The Highland clearances of the 1760s to 1880s are some of the most controversial and emotion-fraught events in Scotland's long history. Poverty-stricken tenants and their families were evicted from long-held land by landlords keen to make money by farming sheep on the land. Some of the most horrific clearances took place at Strathnaver in Sutherland in 1814, but they had begun some time before this, principally at Glengarry, near Knoydart and Fort William. Evicted families were often forced onto the coastline to fish or gather kelp. Some landlords, or lairds, tried to keep tenants on their lands to enable military drafts and naval press gangs. Others encouraged or enforced emigration to Canada or America. Famine and cholera further decimated highland populations, and crofting was encouraged as an alternative method of farming. Protests against the clearances and the conditions of the crofters broke out in Skye in the 1880s and led to greater awareness in the country as a whole, leading to a royal commission and protective legislation.

Structure of the clans before the clearances

Before the clearances began, clans had a very clear pyramid structure in relation to the way land was leased out. At the head of the pyramid, the chief would grant leases, or tacks, on his property. His tacksmen were his most loyal supporters, and held most of the chief's land, except that held directly by the chief himself.

These tacksmen in turn leased out their land to sub-tenants, who formed small townships. Their tenancies were very insecure, and this insecurity helped ensure sons would serve in clan regiments. The sub-tenants farmed sheep and cattle on small strips of land, using the runrig method of farming.

Below these sub-tenants were landless cotters, servants who were expected to charge into battle when required to by their betters.

After the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, however, the wearing of tartan, and kilts, and the bearing of arms was banned, and the chief's authority was greatly diminished. By 1770, the clan structure was crumbling rapidly, with many chiefs acting merely as absentee landlords. Continuing warfare and population increases had led to an increased demand for cattle, and prices had rocketed. "Improvements" in farming had led to emigrations and clearances. Chiefs began to see themselves more as land-owners, interested mainly in increasing the return from their properties.


Some of the earliest clearances to take place were on the Glengarry estates. Following the battle of Culloden at the end of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, Glengarry was one of the largest estates in the Highlands, stretching from the head of Loch Lochy in the Great Glen to the rugged coastline of Knoydart, across the Sound of Sleat from the Isle of Skye. The land was owned by the Macdonnell clan.

As rents were increased and some leases were not renewed, Macdonnell "tacksmen" began to take their sub-tenants to British North America. Every year, several ships would sail from Fort William with Macdonnells on board. The catholic faith of the clanspeople may well have been a factor playing against them.

In 1782, Thomas Gillespie and Mary Gibson leased a sheep-walk on Loch Quoich from Marjorie Macdonnell, the wife of the clan chief. She agreed to the land being leased provided five hundred clansmen were removed from the land. The evicted tenants were shipped to Canada in the summer of 1785; 520 of them were crammed below decks on the ship "Macdonald". They sailed for another Glengarry in Canada, where other Macdonnells had settled after fleeing the US, following the revolution.

More evictions followed in 1785, 1787, and 1788, and the chief's heir, Alistair Ranaldson, proved to be no better, continuing the evictions.

Farming improvements - the first sheep arrive

The leasing of land to rear sheep began in 1760 - the animals needed six acres of mountain grazing in summer, and sheltered valley floors in winter.

John Lockhart-Ross of Balnagowan owned land stretching between the Dornoch Firth and the western coast, and in 1762, he set about improving his land, by means of enclosures, planting new crops, and drainage of marshy land. He refused to renew leases of absent Lowlanders, and increased the rents of sub-tenants. He also brought sheep to Ross County.

Lockhart leased land to Thomas Geddes, who became the first Lowland sheep-farmer north of the Great Glen. Geddes sent two hundred thousand sheep a year to England. The locals did not take kindly to the influx of sheep on the land, shooting them or driving them into lochs, and terrorising the shepherds.

A major innovation came about with the introduction of the Cheviot breed, originally from the Cheviot Hills in the Borders, but strengthened by continental Merinos, leading to sheep giving more wool and meat, with a sturdier frame and more stamina for the harsh Highland climate.

