landlord manipulation of the agrarian system.
Across Europe the massive rise in population resulted in the re-orientation of agricultural production. Cereal prices rose faster than livestock in order to feed the new populations of the towns and cities, and so production was shifted to labour-intensive arable, accompanied by genuine attempts at agricultural 'improvement' using new techniques and machinery to boost production. The Highlands was exceptional because the system of production was changed not to boost agricultural production but to destroy the remains of communal labour with the sole intention of maximising landlord income, indeed genuine agricultural improvement, economic development or diversification were a rare feature in the Highlands during this period. Central to this process was the elimination of the baile as the basic unit of production and it was achieved through a variety of means.
A) Na Caoraich Mora
"The lairds have transferred their affections from the people to flocks of sheep"
Thomas Telford 1802
Fixed money contracts and competitive bidding were introduced everywhere as land was opened up to the 'market forces'. The old townships were forced into direct competition for farm leases with tacksmen and capitalist sheep-farmers from England and the Scottish borders. Most were converted to larger single-tenant farms with the clansmen reduced to the status of agricultural labourers. Indeed competitive bidding was largely inseparable from the whole process of Clearance. As the price of wool and mutton rose from around 1770 onwards so capitalist farmers turned their attentions to the north where large tracks of land were coming onto the market for rents which, despite landlord rent-racking, were still substantially lower than those available elsewhere. The only problem was the "idle", 'barbarian' and 'uncivilised hordes' that happened to live there!
The Blackface and Cheviot breeds of sheep, which were introduced to supply the Yorkshire woollen manufacturers and feed the growing industrial towns, were of larger carcass weight and fleece than the native Highland breeds. These incoming farmers offered rents that were far in excess of what the local population could afford and the scale on which sheep-farming was introduced was such as to ensure that the local population could not compete. Moreover this capital —intensive sheep-farming was incompatible with the traditional black cattle economy. The sheep devoured all before them often causing long-term ecological and social damage as many areas were left deprived of vegetation and people. All land of any use was needed for grazing, and the rights of the sheep were greater than the people!
In some areas of the interior clansmen had managed to club together and integrate larger scale sheep-farming within the traditional collective framework. Had the Highlands been able to enjoy a balanced transition from a traditional to a capitalist framework outwith the colonial settlement of the late 18th century then this collective foundation could conceivably have formed some basis for the economy. As it was they were eventually forced out unable to compete with the sheep-farmers. So it was that across the Highlands the common people came to be removed from the land that their forefathers had tilled for generations, to make way for na caoraich mora (the Big Sheep) - a process symbolic of the new colonial status of the highlanders.
B) Uisge Beatha
Elsewhere highlanders turned to poaching, seasonal work in the Lowlands, or illicit whisky distilling & smuggling to pay racked-rents. Distilling and smuggling had increased across Scotland when the British introduced Malt Taxes, in contravention of the 1707 Union. By the end of the 18th century it was estimated that one-half of all spirits consumed in Scotland were from illicit stills. The whole trade was well suited to the regions traditional communal practices; imbibed with an anti-Union spirit, and carried out in the Highlands on a massive scale in open defiance of the State. In 1782 alone over 1000 illicit stills were seized in the Highlands -most likely a fraction of the total numbers. Communities often shared the payments of fines and indeed took turns to appear before the courts.
It was probably the only 'industry' that was based on turning community participation into a commercial practise. Needless to say the grasping landlords reaped the benefits by further racking rents when the 'trade' was booming. However after the 1815 recession they began to push for the full appropriation of profits from the trade. They campaigned for legislation to boost the legal production of whisky, brought in harsher penalties for offenders and sponsored large-scale production financed by southern capital. British crown forces were dispatched in greater numbers to crack down on illicit stills and eventually the 'distilling communities' were also cleared. Everywhere the people had served their useful purpose to the landlord's bank balance the setting was prepared for Clearance.
C) The People's Clearance
"Let us go and may God's blessing be with us
Let us go and charter a vessel
Better that than to remain under the landlords
Who will not tolerate tenantry
Who would prefer gold to a brave man"
Anon. Gaelic poem
However this first phase of Clearance wasn't integrally linked with forced emigration or even migration to the Lowland cities. Up to the post-1815 recession the landlords generally wanted the people to stay on the land - but on the landlord's terms. That meant accepting the loss of traditional rights and removal from the land either into the landlord inspired crofting communities or as agricultural labourers. The people having been disarmed following Culloden were left largely without the means of resistance while the landlords had the full might of British imperial power to enforce their agenda. Indeed British imperial power was one of the main reasons why landlords wanted to keep large numbers on the land. Huge grants were made available from the state to raise regiments to fight in Britain's mounting colonial wars. Britain was at war for 36 of the 65 years between 1750 and 1815 and these regiments lined many a Highland laird's pockets as the people faced the choice to provide sons for the 'family regiment' or face summary eviction while others signed up on a promise of land when they returned.
Over 48,000 Highlanders were thus co-erced into British imperial service as the battering ram of England's Empire. The racist attitudes prevalent amongst the English ruling class was well illustrated by General James Woolfe who had fought at Culloden and some years later planned the massacre of Clan MacPherson. Only months later in Quebec he had found another use for the dispossessed and was asking for "two or three independent Highland companies... they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country and no great mischief if they fall". When the confiscated Jacobite estates were 'returned' to the families of rebels in 1784, as a reward for raising regiments to fight Britain's colonial wars, the Highland landlord class was united as one anglicised elite, 'Whig' and 'Jacobite' together. Unsurprisingly many Highlanders were not prepared to accept the new colonial regime and the destruction of their culture and heritage. What had been a trickle of emigration before Culloden erupted into mass emigrations often taking whole communities at a time rather than stay under the heel of the landlords. In fact emigration remained the most active symbol of resistance to the new order and deeply imbibed with anti-landlordism.
So heavy did the emigrations become that in 1803 landlord pressure got the Passenger Vessels Act passed to substantially increase the costs for travel abroad. Its estimated as many as 70,000 Highlanders left their homes for America from the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 until the legislation was passed in 1803. In that summer alone it was estimated that a further 20,000 Highlanders were planning to leave for the Americas. These were not decisions taken lightly and the conditions onboard ships were atrocious with rampant disease and filth and passengers packed into the hulks of run-down ships. One contemporary reported that "Two ships which sailed from the Western Highlands for Nova Scotia in 1801 with 700 emigrants would only have been permitted 489 'passengers ' had they been slaves putting out from the Gambia. Three out of every 20 emigrants died on board one of these ships." Other ships were in such a poor condition they never made it to the Americas.
D) Kelping Slavery
For those that stayed life was little better than the conditions on the ships. Evicted for sheep they were moved to the coast as a ready supply of cheap seasonal labour and generally given a small area of uncultivated land to supply food for their families. These plots -crofts- were deliberately designed to be too small to feed a family thereby forcing the 'crofters' into wage-labour for the landlords. Once the ground had been cultivated the lairds would push up rents or else move them to yet more uncultivated land and turn the cultivated ground to sheep-grazing. Either way there was no incentive for improvement for the dispossessed, only more and greater hardships. As we have seen the people were devoid of rights in the new colonial situation whilst the landlord had assumed the full rights of private property. It meant that as boss and landlord the Highland proprietor was able to exercise a degree of tyranny over the population that was virtually unmatched even by the standards of Lowland factory bosses.
On the East and North coasts the now redundant clansmen were thus pushed into fishing while all over the west coast and islands they were forced into labouring for the kelp industry. Kelp was an important ingredient for making soap and glass and the labour-intensive process involved cutting, gathering, drying and eventually burning seaweed for its alkaline kelp extract. The industry had existed on a small scale in the Islands for some decades largely under the control of Irish capitalists. The outbreak of war with revolutionary France in the 1790s cut the supply of kelp from the continent and its price started to climb sharply. The landlords of the west coast, with noses now well tuned to scent of profit, turned their attentions to its manufacture - after establishing legal rights to the seashore! By controlling the supply of seaweed they were able to take control over its production and distribution. A labour force of some 10,000 was then employed in an industry to match any industrial sweat-shop or slave-plantation. As the agent for Clanranald of MacDonald told his employer it was a "dirty and disagreeable employment and must if the present race of people were to leave the country be given up all together".
