November 19, 2017

Scotland’s white revolution

A review of The Highland Clearances by John Prebble. Penguin, London 1969, reprinted 1989.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 19 No. 3, May/June 1989.

The eviction of the crofters (peasant farmers) from the Highlands of Scotland in the 18th century to make way for the raising of sheep, provides a clear example of the effects of development upon sustainable lifestyles.

The most common breeds of sheep before the clearances had difficulty in surviving the harsh highland winters, so when a new Cheviot sheep was bred which could survive the coldest winters, the mostly absentee lairds (landlords) were quick to see the economic possibilities. Hence began Scotland’s 18th century green revolution, or perhaps more appropriately its white revolution.

The crofters knew exactly how to make the best use of their difficult environment but the economic returns on their activities were low, as was the rent they paid to their lairds. The lairds therefore claimed that the replacement of highly inefficient crofters with highly efficient sheep provided the most rational use for the Highlands. The crofters were redundant and had to be got rid of.

White and Green Revolutions

The promoters of the clearances used arguments similar to those used today to introduce the green revolution in the Third World. Economic efficiency was the main justification. In the words of Sinclair,

“The Highlands of Scotland may sell, at present, perhaps from £200,000 to £300,000 worth of lean cattle per annum. The same ground will produce twice as much mutton, and . . . under the Cheviot . . . will produce at least £900,000 of fine wool.”

A contemporary observer described the haste with which landowners grasped the new opportunities.

“A ravenous spirit of avarice seems to have spread like an epidemic and seized on all those who were the owners of property in the Highlands. They hastened to be rich, and in the determination to succeed they cast away all claims of gratitude and justice . . . the strong bond which had for ages knit chieftains and clan became as withes . . . and a sheep was now to rank higher than a man.”

According to Prebble, the Cheviot sheep

“came up the old cattle roads into Argyll, Inverness and Ross. They climbed where the deer died, they throve where black cattle starved. Land which had produced 2d. an acre under cattle, now yielded 2s. under sheep. Four shepherds, their dogs and three thousand sheep now occupied land that once had supported five townships.”

To accommodate the shepherds and their sheep, the crofters were systematically evicted. Dr. McCulloch, who travelled in the area, tells us that on Rhum only one farmer remained of the hundreds that had once lived off their black cattle and their seaweed. The island of Ulva, according to Hugh Miller,

“was turned into a single sheep walk . . . The Blue Isles of Tiree and Coll lost half of their people. St. Colomba’s Iona, ‘broad, fertile and fruitful of corn’, became the necropolis of fifty Scottish kings and countless forgotten chiefs.”

Those evicted joined the throngs of the destitute. The lairds seemed quite unmoved by the fate of their clansmen. No alien colonial power could have treated its subject people with such callousness and cynicism as the lairds showed toward their own kith and kin.

The lairds tried to justify the clearances with similar arguments to those later used by the colonialists when trying to justify their policies in the Third World. They tried to exaggerate the crofter’s poverty, their rough and austere life, their lack of roads and modern amenities and the crude huts of sod and stone in which they lived with their crude agricultural techniques.

James Loch, the hated manager of the Sutherland estates pointed out how “they (the crofters) added little to the wealth of the empire”. Subsistence agriculturalists, of course, make no contribution to the formal economy. The English who travelled in the Highlands felt the same “impatient contempt” for the crofters that “their grandsons were later to feel toward African and Indian”. They were accused of “congenital idleness” and were criticised for showing no interest in improving their standard of living. Loch declared that the crofters

“deemed no new comfort worth the possessing which was to be acquired at the price of industry; no improvement worthy of adoption if it was to be obtained at the expense of sacrificing the customs or leaving the hovels of their ancestors.”

The crofters’ ‘primitive’ customs were also accentuated. Thus McCulloch tells us:

“The attachment of the wretched creatures in question was a habit; the habit of indolence and inexperience, the attachment of an animal little differing in feeling from his own horned animals. They were children, unable to judge for themselves, and knowing nothing beyond the narrow circle of their birth. As children, it was the duty of their superiors to judge for them, and to compel them for their own advantage.”

Like colonial subjects in the centuries to come, the crofters were regarded as little more than children that did not know what was good for them. Efforts on the part of tenants to resist eviction were regarded by Loch as but

“formidable obstacles to the improvement of a people arising out of the prejudices and feelings of the people themselves.”

Loch, just like present day developers, also sought to justify his action on moral grounds, pointing out how humans came into the world without natural protection against the weather and therefore it was his duty to provide wool to be made into clothes for them.

“On this principle was a good conscience. I grow wool on mountains that are covered with peat bog thinking that I thereby benefit my fellow men.”

Only a few criticised the clearances. One was the Swiss social scientist Simonde de Sismondi:

“There is something so absurd and revolting . . . in interpreting as a form of progress the destruction of the happiness, of the liberty, of the very existence of a race in the interests of wealth.”

