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The Clearances

While the clan system remained in place, land was communally held, clan members farmed to feed themselves and their families, and a strong sense of clan loyalty held them together. The defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden, however, brought an end to the clan system.

Feudalism and landlordism
Even by then, feudal law was imposing its rule across the Highlands. Clan chiefs became landlords and, as landlords, could now lease large areas of their land to tacksmen, their main tenants. The tacksmen in turn rented the land to sub-tenants and the rest of their people became landless cottars. The lack of secure tenure left the people at the mercy of those richer and more powerful.

The coming of sheep
By the early 19th century landlords were seeking to make their estates more profitable. Improvements in farming methods were needed and sheep farming was seen as one way forward. To make way for the sheep sub-tenants were cleared to the coast, where labourers were needed for kelp (seaweed) harvesting and fishing. The landlords created crofts for them there but the people were left to build their own houses and break in the land for farming.

The most infamous clearances undoubtedly took place in Sutherland under the Duke of Sutherland and his factor Patrick Sellar. People were forcibly removed and their houses burned to the ground. Some of those evicted were then moved to new settlements at Helmsdale, Spinningdale and Bettyhill. The tragedy of the times remains etched in the window panes of Croick Church.

A growing population and the Potato Famine
An increasing population exacerbated the problem, leading to more pressure on the land and in 1843 the Potato Famine struck. Sir John McNeill, travelling through the parishes of the Western Highlands and Islands to see the extent of the distress, observed, ‘Even if the land produced as much food as possible, it would still only provide people with enough for half a year.’ He concluded, ‘It would be merciful to assist those who are starving and unemployed to emigrate.’

The historical perspective
The Clearances remain a highly emotive issue. Were they the result of greedy and unscrupulous landlords, or the inevitable consequence of the agricultural revolution sweeping Britain at the time, or the weather, or over-population? Whatever role each of these factors played the Clearances were undoubtedly a sad and at times brutal part of Highland history.

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