This process took up all the spare time of the crofters in the spring and summer when they should have been tending to their land and providing enough food for the winter ahead. Moreover in the past townships had used the seaweed as manure on their runrig strips, but now the lairds instructed factors to "take the most effectual means [i.e. eviction] of punishing any person who may be concerned in cutting, using or destroying the ware".
'That from and after the first day of August, One thousand, seven hundred and forty-seven, no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty's Forces, shall, on any pretext whatever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trouse, Shoulder-belts, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no tartan or partly-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for Great Coats or upper coats, and if any such person shall presume after the said first day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garments or any part of them, every such person so offending......shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty's plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years'.
Abolition And Proscription of the Highland Dress, 19 George 11, Chap. 39, Sec. 17, 1746
By the opening years of the 19th century 15-20,000 tonnes of kelp were being produced annually in the Hebrides alone, the majority bound for Liverpool. At its highest price of £20 per ton the landlords were clearing just under £ 17 profit per ton, while the crofters received around £2 per ton for all their labours. However what the landlord unwillingly gave out with one hand, he gladly took back in the way of racked rents with the other. It was an impossible situation for the crofters and moreover was based on absurd short-term economic decisions on behalf of the landlords, and its complete disregard for the social consequences of their actions. After the war ended and cheaper imports came in again from abroad the price of kelp soon fell to the stage where production was no longer 'economical'. The industry and people employed were abandoned to their fate. It had produced enormous profits over a short period of time that could have been used for genuine agricultural improvement but instead was exploited solely to fund the extravagant lifestyles of the lairds.
The social costs to the islands particularly were huge. The people now had no income with which to pay their racked rents, and not enough land to support them. Moreover in order to create a large labour pool many landlords had actively encouraged sub-division of land and early marriages, which only served to increase pressure on the land and led to the creation of rural crofting ghettos. The constant subdivision of land had only been made tenable by the introduction of the potato in the 18th century, an acre of which could yield up to 4 times the equivalent acreage of cereals in the harsh Highland climate. With less land to use the crofters were forced to rely on potatoes as their staple diet, and by 1811 potatoes consisted 80% of the average Hebridean diet. These were increasingly cultivated on small strips of rock-strewn land, known asfeannagan, (lazy beds), on which no other crops would grow. The constant clearances of the early 19th century further increased the burdens on these crofting townships and forced them ever more to the extremes of survival.
Kelping created an extremely fragile and insecure economy completely subservient to the fluctuation of Imperial market conditions. Moreover the growing reliance on the potato only increased the risks of localised but recurrent famine. When the price of kelp dropped the crofting townships found themselves 'industrially redundant', solely reliant on small plots of land deliberately designed to be unable to support them. It was a perfect setting for the coming tragedy of famine in the 1840s.
Sutherland & Karl Marx
"All was silence and desolation. Blackened and roofless huts, still enveloped in smoke - articles of furniture cast away, as of no value to the houseless - a few domestic fowls, scraping for food among the hills of ashes, were the only objects that told us of man. A few days had sufficed to change a countrysid, teeming with the cheeriest sounds of rural life, into a desert."
Alexander Sutherland, Strathbrora 1825
Sutherland was the one major area where the majority of crofters were not forced into kelping, and if each set of clearances could be described as unique in that they had there own individual circumstances then it certainly cannot be said that the experience of Sutherland was representative of the process as a whole, as they have somewhat become through folk-memory notoriety. However the Sutherland Clearances of the early 19th century are worthy of study, as they are well documented and show clearly the balance of class-forces involved. Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland, married Lord George Granville-Leveson-Gower, future Duke of Sutherland. They served in the British administration in France at the time of revolution and were reportedly 'lucky to escape', and on returning to Sutherland she raised a 'family regiment" to fight against revolutionary France.After a poor response she decided the clansmen "need no longer be considered a credit to Sutherland, or any advantage over sheep or any useful animal." Gower succeeded his father as Lord Staf-fordrd in 1803 the same year as he inherited the vast fortune of his uncle the Duke of Bridgewater, with estates in Shropshire, Staffordshire, coal pits, iron works and a guaranteed income of around £900,000 per annum from the profits of the Bridgewater Canal.
