The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed 1600-1900 
by T.M. Devine.
Allen Lane, 464 pp., £25, October 2018, 978 0 241 30410 5
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In​ 1987 the Proclaimers released a single called ‘Letter from America’, which compared the then ongoing industrial destruction of the Scottish Lowlands with the Highland Clearances two centuries before. It was a rare intrusion by an 18th-century lyric into the UK top ten. ‘Lochaber no more/Sutherland no more/Lewis no more/Skye no more’, sang the Proclaimers, reprising the sentiment a few lines later as ‘Bathgate no more/Linwood no more/Methil no more/Irvine no more’. These were towns where big car plants and steel fabrication factories had recently shut down and sent their workers away. The song ends after a pause, with the repetition of the words ‘Lochaber no more’.

The phrase has had several lives. It first appeared in a song by the Edinburgh poet Allan Ramsay published in 1724:

Farewell to Lochaber, farewell to my Jean
Where heartsome wi’ her I ha’e many days been
For Lochaber no more, Lochaber no more
We’ll maybe return to Lochaber no more.

The words were matched to an old melody, possibly Irish; eventually the melody, often played on the pipes as a lament, a pibroch, became more famous than the lyrics. Then in the 19th century an otherwise obscure genre painter called John Watson Nicol (1856-1926) gave the same name to his only famous picture. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883, Nicol’s Lochaber No More depicts a miserable farewell to the Highlands. A man with a heavy plaid around his shoulders stands at a ship’s rail while a woman droops artfully over some carefully arranged luggage, her face lost to sorrow. They look to be husband and wife. He clutches a shepherd’s crook as his sheepdog nuzzles her hand. Low cloud obscures the hilltops in the background. In the words of the art historian Robin Nicholson, ‘this is an image of complete hopelessness, of lassitude and despair and, in the case of the shepherd, an element of stoic indifference.’

People leave places for different reasons. In Ramsay’s poem, a young man is leaving both his West Highland home and his girl behind, perhaps because he intends to join the British army or navy. In Nicol’s painting, the couple are migrants reluctantly quitting the old world for the new, perhaps because their landlord has evicted them. In the Proclaimers’ song, Lochaber has become a shorthand for the common Scottish experience of emigration, by no means confined to the Highlands or to people who felt they had no choice (though the song implies the second). T.M. Devine noted memorably in an earlier book, The Scottish Nation: A History, 1700-2000, that, in terms of emigrants per head of population, Ireland, Norway and Scotland topped the league table of central and western European nations between the 1820s and 1915, with Scotland either winning ‘this unenviable championship’ in several decades or coming a close second to Ireland. ‘If movement to England is included in the statistics,’ Devine wrote, ‘Scotland then emerges clearly as the emigration capital of Europe for much of the period.’

There is a puzzle to this: Scotland during the 19th century had one of the world’s most dynamic industrial economies, which suggests that many skilled workers migrated not out of desperation but simply to do better – to get higher wages and early promotions in North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. But the effect by the mid-20th century was clear enough. Edwin Muir, writing in 1935, saw a country ‘gradually being emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character’. ‘All the best people have left’ was a sentiment still heard in the 1950s: I remember hearing it in conversations between my parents and their relatives and friends in Fife – it usually arose in connection to the shortcomings of craftsmen, foremen and local civic life. (As my parents had recently returned from a 22-year migration to Lancashire, the difference may have seemed sharper to them.)

The Highland Clearances stood apart from the everyday experience of having relatives in Manchester, Queensland or Vancouver: the evictions and cottage-burnings of the previous century were a long way from the easy matter of boarding a liner west from Greenock or a train south from Glasgow. But in what was still an emigrant country, many people must have felt some connection to those remote and terrible events, even if it was sentimental or romantic or amounted to no more than a common heritage of sad farewells. To that extent, John Prebble’s book The Highland Clearances met a public appetite that had been long in the making when it was published in 1963, outdoing his earlier successes about the Tay Bridge disaster and Culloden to become the biggest-selling Scottish history book of all time. Prebble, born in England and raised in Canada, did for the clearances what Walter Lord did for the Titanic in A Night to Remember, and in the same way. Through vivid narrative history, told like a novel, he revived public interest in a historic disaster: the story of how, to quote from its opening sentence, ‘the Highlanders were deserted and then betrayed … how sheep were preferred to them, and how bayonet, truncheon and fire were used to drive them from their homes.’

