Landscape, Village

What Were The Highland Clearances?

Taking place predominantly between 1750 and 1860, The Highland Clearances saw tens of thousands of people forced from their homes in the Highlands of Scotland.

With political, environmental, economic and social drivers, the Highland Clearances caused devastating impacts for the people of Scotland.

Whole families were forced to uproot their lives, with many having to relocate to places as far away as the Americas and Australia with little more than the clothes on their backs. 

At times, the Clearances turned exceedingly brutal with reports of homes of those unwilling to leave being burnt down and desperate people being placed on boats to foreign lands by force. 

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As famine struck a land already struggling, the intensity of the Clearances increased, and woeful situations of entire families finding themselves homeless and hungry in a bitterly cold winter became commonplace. 

highland clearances
Badbea is a very sad place, a grim reminder us of a disgraceful period in our national history. Badbea is a ruined village on the cliff tops around 5 miles north of Helmsdale, in Caithness. Image Credit: Martyn Gorman

The Highland Clearances were a complicated time in Scottish history and were the culmination of generations of political, social and environmental upheaval.

The era saw the lives of thousands of families uprooted and permanently changed the foundations on which modern Scotland is built. 


From Farmers to Fishermen 

The Highland Clearances is a term used to encompass events of forced migration that occurred over roughly a hundred years.

As such, there are multiple phases to these migration patterns that are all considered as part of the Clearances. The first phase of the Clearances began in the 1700s with economic and agricultural influences.

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With mounting debts and bankruptcy on the horizon, landowners began to change the agricultural structure of Scotland.

Prior to the Clearances, much of the agricultural landscape of Scotland consisted of multiple tenant farms and relied heavily on open land for grazing and a run rig system of land tenure.

Visible traces of the runrig system of cultivation evident. Image Credit: Robert Murray

Under this system, those working the land didn’t actually own or lease the land, rather, open fields were divided and allocated each year for farmers to work their allocated plots.

However, strapped for cash and facing the oncoming demands of the Agricultural Revolution, landowners began to break up this traditional system of agricultural practices and land management, and replace it with the introduction of crofts and large pastoral farms.

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Highland Clearances

For the many that had previously lived on and worked the land under the run rig system, this sudden change represented a major problem.

These enclosed farms were leased to an individual tenant which increased the economic advantages for land owners when compared to the more communal system of farming which had been previously practiced. 

Tenants were displaced as  enclosed land was sold or individually tenanted, many of these displaced people were forced to move to entirely new communities, often by the coast.


Many were forced to find work in new areas and in industries in which they had little to no experience, such as the fishing, quarrying and kelp sectors. 

Understandably, many of those impacted by the Clearances were resentful of the imposing of these new agricultural systems.

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Homes Set on Fire

This was particularly the case as in many instances land that lords allocated to farmers was purposefully made to be too small or unproductive to provide.

This meant that it was not uncommon for even those that managed to stay on their land to have to find alternate work in other industries to supplement their income, which created a further aspect of social and economic engineering to the Clearances. 

highland clearances
One of the ruined croft houses. An old track leads up the bare hillside to the ruins of a couple of stone houses which formed the township of Poulouriscaig. Image Credit: Evelyn Simak

Clearances in many times verged on cruelty, with cases of homes being set on fire with people’s belongings still inside them.

Stories also emerged of  both children and the elderly surviving only days or weeks after being evicted with nowhere to go and forced to live in the woods in harsh conditions with little more than the clothes they were wearing. 

Hungry and Homeless 

Making a bad situation worse for the already struggling people of Scotland, the potato blight that had ravaged Ireland was arriving on the shores of this northern nation.

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Widespread crop failure hit Scotland in 1846 as the blight decimated crops for the next decade, with three quarters of crofting regions losing their crops to the potato blight.

Hundreds of thousands of people living in the Scottish Highlands faced a hungry and hard existence. A particularly bitter winter in 1846 only made the situation more dire as countless people lost their lives to starvation.

highland clearances
This is one of many similar ruins in the area. At one time the Glendale district was home to more than 3,000 people.. Image Credit:Richard Dorrell

As crops began failing in the summer of 1846, Scottish landowners sought assistance from the British government, but any notion of direct subsidies was refused, and the onus was put on Highland landowners to provide relief to their tenants in times of famine.

While some landowners did take steps to try and help their tenants through the famine, others were unwilling or simply unable to. 

The Most Destitute I Ever Saw 

The prospect of a hungry population that landowners were pressured by the government to assist made the idea of forced immigration a desirable one for many of the Scottish gentry of the time.

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It was not uncommon for landowners to engage in ‘assisted emigration’, a system in which tenants were all but forced to relocate to areas such as America and Australia with landowners often quite literally buying their ticket to force them to go. 

These evictions could be brutal. Tales emerged of Highlanders being forced onto ships by police constables or enticed with promises of free land or guaranteed work once they reached North America.

land owner
Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry in 1812. MacDonnell claimed to support Highland culture, while simultaneously clearing his tenants.

