THERE are few episodes in Scottish history more controversial than the Highland Clearances. Even now historians, academics and lay people argue about just exactly what they meant for Scotland, and whether the undoubted mass emigration from the mid-18th century onwards was a case of economic migration or forced eviction.

Looking at the Clearances objectively – a difficult thing to do when one reads first-hand accounts of atrocities committed by landowners – the answer is that there was undoubtedly a huge element of cruel activity to put people out of their homes to make way for “agricultural improvements” such as sheep rearing, but there was also a need on the part of many in the Highlands and Islands to find a new home, one that gave them the chance of an existence beyond mere subsistence which itself was hard enough in those times.

Some thousands of people were “cleared” but many thousands also left, for their way of life, as we will see, had all but come to an end.

It could be argued that the Clearances continued until well into the late 20th century and spread to the central belt as emigration was such a part of Scottish life until relatively recently that the culture of heading elsewhere for a better life had become ingrained in the people. There is no doubt that the Clearances officially stopped in the late 19th century. The Crofters Commission’s investigations led to The Crofters Holdings Act of 1886, four years after the famous Battle of the Braes – crofters on Skye battled imported police in protest against evictions – inspired the government in London, under intense Scottish pressure, to look at the real state of things in the Highlands and Islands.

At last, crofters were given some security of tenure by the Act, yet emigration from the north and north-west of Scotland continued apace, and after the First World War it escalated across the country so that in the 1920s, some 363,000 Scots left for the USA and Canada alone in search of a better life, including one Mary Anne Macleod from Tong near Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, the mother of Republican candidate Donald Trump.

That was the real long-term effect of the Clearances on Scotland. They sent people south to the central belt and England and west across the Atlantic and even further afield to Australia and New Zealand and the relative success of the émigrés in their new lands made the leaving of Scotland acceptable. There can scarcely be a family in Scotland which does not have an émigré in their current generation or immediate ancestry.

In short, the Clearances made Scotland what she is today. So why did this country-changing long-term process happen?

There had already been emigration from the Highlands in the 16th to 18th centuries, not the least of it by men seeking their fortunes as mercenary soldiers in various armies on the Continent. But we can date the start of what we understand as the Clearances precisely to one day – April 16, 1746, and the Battle of Culloden.

The old clan system which had been a way of life in the Highlands and Islands for centuries was already under pressure as many clan chiefs had broken the links with their people, seeing them as subjects rather than their kinsmen. It was after Culloden, however, that King George II and his Whig Government, led by Henry Pelham, embarked on what we would now call ethnic cleansing. Some might even call it a form of genocide.

More than 1,000 Jacobites died in the post-battle suppression across the Highlands. The land was occupied by soldiers in great barracks such as Forts William and George, alien roads were made by General Wade, Acts were rushed through parliament to curtail the independent nature of the Highlands and Islands, clan chiefs had their power removed, the broadsword was made illegal, as was tartan. Britain and British order came to its wild northern frontier, where the people even spoke a different language – the replacement of Gaelic with standard English became a key tool of the government. As a result, it is said that even today, the people of Inverness speak the most grammatically correct English in the UK.

Along with the suppression of the people’s culture came an economic system that was alien to the people – one of money and “improvement” of land and agriculture.

In retrospect, it was fairly easy for landowners, most of them Scots, to start moving the people off the land. There was virtually no protection for tenancies, the form of land tenure that most people had.

Disheartened and disorientated by the new British order of things, many people chose to leave their homes voluntarily. The Industrial Revolution needed people and the Highlands and Islands supplied them.

OTHERS wanted to cling to their homes and way of life, and that’s when cruelty and atrocities came in. For while it is a simplistic analysis, it was nonetheless true that the landed classes decided that sheep were a better source of income than people.

That was especially true in 1792 when tenant farmers in Ross-shire tried to drive imported sheep away and were rewarded by being cleared to the coast of Caithness or put straight on board emigration ships.

