The Highland Clearances: A Marxist Analysis

The highland clearances was a huge event in Scottish history, fundamentally changing class relations forever, and breaking the last remaining ties to the feudal system. However, this was not being carried out by a revolutionary class; rather it was the old landowning class becoming absorbed into the new British bourgeoisie. It resulted in the end of the clanship society, as well as migration, both nationally and internationally.

What were the Highland Clearances?

The highland clearances were a series of mass evictions from the highlands carried out from 1760 – 1860. They were carried out by the landowning class, who were trying to make their land more profitable through moving people to make way for large-scale sheep farming and through forcing their tenants to give up subsistence farming and instead become part-time crofters and part-time fishermen or kelpers. The clearances themselves occurred in three main stages.

The first stage happened from around 1760 to 1815, where the landowning class forced their tenants to move off the land their families had lived on for generations and to move to the coast. They were moved into crofting communities, where they were given a small piece of land, which would not be enough to survive on. This forced the crofters to take up fishing and kelping. The landlords did this in search of profit – clearing people freed up more land for sheep, which was a very profitable business at the time. The crofting system was arranged so that the crofters would have to fish or collect kelp, a kind of seaweed which at the time was very valuable because it couldn’t be imported (due to the Napoleonic War). While this new system resulted in large profits for the landlords, it was very exploitative for the crofters, and many left instead of struggling to make a living on the crofts. However, this was not at all in the interests of the landowning class, who passed the Passenger’s Vessels’ Act in 1803, which raised the price of a ticket to Canada from £3 to over £10, an amount that no ordinary crofter would be able to afford, in an attempt to stop so many people leaving.

However, this all changed in 1815, with the end of the Napoleonic War. Not only did the price of kelp plummet but the whole Scottish economy went into recession. The only industry that remained profitable was the sheep market. The crofters suffered greatly, they were living on very little land, built to only sustain half an income. Yet due to the collapse of kelp, this was their only income. We see a bigger population than ever in the highlands, due to the Passenger Vessels’ Act and improvements in medicine, however they are living on less land than ever, as the land they used to live on was now inhabited by sheep. This resulted in a very low standard of living and an over-reliance on the potato.

Then, in 1846, blight comes to Scotland, resulting in the Highland Potato Famine. In 1846, crops failed in around ¾ of crofting villages, which was catastrophic, as people were dependant on the potato, as kelp and other industries barley contributed to the crofter’s income. Church records show that around 200,000 people were at risk of starving. However, widespread starvation was largely averted, due to an aid effort, providing the crofter’s with food and tickets to Canada and America. Blight continued to affect the potatoes up to 1857, however after 1850 aid had largely stopped as the crofters were victimised and their own ‘laziness’ blamed for the famine. As this aid dried up, people were left with no way to make a living, resulting in mass migration abroad and to the lowlands.

What were the causes?

The fundamental cause of the highland clearances was the change in class relations, as Britain moved from a feudal to a capitalist society.

Previously people in the highlands lived in a clanship society. Most people were subsistence farmers who lived in clans; where a chief would protected them from raids and in return they would have to fight when the chief called up the clan. This relationship was not as exploitive as feudalism was in other countries, yet it was still a feudal relationship. However, this clanship system had been in decline since the 1600s, due to commercialisation. The highlands started to be integrated into the monetary economy with cattle being driven down to sell in Edinburgh. This increased throughout the 17th century, as the highlands became a place where commodities such as fish, deer, salt and wool were harvested to supply to the rest of the UK.

The driver of this commercialisation was the integration of the clan chiefs into the British bourgeoisie. This really began in 1609 when the Statutes of Iona were passed, making it law that the first born son of every clan chief had to be educated in a Protestant, English speaking school in Edinburgh. This fundamentally broke the relationship of chief and clansmen, as the chiefs moved off their land and down to Edinburgh, where they became integrated into the British bourgeoisie. By the 1700s the chiefs were all living in Edinburgh and London, no longer on their lands fulfilling their traditional roles and duties. There was also a change in how they viewed themselves, no longer as chiefs, with a duty to protect their clansmen, but as commercial landlords. With this integration into the new British establishment, they absorbed the idea of ‘improvement’, of making your land more profitable. This importance placed on profit resulted in the chiefs relocating the people so they would have land to farm sheep on, and also led them to use their money to buy capital and invest in industry. Ultimately, they were leaving their roles as traditional feudal chiefs and becoming capitalists.

There was also a change in how the highlands were viewed by the British establishment. In the early 1600s, the highlands was viewed as a sort of colony at home, an area that should be used to extract resources for the rest of the UK, but that could be left in its own clanship system. However, this changed with the Jacobite risings, especially that of 1745 where a large proportion of the Jacobite army was made up of highlanders. Showing that they were opposed to this new elite, highlighted that the highlanders could be a threat to the new ruling class. This resulted in large scale repression in 1746 with traditional clothing, music and the Gaelic language being banned. The idea was that this traditional society was dangerous and could not be left as it was, but needed to be integrated into a British nationality, and into capitalist society.

What were the consequences?

There was resistance by the crofters, in what is known as the Crofter’s War, which took place in the 1870s and the 1880s. This mostly took the form of riots and battles with landlords and the police, in response to rent racking, where the chiefs-turned landlords would raise the rent year on year, beyond what the crofter’s could afford. Inspired by the Land League in Ireland, their demands were the three Fs – fair rent, fixity of tenure and freedom of sale. Crucially they were not calling for a return to subsistence living and re-instatement of the clan relations; rather they were trying to limit their exploitation in the new commercial society. Their demands were largely met in the Crofter’s Holding Act of 1886.

As has been previously mentioned, the main consequence of the Highland Clearances was the end of feudal relations. The chief-clansman relation based on war and protection had changed to a commercial relationship between landlords and tenants. Land becomes something that was owned, bought and sold. The clanship system was also destroyed, and with it much of highland culture. Many aspects of culture and language were repressed, as they excluded the new anglicised elites and rejected a British identity which was dangerous, both militarily to the bourgeoisie and to the formation of a British national market.

Another consequence was mass emigration, especially to Canada and the USA. In Cape Breton alone 30,000 highland Scots arrived between 1775 and 1850. Many highlanders were given land grants in the USA after fighting in the 7 years’ war and the American Revolutionary war, and brought their families over to live with them. There was also significant migration to the lowlands. Seasonal migration continued and increased, but more importantly there was permanent migration; even by 1835 there were 20,000 highlanders living in Glasgow. This, combined with Irish immigration provided the concentrated labour in the cities that was needed for the creation of capitalist society.

The highland clearances changed Scotland forever. The clanship system of society broke down and was replaced by capitalism. The old clan chiefs themselves became part of the bourgeoisie as they merged into the British elite and became commercial landlords. A huge number of people were displaced, some of who emigrated abroad, while others moved to the lowlands where they became the industrial proletariat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *