The enclosures that depopulated rural England in the British Agricultural Revolution started much earlier, and similar developments in Scotland have lately been called the Lowland Clearances. But in the Highlands the impact on a Goidelic (Scottish Gaelic)-speaking semi-feudal culture that still expected obligations of a chieftain to his clan led to vocal campaigning and a lingering bitterness among the descendants of the large numbers forced to emigrate, or to remain and subsist in crofting townships on very small areas of often poor land. Crofters became a source of virtually free labour to their landlords, being forced to work long hours in, for example, the harvesting and processing of kelp.
From the late 16th century the law required clan leaders to appear in Edinburgh regularly to provide bonds for the conduct of anyone on their territory. This brought a tendency among chiefs to see themselves as landlords. The lesser clan-gentry increasingly took up droving, taking cattle along the old unpaved drove roads to sell in the Lowlands. This brought them wealth and land ownership within the clan, though the Highlands continued to have problems of overpopulation and poverty.
The various Jacobite Risings brought repeated British government efforts to curb the clans culminating after the 1746 Battle of Culloden with brutal repression, and the Act of Proscription of 1746 incorporating the Dress Act required all swords to be surrendered to the government and prohibited wearing of tartans or kilts. The Tenures Abolition Act ended the feudal bond of military service and the Heritable Jurisdictions Act removed the virtually sovereign power the chiefs had over their clan. The extent of enforcement of the prohibitions was variable and sometimes related to a clan's support of the government during the rebellion, but overall it led to the destruction of the traditional clan system and of the supportive social structures of small agricultural townships.
From around 1725, in the aftermath of the first Jacobite Rising (known as "the 'Fifteen") clansmen had begun emigrating to the Americas in increasing numbers. The Disarming Act of 1716 and the Clan Act made ineffectual attempts to subdue the Scottish Highlands, so eventually troops were sent in. Government garrisons were built or extended in the Great Glen at Fort William, Kiliwhimin (later renamed Fort Augustus) and Fort George, Inverness, as well as barracks at Ruthven, Bernera and Inversnaid, linked to the south by the Wade roads constructed for Major-General George Wade. These had the effect of limiting organizational travel and choking off news and so further isolated the clans and limited the unrest to local outbreaks. Nonetheless, things remained unsettled over the whole decade.
In 1725 Wade raised the independent companies of the Black Watch as a militia to keep peace in the unruly Highlands, which increased the droves of clansmen now emigrating to the Americas. Increasing demand in Britain for cattle and sheep and the creation of new breeds of sheep, such as the black-faced which could be reared in the mountainous country, allowed higher rents for landowners and chiefs to meet the costs of an aristocratic lifestyle. As a result, many families living on a subsistence level were displaced, exacerbating the unsettled social climate. In 1792 tenant farmers from Strathrusdale led a protest against the policy by driving over 6,000 sheep off the land surrounding Ardross. This action was dealt with at the highest levels in government, with the Home Secretary Henry Dundas getting involved. The Black Watch was mobilised; it halted the drive and brought the ringleaders to trial. They were found guilty, but later escaped custody and disappeared.
What became known as the Clearances were considered by the landlords as necessary "improvements". They are thought to have been begun by Admiral John Ross of Balnagowan Castle in Scotland in 1762. Earlier, MacLeod of MacLeod (i.e. the chief of MacLeod) had done some experimental work on Skye in 1732. Many chiefs engaged Lowland, or sometimes English, factors with expertise in more profitable sheep farming, and they "encouraged", sometimes forcibly, the population to move off suitable land.
Another wave of mass emigration came in 1792, known as the Year of the Sheep to Scottish Highlanders. The people were accommodated in poor crofts or small farms in coastal areas where farming could not sustain the communities and they were expected to take up fishing. Some were put directly onto emigration ships to Nova Scotia (Antigonish and Pictou counties and later Cape Breton), the Kingston area of Ontario and the Carolinas of the American colonies. There may have been a religious element in these forced removals since a good number of the Highlanders were Roman Catholic. This is reflected by the majority representation of Catholics in areas and towns of Nova Scotia such as Antigonish and Cape Breton. However almost all of the very large movement of Highland settlers to the Cape Fear region of North Carolina were Presbyterian. (This is evidenced even today in the presence and extent of Presbyterian congregations and adherents in the region.)
