frontline vol. 2 issue 4.

Songs of Struggle: Cleared Out

Bill Scott talks about another song of struggle.

“Great White Sheep -Gordon Menzies

Oh Sutherland is a bonnie land,

Beyond the Moray Firth.

And Rosshire smiles at the Western Isles,

The land of Gaeldom’s birth.

From Scrabster Bay to Mingulay,

The mighty mountains weep;

For each sad glen has been cleared of men

To make way for the great white sheep.

Kildonan’s ablaze and Langdale’s braes

Are burnin’ tae the skies.

The Factor’s men who raze the glen

Heed not the infant’s cries.

The landlord’s might denies the right

Of the crofter’s crops tae grow.

A laird must keep his great white sheep

So his flesh and blood must go.

A Sutherland maid, her clan betrayed

And wed tae an English lord.

She’s driven her men from the neighbor’s glen

Wi’ musket, ball and sword.

Her land she’s sold for English gold

While her clansmen throng the shore;

And the great white sheep walk the mountains steep,

Her men will walk no more.

From every glen the silent men

Have a prayer upon their lips;

As they crouch by the sea in poverty

And wait for the white sailed ships.

The Atlantic roar on the rocky shore

Will lull the bairns tae sleep.

No more they’ll stand on their faether’s land-

It has gone for the great white sheep.


This song is not from the socialist tradition but the nationalist one but I believe that it’s probably the best written about the Clearances. So no apologies from me for including it in a series of songs of struggle.

The Highlands and Islands of Scotland once had a thriving population and culture. Yet today they are mainly an under-populated wilderness. Between 1785 and 1886 it has been estimated that 500,000 Highlanders “left” their homes. Some were forcibly evicted in the most brutal way, others were forced out through debt, famine and the crushing of their culture.

When the price of wool more than doubled between 1801 and 1818 Highland landlords saw their chance to make money and started to replace their Highland cattle with sheep. In 1800 there were 355,700 sheep in the Western Highlands, by 1880 the number had risen to over 2 million, nearly all of them imported Cheviots.

The first clearance of people of the land to make way for sheep occurred in the 1770s, and mass evictions were still occurring one hundred years later.

There were two main types of ‘clearance’. The first was forced settlement on barren land usually near the sea. These new townships had crofts too small to be viable farms. Instead, in line with Adam Smith’s theories, the Highlanders would be forced to learn to diversify. They would become weavers, kelp workers, fishermen, etc. The croft would give them a subsistence living, whilst they learnt new skills.

The second type of ‘clearance’ was prompted by the failure of these new crofts to produce a living for the Highlanders or enough profits for their landlords. Rent increases and a collapse in kelp prices resulted in destitution and starvation. When, in 1846, the potato crop also failed many tenants defaulted on their rents or were forced through starvation to migrate.

Approximately 150 - 250,000 people were forcibly evicted during the Clearances. At their height 2,000 families were burnt out of their homes in a single day.

25,000 Highlanders died of starvation and disease during the famines of the1830s & 40s. More died trying to escape starvation. Between 1847- 53 at least 49 emigrants’ boats, carrying between 600 - 1,000 passengers sank. 17,300 Scottish emigrants also died of disease on these coffin ships or in the quarantine stations of Canada and America.
The Clearances may not have been genocidal but they very much resemble what we have come to know today as “ethnic cleansing”. Perhaps the most barbaric clearances were those carried out in Sutherland. The Duchess of Sutherland (1765-1839) had been its Countess until she married Lord Stafford who was made 1st Duke of Sutherland in 1832. He was the richest man in Britain. This couple and their factor Patrick Sellar literally got away with murder.

The main Sutherland Clearances occurred between 1811-1821 and were seen as racially motivated by locals as the in-coming landlord and many of his agents were English or Southern Scots (Sassenachs) who openly despised Highlanders as lazy, drunken, “Papists” (actually they were mainly Episcopalian) who spoke a barbaric language, “Erse” (Irish/Gaelic - indistinguishable to the ‘Sassenachs’).

Patrick Sellar was also a sheep farmer who had a financial interest in clearing as many of the people from the estate as he could so that he could increase the size of his own flock. His methods were amongst the most brutal recorded. One example will have to suffice:

William Chisholm appealed to Sellar not to burn his house down as his 100 year old mother was lying inside. Sellar’s reply was, “Damn her, the old witch, she has lived too long, let her burn.” and he personally torched the thatch. William managed to pull her from the burning cottage but they had no shelter except for a cow shed where she later died.

In 1816 Sellar was finally brought to trial on charges of culpable homicide and fire-raising. The trial was a farce as the judge and court officials were themselves sheep-owning landholders. Despite the weight of evidence against him Sellars was acquitted of all charges. After the trial he returned to the estate and burned down another forty houses in vengeance against his accusers.

By the climax of the Sutherland Clearances 40 sheep farmers occupied land once lived on by 15,000 people. After his death the few remaining Sutherland tenants were forced, on pain of eviction, to contribute to the erection of a statue to commemorate the 1st Duke, the monster who had evicted their friends and relations.
But the sheep, which replaced the people, have mainly gone. The great sheep farms became unsustainable by the late 19th century, undercut by cheaper imports from Australia & New Zealand. The land was instead given over to sporting estates, the playgrounds of the new industrial aristocracy. By 1912 one fifth of Scotland, 3,599,744 acres, was under deer forest.

This bitter, angry song by Gordon Menzies of folk duo Gaberlunzie is one of the best modern folk songs about the Clearances. The history of the Scottish Clearances is glossed over in Scottish schools - if it is taught at all. Many of the main reference encyclopaedias barely mention them. Yet they have fundamentally re-shaped Scotland. More than half of those driven out of the Highlands settled in lowland Scotland and have radically altered its view of the Highlands.

For more information about the Clearances and their aftermath read John Prebble’s “The Highland Clearances” and the marvellous “A Dance Called America” by historian Jim Hunter.