A friend recently got in touch to ask me if I would be willing to assist with her daughter’s primary 7 project. For readers outside Scotland, primary 7 is the last year of primary school before entering secondary education.
The topic for this project was “The Highland Clearances”. By way of disclaimer, I did not choose this topic, and I do not know why it was chosen. It is pretty interesting though, and – in my humble opinion – I am happy that primary school kids are looking at this kind of subject. I know I did not study this particular topic in depth when I was at primary school (furth of the Highlands and Islands). For information, the school that this project was written for was also outwith the Gàidhealtachd.
Another disclaimer: clearly, I am not a historian to trade. My role was to answer questions about the future. The questions I was asked were not chosen by me and I did not seek to change them. Those questions and my answers are set out below.
Before doing that, I will address the relatively well-known challenge for academics, which is to explain things for those outside their discipline in simple terms. I confess, I sometimes stuggle with this. How did I get on with this particular task then, trying to explain things for a youngster? Judge for yourself. I did find it difficult not to caveat or footnote everything I said, or elaborate to the nth degree, but I tried. The fact that I tried made me think it might be worth sharing this as a blog post as well, so here goes.
That’s enough background. The questions and my responses are below. The final words are those of the report writer.
And yes, I did ask my friend for permission before publishing this as a blog post!
And yes, I know in other circumstances it would be appropriate to say  for some of the statements I make in this post, but forgive me – it was a primary 7 project! 🙂
Highland Clearances – have things changed?
I have interviewed a man called Malcolm Combe who works at the University of Aberdeen as a Senior Lecturer in Law and I have asked him some questions about his opinion about the Highland Clearances and how we can be sure this will never happen again.
1. Why do you have an interest in land law?
I enjoyed studying it when I was at university. The rules made sense to me and I found that I was quite good at it. I then continued to research it after I was a student and it has now become a specialist area. Also, I have quite an interest in history, particularly the history of Gaelic Scotland (my mother comes from the Isle of Lewis) and the “land question” has been an issue in the Highlands and Islands for many years. It has also been an issue in the rest of Scotland too though, and I recently discovered that Mary Barbour – who was involved in the Glasgow Rent Strike that took place around the time of the First World War in protest at greedy landlords raising the rents quickly – was born in the same village as I grew up (Kilbarchan).
2. Do you think it was fair the way people were made to leave their homes during the Highland Clearances?
Many owners of the land were quite – how can I put this – enthusiastic in trying to introduce what they though was the best and most profitable use of land. This often took little account of the people who had traditionally occupied the land. A traditional way of life was scattered to the winds, and people were forced to either emigrate, move to the cities or move to worse areas of land with scarcely any preparation for that. And the market for the sheep that replaced the people crashed a few years later, so in hindsight it seems like it was all quite short-sighted.
3. After the Highland Clearances were there any changes in the law to try and protect people?
Yes. The first big change was the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886, which ensured that those people who were still on land were protected from drastic rent increases, were given money for any improvements to the land they had made, and were not evicted from (made to leave) land if they were behaving themselves and doing all they were supposed to. Around the time of the First World War there was some resettlement of land that had previously been cleared, and there have been some other changes as well (see below).
4. Could something like the Highland Clearances happen again today or are there laws to prevent it from happening?
Not in the same way, no. Tenants (so people who occupy land with the agreement of the owner) of agricultural land are protected from being forced to leave just because a landowner wants to do something else in many circumstances. And also there are increasing numbers of community owners, who are less likely to evict people in a way that the disconnected owners who evicted people in the Highland Clearances did.
5. Has anything been done to encourage people to move back to the Highlands?
In the 20th century there was the Highlands and Islands Development Board, who brought employment and electricity to the area by doing things like hydroelectric schemes. There were also grants available to help people to build houses in rural areas. Now, there are some rules to allow communities to obtain ownership of land.
6. I have read that by the 1990s 80% of Scotland’s land was owned by just 0.08% of the population with half of the land being owned by just 500 people. I don’t think that is very fair. Have the Scottish Government done anything to try and make this fairer and do you think they will do more in the future?
Laws were passed in 2003, 2015 and 2016 to encourage community ownership of land. The Scottish Government has committed to getting 1 million acres of Scotland (about 1/20th of Scotland’s land area) into community ownership in the next few years and they are just over halfway there. There are also rules to try to encourage people into rural farming opportunities and some land uses are being looked at closely with the potential for future regulation (for example, grouse moors and deer forests). There is also a new Scottish Land Commission that is studying land issues in Scotland and that are considering what other countries do with their land to see what Scotland can learn.
It was very interesting to hear what Malcolm had to say and that the government are taking steps to try and prevent something like this ever happening again and to make land ownership fairer.