Skye and the Highland Clearances
The period following the catastrophic defeat at Culloden was a disaster for the Highlands. Cumberland, the leader of the Government army, wrecked violent reprisals around the region, burning many villages. Of more lasting effect were the laws were passed aimed at the subjugation of the Highland clan system. Wearing of tartan was outlawed, written Gaelic was outlawed (even the Bible was not permitted in the language), as was the bearing of arms. Stripped of their powers to raise a fighting force from their men and to attain true independence, the Clan Chiefs turned their backs on Highland society as they looked for approval from their peers further south; the sponsoring of traditional bards and poets dwindled as the chiefs began to instead to look to impress with lavish southern lifestyles. This required money; and there was one obvious way to raise their incomes - through ‘improvements’ on their estates and the raising of rents. The transformation of the Chiefs into landlords had begun.
Initially it was in the chiefs’ interest to retain and increase the working population on their land, to help with a booming industry: kelp. This seaweed was used to make soap and other commodities. Many Chiefs such as MacDonald of Sleat encouraged large families and the subdivision of their lands amongst their children, so that the farms could no longer support those living on them; instead the people became a source of cheap labour, relocating to the coast to prepare kelp.
The kelp industry collapsed from 1822 when cheaper substitutes became available from Spain, and the sheep became the new way for landlords to make money. The Highlands became a vast sheep farm, and the subsistence farmers who had lived there for thousands of years now stood in the way of ‘progress’. Many were forced to abandon the best and most fertile land to the sheep, and had to resettle on barren, rocky coastal strips where producing enough food to survive became next to impossible.
Famine became widespread, especially following the potato blights from 1845. For many, voluntary emigration became the only way out; thousands boarded ships to start a new life in America or Canada each year, many dying en route on the crowded boats. Thousands more were forcibly evicted and driven from their torched-homes, made to leave the country with virtually no possessions or preparation. By the late nineteenth century, inspired by the Land Struggle in Ireland, crofters began to fight back.
For those wishing to visit the site of one such forced clearance, the Suisnish – Boreraig walk is particularly recommended. This visits the site of two villages cleared in 1853; the ruins of Boreraig in particular remain a haunting spot. Other ruins of cleared villages still visible on Skye include Lorgill, seen on the Ramasaig to Orbost walk, cleared in 1830.
Many stories about the clearances have been handed down through the families and are still remembered today, both in places like Skye where people remained, and in the new world. The interested reader should get a copy of David Craig’s book (listed on the right).
For more on the clearances on the web, have a look at HighlandClearances.info, produced by Coldeen Primary School.