Understanding Sources about the Highland Clearances

The Highland Clearances continue to be one of the most contested episodes in Scottish history and there is a large number of potential contemporary sources authored by various people for various audiences that can be brought into this debate. I wrote up the following notes about dealing with these sources and arguments when teaching a course about Scottish diasporic history.

When we look at debates surrounding Clearances and emigration it helps to delineate the identity of each set of people involved in these events and sources, what their general aims tended to be, and how much power and influence they actually had and what kind. As you read through sources, try to recognize each of these “players” and how these goals become activated and modified according to specific historical circumstances.

  • Whose interests are being expressed in this text? Who is the audience for the text?
  • What is the agenda? What is the argument being asserted?
  • How is this agenda being justified? What is the rationale being advanced?

Non-élite Highlanders

Given that the right to vote did not become universal in Britain until 1885, non-élite Highlanders had essentially no political power whatsoever; most had no financial capital, and the government did not recognize that they had any inherent right to live on their ancestral land. Furthermore, even into the end of the nineteenth century many Highlanders spoke no language other than Gaelic, and Gaelic could not be used in courts of law. Their goals were to:

  • Survive as individuals and maintain their families
  • Prevent what economic assets they had from devaluating any further
  • Protect their language and culture (which the government did not do)
  • Maintain their pride and integrity in a humiliating and disempowering situation


By the early nineteenth century, some landlords had Highland ancestry but many did not; as a rule, they were anglicised, and culturally and linguistically alienated from the Gaelic peasantry. Landlords by definition had economic capital (their land), and some degree of political clout. They were often well connected to centres of power and influence, and had almost absolute control over their land and tenantry. Their goals were to:

  • Maintain their estates in the Highlands, and homes in other parts of the empire
  • Find ways of making a substantial profit (a challenge in the Highland landscape) and (often) pay off debt
  • Make maximal employment of tenantry with minimal costs
  • Maintain their political and social clout amongst the higher ranks of British society

Estate Trustees

Accounting firms, usually based in Edinburgh, provided numerous services to the landed élite, including formal bankruptcy administration, auditing, judicial factories, curatories, executries and the factorships of estates. Accountants were appointed as trustees for the estates of landlords after they declared bankruptcy, which was a very profitable business and source of income for accountants. When this happened, very extreme measures were often taken to make the estate “profitable,” not least of which were clearances. When an estate was in the non-judicial control of trustees in this process, they did not have to make any concessions towards tenants. (For details, see Walker, “Agents of Dispossession.”) The goals of accountant-trustees were to:

  • Pay off the creditors
  • Reorganize an estate under their management to make it profitable
  • Make their own profit in the process

Priests and Ministers

Clergymen were recruited primarily from the upper echelons of Gaelic society. They generally were concerned with keeping their congregations loyal to their own faith (keep in mind the political role of religion and the opposition between Catholicism and various branches of Protestantism); although some took an interest in cultural and political affairs, this was not their primary duty. Until the Disruption of 1843, ministers in the Established Church of Scotland (the official state church) were directly appointed by the landlord; this meant that ministers of the Church of Scotland were effectively prevented from going against the policies and interests of landlords. Thus, Catholic priests and ministers in the Free Church tended to have more freedom to side with their congregations. Their goals were to:

  • Provide spiritual services
  • Prevent their congregations from going into another church
  • Make whatever bargains necessary with landlords and government to maintain their positions
  • Aid in “improving” Highlanders according to Anglo-British social and cultural norms

Emigration Agents

The exact nature and role of emigration agents changed a great deal between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries: some were tied to military interests, as when settlement in North America was part of a military strategy; some were tied to ship-owners and shipping businesses, whose ships would otherwise be empty returning to North America (having conveyed timber and other goods to Britain); others were paid by governments and land-owners to recruit settlers to take parcels of their vast estates and develop their resources. (There is a thorough discussion of emigration agents in Harper, Adventurers and Exiles.) Their goals were to:

  • Sell as many people as possible on the idea of emigration
  • Maintain a positive reputation in order to sustain their numbers


Marjory Harper. Adventurers and Exiles: The Great Scottish Exodus. Profile Books, 2003.

Michael Kennedy. Gaelic Nova Scotia: An Economic, Cultural, and Social Impact Study. Nova Scotia Museum, 2002.

Michael Newton. Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada. Cape Breton University Press, 2015.

Stephen Walker. “Agents of Dispossession and Acculturation. Edinburgh Accountants and the Highland Clearances.” Critical Perspectives on Accounting 14 (2003): 813–853.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. direcleit says:

    I would like to also highlight the role of estate factors who, in the instance of islands with absentee landlords, were significant actors on the scene:

  2. Marconatrix says:

    Seo mar a bha e …

    ‘Se siud a’ chulaidh-nàire,
    Bhi facainn dhaoine làidir,
    ‘Gam fuadach thar sàile
    Mar bhàrrlach gun fheum;
    ‘S am fonn a bha àlainn,
    Chaidh chur fo chaoraich bhàna,
    Tha feanntagach ‘sa ghàradh,
    ‘S an làrach fo fheur.

    Tha’n uiseag anns na speuran,
    A’ seinn a luinneig ghleusda,
    ‘S gun neach ann ‘ga h-éisdeachd,
    Nuair dh’éireas i àrd;
    Cha till, cha till na daoine,
    Bha cridheil agus aoibheil,
    Mar mholl air latha gaoithe,
    Chaidh ‘n sgaoileadh gu bràth.

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