The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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by Rob Dewar


The notorious Highland Clearances ingrained poverty in the Highlands, a poverty that lasts to this day, with a sizable percentage of the working age population dependent on badly paid seasonal work in the horribly named “hospitality industry”, and in other work largely dependent on the seasonal tourist trade. For the remainder of the year (and topping up their wages during the holiday season to a bare living standard), they rely on social security payments, benefits which have been progressively reduced and fenced around with ever more limitations by the southern Tory government, which is today engaged upon an even more brutal “clearance”, in this case, a systematic culling of the poor, the sick and the halt, via want, deprivation, and (were it not for the charities that run food kitchens) outright starvation.

The numbers of Highlanders who suffered eviction, so that the land they worked could be turned over to sheep, ran into the tens of thousands. In many cases, the evictions were sudden and violent, affording their victims not even the opportunity of gathering together their belongings.

In some cases, victims of brutal landowners were bound as they stood, and delivered to emigrant ships there and then. In 1851 the infamous Colonel Gordon of Cluny cleared the Hebridean island of Barra. The Colonel’s tenants were summoned to a meeting, supposedly to discuss rents. There, more than 1 500 tenants were overpowered and loaded immediately onto ships for America

The English were not directly responsible for the Clearances. In the main, those responsible for subjecting the Scottish Highlands to what would become many generations of poverty, were themselves Scotsmen, members of the landed class, including many clan chiefs.

For the Clearances were, above all, a manifestation of grossly inequitable distribution of the land.

True, the transformation of clan chiefs into landowners and landlords was a direct consequence of the Anglicisation of the Scottish gentry, particularly after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746.

Following the horror of Culloden, the Hanoverians, urged on by English - and Lowland Scottish - advisors, initiated a tranche of legislation, the consequence of which was the collapse of the clan system, the conversion of clan chiefs and their agents into a landed gentry (or in some cases, aristocracy), and the downgrading of clansmen and women – in many cases claiming descent from the same name-father as the clan chief - into mere tenants and sub-tenants on their own land. (A process the Irish were already well acquainted with).

In most cases, clan chiefs were eager to seize upon the new cash economy that resulted. Many took to living far from their clan kin, in Edinburgh or London, with a consequent need to boost their incomes. And this was also the age of Malthusian “land improvements”, of adopting a “scientific” approach to squeezing the last penny from your estates. Enter the sheep.

Sir John Lockhart-Ross of Balnagowan is usually considered to be the first landowner to bring sheep into his estates, in 1762. Along with the sheep, he imported Lowland shepherds. He raised his tenants’ rents, and fenced the land. However, MacLeod of MacLeod (The Chief of the MacLeods) had already begun experiments with “improving” his estates in Sky as early as the 1730s. In 1732 and 1739, Macleod of Dunvegan and MacDonald of Sleat set a useful precedent for the future in selling selected Clan members as indentured servants to landowners in the Carolinas.

This first phase of the Clearances culminated in “the Year of the Sheep”, 1792, when so many estates were given over to sheep runs, so many clansmen and their families uprooted and cleared from the lands they had occupied for generations, that a great wave of emigration occurred. Nova Scotia , Canada, and the Carolinas were the most frequent  destinations for Highland emigrants.

However, the clearances increased in both scale and brutality during the 19th century, and continued in some cases into the 1880s. That infamous couple, Elizabeth Gordon, 19th Countess of Sutherland, and her husband Lord Stafford (later Duke of Sutherland), ordered massive clearances from their Highland estates between 1811 – 1820, with as many as 2000 families evicted within a single day. Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengary, a MacDonald chieftain, was another infamous exponent of industrial-scale clearances of his tenantry. 

The picturesque Highland vistas much admired by visitors to the Highlands today, are the consequence of giving the land over to sheep, to forestry, and to sporting estates (primarily deer shooting). The landscape is denuded of folk. Dotted across the Highland landscape are ruined settlements: sometimes their walls are still evident, at other times there can be seen just a jumble of stones.

The Clearances helped disseminate Highland genes across the world, with most Highland emigrants heading for the Americas, and after that, Australia , New Zealand , and elsewhere in the Empire. The British (that is to say, the English), found an almost inexhaustible source of recruits for their armies, in the form of Highlanders who joined the British army. Sometimes they would do so under the leadership of local Highland gentry, at other times, they joined up individually, rather than starve. The many wars fought by Britain to establish her empire could not have been successfully concluded without these Highland recruits.

(An historical aside: during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the be-kilted Highland soldiers were even more feared by the Indian freedom-fighters than were the Nepalese Ghurkas, who up to that time were considered the exemplars of bellicose fierceness).

