Book review: The Scottish Clearances, by TM Devine

Sir Tom Devine PIC: Ian Rutherford
Sir Tom Devine PIC: Ian Rutherford
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Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay. / Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade; / A breath can make them, as a breath has made; / But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, / When once destroyed, can never be supplied...”

Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “The Deserted Village” is a lament for change, and a criticism of the Enclosure Movement in 18th century England and Ireland. It is recognised as having Classical precedents. At the end of the first century AD, Juvenal had criticised the rich men who dispossessed the Italian peasantry. Moreover, and this has immediate relevance to the painful subject of the Scottish Clearances, in the reign of Henry VIII Sir Thomas More complained that sheep were eating up men as cultivated land was given over to great flocks of sheep and poor men dispossessed.

One thing is clear: rural depopulation – the uprooting of people from the land they have worked and come to think of as their home – is an old and worldwide phenomenon, leaving deserted villages and abandoned homesteads. The Clearances of the Scottish Highlands in the late 18th and 19th centuries can be paralleled all over these islands and western Europe. Why then are they remembered with so much passion and indignation? This is one of the questions Sir Tom Devine has set himself to answer in this book.

He makes the point that they weren’t unique even here in Scotland. There were Lowland clearances too: in the Borders and the Lothians, Ayrshire and Fife, Perthshire, Angus, Aberdeenshire and Banff. Most took place before the Highland ones. Most have been forgotten. Men and their families lost their cottar homes and wee bit of land. Some emigrated. Others moved to towns and cities to find employment in manufacturing industry. Some became farm servants working the same land for the lairds. But few remember this. There are many novels portraying the iniquities of the Highland Clearances; not many about Lowland ones. John Prebble’s 1963 book The Highland Clearances was, Devine says, “the biggest selling history book of all time” – the story, as Prebble put it, “of how the Highlanders were deserted and then betrayed.” Devine, a professional historian as Prebble wasn’t, calls it an “accessible and fluent read” before cutting it down to size by remarking that this is “in part because the author does not even try to come to grips with any of the many challenging complexities of Highland history.” To do that requires the skills of the trained historian, rather than those of the indignant amateur. It requires the historian of the Clearances to do research based on original sources – facts and statistics which Devine now offers in persuasive detail. Not surprisingly he shows that the story is much more complicated than is popularly supposed – not the straightforward struggle between the forces of good and evil.

Why, however, did Prebble’s work strike such a resounding chord? There were, it seems, two reasons. First, though the Clearances had never been forgotten. Prebble’s book came out just as another huge and disturbing social and economic change was getting underway: the de-industrialisation of west-central Scotland. As shipyards, mines and steel-mills began to close, the Scottish working-class engaged in heavy industry seemed be suffering the same sort of dispossession as the crofting communities of the Highlands had suffered. Here was a new Clearance; here too social bodies were victims of the money interest.

Second – and Devine treats this with sensitive intelligence – the Highland Clearances differed from the Lowland ones in an important respect. They represented, or might be held to represent – an assault on a traditional culture, a culture that was rooted in the Gaelic language. Scotland until well into the 19th century really was what our nationalist politicians would have us believe it still is: a bilingual country (even though very few in the Lowlands were themselves bilingual). Gaeldom had been in retreat for centuries. The Clearances were one of the last manifestations of its subordination and defeat. They saw the patriarchal clan system first corrupted, then abandoned, as commercialism broke old bonds and utterly changed relationships in the Highlands.

A sad story, yes, but it is better to look reality in the face than indulge in vain regrets. In providing us with the material which makes it more possible to see history as it actually was, Sir Tom has written a necessary book. - Allan Massie

The Scottish Clearances, by TM Devine, Allen Lane, 464pp, £25