Crofting, By-Product of the Highland Clearances 

Traditionally, crofting has centered on raising livestock and cultivating arable crops. This traditional approach, characterised by low-intensity management and a variety of activities, sustains a unique array of species and habitats, contributing to a distinct and recognizable landscape.

Livestock production is a key component of crofting, often linked with low-intensity practices that are highly valuable to the natural environment.

Crofting is a specific type of land tenure and small-scale food production unique to the Scottish Highlands, the Scottish islands, and previously on the Isle of Man.

In the townships of the 19th century, individual crofts were set up on more fertile land, while a larger expanse of lower-quality, hilly terrain was communally used by all the township’s crofters for livestock grazing. Today, crofting is primarily practiced in the rural areas of the Western and Northern Isles, and along the coastal margins of the western and northern Scottish mainland.



Crofting communities emerged as a result of the Highland Clearances, although individual crofts were already in existence prior to these events.

Historically, Highland agriculture involved farms or ‘bailtean,’ which operated under a communal system with shared grazing and arable land managed through the run rig system. Each ‘baile’ typically housed five to ten tenant families.

Taken in 1886. The Street, Village Bay, St Kilda Village. And ‘now’ 2019

In an effort to increase revenues from their estates, landlords began by displacing the tacksmen during the last quarter of the 18th century.

Tacksmen, part of the ‘daoine uaisle’ and sometimes referred to as ‘gentry’ in English, held leases from landowners and often sublet to tenant farmers, managing some aspects of the farm operations.

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They played a crucial role in the Highland economy, particularly in the trade of black cattle. By eliminating the tacksmen’s ability to sub-let, landlords could directly collect all rents from the land workers. Subsequently, landowners shifted from the traditional farming methods to pastoral systems, favoring leases to the highest bidders.

This recent crofting township was created out of the fields of the 19th century farm of Coll, Col Uarach, on Lewis
This recent crofting township was created out of the fields of the 19th century farm of Coll, Col Uarach, on Lewis

Initially, some of these new farms raised cattle, but the introduction of extensive sheep farming became more prevalent, necessitating the eviction of the tenants from each ‘baile.’

During many of the clearances, tenants from inland farms were relocated to newly formed crofting communities along the coastlines, often to lands of inferior quality. This practice of clearances primarily continued until the 1820s.

Highland Clearances

The Highland Clearances, also referred to as the Scottish Clearances, represent a highly controversial and destructive phase in Scottish history. From the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries, numerous peasant families and communities were forcibly removed from lands across Scotland.

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These evictions were driven by landowners’ desires to repurpose Highland and western Scottish island areas for sheep and cattle farming, aiming to increase their revenues.

Although a few of these removals were voluntary, the vast majority were executed through coercion. In some extreme cases, homes were burned to prevent the possibility of the evicted returning.

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

Those displaced were often forced to relocate to coastal regions, migrate to the industrialising Lowland cities of Scotland, or leave the country altogether, heading to destinations like Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

The repercussions of the Clearances extended beyond mere dispossession. This period also inflicted profound damage on Highland culture and led to the disintegration of the traditional clan-based society that had thrived for centuries.

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Within just a few generations, the Highlands transitioned from a clanship system to a capitalist structure. The Highland Clearances are remembered as a deeply traumatic chapter in Scottish history, marked by significant cultural loss and social upheaval.

Why Did the Clearances Happen

Numerous economic, cultural, and political factors converged to accelerate and intensify the process of the Highland Clearances. The decisive defeat of the Jacobite forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 marked the beginning of the end for the traditional clanship system.

The aftermath saw many Highlanders perish in the conflict or fall victim to the harsh retributive actions executed by the English following the uprising.

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As the clanship system disintegrated, clan chiefs transitioned from their roles as community patriarchs to becoming capitalist landowners, viewing their estates primarily as capital assets. This shift brought challenges, as these chiefs struggled to maintain the genteel lifestyles and customs prevalent among their Lowland counterparts.

Given the rugged terrain of the Highlands and traditionally low rental incomes from their lands, these transformed clan chiefs faced significant pressure to enhance their financial returns.

