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Conservation, land and the Clearances

David LinternA series of recent newspaper articles have claimed conservation designations are a modern day Highland Clearances. Using the shameful past to divide people and place is no answer to Scotland’s present challenges, says David Lintern.

We need to talk about an elephant in the room. It can be a difficult subject to broach, so please forgive the length of what follows.

The Highland Clearances won’t need an introduction for everyone. From about 1743 to 1881, at least 170,000 smallholders were forcibly evicted from their homes by landowners. It’s likely to have been many thousands more. The beginning of the Clearances mark the end of the Jacobite uprising and the expansion of enclosure to land north of the border. Common law rights were replaced by the arrival of capitalism in the Scottish countryside and feudalism gave it dominion. It’s also the beginning of the Scottish diaspora. Thousands were indentured to colonial landowners and sold onto ships bound for the new world, others burnt out of their homes, all so that an industrial scale sheep economy could be instituted, at least until the wool market collapsed.

Part of the abandoned settlement of Suisnish, Skye, cleared for sheep by Lord Macdonald in 1853. Villagers were evicted into waist deep snow and their homes burnt.

Part of the abandoned settlement of Suisnish, Isle of Skye, cleared for sheep by Lord Macdonald in 1853. Villagers were evicted into waist deep snow and their homes burnt.

Then a period of Balmoralisation, with the sheep replaced by deer for shooting and the settlements suffering long term disease and famine, forced to eke out a meagre existence on poorer reservation-like plots after relocation. English lords, Scottish lairds and the clergy were all implicated and as such it’s a gruesome period in the history of not just Scotland but the whole of the UK. Some might consider it inflammatory to use a term like ‘ethnic cleansing’ in connection to these acts, others might consider it an insult to use anything less.

Whatever words we use, it’s an emotionally charged subject. The Clearances understandably still exert a huge psychological influence, one that can colour everything from Scottish independence to conservation. Rob Gibson, the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross recently conjured these ghosts once more with the statement ‘Desktop designations of all forms of high natural heritage are actually Clearances country.’ In pieces in the Scotsman on Sunday and The Northern Times, Gibson voiced concern that 3 villages in his constituency have seen a population decline of over 60% in 100 years. He was talking to the press in relation to the Strathy South public inquiry, which is examining the case for SSE to build 39 wind turbines on the deep peatland of the Flow Country, by all accounts a haven for rare birdlife and one of the most important peatlands and carbon stores in Europe. Gibson is a long-term supporter of on-shore wind and argues that there has been local support for the Strathy South turbines. A quick web search shows there is also local opposition.

He puts the case that conservation organisations are placing the welfare of breeding pairs of birds above that of humans, and that this focus is a threat to local communities. He has also devised a map showing both wild land areas and pre-clearance settlements, in order to make a direct analogy between the Clearances and modern conservation methods.

I emailed Rob and asked for sight of his ‘overlay’ map, which he kindly shared. The map is to a very poor scale, which makes it difficult to ascertain exactly where the settlements are, but by my rough count, there are potentially up to 42 previous settlements on what is now classified as wild land, and around 109 not on this land. Gibson has said ‘wild land is actually clearances land’ but even by his own inadequate data, I would dispute that.

A friend and I thought we’d do some of our own research, albeit on a smaller scale but using both the Wild Land Areas Map and another map that has been cited as a source (the ‘Natural Heritage Designated Areas of Scotland’). After all, accuracy is important if we’re going to make sweeping statements about history and geography. We both checked, independently, the locations of 13 well-known clearance villages from Durness to Argyll and found none sited on ‘Wild land’. Using the second map, of our 13 villages, 1 was sited in a National Scenic Area, 1 on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and 5 on Forestry Commission land. Discounting the latter (it doesn’t indicate a system of management per se, just ownership), this leaves a total of 2 clearance villages from 13 that now find themselves on land designated in one way or another for science, scenic or wild value. This is hardly a compelling case for a ‘wild land is clearance land’ conspiracy by a cabal of urban ecowarriors gone legislation mad.


