A crofting village of today - Tarskavaig in southern Skye.
PLACE all over the Highlands and Islands - from Caithness in
the far north to Perthshire
in the south and from Aberdeenshire in the east to the Mull of Kintyre in the far southwest. The islands were ravaged;
almost none escaped. Orkney and Shetland were cleared; Skye, Raasay, Rum, Eigg, Canna, Muck, Coll, Tiree, Mull
and Iona, Colonsay, Islay and Jura were the major isles of the Inner Hebrides to be emptied of their people. Some,
like Rum, were completely emptied; not a living soul was left when the new tenant-farmers took over. The Outer Isles
fared no better - Lewis and Harris, the Uists, Benbecula, Barra, Berneray, Eriskay, Vatersay, Mingulay - they all were
cleared, some with legendary ruthlessness and brutality.
DURING THE CLEARANCES the landlords,
of course, were always at pains to blacken the Highland
to portray the people as lazy, idle, drunken, ignorant and dirty; their way of life as pathetic and wretched and with
nothing in it worth preserving. All this is no more than usual tactics of bullies, dictators and oppressors of humanity
everywhere. First, the victims must be totally dehumanised so that the crimes which are committed against them
will not be seen as crimes, and the victims will not be seen as victims but as degraded, sub-human, and thoroughly
deserving of every punishment which is to be meted out to them. But though the Highland lifestyle may well have
been simple, and less idyllic than the exiles' memory of it, still there are many accounts of life in the Highlands during
the 18th and 19th centuries by independent observers such as James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Pennant and
others, which showed that there was much in Highland life and culture which was good and admirable. The people,
far from being lazy, were hard-working, industrious and hospitable; their homes were simple, but warm, practical
and robust, and their culture, though oral (and therefore greatly undervalued by outsiders) was rich in song,
history and legend, and the people placed great belief in the value of education.
IN AREAS WERE
THERE ARE RUINS of cleared townships, it is common to find
other remains such as brochs
("Pictish Towers"), duns (iron-age fortifications), and standing-stones. These demonstrate that the areas had often
been under more-or-less continual habitation for thousands of years - since neolithic times - until they were cleared
in the 18th or 19th centuries.The main reason for such a long period of permanent settlement was usually that the best
and most sheltered fertile valleys and glens near the sea were colonised first. They would have good and safe access
from the sea, grazing for animals, soils suitable for growing crops, and be sheltered by surrounding hills. From these
footholds the ancient inhabitants slowly percolated inland, always looking for areas with the same kind of advantage.
For the very same reasons these areas were the most attractive to the new breed of sheepfarmer who were brought
in by the landowners, and so were the first to be let, and the townships cleared.
THE CLEARANCES WERE VIRTUALLY IGNORED through muchof the century by writers, historians and educators.
Recently, perhaps partly out of a growing Celtic awareness, partly out of a new struggle towards statehood in Scotland,
and also as part of a worldwide movement by people to understand their roots and origins, there has been a great
revival in both Gaelic culture and the interest in all aspects of Highland history - especially perhaps, the Clearances.
There is a new understanding that the story of the Clearances is a huge one. It is a story not only of cruelty, eviction
and banishment in this tiny part of our world which we call the Highlands, but of hope, fullfillment and success which
reaches almost every inhabited part of the planet, as the uprooted Highlanders built new lives and new futures for
themselves all around the world. There is now a wealth of writings on the Clearances, and the following is a list of
possible additional reading, including some general books on the history and environment of the Highlands (from
several of which I acknowledge I have borrowed freely):
ON THE CROFTERS'
A powerful bringing-together of the memories of the descendants of cleared
crofters, in Scotland and Canada, by David Craig (Pimlico, Randon House).
GO LISTEN TO THE CROFTERS
The story of the Napier Commission on Crofting, by A.D. Cameron (Acair Ltd).
A history of Scotland and her people since pre-Roman times, by Michael Lynch (Pimlico).
THE HISTORY OF SKYE
A detailed history of the island by a local man, Alexander Nicolson (Maclean Press).
The Sutherland Clearances as seen by an eye-witness, by D. Macleod (Strathnaver Museum).
THE HISTORY OF THE HIGHLAND CLEARANCES
A contemporary account by Alexander Mackenzie (Mercat Press).
ISLAND ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
A history of St Kilda until its abandonment in 1930, by C. Maclean (Canongate)
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ST KILDA
Another good acount of the St Kilda story, by Tom Steel (Fontana)
GEOLOGY AND SCENERY IN SCOTLAND
Understanding the link between geology, the formation of landscape,
and what we see in the landscape today, by J.B. Whitlow (Pelican).
THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE HIGHLANDS & ISLANDS
An authoritative survey of the natural environment of the
Highlands, by Fraser Darling and J.M. Boyd (Fontana).
JOURNAL OF A TOUR TO THE HIGHLANDS
A canny look at the Highlands by James Boswell, first published in 1785.
A TOUR IN SCOTLAND AND THE HEBRIDES
Penetrating observations by Thomas Pennant, first published in 1776.
Books by James Hunter, on the origins, history and
development of the crofting people of the Highlands
(published by J. Donald (1); all other titles by Mainstream):
THE MAKING OF THE CROFTING COMMUNITY (1)
THE CLAIM OF CROFTING
A DANCE CALLED AMERICA
GLENCOE AND THE INDIANS
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF SORROW
SCOTTISH HIGHLANDERS - A PEOPLE AND THEIR PLACE
Books by John Prebble on various crucial episodes in Highland history
(published by Penguin Books):
THE LION IN THE NORTH
THE HIGHLAND CLEARANCES
THE HIGHLAND MUTINIES
THE DARIEN DISASTER
(I believe that together with ON THE CROFTERS' TRAIL by DAVID CRAIG, these last two series'
of books are essential to an understanding of Highland history from a modern point of view.)
PRINTS may be ordered of most of
these images, in colour
or monochrome For details of how to order, please use the link on the homepage.
"A LONG WALK ON THE ISLE OF SKYE" - a lavishly-illustrated photographic book about the
pioneering of a new long-distance walking route on the island is available by mail-order,
price £14.95 plus p&p. Again, please use the link on the homepage.