When the time came to drive the people out by force they employed a Lowland lawyer called Patrick Sellar, a man ruthless and aggressive against anything or one rending in the way of 'progress', 'improvement', the rights of private property and new colonial order. It has been an easy mistake of many though to concentrate their hatred on the figure of Sellar, because he was only one bit-part player in a far larger picture. When he was later charged with murder, for torching an old woman's house, and brought the Sutherlands into disrepute he was replaced by others who continued the relentless persecution of the Gael. That a hand-picked jury of landowners found him not-guilty was of no real consequence - or surprise! Sellar merely represented the front-line where the new colonial situation was forcibly imposed on the people, and so became the obvious target for resistance.
From 1807-21 over 15,000 were removed from the townships of the Sutherland interior to newly created crofting settlements by the coast of "waste land that will not do for a sheep". In many cases the old, sick, pregnant and infirm were driven from their homes by the estate's armed hatchet-men, who burnt the houses and barns to prevent their return, smashed what little furniture the people had, burnt crops and livestock or drove them off. With only basic material provided to help build new houses the people were provided for "along the coast in lots of two to three acres each... sufficiently pinched at the same time to induce them to attempt the fishery". But there are few natural harbours on the coast of Sutherland; the people, by now reduced to abject poverty through loss of property and stock, had no experience of fishing; were given little assistance; and were expected to make their own boats. Unsurprisingly the mass fishing fleet envisaged by the Sutherlands never materialised. So extreme then were the settings for Clearance in Sutherland that Karl Marx devoted some time to them, exposing them as the most ruthless example of the 'Expropriation Of The Agricultural Population From The Land' in Capital. In his writings Marx clearly sees symptoms of colonial rule in the Highlands without drawing the same comparisons as he would with Ireland, with whom much of the events so far mentioned share much in common.
So while Marx was able to show that this 'usurption' of common-property 'which began in Scotland after the last rising of the followers of the Pretender'; that in Sutherland '15,000 inhabitants... were systematically expelled and exterminated. All their villages were demolished and burned down, and all their fields converted into pasturage' and that, 'British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants'. Marx didn't see this as the reality of British oppression in Scotland ! Moreover Marx noted that these 15,000 Gaels who were "systematically hunted and rooted out' were replaced in the 'stolen clanland' by '29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single family, for the most part imported English farm-servants '. Also that the profits from the fishing industry went to the "great fishmongers of London' and that, 'for the second time the Gaels were hunted out.' So why did Marx did not denounce these events outright as a brutal plunder and repression meted out by the world's largest Imperial power? Was he simply unaware of the complexities of the 'national question' which dominated Scottish working-class politics throughout this period?
It is a question in which Marx and Engels never fully expand upon. There are small mentions such as Engels ridiculing the idea of 'Walter Scott's Highlanders' existing as a modern nation. That Scott was painting a mythical portrayal of the Highlanders - and suppressing the history of resistance to colonialism in the Highlands - at precisely the same time as British imperialists were 'exterminating' them and 'driving them from their home' is a question with deep cultural connotations that we will come to, but that Marx and Engels did not address sufficiently. Moreover it is a question that could rightly be posed of other writings of both Marx and Engels. For example Engels in his ''Condition of the Working Class in England" [sic] makes the point that, "In Glasgow... a general strike of weavers had taken place in 1812, which was brought about by a secret association. It was repeated in 1822... So, too, in 1818, the association of Scottish miners was powerful enough to carry on a general strike". So the far larger and more serious threat posed to the British State by the Insurrection of 1820 and 60,000 strong General Strike, across a range of industries, is relegated to the position of a repeat of the 1812 weavers strike (complete with the wrong date!) - and obviously no mention is made of the republican goals of this struggle! Why was this?