The headland of Huisinish, Isle of Harris, clearly showing the remains of agriculture. The fertile west coasts of Harris suffered particularly badly in the Clearances.

The headland of Huisinish, Isle of Harris, clearly showing the remains of agriculture. The fertile west coasts of Harris suffered particularly badly in the Clearances.

Those with an interest in hill communities around the world will know that upland areas are never settled to the same degree as lowland areas – the high ground simply isn’t productive enough to support human life in large numbers. And this is the case in Scotland too. The vast majority of land described in the new wild land map was always free of any full time settlement. That is not to say that humans never visited these places, or that they do not bear our signature in name, trail, sheiling, song and story. This specific intertwining of natural and cultural history is why many conservationists and mountain folk in Scotland make a distinction between ‘wild land’ and ‘wilderness’.

Back to Gibson’s wider argument – that designations squash development and employment opportunities, leading to a dwindling population. A quick look at the 2011 census shows the Highland population isn’t shrinking – it’s growing. It’s increased over 10% in a decade, to well over 200,000. There are growth hotspots, particularly Aviemore and Inverness (one of Europe’s fastest growing cities) whereas smaller villages such as Kinlochbervie, Achtilbuie and Kyle of Lochalsh are in population decline. And, if we consider Gibson’s own patch as a whole (rather than just 3 villages), Sutherland showed a small increase of 2.5%, Caithness 2.3%, and Ross and Cromarty a more substantial 8%.

It’s worth noting that Aviemore sits in Badenoch and Strathspey, which has one of the highest densities of so called ‘desktop designations’ anywhere in the country. Its likely people want to live in and around areas of high natural value, because they are pleasant places to live. They also want to live where there is good social infrastructure and services and reasonable, affordable housing.

There’s a small additional point to note, which might tell us something about Gibson’s chosen area and timeframe (1901-2001). In 1901 the population of the Bettyhill area was likely swollen from the infamous Strathnaver clearances, begun in 1814. In this context, population dispersal over the 100 years following is less surprising than the headlines might suggest. And, in the last decade (2001-2011) Bettyhill has actually increased its population by 12%, as people from Thurso and Wick have moved into more rural areas.

Whatever you think about wind turbines on sensitive sites, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the only time the Clearances have been pressed into the service of the energy lobby. Sadly there’s an unstable alliance of human geographers, energy corporations and large landowners keen to tap into this rhetoric to pursue their own ends. In my view it’s a deliberately provocative argument, and reinforces the divide between (hu)man and nature that upset the sustainable apple cart in the first place.

Part of the village of Crackaig, on the Northwest coast of Mull, likely to have been abandoned due to an outbreak of Typhoid.

Part of the village of Crackaig, on the Northwest coast of Mull, likely to have been abandoned due to an outbreak of Typhoid.

One of the criticisms levelled at the conservation minded is that we have a romanticised urban idea of country life, but like a lot of stereotypes, that’s something of a caricature. It’s an accepted fact, within environmental circles as elsewhere, that the history of the highlands is harsh and complex. Pre-clearance subsistence agriculture was less a rural idyll, and more a daily grind of high infant mortality, disease, famine and grinding poverty under feudal tyranny. Not something that any of us would be in a hurry to return to.

In the 21st century, for better or worse (perhaps for better and worse) much of the Highland economy is dependent on tourism. Across Scotland as a whole, tourism accounts for 5% of Scotland’s GDP and provides 8.5% of its total employment. But in today’s Highlands and Islands, it’s by far the biggest single sector employer. 2010 figures from HIE show 25,000 employees working in tourism, compared to 405 in on-shore wind.

If the critics of conservation are concerned about the economic sustainability of small communities in the Highlands, then tourism cannot be ignored.

No one is suggesting it’s a panacea (not least conservation groups, who spend hundreds of thousands on repair paths to manage visitor impact) – some tourism work is seasonal, low-paid, and with fewer career prospects – but it can provide a lifeline for fragile communities in balance with other employment. Many crofting households operate tourism businesses from their homes alongside more traditional farming and other work in towns and villages. In contrast, most renewable energy employees travel from the central belt and are not based in the community.

