The Highland Clearances: History, Literature and Politics


  • Ewan A Cameron Edinburgh University


The Highland clearances is the name given to the process of eviction and emigration which took place in the north of Scotland over the period from c.1730 to c.1880, with most of the activity occurring in a concentrated period from c.1780 to c.1855. The complex history of the clearances can be divided into two phases, each with distinctive characteristics. The first phase, lasting until 1815, involved the removal and resettlement of people from traditional communal townships to newly laid out crofting communities, with individual holdings. The second phase, precipitated by economic change at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but peaking during the potato famine of 1846 to 1855, involved the break up of failed crofting communities with direct encouragement of emigration.2 The aftermath of the Clearances is almost as interesting and significant as the process itself. In the 1880s there were concentrated protests in the crofting communities of the West Highlands and Hebrides, part of the objective of the protestors was to seek the restitution of lands perceived to have been ‘stolen’ during the Clearances of the earlier part of the century. This grievance was articulated, initially hesitantly but ultimately powerfully, in the vivid evidence given by crofters to the Royal Commission chaired by Lord Napier which investigated the problem in 1883–4. From 1886 to 1919 the British government implemented a body of legislation which went some way towards resettling lands, sometimes under state ownership, and creating new communities in areas which hadbeen depopulated. Even if this can be interpreted as a reversal of the clearances the history of the process does not end there.