Coastal depopulation and clearance

The following draft notes are a small part of a *much* larger essay I wrote a couple of years back, on interpreting the human impact on Britain’s coastal landscape. Hope it is of some interest…to someone? Feedback welcome, ideally of a non-sectarian hue…

Coastal depopulation and clearance

Vast areas of Britain’s coast and islands which are now sparsely populated or even regarded as ‘wild’ only became so as a consequence of planned ‘clearances’, carried out in the name of economic progress. Perversely enough, these thousands of depopulated or abandoned coastal settlements can be seen as ‘economic landscapes’. These are predominantly found around Scotland, but comparable landscapes can also be found on islands off the south-west of both Wales and England.

The Highland Clearances

The infamous ‘Highland Clearances’ took place in Scotland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tens of thousands* of people were moved from their homes, usually to facilitate planned ‘improvements’ by landlords. ‘Clearances’ took many forms, from a single family leaving home voluntarily due to economic hardship, to the forced clearing of entire regions of Scotland.

In 1826-7, the entire 450 residents of the island of Rhum were given notice by landlord Dr Lachlan Maclean and herded onto ships for Nova Scotia; in the words of one victim, “carried off in one mass, forever, from the sea-girt spot where they were born and bred”. When the MacDonells of Glengarry cleared the 400 residents of Knoydart in 1852-3, the sixteen households who refused the offered voyage to Canada were forcibly evicted and their houses burned. Many clearances were more gradual. Arthur Nicholson emptied the island of Fetlar in Shetland in stages from 1822-56. He had his tenants sub-divide the island with walls, successively replacing the residents of each parcel with sheep. During the ‘potato famine’ of 1846-7, Nicholson charitably supplied porridge in return for wall work.

*Estimates vary wildly.

Landscapes of the Clearances

Practically every cleared landscape has its own story of inhumanity and injustice. Whilst anger is a justifiable response to these events, dispassionately considering the wider context in which they occurred is helpful in grasping their significance and in understanding why so much of Scotland’s coast looks as it does today.

A walk or paddle along any sparsely inhabited shores around Western and Northern Scotland should provide insights into the past harshness of rural life on the coastal margins. Deep and wide parallel drainage ditches (‘runs’) and ridges (‘rigs’) will be seen on now-overgrown land; these were ‘lazybeds’. They were used to cultivate crops such as potatoes on infertile and damp soil, with seaweed dug into the rigs for fertiliser. The ruins of the ‘run-rig’ farmers’ homes will be close by, often in clustered communities known as ‘clachans’. These cottages consisted of rectangular low-lying stone walls, previously thatched but now open to the elements. They rarely featured more than one sub-divided room, and would usually have been shared with livestock, due to limited grazing land. In the Hebrides, you will see ‘blackhouses’ with earth-filled double walls and rounded corners, possibly derived from Viking longhouses.

These coastal communities give clues to both causes and effects of the Clearances. Sometimes, they existed because their inhabitants had been transplanted to the coast by landlords wishing to ‘improve’ their spacious inland estates through introducing more profitable forms of farming; sheep replacing families. These displaced tenants were often expected to pay their rents through the gruelling shore industry of kelp burning. At other times, the impoverished coastal communities were themselves seen as the problem, requiring ‘clearing’ elsewhere again. ‘Elsewhere’ could mean anywhere from more marginal land further along the coast, to across the Atlantic Ocean.

Causes of the Clearances

It is important to acknowledge that many tenants participated voluntarily in clearances, disillusioned by the hardships of subsistence farming and perhaps tempted by opportunities in the new cities.

A justification consistently given for carrying out clearances was that islands and coastal regions were over-populated and hence unable to sustain themselves. This was disingenuous, as the same landlords had artificially over-populated these areas to profit from kelp until demand collapsed post-1815. However, the population of these meagrely resourced regions continued to grow until the 1860s; the coastal fringes were over-populated, to a barely sustainable extent. The potato blight which caused famine in the mid-1840s increased hardships further.

The landowners’ perspective?

The bottom line for the landowning nobility was that ‘their’ lands were not economical; tenants’ rents were regularly in arrears and farming output limited, even more so in coastal regions. Owning an estate was practically an altruistic exercise, yet a sense of social obligation seemed outmoded at a time when Britain was embracing aggressive capitalism. Many of the Highland clan chiefs had become disconnected from their clans in the decades since the 1745 rising, preferring to live among Edinburgh or London society. Touring the Hebrides in 1773, Samuel Johnson noted that they were, “gradually degenerating from patriarchal rulers to rapacious landlords”. Ancestral lands became commodities with which to fund lavish lifestyles, to be sold off as convenience necessitated.

