Caithness Field Club

Another Perspective on the Sutherland Clearances
by Tom Allan

Comments from Tom Allan, relating to the article by G Leet entitled "Malthus,Ireland and the Highland Clearances" (Vol 13, No. 1 1995 Caithness Field Club Bulletin)'.

When I first read Geoff Leet's article on "Malthus, Ireland and the Highland Clearances" in the last edition of the Bulletin I dismissed it as an ill-conceived and poorly executed spoof in the Auberon Waugh tradition. On being subsequently assured by the Editor and the author that it was intended as a serious contribution to the on-going debate about the Clearances I was both appalled and incensed. As a historian I was appalled by the writer's lack of intellectual rigour. As a Scot I was incensed by the barely-veiled racism the article contained. After some correspondence with the Editor I was invited to pen this riposte.

History is a wonderful subject enjoyed by many thinking adults. One of its drawbacks, however, is its very accessibility (at any rate with regard to secondary sources). The unwary, after having read a couple of books on a subject, may well feel qualified to pontificate. As in Mr Leet's case they can fall into several traps of which the trained historian is only too well aware, and will take precautions to avoid. Before I illustrate what I mean with reference to some of the more glaring deficiencies in the offending article I should make my own historical perspective clear.

I shall not argue that the Clearances should never have taken place. It is patently untrue that all was well in the Highlands in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At the same time I shall not argue that the Clearances were unavoidable, as I do not subscribe to the 'historical inevitability' school of thought which under-values and under-estimates the human factor. But there is enough of the determinist in me to acknowledge that the indicators of major change in land management were in place across the social and economic spectrum for a generation before the evictions began in earnest. Neither do I intend to provide the readers with an alternative to Mr Leet's view of the Clearances - that has already been provided elsewhere, and I credit Field Club members with being familiar with the detail. So, to return to the concerns expressed in my opening paragraph, I shall now point up the misconceptions and downright deceptions contained in Mr Leet's article.

On a basic level there is no excuse for sloppiness in chronology, sequencing of events, or nomenclature when writing for a serious publication. Yet we have Malthus mis-dated; the Duke's great wealth allegedly propping up communities before he even inherited and began his improvement plans; Captain Boycott misplaced a generation before his time. We have "Scotland" being cleared, and "the Highlands" saved by the Duke of Sutherland. Nor is there any excuse for the sort of non-sequitur which infers a connection between religion and the ability to resist landlords in Ireland.

More serious is the lack of relevance in the two cases quoted about the sheep-drover and the foreman. These sources contribute nothing to the argument (in so far as one may be discerned), and serve only to illustrate how stupid and lazy the Scottish peasants supposedly were. This is blatant stereotypical racism which has no place in the 1990s, especially in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin, and which, I'll warrant, incensed more than the present author. 

Worse still is to compound matters by making a series of inaccurate statements on matters of fact which are easy to verify.

Smallpox was not eliminated at the time of the Sutherland clearances, remaining an important disease amongst adult Highlanders, due to impure lymph used between 1800 and 1820, and amongst children until 1863. The news that the Duke's English inheritance "... developed the herring fishing which brought prosperity to the North" will have come as some surprise to those of us who thought that it owed more to the efforts of the British Fisheries Society two decades before the Duke's inheritance. It is misleading and mischievous to paint a total picture of starving isolated communities being kept alive by charity when both personal testimony and the archaeological evidence indicate a great disparity in living conditions throughout the area. The dangers inherent in an over-reliance on a potato monoculture did not become apparent until well into the 1840s, not, as Mr Leet would have us believe, from 1805 onwards when the Sutherland plan was put into action. And it is a gross distortion to talk of "millions" and "millions more" dying of hunger in Ireland in the 1840s. The reality was bad enough without this kind of hyperbole.

However, in any taxonomy of historical skills, none of the preceding errors can compare to the lack of objectivity and, hence, the invalidity of many of the conclusions reached in Mr Leet's article. Let me take two examples.

To portray the Duke's agents as missionaries for a new Malthusian gospel is not just to be guilty of subjectivity but, in the cases of men like William Young and Patrick Sellar, of downright dishonesty. The only thing on the minds of the "men from Moray" when they came north in 1809 was personal aggrandisement, not a zealous desire to avert famine. Sellar's retiral in 1818 as one of the most prosperous sheep-farmers in the North bears eloquent testimony to this.

But for sheer audacity Mr Leet's verdict on the Duke of Sutherland is breathtaking. Far from a benevolent philanthropist showering all of his vast fortune on the victims of a mistaken Malthusian hypothesis, Stafford invested a mere 8.6% of his inherited English wealth in Sutherland in the critical years between 1803 and 1817. Genuine concern for the welfare of his Scottish tenants there undoubtedly was; but make no mistake about it - here was a hard-headed business man at work putting into effect a systematic plan to increase the profitability of his land-holdings in the far North. With a product readily marketable in the Lowlands, his sheep-rents brought in far more money than his croft-rents ever did. And far from enabling the people of "the Highlands" (sic) to make the transition to the modern world with 'so little trauma' (excised by the Ed. from the original article), the Duke's legacy was a land of misery and poverty whose inhabitants never forgave him, and whose descendants never will, for the outrages perpetrated in his name. "Three cheers for the Duke!" (similarly excised from the original), indeed!!

I trust that this article will not discourage other contributors to the Bulletin, but will serve as a caution to enthusiastic amateurs, and will reinforce and maintain the high standards for which the Caithness Field Club can be justly proud over the years.