The Clearances, despite transforming the Highlands into a wilderness, can be understood as part of Scotland’s transition from tribal feudalism to industrial capitalism. Nearly two centuries later, however, it is capitalist underdevelopment which is to blame for the Highlands remaining a place of wilderness, a sorry picture that can still be changed through investment in the renewable energy industry and renewed efforts to address the distribution of land ownership.
Before the Clearances
The Highlands of Scotland offers a case study to understand the character of feudalism, as well as its ultimate demise, which was linked with industrialisation, urbanisation, and the development of capitalism. The Scottish Lowland Clearances, the Irish Famine, and the English Enclosures each comprise comparable processes in the United Kingdom of the 18th and 19th centuries – but they are stories for another day.
In the Highlands, feudalism took the form of a tribal clan system. The word clann in Gaelic means ‘children’ and is used in this sociological context because each Highlander believed himself to be the child and servant of his clan chieftain, who owned the clan’s territory, and who metaphorically sat by the right hand side of God. Most of the Highlanders communally occupied now-depopulated areas of northern, western, and insular Scotland, living off the land in a society where most people did not use money. From time to time, clansmen would serve militarily, facing off against other clans.
The final major clan battle was the Battle of Culloden, fought on the outskirts of Inverness in 1746. It was a major historical turning point in which the army of the British government decisively defeated Jacobite rebels. The ranks of either side were made up of numerous clans, and a range of other forces. Whilst many clan battles were petty cattle raids, this one drew upon profound ideological forces which were far beyond the ken of the average soldier of either side.
Culloden was the final battle of the 1745 Jacobite Rising which was fought in Scotland and England with the objective of changing the royal family of Scotland, England, and Ireland to the exiled Stuart dynasty. This conflict was one theatre of the much broader War of Austrian Succession, 1740-48, in which many European powers caused chaos throughout the old and new worlds. Arguably, the 1745 Rising was a proxy war between England and France. This is on account of the Jacobite French connection and the French-style ideology of absolute monarchy as opposed to the English system of parliamentary sovereignty over the Crown.
A century before the Battle of Culloden, British King Charles Stuart had been sentenced to death in 1649, with the House of Commons (dominated by Whigs, later known as Liberals) triumphing over the House of Lords (Tories) in the English Civil War. ‘New money’ had seized some degree of power over the ancient establishment, changing the power structure, setting in motion processes which would lead to the emergence of capitalism in England. As part of this process, King James Stuart was ousted in 1688, charged with clinging onto feudalism and thereby obstructing the march of progress. He was replaced by William of Orange. Coming from Holland, the location of the first ever bourgeois revolution, King Billy knew his place and was loyal to the emerging capitalist regime. Those who were loyal to James and the Stuarts were termed Jacobites.
And so, with their victory at Culloden in 1746, the British government had defeated those who sought a return to feudalism in England. When they regrouped, the British elite decided that, in order to prevent any future threats to their power, the Highland way of life had to be crushed. All of the Scottish Tories had supported the Jacobite cause in the 1745 campaign. Unfortunately, the Tories were able to regain power within decades, whereas the plebeian Highland culture and way of life was then destined for decline, even death.
“Some Highland traditions were sanitised and co-opted into the British establishment”
Famously, some Highland traditions were sanitised and co-opted into the British establishment. There were clans which became regiments, and the bagpipes would be sounded on the government ranks. The phenomena of tartanry emerged – kilts and Gaelic galore, entirely detached from their original meaning, an expensive tourist trap which the Tory novelist Walter Scott sold to King George in 1822.
Not only Highland culture was co-opted; the Highlanders themselves were also pushed and pulled into the capitalist regime. Chieftains understood that system change was inevitable, and that they were faced with a choice of either becoming anachronistic or capitalising upon the new circumstances. They therefore renounced ties to their clann, evicting them to free up space for sheep grazing and bourgeois hunting estates. The motivation wasn’t that it was more profitable, rather that it was more fitting with the new times.
During evictions, roofs were burned to prevent the Gaels returning. When they moved on to different regions, they were sometimes evicted again the next year. Generally, during the period 1750-1860, the population of the Highlands was pushed towards the coast. Some of them were allotted small crofts to farm, but the landlords would ensure that they were not big enough to allow anybody to live off the land alone. This way, people were forced to enter the money-using capitalist economy, working in new industries such as fishing and mining.
Many were pushed out of the Highlands altogether, settling in southern towns and cities where there was supposed to be lots of work. Ironically, through their diet, these migrant workers kept a connection with their ancestral homelands. Back in the hills, the people had been displaced to make room for sheep. The mutton meat was sent to the cities for the factory workers to eat.
How was life in the cities? Black. Smog everywhere. Overcrowded. Sectarian tensions between Gael and Lowland or Ulster Scots. Riddled with disease. Continual advances in machinery putting manual workers out of work due to automation. Unemployment, no money, no food. When in work, overworked.
The modern Highlands
The class system and make-up of Highland society today is entirely different from that which prevailed before the Clearances. However, our own deindustrialised society has parallels with the past. The manufacturing industry has left Britain, the factories have been bulldozed, council houses sold off, the formerly working class areas are being gentrified. Peasants were forced to move to the cities, and now their descendants – in a spiritual if not literal sense – are being forced away again.