Marx and Engels in their time witnessed the huge advances being made by industrial capitalism, sweeping away the anachronisms of feudal production and dividing the world into ''two great hostile camps...bourgeoisie and proletariat'. This fact in itself was enough to ensure capitalism's own demise as the contradictions between labour and capital were ever exposed the proletariat would throw offthe shackles of capitalist production and take power in our own class interests. Furthermore for Marx and Engels it was self-evident that the more capitalism developed the quicker it sowed the seeds of its own demise and that this was paramount to the success of the socialist revolution. Moreover 'modern industrial labour, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him [the worker] of every trace of national character ', that no small nation could exist on its own under capitalism and that such 'non-historic nations' would inevitably be incorporated into larger states. However this position would later be reviewed and progressed by them with particular regard to Ireland and Poland.
Marx was further approaching the matter differently later in life following discoveries in new scientific fields such as anthropology. If Marx had earlier said of the Scottish clan system, "To the clan... belonged the district where it had established itself, exactly as in Russia" he was at around the same time dismissing the peasant communes of Russia as "all that trash" and celebrating it's "coming now to an end". However in the later years of his life Marx was forced to substantially review this position so that "the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia", not as a basis for socialist production on its own, separate from the industrial west, but on the basis of the democratic and communal practises of such societies being superior to those built on alienated labour and commodity production. Other tribal societies he had come to view as, "in some ways, more essentially human and liberated than a clerk in the city and in that sense closer to the man of the socialist future".
Of course by the time Marx was writing the question had been superseded in Scotland due to the imposition of the colonial regime and the destruction of the clan-system. But this is to underestimate the effect that this cultural destruction had on working-class consciousness in Scotland, and on whether or not these collectivist practises of the past can be hi some way harnessed for the socialist society of the future. As John MacLean would later declare: "We must encourage the Highlanders to co-operate communally to cultivate the land with the latest machinery. Only thus can the best results be obtained out of the Highlands and its sturdy inhabitants. The old communal traditions of the clans must be revived and adapted to the modern conceptions and conditions. If the Bolshevik notion of world communism through national communism is scientifically correct, then -we are justified in utilising our latent Highland and Scottish sentiments and traditions in the mighty task confronting us of transforming capitalism into communism".
Cultural Oppression & Colonialism
"I have read from speeches delivered by Mr Loch at public dinners among his own party, [that he would] never be satisfied until the Gaelic language and the Gaelic people would be extirpated root and branch from the Sutherland estate; yes from the Highlands of Scotland".
Rev. Donald MacLeod
These cultural questions over colonial oppression and occupation have been advanced since the time of Marx and Engels, particularly with reference to 'third-world' struggles for national liberation during the 20th century. Whilst Engels could say of Africa, "Anyone who wishes to study the most terrible manifestations of human nature will find them in Africa...it is an unhistorical continent, with no movement or development of its own", a new theory of revolutionary liberation has sprung up which has addressed many of the problems faced by Africa and elsewhere in the era of colonial national liberation struggles, and which bear a remarkable similarity to aspects of the Scottish situation in general but the Highlands in particular.
Paulo Friere thus addressed what he termed 'cultural invasion': "In this phenomenon the invaders penetrate the cultural context of another group, and ignoring the potential of the latter, they impose their own view of the world upon those they invade and inhibit the creativity of the invaded by curbing their expression... Cultural invasion is then always an act of violence against the persons of the invaded culture, who lose their originality... it is essential that those who are invaded come to see their reality with the outlook of the invaders rather than their own; for the more they mimic the invaders the more stable the position of the later becomes... it is essential that those invaded become convinced of their intrinsic inferiority."
With more specific reference to Scotland, Michael Hechter described a similar aspect of the colonial process: "One of the defining characteristics of the colonial situation is that it must involve the interaction of two cultures — that of the conquering metropolitan elite (cosmopolitan culture) and that of the indigenes (native culture) - and that the former is promulgated by the colonial authorities as being vastly inferior for the realisation of universal ends. One of the consequences of this denigration of the indigenous culture is to undermine the natives will to resist the colonial regime" (Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism, P-73)
This whole process has been termed 'inferiorisation' in which the every aspect of the culture of a colonised people is ridiculed and oppressed; music, traditions, language, everything that makes them distinct from the colonising power. It was in these circumstances that another theorist from this school, Franz Fanon, noted that, "the passion with which contemporary Arab writers remind their people of the great pages of their history, is a reply to the lies told by the occupying power". For, as Edward Said further noted, "one of the main purposes of colonial education was to promote the history of France or Britain, the same education also demoted the native history." A quick look at any Scottish school syllabus will soon show how much this is still practised today, and so it is a necessity that we must recover 'our' history from the lies of the Imperialist British ruling class and their lackey establishment historians.