Prebble’s book took its evidence from the denunciations of the clearances that appeared in the 1880s, at the time of the crofting agitation that led to a royal commission and the creation of a crofter’s right to tenure; the last clearance had happened around twenty years before. Not coincidentally, Nicol’s Lochaber No More belongs to the same period, when the historic treatment of Highland communities became for the first time a cause for widespread moral concern. Academic historians tended to dismiss Prebble’s account as secondhand and too simplistic and partisan. Devine cuts it more slack. It was, he writes, ‘deeply sympathetic to the people who had been displaced … and bitterly hostile to what was seen as oppressive and brutal landlordism’. But its approach matched the mood of the times, as Scotland entered the first years of postwar deindustrialisation, mines, factories and shipyards began to close and Scottish politics moved further left. ‘For some the history of the evictions became a symbol for the emerging tragedy of an economy in decline,’ Devine writes, ‘the social impact of decline sometimes being described as a modern clearance.’

Scottish nationalism had still to insert itself into the argument. John McGrath’s play about the exploitation of the Highlands, The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil, began its triumphant first tour of Scotland in 1973, engaging audiences in its polemic everywhere it went; no play performed in Scotland can have had a wider political effect. But the villains of the piece were capitalism and greed rather than London and English perfidy. Only when what Devine calls ‘Highlandism’ became a significant marker of Scottish identity did all Scots, from wherever they came, begin to think of the clearances as part of their common heritage. It was then that some nationalists linked the clearances to England to establish a new grievance against their southern neighbour. In Devine’s phrase, ‘the historic tragedy of the Gaels’ had taken place after the Act of Union, and from there it was a short step to blame, against all the evidence, English landowners and sheep farmers for the most heinous evictions.

Ethnic cleansing, genocide and the Holocaust have been invoked. Devine gives several examples of writers comparing the fate of the Gaels in the 18th and 19th centuries to that of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals during the Nazi occupation of Europe. ‘We are affected strangely by any place from which the tide of life has ebbed,’ the novelist Neil Gunn wrote in 1935, thinking of the deserted straths in Sutherland from which his ancestors had been evicted early in the previous century. The Sutherland evictions were notorious. Between 1807 and 1821, agents acting for the Countess of Sutherland and her husband, Lord Stafford, removed several thousand people from their homes to make way for sheep farms, intending them to move to new settlements on the coast where the menfolk would find work as fishermen. But often the evictions were cruelly managed and the new homes unfinished; and the crofters, who had spent their lives working the land, were not competent at sea. Patrick Sellar, the Sutherland family’s agent, referred to the inhabitants of the crofts he was destroying as ‘primitives’ and ‘aborigines’, which adds a pinch (but only a pinch) of justice to the idea that, in his thinking as well as his methods, he prefigured the Nazi elite. The Sutherland estate was then the largest area of privately owned land in Europe. The countess and her husband were further ennobled to become the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland in 1833. The duke is remembered by a massive statue that still stands on the top of Ben Bhraggie, surviving frequent mutilation: a memorial that was reviled long before anyone thought to take a hammer to Cecil Rhodes.

From events like these, a general picture can be constructed of poor Scots driven overseas (the Sutherland evictees eventually left the country) by a combination of ruthless landlordism and what Devine characterises as ‘the brazen subordination of human need to human profit’. His book complicates and modifies this picture – though never completely paints over it – by setting the clearances in the context of an agrarian revolution that was displacing people from the land all across Scotland, in the Lowlands as well as in the Highlands. One of Devine’s important achievements is to remind us that Lowland Scotland also had a peasant class that was dispossessed, its fate obscured by the ‘extraordinary glamour’ of Highland culture which, ‘whether in authentic or invented form … has marginalised the history of the rural Lowlands’. The disappearance of this class, the ‘cottars’, or cottagers, was one of the dramatic changes that swept through Scotland in the 18th century – the transformation was so swift and profound that Walter Scott could reckon in Waverley (1814) that no European nation could match it: the Scots had become ‘as different from their grandfathers as the existing English are from those of Queen Elizabeth’s time’. In other words, the forces of industrialisation, urbanisation and the agrarian revolution had done for Scotland in fifty years what had taken two centuries south of the border.

In Gaeldom, the social transformation may have been more traumatic than elsewhere – the Highlands, Devine writes, ‘moved from tribalism to capitalism over less than two generations’. But the changes came first to the Lowlands. In 1700, in a country recovering from the intermittent famine, the so-called Lean Years, of the 1690s, only five Scots in a hundred lived in a town with ten thousand or more inhabitants; by the middle of the next century Scotland’s four big cities alone – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen – accounted for 33 in a hundred. Many of these people or their near ancestors had once scratched a living from Lowland ground; many more, certainly, than had made the more arduous journey from the Highlands and the Hebrides.

