2007 - 2022

Lowlands Away

9781780270692The 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.

Comments (22)

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  1. Darby O'Gill says:

    At last.

  2. Alistair Livingston says:

    One thing I would add to this is that the armed uprising by the Galloway Levellers in 1724 against the first of the Lowland/Scottish clearances made Lowland landowners more cautious when the main phase of clearance/improvement kicked in. It also led to the construction of 90 new villages and towns in Dumfries and Galloway alone to absorb the people cleared from the land.

    Chapter Three of the book deals with the Galloway Levellers and their impact. I contributed to the chapter and went on to write my M.Phil thesis on the Galloway Levellers.

    It can be read here

  3. Robert James Peacock says:

    I knew nothing of this and now I do. Thanks.

  4. tony says:

    And we let it happen,again, again and again. We are to weak to argue the point.

  5. Brian says:

    Lowland clearances went on into the 1930s .
    Hundreds of miners and families were evicted from a village between Dunfermline and Kelty ,Lassodie has only a war memorial to show it existed.

  6. Paul says:

    Didn’t even know shameful. reminds me of the bbc documentary about land use in Norway and how the Norwegian farmers refused to give up their land 2 or so hundred year ago and no there are thriving mall farm all over Norway, whereas here we have big estates who callously throw tenant farmers off hen they feel like it.

    ‘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.’ – agreed.

  7. finlay Macleoid says:

    The Highland Clearances wasn’t just about displacement or removal over a long or short period. It was about the deliberate destruction of a language The Gaelic Culture the Culture and the way of life.

    Read about Patrick Sellar from Elgin and James Loch from Edinburgh and the numerous others from Scotland who were central to killing the Gaelic language and the Gaelic way of life in Sutherland and elsewhere in Scotland. There is far more to the Highland Clearances than displacement that is taking it to the most simplistic arenas possible.

    I can detect no such things in the Lowland Clearances unless of course we are talking about the Gaelic speakers who were present in these areas in Galloway and South Ayrshire at the time.

    1. willie says:

      You are absolutely correct when you say there was more to the Highland Clearances than the displacement of people .
      The clearances were part of a wider thrust to eradicate a people and their culture. General Wade post Culloden was only the start of it, and anti Gaidhlig and indeed anti Scottishness generally continues to this very day. It is no accident that the Americas and Australia are peopled with both Irish and Scots. Indeed,due to economic Apartheid, there is still an exodus of young people today. Maybe it is in the Scottish mindset to be a down trodden collection of people. One only need look at other small smart and equitably successful countries to see what can be done. But maybe, just maybe, we’ll collectively grow the balls to take control. The re- establishment of the Scottish Parliament has restored some confidence and maybe the referendum and sentiment post it was realky the starting gun.

    2. bringiton says:

      The Highland Clearances were about the destruction of a cultutural identity by removing the economic means of sustenance.
      This is a very well tried and tested method the British state has used over a very long time in pursuit of it’s interests (the Chagos islands being the latest example).
      Without Holyrood being run by a Scottish party,we would be brutally exposed to London policies which are not designed to improve life north of the border.

      1. Anton says:

        Agreed. There seems to be a misconception that the Clearances were all about the depopulation of the Highlands, whereas in fact the Highland population actually increased during the Clearances.

        The Clearances were much more about the destruction of the social and cultural life of the Highlands. But I have ambiguous feelings about this. The clan system was a form of feudalism which I suspect none of us would now support. The clan “members” were tenants who owed everything to the clan leaders. Women had no rights. The runrig system whereby land was rotated between members of the clan meant that there was no incentive to agricultural improvement – why bother to improve your patch, for what you had one year one of your neighbours had the next.

        So it was a system whose disintegration had to come sooner or later. The tragedy is that the inevitable collapse should happen so quickly and so brutally.

  8. Maureen drennan says:

    I had this book on my bookshelf for years and read it beginning of the year. Very interesting insight and easy interesting read. Highly recommend it.

  9. Douglas says:

    Dougie Strang, thanks for this insight – and it is great to hear your voice again after so many years…

    I think it’s important to remember the context of 19th Nationalism…which was a European phenomenon, and has little to do with what we call nationalism today. It was a mainstream theory throughout much of Europe that there were European races….that stemmed from Herder, the German, and unfortunately and so tragically it finally found its maximum expression in Hitler…Adorno held that the Final Solution was in fact the natural and inevitable outcome of European Culture from the Enlightenment onwards…you can buy that or you can leave it, but there is clearly some truth in it. The best book I have read on the matter is The Identity of the Scottish Nation…

    …I think the trauma of the Highland Clearances is above all cultural. You know why Smith is the most common surname in Scotland? Because so many Highlanders were called Mac a’ Ghobhainn, and they would anglicize their surnames when they got to Perth. To be Gaelic was a disgrace and a shame – to be racially inferior.

    You might have hoped that the SNP would have been sensitive enough to put the question on the 18S in Gaelic, but they didn’t do that. I would have done so with pride. What are the SNP for? Somebody remind me, because there are days I forget..

