Highland Clearances – 3

The Evidence of Some pre-1800 Gaelic Poetry

In his introduction to a volume of Gaelic poetry on the topic of the Clearances, Donald Meek remarks (in his characteristically understated manner):

Yet, in spite of the potential value of this body of verse in illuminating the perceptions of those who experienced the nineteenth-century Clearances and the Land Agitation, it has been little used by modern historians. There seems to be some relunctance on the part of certain historians to allow the Gaelic evidence to speak for itself, even when part of that evidence is available in translation. (1995: 10)

Indeed, I have already commented that this silencing of those who actually experienced these injustices is a perpetuation of colonial mentalities on the part of “certain historians” and other vested interests.

Meek’s volume is an excellent selection of 44 poems on these events and offers very insightful analyses of literary genre, style and content. If there is a shortcoming to this volume, in my opinion, it is that most of the verse is relatively late: it begins c. 1800 and concentrates on the Land Agitation of the 1880s. There is, in fact, a great deal of Gaelic verse that was composed previous to 1800 in reaction to Clearances and in critique of the numerous attacks on Gaeldom in social, cultural, linguistic and economic terms.

My previous blog entry, examining a book written by Alexander Campbell, quoted his account of sheep-raising as it proliferated from the southern Highlands (around Callander, Cowal, and Loch Lomond-side) and moved north. Other accounts from native Gaelic seanchaidhs (such as that investigated in Cheape 1995) confirm a similar geographical pattern. It so happens that I have long had an interest in these areas and have collected a great deal of Gaelic literature from these areas, some of which I have edited and translated in previous publications.

I have many other Gaelic texts from the mainland (Argyllshire, Perthshire, and Inverness-shire) in which Gaels critique their subjugation by an anglocentric regime bent on driving them from their homes and ways of life. A few more rare and important pieces of this nature will be appearing in my forthcoming anthology of Canadian Gaelic literature, Seanchaidh na Coille, but for now, I would like to examine and comment on materials that I have previously published.

Before doing so, I must add that I use the term “Clearance” in a broad and inclusive way: whether people were moved 50 metres or 50 miles is somewhat immaterial, given that the imposed disruptions to their settlement patterns, cultural practices and economic relations had profound consequences for their ability to sustain themselves. Moving a community a short distance to the coastline and restricting their access to the resources and nutrients they needed was just as effective in marginalizing and dispossessing them as forcing them into ships bound for the colonies (Mathieson 2000).

The Lennox and Loch Lomond-side

Between about 1759 and 1764, Lowland shepherds began encroaching upon Gaelic terrain, displacing native families with their ability to profit from their sheep. That Gaels did initially resent and resist these incursions is confirmed by the entry for Luss in the Old Statistical Account for Scotland (1791):

The settlement of some graziers here, from the low country, contributed likewise to produce those happy effects [of mercantilism]. They were at first considered by the natives as aliens, and invaders of property, to which they had no natural right, being neither lineal descendants, nor collateral branches of the MacFarlane race. Such was their antipathy to their new neighbours, that they made several abortive attempts to extirpate them. This, however, gradually subsided, and they lived together afterwards in habits of friendship.

So, the minister (Rev. John Gillspie) implies that this happened a good while before he wrote this, and although he reassures us that the resentment between Gael and intruder had subsided, other sources suggest otherwise.

In any case, what does the Gaelic record suggest? The earliest commentary in Gaelic of which I know is an abstruse reprimand in verse castigating one of MacFarlane’s factors for his greed and selfishness (Newton 2010: 252). This verse is attributed to Rev. Alexander MacFarlane who died in 1763, which fits very well into the time frame noted above.

The most interesting social commentary from this area on this era, however, is manuscript 210 of the MacLagan collection, kept in Glasgow University Library. This manuscript contains four highly critical poems, three of which I published in Newton 2010, and the hand-writing appears to be that of the Rev. John Stewart (1743-1821). As there is no information about the origin of the texts, it is not certain whether he was the author of these pieces or merely the scribe for poems he captured locally (he was minister in Arrochar, Weem, and Luss). It is possible that the poems span a number of years and poets, but it is almost certain that the manuscript was completed well before the death of Rev. James MacLagan in 1805.

