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The National Archives > Exhibitions > Citizenship
Highland clearances
Scotland in the late 17th century was a country of two distinct cultures. Although the population was quite widely dispersed, the main settlements were in the fertile Lowlands - such as the coastal areas of the rivers Forth and Tay, the lower Clyde valley, and Aberdeen and Moray. Edinburgh and Glasgow were now emerging as rapidly expanding centres of urban growth, whilst Dundee and Aberdeen were the next biggest towns.Highland poem, 1747
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Highlands and Lowlands
To those who lived in the Lowlands, the Highlands were virtually uncharted territory - and James VI's description of Highlanders as 'utterly barbarous' was symptomatic of the contempt Lowlanders felt towards their fellow countrymen, who were often referred to as the 'Irish'. This clash of cultures was rooted in the differences that existed between them. The most obvious was language: few people in the Highlands spoke English, Gaelic being the dominant tongue. In respect of religion, the impact of the Reformation had been muted: some areas were Roman Catholic, others Episcopalian, whilst others retained traditions that were pagan in origin.
The most important difference, however, was the existence of the clans, which gave the Highlands a tribal character. The clans were headed by respected, powerful men who could call upon tenants for military service in times of crisis and who - like landowners in the Lowlands - held private courts in which they were effectively judge and jury.
Abolition of heritable jurisdictions
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Letter concerning
heritable jurisdictions, 1748
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During the first half of the eighteenth century, the Highlands began to experience changes. The power of the clan chiefs had, for some time, been declining from its most extreme, and Highland society began to adopt Lowland codes of behaviour. The military character of the Highlands also weakened in some respects, although it was still fundamentally martial. Social factors remained as obstacles to economic forces that could have had more far-reaching effects but were not yet powerful enough to bring about real change.
The Highlands and the '45
For some time, support in the Highlands for the Jacobite cause had stimulated suspicion of Highlanders. The massacre of the Macdonalds of Glencoe in 1692 had resulted from an attempt to secure the allegiance of clan chiefs to William and Mary in the wake of the Jacobite rising of 1689-90. Subsequently, the participation of Highland clans in the rising of 1745 confirmed the worst fears of Protestant Whigs in the Lowlands and in London, and at Culloden in April 1746 they took their revenge.
List of Highland clans
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After Culloden came legislation designed to change the nature of Highland culture. This is now seen by historians as the culmination of a process of extending state control over the Highlands. The carrying of firearms in the Highlands was banned, as was the wearing of Highland dress and the playing of bagpipes. As part of the strengthening of government in Scotland following the Act of Union of 1707, the judicial powers of landowners (which had been exercised through private courts) were abolished, along with the holding of land in return for military service.
The actual effect of these measures and the significance of Culloden are open to question, and the disintegration of Highland society should be seen in the context of the longer-term decline of the power of the clans and the impact of economic forces. Certainly those who had long been eager to introduce changes into the Highlands now had the opportunity to do so.Thoughts concerning the Highlands
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At the same time, an increasing demand for Highland goods, such as cattle, wool and fish, regenerated the economy and led to changes such as the introduction of enclosure and new agricultural techniques designed to raise productivity. Inevitably the old social structures gave way to less hierarchical communities. In particular, tacksmen - who had been a central feature of the old social structure - were gradually eliminated and many of them emigrated to North America.
The clearances
In some areas these economic developments brought benefits, but in others by the 19th century a society had emerged that was based around small landholdings heavily dependent on potato crops. The pressure of an increased population relying on scarce resources caused continuing poverty and consequently an increase in numbers seeking a new life elsewhere. The new farming methods themselves resulted in what later became known as 'clearances' - the forced removal of people, sometimes to new agricultural activities in new locations.
Of particular significance was the decline in the Highland economy after 1810, which left sheep farming as the only profitable activity. The consequences for tenants were catastrophic. Sheep farming was generally undertaken by outsiders and tended to push existing tenants to the fringes of the available land. Worse still, it was an option adopted by landlords, which resulted in tenants being displaced in large-scale clearances. In Sutherland between 1807 and 1821, in order to make way for sheep, some 6-10,000 people were evicted and moved to new settlements on the coast. During the rest of the 19th century, other factors ensured that the depopulation of the Highlands continued.
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