Of the many differences between the Highlands and the Lowlands the most fundamental is climate. This is especially marked by the contrast between the north-west and the south-east. Dunbar in East Lothian, for example, has an annual rainfall of 22.05 inches, which is less than Barcelona’s, while only 150 miles away, some parts of the western Highlands receive an average of 180.2 inches – more than eight times as much. North-west Scotland gets between 711 and 1140 hours of sunshine a year, while south-east Scotland has between 1471 and 1540 hours – perhaps twice as much (though anyone who has spent a summer week in Ullapool followed by another in North Berwick will doubt the multiple can be so low). The soil in the south is better too, and much more plentiful; Devine quotes an estimate that only 1 per cent of the land surface in the four parishes of north-west Sutherland has ever been broken by a plough or a spade (much of Sutherland is rocky and mountainous). These natural advantages put the Lowlands at the economic and social centre of Scotland. They made southern Scotland more populous, more stable, more urban, more Presbyterian and more law-abiding: in the Lowlands, the fortified tower house gave way to the country house (for the rich, showing off had replaced feeling safe), while in the Highlands the castle persisted. Even so, the landscapes of both Highlands and Lowlands in the 18th century could be equally depressing. In the Highlands, Dr Johnson was repelled by the ‘wide extent of hopeless sterility’ manifest in so much uncultivable land, but sometimes the Lowlands offered just as cheerless a prospect. ‘The country presented upon the whole a repulsive appearance,’ the Reverend John Mitchell wrote of Ayrshire in 1780, recalling a rural world, not that long gone, of clogged ditches and treeless scrub, with rough tracks that led across bog and moor to scatterings of cottages with turf roofs and unglazed holes for windows.

These settlements, known as fermetouns, were where the cottars lived. They were numerous – Devine estimates that cottars comprised between a third and a half of the population of most rural parishes – and led in his words ‘a life of poverty, hard toil and profound insecurity’ through the subsistence cultivation of small plots of land and seasonal employment as casual farm labour. They had no legal title to the land and lived on it at the discretion of the tenant farmers who rented it from the landowner. Many Scots had access to land, but few of them owned any: Devine reckons that 1500 people owned 90 per cent of Scotland in 1800, with only 2 per cent of the adult male population being landowners of any kind compared with 12 per cent in England and 20 per cent in Sweden. In an age when the city of Dublin had more electors than the whole of Scotland, this landed elite also had a near monopoly of political power. The cottars, therefore, were especially vulnerable when landowners and the tenants who paid them rent began to realise that considerable profits could be made from the new breeds of sheep, the Cheviot and the Blackface, the Na Caoraich Mora (the ‘big sheep’) as they became known after they made their way to Gaeldom.

Sheep farming in the Scottish Borders had a long history, but the new sheep carried more meat and wool than the native animals, and needed more grazing land. Mutton and wool were in demand and the Act of Union had opened up new markets in the south. When a flock of ten thousand sheep needed only a grassy landscape to feed it and 16 shepherds to tend it, cottars came to seem an easily removed inconvenience. In the eastern Borders, farms with as many as twenty thousand sheep dispossessed cottars and smaller tenant farmers alike; in Galloway in the west, giant cattle ranches did the same. Cottars had begun to dwindle as a prominent feature of rural Scotland before 1750 and by 1815 their disappearance, or what Devine calls their ‘suppression’, was virtually complete. The Kirk ministers who wrote descriptions of their parishes for Scotland’s First Statistical Account (1791-99) used words such as ‘annihilation’ and ‘exterminated’. Around the same time, the writer Robert Heron travelled through Upper Clydesdale and concluded on the evidence of ‘certain marks’ that the now empty green valley ‘had anciently been a scene of agricultural industry and a seat of no inconsiderable population’.

These desolating effects were repeated when Cheviot flocks began to populate the north-west Highlands in the last quarter of the 18th century. Here sheep were in competition with subsistence crofters who were rapidly growing in number – the population of the Western Isles, for example, rose by 80 per cent between 1755 and 1821. But while the cottar might move to a nearby town or village to work in the burgeoning textile industry, or enter the new waged economy as a farm labourer, the crofter in the remote north-west had nowhere to go. Instead he survived on what cattle he could rear or fish he could catch or crops he could grow. Increasingly, that meant the potato, which from its introduction around 1750 flourished in the cool, moist air of the west coast and could support four times as many people per acre as the traditional harvest of oats. Though often ignored in popular accounts, Devine writes, ‘a rapid and sustained increase in population was the critical and dominating factor in the social history of the Highlands in the century after c.1750.’ More sheep meant less land available for cultivation; more people meant smaller and smaller subdivisions of that shrinking amount of land. Crofters supplemented their living by illicit whisky distilling and kelp harvesting – the seaweed was burned to produce soda ash, an important ingredient in chemical manufacture.