The final triumph of this process of inferiorisation is when the subjects believe the intrinsic inferiority of their own culture. In Scotland this process reached its pinnacle when that culture was re-invented as a tool of the oppressors with the State visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, rigged-out in tartan and pink tights at the behest of Walter Scott who wrote a pamphlet specially for the occasion claiming, "We are The Clan and our King is The Chief! As these romantic myths were being perpetrated many of those involved were removing Highlanders from the land with armed force and suppressing the very real history of resistance taking place across the Highlands.
Resistance & Radicalism
A wicked man is Malcolm
And I will say it
When the French come
Across to rout him
Who will stand up for Malcolm
In the rabble round about him? Everyone will be wild
Desiring to strike him And I myself will be
there Urging on the conflict"
Anon Gaelic poem 1810, (Malcolm of Potallach was a clearing landlord.)
The three years before the state visit of George IV had seen the largest of the Sutherland Clearances and also a growth in resistance. At Culrain in March 1820, a month before the Radical uprising in Glasgow, sheriffs officers and police were twice resisted as they came to serve eviction notices. Eventually they returned with armed soldiers who were attacked by a crowd of around 400 'chiefly women', many were injured and one woman died. That summer resistance erupted at Gruids and lasted for two years until British soldiers subdued the people. Similarly troops were called in to enforce clearances at Achness in 1821, while there was further trouble at Ascoilmore and Mudale, and the Sutherland factor James Loch was warning of a 'regular and organised system of resistance to civil power'.
However these were not representative of the earlier period. While the people never accepted Clearance, they were limited in their resistance, particularly due to the Disarming Acts enforced after Culloden. In most cases when British forces were deployed resistance tended to evaporate, the psychological scars of red-coated British soldiers let free to plunder and pillage were still firmly implanted on the Highlanders mind. However there were other forms of resistance such as sheep-stealing, poaching, petty violence as well as passive resistance like non-compliance, delay and emigration, not to mention the prosecution of Patrick Sellar which Eric Richards has claimed, "reflected an authentic and sophisticated form of protest among the people of Strathnaver, a degree of organisation beyond the historical expectations of such a pre-indus trial people".
In 1819 a semi-subversive cooperative organisation was founded, the Transatlantic Emigration Society, and held a series of large meetings denouncing the landlords and taking subscriptions for emigration. One week after the Peterloo Massacre a landlord agent reported that, "itis to be lamented that such a circumstance should take place in the north of Scotland at the same time that popular commotions are so prevalent in England".
This fear of radicalism was oft repeated in landlord circles, and beyond, in December 1819 as plans were being made for rebellion the Lord Advocate spoke out against the "unnatural union between the Radical reformers and the gallant brave Highlanders'". Moreover the flurry of activity around the time of the 1820 rising repeated similar occurrences during earlier Radical struggles in the 1790s. In 1792, the same year as Radical activity erupted in Lowland Scotland, the largest single instance of co-ordinated resistance to the new order occurred in Ross-shire. Dispossessed Highlanders gathered from around the area and launched a determined attempt to drive all the sheep from the Highlands. By the end of the first week they had some 10.000 sheep on the move and one local landlord urged the Lord Advocate to send the troops in saying that; "We are at present so completely under / the Heel of the Populace that should they. come to Burn our houses, or destroy our property in any way their Caprice may lead them to feel we are incapable of Re-, sistance". (Munro - Lord Advocate 31/77 1792) The deployment of the Black Watch .-and a force of mounted gentry eventually^ broke the 'insurrection'. The year was much celebrated in the oral culture of the Highlanders as Bliadhna nan Caorach -The Year of the Sheep. In the same year it was reported that 'almost every village in the North of Scotland burned [Henry] Dundas in effigy'.