Crofting Was a Tough Life

Crofting involved strenuous, labour-intensive work that provided merely a subsistence existence. Crofters typically grew hay, oats, and root vegetables like potatoes or cabbages, and hand-cut peat that was stacked in distinctive patterns to dry for use as fuel or sometimes as bedding for animals.Most crofters also tended to sheep for shearing and lambing, and some looked after a small number of cattle.

Crofting land of Fair Isle (1974). Image taken in August shows hay stacked in traditional stooks ready to be gathered and kept to feed livestock in the winter months.

The crofts established as a result of the clearances were not designed to fully sustain the families that lived on them. They consisted of a few acres of arable land and shared grazing areas. Landlords expected their crofting tenants to supplement their income by working in industries like fishing or kelp harvesting.

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It was estimated at the time that a crofter needed to spend 200 days working away from his croft to avoid poverty. By the latter half of the 19th century, many crofters formed a significant part of the seasonal migrant workforce, particularly on Lowland farms.

Potato Famine

The crofting communities suffered greatly during the Highland Potato Famine from 1846 to 1856. The reliance on small plots for potato cultivation, due to its high yield, became a critical vulnerability when potato blight struck, compounded by the earlier collapse of the kelp industry.

This devastation led to the second phase of the Highland Clearances, with many tenants leaving the Highlands, often through emigration.

Crofting family at Poolewe, 1880s. in 1886, the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act became law. The Act gave crofters security of tenure at a fair rent,
Crofting family at Poolewe, 1880s. in 1886, the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act became law. The Act gave crofters security of tenure at a fair rent,

In response to the dire poverty in the Highlands, Sir Charles Trevelyan established the Highland and Island Emigration Society in 1852, aiming to alleviate starvation by promoting emigration to Australia.

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The plight of the crofters eventually led to the formation of the Napier Commission in 1883, which investigated the issues of poverty and insecure land tenure in the Highlands.

Although its recommendations were not initially accepted, the inquiry paved the way for the first Scottish crofting legislation in 1886, which sought to address these longstanding issues.

Crofting Act of 1886

The Crofting Act of 1886 marked a significant milestone in Scottish history as it formally recognized the rights of crofters to their land and legally acknowledged crofting towns. The Act addressed several critical issues:

  1. Security of Tenure: Crofters were granted secure tenure as long as they actively worked their croft and paid their rent.
  2. Hereditary Rights: Crofters gained the right to inherit their croft, allowing them to pass it on to their descendants.
  3. Compensation for Improvements: Crofters were entitled to compensation for any improvements they made to the land, such as building fences or installing drainage systems.
  4. Reasonable Rent: The Act established a standard for reasonable rent, which was to be adhered to.
  5. Creation of the Crofters’ Commission: The Act established the first Crofters’ Commission, tasked with overseeing rent reassessments and other regulatory functions.
  6. Rent Reassessment: Crofters were given the right to have their rent reassessed by the Crofters’ Commission.
  7. Designated Crofting Counties: The Act specified eight Scottish counties as crofting counties—Argyll, Caithness, Cromarty, Inverness, Orkney, Ross, Shetland, and Sutherland. In these counties, a crofting parish was defined as a parish where tenants without leases, paying less than £30 a year in rent and who had maintained effective common grazing rights for the 80 years preceding June 24, 1806, were located.

The Crofters’ Commission also held the authority to establish fair rents and reevaluate these rents every seven years. Crofters could appeal to the commission if they believed their rent was too high, often resulting in rent reductions or eliminations if it was determined that they had been overcharged.

Some landowners financially assisted their evicted tenants in emigrating, a tactic known as ‘compulsory emigration,’ to guarantee their departure. This presented the tenants with a stark choice: either face direct eviction or accept some assistance to leave their homeland.

Additionally, the commission had the power to amend the Crofting Act and introduce new legislation, as well as allocate green land to crofters to expand smaller crofts. This comprehensive legislation provided a framework to protect and empower the crofters, fundamentally altering their relationship with the land and their landlords.

Crofting is Small Scale Production

Crofting is a traditional Scottish social system centered on small-scale food production. It features community-based work units known as “townships.”

Individual crofts typically span 2–5 hectares (5–12.5 acres) of in-bye land used for high-quality forage, arable crops, and vegetable production. Each township collectively manages less fertile hill ground as common grazing areas for cattle and sheep.