“Unless there is serious political and industrial change, young people have little future here.”
What of the Highlands? Only recently has the Highland population again reached pre-Clearances levels. This is largely as a result of migration to Inverness and masks downturns in the population in rural and remote parts of the north Highlands. The Highlands as a whole remains an underdeveloped region of perverse inequality. Industries such as fishing, nuclear energy, oil and metal fabrication have all come to the Highlands, only to mostly disappear. Unless there is serious political and industrial change, young people have little future here.
In the early 2010s, then-First Minister Alex Salmond subsidised and talked up the Highland metal fabrication industry (i.e. production and maintenance of oil platforms and wind turbines). The Nigg yard was refurbished, with Global Energy Group receiving £1.8 million of public money towards the costs. It was announced that Nigg would “provide 40,000 energy jobs across Scotland in the next decade”. On that site, the Nigg Skills Academy was privately constructed and opened in 2012. At the time, it was expected that 3,000 people would be trained there in the period from 2012 to 2015. However, only 2,000 people have been trained as of 2020, which has bizarrely been hailed as a success story. There continue to be good news stories about Nigg and the energy sector in the ever-optimistic, Aberdeen-based and billionaire-owned Press & Journal newspaper, but can these really be taken seriously?
The owner of the Nigg yard, Roy MacGregor, who has featured on the Sunday Times rich list, also owns the Global Highland recruitment agency. When the yard is contracted with a project, the agency will recruit workers, often with no links to the area, on temporary short-term contracts up from England and overseas. Only a small minority of workers have any stability in their employment. MacGregor also owns the Ross County football club, and he was recently involved in a dispute with the players’ union about his refusal to furlough players. Unfortunately, and unlike Nigg forty years ago, there are no unions at MacGregor’s other companies.
If further evidence was needed that these magnates did not care about the local area, MacGregor’s sons have demerged part of the family business, merging the breakaway with Japanese businesses in order to exploit not just Scottish energy but also the Scottish labour force.
Of course, the sorry state of Scottish renewables is not a Highland-specific problem. In recent weeks, the Scottish Government has chosen to award contracts to produce wind turbines to overseas yards, despite the government owning stakes in two yards in Fife and one in Stornoway. EU state aid rules were cited as a legal barrier, despite dissenting legal opinions and, of course, the fact that these EU rules may well be defunct in January.
It would be wrong to omit mention of the other industries which exist in the Highlands. The largest of these is tourism. Of course, the service sector is nothing new. Prior to the Second World War, domestic service at mansions was perhaps the biggest industry. Nowadays, the combination of extremely underdeveloped infrastructure and over-tourism create conditions deeply unsustainable, even in the Covid era. Unlike most tourist destinations throughout the world, there is no tourist tax and very little regulation. Therefore, tourists choose to stay in campervans and Airbnb, and to eat out of Tesco, causing even the service sector to contract.
The density of second homes is extremely high in rural Scotland. In 2016, it was over 20% in certain hotspots such as Arran and parts of the Cairngorms; 7.1% in Argyll and Bute; 5.3% in the Western Isles; 3.7% in the Highlands; and 3.5% in Orkney. These figures will only have increased, particularly with the buying flurry which has occurred during the ongoing pandemic and economic crash.
On top of absentee ownership is the issue of the area being treated as a retirement park. Young activists who are struggling to get a mortgage have called the situation ‘economic clearance’. Absentees and retirees dominate the unregulated market, and next to nothing is left for the next generation. The growing phenomenon of community-owned land offers some hope. However, in certain instances it seems a case of socialism for the middle-class.
‘Socialism for the rich’ is plain to see across the Highlands. Around 200 years ago, a third of the land in the west of the Highlands and islands was purchased with the profits of slave trade. Some of this money was also used to build public buildings like hospitals and libraries; some Highland soldiers were physically involved. Although humble Highlanders made use of new public buildings, the profits of oppression of blacks overseas also funded ruling class exploitation of Gaels closer to home (albeit on a less severe scale). When slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, the super-rich slave traders received a pay-out of public money. Their aristocratic descendants were still being paid up until 2015.
Other mega-estates throughout the country are owned by ‘new money’, like Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed or Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen, the UK’s largest individual private landowner. Neither pay much tax here. Povlsen has been praised by some environmentalists for organising reforestation, despite his undoubtedly interesting approach to rewilding doing little to offset his environmentally unsustainable fast fashion business empire. In any case, if the natural character of these estates is to change, surely it should not just be with flora and fauna, but also with human communities, to right the historical wrong of the Clearances.
The Highlands is recognised as a suicide hotspot. Every suicide is of course motivated by different and deeply personal reasons. But the persistence of the Highland wilderness, from the pre-capitalist era into our own age, demonstrates that it is a difficult place to get a good start in life. Ordinary people in this sparsely populated region have suffered for centuries, while parasites live off the fat of the land. Socialism unfortunately never took off here in the same way as in more industrialised areas, but we need to start standing up for ourselves now.