The following year Thomas Muir's Friends of the People passed a resolution stating: "That a fund be raised by subscription for defraying the expense of small patriotic publications to be distributed in the Highlands. Every publication shall bear the figure of a Highland man in full dress, with target and broadsword, to attract the attention of the Highlander". The Friends of the People had branches as far north as Thurso, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, and other democratic tracts were translated into Gaelic. Furthermore Edinburgh Radicals issued Highland Regiments leaflets urging them not to forget the massacre of Glencoe, to stand by the people, stay at home and 'assert your independence.' The leaflet contained a more direct appeal to insurrection, 'Your countrymen look up to you as their protectors and guardians, and will in their turn lift up their arms to protect and assist you.'
In Lewis 1793 the common people took an oath to 'stand by one another' in the Radical tradition and refused to enlist in the landlord regiment. In 1797 radical republicans claimed that 50,000 Highlanders were waiting to rise in support of a French invasion, and later that year Highland Perthshire was the scene of the most sustained activity during the opposition to the Militia Act, led by Angus Cameron a Gaelic speaking Highlander from Lochaber. Furthermore by forcing Highlanders into seasonal migration to the Lowlands for work, the landlords helped spread radical ideas. The United Scotsmen were known to have infiltrated Highland Regiments, who mutinied on many occasions during this period, and some of whom reportedly refused to fire on the United Irishmen during the 1798 Rebellion.
But the landlords had their own vigilante groups formed to protect private property, furthermore they had the established church on their side, with hand-picked ministers, who have come to be regarded by many as the 'quislings' of Highland history, preaching that Clearances were ordained by God as punishment for past sins, and that resistance was sacrilege. In Assynt 1813 both Loch and the newly appointed landlord minister were chased out of the area and only the deployment of English soldiers quietened the people. The same year also saw disturbances at Kildonan against 'those English devils who have come into the country', which required further troops to be sent in from Fort George and Inverness and which caused Sellar to boast that 'they did not dream of fighting against Great Britain'! And that summed up the new balance of forces; the people disarmed and culturally alienated from the new system had little at their disposal for concerted resistance whilst the landlords were able to rely on the full might of British imperialism.
The Clearances & Scottish Working Class Consciousness
"The Highlander's memories of the Clearances - memories they took with them into the mills, coal mines and factories in the early nineteenth century - -were of crucial importance in subsequent Lowland social and political action over the land question"
James D. Young
And so the dispossessed Highlanders began the flight around the world aboard boats 'packed like slaves in a slave ship'. Those who couldn't afford to emigrate were spilled out into the small Highland towns, such as Fort William, Dingwall, Inverness & Thurso, or to the industrial central belt where they were often forced into competition with similarly dispossessed Irishmen for jobs. The poverty and hardships for the majority, packed into the single-end slums of Glasgow Cross, the Gallowgate or High St, were every bit as bad as for their Irish brethren and in both city slums and emigrant ships thousands died from disease, destitution and poverty. Moreover in many occasions the poverty in the slums of the central belt was made greater by sending home money to pay racked-rents in the highlands. As Alastair Macintosh put it, "Through the effects of intergenerationalpoverty, the foundations were thus laid for the post-industrial despair of "areas of multiple deprivation" around all our major modern Scottish cities today". The Highlands at the time of the Clearances were not the same remote uninhabited backwater that they are today. In 1750 one-half of the Scottish population lived north of the Tay, the majority of whom were Gaelic speaking, and one-quarter in the five Highland counties (Smout). Moreover there were still substantial Gaelic speaking areas of southwest Scotland and so the cultural and linguistic effects of the colonial solution were also felt beyond the Highlands.
Population growth has been mentioned as a factor in Clearance but looking at it comparatively while the population of North Scotland rose by some 33.9% from 1755-1821, Europe's population rose by 42.9% from 1750-1815, whilst the central belt of Scotland increased by 112% between 1755 and 1821. Individual towns had even higher rises such as Glasgow, by 364%, and Greenock 482%. And Greenock gives evidence for the effect of Clearance on the make up of our industrial centres, for in 1740 it had a Highland born population of some 10%. As the first port of call for Highland emigrants the Clearances contributed to Greenock's massive rise in population and the proportion of Highland born residents rose to a third by 1800, not too mention those who were first or second generation Highlanders. This multiplying factor can easily be seen today by looking at the surnames of Highland origin in any Scottish phone book.