1792 - The Year of the Sheep

By 1790, the Cheviots had reached Ross-shire, and in 1792 Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster brought them to Caithness, buying land from the Earl of Caithness. He seems to have been a fair-minded man, genuinely interested in improvements for the benefit of all, including the highlanders. He had a farm at Langwell, and the sheep flourished through the winter there.

Many others with less altruistic motives jumped on the bandwagon, however, as greed appealed to both Lowland grazers and Highland lairds. Sheep were now much more profitable than cattle, requiring far less people to manage them. Cheviot sheep spread to Argyll, Inverness, and Ross. Many highland farms were now owned by absentee landlords from the lowlands who rarely, if ever, saw their land.

Sir George Mackenzie of Coul published a book entitled "A General View of the Agriculture of Ross and Cromarty", advising that the Cheviots would help the Highland economy, and dismissing protesters against evictions, maintaining instead the importance of "improvement".

In the meantime, Sir Hector Munro of Novar, a Colonel of the Black Watch and ineffective MP for Inverness, had rented land at Kildermorie in Easter Ross to two Cameron brothers from Lochaber. Sheep took over the land, and cattle-grazers had to take their animals elsewhere. By tradition, the highlanders had never been too fussy about animals straying over neighbour's boundaries, and the Rosses tended to let their cattle stray. When they strayed onto Cameron land, however, their animals were impounded and the Rosses fined before they would be released. This happened repeatedly and eventually the Rosses had had enough, and decided to release the cattle by force.

The Rosses descended on the Camerons and their shepherds from Lochaber, and a scuffle followed. The cattle were released, and the Rosses marched off victorious. The Camerons appealed to the local Sheriff, Donald Macleod of Geanies, who in turn appealed to Robert Dundas, the Lord Advocate. Dundas ordered the Black Watch to march north. In this way, a minor brawl was blown out of proportion by the spirit of rebellion in the country at the time.

On Friday, 27 July, a Ross wedding was held, and by the Sunday of that weekend, perhaps four hundred men had gathered, fired by alcohol and their small victory over the Camerons. They headed north into Sutherland, and drove hundreds of sheep southwards, heading for Inverness. Macleod again feared rebellion.

Twenty-three armed landowners met in Dingwall, near Inverness, representing the landowners of Ross-shire. They wrote in protest to the King, resolving to deter their tenants and assist the Sheriff.

The week progressed and rumours abounded about the sheep-herders' progress and seditious intents. Macleod wrote to Simon Fraser, Sheriff-Depute of Inverness, who in turn asked for assistance from Archibald Fraser of Lovat. Fraser summoned another forty men.

By this time, on 5 August, the men of Ross and Sutherland had herded around six thousand sheep as far as Boath, near Loch Morie, and close to the Cromarty Firth. They left fifty men there to guard the sheep, while they prepared for their next march southward.

The Redcoats of the Black Watch arrived, very tired, in Dingwall, and Major Dalrymple placed his men at Macleod's disposal. They marched for Boath, but the men there got word and fled, and only about a dozen were captured.

Macleod arrested five "ringleaders", who appeared in court on 14 September. One was sentenced to be transported, one fined and imprisoned, two were to be banished from Scotland, and one more to be jailed. To add to the farce of the situation, however, all escaped from Inverness prison, and were never recaptured.

The whole sorry story was to be dignified by the name of "The Ross-shire Sheep Riot." The Commander-in-Chief of the Scottish army, Lord Adam Gordon, noted, however, "that no disloyalty of spirit of rebellion or dislike to His Majesty" fuelled the protests. Rather, it was one of the few occasions when the Highlanders stood up to the lairds and their plans to let sheep dominate the Highlands.

The Highland Clearances, John Prebble, Penguin Books
Many thanks to my wife, Elke, for all her help on this one - it will probably be an ongoing project for a while.

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