The “population explosion” in the Highlands

According to the standard account of Highland history, there was a “unparalleled, prodigious, stupendous” etc “population explosion” in the Highlands either from 1750 to 1800, or from 1750 to 1850).1   I am reluctant to keep emphasizing how much I disagree with many of those who have written about the Highlands, because I realize I must sound like one of those people who buttonhole you, and explain that human beings have never landed on the moon (the television coverage was faked), or that the twin towers atrocity in 2001 was done by the Americans themselves, or that they have just been for a trip in a flying saucer.   However, it must be done – here are the facts and figures, and anyone who disagrees is welcome to try and pick holes in my arguments.   A further preliminary point is this – unfortunately, any normal person who wants to discuss what happened in history has as a rule to accept what all the history books assert.   If I’m interested in the Battle of Bannockburn, which all the textbooks say happened in 1314, I have to accept that: I can’t spend months looking out all the contemporary evidence from witnesses, or chroniclers, or official documents.   In the same way, if all the books insist (which they do) that there was this extraordinary leap in the Highland population in the second half of the 18th century (or 1750-1850), then how is any ordinary reader, with his life to live, going to check up on it?   So it is not surprising that people have accepted this allegation of an enormous population increase in the Highlands.

So much for the historians: now for the facts of history.   To start with, I had to decide where the Highlands actually were (it’s strange that many experts on the Highlands never define the area they are talking about).   There are about 900 parishes in Scotland (different people give different figures).   Some parishes, everyone would agree, are in the Highlands; others are in the Lowlands.   But there is a lot of territory that might be either, according to various points of view: so I had to try and work out where exactly the Highland/Lowland boundary was.   If the Highlands are (a) the mountainous area of northern Scotland, or (b) the area where people spoke Gaelic in 1750, and indeed much later (fortunately, as it happens, almost everywhere the two areas are much the same) then the Highlands must be the four old Scottish counties of Sutherland, Ross & Cromarty, Inverness-shire, and Argyllshire, plus part of ten other old counties – most of Buteshire (i.e. Arran and Bute), half of Perthshire and half of Caithness, plus smaller parts of Dumbartonshire (or Dunbartonshire), Stirlingshire, Angus, Aberdeenshire, Banffshire, Moray, and Nairnshire.   Altogether it appeared that the Highlands contained 162 parishes: so I had to add up all the parish population totals found by Dr Webster (who made an amateur count in the 1740s and 1750s), then by the ministers of the Old Statistical Account in the early 1790s, and then by the census-takers of 1801 and each ten years thereafter – a laborious business.   (No wonder history professors avoid doing it.)   As for Dr Webster, there seemed to be half-a-dozen reasons why he probably underestimated the totals (as I explain in my book); a close study of the Highlands at that time would lead one to think the true population was at least 320,000 or 330,000.   But taking Webster’s totals at their face value, these were the results for the 162 parishes I have indicated: Webster, 295,566: and the O.S.A., 325,355.   The so-called “population explosion” in the second half of the eighteenth century produced an extra 29,789 people, that is an increase of 10.08%.   It is quite true that the O.S.A. figures would have been higher but for all the emigrations in 1750-1800; and it is equally true that they would have been lower but for the thousands of Lowlanders (sheep-farmers, shepherds, factors, lawyers, workmen etc.) who had come to live in the Highlands in those years.   The many Lowland immigrants are frequently mentioned in contemporary sources,3 but appear in very few modern accounts.   (No doubt because the “overpopulation” enthusiasts prefer to blame this non-existent “overpopulation” on the Highlanders’ failure to control their procreative urges.)  It is also true that different parishes showed different trends: under the impact of the “improvements”, some parish populations went up sharply, some went down sharply, while others changed more moderately.   So if you are merely producing propaganda, rather than history, you can quote one or two exceptional parish increases, and imply that the same thing happened everywhere.   (In South Uist, for example, the population shot up, since the landlord wanted as many kelp-workers as possible – kelp was putting thousands of pounds annually into his pocket.)

Since the Highlands contain about 16,300 square miles by my most careful calculation, these extra inhabitants (between Webster and the O.S.A.) amounted to two per square mile.   So we are expected to believe that the fearsome poverty, loss of land, and emigrations of the second half of the eighteenth century were the result of one extra person appearing in each 320 acres after fifty years.   And it is clear from the reports in the O.S.A. that the ten-per-cent increase in the population (if it was that much) was more than cancelled out by the fact that food production in the Highlands had gone up by considerably more than ten per cent.   So why do experts talk about a “population explosion”?   One can only surmise that they wanted something, anything, on which to blame the poverty, the descent into crofting, and the emigrations, rather than have to admit that it was the doing of that small group of people who now owned and dominated the Highlands.

