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History & Immigration > Scots in Canada > The Clearances:
The Lowland Clearances

History & Immigration: Scots in Canada

The Lowland Clearances:

"There are still crofters in the Highlands, but there are no cottars in the Scottish Lowlands."
~ Tom Devine, Aberdeen University

Although the displacement of the rural population in the Highlands is a well-documented and painful episode in Scotland's history, the story of the Lowland Clearances had largely been lost until recently. "We pay a lot more attention to the clearances in the Highlands," noted University of Dundee history chair Chris Whatley. "However the same thing was happening in the Lowlands." 1 Between 1760 and 1830, the agricultural and industrial revolutions propelled Scotland's rural population into modernity. But the Age of Improvement was hardly the smooth transition: money-hungry landlords forced cottars from their homes; long-established communities were razed to ruin, and an entire stratum of society was eradicated.

At the start of the eighteenth century, ninety percent of Scotland's one million inhabitants lived in small farming settlements and communities. The improved farming methods of the agricultural revolution enabled landlords to turn a profit from their property and take advantage of new markets that had been opened up by the union of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707. Eager to "improve" their holdings, landlords tore down many small settlements and moved their occupants to new "planned villages." These villages were usually integral to the restructuring of individual estates, housing unwanted tenants and cottars while promoting economic growth as the new towns became centers of spinning, weaving, fishing, or trading.

Able to access options denied to Highlanders, Lowland farmers were sometimes able to find new opportunities in the rapidly-growing towns and cities as the industrial revolution gripped Scotland's urban centres like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling, and Dundee. And those who were able to adapt to the modernized farming techniques could find work in the fields of the newly-consolidated farms. This shift in agricultural practice replaced cottars with paid, full-time agricultural labourers; and while these new practices yielded vast increases in the productivity of the farms, they also eradicated the cottar way of life.

Forced from their land, thousands of Lowland farmers and cottars migrated to the cities or left Scotland entirely in search of new opportunities in the United States, British North America, or Australia. While the depopulation of the Highlands has received greater attention, the Lowland countryside was depopulated to an even greater extent. Between 1755 and 1791, for example, the rural population of Lanarkshire decreased by one third: this was typical throughout the Lowlands as populations migrated to urban areas and then left the country altogether.

Dr. Marjorie Harper of Aberdeen University likens the flow of Lowland emigration to a dripping tap. While Highlanders emigrated like a flood, "a dripping tap makes the bath overflow in just the same way as the flood does," she said. "What was happening in many parts of the rural lowlands was the constantly dripping tap of depopulation that was going on right throughout the nineteenth century and the centuries before and after that." 2

Methods of clearance were more subtle in the Lowlands than in the Highlands. The Lowland Clearances rarely involved brutal police teams like the ones in the Highlands and Isles did; instead, Lowland lairds modernized and improved their estates within a legal framework. They drew up the leases by which they rented out land to make it impossible for those who did not adopt the new farming techniques to remain. Others hiked up rents as much as five-fold to bankrupt their tenants and seize their possessions. And still others simply took advantage of laws that had been passed by the Scottish Parliament in the 1690s to appropriate large areas of common land.

Although these clearances might seem less brutal than those in the Highlands, they were no less effective in displacing the rural population. By the 1830s, the cottar way of life had simply disappeared. But perhaps it was for the best: while cottars barely scraped by on subsistence farming, their children and grandchildren often flourished in the trades and professions. Patrick Sellar's grandfather, for example, had been removed from a Lowland farm. Within the space of two generations, a family of peasant farmers produced a lawyer with a university education. But even if the change eventually proved to be for the best, says Dr. James Hunter, "a dangerous notion to perpetrate because it minimizes the horror that was experienced by the people who were on the receiving end of this." 3

The agricultural revolution reshaped the landscape into the Scottish countryside as it is known today. While two generations of peasant farmers struggled with the upheaval of their traditional way of life, the Lowland Clearances set in motion a trend of depopulation that continues to affect Scotland two centuries later. The agricultural and industrial revolutions might have propelled Scotland into the ranks of Europe's economic and industrial powerhouses, but the common people paid a heavy price for that glory.

  1. Birmingham, Vicky, "Scotland's Forgotten Past," Dundee Courier, 20 May 2003
  2. "Scotland's Forgotten Clearances," BBC News: Scotland, 16 May 2003.
  3. "Scotland's Forgotten Clearances," 16 May 2003.
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