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Historically, crofters made specific improvements to make the land more suitable for farming. In areas with heavy peat, for instance, the creation and maintenance of drainage ditches were crucial.

A unique practice in crofting was the establishment of Lazy Beds (Gaelic: fiannegan), which involved cutting turfs and stacking them in two layers with seaweed or kelp sandwiched in between to enrich the soil, thereby improving drainage around the beds.

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

Land use in crofting counties is limited by climate, soil quality, and terrain. Since the late 20th century, the Scottish government has designated nearly all agricultural land in the Highlands and Islands as Severely Disadvantaged under the Less Favoured Area (LFA) Directive.

Crofting LFA Payments

Despite this, reports from 2008-2009 indicated that these areas received the lowest LFA payments. Most crofters need to supplement their income with other activities due to the economic challenges of crofting agriculture alone.

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An analysis of the agricultural practices from the pre-capitalist clan system could provide insights into the potential for producing a diverse local landscape and improving the diet of local communities, challenging the notion that the current Less Favoured Areas are inherently poor.

This perspective suggests that the traditional landscape and livestock-dominated practices are primarily the result of market dependency rather than being the only viable use of the land.

20,000 Crofts

Despite facing numerous challenges, crofting remains vital to the economy of the Highlands and Islands. As of 2014–2015, there were 19,422 crofts and 15,388 crofters. Some crofters manage multiple crofts, and there is a notable rate of in-croft absenteeism where tenancies are maintained but the land is not actively farmed.

Approximately 33,000 family members live in crofting households, accounting for about 10% of the population in the Highlands and Islands. These households represent about 30% of all rural households in the Highlands, with figures rising to 65% in areas like Shetland, the Western Isles, and Skye.

Croft in Upper Ardelve, a Highland settlement on Loch Alsh (2007). Image shows farmhouse behind a modest livestock shed. Cows graze the rear fields.

Crofters manage about 770,000 hectares, which is roughly 25% of the agricultural land in the Crofting Counties. They also keep about 20% of all beef cattle (120,000 heads) and 45% of breeding ewes (1.5 million sheep) in the region.

The Crofting Commission, a public body of the Scottish Government, regulates crofting activities. The activities and decisions of the Crofting Commission are regularly reported to the public.

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The Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 mandates the Scottish Ministers to report to the Scottish Parliament on the economic condition of crofting and the measures taken by the Government and the Crofting Commission to support it. The most recent report covers the period from 2019 to 2022.

Right to Buy

In 1976, crofters were granted the right to purchase their individual crofts, and in 2003, the Land Reform Act further empowered crofting community bodies with the right to buy the croft land associated with their local community.

The Laidhay Croft Museum, near Dunbeath in Caithness, opened in 1974 to preserve and showcase a 200-year-old thatched crofting longhouse, along with its agricultural buildings including a barn and stables. The museum features the fully furnished home and displays a collection of farm and stable equipment.

In a significant development in 2018, a section of the Sutherland Estate was purchased by the Garbh Allt Community Initiative Estate, a crofting community project. This area, spanning 1,214 hectares (about 3,000 acres), included the crofting townships of Gartymore, Portgower, Marrel, and West Helmsdale.

The coast south of Duntulm (1986) where barren high land is broken at lower level by farmable areas.
The coast south of Duntulm (1986) where barren high land is broken at lower level by farmable areas.

The purchase, totaling £250,000, was funded by two major contributions: £273,000 from the Scottish Land Fund, which is supported by the Scottish government, and £29,918 from the Beatrice Partnership Fund, associated with the Beatrice windfarm in the Outer Moray Firth.

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This transfer of ownership was particularly meaningful as some of the new owners were descendants of individuals who had been evicted from the Sutherland Estate two centuries earlier.

Rugged Landscape

Crofting landscapes are visually stunning yet reveal the remote, rugged, and demanding nature of the terrain. Historically, these agricultural practices have often been paired with fishing or the harvesting of resources like peat, potash, or seaweed, making farming on a small, often uneconomical scale.

As a result, crofters have diversified into related industries, such as weaving or knitting with wool, or producing distillery products like whisky and gin. More recently, the introduction of wind farming has provided some additional economic support. A characteristic feature of crofting townships is the communal grazing areas shared among the crofters.