Let us consider the figures right up to 1831/1841 (the figures at those two censuses were almost the same), when the Highland population reached its peak.   The 162-parish totals at successive decennial censuses were: 1801, 331,235; 1811, 347,359; 1821, 386,038; 1831, 405,733; 1841, 405,924; 1851, 400,931.   (After that the Highland population continued to decline every ten years.)   In other words (ignoring Webster’s probable underestimation of the numbers), from say 1751 to 1841 the population increased by 110,358 – 37.34% in ninety years, a figure that averages out at an undramatic 0.41% per year.   After ninety years of the population “exploding”, there were fewer than seven more people in each square mile.   That means that in 1841, at the very highest point that the Highland population ever reached, there were still more than twenty-five acres for each Highlander (or over 150 acres for each family of six).   Can anyone honestly claim to believe that such a miniscule increase in the number of Highlanders amounted to a “population explosion”?   But writers still quote abnormal figures from exceptional parishes, and imply that they are “typical”.   While the Highland population between 1750 and 1841 rose by just over a third, the food production in the same area doubled; so there was considerably more food produced per head.   In some parts there was a greater still increase of production. In South Uist, said the parish minister in the New Statistical Account, “the produce has been more than tripled since 1796”.3   I have often read in history books that by 1840 the population of South Uist had more than doubled since the O.S.A.; I cannot remember ever reading in a history book that the produce of South Uist had more than tripled at the same time, so that (other things being equal) everyone there must have had about fifty per cent more food.   It is uncanny that the one fact should be ubiquitous, and the other unmentionable.

To say that a population where there were at the very maximum only twenty-five people for each square mile is “congested”, so that the people must be driven away, is surely to do violence to the English language.

1   A few of the many who insist on a gigantic leap in the Highland population –

In the eighteenth century, there was “a torrential growth in the Highland population”: Dr Richard Muir, Lost Villages of Britain, 1985, p. 161.

One cause of the Highland emigrations was “the stupendous growth of population”: Professor Henry Hamilton, The Industrial Revolution in Scotland, 1966, p. 73.

“The century following the overthrow of the clans in 1746 saw an unparalleled population explosion in the Highlands”: Sir Iain Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe, The Highland Clans, 1967, p. 35.

In the eighteenth-century Highlands there was “a prodigious ‘population explosion’ ”: Earl of Dundee, in a 1985 personal memorandum to the Minister of State, Scottish Office, printed in Moncreiffe, The Highland Clans, 1967, p. 251.

In the Highlands “there was a population explosion . . . from the mid eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth century”: John A. Lister, The Scottish Highlands, 1978, p.19.

“We must learn from history.   In the latter half of the eighteenth century, there was an enormous population explosion”: Jamie McGrigor, (Highlands and Islands, Con.), during a debate in the Scottish Parliament, 27.11.2000 (demonstrating how little he had learned from history)

“. . . the explosive population growth of the late eighteenth century”: Professor Eric Richards, The Highland Clearances, 2002, p. 46.

Dozens more similar quotations are given in my book.   Professor Richards stands out: he apparently believes that recapitulation implies accuracy.   In The Highland Clearances, 1982, he reiterates the “over-population” theory on pages 6-7, 8, 11, 13, 14, 21, 32, 34, 35, 58, 78, 79, 88, 89, 92, 95, 96, 97, 101, 103, 105, 107, 111, 112, 114, 117, 118, 123, 130, 145, 167, 277, 286, 287, 357, 364, and 396.   In the face of such assiduous emphasis, it is hard to believe it is still erroneous – which may be the reasoning behind such repetition: he may think that such choruses of clichés connote correctness.

2   E.g., the minister of Kiltearn, Ross-shire, Old Statistical Account, 1791, volume I, p. 274; James Loch, Improvements on the Estate of the Marquess of Stafford, 1820, Appendix, p. 61; Alexander Sutherland, A Summer Ramble in the North Highlands, 1825, p. 98.


3   New Statistical Account, 1845, volume XIV, p. 197 (South Uist, Inverness-shire).

By Alwyn Edgar

Author of The Highland Clearances.