Author Q&A: Tom Devine

The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed (Allen Lane, hardback £25, ebook £12.99)

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Eighteenth-century Scotland is famed for the Enlightenment ideas that helped to shape the modern world. But there was another side to that period: many of Scotland’s people were subjected to coercive and sometimes violent change in the name of “rational” exploitation of land use. They began when Scottish clan chiefs turned themselves into hereditary landlords, forcing a change in land use from farming to sheep rearing, but got more complex after that.  Based on extensive use of original sources, this is the first serious history book to chart the tumultuous saga in one volume. 

In brief, what were the clearances?
The dispossession of traditional communities in Scotland from land which occurred from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century as rural capitalism spread throughout Scotland.

Your book uses the term “Scottish clearances” rather than the more common “Highland clearances”. Why?
For the first time in one book the analysis shows that clearance occurred across the whole of Scotland and was not confined to one region such as the Highlands.

How much resistance was there to the clearances?
Hardly any in the Lowlands, some in the western Borders in the early eighteenth century and around 50 local incidents in the Highlands. Long after the end of major removals, the large scale collective campaign known as the Crofters’ War took place against landlordism in the 1880s.

How does your account differ from John Prebble’s work, whose book The Highland Clearances is the source of many Scottish people’s understanding of the period?
Profoundly; there is hardly any agreement with Prebble’s well-written but seriously flawed and under-researched text.

The Cheviot sheep, introduced to the Highlands during this period, was more productive than Highland natives but less hardy, and so needed less exposed farmland for grazing. How significant were the Cheviot sheep in in the clearances?

Very significant in the Borders and the Highlands but much less so in most parts of the Lowlands.

Why is there less emphasis on Lowland clearances?
Much of the book tries to resolve that puzzle! Let me just say in brief that the explanation is complex and ranges across cultural, economic, historical and demographic factors.

What has been the effect of the clearances on current Scottish politics, including land reform?
Popular books on the Highland Clearances have done much to raise the profile of land reform but what happened in most of Scotland long has been ignored and has no current political traction.

The Highlands were always a difficult, marginal land in which to make a living. Do you think it’s the case that its current status as a romantic wilderness is more sustainable than as a more populated, working area?
In part, but there still remain opportunities in inshore shellfish fishing, whisky distilling, crafts, fish farming, forestry and public services.

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