How the Highlands and Lowlands were exploited to make rich men richer and Scotland subservient
It is remarkable how land described as impoverished and infertile happens to hold vast riches for the few when it is freed of the many who thought it their own to till. The myth of the Clearances is the one about landowners doing cotters, crofters farmers and fishermen a favour by goading them into the modern age. ‘Goading’ is my term. They talk of ushering. The Clearances it is argued, saw progress, from a clan system to a civilised, well organised society.
I see the term a lot in half-baked captions attached to photographs of abandoned villages in tourist journals, trotted out by unionists and anglophiles in debates, so goes the justification for what amounts to theft by stealth and a disregard for human life akin to ethnic cleansing.
The argument avers had farmers and crofters not been forced off their small holdings many might have died of starvation. There is some truth in that, but it’s self-serving truth from those who excuse barbarity and cruelty and call it progress.
The logic of what they are saying is obvious. Had Scots not been sent away to die on foreign battlefields for England’s glory, or on over-stuffed immigration ships, or early deaths in Glasgow hovels, they would have died left on the land. This is a lie.
In reality, many European states and small provinces existed as rural societies, often relying on barter in order for people to gain the things they could not fashion or grow for themselves. In time, without any intrusion from another nation, they moved to a capitalist system of purchase while retaining a farming or socialist system to feed the nation and share its wealth. The capitalist aspect allowed the governing body to buy and import food stocks, or indeed, sell surplus to a neighbouring nation.
A harvest blighted
For those living off the land in Scotland, if the crop yield was low you could trade some of your cattle for grain to see you through the winter. What a cow was worth depended on the market value and the health of the beast. Cattle prices were not yours to control.
If you had no cattle you could offer your labour, or borrow from a friendly neighbour, assuming they had surplus to give. And if you had nothing of value to trade you could subdivide your land and trade that.
Back in the 1830’s and 40’s I can see why landlords were at first against subdivision of small holdings. It may be trite, but it’s reasonable to compare that transaction to renting an apartment which the tenant sub-lets without approval so he can pay the rent. Then again, proprietors were onto a good thing; the more subdivision that went on, the more labour you had at your disposal. Harvesting industries such as peat, wheat and kelp were labour intensive. That’s how it must have seemed to land owners in Skye, Barra, and Loch Broom where kelping demanded a lot of labour, a strip of land and a but ‘n ben, the trade for your work. However, this underhand policy has an accumulative counter effect which I’ll come to shortly.
Life lived on the edge
As a tenant your security was in permanent jeopardy. The more you gave away, the less you had to barter. No one paid you wages in money or grain.
In a previous essay on the Act of Union I mentioned two bad harvests that most likely weakened the populace’s resolve to withstand endless and sustained economic attacks from England. The English parliament exploited the situation. It needed to subdue Scotland to concentrate on war with France.
In 1836 there was a similar fall in crop yield, potato and oats. The deficiency in crops was under half the expected yield. Now, this is where we have to remember Scotland was ruled from Westminster, and in Victorian times. England was the most powerful nation on Earth, unaccountably wealthy. Just like today, in almost every political issue you can think of, Scotland had too few MPs to win a vote that could direct finance to help Highland and Lowland crofters.
When English nationalists try to silence implying Scotland is ungrateful for their beneficence, we ‘prospered’ from the British Empire same as them, they omit detail. People can count; a tenth of MPs at Westminster does not constitute a balance of power. That the dice was loaded, and loaded still, is not a reason to dissolve the exploitative Union, argue British nationalists. This reasoning doesn’t attain reality.
Send a scout
The British parliament has a classic method of ameliorating public concern by doing nothing. It sets up a commission to ‘look into the matter’. Westminster decided to show how much it ‘cared’ by sending an emissary to the western Highlands, Robert Grahame, an advocate of social medicine. Social medicine is distinct from the prescriptive service a general practitioner dispenses. It aims to assess a group’s environmental circumstances and any barriers to healthy living by seeking out what is causing the hardship, suggesting ways to remodel habits. (There is a Robert Graham Policy Centre – spelled without the ‘e’ – near Chicago dedicated to this sort of study.)
Off went Grahame to the Highlands in carriage and on horseback to study the locals at close quarter and report back to the Treasury, facts and figures in a bound journal. According to records, he calculated there was just over 100,000 people subsisting in the worst poverty-stricken areas at risk of starvation. The Outer Hebrides and Skye were hit the worst, Ross-shire and Sutherland less so. Cottars (farm laborers) appeared to be the most vulnerable, but so too were many tenant farmers.
What Grahame reported was something of a surprise. Though crop failure was a factor in the deprivation he encountered, the biggest agent of suffering and death was too many people sharing too small areas of arable land.
“The population of this part of the country [he meant Britain not Scotland] has been allowed to increase in much greater ratio than the means of subsistence which it affords.” [Note use of ‘allowed’.]
The poor are poor because they are poor
The answer was simple. Move people off the land. The clan system had been attacked left right and centre by English strategy and laws yet the majority of people held onto the land they and their forefathers had tilled rather than flee to the unknown. And why not? They were Gaels or Scots and had put their backs into it. Every rock moved to carve out a straight drill carried with it voices of their ancestor’s toil. Life is precarious if you cannot save anything from your toil for the bad times. There is nothing left to sell. Malnutrition stares you in the face. The Irish know how the rest of that story goes.
Outside charities, you were on your own. With starvation rife in the Highlands, the time it took to gather evidence and report back to London, left the destitute to suffer and die. It was stay and starve or emigrate. And if you were too underfed to work, the landlords would repossess your strip of ground and the house you lived in. The wealthiest nation in the world did not arrest the decay of the Highlands. So much for sharing in the ‘riches of the empire’.
Of course, there is a silver lining to mass poverty – war, and that’s exactly what England embarked upon for the next decade and more, strong men and boys rounded up, you might say ‘harvested’. Highland soldiers the first to be sent into battle, Lowlanders to follow. There was an empire to subjugate. As a soldier you get to hold down a square meal if you manage to avoid a bayonet in the belly. Pick up that Union Jack, sir, your loyalty is to the Crown not your family.
With Scotland denuded of its men all but the old and infirm, the harvest of menfolk dried up. After the Battle of Waterloo the remnants of regiments were stripped of their kilts and tartan badges because they could not be filled by true men of Scotland.
Meanwhile, back home, disaster capitalists were everywhere. Wife and children and the old were cleared off the land to make way for sheep, thousands of them, absent husbands unable to intervene. The protection of the clan system gone, families split up, all dignity, lost, told emigration was the way to prosperity, they were given a few bawbees and herded to the harbours to board the ships on which many never survived the journey.
There’s a fearful repetition to history when you’re not in control of your own country.