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Clans and Clearance: The Highland Clearances Volume One by Alwyn Edgar

Peter writes:
I am in my 70s now and have a life-long interest in Highland history and particularly the post 1746 period and the clearances. I am surrounded by so many books on the subject, but too many of them repeat the same pro-landlord propaganda.

At last I have come across something different. I heard about "Clans and Clearance" by Alwyn Edgar and decided to buy a copy of volume I, but only because Amazon had it at half-price. Having begun to read it, I have to say that it is worth every penny of the full price and:

"Go out and buy a copy NOW!".

Volume 3 on the Sutherland Clearances has been released in a Kindle edition - see
Clans and Clearance Volume three - Sutherland - by Alwyn Edgar

Clans and Clearance Buy volume 1 here on Amazon (for UK addressees)

it's also here with free worldwide shipment

In early April 2020 I heard about a new book on the Clearances. I have many similar books on my shelves and a lot of them, more or less, say the same. Such as – ‘The Clearances were not nearly as bad as they have been painted’; ‘Modernisation of Highland agriculture was needed’; ‘Highlanders were overcrowded and impoverished’; and indeed, from some authors ‘The Highland Clearances never happened’; and so forth….

Alwyn Edgar writes “If you go to the Scottish Highlands now, you will find many glens almost without people. Yet we know from history and archaeology that many people lived in the Highlands for thousands of years. What happened? Between about 1746 and 1900, the Highland landlords decided to clear out the people, and establish great sheep farms instead.”

Edgar’s book is certainly a breath of fresh air on the subject, nay, it is invigorating oxygen! Instead of just referring to previous authors (although he has read a lot – the bibliography of volume 1 has around 300 published references), Edgar has also travelled the Highlands and Islands over many years in order to make up his own mind. This book represents more than 55 years of research.

Peter says, “My own family have passed on the memory of the Clearances. My great-great-great grandparents were cleared in 1817 from their joint-farm at Eldrable in the Strath of Kildonan, Sutherland, to a couple of acres on the steep, rocky hillside at West Helmsdale. When I viewed the ruins of the house they built there, I wondered how had they survived. My great-grandfather gave evidence to the 1892 Royal Commission on crofting. After a short time as a Sutherland county councillor elected by crofter voters following the 1884 Electoral Reform Act, he found it necessary to leave the county due to the hostility of the Sutherland estate. He later wrote a book on the Highland heroes of the land reform movement”.

Patrycja Bukalska, who is a journalist investigating the Highland Clearances for a Polish newspaper, wrote: “When I talked to people in Brora and Helmsdale during my visit I was surprised how strongly they still feel about the past — it is almost as if it happened 20 years ago, and not 200 years ago”.

Edgar explains that he: “became interested in the Highlands many years ago, tramping around with a one-man tent. People had obviously lived there, so where were they now? I read Modern History at Oxford, but there was no whisper of the Highland Clearances. But at least you could assume most people were, however inadequately, trying to find the truth. Then I took a degree in law, and became a barrister, and found that in court, whether civil or criminal, there were many people who had every reason to make you believe the opposite of the truth. I found less and less reason to accept what historians said, however often a particular story was repeated (and often writers were merely copying what someone else had alleged).”

“So”, he continued, “I finally decided that I had accumulated such a mass of material (of whose accuracy I was convinced) that I should write it down. Volume one is actually now obtainable; the other four volumes are all written, but they need sub-editing (to make sure I've actually made my account clear), along with work on the notes. Volume three, the Sutherland Clearances (460,000 words!), is nearest to being publishable, so I'm working on that, and hope to get it out fairly soon. But I'm now 91, so it is something of a tight race between me and the Grim Reaper (whether his preferred weapon is coronavirus or anything else).”