One of these poems is an address to Loch Lomond itself (Newton 2010: 250-3). The poet laments that everything in the area has changed for the worse: the wild animals associated with the hunt have fled, the young people have disappeared, local music has been silenced, and all of these worthy things have been replaced with “Lowland churls” and their dogs. The poet remarks incisively, “It is a strange ‘improvement’ for the land to be cleared of its people!” There is a clear awareness here of the irony that what for the landlord and anglophone is an ‘improvement’ is for the Gael a loss and tragedy. It does not condemn sheep but the landlord who replies greedily about all the money he is making. The poet predicts that the landlord’s selfishness and voracity will cause his own undoing in the end.

Another of these poems is essentially a lament for the downfall of the Highlands in the voice of a hunter (newton 2010: 246-9). It begins, “Gaeldom became a desert after the ’45 when our culture changed/declined and our weaponry abandoned.” He goes on to grieve that sheep have displaced its native animals and people, who must now fill the ranks of the British war machine to “keep control of the subject classes, preserve the existing order, keep the mob from misbehaving and to act as hammers against France.” This, I would argue, is a radical critique of Gaelic subjugation (most likely during the Napoleonic conflicts) that has never (to my knowledge) been used by any historian of Highland history.

A third poem is in the voice of a female exile (Newton 2010: 254-9). Although her new locale is not specified, it is almost certainly somewhere in North America, given an overseas voyage, the extremes of weather and alien, hostile wildlife. The poem decries the injustice that Gaels have been forcibly dispossessed and relocated, despite upholding their end of the social contract (“We have always paid our rents and services faithfully”). These changes have happened because the introduction of fallacies and luxuries which has broken the old ties of kinship and community.

The fourth and final poem from this manuscript is one with a very expansive view of Highland history and culture (Newton 2001: 43-7). Given that the style of the poem strongly suggests the proto-Romantic influences of Macpherson’s Ossian, it must have been composed after 1760. (The poem is also highly unusual for the period as it is in free-verse rather than a formal metre, begging the question as to whether it was a rough sketch to be polished later.) Appropriate enough for a poet and text with a broad panorama of Scottish history, it begins by addressing Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Scotland (and all of Britain). The poet harkens back to the Gaelic Golden Age, recalling Maol-Choluim Ceannmhor (Malcolm Canmore), Somerled and the Lords of the Isles, and contrasts the world of those heroes with the desolate Highland landscape, broken only by an occasional hunter and his prey.

The poet asks, “Who has destroyed the Gaelic people? Who has silenced the harp and pipe? Where are herdsmen and warriors? And the folk who farmed the fields?” The answer demonstrates profound insight into the circumstances: “English ways have destroyed us; Every chieftain has pursued his own great opulence… It is unpleasant to many a warrior who carefully defended your ancestors…”

Perthshire Highlands

One of the great 18th-century Gaelic poets of Perthshire was a man named Duncan Lothian. He composed a poem in c. 1777 in which he denounces the inflation and economic ruination of the Highlands, urging his fellow Gaels to defeat the American revolutionaries so that they can retain a safe refuge to which they can escape the oppression to which they are subject (Newton 2001: 57-9). In common with other Gaelic literati, he compares the plight of the Gael to that of the Jews when enslaved in Egypt but his recollection of the Gaelic origin myth demonstrates the tenacity of the native literary tradition even in eastern Perthshire. Given that the Gaels are such valuable soldiers, his curse on the British imperial masters is that the Gaels will flee and leave the realm vulnerable and undefended from their enemies: “Non-Gaels are crying out that we have to be driven out and that speckle-headed sheep will turn us out of our birthright!”


