The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900

T. M. Devine

Allen Lane, £25

JOHN Prebble was a better than middling writer of fiction – early novels such as Where the Sea Breaks and Age Without Pity are probably overdue a revival – but not much of a historian. He preferred to be known as a “historical writer”. So it’s a touch ironic that Prebble’s non-fictional writing, and in particular his best-selling Fire and Sword trilogy, should have shaped a consensus view of Scottish history that has persisted for more than a generation.

Much of what we think we know about Culloden, “the Highland clearances” and the “massacre of Glencoe” was unconsciously but unshakably imprinted by Prebble. There have been steady efforts since the 1960s to re-contextualise all three events. Even Wikipedia concedes that there has long been reason to question whether the clearances represent a discrete historical event. And yet, to challenge the consensus view and the mythology surrounding it is, in some quarters, tantamount to Holocaust denial.

Sir Tom Devine has visited the subject before. His 2006 book Clearance and Improvement: Land, Power and People in Scotland, 1700-1900, excellent and thoughtful though it was, now looks like a preliminary skirmish. His new book is likely to represent the definitive word for an academic generation at least on this most controversial of topics in Scottish history. The first thing to note is that there is no reference to “Highland” in his title; the next, that he has moved back the terminus a quo by a full century. This is to exile forever the notion that clearance was in any sense a local or discrete event, with a small cast of villains and victims. Devine previously argued that the disappearance of tacksmen and tenant farmers from the Highlands marked a net loss to Scotland in entrepreneurial vigour, and he made it clear that many left, not wrapped in plaid and weeping, but upright and defiantly unwilling to collude in loss of social status.

It is clear that in the Highland region, clearance followed a steady shift from chieftanship, with its attendant responsibilities, to commercial land-ownership. What is less clear is that the process of clearance actually began well below the Highland line. Sheep-rearing was an integral aspect of monastic life and already well developed in the eastern Borders even before the 17th century civil wars. Reading “the clearances” as part of the fallout from Culloden and the much exaggerated Hanoverian suppression of Gaelic culture is to miss what Devine has discovered from a simple enough reading of the Old Statistical Account and parish records: that the conflict between pastoralism and subsistence begins earlier and further south than usually acknowledged.

It was a Border variety that was brought in to graze the Highlands. Even in the Borders, the Cheviot could not be wintered on high ground, and therefore had to be brought down onto land more suitable for arable use. Reducing arable land meant lowering subsistence needs, leading to the steady disappearance of “fermetouns” and the steady elimination of the cottar class.

The problem for a novelistic historian like Prebble is that the subject is attended by a curious silence on the part of the putative victims. There is hardly a whisper of protest associated with clearance in the eastern Borders. This is perhaps because a dispossessed population was quickly absorbed by the towns and by the manufacture of textiles and other goods. The same was not the case in Galloway where enclosure and the “parking” of cattle was strenuously resisted, most notably in the Levellers Revolt of 1724 when well-armed men and women crowbarred miles of hated wall.

James Clerk wrote to his brother Sir John Clerk of Penicuik about the outbreaks, adding some nicely salacious detail: “It cannot be well doubted that perhaps there were several venereal conjunctions among the lads and lasses, which appears being transacted in the proper posture dykewards might very much contribute to the carrying on in throwing down the work.” It’s not clear from the syntax or evasive word choice – “cannot be well doubted”, “perhaps”, “several” – whether Clerk actually witnessed any knee-tremblers or was merely indulging snobbish prejudice against the working class, but the image persists here, as elsewhere, of pride and lusty refusal of victimhood.

It cannot be well doubted that many of the most tragic stories associated with the clearances genuinely took place but Devine locates them within a much longer evolutionary process than is usually conceded in popular history. Clearance was the almost inevitable outcome of a legal system in which there was no principle of heritable tenancy, as in England and elsewhere in Europe, and of a country that was already modernising and industrialising faster than anywhere else in Great Britain, as it became in 1707. The transition from tribalism to capitalism happened steadily and organically. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels bear some share of blame for mythologising the clearances, at least in part because they did not understand Scotland’s legal and economic exceptionalism, but it was popular historians like Prebble who did more of the damage. Sir Tom Devine has swept away much of the misunderstanding, but hasn’t deadened the story. What he tells is resolutely anti-tragic, but in many respects even more dramatic.