The Highland Clearances

Written by Chris Thornton | 6th of March 2024
The Highland Clearances

The Highland Clearances, a heartrending chapter in Scottish history, has left an indelible mark on the nation's collective memory. The forced evictions and destruction of traditional Highland culture remain a poignant reminder of the price paid by thousands of displaced Highlanders. But what exactly were the Highland Clearances, and how did they shape the fabric of Scottish society and identity? This article delves deep into the history of the Highland Clearances, shedding light on the intricate web of events, key figures, and repercussions that still echo through the Scottish Highlands today.

The Highland Clearances: An Overview

The Highland Clearances were a series of forced evictions and land reorganization in the Scottish Highlands, resulting in the destruction of traditional Highland culture and the displacement of thousands of people. The Clearances began in the mid-18th century and persisted intermittently for the next century, marking a significant period in Scottish history.

The Clearances were driven by various factors, including:

  • Financial gain/greed.

  • Allegiance.

  • The pursuit of increased rental income by Highland landowners.

  • The opportunity to expand the market for Highland produce.

The Clearances caused significant damage to Highland culture, affecting the Highland clans and altering the fabric of Scottish society.

The Clan System and Its Transformation

The transformation of clan chiefs into capitalist landowners disrupted the Scottish Clan system, which was built on loyalty and kinship, as profit took precedence over people. As a clan chief, they have a responsibility to protect the clans-people living within their clan lands. This concept of Dùthchas does not just involve this responsibility but is also a call for military alliance and service as well. This principle was abandoned by clan chiefs who shifted their mindset from being patriarchs of their people to view themselves as commercial landlords, partly influenced by events such as the Jacobite Rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Under James VI and I, the Union of England and Scotland in 1603 imposed more stringent regulations on the borders and promoted commercial connections with the south, resulting in the Scottish lowlanders taking advantage of opportunities for trade instead of warfare. The North West Highlands, as well as the Western Highlands, were also affected by these changes. The Little Ice Age caused successive harvests to fail, resulting in famine in certain areas, particularly in the north. This led to a high mortality rate and a decrease in population of approximately 15%, which contributed to the need to establish large sheep farms as a more profitable alternative.

Badbea Highland Clearances village
Badbea Highland Clearances village ruins on the Caithness coast.

Land Use and Agricultural Shifts

The need for landlords to boost their revenue paved the way for agricultural improvement, leading to the rise of sheep farms in the Highlands. Sheep farming and cattle ranching resulted in the displacement of small farmers and tenants from their lands, affecting the Highland crofters' security. This change in land use also impacted the lives of sheep farmers in the region.

Evictions increased as sheep farming progressed, forcing those who were dispossessed of their smallholdings in the rural areas to seek alternatives such as employment in the towns or engaging in cottage industries as a means of livelihood.

The Timeline of the Highland Clearances

The 18th century marked the beginning of the Highland Clearances, with pivotal events like the Jacobite Rebellion and the Great Highland Famine playing a significant role in its timeline. The initial phases of the Highland Clearances began in the mid-to-late 18th century, with the 'first wave' of clearances commencing as early as the 1780s.

This period persisted into the early 19th century, following the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. The causes for the clearances were both economic and loyalty to the crown.

Early Stages and Jacobite Rebellion

The Jacobite Rebellion was a series of uprisings between 1689 and 1746, led by supporters of the exiled House of Stuart who sought to restore the Stuart monarchy to the British throne. The rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful but had lasting consequences for the Highland Clearances.

The fallout of the Jacobite Rebellion weakened traditional clan ties, leading to the commercialization of clan chiefs as they sought to maximize returns from their lands. As their clansmen no longer provided them with loyalty, clan chiefs had to resort to commercial activities to generate income, causing the weakening of traditional clan ties and the erosion of the clan system.

Please read about my visit to Culloden Battlefield here.

Culloden Battlefield Monument
The monument at Culloden Battlefield.