Scottish​ emigration to North America began on a large scale after Britain defeated France in the Seven Years’ War in 1763 and in its victory acquired many thousands of acres that could be sold or leased to British migrants. Of the roughly one hundred thousand Scots who left for North America between then and 1815, most went in the first dozen years. Migration and resettlement were expensive, which meant, as Devine points out, that these leave-takings didn’t amount to ‘a flight of the very poor or dispossessed’; that came later, reaching its peak with the ‘forced’ or assisted emigration of the mid-19th century, when evicted crofters and their families had to choose between a subsidised passage across the Atlantic or destitution at home. In fact, as the 18th century wore on, both the government and the big landlords took against emigration – the government fearing the loss of recruits to the Highland regiments, the landlords worried by the prospect of labour shortages that would dent their revenues from kelp, whisky and fishing. A straightforward ban on emigration was briefly applied in 1775, followed by more subtle restraint in the form of the Passenger Vessels Act of 1803, which had the ostensible purpose of improving shipboard conditions but in fact was intended to stall emigration by raising the price of the fare. In this way, migration was at first limited by poverty, and the introduction of the potato made it possible for the dispossessed to stay put. The victims of eviction crowded into already congested townships and the population was rearranged within the Highlands rather than exported.

Meanwhile their overlords, the fine, or clan elite, were shedding their ancestral duties as protectors of the communities they were supposed to lead, the deal being that in return for a clansman’s allegiance, military service and rent, the clan chief would guarantee the clansman’s secure possession of his land. But by the 1730s the chieftains were changing from the fierce guardians of kith and kin, as later depicted by historical fiction and Hollywood, into profit-minded landlords. To go with their fanciful pedigrees (they boasted of founders ranging from the first Pope Gregory to King Arthur), they adopted fancy ways of living, which involved long stays in Edinburgh and London and mounting expenditure on food, wine and clothes. In Devine’s words, the chiefs were attempting ‘to live in the style of 18th-century gentlemen on the meagre revenues of a Highland estate’, with the result that they got into financial trouble and raised their tenants’ rents. The Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 preserved the social obligations of the clan system for a while, even though eventual military defeat did so much to destroy it. But there was no holding back the forces of commerce. Some chieftains became prosperous entrepreneurs – the leader of Clan Cameron developed interests in American land, timber exportation, Caribbean plantations and the Edinburgh money market – while others simply sold up and got out. By the middle of the 19th century, more than two-thirds of Highland estates had been sold to rich outsiders, industrialists and bankers who had no historical obligation or sympathy towards the people who inconveniently inhabited their new assets. The newcomers bought land to make a profit from it. Sheep were ever more the means to that objective.

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the price of agricultural produce, fish and kelp plummeted, and the still increasing population of the western Highlands and islands found it ever harder to scrape a living. Emigration at this point still seemed a welcome solution to those who could afford the passage. As the final verse in an 18th-century Gaelic song, ‘An Imrich’ (‘The Emigration’), has it:

We shall get land and a home
in the wilderness yonder;
the forests will be cleared
though money will be scarce.
Now we are cramped
in gloomy huts without recompense,
and the fields are occupied by sheep
owned by the unfriendly rich.

The unfriendliness of the rich reached its peak in the mid-19th century when, to quote Devine, the ‘extreme and often callous nature’ of evictions made them unique in the history of the clearances, so that their memory endured ‘while most of those that had gone before were lost to history’. But first came the potato blight. In 1846, the crop is said to have failed in three-quarters of Highland parishes, and starving people began to die of typhus, dysentery and influenza. A large-scale famine of the kind that claimed a million victims in Ireland around the same time was avoided only through the early and effective intervention of the Free Church of Scotland and relief charities set up in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Together they raised £210,000, equivalent to more than £16 million today, to be spent on the distribution of meal (one pound in weight every day for adult males and half that for women) and the building of public works such as roads and piers, to make sure that the hungry never forgot the link between money and hard labour. Devine calls the death and immiseration ‘the greatest human crisis in the modern history of Gaeldom’, but public memory in Scotland gives it less prominence than the programme of expulsions and compulsory migration that came next, after the sick and the destitute showed neither the willingness to leave nor the means to pay rent. As an editorial in the Scotsman argued in 1851, by removing ‘a diseased and damaged part of our population’, collective emigration would give relief to the rest.

