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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Scotland's forgotten clearances
The picture is taken c 1910 and is of a hay wagon on  McCowan Road. The McCowans arrived in Toronto in 11833 with nothing but their clothes. Within 15 years they owned a farm of several hundred acres
The McCowan family emigrated to Canada

The Highland clearances are a well documented and painful episode in Scotland's past.

But in a major new series of history programmes for BBC Radio Scotland, Andrew Cassell argues that clearances in the Lowlands changed the lives of many more Scots and were just as important in the shaping of rural Scotland.


Bruce McCowan orders us to slow down.

He jabs a finger towards the snow-covered cliffs above Lake Ontario.

"That's where the original old farmhouse was," he says.

"Not so long ago all this area used to be fields."

He is giving us a guided tour of Scarborough, a wealthy suburb of Toronto peppered with million dollar homes and spacious gardens.

A hundred and seventy years ago this was frontier country where pioneering Scots came to join a fledgling farming community transforming the wilderness around them.

Rented land

Among them was Bruce McCowan's ancestor James, who arrived from Scotland with his wife and eight children in 1833.

Back home in Lesmahagow in Lanarkshire, James McCowan had been a collier and then a tenant farmer surviving on the crops the family grew on a small plot of rented land.

But the family was in debt. When a new landlord took over the Stockbriggs estate he drew up fresh leases, demanding a five-fold rise in the rent.

For the McCowans it was the end. They were bankrupt and the family's furniture, livestock and farming tools seized.

Within two years James McCowan and his family had set sail for Canada - exiled as a result of the Lowland Clearances.

This is what Professor Tom Devine, one of Scotland's foremost historians, describes as clearance by stealth.

Robert McCowan, who was born in Canada in 1855 (1855-1931), grandson and son of the original migrants
Robert McCowan, grandson and son of the original migrants

"Clearance normally means the forcible removal from land. It has to be understood that not only in the Lowlands, but also in the Highlands, there were other means of removing people from the land which were much more subtle," he says.

It was a fate suffered by tens of thousands of Lowland Scots during the agricultural revolution as landowners enclosed their estates and modernised farming methods to improve food production and maximise profits.

Although evictions were not unknown, the Lowland clearances rarely involved teams of policemen and sheriff officers as they did in the Highlands and Islands nearly half a century later.

The Lowland lairds pursued their revolution within a legal framework.

They wrote down the leases by which they rented out land imposing strict conditions, encouraging tenants who adopted the new farming ways but making it impossible for those who did not to remain.

Some landowners introduced massive rent hikes of the kind which led to the McCowans' emigration.

Peasant farmers

Others simply appropriated large areas of common land using laws passed by the Scottish parliament in the 1690's.

They may seem less brutal than the events in the Highlands but the Lowland clearances were just as effective at displacing country dwellers: by 1820 an entire social class of cottars - peasant farmers who had a traditional claim on land in return for rent or service to a landlord and who made up a third of the population - simply disappeared.

"We cannot explain the catastrophic haemorrhage of population in some of these rural areas over such short time spans except by suggesting that either indirect or direct compulsion was used," says Professor Devine.

"There are still crofters in the Highlands, but there are no cottars in the Lowlands."

In the later eighteenth century the simple fact of losing land and becoming landless, he says, was much more significant for large numbers of people in Lowland society than it was in the Gaelic speaking Highlands of Scotland.

So what became of the Lowlanders who were moved off their land? Many emigrated.

There are still crofters in the Highlands, but there are no cottars in the Lowlands.
Professor Devine

Recent research suggests that the number of people leaving Scotland from the Lowlands during this period was far higher than previously thought and far exceeded the number who left the Highlands.

Aberdeen University's Dr Marjorie Harper has just written a book on Scottish emigration.

She said: "The analogy I like to use is of the flood and the dripping tap. I think one reason we focus so much on Highland emigration is that it was dramatic.

"But the dripping tap makes the bath overflow in just the same way as the flood does.

"What was happening in many parts of the rural lowlands was the constantly dripping tap of depopulation that was going on right throughout the 19th century and the centuries before and after that."

Industrial revolution

For those who lost their farms in the Lowlands, however, there were at least options denied the Highlanders.

There were new opportunities in the rapidly growing towns and cities nearby as the industrial revolution took hold.

There was employment, too, in the fields of the new, consolidated farms - though as paid labour rather than as free tenants.

Arguably the majority who were cleared ended up better off.

But Highland historian Dr James Hunter, author of "The Making of the Crofting Community", says this was an unintended consequence.

"The term 'improvement' often seems to be accepted by historians uncritically," he says.

"They seem to accept the notion that all this change was for the best in the long run. That's a very dangerous notion to perpetrate because it minimises the horror that was experienced by the people who were on the receiving end of this."

In front of the building is James McCowan's grandson Robert, his wife and family. The picture is taken c 1900
The original McCowan farmhouse in Scarborough, Ontario.

He has little doubt that wholesale clearances happened in the Lowlands.

Indeed, he says, one of the most notorious architects of the process in the Highlands was a product of them.

Patrick Sellar's grandfather had been removed from a Lowland farm and as a result the family had, over the space of two or three generations, moved from being peasant farmers to, in Sellars' case, being a professional man, a lawyer with university training.

The Lowland and Highland clearances were driven by the same forces: the rapid rise in Scotland's population, the growth of commercialism and the awakening of a free market economy dedicated to the pursuit of profit.

The clearances were a Scottish phenomenon but they created two Scotlands: they helped transform the Lowlands into one of the most successful farming and industrial regions in Europe.

But they left the Highlands with a legacy of poverty, injustice and anti-landlordism which, to this day, still pricks the political conscience of Scotland's new parliamentarians.

The three programmes in the series, "One Scotland", "Winners & Losers" and "Highland Improvement Lowland Clearance", will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on Sunday 18 May, Sunday 25 May and Sunday 1 June at 1105 BST.

Each will be repeated the following Saturday evening at 2030 BST.




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