England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Capitalism’s bloody birth: The Highland Clearances

By Mara Clanahan, Socialist Alternative Scotland

Half Scotland’s 30,000 square miles, home to 5.5 million people, ‘belongs’ to just 432 individuals, 0.008% of the population. How did we reach this surreal concentration of wealth and power? And what should we do to end it? 

Capitalist relations arrived late to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands following the defeat of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. As Karl Marx explained, capital came into the world ‘dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. The Stuart armies butchered on Culloden’s battlefield had been raised by Highland lairds using clan loyalty.

Disarming the clans, removing their Chiefs’ military powers and suppressing Highland culture destroyed these ‘Auld Ways’ in Scotland. After 1745 the chieftains transformed themselves from warlords to landlords. The advance of capital from England and the southern Lowlands devalued traditional ideas; in this new world, paper carried more weight than steel. Land that had been held for centuries by claymore and dirk, was reconquered in courts of law. 

Feudal clan system

Before 1745, Highland society had been organised on feudal lines. However, it differed significantly from the feudal order in England or the Scottish Lowlands, having a much flatter social hierarchy, bound together by kinship, real or imagined. Under this order, beneath the chieftain stood the tacksmen, leasing out the chief’s land to subtenants paying rent in kind, goods and services rather than money. The Chief had been seen as custodian of the Clan; they looked after the land, and he looked after the clan. Historically, the insecurity of their tenancy guaranteed tacksmen’s, and in turn their tenants’, service in times of war (whether on behalf of the King, to whom all land ultimately belonged, or of the chief to seize land or cattle from other clans). Below them were the landless cotters, who charged screaming into battle after the main charge. This system underpinned clan loyalty to the chief, enabling chieftains to deceive and betray their people in the coming years.

While the chiefs embraced the new ways of ‘progress’ and capitalism, subtenants and cotters still held to the Auld Ways. They had a long, and binding relationship to the land that they had worked communally, using the ‘runrig’ system of shared plots, for centuries, and had built around it a vibrant culture borne of deep connection with their environment, summed up in the Gaidhlig word ‘Dúthchas’, whose meaning encompasses ‘place’, ‘community’ and ‘nature’. But while the people still held to the auld ways, their Chiefs bartered them away. 

The Chiefs became a new class of landed gentry, abandoning the Gàidhlig language and way of life. With capitalism came consumerism, and land and titles alone couldn’t grant them fine clothes, Edinburgh town houses or the southern education they sought for their children. They were no longer content to live on the same land as their clan. By 1800, three fifths of Hebridean chiefs were absentee landlords. 

Chiefs took direct control of the land to monetise it, cutting out most Tacksmen, granting leases to southern herders able to pay what their kin couldn’t. The remaining Tacksmen increased subtenants’ rents (often as high as 300%). Defaulters were barred on the laird’s order from selling cattle. Many, lacking the means to join this new class, emigrated to America. A minority took their tenants along out of a sense of honour, but most went not as equals, but as tenants or bonded servants.

The tacksmen gone, the chiefs and their new tenants began ‘improvements’: land was drained and enclosed, Cheviot sheep replaced the traditional black cattle. Where cattle could bring in £300,000 a year, the Cheviot brought in three times that from its wool alone. Land which supported five townships became home to just four shepherds, their dogs and 3,000 sheep. 

One of the first to bring the Cheviot to the Highlands was Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, who sought to use the new land and farming methods to improve the lives of his people. He urged his peers, rather than dispossessing those already living on the land, to consolidate their holdings, encouraging their tenants to hire from amongst themselves a herdsman and buy a small flock of 300 sheep, rent could continue to be paid in kind, mutton and wool, rather than with money. An admirable and compassionate sentiment, which is why he was roundly ignored. In the face of such profits, capitalism had no room for compassion, and Sinclair himself ended up £40-60,000 in debt. 

