The destruction of the old Highland society took with it not only a class opposing the rise of the bourgeoisie – the feudal Scottish clan leaders – but also trampled on the rights and well-being of tenant farmers trying to eke out a living...
The Highland Clearances offer an example of the way class contradictions are resolved by the tyranny of capitalism. The ending of the clan system helped pave the way for the rising industrial bourgeoisie to focus its attention on developing industry rather than defending its internal borders. In the process of enclosing vast tracts of land for sheep, the tenant farmers were forcibly removed and thousands transported.
A significant event in this process was the clashing of two armies, representing contrasting economic systems, at Culloden Moor in the Scottish Highlands in 1746. The Duke of Cumberland’s forces, acting for King George’s government, routed Prince Edward’s Jacobite army, last hope of the exiled Stuarts. In doing so they broke decisively the power of ancient, tribal clanship that had existed in Highland society, bringing into line the final area out of kilter with the rest of bourgeois Britain. After Culloden, the Highlands were refashioned and incorporated into a modern, capitalist environment.
The old order broken
Following Culloden, the ancient feudal rights and organisation of the clans were abolished. No exception was made: the Gordons, who had stayed loyal to King George, were treated no differently from the other clans. Even the most harmless symbols of clan loyalty were prohibited: wearing the kilt and playing the bagpipes were forbidden, a ban not lifted for 30 years. The intention that “a sheriff’s writ should run” in the Highlands as certainly as it ran everywhere else was achieved. Subsequently, all the Highlands observed the laws of the bourgeois parliament in Whitehall and lived on the same system as the whole of Britain.
Almost immediately, roads were constructed that made the demise of the highland clans complete. Between 850 to 1500 miles of roads were hastily built; in effect military, strategic roads that split the block of Highland clans into fragments. This extinction of the older society completed a process started long before, which alone made it possible for Britain in the next hundred years to become the workshop of the world. There were now no feudal lords to be conciliated or cajoled by the rising employing class.
Clearances and suppression
The Highland society, which had operated for generations, made no economic sense to modern bourgeois ways. Tenant farmers scratched a living off the rugged terrain, paying only small rents to chiefs whose wealth did not match that of their lowland contemporaries. By the end of the 18th century, the surviving chiefs and new landowners realised that serious profit could never be made that way.
In England the capitalist agrarian revolution was transforming agriculture. New farming techniques and mechanisation together with enclosure of formerly common land made farming more productive and profitable. These property upheavals had been going on in England since the 17th century in a much more gradual way. In the Highlands, however, these agrarian improvements had been delayed, partly because some landowners were too poor to put them into practice, partly due to the complex clan system that regulated and restrained Highland society.
The Battle of Culloden, painted by David Morier two years after the event.
With sudden rapidity the Highlands were driven through a series of changes that had taken hundreds of years in England. After 1746 harsh suppression and legal measures undermined and destroyed what remained of the clan system. Realising that their old ways were over, the clan chiefs transformed themselves into landlords who saw their clan retainers as an unprofitable expense. Landowners began to view their territory as a source of economic revenue instead of military men. More became absentee landlords and sought to convert their acres into cash.
The cry of “sheep devour men” was heard again. Landlords slowly disengaged themselves of all their followers who could not be used as shepherds or compelled to rent small farms. A first big clearance took place on the Drummond estates in Perthshire in 1762. In 1782 the Glengarry estates, Inverness-shire, followed suit with the rent roll rising from £700 to £5,000 in 32 years. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 people were evicted in clearances by the turn of the century. These early clearances were for sheep; later ones were for deer. Between 1811 and 1821, some 15,000 tenants were removed from the 1.5 million acres of the Countess of Sutherland’s estates. Buildings were set alight to force the tenants to leave; many were herded onto ships. Many thousands of Highlanders left their homes and were forced to make new lives on the Scottish coastal plains, in the Scottish lowlands or across the oceans. Some were drawn to the burgeoning industrial revolution: for instance, many went to work at the New Lanark Mills that opened in Lanarkshire in 1784. The clearances continued until the mid-19th century, when most farmers had been cleared.
Cheviot sheep, bred for toughness and able to thrive in difficult weather conditions, could generate large incomes, perhaps more than ten times as much as cattle on the same land. But the tenant farmers had to be removed. Many, who retained their loyalty to the chiefs, complied. Those who objected found they had limitations imposed upon them.
The law strongly favoured the landowners: the farmers had no leases and were merely tenants at will who could be evicted from their homes with only minimal notice. There were incidents of resistance. In some cases brutal methods were used to evict tenants. The armed forces were called upon by landowners in times of trouble.
As it transpired, landowners needed funds to carry out the clearances and the returns from sheep farming were only temporary. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century that industry had collapsed and the Highlands were drastically depopulated. Its economy still does not thrive to this day. The callous land grabs in the Scottish Highlands were not accidental but flowed from capitalism’s drive to displace and uproot all pre-existing economic forms, to remake everything in its own image, and crush everything getting in the way. We can learn from this and be warned! ■