In Volume 1, Edgar critically examines statements made about the Highland Clearances and repeated by generations of historians. He questions “who pays” for the writing of history and discusses the pressures that any academic historian at the start of his career will be under to conform to the views of his seniors. Edgar, at 91, is long past worrying about the views of his seniors. Although he is, himself, an Oxford graduate in modern history and a trained barrister, he has not approached the subject with the need to conform to the opinions of senior academics or the financial concerns of their institutions and patrons. He has used his legal mind to question what really happened, why it happened and who benefitted (and continue to benefit) from events in the Highlands from 1750 until the present. Instead of repeating the pro-landlord views of most historians, he has analysed in detail the contradictions and blatant errors in the many books about, or referring to, the Clearances.

There are five volumes planned, but only volume 1 has been published to date. The others are being prepared for publication. Volume 2 considers the 18th century clearances. Volume 3 is specifically about the Sutherland Clearances. Both, he hopes, will be published soon. Volume 4 covers all other Clearances from 1800 to 1840, excluding Sutherland, while Volume 5 deals with Clearances from 1840 until 1900. Peter remarks “As my own great-grandfather was involved in this last period, I am very much looking forward to reading it”.

Volume 1 was published at the end of 2019 and is available from Amazon and other outlets. It comprises, broadly, an analysis of the works of generations of historians. Edgar’s style is clear, very readable and compelling. There is an extensive index so the reader can easily refer to subjects of specific interest. It is extremely hard to do justice, in a few sentences, to such a carefully argued and justified thesis. But here is a very brief summary of just a few points from the contents of volume 1: It is extremely hard to do justice, in a few sentences, to such a carefully argued and justified thesis. But here is a very brief summary of just a few points from the contents of volume 1:

In the Introduction, (20 pages), Edgar describes the reasons why he came to have an interest in the Clearances and the analytical approach which he has taken to the subject.

Chapter 1 “The Clearances in History” comprises 100 pages, with 28 pages of end-notes, totalling 536 references. There are 65 sub-chapters, logically arranged and starting with an enquiry into the ubiquitous ruined homes and townships across the Highlands and Islands. Alwyn pours scorn on some of the modern school of historians who deny that there were any clearances at all and that stories about them are simply left-wing myths.

In Chapter 2 “The Highlands and Islands”, with 29 sub-chapters, Edgar considers how have the Highlands been defined as a linguistic and cultural zone. Where was the Highland line in 1746? The answer depends entirely on whose work you read. Edgar defines the Highlands as 162 predominantly Gaelic-speaking parishes with an area of 16,300 square miles and 55% of Scotland. Until overwhelmed by the military might of Great Britain in 1746, the Highlands existed as a separate polity largely able to ignore edicts from the Government in Edinburgh. He also questions how many Highland clans there were – even that is open to debate.

Chapter 3, “Power within the Clan” notes that most descriptions of the nature of Highland society by historians are based on the writings of travellers, few of whom could understand the language of the people. Indeed he points out that much popular “knowledge” of Highland society is based on 19th century fiction, particularly that of Sir Walter Scott. In addition, much of the source material for study of the clans before the Clearances lies in the archives of the Lowland Scottish state, such as the Parliament and Privy Council, which were universally hostile to semi-independent Highland power structures and the Gaelic language. Edgar points out the basic inconsistencies in many historian’s works such as Trevelyan who claimed that pre-clearance Highlanders were rack-rented while at the same time, the chiefs were poor because rents were so low and payment was viewed by clansmen as a voluntary tribute.

Chapter 4: "Chiefs and Charters". Feudalism became the basis of the land laws of Scotland under David 1. Many historians regard the evidence of written charters as of overriding importance. Yet the real effect of charters, or lack of them, over Highland lands only became significant after 1746. While the idea of “sword right” may be romantic, charters were only of significance when they coincided with the consent of the people to the rule of their chief. Under the Stewart monarchs there are many instances of legal charters which did not respect the loyalties of the people and thus led to conflict. MacDonald of Keppoch had no written charter to his lands, but the Macintosh chiefs, with a royal charter from Edinburgh, failed in repeated armed invasions of Keppoch during 300 years. Many similar instances are given.

