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History of Scotland

The Scots Abroad: the Highland Clearances & Emigration:

While some segments of Scottish society flourished in the eighteenth century, others altogether disappeared. After the Jacobite defeat in 1745, British authorities sought to destroy the clan system and the feudal attitudes that accompanied it. As Highlanders were conscripted into the British Army to serve in the Empire, they gradually came to view themselves as British subjects. Old relationships between the chief and his clansmen, furthermore, were transformed into relationships between the commercial landlord and his tenants. Land that had previously been considered common to the clan in Highland society was now under the direct control and ownership of the chief, to do with as he pleased.

Member of Clan MacAlister Emigrating
Member of Clan MacAlister Emigrating

Radical social upheaval disrupted huge populations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scotland. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Lowlands were undergoing a revolution in agriculture. The introduction of modern farming techniques transformed the traditional system of subsistence farming, which had remained unchanged in the Lowlands for centuries, into a stable and profitable agricultural enterprise. The new system, however, changed the shape of the Lowlands. Thousands of cottars and tenant farmers were evicted from their small settlements, forced to migrate to the newly-emerging industrial centres of Glasgow, Edinburgh, or northern England. Many Lowlanders found employment in textile factories. Others sought new opportunities on the frontier of the Empire in Canada and the northern United States, where there was no dearth of land to till. Those tenants or subtenants who resisted the initial displacement were eventually forced off the land by climbing rents. The cottar way of life about which Burns had sung faded away as the nineteenth century crawled on.

With the textile industry taking off in England and the Lowlands, the demand for wool rose. Highland chiefs-cum-landlords soon realized that much higher profits came from sheep pastures than tenant farming. As landowners evicted their tenants to turn the land into grazing pastures, dispossessed Highland families migrated to Lowland cities, gathered along the coastal lands, or left for North America. The brutality with which many landowners evicted their tenants, combined with the abrupt abandonment of the traditional clan system and the lack of legal protection for annual tenants under Scots law gave the Highland Clearances a particular notoriety.

A second, more brutal wave of Clearances swept the Highlands in the mid-nineteenth century. Potato famine combined with a widespread cholera outbreak killed thousands by starvation and disease. The pressure of a rapidly growing population on severely restricted resources only agitated the problems of over-crowding and famine. Poverty rampaged even through Lowland cities as more and more displaced farmers tried to find work in industries, pushing wages far below subsistence levels. For many families, it became apparent that Scotland could no longer sustain them. The march of progress pushed them out.

More information on the Highland and Lowland Clearances can be found in the Scots in Canada section by following this link

More information on the Scottish Emigration to Canada can be found in the Scots in Canada section by following this link

The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and
do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.
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