DURING the period 1785 to 1886, when the Crofters Act was passed, it is estimated that about 500,000 Highlanders left their homes in search of a new life. Some were forcibly evicted in the most brutal circumstances, others left of their own volition. But the debate in post-devolution Scotland now rages on what were the social and economic factors that led to so many Highlanders seeking a life elsewhere.
A compelling contemporaneous account of the Clearances was written by Alexander Mackenzie in 1883. Mackenzie was the editor of Celtic Magazine and although he was born too late for the height of the Clearances, he witnessed the trials of the Braes Crofters who had revolted against being removed and was a witness to the Glendale Revolt.
He spoke to many witnesses who told of the miserable conditions of those cleared from their homes. Using various earlier texts, Mackenzie documents a number of incidents recounted by those who witnessed the deaths of the vulnerable young and old who could not survive the harsh conditions many crofters found themselves in when forced off the land.
A different first-hand version of events was offered by James Loch, a notorious factor for Lady Sutherland, who, in his book An Account of the Sutherland Improvements published in 1815, described the Clearances as progress. The land could no longer sustain its population and the lairds did their best for the people, often paying for their passage to the New World, although many crossed the sea as indentured servants bound for America, Canada or Australia.
However, the Duke of Sutherland cleared 15,000 people from his land to make way for 200,000 sheep. Evictions at the rate of 2,000 families in one day were not uncommon. Many starved and froze to death where their homes had once stood.
The first modern overview of the period was written 40 years ago by John Prebble. A popular historian, his book The Highland Clearances describes how the chiefs lost their powers in the late 18th century after the Jacobite uprising was crushed.
Prebble's version of events was one of forcible removal by "bayonet, truncheon or fire" and became the benchmark of accepted history of the Clearances. It portrayed the landlords as cold and callous, pursuing commercial interests above all others.
He wrote: "So that they might lease their glens and braes to sheep-farmers from the Lowlands and England, they cleared the crofts of men, women and children, using police and soldiers where necessary. It is the story of people, and of how sheep were preferred to them, and how bayonet, truncheon and fire were used to drive them from their homes."
During this period the whole of Europe was going through seismic change. The economic forces of industrialisation and the consequent urbanisation were changing rural areas. A new working class was growing in cities like Glasgow and the fodder for its factories were the immigrants of the countryside.
The ways of the crofters was perhaps doomed in any case, but what set apart events in the Highlands was the speed and ferocity of change. The landowners were quick to remove populations - often up to 5,000 at a time - and install the new economic miracle of sheep. But the Gaels were also ethnically distinct and spoke their own language, giving an extra dimension to the rest of Scotland’s indifference to their plight.
Lowlanders often caricatured the Highlander as lazy and debauched, living an idle, drunken life. Edinburgh, the cradle of the New Enlightenment, saw this change as necessary and good.
But James Hunter, Highland historian and author of The Making of the Crofting Community, says improvement was an unintended consequence.
"The term 'improvement' often seems to be accepted by historians uncritically," he says. "They seem to accept the notion that all this change was for the best in the long run. That's a very dangerous notion to perpetrate, because it minimises the horror that was experienced by the people who were on the receiving end of this."
Tom Devine, author and noted professor of Irish and Scottish Studies at Aberdeen University, believes the same fate befell rural communities across Scotland and that Lowlanders too were cleared off the land. He says populations were also removed by stealth.
"Clearance normally means the forcible removal from land. It has to be understood that not only in the Lowlands, but also in the Highlands, there were other means of removing people from the land which were much more subtle," he says.
The Lowland lairds used legal frameworks to remove tenants, including unworkable new leases and massive rent rises.
"We cannot explain the catastrophic haemorrhage of population in some of these rural areas over such short time-spans except by suggesting that either indirect or direct compulsion was used," says Devine.
A recent revisionist tract that claims the Clearances were nothing but a myth was suggested by Michael Fry. His book, Wild Scots, challenges the notion that the Clearances were a shameful episode in our history. Fry offers the mass evictions of the period were greatly exaggerated and claims to prove this by pointing out that the region's population increased over the period.
Fry says current theories on the Clearances perpetuate the idea of Scottish victimhood and claims the changes benefited the Highland people.
"They (the Clearances) were typical examples of social engineering which met neither the hopes of the benefactors nor the needs of the beneficiaries, but produced social disaster," Fry notes.
Kate Smith, from the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University in Connecticut, says the debate over the Clearances is gathering pace in post devolution Scotland.
"You can't move forward unless you straighten out the past, and the Highland Clearances have a huge impact on how Scotland is today," Smith offers. "The Clearances have never been fully acknowledged or commemorated. Instead they have been played down by a combination of diminishing the extent of the violence and force used by fallacies that every soul who emigrated did so voluntarily and benefited greatly at no risk or cost or simply dismissing them as 'victimology'.
"Denialism doesn't help," she adds. "Setting the record straight followed by commemoration are important processes for Scotland's national identity. Testimonies from those directly involved are an excellent source of the truth and are the antidote to denialists and revisionists."
• If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read: The Highland Clearances
Battle of the Braes