Russell: Scots Myths (2) – The Highland Clearances.

Peter RussellThe first Scots myth sets to right the perception  of Nationalists that Scotland has no influence in UK General Elections. Follow-ups on LabourHame[1]  illustrate how historical election results are seen  through the prism of contrived grievance, to fit the narrative that Scotland has received a bad deal from the Union, which is a key part of the mythology of the pro-independence case.

This was most luridly expressed by Joan McAlpine  when she compared Scotland to a woman in an abusive relationship, and adds a distasteful note of victimhood.  The narrative of grievances  includes examples taken from history, such as the Highland Clearances, the story of North Sea Oil; the early introduction of the Poll Tax; and siting of Trident on the Clyde.

The truth is that the people of England suffered equally if not more in many of these cases.  

So let us look at the Highland Clearances, and to start with, its English equivalent, the Enclosures.

The issue of land ownership, land use and its effects on the rural population is directly related to the growth of the mercantile capitalist economy, a process which began with the end of the land ownership patterns of Middle Ages.

In England, for about a thousand years, land had been in three forms of ownership: the crown (and its agents, the nobility); the church; and common land.

However, the Reformation brought to an end the vast land holdings of the Roman Catholic Church, which were transferred to the crown and nobility, and in turn to the “New Men” or financial magnates of the emergent bourgeois economy.  This new form of land ownership, by private individuals, in turn underpinned the next economic revolution which was the creation of a trade and money economy, which required investors with monetary (as opposed to property) assets.

It therefore became desirable, and then essential, to add value to those assets. Land use became a matter of maximising the income from land, with result that the rural economy converted from a largely subsistence (production to feed the local population) to a largely cash economy (production for markets.)

One outcome was the purchase or confiscation of the holdings of small subsistence farmers; but a more radical effect was the enclosure of common land. In the medieval period, including under serfdom, people had been allowed access to common land to graze their family beasts, to gather fuel wood and forage for wild food; and to use ponds for fish and fowl. Even serfs did not starve.

From the reign of Henry VIII, i.e., the end of the medieval period and beginning of the modern economy, however, legal instruments were put through Parliament which authorised the privatisation of common land. Or in some cases, the land was simply grabbed by local landlords. This had two effects.

The first was to increase the land holdings of the new capitalists. The second was to drive the local population into penury and homelessness as over decades and centuries (until the last Enclosure Acts of the early 19th century) increased efficiency and technological innovation in agricultural production drove workers off the land. Some migrated to towns and cities to work in new industries, especially in the later part of the Enclosures period when the Industrial Revolution was getting underway.

However, many were simply and cruelly ‘put to the road,’ meaning that they were not accepted as the responsibility of any community and were liable to be driven, sometimes lashed, from parish to parish as ‘sturdy beggars.’

The Enclosures story is relevant to the independence debate in several ways.

First, it presents the historical economic background to the Highland Clearances. This shows that the fundamental basis of the rural economy changed as the modern world emerged, meaning that land was used increasingly for cash crops, and subsidence farmers were cleared from the land. In England, this happened over centuries, roughly from the 1550s to 1800: the Clearances, beginning at the end of the 18th century (1792 was the “Year of the Sheep”), were a further phase of the same process.

Secondly, the experience of the rural population in both rural England and the Highlands was similar in that they were dispossessed and displaced, with those remaining in frequently poorly paid and precariously employment. There was no difference between being pauperised in Norfolk, Northumberland or Sutherland or Wester Ross.

Thirdly, the Enclosures and the Clearances were each brought about by the actions of landowners and landlords, whose actions were driven by wider market consideration. But these are classes defined by their economic roles – and not their nationality or ethnicity. In this respect, the history of the Clearances is not relevant to independence issue.

As George Orwell wrote in 1944:

Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.[2]

It is contended by grievance-seeking nationalists by that the Clearances as an extension of the Enclosures would not have happened, and the Highlands would have remained a happy well-populated landscape, had Scotland not been unified with England by the 18th century. The most direct argument against this picture is that it is impossible to see how Scottish land-owners and capitalists would have resisted the economic imperative underway in the neighbouring economy or indeed the revolution which had occurred in capitalism..

Inside or outside the UK, the Highlands would have suffered the same fate as rural populations elsewhere, and the Union has no case to answer.

Note: those interested in the fate of English common land might like to read Christopher Hill’s work, especially Liberty Against the Law (1996)

[2] George Orwell, As I Please, Tribune, 18 August 1944



Peter Russell is a retired speechwriter and researcher at Glasgow City Council. This post was originally published on his blog, Planet Pedro!

 Follow Peter on Twitter at @Planet_Pedro.

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3 thoughts on “Russell: Scots Myths (2) – The Highland Clearances.

  1. Some referenced academic sources would have been nice, but you don’t have any for this opinion piece, funny that?

  2. Scotland does not have a tradition of common land; land was owned by the crown and leased (heritably or otherwise) to individuals for service, cash or – most commonly a mixture of the two. I’m not sure whether that supports or opposes the argument, just making an observation, but the clearances have a lot to do with the disappearance of the landlord’s need for personal military service, which might have been worth a mention.

  3. The subtle difference being the Highland Clearances took place in supposedly more enlightened times. Thousands of Highlanders were away at war while their families were being evicted and sent to Canada or onto tiny plots of the worst land in order to effectively starve. Norfolk and Northumberland don’t have the depressing emptiness of Sutherland or Ross-shire, where indigenous people are still being forced out of their areas by house prices inflated by the British housing market. It is ridiculous to say the Clearances would have happened in Britain or out of it. Look at the Irish land ownership patterns before and after their independence; the percentages were a complete reversal when the old estates were broken up and the land redistributed amongst the people. Absentee landlordism can always justify any action against a rural population. Land owned by the people can’t be taken of them. Westminster control was the denial of empowerment and the support for landlordism. Look at the Passenger Vessels Act, concerning emigration and the kelp industry, for goodness sake. The people were manipulated like slaves by the Westminster Parliament and the land owners. It’s a no-brainer when you get the truth.

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