The history of the Highland Clearances is a dreadful indictment of a socio-economic system that viewed the rural working class, or clansmen at large, as dispensable: a system that encouraged a landed Highland ruling class towards acts of callous, brutal indifference to the welfare of their tenants, sub-tenants and dependents. It could only have taken place in a socio-economic environment that prized ownership of land above common humanity; it took place, moreover, in an economic environment whereby a very few people owned almost all the land – and were thus able to exercise feudal suzereinty over the common folk who lived on, and worked, the land.

How much has changed today?

Bear in mind that England , Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland are the only European countries that have not undergone major land reform during their modern histories.

Fewer than 500 individuals own more than half of Scotland ’s private land – both in the Highlands and the Lowlands . Such a figure can only be arrived at through dedicated private research, for remarkably, there is no definitive register showing who owns what in Scotland . Nor are owners of land obliged to reveal their identity. Nor are they subjected to any scrutiny before acquiring vast chunks of Scottish (invariably Highland ) real estate. Scotland ’s Highland estates are much sought-after internationally, traded like commodities; available to anyone who has the means of buying a sizable piece of Scotland .

Richard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch, is Scotland ’s biggest individual landowner, with 241 887 acres, most of it in the Lowlands and Borders.

After him (though preceded by the National Trust of Scotland) comes Danish retail magnate Anders Povlsen, who owns more than 170 000 acres in the Scottish Highlands. He owns vast swathes of Perthshire, Inverness-shire, and Sutherland – indeed, much the same regions in which the notorious 19th century Countess of Sutherland owned so much land, and from which she cleared so many thousands of people.

In Anders Povlsen’s native Denmark , individuals may buy only a maximum of 620 acres of rural land, and if they wish to buy a rural holiday home, they must live in the rural countryside.

In Norway , which is seven times larger than Scotland , there are only 23 estates larger than 10 000 hectares. In Scotland , there are 144.

A host of private companies and corporations, many of them global, own many 100s of 1000s of acres of land in the Highlands. The Far Eastern conglomerate, GFG Group, through its subsidiaries, Liberty House and SIMEC (having concluded a deal with the previous corporate owners, Rio Tinto Alcan in November 2016), owns more than 100 000 acres of Highland land in Lochaber: a swathe of land stretching from Fort William right across the Mamores range to Kinlochleven, and including much of Glen Nevis and the foothills of Ben Nevis. (The nearest boundaries of this vast chunk of land are located a mere couple of hundred yards from the writer’s village home, and to reach their furthest limits would take the writer over an hour’s driving by car).

But to return to large private foreign owned landholdings in the Highlands : The Van Vlissingen family owns 87 000 acres in Letterewe, and other locations.

“Mr. Saleh”, said to be a Malaysian businessman, owns 71 383 acres in Glen Avon and other locations in the Highlands .

Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen owns 69 845 acres at Strathconon and elsewhere.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum owns 61 961 acres at Killilan and Inverinate estates.

Yuri Shefler, a Russian businessman, owns the 21 000 acres comprising the Tulchan estate.

The Scottish (SNP-led) government voted through a Land Reform Bill in March 2016. Although it brought in new protections for tenant farmers, and an end to tax relief for sporting estates, and has set up a Scottish Land Fund with funding of £10 million to assist with community buy-outs, amendments that would have restricted the amount of land that just one individual can own, and which would have prevented land ownership via offshore tax havens, were not passed.

We may regard the Highland Clearances as mere History now. Yet the fundamental issues of land ownership, where just a few individuals, many of them based abroad (and including foreign corporations also) are able to affect the lives of thousands of Scottish people living on the land, have barely been addressed.

We need a far more radical land bill passed, with far more social ambition, than the Scottish government land bill passed earlier this year.

We need the large estates broken up and taken into community, and public, ownership.

We need the issue of “community ownership” as it is currently understood, itself re-examined. If a “community” takes over ownership of, say, several thousands of acres of land, is that land any the more equably distributed in real terms than it was when in single private ownership?

We need the ownership of sizable tracts of land by foreign-based owners – be they private individuals or corporations – banned outright.

We need an upper limit on the amount of land any single individual or corporation can own in Scotland, set at a figure far below 1000 acres. (The precise figure(s) can be debated: it may be that a much lower upper limit for land ownership should be applied in the fertile, arable lowlands, than would be applied in the rock-girt highlands).

We need the identities of land owners, great and small, to be placed on a national register.

We need would-be land owners to be scrutinized, before land can be transferred.

And such a land bill should also seek, at the same time, to address the desperate shortage of homes in Scotland for those of us who are the humble folk of Scotland: for those of us who do not dream of owning some vast tract of Highland real estate, but merely seek a secure, safe, home in which to live and raise our families.

I have explored Scottish housing issues earlier in The Point. Essentially, I advocate above all a massive building program of social housing units. I advocate a very low limit on the number of residential units a single individual or corporation may own. I advocate a prohibition on second home ownership against non full-time Scottish residents.

I advocate legislation aimed at driving the rentier and rack-renter class into absolute, outright extinction.  

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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