The fall in population numbers between the censuses of 1841 and 1861 was unprecedented, and mainly caused by emigration. The islands of Barra and Jura lost a third of their people, while the parish of Uig on Lewis lost half. Overall, the decline averaged around 30 per cent. Some places and some landowners became infamous for their feats of coercion: the China opium magnate James Matheson gave more than 2300 men, women and children the choice between staying on Lewis and starving or boarding the emigrant ships to Canada. But what distinguished these operations was more the scale than the method, which had been employed for decades and attracted little comment or censure. In 1824, for example, a rich Edinburgh spinster called Christina Stewart bought land in Morvern, a peninsula south-west of Fort William, from the Duke of Argyll’s estates and soon afterwards evicted 135 people from their smallholdings to make way for two large sheep farms. Nothing suggests Miss Stewart ever visited Morvern or met her tenants, who resettled in Glasgow and became millworkers. Forty years later, one of them remembered that when they received the summons to quit, they had believed it was only a ruse to increase the rent. ‘This we willingly offered to give; but permission to stay we got not.’

What enabled such a lack of compassion? Partly, at least among new rather than hereditary landlords, it was the feeling that the Gaels were separate and inferior to the rest of the British population: they were poor, indolent, as Jacobites disloyal to the Hanoverian throne, often Catholic, and spoke a separate language. As the Gentleman’s Magazine wrote in 1739:

Being destitute of all Means of Knowledge, and without any Schools to educate their Children, [they] are entirely ignorant of the Principles of Religion and Virtue, live in Idleness and Poverty, have no Notion of Industry, or Sense of Liberty, are subject to the Will and Command of their Popish disaffected Chieftains, who have always opposed the propagating of Christian Knowledge, and the English Tongue, that they might with less difficulty keep their miserable Vassals in a slavish Dependence.

By the 19th century, with the Jacobite rebellions long past, Lowland attitudes were more ambivalent. On the one hand, Highland regiments were admired for their bravery, while the Romantics, Sir Walter Scott and new steamship routes had made the Highlands a fashionable tourist destination. On the other hand, theories of racial difference had begun to develop as an ideology – a way of transmuting prejudice into the apparently rational argument that, since man was a product of his surroundings, the Gael or Celt (in common with many other races) was demonstrably inferior to the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton. Advances in science and technology were proof of Anglo-Saxon invention and energy; the Highlands’ economic failure could best be explained by Celtic inadequacy. When during the famine the Times dispatched what it called a ‘special commissioner’ to investigate why a prosperous country such as Britain could include as blighted a region as the Highlands, the answer he brought back relied on the same theory. Geography, climate and social history had nothing to do with it. Places such as Caithness, Orkney and Shetland were just as remote as the Hebrides and even more northerly, but the people there were of ‘the Danish or Norwegian race’, hard-working and enterprising and therefore not short of food. Sir Charles Trevelyan, the British civil servant placed in charge of Irish famine relief, now turned his attention to Scotland, where he co-founded and chaired the Highland and Island Emigration society, which between 1851 and 1856 helped five thousand people to move to Australia. In Ireland, Trevelyan believed that as God had sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, ‘that calamity must not be too much mitigated.’ Similarly in the Highlands he thought ‘mistaken humanity’ had converted the people ‘into a Mendicant community’. He proposed a ‘national effort’ that would rid the Highlands of ‘the surviving Irish and Scotch Celts’. Between thirty and forty thousand of them were to be moved elsewhere and replaced by thousands of Germans – ‘an orderly, moral, industrious and frugal people, less foreign to us than the Irish or Scotch Celt, a congenial element which will readily assimilate with our politic’.

In reality, what happened was that crofters and cottars in the Highlands began a long and occasionally violent protest about insecure tenancies and high rents, which led to a government inquiry, the Napier Commission of 1883-84, and two years later to legislation that for the first time legally defined what a crofter was and guaranteed his or her tenure on the land.

