The Cries of the Never Born: The Scottish Clearances

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The Cries of the Never Born: The Scottish Clearances

(by Scott Robert Ladd)

In the last 270 years, more than a quarter million indigenous people were forced off their ancestral lands, burned out of their homes, sold into slavery, and forcibly assimilated into a foreign culture. But these were not Native Americans, or black Africans, or Jews; these were the white residents of the Scottish Highlands. Their crime: Occupying land that others coveted.


Highland and Island Scots lived under a clan structure based on an earlier tribal lifestyle. By pledging loyalty to a familial laird, the Highlanders gained the right to plant crops and raise cattle in the rugged hills and mountains of Scotland. These people remained close to their Keltic roots, and most spoke Gaidhlig instead of English. Culturally, the Highlanders were strongly independent, and they resented English dominion.


In the 17th Century, the Scots stood in the way of England’s conquest of Scotland. The Highland Scots opposed the annexation of their homeland by the English. Fighting for their nation, the Highlanders supported Charles Edward Stuart as the true king of Scotland. Calling themselves “Jacobites” after their former kings, the Highlanders rebelled. At Culloden Field, on 16 April 1746, the English Army crushed the Scottish rebellion; even the Highlander wounded were massacred. When the battle was over, the Scottish lairds were dead, and the English set out to destroy the clans once and for all.


In 1747, England passed “The Act of Proscription”, which banned (for the Scots) the wearing of tartan, the playing of bagpipes, the right to own weapons, the gathering of clans, and the teaching of the Gaidhlig language. Punishment for breaking this law: Seven years slavery in an overseas English colony. Another law that same year turned all clan lands over to the English crown. In forty years, the clan culture was largely destroyed; the young people did not know their language or culture.


As the 19th Century began, the price for wool and mutton went up. To corner the market for these valuable commodities, the English lords of the Highlands began a campaign now known as “The Clearances”. Trees were cut away, and their planting was forbidden, to make room for sheep. And the tenants of the land, of course, were in the way as well. The English began a campaign of terror, using armed enforcers to destroy Highland and Island homes, herding their inhabitants into urban ghettos or packing them onto cargo ships for the “New World” colonies. Where thousands of Scots had once lived, a few dozen shepherds now tended flocks of sheep. People were often evicted from their homes without warning, given only enough time to escape with their lives before the fires began. In many cases, the old and the young died as their houses burned; entire families froze to death without shelter. Those forced onto slave ships died enroute to America and Australia, packed like sardines. Tens of thousands died; hundreds of thousands lost their freedom and their identity.


The landlords had a name for this process: “The Improvement.”


The list atrocities is almost endless – the destruction of people’s lives and property, the banning of traditional Scottish activities, the mocking of Highland culture. Scots were only allowed to wear their family tartan when enlisted in the Army, in an English move to transfer clan loyalties to themselves. The English lords created the Highland games, not to honour the Scots, but to use them as entertainment. The story of the Scottish Clearances is universal; it could be moved to the Great Plains, or the Incan Empire, or the jungles of Brazil.


And assaults on the Highland Scots continue to this day. Only in 1976 did the English pass a law allowing the remaining Highland tenants to buy their lands – at highly-inflated prices. It was only in 1991 that the law changed so that Highlanders were allowed to plants trees again. A few dozen people still own most of the Scottish Highlands; many of the Islands belong to corporations or individuals. In 1993, two farm families on the Isle of Arran were evicted and their houses bulldozed – to make room for more deer. That same year, absentee landlord Sheik Maktoumm of Dubai bulldozed a dozen family homes on his estate, even though there were already 800 applicants in need of housing on his lands.


What next………………..?

Permission granted for unaltered non-profit distribution.


Short Clearances bibliography

“Scotland’s Story” – Tim Steel

“Lion in the North”, “Culloden”, “Glencoe” and “Highland Clearances”

all by John Prebble

For historical fiction, anything by Nigel Tranter

11 thoughts on “The Cries of the Never Born: The Scottish Clearances”

  1. Like many instances of racism, the rationale is misguided. The English didn’t carry out the Highland clearances, the landowners did, which being Scotland, were usually also the clan chieftains.
    Yes the Duke of Sutherland was English, but his wife who owned the estate was a Scot, as was his henchman who oversaw the evictions, and his getting off on charges of murder was more to do with class than nationalism.
    The same clearances happened earlier in England, its why you’ll find, if you care to look, abandoned cottages all over the upland hills, now kept clear by burning heather to allow sheep grazing and more importantly pheasant and grouse shooting.
    Don’t know why the English Highland clearances aren’t remembered with the same passion as the Scottish Highland clearances. It was still the poor being pushed off the land by the rich. Maybe the English nobs had no concept of guilt and after all weren’t abandoning and shafting there own ‘Clan’.

    Final thought, the rich own land, the poor pay to use it, no matter where you are, and most mortgage lenders are also owned by the rich. That’s the true enemy, not another nations poor.

  2. I’m British / English and disgusted by the atrocities committed in the name of the English Crown on the people of Scotland, it’s no wonder there’s growing momentum for Independence. As a modern society, we should acknowledge the utter destruction of a culture, provide reparations, return illegally seized lands and begin the restoration of the clans and highland way of life.

    We need to fight for Scotland

  3. I have lived on the Isle of Arran since 1971, farming for 45 years. I can’t recall two families being evicted in1993 and their houses being bulldozed. Who were they, please?

  4. I knew little of the evictions or clearances till I went to work on the Island of Ulva in the 1970’s it was a working farm and the land was dotted with ruins
    ….I soon learned

    Suckling calves
    don’t make words to form a story’
    but the hills, on which they stand,
    legs spread, heads thrusting…..
    give rise to legends, tales, mysteries……..

    Every burn its village.
    Every village its ghosts.
    The kelp substituted by bird shit was the excuse.
    No mention of rising rents,
    stolen land, crops and pride.
    Generations swept away’
    650 odd souls transported.

    American doctors come now,
    clicking their cameras.
    Telling sons and daughters,
    ‘Great grandfather lived there’
    No consciousness in them
    of how, on the Plains,
    The Sioux, Cheyenne and millions of others
    tell tales just the same.
    It all adds up to the thought
    of a suckling calf’
    legs spread, head thrusting
    That doesn’t make words to form a story
    But then there are the hills marked by its feet.

  5. I was born in Dumfries and we immigrated to Canada in the late 50s. I am both fascinated and horrified to read that the people of Scotland continue to be treated so poorly. I had no idea.

    1. I was born in Edinburgh and we immigrated to America in the early fifties. I too am reading more of the history of Scotland.
      Almost in disbelief I can’t imagine the horrors that these people went through.

  6. My Ancestors Immigrated to Australia. in 1852 as a result of the Clearances. On Board the Sailing Ship “Allison”

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