Socialist Worker

How the way was cleared for capitalism in Scotland

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2657

A Crofting family cutting peat

A Crofting family cutting peat


“I have written about a shattering process of dispossession and confronted conventional wisdom about it head-on,” said Devine.

The Scottish clearances saw thousands of mainly poor tenant farmers forced from their land in 17-19 centuries.

The traditional view tells of how a quarter to a third of the people were forcibly removed from the Highlands and Islands in the north of Scotland.

But Devine’s thesis, arrived at after meticulous research, is that this was a much broader and all-Scotland experience.

More people were dispossessed in the south than in the north. And some Highlanders managed to retain some land, but “total landlessness became the lived experience of the vast majority of people in the rural Lowlands”.

Extraordinary

Devine said, “This was part of extraordinary modernisation of Scotland which developed in the mid-18th century and was essentially complete in the countryside by the 1840s.

“It was an aspect of the drive towards capitalist modernity, one of the key drivers of that revolution along with urbanisation and industrialisation.

“This began in the Scottish borders in 17th century, 100 years before the Highlands with people forced out to clear space for very profitable large-scale sheep and cattle farms.

Tom Devine’s book is a powerful read on how capitalism rooted itself and grew in Scotland, with the horrors carried out by both English and Scottish rich. You don’t have to have specialist interest or knowledge to enjoy it and learn from it.

“Most of those removed went to meet the developing demands of the coalfields of northern England and the Royal Navy.

“Hundreds of small townships were eliminated. Nothing of them now remains.

“There is just the occasional small village in an empty landscape.”

In the south, in the Lammermuir hills, between 1800 and 1825, 54 settlements were abandoned. Devine said, “Then the Cheviot and Blackface sheep were taken north by the Borders flockmasters and shepherds.”

The Highlands clearances were seen as more traumatic because they were the end of a whole way of life based on the clan. The culture was that people farmed clan land and offered military service to the clan leaders in exchange for protection.

“It was a deep hurt,” says Devine. In the Lowlands it became established that at the end of tenancy the landlord could repossess the land. It was resented and unwelcome, but seen as how the system worked.”

“In the Highlands people were culturally disorientated, there was complete incomprehension that this could happen. It was brutality which, especially in its final phase at a time of famine, was made worse by racist attitudes against Highlanders.”

Devine adds that there was some resistance, notably the Lowlands Levellers’ Revolt in Galloway in the 1720s. In the face of displacement, groups of people—sometimes as many as 2,000—formed armed groups and destroyed the dykes that has been used to create cattle parks.

“Afterwards there is almost complete silence,” he said. “In the Highlands there were between 50 and 55 acts of resistance, including substantial collective opposition.

“But most opposition was ineffectual. People were facing the might of the state and the acts of dispossession were all lawful.”

Moved

Seeing no other way out, most people moved to the coastal areas, to the industrial centres or migrated.

Later on there was the Crofters’ War of the 1880s.

This saw the use of police and soldiers against those fighting high rents and dispossession. It won the reform of the Crofters Holding Act of 1886.

Tom Devine’s book is a powerful read on how capitalism rooted itself and grew in Scotland, with the horrors carried out by both English and Scottish rich.

You don’t have to have specialist interest or knowledge to enjoy it and learn from it.

The Scottish Clearances—A History of the Disposessed
£15, available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop

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