Devine​ takes as his epigraph a passage from Scottish Scene or the Intelligent Man’s Guide to Albyn, a prewar account of Scottish life jointly authored by the great Scottish writers of their day, and perhaps of their century, the novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon and the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. ‘Few things cry so urgently for rewriting as does Scots history,’ Grassic Gibbon writes,

as in few aspects of her bastardised culture has Scotland been so ill-served as by her historians. The chatter and gossip of half the salons and drawing rooms of European intellectualism hang over the antique Scottish scene like a malarial fog through which peer the fictitious faces of heroic Highlanders, hardy Norsemen, lovely Stewart queens and dashing Jacobite rebels. The stage-ghosts shamble amid the dimness, and mope and mow in their ancient parts with an idiotic vacuity but a maddening persistence.

The heroic Highlanders, lovely Stewart queens etc have proved remarkably persistent and influential in the movies, but since the 1950s the work of scholars such as T.C. Smout and James Hunter has shooed them from serious history. Devine’s books have arguably done most of all to deepen Scotland’s sense of its past, particularly as a country that reached out into the world and, for good or bad, did more to change it than perhaps any other place of a similar size. His writing has altered our view and expanded our knowledge, though in this book there is more expanding than altering. The tone of the introduction seems to herald wholesale revisionism, but in the end Devine doesn’t depart radically from the verdicts of others. In his closing chapter he asks, ‘If dispossession was Scotland-wide, why has loss of land come to be exclusively associated in the popular mind with the Highlands?’ But the answers to that question are plain enough. In the Lowlands, the cottars moved from the emptying countryside to find work in nearby towns and villages, and aroused no public fuss; from the 1840s onwards, writers in the Highlands described clearances not simply as the consequence of an economic crisis but in Devine’s words ‘as a social and cultural disaster which threatened the destruction of an ancient civilisation’. And the harshest of these events happened in the age of steam locomotion, the electric telegraph and the rotary press, reaching a public that was already engaged with issues of hardship and poverty through the work of charities and evangelical Christianity and the socially compassionate fiction of writers such as Dickens. Thanks to these new tools of dissemination, the Highland clearances are inevitably better known than those that happened in the Lowlands more than a hundred years earlier.

As to the cause of this inhumanity, Devine mocks the tradition that sees a ‘single explanation of human wickedness’ in the shape of the landlords’ greed. He points to a conspiracy of circumstances, ‘uncomfortable truths’ that include the increase of population on poor land, the bankruptcy of the traditional landed class, the overwhelming power of market capitalism and the lack of any viable alternative to sheep farms and cattle ranches to keep the money coming in. Landlords weren’t uniformly callous. Some invested generously in trying to bring industries and jobs to their estates; others spent large sums relieving human distress; others again agonised over their duties as feudal chiefs. Even the maligned Duke and Duchess of Sutherland wanted, in their peremptory way, to improve the lives of their tenants by moving them to a handsome new village on the coast.

Nevertheless, Devine’s final judgment on most of the traditional lairds is as severe as his predecessors’. They were a greedy and feckless lot, a class in which ‘the temptations of consumerism seem to have had an easy victory over financial rectitude … congenitally incapable of living within their means … of tailoring their lifestyles in the southern capitals to the modest incomes of their properties in the north.’ Rather than investing the windfall profits they made in the Napoleonic Wars from kelp, for example, in their estate and their tenants, they squandered them even though, as Devine writes, ‘they knew them to be ephemeral.’

The many emigrants who sailed to North America of their own free will thought of their new homes as a deliverance. In The People of Glengarry: Highlanders in Transition 1745-1820 Marianne McLean quotes early settlers in Canada from Inverness-shire who rejoiced in their new freedom from feudal control. One felt ‘lively with no harassment under the sun’, while another was overwhelmed by her new land’s richness and fertility: instead of oats (and in good weather, more oats) they had wheat, sugar-maple trees and grapes. What emigrant, snug in his Canadian cabin, would not thank the Lord that Lochaber was finally no more?

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Vol. 41 No. 7 · 4 April 2019

Ian Jack asks what made possible the lack of compassion on display throughout the period of the Highland Clearances (LRB, 7 March). We should be able to understand it, since we display the same determination to characterise our wishes and interests as economic necessities. In the global South farmers are today being deprived of their land and their water so that these limited resources can be used industrially to provide us with salad leaves. But the refugees from modern agriculture have no empty spaces to go to across the seas, no snug Canadian cabins.

Julian Crowe
St Andrews

Ian Jack says ‘the Sutherland evictees eventually left the country.’ Not all of them. Nancy Dorian has shown that the descendants of some of the evictees stayed in Brora, Golspie and Embo, and continued to speak Gaelic until recently.

Ronald Macaulay
Claremont, California

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