It was in the summer of 2016, when me and my partner went on our first car trip around the Scottish Highlands, that I first encountered the term “Clearances”. In fact, we did not encounter the term per se, but upon reaching Ullapool on one of the legs of this trip, we were asking ourselves: “How come the Highlands are so empty?”. As we settled into our B&B for the night, I googled that same question, and so I stumbled into a very grim and depressing period of Scottish history which had remained totally unbeknownst to me.
I love the rugged emptiness of the Highlands, their feeling of remoteness; it’s part of what makes them so beautiful. But since that first trip, I’ve done a lot of reading on the Clearances, and that sense of beauty will forever be entwined with sorrow. My heart despairs whenever I think of the suffering and hardship suffered by those who were ripped off their land and scattered along the coasts of Scotland, told to survive on impossibly small pieces of land, which inevitably resulted in thousands upon thousands of people risking their lives in the hopes of finding a better future elsewhere. Fortunately, many did, but many died on the way, or even before they could pay for the expensive transportation out of Scotland.
The horror of the Clearances shall not be forgotten
Despite the many attempts by certain people to erase the human horror of the Clearances, or portray those found dispossessed and forced into exile as “mere economic migrants” (Looking at you, Neil Oliver, and that utter mess of a documentary that you put together for the BBC. Perhaps you should leave history to actual historians, and focus on your archaeology, a very noble but very different science, next time?), the memory of the Clearances has never gone away.
How many Scots today have family around all four corners of the world? How many of those families are descended from Highland & Lowland exiles, those people who, as the historian James Hunter puts it in the title of his book on this subject, were simply set adrift upon the world? Many others, who might not remember the Clearances, will have family abroad descended from emigrants in the 20th century, many of them leaving in equally desperate circumstances, after the calamitous effects of two World Wars.
This reality, I think, explains why immigration is much less of a toxic debate in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. Because many Scots will hopefully remember the hardship faced by those forced into exile, but also recognise the wonderful contribution those people have made around the world, and hope that immigrants coming into Scotland bring those same benefits into this wee part of the world.
The Clearances are a uniquely horrible period
Let me make it clear that I don’t think there are many similarities between the reality that forced Scottish people into exile during the Clearances, and today’s reality of economic migrants like myself. Refugees from war-torn countries certainly have much more in common with those dispossessed Scots, but I’m lucky enough to never have experienced the utter desperation that leads to forced displacement. I’m privileged to have saved up money and prepare in advance before I moved to Scotland, I am privileged that it only took me a 3-hour flight to get here, and I am privileged that I had a safety net back in Portugal if everything fell apart with the move. Refugees today, and Scots fleeing the country back in the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries, enjoy none of these privileges.
We look at places like Badbea, in Caithness, and how people cleared from the straths and glens were literally forced to live on a cliff-edge, stuck between a wall meant to keep in the sheep and a deadly precipice, and we get just a tiny glimpse that there was no choice when it came to emigrating for many of these people. All hope had been lost, their entire way of life shattered in order to feed the greed and vain desires of an aristocracy that couldn’t spare a moment’s thought for the victims of their calamitous pursuits. This was ethnic cleansing, pure and simple, a continued part of the British state’s attempt to destroy Scotland’s identity and culture. A project that went into full force right after the Battle of Culloden, and, we could argue, one that hasn’t fully stopped since then.
And today, although there are now memorials to many of these exiles, such as the one in Helmsdale, the statue to one of the architects and main actors of the Clearances still stands in Sutherland, overlooking the deserted landscape he created. (I’m not one for tearing down statues, but I’d rip that cunt right off that place and put one up to the victims of this horror instead, the ones whose strength and courage deserves to be immortalised and celebrated).
The consequences of this on Scottish attitudes today
I don’t want to keep going on about the historical side of the Clearances, as there are many brilliant books out there for you to read. James Hunter, who I mentioned above, depicts these horrors in his brilliant Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances, so far my favourite book on the subject, although focused on the Sutherland region alone, so you may want to look out for others if you want a broader picture. Consider the Lilies is a novel recommended to me many times, and I finally bought it this week, so I can’t wait to read it. And there’s also the very recent The Scottish Clearances by T. M. Devine, recipient of much praise.
My point is that the waves of forced emigration have ensured a sense of empathy in Scotland about the plight faced by emigrants in today’s world, even if the circumstances may be very different. There is also a sense of the great things that these exiled Scots went on to achieve, and perhaps a hope that by welcoming immigrants into Scotland today, these New Scots will too go on to enrich and improve our country.
May we never forget the plight faced by those people, cleared from the Highlands, Islands and the Lowlands, and may we rejoice in the legacy they have left around the world. Equally, may we never forget the humanity and sacrifice of those migrants leaving their native countries behind and coming to Scotland in the hopes of having a better life.
I am such one of these New Scots, and I hope to prove myself worthy, in time, of the love and hospitality that I’ve been greeted with since the moment I set foot upon this land of ours.