In a previously published article (Newton 2011) have quoted some excerpts from longer poems (to appear in Newton 2014) composed by immigrants to Canada. I’ll briefly reiterate one excerpt from an Inverness-shire poet for the light it sheds on the perceptions of Gaels in this era.

Iain Liath MacDhomhnaill left Knoydart for Glengarry, Ontario, in 1786. He composed a lengthy poetic account of his migration and settlement which intimates the humiliation felt by many Gaels about the circumstances of their departure and the post-Culloden condition of Gaeldom: “What has increased my sorrow, after what I had seen of those precious élite [Gaelic] nobles who were always faithful, is that they are now completely extinct, with not one left there, while the land of our ancestors is occupied by Lowland shepherds.”

Western Isles

One of the most interesting and incisive poems from the Western Isles which comments on dispossession during this period was composed by the celebrated poet Iain mac Fhearchair (aka John MacCodrum) for MacDonald kinsfolk who were leaving for the Carolinas between 1769 and 1773 (Newton 2001: 88-93). Iain enjoins the emigrants to keep up their spirits (implying that emigration was actually an emotionally difficult choice) and reassures them that their decision to leave was the only logical choice, given the state to which they were being reduced by their former chieftains (“Because you must sail away and it is not your desire to do so … Because [the chieftains] will not allow you to live in the lands that are familiar to you it is better to leave willingly than to sink into slavery…”).

Iain goes on to contrast the old Gaelic order with the sorry lot that has taken their place in the present, who are willing to exchange their former kinsfolk for sheep. This, he tells us, is a betrayal of ancient trusts, and the sheep will not be able to defend the nobility when their enemies come to attack them (“the chieftains will be left alone with their shoulders unprotected … Our people have suddenly vanished and sheep have taken their place.”) One of the most insightful sections in the poem comments on the violation of the Gaelic concept of dùthchas, of rootedness to place and heritage derived from it: “[the chieftains] are of the opinion that you no longer belong to the soil … they have lost sight of every obligation and pledge that they had with the men who reclaimed their land from their enemies.” Iain’s song is a farewell not only to a group of emigrants, but to the old social contract and Gaelic cultural integrity.

I also have a long poem (210 lines) in my forthcoming Gaelic-Canadian anthology which was attributed to Iain in Nova Scotian oral tradition but was more likely composed by a contemporary of his in North Uist, perhaps responding to the same event. This, too, is a very insightful and incisive poem which bids farewell to a group of emigrants and lambastes the de-Gaelicized élite.

Uncertain Origin

One very insightful Gaelic poem on these issues was printed in an anonymous booklet printed in Edinburgh in 1777 (Newton 2001: 52-3). We can’t place or name the author, but it is likely that he was an educated Gael from the mainland Highlands living in the capital. The poet begins with the rhetorical questions we would expect in an age of affliction: “What has happened to Scotland? What has caused all of the social unrest and oppression? Why have prices skyrocketed and social relations broken down? Why has God forsaken us?” He symbolizes this state of adversity by means of the pathetic phallacy, a common literary convention in Gaelic literature. He likens the Gaels to the Jews enslaved in Egypt and seems to express Jacobite sympathies.

He further observes the greed and materialism that drives the agendas of the élite and opines that “This [king] George that we currently have has dispelled all comfort and joy as he lives his life in England … he has oppressed us with unjust decrees and our nobles go to his court in England; they will spend their wealth and will be miserable because of it as they come home.” The poet concludes by conveying his support of the American Revolution and urging his fellow Scots to emigrate to the colonies as the only escape from the ruination of their homeland.

General Observations

I can offer a number of observations of these early Clearance poems, having studied a couple dozen or so of them (and having had the benefit of the analysis offered in Meek 1995 and MacInnes 2006).

