Thankfully into the debate comes Tom Devine, Scotland’s best modern historian. Although viewed as tainted by some Scots for coming out in support of independence during the 2014 referendum, he makes history accessible, backed up with formidable original research and statistical evidence. In this book, he chronicles land ownership, the clan system and shifting attitudes towards Highlanders, from heroic soldiers to lazy aborigines. He is populist enough to find space for the romantic Jacobite TV fantasy Outlander, but this is a serious book, which includes a large section on dispossession in the Borders – intended to put what happened in the Highlands and Islands into perspective.
Devine’s books have arguably done most of all to deepen Scotland’s sense of its past, particularly as a country that reached out into the world and, for good or bad, did more to change it than perhaps any other place of a similar size. His writing has altered our view and expanded our knowledge, though in this book there is more expanding than altering. The tone of the introduction seems to herald wholesale revisionism, but in the end Devine doesn’t depart radically from the verdicts of others. In his closing chapter he asks, ‘If dispossession was Scotland-wide, why has loss of land come to be exclusively associated in the popular mind with the Highlands?’ But the answers to that question are plain enough. In the Lowlands, the cottars moved from the emptying countryside to find work in nearby towns and villages, and aroused no public fuss; from the 1840s onwards, writers in the Highlands described clearances not simply as the consequence of an economic crisis but in Devine’s words ‘as a social and cultural disaster which threatened the destruction of an ancient civilisation’.
Devine’s historical research is typically impressive, but one of the book’s arguments – that the Lowland clearances are unknown – isn’t altogether convincing. At the very least, the broad outlines feel familiar from Devine’s own books. The case is made far more rigorously here, but it is doubtful that many general readers will require the level of evidence presented. Devine’s teacherly impulse is hard to fault except, for example, when he tells you that greenfly rarely move from host plants when the wind is above 8 miles per hour. On the wider question, he makes some suggestions as to why the Highland clearances occupy the position they do, but in the end Devine is reluctant to speculate.
Meticulously, Devine explores the various ways these clearances were conducted, and, especially, the different fates of Highlanders and Lowlanders, as the “frontier” pushed north. There are surprises. Devine writes that in its “scale and ambition Sutherland was the most extraordinary example of social engineering in 19th-century Britain”. In Assynt in the far north-west alone, 48 townships were cleared. But much less well known is the evidence which suggests that even in the south, in the Lammermuirs, between 1800 and 1825, 54 settlements were abandoned... Devine teases out puzzles...
This book is very much in the Devine mould: it is eloquent, erudite and comprehensive. Although it is a work of economic and social history, Devine has developed a means of incorporating the raw statistical data into a narrative that compels the reader on. His comprehensive bibliography captures the huge corpus of historical material on the subject... The Scottish Clearances offers a mature and objective approach that does not fall into the emotional or polemical. These features will ensure its relevance to Scottish historical studies for some considerable time to come.
At the end of this superb book, however, a much more nuanced and contradictory picture emerges of what might be called the great demographic revolution of Scotland. That it has been written by a member of the Scots intellectual aristocracy (Tom Devine is a knight as well as a professor) and one who backed independence in the 2014 referendum renders its conclusions almost unassailable. Had it been written by an English historian, this revisionist history would have received a much dustier reception...In the end what Devine leaves you with, once the mythology is dispelled, is how economic, geographic and demographic change so profoundly alters human settlement.
The scope of this book – the Lowlands, the Highlands and the diaspora from the 17th century to the 20th – is impressive, and the detail and depth of knowledge displayed are remarkable – but what’s truly amazing about it is how damn readable it is...In part, this is a demonstration of Devine’s novelistic skills. He changes focus often, drawing the reader back to appreciate the overview of encroaching forces such as enclosure or social climbing by landholders, then zooming in to see the close-up effects of those forces on individuals, allowing us both to understand and to empathise.
He has a deft hand with detail, too.
There are many novels portraying the iniquities of the Highland Clearances; not many about Lowland ones... Devine, a professional historian as Prebble wasn’t, calls it an “accessible and fluent read” before cutting it down to size by remarking that this is “in part because the author does not even try to come to grips with any of the many challenging complexities of Highland history.”... It requires the historian of the Clearances to do research based on original sources – facts and statistics which Devine now offers in persuasive detail. Not surprisingly he shows that the story is much more complicated than is popularly supposed – not the straightforward struggle between the forces of good and evil... Gaeldom had been in retreat for centuries... A sad story, yes, but it is better to look reality in the face than indulge in vain regrets. In providing us with the material which makes it more possible to see history as it actually was, Sir Tom has written a necessary book.
As Tom Devine makes clear in this powerful book, the Scots are a landless people who have retained an intense attachment to the idea of the land...One very important point that is emphasised is the extent of protest against clearance. Although this became more politicised and active in the Highland Land War of the 1880s – in which Irish figures, such as Michael Davitt, were very active – extensive protest was evident throughout the years of clearance. The balance of power was so heavily weighted towards the landlords and the state that it was very difficult for groups of small tenants to subvert the process. As well as riot and disturbance, protest was manifest in emigration against landlord wishes, Gaelic song and poetry and the rejection of the landlord-dominated Church of Scotland in many rural areas in the “Disruption” of 1843, which saw the creation of a new Free Church of Scotland.
The processes of dispossession related in this important book continue to mark contemporary Scotland. The emptiness of the Scottish countryside, north and south, is marketed as a natural and positive state of affairs. Solitude and wilderness are valuable commodities. Tom Devine lays out, in comprehensive depth, the traumatic process that created such conditions.
Devine, as a historian, is meticulous if not always enthralling. Facts may be chiels that winna ding an downa be disputed, but interpretations of data certainly are. Yet buried under the statistical chest-puffing there is a lot to admire in this book... For a start, there is closer attention paid to the south of Scotland as well as the Highlands... There are some notable myth-busting moments in this enquiry. For example, the population of the Highlands actually increased after the Clearances... I did wonder at the cut-off date of 1900. Of course, by that date, Scotland had undergone the most rapid industrialisation in history, and farm workers were flocking to the cities. But not to continue the story into such issues as community land buy-outs or the creation of the New Towns — surely another form of nudged internal migration — leaves the story, such as it is, dangling. In short, I may pick this book up again to check a fact, but reading it from cover to cover is an unlikely proposition.
This is really a story of what happens when huge industrial change crashes into the lifestyle of pre-industrial people. It is complex, because life is complex. Devine is rigorous, factual, endlessly curious and unafraid to draw big conclusions. He has made a superb book. It is crammed with data, but is colourful and passionate as well.
Anybody interested in Scottish history needs to read it. But because it shows how interlinked the stories of Ireland, England and rural Scotland were in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is also a great contribution to British history. The cover is a little dreary; what’s inside is anything but.