The Great Highland Famine and Its Consequences

Predominantly caused by the potato blight that ravaged crops, the Great Highland Famine resulted in widespread hunger and suffering. Initially, landowners provided as much aid as possible to the impoverished, then requested support from the government.

Sir Edward Pine Coffin, a government official, expressed apprehension about the potential ramifications of widespread evictions for society. The Great Highland Famine exacerbated the already precarious situation in the Highlands, resulting in widespread poverty and further evictions.

Key Figures and Their Roles

Significant figures like Patrick Sellar were instrumental in organizing large-scale evictions and executing the landowners' strategies for agricultural and economic enhancement. Sellar was employed by the Countess of Sutherland to oversee large-scale rural departures in Sutherland. He was a highly successful stock farmer, as well as an efficient evictor. He was accused of culpable homicide, although he was later acquitted, and went on to rent the cleared lands himself for large-scale commercial sheep farming.

Other prominent figures in the Highland Clearances include William Augustus (Duke of Cumberland), the Countess of Sutherland, and her husband, the Marquess of Stafford - George Leveson-Gower.

Badbea Village
Another shot of the remnants of Badbea Village.

The Destinations of Evicted Highlanders

Scotland's industrializing Lowlands towns became the new home for many evicted Highlanders, while others chose to migrate to places like:

  • Canada

  • The United States

  • Australia

  • New Zealand

The Clearances had a considerable impact on the Scottish diaspora, resulting in a large number of Highland emigrants settling in Australasia and North America, where their descendants still reside today.

Emigration and Assistance Programs

To facilitate their migration to countries like Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, evicted Highlanders frequently received aid programs and schemes from landlords or organizations. The Highlands and Islands Emigration Society, for instance, facilitated the emigration of approximately 5000 individuals to Australia.

MacLean of Coll was the first individual to provide active support for emigration in 1825, and the cost of passage for emigrants during the Highland Clearances was covered by the landowners. These emigration assistance programs and organizations played a crucial role in shaping the Scottish diaspora and the future lives of the evicted Highlanders.

Duke of Sutherland Monument.
The Duke of Sutherland Monument atop Ben Bhraggie. Many believe it should be replaced with a monument to the Highland Clearances.

The Aftermath and Legacy of the Highland Clearances

The Highland Clearances' aftermath encompassed events such as the Crofters War and the Napier Commission, along with the Scottish diaspora and its related cultural implications. The Clearances instilled a sense of deep-seated grievance within Highland society, and among the Lowlanders, there is a sense of residual guilt that gives most Scots a feeling of responsibility for what occurred in the past.

The Crofters War and the Napier Commission

The Crofters War was a resistance movement by crofters on the Macdonald estate on Skye against the landlord's attempts to remove sections of their grazing land. The Napier Commission was established to evaluate the assertions of the crofters and aid the Highlanders in safeguarding their privileges.

The Crofters Holdings Act of 1886 was enacted as a result of the Crofters War and the Napier Commission, providing security of tenure and protection from eviction for crofters and establishing the Crofters Commission to set crofters' rents, adjudicate on arrears, and facilitate extensions to crofts.

The Crofters War and the Napier Commission played a significant role in bringing about legislative reforms to protect the rights of Highlanders.

Abandoned croft, Scotland.
Another example of an abandoned croft.

The Scottish Diaspora and Cultural Impact

In 1751, approximately one-third of Scotland's population resided in the Highlands. By the twentieth century, however, that proportion had declined to as low as 4%, as numerous Highland families and communities created new lives in other parts of Scotland and beyond the country's boundaries.

The Scottish diaspora and the consequent diminishment of traditional Highland culture have had a long-lasting effect on Scotland's identity and heritage, with many descendants of evicted Highlanders retaining a strong emotional bond to their ancestral homeland.

Neil Gunn's novels Butcher's Broom (1934) and The Silver Darlings (1941) have provided valuable literary accounts of the Highland Clearances and their consequences. John Prebble's popular history The Highland Clearances (1963), John McGrath's play The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1973), and Ian Crichton Smith's poetry collection The Exiles (1984) are other notable examples that focus on this topic.

