The scene is familiar to anyone who lives, or has spent time, in the Highlands of Scotland: the ruined village tucked in a glen, surrounded by hills and plantation blocks of Forestry Commission spruce; the foundations of each house and byre still distinct, although the walls have tumbled, and clumps of reed colonise what once would have been fertile ground. Even the name, Polmaddy, despite its anglicised spelling, places you in the Gàidhealtachd, and the birch and rowan that line the nearby burn are reminiscent of the trees that haunt Hallaig, Sorley MacLean’s mythopoetic testament to a similar village on Raasay.
But Polmaddy is not to be found on a Hebridean Island, or in Sutherland or Lochaber, or any of the places that we think of when we think of the Clearances – that period of forced eviction and displacement that is still so imprinted on Scotland’s physical and cultural ecology.
The ruined village of Polmaddy lies a hundred miles south of the Highland Line, in Galloway in South West Scotland. It’s a typical example of the kind of settlement or ‘fermtoun’ that once would have been found throughout the Lowlands. Official records of its existence stretch back to the late medieval period, though it’s likely that it would have been occupied much earlier still. According to local lore, in 1307, during the Wars of Independence, Robert the Bruce took refuge there, before his victory at the battle of Glentrool. Later, when he was king, he rewarded the village miller, who’d been his host, by removing the tenancy and granting him ownership of the mill.
Whether Bruce was there or not, we do know that the form of agriculture practised at Polmaddy would hardly have changed in hundreds of years, and that it was the same as that which was practised throughout Scotland: a shared runrig system of land use, a water-powered mill to grind the crops of barley and oats, and common grazing land for cattle. We also know that by the early C19th, just as with similar settlements throughout the Lowlands, Polmaddy was abandoned and in ruins.
The clearing of the Lowland fermtouns doesn’t resonate in the Scottish psyche in the way that the Highland Clearances do, despite acknowledgement amongst historians that the number of people evicted and displaced in the Lowlands, during the 18th and 19th centuries, was greater than those in the Highlands. It’s a strange kind of cultural amnesia, and it continues to hold sway: one of the only books written on the subject, The Lowland Clearances, by Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell, was until recently out of print. This is in marked contrast to the wide range of books, both popular and academic, that focus on the Highland Clearances.
In their book, Aitchison and Cassell outline the history of Lowland farming, revealing a very different landscape to the one most people see today: beneath the large-scale arable fields of East Lothian, the rolling pastures of the Borders and the barley fields of Aberdeenshire, are buried countless patchworks of in-bye and out-bye land, with the runrigs long since ploughed under and the rough grazing drained and levelled. Whilst the industrialisation of agriculture undoubtedly increased yields and profits for the landowners, it came at a high cost to the thousands of fermtouns and their communities of small-scale farmers who’s way of life was no longer viable or even tolerated.
In the Lowlands this was known as the era of Improvement – a fine example of early spin doctoring if ever there was – and Aitchison and Cassell point out that the name itself still influences our contrasting attitudes to what happened in the Highlands and Lowlands during this period. Hence their insistence that ‘Clearance’ is a more appropriate term.
The book does not suggest, however, that the experience of the Clearances was uniform, and nor is it an exercise in revisionism that tries to foreground the displacement of one community over an other. Rather they use the analogy of a dripping tap and a flood, first suggested by Dr Marjory Harper of Aberdeen University:
I think one reason we focus so much on Highland emigration is that it was dramatic, and it happened in short, sharp bursts if you like. [Whereas] what was happening in many parts of the rural Lowlands was the constantly dripping tap of rural depopulation that was going on right through the nineteenth century, and before. (p114)
This is key to understanding the difference. ‘Improvement’ came much earlier to the Lowlands, and developed more slowly over a longer period. And there was a much greater degree of gradual displacement: many of the inhabitants of the fermtouns found work on the newly created estate farms or else in the nearby mills and emerging towns. Whilst it’s clear that emigration was often the end result – it’s estimated that of the 75,000 people who left Scotland in the first wave of emigration, from 1700 to 1780, 60,000 came from the Lowlands – for many there was initially a “hop, skip and a jump through the towns” (p118).
It is also clear that the ‘short, sharp bursts’ of Highland Clearance were carried out with, in some cases, a brutality and zeal that does not seem to have been the case in the Lowlands. Nor is there equivalent evidence of the deliberate suppression and denigration of Gaelic culture that left such a legacy of pain and anger. Whatever we might think of The Scotsman nowadays, it’s remarkable that, only a few generations ago, they would be happy to publish this:
Yet it is a fact that morally and intellectually they [Highlanders] are an inferior race to the Lowland Saxon – and that before they can in a civilised age be put in condition to provide for themselves and not to be throwing themselves on the charity of the hardworking Lowlander, the race must be improved by a Lowland inter-mixture; their habits, which did well enough in a former stage of society, must be broken up by force of Lowland example… (p142)
This kind of cultural imperialism didn’t die with the nineteenth century, though it may no longer be quite so nakedly expressed; and the acquisition and consolidation of land and power that took place throughout Scotland during the Clearances continues to have a profound impact on our society. There’s a channering worm, gnawing away at an old wound, and until we achieve the kind of radical Land Reform that most Scots, whether urban or rural, seem to really want, we’ll never be rid of it.
Standing by the ruins of Polmaddy in early March, on a sunny day that brightens even the dark ranks of the nearby forestry, it’s hard not to imagine what might have been had Scotland chosen not to pursue a policy of enclosure and ‘Improvement’ which, by any other name, was really just an excuse for the worst kind of land-grabbing and empire-building. The Lowland Clearances is an important contribution to that ongoing story of our relationship to the land and to power. It was only as a result of an online petition that the publisher, Birlinn, agreed to reprint it. That they did so is to their credit, and the best way to ensure it stays in print is to order a copy direct from Birlinn or from stockists such as Word Power in Edinburgh.