Yes, tourism can drive up housing prices – see the north of Mull for an eye-watering example. But that’s a problem that can only be solved by building more affordable homes for sale and rent that in places people actually want to live – in towns and villages with telephone and internet connections, bin collections and a power supply.

But while membership organisations of environmentally concerned citizens are being badly drawn as interfering urban busybodies by the press, on the ground things are moving on. The days of the Nature Conservancy Council banning access are thankfully long gone (although it has to be said that a recent decision by the Loch Lomond National Park to restrict access isn’t doing anyone any favours). Wild land can be an asset for those living nearby. Government support can be channelled into helping small businesses create opportunity from the environment. Initiatives like the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape Project (CALL) show community land trusts and conservation organisations working together to develop local energy schemes (including small-scale wind), improve biodiversity and construct and maintain facilities that attract visitors and create jobs. Consultation meetings are now an integral part of project planning. Of course it’s not all plain sailing in these meetings, but dialogue is happening.

Designations are not decided at the ‘desktop’ – they are worked out through research, discussion and debate, on the hill and in the village hall. And we see yet another false opposition being set up here: increasingly, many of the people who work in these organisations aren’t ‘meddling outsiders’, they are local people – indeed the organisations themselves have become a source of employment, skills and economic stability for small communities.

The remains of Guirdil village, cleared for sheep by the Macleans of Coll in 1826. 300 people from the Isle of Rum were put on boats for Nova Scotia.

The remains of Guirdil village, cleared for sheep by the Macleans of Coll in 1826. 300 people from the Isle of Rum were put on boats for Nova Scotia.

Environmental organisations are a soft target, and the wrong target. By singling out these groups, attention is kept off the huge inequities of land ownership and energy control (selling land resource to the grid for vast profit) that continue to dictate to Highland communities. As it’s become apparent that no long term local employment is generated by windfarms, and that subsidies are paid to landlords not communities, there’s a new promise being made by estate holders – we’ll plough our profits back in. The promise of trickle down economics may be seductive to local leaders in the short term, just as it was in the past.

But we’re being sold short. An average sporting estate might change hands for between £5-10m. With turbines on the land, it’s value increases to 4 or 5 times that. No rural community can afford to buy land at anything like these values. This continuing (and escalating) monopoly of land ownership is the real elephant in the room. In this context, designations aren’t part of the problem; they are a part of the solution. At best, they protect uplands from further exploitation by large landowners and secure access for communities (both local and from further afield) for recreation, science and nature. They might even encourage people to move to an area to live and work. They certainly encourage visitors and tourism. They are one of the tools in the box promoting long-term health of both natural and cultural heritage. Quite simply, Rob Gibson has backed the wrong team. In doing so, he’s chosen to side with Big Land – pretty ironic for a historian of the Clearances.

Camban Bothy. It’s unlikely that the original building was a shieling, being too high and too remote. Instead, it was probably built to house a shepherd caring for flocks imported after the clearances, and was sited on the cattle drover’s road from Skye.

Camban Bothy. It’s unlikely that the original building was a shieling, being too high and too remote. Instead, it was probably built to house a shepherd caring for flocks imported after the clearances, and was sited on the cattle drover’s road from Skye.

A week may be a long time in politics but in conservation terms it’s not even a heartbeat. There are different time scales at work here, which might explain some of the disconnect and confusion in the dialogue. And this is not a personal attack on the SNP or on Rob Gibson himself, who has praised the Scottish Wildlife Trust and has argued for more transparent deer management practises in the face of overgrazing and habitat loss. I’ve heard him speak in person and he’s a powerful and persuasive orator, especially on cultural history. But he is mistaken to use the Highland Clearances as an argument against conservation. It exploits our righteous anger at a historical situation we have little power to change. It deliberately clouds out rational thought to score rhetorical points. It’s both inappropriate and factually inaccurate, and most of all, it isn’t helping local people now.

To say this is not a denial of the horrors of the past. It’s to honour the memory by moving forward. Genuine sustainability for small communities in 21st century Scotland will not come from emotional appeals that further divide people and place, but from working together to unify them.

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