Visiting the Highlands: Exploring the History and Sites

A visit to the Highlands today allows for exploration of the history and sites linked to the Highland Clearances, enriching understanding of this notable era in Scottish history. Notable historical sites include the Ardnamurchan peninsula, renowned for its rugged landscape and numerous archaeological sites related to the Highland Clearances.

The Strathnaver Museum is dedicated to the history of the Highland Clearances, and the Highland Clearances Museum in Ullapool contains artefacts, photographs, and documents related to the period.

Dunrobin Castle is one of the loveliest castles on the famous North Coast 500 road trip route, but the castle was built with money made from the Highland Clearances. The Duke of Sutherland evicted thousands of families in favor of establishing large sheep farms. Some even name this time as the "Sutherland Clearances". So when you visit this absolutely gorgeous castle, remember how it was paid for...

Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle was the home of the Duke of Sutherland, who forced many from their homes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the clearances in the Highlands?

The Highland Clearances, which took place between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, saw around 70,000 Highlanders evicted from their land by landowners in a process of forced eviction to create sheep farms. This caused the population of Scots living in the Highlands and Islands to drop from 30% at the start of the 18th century to 8% by the turn of the 20th century.

What was a "forced eviction"?

Basically, forcing a family from their home with physical force. The roofs were then burned to stop families returning, if anyone did they would likely to freeze to death. Families moved to coastal settlements or emigrated to the New World.

What are some interesting facts about the Highland Clearances?

The Highland Clearances, which occurred between 1750 and 1860, displaced around 70,000 people from their homes in the Highlands of Scotland. At the height of the clearances, as many as 2,000 crofter cottages were burned each day to ensure no one would return. This tragic event attacked Highland culture and destroyed centuries-old clan-based societies, paving the way for a move towards capitalism.

Were the English responsible for the Highland Clearances?

Though driven by English landowners, many Scots were also responsible for the Highland Clearances, making it clear that the English were not solely responsible. This makes the Highland Clearances and even more despicable part of Scottish history.

How many people left during the Highland Clearances?

Around 70,000 people were displaced as a result of the Highland Clearances over the span of 100 years.

When did the Clearances happen in Scotland?

The Highland Clearances occurred from around 1750 to 1860, with the first phase spanning 1760-1815. Tens of thousands of people were forced to emigrate from Scotland's Highlands and Islands as a result of landowners introducing sheep pastoralism. The Clearances had a devastating effect on the Highland population, with many families being forced to leave their homes and relocate to the Lowlands or abroad.

Croft ruins at Glen Uig, Isle of Skye.
Ruins of a croft and barn in Glen Uig, Isle of Skye.

Key Takeaways

  • The Highland Clearances were a period of forced displacement and cultural destruction in Scotland, driven by economic motives.

  • The Highland Clearances occurred between 1750 and 1860.

  • Key figures such as Patrick Sellar, George Leveson-Gower, William Augustus played a crucial role in the Highland Clearances through organizing large-scale evictions.

  • The impact on Scottish culture has been long lasting with an ongoing sense of grievance among Highlanders and guilt among Lowlanders.

  • Today, the Highlands, particularly the north Highlands, are still one of the least populated areas of Scotland.

  • Many evicted Scots emigrated to Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Emigrants Statue at Helmsdale
Emigrants Statue at Helmsdale.


The Highland Clearances represent a tumultuous chapter in Scotland's history, marked by the destruction of traditional Highland culture, the displacement of thousands of people, and the transformation of the Scottish landscape. The lasting impact of the Clearances on Scottish society, culture, and identity serves as a poignant reminder of the resilience and strength of the Highland spirit.

It's hard to believe that so many people were wronged in the name of profit and greed. Let's honour the memory of those who endured these hardships and helped shape the heritage of Scotland.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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