    I think Jack MacConnel’s government probably did more for Scottish culture than the SNP have done… at least Jack passed the The Gaelic Language Act, the single most important piece of legislation in defence of Scottish culture of our time…

    1. Dougie Strang says:

      Cheers D, it has been a while! Hope you’re well. I’ll check out Ferguson – looks interesting

  10. w.b.robertson says:

    Should it all be down to cultural dilution or economic evolution? There are hundreds of ex mining hamlets around Scotland like Fife`s long lost Lassodie. But the pits in the early days were tiny, shallow and short lived operations. The miners were industrial gypsies who would jump jobs if they were getting paid a half penny (old money) more at some other pit. As coal grew as an industry, more and more farm labourers were sucked in by bigger wages and what they thought were better living conditions. Eventually at the time of Nationalisation in 1947, the wages in the East Fife coalfield were the highest for “non skilled” workers in Britain. I was a boy at the time. Compared to workers elsewhere, my father`s family lived like Lords…but still reckoned they were the lowest of the low!

  11. Yvonne Dalziel says:

    Re the Lowland clearances – I know Polmaddy – the ruined Galloway village -I was brought up a couple of miles away from it in one of the new villages created – Kendoon- built in 1939 to house the workers manning the Hydro Electric Power Station – my dad worked there. We used to play in the ruins and swim in the burn but never knew it had been part of a clearance. This doesn’t surprise me. Who ever writes anything about Galloway? The author of the piece even had to explain where it was – South West Scotland – to a Scottish readership – one presumes. The Herald does not recognise the area separate from Dumfries and regularly, lazily, calls everything that happens in this part of Scotland as being Dumfriesshire!

  12. Scottie says:

    My father was born in 1901, his father in the 1830s ( youngest of a second family), and his father was part of a cleared family from Carrick. Its as close as that. They lived in Newton Stewart and the Galloway Clearances were family history. My father sometimes despaired of getting anyone to believe him. I have the same problem- Clearances were Highland
    Thank you for the information about the book- ordered from Birlinn

  13. Steaphan says:

    It seems that what is being described here is rural depopulation due to changes in land use over a lengthy period of time. It also seems that efforts were made in some areas to mitigate the harsher effects of this, but that it would have been hard on many of the tenantry nonetheless to be turfed off the land.

    However, in the Highlands you are talking about practically an entire population treated as conquered slaves by a centralised foreign government after Culloden, whether they had supported the Scottish Stewart dynasty or not. The figures are telling.

    In 1750, the population of Scotland was 1,265,000 – and 652,000 were Highlanders. So, as most Highlanders spoke Gaelic in 1750, why are we told that the majority of Scotland was English-speaking at this time? The figures do not add up. Now, the population of the Highlands is around 200,000 and Scotland over 5 million. As a modern country, Scotland would by now have surely had a population of 10 million if it wasn’t for the Clearances and the economic drain of the Union?

    After the worst clearances, you then had more in the 1880s, not to make way for sheep, but to make way for the expansion of deer “forest” – no trees – and grouse moor to cater for hunting by wealthy Victorians. Thousands more were evicted for this.

    I can see the link between militancy and regaining rights. The only reason any Gaelic is spoken at all in Scotland is because of the Highland Land League and the Crofters’ War, where resistance made the authorities grant some concessions. Interesting to find out that the Gallowegians had needed to do something similar to protect their rights.

    Scotland should perhaps take note that the only colonised/conquered countries who have ever gained true independence from Westminster are those that took it by force or physical resistance. Ireland, USA, India, Kenya, Zimbabwe and so on. It’s sad, but if a prison has been set up around your home controlled from the outside, then you first have to break it to be able to leave. For Scotland, breaking the psychological constraints of irrational self-repression will be enough.

    1. Alistair Livingston says:

      In 1755 of the combined population of Argyll, Ross and Cromarty, Inverness and Sutherland was 194 707 which was 15.4% of the Scottish total. The figure you give of 652 000 is for everywhere north of Central Scotland so included Aberdeenshire with 116 856 people in 1755. It is estimated that in 1755, 22.9% of the Scottish population spoke Gaelic rather than over 50%.

      1. Steaphan MacRisnidh says:

        Sounds like a conservative estimate. Highland Aberdeenshire’s fertile glens and straths were well-populated at the time with Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, as was Highland Perthshire and even the Angus Glens still held on to some Gaelic-speaking communities. You also had Stirlingshire where villages such as Brig O’Turk, Callander and so on remained Gaelic speaking up until the Second World War!

  14. Lisa Smith says:

    Great article – copy ordered!

  15. Ken Guthrie says:

    Very interesting article on an insufficiently publicised part of history, but I’m not sure that the Highland Clearances did happen in short sharp bursts. If we take the Strath Rusdale clearances in Easter Ross as the start (1792) and the Crofters’ Holding Act (1886) as the end, that was a span of almost 100 years. The point about the Lowland Clearances continuing into the 1930s is well taken. The families of both my grandmothers were cleared from their homes in Banffshire in the 1920s.

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