In 1807 Elizabeth Gordon, 19th Countess of Sutherland, touring her inheritance with her husband Lord Stafford (later made Duke of Sutherland), wrote that "he is seized as much as I am with the rage of improvements, and we both turn our attention with the greatest of energy to turnips". As well as turning land over to sheep farming, Stafford planned to invest in creating a coal-pit, salt pans, brick and tile works and herring fisheries. That year his agents began the evictions, and 90 families were forced to leave their crops in the ground and move their cattle, furniture and timbers to the land they were offered some 20 miles (30 km) away on the coast, living in the open until they had built themselves new houses. Stafford's first Commissioner, William Young, arrived in 1809, and soon engaged Patrick Sellar as his factor who pressed ahead with the process while acquiring sheep farming estates for himself.
Elsewhere, the flamboyant Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry portrayed himself as the last genuine specimen of the true Highland Chief while his tenants were subjected to a process of relentless eviction.
To landlords, "improvement" and "clearance" did not necessarily mean depopulation. At least until the 1820s, when there were steep falls in the price of kelp, landlords wanted to create pools of cheap or virtually free labour, supplied by families subsisting in new crofting townships. Kelp collection and processing was a very profitable way of using this labour, and landlords petitioned successfully for legislation designed to stop emigration. This took the form of the Passenger Vessels Act passed in 1803. Attitudes changed during the 1820s and, for many landlords, the potato famine which began in 1846 became another reason for encouraging or forcing emigration and depopulation.
As in Ireland, the potato crop failed in the mid 19th century, and a widespread outbreak of cholera further weakened the Highland population. The ongoing clearance policy resulted in starvation, deaths, and a secondary clearance, when families either migrated voluntarily or were forcibly evicted. There were many deaths of children and old people. As there were few alternatives, many people emigrated, joined the British army, or moved to the growing urban cities, like Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee in Lowland Scotland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Liverpool in the north of England. In many areas people were given economic incentives to move, but few historians dispute that in many instances landlords used violent methods.
"The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description — it required to be seen to be believed.
A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself — all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition — whether in or out of the flames — I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of these days a boat actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing-place by the lurid light of the flames.
Accounts like those of McLeod and General David Stewart of Garth brought widespread condemnation and The Highland Land League eventually achieved land reform in the enactment of Crofting Acts, but these could not bring economic viability and came too late at a time when the land was already suffering from depopulation.
However, considering that by the end of the eighteenth century the Scottish landlords had, for the most part, been born and raised in London, they would have held the same unflattering opinion of the Highlanders that the majority of those living in England and Southern Scotland held. Therefore, "ethnic cleansing" certainly cannot be ruled out by a simple inspection of ancestry.
It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the second, more brutal phase of the Clearances began; this was well after the 1822 visit by George IV, when lowlanders set aside their previous distrust and hatred of the Highlanders and identified with them as national symbols. However, the cumulative effect was particularly devastating to the cultural landscape of Scotland in a way that did not happen in other areas of Britain.
While the collapse of the clan system can be attributed more to economic factors and the repression that followed the Battle of Culloden, the widespread evictions resulting from the Clearances severely affected the viability of the Highland population and culture. To this day, the population in the Scottish Highlands is sparse and the culture is diluted, and there are many more sheep than people. Although the 1901 census did return 230,806 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, today this number has fallen to below 60,000. Counties of Scotland in which over 50% of the population spoke Gaelic as their native language in 1901, included Sutherland (71.75%), Ross and Cromarty (71.76%), Inverness (64.85%) and Argyll (54.35%). Small but substantial percentages of Gaelic speakers were recorded in counties such as Nairn, Bute, Perth and Caithness.
What the Clearances started, however, the First World War almost completed. A huge percentage of Scots were among the vast numbers killed, and this greatly affected the remaining population of Gaelic speakers in Scotland.
The 1921 census, the first conducted after the end of the war, showed a significant decrease in the proportion of the population that spoke Gaelic. The percentage of Gaelic speakers in Argyll had fallen to well below 50% (34.56%), and the other counties mentioned above had experienced similar decreases. Sutherland's Gaelic-speaking population was now barely above 50%, while Inverness and Ross and Cromarty had fallen to 50.91% and 60.20%, respectively.
However, the Clearances did result in significant emigration of Highlanders to North America and Australasia — where today are found considerably more descendants of Highlanders than in Scotland itself.
One estimate for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia has 25,000 Gaelic-speaking Scots arriving as immigrants between 1775 and 1850. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were an estimated 100,000 Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton, but because of economic migration to English-speaking areas and the lack of Gaelic education in the Nova Scotian school system, the numbers of Gaelic speakers fell dramatically. By the beginning of the 21st century, the number of native Gaelic speakers had fallen to well below 1,000.
The highland clearances are still remembered especially in the areas affected by the forced emigration and hardship endured by the peoples of the Highlands and their descendants across the world.