Back to top

The Law

The evictions, just like similar evictions being carried out today throughout the Third World in order to accommodate large scale development schemes, were made with the full backing of the Law. Those who refused to leave were often forcibly evicted, and sometimes their houses were burnt down around them. Those who offered any resistance were taken to court.

Mr. Justice Clark-Hope, making judgement in Inverness on one of the victims, stated self-righteously

“neither they nor their neighbours can be allowed to suppose that they can live in this kind of wicked and rebellious spirit against the Law. They must be taught submission in the very first instance.”

At the trial of Ann and Peter Ross, who refused to be evicted, the same judge warned that

“there exists a singular and perverted feeling of insubordination in some districts of the Highlands against the execution of civil processes in the removal of tenants. This feeling is most prejudicial to the interest of all, and it is absolutely necessary to suppress it.”

Sismondi, by contrast, had little regard for the Law.

“If the Marchioness of Stafford (wife of the Duke of Sutherland, one of the most callous landowners in the Highlands) was indeed entitled by law to replace the population of an entire province by 29 families of foreigners and some hundreds of thousands of sheep, they should hurry up and abolish such an odious law, both in respect of her and of all the others in her position.”

Sismondi also noted that in Switzerland a very different law prevailed. It gave the peasant a guarantee of ownership of his land in perpetuity, “while in the British Empire it has given the same guarantee to the Scottish laird and left the peasant insecurity”. Sismondi believed that the law should keep land outside the orbit of the market economy, that the occupancy of land should be determined, not by narrow short-term economic factors, but by social and ecological ones.

Back to top


After the evictions were well under way, the Highlands suffered a particularly bad famine. If people are pushed off their land and condemned to a life of penury, it is not altogether surprising that they should starve. Under these conditions, a single bad harvest is all that is needed for famine to strike. The authorities’ reaction to the famine was predictable: the market system could not be interfered with and direct food aid was thus discouraged. Instead, public money was advanced for drainage purposes, but those employed in drainage schemes had difficulty in finding food to buy.

Exports of food continued unabated. In Rosshire, half of the annual wheat harvest was exported to London and the rest was sold as flour. Wheat would only be sold locally at a price that could be obtained in England. The merchants, “aware that the people might not appreciate the sound economics of this”, asked the Sheriff to provide police and soldiers to protect the wagons transporting the wheat to the ships.

Back to top


Just as in Africa today, impoverishment, malnutrition and famine were blamed on overpopulation. It never occurred to anyone that if people had not been evicted from their lands they would be neither poor – in the true sense of the term – nor hungry.

In 1841 the landlords demanded in Parliament “an extensive system of emigration to relieve the destitute poor of the Highlands”, a measure which was finally adopted ten years later. The Board of Supervision that administered the Poor Laws had been trying to force people to emigrate for some time and they were “in a constant state of irritation over the people’s reluctance to leave their homes”.

By putting the burden of poverty relief on the shoulders of the local authorities, life was made even more difficult for the Highlanders. Indeed, the administration of the Poor Laws was seen by Prebble as “designed to starve the Highlanders into submission”. These people after all were redundant. They simply interfered with the economic process and prevented the ‘rational’ use of land resources in the Highlands.

Back to top

Transportation to the New World

The business of transporting people to the New World rapidly fell into the hands of speculators. The Highlanders suffered terribly. Legislation was passed to improve their lot but in the words of Prebble they

“made little impression on the self-interest of contractors or the indifference of authority. Overcrowding continued and disease increased.”

When the little brig ‘James’ arrived in Halifax in 1826, everybody on board was ill with typhus; conditions on board were so terrible that the Governor-General of British North America told the Colonial Secretary that

“there are not many instances of slave-traders from Africa to America exhibiting so disgusting a picture . . . The most favourable account that reached me admitted no sort of comparison between her and a French slaver brig captured by me four years ago when in command of a frigate on the Leeward Isles.”

Back to top

No one to go to war

Highland troops had until the clearances formed an important part of the British Army. In 1793 however, when the lairds tried to recruit their clansmen they found to their astonishment that no one would join up. According to the writer Don Ross:

“In Sutherland not one single soldier can be raised . . . The men told the parson ‘We have no country to fight for. You robbed us of our country and gave it to the sheep. Therefore, since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep defend you.’

The destruction of Highland society was long lasting. When Australian mutton and wool put an end to the sheep economy of the Highlands, a new economic use was found for the land, one which also required keeping it empty of people. It was rented out for deer shooting. More recently, as Prebble notes,

“spruce and fir were regimentally planted over the ruins of the townships and the enduring green of the potato gardens. Men accepted the removals as inevitable, a casualty of progress.”

The lowlander “has inherited the hills, and the tartan is a shroud”.


  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top