Worse was to come. In 1809, the Countess of Sutherland, married to one of the richest men in the British Isles, Lord Stafford, began ‘improving’ her million acre estates, clearing 15,000 people from their homes.

Beginning of resistance

In 1813, Sutherlanders began resisting, driving constables and speculators and their shepherds from their lands. Clergymen and sheriffs threatened them with punishment from heaven, and with the Riot Act. The latter was less effective, as the southern law was written in English, and most Sutherlanders only spoke the Gaidhlig. When words didn’t work, they returned with soldiers and artillery. With a bitter irony, the troops deployed were mostly Irish, pressed into service by hunger, with fresh memories of Sutherland soldiers crushing the 1798 revolution and Robert Emmett’s 1803 rebellion.

In June 1814, with most men away moving cattle to new pastures on the coast, Patrick Sellar, the Countess’s factor in Strathnaver, began evictions, setting houses ablaze the instant they were vacated. One old woman’s home was set alight, with her still inside. Rescued, with her blankets ablaze, she died five days later, the first of many. Old men wandered bedazed, mothers went into premature labour, and children died of exposure.Sellar returned to his lodging before the evictions finished, satisfied the people suffered ‘no hardship or injury’. 

A decade later, the people were gone. Their crofts were abandoned and they had been driven to the coast, forced to dismantle homes and carry the timbers with them with which to build replacements. Their sons recruited in 1800 by the Countess, into the 93rd Regiment of Foot, to fight fo the British Empire, with written promises they believed secured their families’ tenancies, returned from conflicts as far afield as Dublin, New Orleans and the Cape of Good Hope to find their homes empty or destroyed, and kinfolk gone.

Despite driving them off the best land, the Countess like many landowners had no desire to be rid of her tenants altogether, They were crammed in overcrowded coastal settlements without the land to support subsistence agriculture, a captive supply of labour for fishing, mining and other enterprises designed to squeeze the last drops of profit from her landholdings. Landlords frequently used their political influence and economic might to frustrate attempts by this ‘surplus population’ to emigrate, but were always ready to move them whenever and wherever the profitability of their estates demanded it. 

During the Napoleonic wars it became impossible to import mineral potash, essential as a fertiliser and in the glass and soap industries, from the continent. Crofts were created along the western seaboard where 60,000 tenants were obliged to collect kelp and burn it to make potash, delivering this as payment of rent in kind and yielding astronomical mark-ups for the lairds, which netted £70,000 a year in the Hebrides alone (£4.5 million in today’s prices). When the bottom fell out of this market, with peace and the discovery of guano and mineral alkalis in South America, whole villages were driven to work in the herring industry through a mixture of starvation and eviction.

Later in the 19th century falling wool prices meant the sheep were replaced by deer as their mountain pastures were converted to profitable hunting grounds for the sport of industrial capitalists from the south, and their shepherds replaced with stalkers and gamekeepers. These repeated brutal intrusions of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market into the lives of the people did not take place, however, without resistance. 

Rent strikes

In 1880’s crofters in Skye, Orkney and across the Highlands mounted a series of rent strikes, occupations and mass tresspasses in a struggle to retain subsistence rights. In 1884 Westminster Ministers dispatched a troopship, two gunboats, and 400 marines to suppress the ‘land wars’ on Skye. A Crofters Party allied to the Irish Land League had three MPs elected in the 1885 election and in 1909 a successor party, the consciously socialist Highland Land League, was formed, becoming a constituent part of the Labour Party with four MPs in 1918. The League fought for security of tenure for crofters, to end plural tenancies, and for access to the deer forests and nationalisation of the land. 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, these mass movements, using the newly won, though still limited, electoral power of the rural poor won some reforms in the shape of security of tenure for crofters and the establishment of a Board of Agriculture for Scotland, but without public ownership the landlords still had the whip hand and land ownership has actually become more monopolised over the last century. The Highland Land League also campaigned for Scottish home rule, which at the time was understood to mean re-establishing a Scottish Parliament, today the link between political democracy, national self-determination and economic justice is expressed in the call for an independent socialist Scotland. Genuine progress and freeing the wealth of the land to meet the needs of the people (and defend the environment) requires all three of these elements.