In the landowners’ defence, many tolerated loss-making tenants for years, before eventually being forced to sell, rather than evict. However, the incoming new owner would show less sentiment in wishing to turn a profit; hence for example the clearances on Rhum, described above. Many clearances were carried out with reforming zeal, in the sincere belief that ‘improvements’ would benefit all; ‘improvements’ had indeed doubled farming productivity in the Lowlands from 1750-1825. Not all landlords washed their hands of cleared tenants; even the much vilified Earl of Sutherland went to considerable trouble to create alternative employment, building new fishing harbours such as Helmsdale (1814) in Caithness.

Interpreting the Clearances

The Highland Clearances continue to be a highly emotive topic, their legacy of dispossession bitterly recalled overseas by descendants of exiles. The Clearances have even been interpreted by some nationalists as a deliberate ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Gaelic population and culture, somehow linked to English perfidy. Whilst the human consequences were certainly appalling and inexcusable, the reality was perhaps more mundane. The ruined cottages and overgrown lazybeds to be found all along the shores of Scotland’s west and north coast and islands are arguably best interpreted as economic landscapes. It might seem harsh to view the evictions of entire communities as just another facet of Britain’s transformation to capitalism, but this was largely what the Clearances represented; in the Industrial Revolution, there were both winners and losers.

The end of the Clearances

The Highland Clearances came to an end for a number of reasons. The desire to ‘improve’ estates waned, as few such efforts actually proved profitable. From the 1850s onwards, attempts to evict often encountered brave defiance such as that shown in the 1852 ‘Coigach Rising’, where tenants prevented the Sheriff’s boat from landing and burned the legal summons that he bore. The national media were increasingly sympathetic to such causes, and landowners risked public vilification if they embarked upon clearances. Such publicity also helped lead to legal reform; the 1886 Crofters Act granted security of tenure for tenants and created the Crofter’s Commission to arbitrate in disputes.

The retreat from extremities

Improved rights for Scottish crofters did not stem the ebbing tide of depopulation in coastal areas and islands. Through the twentieth century, numerous islands in particular saw abandonment. The reasons for this were partly economic, but also social; island life was decreasingly appealing in the modern age.

The archipelago at the southern extremity of the Western Isles was voluntarily evacuated; Berneray (1910), Pabbay and Sandray (1911), Mingulay (1912).  Mingulay had suffered from a lack of quay or harbour, making it difficult for the population to land supplies or participate in modern fishing. The isles also experienced neglect by the authorities; e.g. Mingulay’s teacher left in 1910. The island of St Kilda was evacuated for comparable reasons; many young men had emigrated to the mainland, and the 1930 death of a young woman from appendicitis (there was no doctor) proved the final straw persuading the 36 remaining residents to request evacuation. Most of the Pembrokeshire islands in Wales were abandoned, being sold or donated as wildlife reserves; Ramsey Island’s last tenant farmer left in 1950. Depopulation is still occurring in many island areas, such as the North Isles of Orkney; e.g. North Ronaldsay has seen its population fall to around 60. However, improved communications and better recognition of the value of remote communities augers well for the future; for example, Orkney island flights are heavily subsidised.

8 thoughts on “Coastal depopulation and clearance

  1. Most interesting. I suppose a Canadian might comment that Canada has benefitted from the immigration consequent upon the clearances.

    I very much enjoy your posts…


  2. Hi Mark,
    I did some research into an estate in Co. Monaghan, Ireland for a community group here. Very similar story with the main difference that tenants had to petition the landowner for passage to another country. This was generally granted as long as the tenants were not in arrears with the rent. Hard to do in hard times. These petitions are still available for viewing and give an insight into living conditions in the 1850’s.
    Good luck, take care.

  3. Hi Wenley – it’s part of a draft chapter of a book which may or may not ever be published; things have become somewhat sidetracked in the Rainsley household in the past year. The chapter is actually a summary of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on our coastal landscape.

  4. I find it quite bizarre that you’re under the impression that all of the people who were cleared went overseas. The vast majority of those cleared, including my own direct ancestor, came to mainland Scotland . You also have a very skewed, but typically anglocentric, take on The Clearances. Of course it has to be borne in mind that the British Establishment have been lying to the Scots about our own history since 1707. When I was at a Scottish primary school in the 60s and 70s I got taught things that were purely English History as though they were a part of my history. Maybe you should have a wee read up on the real reasons why one of Scotland’s greatest exports has always been her people. A good place to start would be Tom Devine’s “To The Ends of The Earth”. p.s . Rum hasn’t been wrongly spelled “Rhum” since 1991.

    • Hello there; thanks for your input. I really do suggest that you go back and read my article in full if this topic interests you, and *then* ask if you have any questions. I have at no point suggested that ‘all of the people who were cleared went overseas’, indeed I explain at length how most of this diaspora was internal. Nor is my view discernably Anglocentric; yes, I’ve read the book you cite, but perhaps most influential among my various sources were Australian and Canadian Historians; let me know if you’d like me to refer you to any of these. I will happily admit that I’ve looked at the Clearances from a mostly economic perspective, as opposed to an emotional or nationalistic slant; I think that this is what has confused you.

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