First, the response of the peasantry [not a term of derision but one that describes those with limited formal education and geographical mobility living in a sustenance-level economy] was typically quite different from those of the native intelligentsia (the vestiges of the Gaelic literary orders or those with some formal, usually church-based, education). The Gaelic intelligentsia were able to frame these tribulations within a larger historical and social framework, one which often represented Gaelic history as a series of conquests beginning with the downfall of the Lords of the Isles and culminating with the Battle of Culloden (a sense of decline reflected in Macpherson’s Ossian but quite accurately revealing Gaelic perceptions). While the changes may or may not be attributed to particular agents in verse, they are represented with a degree of abstract reasoning as the consequences of social and political impositions from the anglophone world.

The peasantry, on the other hand, tend to focus on their personal experiences framed within their local context and the individual actors who were involved in instigating these changes. Their poetic response might take the form of a satire of the agents involved in a particular event, an incitement to their neighbours to resist a hostile action, or a lament for the old order, but they lack a structural analysis of the casual factors, economic, political and cultural. They decry the violation of the traditional social contract (the peasantry offer their labour and military services to the chieftain in exchange for his protection and security of land-holding) and hope for the return of native Gaelic leaders upholding traditional values. They sometimes decry the perpetrators of change as Goill (Lowlanders, non-Gaels). Although some scholars have criticized these defamations as being illogical and disingenuous, we need to see these ethnic labels as indicators of cultural allegiance rather than actual ethnic origins (note the use of this and similar ethnonyms for Gaels raised in non-Gaelic communities).

However, all classes in the Highlands who responded to the Clearances in verse see them as a consequence of being conquered by an alien enemy (usually their old rivals, the Lowlanders, but occasionally generalized to luchd na Beurla, “anglophones”) due to the vulnerabilities opened up by the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Since their subjugation to these hostile, hegemonic forces, all aspects of their environment – cultural and natural – have been violated and overturned, and these changes were most unwelcome.

In the past, the close interdependence between the Gaelic aristocracy and the lower social classes in the Highlands had been a source not only of economic sustenance but of social capital and psychological reassurance. Being not only abandoned by their former leaders but also exposed and dominated by a people whom they had formerly considered inferior to themselves (the Lowlanders) left Highlanders feeling humiliated, angry, ashamed, and profoundly disoriented. Some Gaels continued to critique and resist their mistreatment, but without any political mechanisms to which they had recourse, emigration was one of few options open to them. Other Gaels buried the shame of the past and sought consolation and validation in other pursuits, particularly religion and the military.

There is a desperate need to collect, edit and analyze this corpus of Gaelic texts from historical and literary perspectives, as they do offer unique insight into the experiences and perspectives of those who lived through dramatic challenges for the Gaelic world. Doing so will help to restore the Gaelic voice to a highly contested era of Highland history and disprove the false assertion of some anglophone-only scholars that there are no sources to tap for writing a bottom-up history of the Clearances (see discussion in Hunter 2000: 10-24).

Select Bibliography

Hugh Cheape. “A Song on the Lowland Shepherds: Popular Reaction to the Highland Clearances.” Scottish Economic & Social History 15 (1995): 85-100.

James Hunter. The Making of the Crofting Community (new edition). Edinburgh: John Donald, 2000.

John MacInnes. Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006.

Robert Mathieson. Survival of the Unfittest: The Highland Clearances and the End of Isolation. Edinburgh: John Donald. 2000.

Donald Meek. Tuath is Tighearna: Tenants and Landlords. Edinburgh: The Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, 1995.

Michael Newton. We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States. Saorsa Media, 2001.

Michael Newton. Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid / From the Clyde to Callander; Gaelic Songs, Poetry, Tales and Traditions of the Lennox and Menteith (2nd ed.). Kilkerran, Scotland: The Grimsay Press, 2010.

Michael Newton. “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity and Culture in North America.” In The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Sex, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond, edited by Jodi A. Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan, and Heather Parker, 215-33. Guelph: Guelph Series in Scottish Scottish Studies, 2011.

Michael Newton. Seanchaidh na Coille: Litreachas Gàidhlig Chanada. Sydney, Cape Breton: Cape Breton University Press, 2014.

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