It is for this reason that following devolution in 1999, Scottish Governments, both Labour and SNP, hidebound by their commitment to ‘free enterprise’ and the ‘mixed economy’ have continued to do little more than tinker at the edges of this oppressive private monopoly of land rendering them as unwilling to provide a just settlement to the land question in the 21st century as capitalist governments were in the past. The Community Empowerment Act (2015) and Land Reform Act (2016), introduced a ‘Community Right to Buy’, allowing communities, including those in urban areas, to buy the land they live upon. Community ‘buyouts’, however, are just that, commercial transactions. Although the state has powers for force sales,they rarely use them and landowners still receive the full ‘market price’ to return assets stolen from communities, sometimes as gun-point, in the clearances.The Scottish Land Fund established to support buyouts has a paltry budget of £10 million a year. Between 2006 (when statistics began) and 2023 only 2.7% of Scotland’s land passed into community ownership, at this snail’s pace it will take centuries, if not millenia, to bring all Scotland’s land into common ownership.

Today’s housing crisis

Meantime, the working class in the Highlands face a new ‘clearance’; the community housing crisis. Short term lets aimed at tourism, like Airbnb, and ‘second homes’ take up a shockingly high percentage of housing in the Highlands. On the Isle of Skye, the worst affected area in the Highlands, almost a fifth of all homes are short term lets – the national average for permanently occupied homes is 95.9%, 91.6% in the Highlands, but only 81.4% on Skye. Many houses are sold to wealthy people who let them out at outrageous prices. The cost of this is an exodus from the Highlands by young people, driven by both the lack of housing and impoverishment due to low wages and precarious seasonal work. The median pay in the Highlands is £1,824 below the national average, which when combined with the higher costs of living in these rural areas, makes it impossible for many workers to survive. First it was the sheep, then it was deer, now it is Airbnb tourism. 

Addressing the current housing crisis will be impossible as long as so much of the housing stock is used to generate profit through short term lets. We need decent affordable housing for the thousands of local people desperate to buy or rent their first homes. Improving infrastructure, such as transport and NHS networks, as well as addressing the higher cost of living in the Highlands, could all result in more young people not only staying in the Highlands, but even moving here, boosting the local economy, and breathing new life into highland culture.

Socialist Alternative fights for genuine economic and social liberation, for a socialist independent Scotland, where the whole of the land would be taken into democratic public ownership and its wealth used harmoniously to meet the needs of people and the environment. In this way, through a voluntary socialist federation of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland we can prepare the way to restore Dúthchas on a higher level, not just in isolated glens but across the whole globe. 




Claymore – A Scottish name for a sword, used to describe both a two-handed broadsword and a basket-hilted sword. 

Dirk – A short dagger. 

Dúthchas – There is no direct English translation for this Gàidhlig word which can describe the place of your birth, the land you occupy and work, its natural environment, and your attachment to it. One Shetland islander has described it at ‘Where you belong to the land, and the land belongs to you’

Jacobites – Supporters of the Stuart claimants to the English and Scottish thrones after 1688-9 especially James Francis Edward Stuart, the son of James II of England and VII of Scotland who launched rebellions in 1715 and 1745, when an army led by his son, Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’), was defeated at the battle of Culloden.

Runrig – A system of shared use of land divided into ploughing strips. Whilst each plot was let annually to an individual ‘tenant’, allotments were rotated within the community and work was often organised communally. 

Tacksmen – The most senior level of tenants within each clan’s land. Historically, a tacksman (daoine uiasle in Gàidhlig) was granted occupation of an area (‘tack’) of land by the clan chief . In turn he granted use of portions to subtenants and their dependents. In return, each level of tenant was obliged to provide payment in kind and civil and military service to his superior. 


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