What is a Clearance?

I think I ought to define “clearance” – I should say what I mean by the word, since some writers apparently mean something different. A “clearance” was what it was called when a landlord cleared all his small tenants off all the good land on his estate. Sometimes he then tried to encourage or even organize their removal to the Lowlands or overseas – especially after the potato famine which began in 1845, since he was afraid he might have to pay a poor rate to support the paupers he had created – but in the “clearances” between the 1740s and the 1830s a clearing landlord often tried to keep on his estate the people he had evicted.

During these years there were a number of reasons why the result of a clearance was actually an increase in the local population. There were often good reasons why a landlord would try to keep his evicted small tenants on his estate.

  1. A Highlander evicted from his large joint-farm would often, rather than leave the sacred land of his clan entirely, accept a small piece of waste land – cliff-top, or rocky or marshy land – which he would spend years improving by – literally – laborious spade-work, so that it became good agricultural land worth paying rent for. Not the least value of the potato crop was that planting potatoes often helped in this conversion of useless land to land worth something. In other words, the landlord would get the evicted people to extend the remunerative part of his estate without having to take any trouble himself.
  2. Until the slump in kelp prices after the Free Trade measures of the 1820s, evicted small tenants (in coastal or island districts) could be turned into kelp-workers; and the landlord could sell the kelp for several times more than he had had to pay the kelp-workers to produce it. When the landlord was getting £20 a ton, the kelp-worker seldom got more than £3 a ton – a tremendous profit for the landlord.
  3. Even when alternative sources of soda appeared, after the Free Trade measures of the government in the 1820s, in some areas of the Highlands the kelp was of such high quality that it still made a profit for the landlord.
  4. In various areas of the Highlands industries sprang up – forestry, logging, quarrying, mining, fishing, for example; and to get the profits from these industries, workers were needed, creating a demand that evicted small tenants could fill.
  5. Even apart from these industries, landlords were sometimes able to get various other entrepreneurs to establish smaller workshops in the new villages – and village rents were much higher per acre than rents for ordinary agricultural land.
  6. Sometimes the new big farmers were Lowlanders; when they were, they often preferred to bring farmworkers – shepherds or cattle-men for example – from the Lowlands.
  7. When the landlord was enjoying his increased rents (often trebled or quadrupled) after a clearance, he would sometimes build himself a fine new mansion, or extend his old one; and in the days before vacuum cleaners, washing machines, central heating and so on, this meant he had to employ a staff of domestic servants. The new big farmers also had to employ domestic servants in their large houses.
  8. The new society also created a demand for more factors, surveyors, lawyers, merchants and so on; and these were often immigrants from the Lowlands, since in the new society they had to be English-speakers.
  9. In the second half of the 18th century, and up to 1815, Britain was more often at war than at peace; and even when there was no formal war, there was fighting in the colonies. This meant there was frequently a demand for soldiers. Highlanders were known to make good soldiers. A landlord who could recruit men, and offer a company or a battalion of soldiers to the government, would make a profit out of it – not to mention making a career for his younger sons as officers. So there was another reason to try to keep the evicted people on the estate.
  10. For all these reasons, a landlord would often not only try to keep his own evicted small tenants on his estate, but he would also try to attract further manpower from neighbouring estates.

The population both in the Highlands and the Lowlands was increasing, partly because of the decreasing risk from smallpox, as a result of vaccination. In the Lowlands the population shot up; and even in the Highlands there was a smaller increase.

The result was that the population immediately after the clearances kept high or even went up. In the long run, however, these factors ceased to operate. Kelping became largely uneconomical; other industries did not prosper; the landlords themselves often became absentees, reducing the need for staffs of household servants. So, in the long run, the factors making for a decrease in the population overwhelmed those making for an increase. The result is that large parts of the Highlands, where humans have lived for thousands of years, are now virtually empty.

In the earlier years of the clearances, the landlords, and those who saw their interest was to support the new society, often claimed that there could not have been any clearances because the population had gone up. The Countess of Sutherland pointed to the larger population in Sutherland; and so did Patrick Sellar. It is interesting that there are writers now, as well as numbers of websites, which make the same claims.

By Alwyn Edgar

Author of The Highland Clearances.