Upon arrival the Highlanders found them to be entirely untrue. One group evicted from the Highlands were described by the the Vice-President of a Scottish Benevolent Society upon their arrival in Canada as ‘the most destitute I ever saw coming to this country.’

In other instances, landowners simply forced tenants out by creating stricter systems in regards to rent arrears and turf cutting. In some cases tenants were just blatantly evicted with nowhere to go.

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So many people were forced to leave the Highlands during this period that in just Ardnamurchan, a peninsula in northern Scotland, 40% of the population was evicted by the middle of the 1850s. The wider Highlands saw its population decline by a third by the end of the 1850s. 

Pack Your Bags and Leave 

Even before the famine took hold in the Scottish Highlands, people had been forced to leave on ‘assisted emigration’ schemes. Economically, Scotland was struggling as populations rose and previously prosperous industries began to stagnate. 

abandoned building
Abandoned croft at the foot of the Mamore Hills, beside the West Highland Way. Image Credit: Chris Heaton

The price of kelp had dropped more than five pounds a ton in the Liverpool markets in a period of just five years in the 1820s, wool prices dropped to just a quarter of what they had been in 1818, and the value of black cattle dropped by close to 50% in just a twenty year period.

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To gain political, economic, and social advantage, landowners began to forcefully evict tenants from their estates.

Entire families’ lives were uprooted as rent arrears were cancelled and landowners bought tickets for families to forcefully relocate to Australia and the Americas. 

A Suppressed Scotland 

Many historians argue that the Highland Clearances had roots in more than economic and agricultural changes and the devastating impacts of famine, but were part of a wider system of oppression and discrimination against Highlanders.

After generations of conflict that culminated in the Jacobite uprising, Scotland and England had a troubled relationship.

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After Scotland lost the Battle of Culloden, the Jacobite forces were decimated and England quickly imposed brutal regulations to suppress the Scottish way of life and all but strip Highlanders of their customs, culture and identity. 

Battle of Culloden. In 1881, Duncan Forbes erected the headstones that mark the mass graves of fallen Jacobite soldiers. They lie on either side of an early 19th-century road which runs through the battlefield.

Soldiers were stationed across the Scottish Highlands, broadswords and wearing tartan became illegal. Highland chiefs were stripped of much of their power and even the speaking of Gaelic was largely suppressed.

Economic and agricultural systems that had been established in the south of England were brought to the north of Scotland.

This included systems of individual farming and pasture improvement for economic incentive that were in direct conflict with the communally tenanted farms and run rigs systems that Scottish farmers had built their livelihoods on.

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Scottish Highlanders were left devastated by years of brutal war and then left facing a system of suppression, persecution and new economic agendas that left many facing destitution.

Contending with this level of  hardship, people began to leave the Highlands, feeling they had no choice but to seek better economic opportunities that the Industrial Revolution was creating in southern cities, even before they were forcibly evicted from their lands. 

Scottish Scars and Worldwide Impacts

Officially the Highland Clearances concluded at the end of the 1800s, however by this time an estimated 70,000 people had left Scotland.

This mass migration not only impacted the social makeup of Scotland, but also created ripple effects around the world.

People as far afield as North America, Canada, and Australia can still trace their ancestry to those that originally arrived after being evicted during the Highland Clearances. 

highland clearances memorial
Memorial to clearance of Rossal 1814 in Strath Naver. Image Credit: Dr E H Mackay

As people were forced out of the Highlands and settled either in other areas of Britain or created new lives abroad, the population of the Highlands was forever impacted.

Whereas close to a third of Scotland’s population resided in the Highlands at the beginning of the 1750s, by the twentieth century, less than 5% of Scotland’s population still called the Highlands home.

Even today, the Highlands and Islands remains one of the least densely populated areas in Scotland. 

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The Scottish Clearances created a national scar for the Scottish people, and amplified the idea of the Highlands as a hard, mysterious and romanticised place.

Books, art and poetry that still exist today were inspired by the loss the Scottish Clearances created. 

A Place to Call Home 

The Highland Clearances are remembered as a dark time in Scottish history in which thousands of people were forced not only from their homes but from their country to face an uncertain future.

They were times of hunger, homelessness and hardship fueled by a rocky socio-political and environmental landscape. Destitute people found themselves sent as far afield as the Americas and Australia, at times with the false promises of a better life. 

A Scotland facing changing agricultural practices, hostile political relationships, and impacted by a disastrous backdrop of famine, created the perfect storm for the people of the Scottish Highlands.

The dramatic impacts of the Highland Clearances saw Scottish settlers establish themselves far and wide, with the descendants of many still living in the lands their ancestors were forced to go to.

The Highland Clearances were a brutal era of Scottish history. They changed the very landscape of Scotland to this day, and offer a timely reminder of the importance of a place to call home.