Caithness Field Club

Malthus, Ireland, and the Highland Clearances
by Geoff Leet

Thomas Robert Malthus was a cleric who, in the 1800's observed gloomily that populations increased geometrically (2,4,8,16, etc) while food supplies increased arithmetically (2,3,4,5, etc) so mankind would always exceed the food available.

Malthus was read by the Reverend Charles Darwin who added Malthus + occasional mutations and arrived at the Theory Of Evolution which he realised would create a theological storm so put he off publishing. Malthus was also read by Alfred Russell Wallace who also added occasional mutations and also arrived at the Theory Of Evolution which he started to publish. This forced Darwin to combine with Wallace in the first joint paper on Evolution.

Malthus was also read by the Duke of Sutherland's agents who fully realised that a major famine was inevitable unless something was done, and that only they could do it.

The amazing inoculation programme in Scotland in the 1800's had eliminated the killing disease, Smallpox, and the potato was available to feed the expanding population. But the potato harvest began to suffer blight, and during many winters increasing numbers of starving highlanders were staggering from the frozen hills begging food for their isolated townships, and the Duke's agents realised that even the Duke's great wealth could not prop up the old ways for ever.

The income from the Duke's English Bridgewater Estate was used to build the roads and harbours, and from nothing, Helmsdale town. They developed the herring fishing which brought prosperity to the North. The new big sheep, while hit by foreign competition, did support new jobs in wool and droving. The roads engineer, Joseph Mitchell, quoted the examination of a scruffy drover who was an expert witness in a case relating to the value of sheep; How many sheep do you own Mr Mackay? I dinna exactly ken. Is it more than 10? Och aye. He was still saying Och aye at "over 100,000" when the lawyer accepted his credentials.

One of the Duke's foremen fondly recalled the old days, "The pace of life was gentle, you rested in the heather and watched your cattle grow. The only problem was that for two months man and beast starved."

If Scotland had not been cleared what would have happened?

In Ireland the peasants were of a different religion from their landlords and were able to resist the attempts of landlords to move them from their land. The peasants used a subtle mixture of social pressure and murder so that the first landlord to try, Captain Boycott, had to give up the struggle and the land but did give his name to the English language.

The Irish population expanded and inevitable result when the potatoes failed year after year was the Hungry Forties (1845-7), and millions of Irish died in indescribable misery. To retain their hovels they had to harvest their landlord's wheat which, throughout the famine, was exported to England. The government imported Indian maize which was offered cheaply to peasants who had no money. And millions more died. The resulting bitterness made later Irish independence inevitable.

The Highlands were fortunate in having a far-seeing landlord with access to English wealth to enable them to make the transition to the modern world.

Malthus did not predict the pill. In ALL societies where the wife must work to pay the mortgage the average size of completed families does not reach the 2.2 necessary to maintain the population. This is true of the Highlands, Catholic Ireland, the rest of Europe, USA and Japan. Medical developments will allow you and I to live a little longer than our parents did, so total populations in the Western World will still slightly increase before inevitable decline. Our successors may wish to encourage immigration to keep our population from declining too quickly, and perhaps bring back some of the descendants of the Highlanders who had to leave.

But Malthus will still rule the majority of mankind who do not have a benevolent Duke for a landlord.

Published in 1995 Bulletin