The Highland clearances

The Highland clearances

An exploration of the famous evictions of crofters in northern Scotland through first-hand accounts

Header Image: The Last of the Clans’ by Scots artist Thomas Faed, depicting a slightly romanticised view of crofters leaving their homes

Interview, Discover Your Ancestors


Discover Your Ancestors

The Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries will never be forgotten by the Scots. Almost anyone with roots in Scotland will have ancestors whose lives were transformed by these mass, forced displacements of the indigenous people. Many will have left Scotland altogether to seek a new life, particularly in Canada; others fled to the coastal edges of Scotland or the growing cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh; others, too, will of course have ancestors who were among the perpetrators of the Clearances, some with conscience, and many without.

ruins of crofts
Today the Highlands and islands are still dotted with the ruins of crofts abandoned in the Clearances Bob Campbell

The first wave of what were initially referred to as ‘improvements’ began less than 20 years after the 1746 Battle of Culloden and the subsequent English suppression of the Highland clan feudal structures which had dominated for centuries. Many clan chieftains became absentee landlords, and directed their attention to how they could make the most money from their lands rather than maintaining support for their crofters who eked out a living on them.

Thus chiefs engaged factors – estate managers – from the lowlands of Scotland or even England to transform their lands over to sheep farming, which was much more profitable than farming cattle, for example. In 1792 came ‘the year of the sheep’ and the first major exodus. Some people were accommodated in poor crofts or small farms in coastal areas where farming could not sustain the communities and they were expected to take up fishing. Others were put directly onto emigration ships to Nova Scotia, Canada and the Carolinas of the American colonies.

As time went on, some landlords turned to more forced evictions of as many as 2,000 families in a day. Many starved and froze to death where their homes had once been. By the mid-19th century, Scotland had also been hit by potato famine as in Ireland, as well as a widespread outbreak of cholera. The Highland population was severely diminished, with those remaining facing starvation or being burned out of their homes. In 1886 the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act provided protection for the crofters’ system of small ‘townships’ farming shared pasture, but by then the damage to Highland communities had been permanently done.


Rev Donald Sage
The Rev Donald Sage was an eyewitness to many of the burnings

Donald Sage (1789-1869) was a Highland minister, and son of a minister, at Kildonan. In his memoirs he described first-hand two waves of clearances in Sutherland. He writes of how the clearances were “the device of one William Young, a successful corn-dealer and land improver”. Young was the first commissioner for Lord Stafford, Duke of Sutherland, who began evictions in 1807. As well as turning land over to sheep farming, Stafford planned to invest in creating a coal pit, salt pans, brick and tile works and herring fisheries. He describes the eviction policy for a second wave in 1819:

“It was in the month of April, and about the middle of it, that they were all, man, woman, and child, from the heights of Fair to the mouth of the Naver, on one day, to quit their tenements, and go – many of them knew not whither. For a few, some miserable patches of ground along the shores were doled out as lots, without aught in the shape of the poorest hut to shelter them. Upon these lots it was intended that they should build houses at their own expense, and cultivate the ground, at the same time occupying themselves as fishermen, although the great majority of them had never set foot on a boat in their lives. Thither, therefore, they were driven at a week’s warning… on the day of their removal, they would not be allowed to remain, even on the bleakest moor, and in the open air, for a distance of twenty miles around.”

In many cases Young’s factor, Patrick Sellar, gave the crofters half an hour to pack their belongings before setting fire to the cottages.

Among numerous individual stories Sage shares, one is of a soldier’s widow in Grumbeg, Henny Munro:

“…as she was utterly destitute of any means of support, she was affectionately received by her friends, who built her a small cottage and gave her a cow and grass for it… After the cottages at Grummore were emptied of their inmates, and roofs and rafters had been lighted up into one red blaze, Mr Sellar and his iron-hearted attendants approached the residence of the soldier’s widow. Henny stood up to plead for her furniture – the coarsest and most valueless that well could be, but still her earthly all. She asked that, as her neighbours were so occupied with their own furniture, hers might be allowed to remain till they should be free to remove it for her. This request was curtly refused… she was told, with an oath, that if she did not take her trumpery off within half-an-hour it would be burned. The poor widow had only to task the remains of her bodily strength, and address herself to the work of dragging her chests, beds, presses, and stools out at the door, and placing them at the gable of her cottage. No sooner was her task accomplished than the torch was applied, the widow’s hut, built of very combustible material, speedily ignited, and there rose up rapidly, first a dense cloud of smoke, and soon thereafter a bright red flame.”

A croft on Skye, showing traditional ways of life still surviving in the 1890s Heritage Hunter


Donald MacLeod
Believed to be a portrait of Donald MacLeod

Donald MacLeod was a crofter and stonemason in Sutherland. He wrote a series of letters to the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle in 1840 and 1841 which were later republished in book form and have become a major source for our knowledge of the Clearances.

In Letter VII he gave his own eyewitness account of the burnings:

“The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description — it required to be seen to be believed. A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself — all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o’clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition — whether in or out of the flames — I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of these days a boat actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing-place by the lurid light of the flames.”

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In the 1850s, MacLeod emigrated to Ontario, Canada.

memorial to Donald MacLeod
The lonely memorial to Donald MacLeod near Strathnaver


The first Act of Proscription, intended to stamp out Highland culture after the Battle of Culloden, including speaking of Gaelic and wearing of tartan (repealed in 1780)
Sir John Lockhart-Ross introduces sheep farming to the north of Scotland
Large clearances begin on the Glengarry estates, followed by many emigrations to Canada; the British Societyfor Extending the Fisheries is founded to build model fishing villages
William Young and Patrick Sellar arrive in Sutherland, heralding 10 years of clearances in the region
Patrick Sellar is tried and acquitted of culpable homicide relating to ‘the year of the burnings’ in 1814
The Highlands are ravaged by famine and cholera. The press describes a “fever of emigration”
Further famine follows the worst of the potato blight; food riots follow
The Battle of the Braes, in which 50 Glasgow policemen are sent to quell a mob of tenants facing eviction on Skye
The Napier Commission opens, investigating the situation of Highland crofters
The Napier Commission opens, investigating the situation of Highland crofters

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