The question must remain whether the worst aspects of clearance were inevitable and whether they had any progressive content. On both counts the answer has to be no. The experience elsewhere in Europe, and even in southern Scotland, showed that clearance from the land did not have to be carried out in the manner it was in the Highlands, and that responsibility for this lies solely with the colonial solution imposed by the British. The Highlands as a net-exporter of manpower, whether as labour or cannon-fodder, and a net-exporter of raw materials such as wool and kelp, to the largely English markets was colonised and governed by a small elite who administered the Highlands, and indeed Scotland, for their London masters. The repression faced by Highlanders after Culloden was never really removed. Though the direct occasions of military intervention may have lessened, whenever the rights of private property were threatened British crown forces would be called upon to suppress the people.
It is undoubtable that if the Highlands had encountered a balanced transition from the traditional clan economy to a capitalist system of production that it would have avoided the social and cultural scars that befell the Region, and could possibly have incorporated basic collectivist principles towards industrialisation. However any possibility of such a transition was lost with the defeat at Culloden, the land-grab of the clan chiefs - their alliance with the ruling class in England - and the systematic oppression of the heritage, culture and language of the Gael by the colonial regime. These are not minor matters of historical interest but are central to the precise genocidal nature of the Highland Clearances.
After the crash of the kelping industry; the agricultural recession of 1815 onwards, and the return of soldiers from the war, the landlords abandoned the people completely and began to clamour for the lifting of the same emigration restrictions that they had wanted passed in the first place. Patrick Sellar remarked that emigration would, 'lake off our hands what formerly supplied the war'. Moreover the ghettos created by the failure of the kelping industry, increasing congestion and over-reliance on the potato paved the way for the tragedy of famine in the 1840s. The 'native' landlords themselves spiralled into huge amounts of debt as they tried to match their English counterparts in terms of consumption and they themselves would be replaced largely by English capitalists who had no concern whatsoever about removing the people onto emigrant ships and turning large swathes of northern Scotland into a vast 'sporting' playground for the rich.
But the seeds of resistance planted in this period would later erupt into the Scottish Land War of the 1880s when radical Land Leaguers, influenced by militant Irish republicanism, would play a key role in combining the rural land struggle with the struggle for Socialism in the towns and cities of the Scottish Lowlands, for social justice, land nationalisation and national self-determination.
Over time these dispossessed Highlanders and Irishmen would form the backbone of the Red Clyde, all with their own particular grievances against British Imperialism. John MacLean himself was the son of dispossessed Highlanders forced from the land to build a new life in Glasgow, and his daughter Nan Milton described in many ways how the experience of MacLean would have been far from unique, "His maternal grandmother used to take 'wee Johnnie' on her knee and tell him how the wicked landlords had taken the farms and crofts of the poor people of the north, so that they had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, and no means of earning an honest living.... She told him of how his grandfather, Donald MacPhee, had been forced to make his way down to the Clyde industrial belt to find work... Then she and her little daughter Anne, who could not speak one word of English, had to make the long journey south on their own... We can be sure that these stories sank deep into the boy's mind, and when, years later, he read Capital, he was able to appreciate to the full Marx's harrowing description of the notorious Sutherland Clearances."
It is no surprise then that MacLean was able to utilise his inherent sympathy with the plight of the Highlanders by working in solidarity with the 'Land Raiders' in Lewis, arguing that this was the application of Bolshevik tactics to the Highlands. Moreover MacLean was able to push the Highland Land League to support 'public ownership of the land, economic rent to be paid to the government, of Scottish independence, and of support to the Highland raiders' and report that, 'there was general approval of communism under the control of the industrial workers, the fishermen, and the crofters and other land workers.' In trying to come to an understanding of the Clearances today we must build on this same platform - 'the land for the people' an end to landlordism and British colonialism.