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1750-1860: The Highland Clearances and Scottish Migration

Badbea in Scotland, was incredibly difficult to farm. Located on the steep slopes above the cliff tops of Berriedale on the east coast of Caithness, villagers were plagued with strong buffeting winds. Both farmers and parents tied ropes around small children and livestock tethering them to fences and trees lest they were blown off cliff edges.

1750-1860: The Highland Clearances and Scottish Migration
1750-1860: The Highland Clearances and Scottish Migration

The Highland Clearances or Fuadaichean nan Gàidheal in the Scottish Gaelic, were both an unforgettable and unforgivable occurrence. The term relates to the forced evictions of the Gaels from Scottish Highlands and Islands. The mass devaluation and dispossession of Highland workers that crushed families and clans and forced a wave of migration that Scotland has still not fully recovered from.

Before the Clearances, most Highlanders were farmers, usually Catholic and spoke Gaelic. They had also lived in Clans for generations. They were loyal to their Clan Chief, in exchange for his promise of protection.

After the Clearances thousands of Scots were compelled to leave their homeland and seek safety and opportunity in new lands.

There were two main waves of Clearance between 1750 and 1860.

In the first wave, landlords appropriated land to improve their financial positions - some to cover debts - some simply to clear out tenants in order to make way for the more profitable pastoral farm system that would potentially bring in higher rents.

During the early days of The Highland Clearances the village of Badbea managed to avoid the upheaval that others suffered. From 1792 onwards however, evicted families began to relocate to Badbea and it became known as a clearance village.

New families, greatly reduced in status and ability to support themselves, were given small plots of land near the cliff edges. They were required to clear the land of stones and use them in building accommodation. They prepared their own soil for small crops of vegetables and, if fortunate, would own a couple of cows and maybe pigs and chickens. The village had one plough only. Men would prepare the land with hand tools.

Men also worked as herring fishermen, an inherently dangerous occupation, considering the fierce weather conditions and limited experience of working on board a ship at sea . The toll on families was huge. Women were forced to manage families and crops to free the men to take on other work.

The toll on all villages, though especially the clearance villages, was unmanageable.

The second wave saw the overcrowding of communities add a terrible strain on support systems and they began to fail under the weight of unmeetable needs and the rapid decline of living conditions.

The community in Badbea ultimately collapsed and its last inhabitant left in 1911. Many villages suffered the same fate.

Emigration was the obvious answer to the poverty of those evicted and a rare few were given the fare money to go elswhere by former landlords.

Some, in the wake of defeat at the Battle of Culloden (1746) and the terrible vengeance the English wrought upon Scottish survivors, culture, language and freedoms in the aftermath, left in anger.

Cape Fear in North Carolina became home to around 1,200 Jacobite prisoners following the 1715 and 1745 uprising. The most famous Scot to settle in North Carolina was Flora MacDonald, the woman who aided Bonnie Prince Charlie in his departure from Scotland. MacDonald and her husband Allan arrived in 1774 having lost 300 head of cattle in the three years before their departure

In 1777 a man called John MacDonald wrote to family member saying,

Skye has given 274 souls to North Carolina after the last harvest.

He followed:

Emigrations are likely to demolish the Highland Lairds.

Many moved to distant lands with considerable capital and belongings in defiance of increasingly demanding landlords.

Relocation as indentured labour also added to migration numbers.

Almost 20,000 Highland Scots emigrated to Cape Breton Island alone from 1802 to the early 1840s.

The battle to survive in the homeland did not abate and the gamble of uprooting and seeking refuge in America seemed the best and only choice they had.

News from America was also enticing.

It was said that the Highlanders in North Carolina:

".. live as happy as princes, they have liberty and property and no excise, not dread of being turned out of their lands by tyrants, each has as good a charter as a Duke of Argyll to a Sir A. Macdonald and only pay half a crown for 100 acres they possess. In short I never saw a people seemed to me to be so happy as our Countrymen there..."

In truth the eviction of tenants railed against the dùthchas. Ddùthchas is a gaelic word that describes the understanding of land, people and culture. It relates to the principle that clan members had an inalienable right to rent land in the clan territory.

Ddùthchas had never been acknowledged in the Law of the Land but had been written on the hearts of the people for generations.

