Tom Devine: Revisiting the Clearances

Sir Tom Devine will discuss his work at Holyrood on Friday. Picture: Greg Macvean
Sir Tom Devine will discuss his work at Holyrood on Friday. Picture: Greg Macvean
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There had been two main revolutions in the history of Scottish rural society before the more recent mechanisation of production on the land. One was the transformation in early times of hunter gatherers into farmers. The other was the triumph of agrarian capitalism over traditional forms of peasant husbandry in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The first took a very long time to complete; the latter a mere two generations or so.

My new book, The Scottish Clearances: A History Of The Dispossessed 1600 To 1900, examines the enormous effects of such a rapid and massive revolution on an age old peasant society.

I have been thinking, teaching and researching the subject off and on for nearly four decades but this book is my first attempt to bring together all the threads of a number of complex issues into a single volume.

The subject of the Highland Clearances has long entered the consciousness of Scots both for those at home and the millions across the global Scottish diaspora. Indeed, the clearances have become more than a historical process and are now firmly embedded in the cultural identity of the nation. One reason for this among several is the phenomenal success of the biggest selling Scottish history book of all time, John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances, first published in 1963. In very readable prose Prebble presents a compelling story of betrayal, loss, tragedy and forced exile of the clans from their native glens, which in his interpretation, lie deserted to this day as silent memorials of man’s inhumanity to man. Few books on the Scottish past have been so influential.

My new volume seeks to challenge the perspectives of Prebble and others on several fronts. But to do so meant in the first instance a long programme of intensive research on a vast array of original sources carried out intermittently over many years in gaps between university teaching and writing other books and essays. The oral traditions of the people, numerous sets of landed estate papers, sheriff court, kirk session and census records covering long periods of time and space were among the many sources considered in detail.

Historical research can be fascinating but it is also very labour intensive. But if I were to effectively challenge established opinion and belief on such an important and controversial subject nothing less than that exacting task had to be pursued and completed.

The evidential base in support of my arguments would have to be as solid as I could make it. Ideas and insights were also drawn from other social sciences such as geography, anthropology and demography as well as history. At the same time lucid and accessible presentation of the arguments was imperative. The book is designed not only to appeal to fellow scholars but to anyone interested in this most emotive and controversial topic in the history of Scotland.

The finished volume covers a much longer time frame than the decades between the 1750s and 1850s which are usually seen as the classic period of clearance. The analysis also ranges across the whole country and is not at all confined to the Highlands.

A fundamental question is posed and an answer attempted: does the evidence assembled suggest we must now think in terms of the Scottish rather than the Highland Clearances? If clearances were indeed common south of the Highland line why have they been mainly ignored and forgotten? Did the people resist the policies of dispossession pursued by the landlord class? What happened to the many who lost farms, smallholdings 
and crofts? Where did they go?

These are just some of the many issues discussed at length in a book which seeks to conduct a root and branch reconsideration of some of Scotland’s most cherished historical myths and assumptions.

Whether I have succeeded in that objective is for readers of the volume to decide.

TM Devine The Scottish Clearances: A History Of The Dispossessed 1600 To 1900 (Allen Lane The Penguin Press 2018) £25

Professor Sir Tom Devine 
will discuss his new book at 
an event in the Festival of Politics 2018 at the Scottish Parliament on Friday at 5.30pm. Tickets www.festivalofpolitics.scot