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Crackaig is a sad place. It lies in a hanging valley above steep cliffs, just a mile from the sea in Northwest Mull and contains the ruins of 12 stone dwellings. The land around still shows the shallow undulations of the strips and furrows for cultivation. Two hundred years ago, the people of Crackaig subsisted by fishing, keeping cattle and growing barley and potatoes; they even ran an illicit whisky still in a cave by the shore, trading the whisky for piglets brought over on boats from Ireland. It was a hard life, only barely above subsistence level, but the potato blight brought them to the brink of starvation. Many died, the village was deserted and those that survived, emigrated to Canada. Only a few miles back along the coast is a village called Calgarrie, which gave its name to the city in Alberta.

Across the sound from Crackaig is the island of Ulva, the domicile of the Macquarie clan, the fierce red tartan fighters who fought the English throughout medieval times and at the Battle of Culloden. Two generations later, their descendants would join the British Army. Major General Lashlan Macquarie served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars and, as Governor General of New South Wales between 1810 to 1821, was instrumental in its development from a penal colony to a free settlement. Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean is named after him. As landlords of Ulva after the clearances, his family had fought for the population to remain as long as they paid their way by fishing and harvesting kelp, which provided soda ash for soap and glass manufacture. They even commissioned Thomas Telford to design a church for them. But, the market for kelp collapsed in the 1840s at around the same time as the blight destroyed the staple potato crop. The landlord dipped into his own pocket to send most of the 600 people who lived on the island to Canada. There are now just 16 people living on Ulva. The island is again up for sale. The price is £4.1 million, a snip for somebody with the money and imagination to seize an opportunity for tourism.

 

In the early 19th century about 40% of Scots lived in the Highlands and Islands. Now that figure is around 2 to 3%. The depopulation of the highlands by what has come to be known as the clearances has become part of Scottish identity; a tragic tale of exploitation and betrayal by avaricious landowners. The truth is more complex.

The Highlands and Islands avoided the enclosure and intensive farming that occurred in the south. Much of the land was poor and inaccessible and people lived in clans or tribes, who operated a system of mutual loyalty, called ‘duathches’, based on the allocation of land and controlled by the clan chieftain. In return for the land to live on, clansmen not only had to give over a proportion of their produce to the chieftain, they were also expected to join the local militia in any conflicts with neighbouring clans. The ‘clansmen’ were largely subsistence farmers, but their livelihood was increasingly threatened by sheep farming, which was less labour intensive and used more land. Some of the clans kept cattle, which were driven south for sale in the autumn.

Chieftains were autocratic rulers with little respect for the crown, but after King James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they backed the Stuart cause to regain the monarchy. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s march south, which reached as far as Derby, was an enormous shock for the English. King George II was all ready to escape to the Netherlands, but Charlie’s highland army began to drift away back north and were eventually beaten by the English at the Battle of Culloden. Anxious to avoid another highland rebellion, the English redcoats under the notorious Duke of Cumberland pursued the highlanders into their own country, burning their villages and killing the many of the clansmen, as in the infamous Massacre of Glencoe. The clan system was disbanded. People were forbidden to wear the tartan or play the bagpipes.

After Culloden, clan chieftains and their tacksmen became major landowners; in essence, client rulers, answerable to the crown. They struggled to make their land profitable. Some such as the Duke of Sutherland evicted thousands of families, burning their cottages in order to establish large sheep farms or shooting estates.

Donald McLeod, as Sutherland stonemason, wrote about the events he witnessed:

The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and helpless before the fire should reach them; next struggling to save the most valuable of their effects.The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and the fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description – it required to be seen to be believed. A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day and even extended far out to sea. At night an awful scene presented itself – all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once.

Evicted tenants were resettled in coastal crofts (small tenant farms) where they kept a few cattle, tried to grow crops on impoverished land, fished and gathered and burnt kelp for potash and soda ash, which was used for glass making, soap and fertilisers. But rents were high, there was no security of tenure and access to land was limited. People were dependent on their landlords for their survival. Some people resisted eviction; there were riots. On Skye, the population of one village burned the bailiffs’ papers and sent the back home naked, but a few days later, they returned fully clothed and with soldiers. Others threatened to emigrate and reconstitute their societies in Canada, but the landlords needed to retain the croft industries. The Island of Harris was effectively divided in two. The open grassland to the west was used for sheep farming while the crofters were huddled into the poor rocky and boggy land to the east of the island. Despite the privations, the system worked and the population of the Highlands and Islands continued to increase into the early nineteenth century.

During the Napoleonic war, young men were recruited from the clans in return for land. It was said that the war had harvested sons. Prices escalated during wartime. Many landlords were already in debt, because they wanted to mimic the lifestyle of the lowland landlords.  Increases in the price of fish and kelp from the croft industries protected them from bankruptcy for a few years, but as markets expanded after the war, cheaper sources of potash became available and cattle and fish prices fell. Crofting was no longer profitable. The final straw was the failure of the potato crop due to blight. This led to widespread starvation and with it disease.  People left Crackaig after an epidemic of typhoid, during which many died.

This second wave of highland clearances, like the first, was not a case of abandonment by foreign landlords, as it was in Ireland.  The landowners were of their own stock. Many of them tried to protect their tenants from the worst ravages of the potato blight, but since the famine continued for several years longer than it did in Ireland, it became more profitable and humane to pay for their tenants to be transported.

The chief of the McLean clan found it necessary to lease the Island of Rum to a single sheep farmer and move the whole population to Cape Breton. Late spring in North Uist became known as the transportation season because that was when the boats arrived to collect emigrants for their passage to Canada. But not all the tenant crofters were forcibly transported against their will; the majority of people left because of their impoverished circumstances at home and the lure of an affluent new life in the colonies, symbolised by abundant land and the discovery of gold. Some, taking up their cross of presbyterian guilt, even felt they had deserved the hardship and privation, they had endured, because of their sins, and felt ‘called’ to begin again abroad.

A third of the population of the highlands left between 1841 to 1861. It was not until the Crofters’ War in the 1880s and the deliberations of The Napier Commission in 1886 that those, who had remained, were allowed to own their own crofts and even have the vote, but the land was barely sufficient to make a living. The economic depression of the late nineteenth century caused more people to leave. The price of wool continued to decline. More land was given over to shooting estates, which cost less to maintain and attracted tourists from the south.

These days, the biggest source of revenue in The Highlands and Islands is tourism. The area is one vast theme park. Sheep capitalism has become the leisure industry. Following on from Sir Walter Scott and the endorsement of Queen Victoria and the British Royal Family, the highlander has become a romantic figure. The tartan, the bagpipes, haggis and all things Scottish have been reinvented. The highland diaspora of the 18th and 19th centuries has meant that most people of highland descent prosper in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where many still retain highland traditions.

Notwithstanding the romance o the highlands,  the Highland Clearances continue to represent a deep sense of betrayal in Scotland.  According to popular myth, the government in the shape of their landlords or chieftains had demanded the highlanders’ loyalty, their livelihood and even their sons in return to small piece of land to live on, only to deprive them of their birthright and exile them to another country.  The  ‘Clearances’ became more significant as a symbol in the 1960s and 70s with the rise of Scottish nationalism. ‘The highlander became the political conscience of all Scots’.

This post was inspired by our recent holiday at Treshnish on the Island of Mull, during which visits to Ulva and the ruins of Crackaig made me want to find out what happened.