The History of the Highland Clearances
Notable Dicta – A French Economist

The following remarks by the celebrated French economist, M. de Lavaleye, will prove interesting. There is no greater living authority on land tenure than this writer, and being a foreigner, his opinions are not open—as the opinions of our own countrymen may be—to the suspicion of political bias or partisanship on a question which is of universal interest all over the world. Referring to land tenure in this country, he says:—

“The dispossession of the old proprietors, transformed by time into new tenants, was effected on a larger scale by the “clearing of estates.” When a lord of the manor, for his own profit, wanted to turn the small holdings into large farms, or into pasturage, the small cultivators were of no use. The proprietors adopted a simple means of getting rid of them ; and, by destroying their dwellings, forced them into exile. The classical land of this system is Ireland, or more particularly the Highlands of Scotland.

“It is now clearly established that in Scotland, just as in Ireland, the soil was once the property of the clan or sept. The chiefs of the clan had certain rights over the communal domain; but they were even further from being proprietors than was Louis XIV. from being proprietor of the territory of France. By successive encroachments, however, they transformed their authority of suzerain into a right of private ownership, without even recognising in their old co-proprietors a right of hereditary possession. In a similar way the Zemindars and Talugdars in India were, by the Act of the British Government, transformed into absolute proprietors. Until modern days the chiefs of the clan were interested in retaining a large number of vassals, as their power, and often their security, were only guaranteed by their arms. But when the order was established, and the chiefs—or lords, as they now were—began to reside in the towns, and required large revenues rather than numerous retainers, they endeavoured to introduce large farms and pasturage.

“We may follow the first phases of this revolution, which commences after the last rising under the Pretender, in the works of James Anderson, and James Stuart. The latter tells us that in his time—in the last third of the 18th century—the Highlands of Scotland still presented a miniature picture of the Europe of four hundred years ago. The rent (so he misnames the tribute paid to the chief of the clan) of these lands is very little in comparison with their extent, but if it is regarded relatively to the number of mouths which the farm supports, it will be seen that land in the Scotch Highlands supports perhaps twice as many persons as land of the same value in a fertile province. When, in the last thirty years of the 18th century, they began to expel the Gaels, they at the same time forbade them to emigrate to a foreign country, so as to compel them by these means to congregate in Glasgow and other manufacturing towns.

In his observations on Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in18I4, David Buchanan gives us an idea of the progress made by the clearing of estates. `In the Highlands,’ he says, `the landed proprietor, without regard to the hereditary tenants’ (he wrongly applies this term to the clansmen who were joint proprietors of the soil), ‘offers the land to the highest bidder, who, if he wishes to improve the cultivation, is anxious for nothing but the introduction of a new system. The soil, dotted with small peasant proprietors, was formerly well populated in proportion to its natural fertility. The new system of improved agriculture and increased rents demands the greatest net profit with the least possible outlay, and with this object the cultivators are got rid of as being of no further use. Thus cast from their native soil, they go to seek their living in the manufacturing towns.’

“George Ensor, in a work published in 1818, says:—They (the landed proprietors of Scotland) dispossessed families as they would grub up coppice-wood, and they treated the villages and their people as Indians harassed with wild beasts do in their vengeance a jungle with tigers. . . . . It is credible, that in the 19th century, in this missionary age, in this Christian era, man shall be bartered for a fleece or a carcase of mutton—nay, held cheaper? . . . . Why, how much worse is it than the intention of the Moguls, who, when they had broken into the northern provinces of China, proposed in Council to exterminate the inhabitants, and convert the land into pasture? This proposal many Highland proprietors have effected in their own country against their own countrymen.

“M. de Sismondi has rendered celebrated on the Continent the famous clearing executed between 1814 and 1820 by the Duchess of Sutherland. More than three thousand families were driven out; and 800,000 acres of land, which formerly belonged to the clan, were transormed into seignorial domain. Men were driven out to make room for sheep. The sheep are now replaced by deer, and the pastures converted into deer forests, which are treeless solitudes. The Economist of June 2, 1866, said on this subject:– Feudal instincts have as full career now as in the time when the Conqueror destroyed thirty-six villages to make the New Forest. Two millions of acres, comprising most fertile land, have been changed into desert. The natural herbage in Glen Tilt was known as the most succulent in Perth ; the deer forest of Ben Alder was the best natural meadow of Badenoch ; the forest of Black Mount was the best pasturage in Scotland for black-woolled sheep. The soil thus sacrificed for the pleasures of the chase extends over an area larger than the county of Perth. The land in the new Ben Alder forest supported 15,000 sheep; and this is but the thirtieth part of the territory sacrificed, and thus rendered as unproductive as if it were buried in the depths of the sea.

“The destruction of small property is still going on, no longer, however, by encroachment, but by purchase. Whenever land comes into the market it is bought by some rich capitalist, because the expenses of legal inquiry are too great for a small investment. Thus, large properties are consolidated, and fall, so to speak, into mortmain, in consequence of the law of primogeniture and entails. In the 15th century, according to Chancellor Portescue, England was quoted throughout Europe for its number of proprietors and the comfort of its inhabitants. In 1688, Gregory King estimates that there were 18o,000 proprietors, exclusive of 16,560 proprietors of noble rank. In 1786 there were 250,000 proprietors of England. According to the “Domesday Book” of 1876, there were 170,000 rural proprietors in England owning above an acre; 21,000 in Ireland, and 8000 in Scotland. A fifth of the entire country is in the hands of 523 persons. Are you aware, said Mr. Bright, in a speech delivered at Birmingham, August 27, 1866, that one-half of the soil of Scotland belongs to ten or twelve persons? Are you aware of the fact that the monopoly of landed property is continually increasing and becoming more and more exclusive?

“In England, then, as at Rome, large property has swallowed up small property, in consequence of a continuous evolution unchecked from the beginning to the end of the nation’s history; and the social order seems to be threatened just as in the Roman Empire.

“An ardent desire for a more equal division of the produce of labour inflames the labouring classes, and passes from land to land. In England, it arouses agitation among the industrial classes, and is beginning to invade the rural districts. It obviously menaces landed property as constituted in this country. The labourers who till the soil will claim their share in it; and, if they fail to obtain it here, will cross the sea in search of it. To retain a hold on them they must be given a vote; and there is fresh danger in increasing the number of electors while that of proprietors diminishes, and maintaining laws which renders inequality greater and more striking, while ideas of equality are assuming more formidable sway. To make the possession of the soil a closed monopoly and to augment the political powers of the class who are rigidly excluded, is at once to provoke levelling measures and to facilitate them. Accordingly we find that England is the country where the scheme of the nationalisation of the land finds most adherents, and is most widely proclaimed. The country which is furthest from the primitive organisations of property is likewise the one where the social order seems most menaced.”