One after another, glens were emptied of people, many of whom went to become fishers and crofters on the coast, while many voluntarily emigrated across the Atlantic, though many more went south to the central belt were they were treated almost as foreigners.

The most notorious landowners of the Clearances were the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland and their hated factor Patrick Sellar who operated between 1810 and 1820. At the Sutherlands’ command, Sellar and his men turned people out of their homes, destroyed possessions and set fire to their croft houses.

Sellar was arrested and put on trial where his defence was that he was simply following the orders of his employers.

“I see that I am accused of two serious crimes,” he wrote at the time. “Firstly, that I caused the death of a woman whose house was burned down, and secondly, that my sheep have eaten the people’s corn.

“I am sure these things did not happen because I was cruel. If my sheep ate the people’s corn because my shepherds were careless, the people should have complained to me and I would have done something about it.”

The jury were either landowners or in debt to the Sutherlands. Sellar was found not guilty, but at least he was stopped from being a factor – he took up sheep farming instead.

The potato famine that blighted the Highlands in the 1840s brought another wave of clearances and emigration.

There is one outstanding piece of testimony about what happened then in the district of Morven, Argyllshire, which dates from the Crofters Commission in the 1880s.

“About forty years ago, when the sheep farming craze was at its height, some families were removed from the townships of Aulistan and Carrick on Lady Gordon’s estate, as their places were to be added to the adjoining sheep farm.

“The people were removed on to the most barren spot on the whole estate, where there was no road or any possibility of making one. They had to carry all manure and sea ware on their backs, as the place was so rocky that a horse would be of no use.

“Notwithstanding all these disadvantages, they contrived through time to improve the place very much by draining and reclaiming mossy patches, and by carrying soil to be placed on rocky places where there was no soil.

“During the twenty-five years they occupied this place their rents were raised twice. Latterly, with the full confidence of their tenure being secure, they built better houses at their own expense, and two or three years afterwards they were turned out of their holdings on the usual six weeks’ notice, without a farthing of compensation for land reclaimed.”

We also have an eye-witness account dating from the 1850s of just how cruel the Clearances were.

Donald MacLeod lived in Sutherland at a time when hundreds of people were evicted. He wrote letters for a newspaper, the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle, in 1857 telling of his memories of life in Sutherland. He called them “Gloomy Memories”.

MACLEOD wrote: “The houses had not been built by the landlord but by the tenants or by their ancestors. The people thought that they owned their houses by right.

“In earlier evictions the people had been allowed to carry away this timber to build houses on their new crofts. Now, to make the people move more quickly, they set fire to the houses!

“The crofters were given eviction notices but many didn’t do anything until it was too late. If their furniture was still in the house, it was burned with the croft house.

“After about two months warning, the factor’s men started to clear the people by setting fire to the houses over their heads! The old people, women and others, then began to try and save the timber which they believed was their own.

“The factor’s men worked with great speed. They demolished all before them. When they had knocked down all the houses… they finally set fire to the wreckage. In that way timber, furniture and everything else that could not be taken away at once, was utterly destroyed.

“Some old men took to the woods, wandering about in a state approaching absolute insanity, and several of them, in this situation, lived only a few days, and several children did not long survive their sufferings.”

In 1850, Barra and other islands of the Outer Hebrides suffered clearances after the potato famine.

The landlord of Barra was Colonel Gordon of Cluny who decided to forcibly ship part of the population off to Canada, and Balnabodach township, for instance, was cleared in its entirety and destroyed. Some 450 people from Barra were on board the emigrant ship The Admiral when she sailed on August 11, 1851.

They arrived in Quebec already starving and local people had to give them food so they could survive.

The effects of the Highland Clearances can be exampled by one statistic. The census of 1851 for Balnabodach shows quite graphically that, of the people living there in 1841, not a single one remained.

That picture was repeated across the Highlands and Islands for over a century, and Scotland has not been the same since.