Chapter 5 "The Life of the Highlanders" considers agriculture and food supplies, in particular what Edgar calls the Highland “hunter-gatherer” life-style. The ability to take deer from the hill and fish from the river supplemented food obtained from pastoral and arable farming. Following clearance, when the Highlanders were confined to their new crofts and miserable potato patches, the deer and the fish would be reserved, by the threat of draconian punishment, for the pleasure of the wealthy visitors in the season.

Chapter 6 "Character of the Highlanders". Edgar points to Hugh Trevor-Roper who, as part of his defence of Highland landlords, claimed that as there was no distinction between Highlander and Lowlander, no-one could be blamed for destroying a way of life that had not existed. All that had occurred was constructive resettlement.
The elite of stronger countries have always denounced their weaker neighbours. John Major, in the 16th century, wrote that all of Scotland’s inhabitants owed their allegiance to the king in Edinburgh and, therefore, the half of Scotland that spoke “Irish” and did not give their allegiance to the authorities were “wild and lawless”.
Rosalind Mitchison wrote in 1970 that clan society was organised for cattle-raiding and war. Edgar found Lowland historians often repeated similar views, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Dr Jackson who wrote in 1804 “the Highland character is conspicuous for honesty and fidelity”. The minister of Monzie, in the OSA, wrote “there had been no crime (in his parish) in 40 years”.

Chapter 7: "Customs of the Highlanders". It is difficult to précis this chapter with its 94 pages and 481 notes. Alcoholism and strait-laced religion have been a consequence of the Clearances, but many writers have taken these symptoms of desperation among near-destitute crofters as an indication of pre-Clearance life. Instead, Edgar refers to earlier accounts of harpists and pipers; of music and dance; of vigorous games such as shinty.
Gloomy Presbyterian ministers writing in the OSA, found complaints by the predecessors in their pre-Clearance parish records of the people grinding corn, fishing, playing football or shinty and otherwise enjoying themselves on the Sabbath.
Martin in 1695 and Toland in 1726 wrote that Gaelic Highlanders were fond of poetry and music, the composition of which was not reserved to professional bards.

Here are just a few of Alwyn’s criticisms of statements by historians on the Clearances:
* "There was an enormous Highland population increase in the century after 1750": this never happened – the highest possible increase is 37% in the years 1750-1840 – during which time food production doubled or trebled according to reports in the OSA and the NSA..*.

* "The clearances were carried out by the English”.
In reality they were carried out by the clan chiefs, after the Lowlanders and the English conquered the Highlands, following the Battle of Culloden, 1746. The British state forced the private-property system on to the Highlanders; the clan chiefs were made into landowners, who suddenly realized they could make themselves rich by driving out the clansfolk and letting the land to large farmers.

* "Most of the Highlanders were Catholics".
In fact 96% of the Highlanders were Protestant.

* "The old Highlanders were crofters”.
In fact the Highlanders were hunter-gatherers, with a second ample food source in their vast flocks and herds. The crofters appeared only after the clearances, when some of the evicted were kindly allowed to try growing potatoes in an acre of two of barren, waste ground.

* "The clan chiefs were tyrants, jailing and executing clansfolk indiscriminately".
No, the chiefs had no state apparatus – police, soldiers, lawyers, courts, jails, torturers, executioners etc – so had to rule with the general approval of the clansfolk.

* "The Highlanders’ cattle lived under the same roof as the Highlanders".
No, this only happened after the clearances, when the people had very few animals left, and very little grazing, so the milk cow had to be housed in the same building..

* "The clansfolk were wildly licentious, drinking enormous quantities of whisky, while at the same time they fervently believed in a strait-laced religion".
No, both these opposite convulsions appeared as extreme reactions to the social misery caused by the clearances.

“Clans and Clearance” by Alwyn Edgar is available from outlets in the UK and currently on Amazon at a discount for UK addressees.

I would strongly recommend this book and the following, yet to be published four volumes, to all avid readers of Scottish history and particularly to those that want to know what really happened during the Highland Clearances.

Volume 1 of Clans and Clearance is available from Bookdepository with free worldwide shipment.