As the Clan Chiefs transitioned, leaving old ways behind and abandoning their responsibilities to their people, relationships that had spanned generations were ignored. Chiefs began to see themselves as landlords of land for commercial purposes. Some with conviction, tried to delay evictions - some, without conviction, could not or refused to understand complaints - some , seemingly oblivious, did not care.

The Highland Potato Famine struck towards the end of this second wave, exacerbating desperation. It devastated crops, much the same as it had in Ireland, though the plight of the Scots cannot be compared to the destruction of life and people in Ireland. Northern Europe was also hit with the blight.

Charitable donations were sent from England and landlords were encouraged to take responsibility for their tenants but destitution became unmanageable.

At one stage over half the population of the Island of Barra wanted to emigrate but had no means of doing so. Funds were raised, ships were chartered and a free passage to Quebec was offered.

1700 left but trouble arose when they arrived. Some claimed that their landlord had promised land grants and passage to areas where work was guaranteed. Some wanted to return home, saying they had been pressed to board. Most were in a sorry state:

They arrived half starved and half naked. The Ship Master's wife had busied herself sewing blankets out of bread bags throughout the journey to cover them.

They had no ability to support themselves and finding work as soon as possible was of vital importance. Ultimately it was the Canadian authorities that provided their fares to Hamilton, Upper Canada but they had greater worries ahead. They had set sail too late in the year to prepare themselves for the Canadian Winter.

The vice-president of a Scottish benevolent society in Hamilton, Upper Canada, wrote:

"the emigrants from Barra and South Uist, amounting to between two and three thousand were the most destitute I ever saw coming to this country. They were actually in a state of nudity on their arrival here and were utterly helpless".

History repeats in every generation. Circumstances that arise through tragic natural events or man-made tragedies, persist in displacing or crushing the weakest among us. Sometimes victims are met with compassion and patience, sometimes they are met with hateful posturing.

Too often people in need of asylum are demonised and reduced in status to the place of 'public nuisance.'

Too often leaders contrive to make their people weary of 'the refugee dilemma' so that the hearts of the populace harden to their desperation.

Too often refugees become the victims of those profiting from their incarceration and those eager to use their struggle for ambition's sake.

It is a rare leader that rises with the patience and energy required to imagine solutions.

It is a rare leader that sees value in investing in schemes that lift refugees above the poverty line so that they can contribute in new communities.

Scottish migration proved to be a blessing to new host nations. They took their abundance of skills and made themselves useful in their new lands. They were used to harsh climates and thrived in similar harsh terrains. They were faithful and hard working - already literate and learned they contributed much to the establishment of Canada and America.

Of the 46 American Presidents 35 were of Scottish or Ulster-Scots descent.

A brief but not full list of desperate migration during the Clearance years:

  • Canada: A large group of Ulster Scots, many of whom had first settled in New Hampshire moved to Truro, Nova Scotia in 1761.

  • Canada: In 1772, a wave of Gaels began to arrive in Prince Edward Island, and in 1773 the ship Hector brought 200 Gaels to Pictou, beginning a new stream of Highland emigration — the town's slogan is "The Birthplace of New Scotland". At the end of the 18th century, Cape Breton Island had become a centre of Scottish Gaelic settlement, where only Scottish Gaelic was spoken.

  • Canada: A number of Scottish loyalists to the British crown, who had fled the United States in 1783, arrived in Glengarry County (in eastern Ontario) and Nova Scotia.

  • Canada: In 1803, Lord Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, who was sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed crofters (tenant farmers in the Highlands), brought 800 colonists to Prince Edward Island.

  • America: Around 25,000 Scots migrated to America between 1763 and 1775.

  • America: In the first US Federal Census of 1790, the people of Scottish (including the Scots-Irish) origins made up more than six percent of the population, numbering about 260,000.

  • America: A total of 478,224 Scots entered the United States between 1852 and 1910 according to official figures.

  • America: Most of the Scottish settlers who migrated to America prior to 1854 came from the region of Glasgow, Lanark, Renfrew, and Ayr (21.7%) or Argyll (13.9%). Others came from Edinburgh and Lothians (10.6%), Inverness (9.3%), Southwest (8.9%), and Perth (8.7%).

  • America: Prior to 1855 the most numerous group of skilled craftsmen to immigrate were weavers, including a good many female spinsters or textile workers.



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