The social transformation of the Scottish Highlands
Author: T. M. Devine

This book charts the story of the people of the Scottish Highlands from before the '45 to the great crofters' rebellion in the 1880s - a powerful story of defeat, social dissolution, emigration, rebellion and cultural revival. The conventional and familiar division of Scotland into 'Highlands' and 'Lowlands' is a comparatively recent development. Strangely, fourteenth century chroniclers who noted differences in culture, dress, speech and social behaviour between the Highlands and the Lowlands failed to comment on clanship as a distinguishing characteristic. During the Wars of Independence against England, soldiers from the Highlands fought on the Scottish side but were not given clan affiliations. The penetration of feudal structures into the Highlands blurred the distinction between clanship and social systems elsewhere in Scotland and many of the greatest clan chiefs were feudal lords as well as tribal leaders. This can be best illustrated from the history of the Lordship of the Isles. Successive heads of the MacDonald dynasty practised primogeniture, issued feudal charters to major landowners in the lordship and employed feudal rules in marital contracts. It used to be thought that Highland clanship died on Culloden Moor in 1746 and was effectively buried by the punitive legislation imposed on Gaeldom after the final defeat of the last Jacobite rebellion. It is clear that clan society was undergoing a process of gradual and protracted decline long before the '45 and that the climax to this was reached in the decades after the failure of the rebellion.

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T. M. Devine

The penetration of feudal structures into the Highlands blurred the distinction between clanship and social systems elsewhere in Scotland and many of the greatest clan chiefs were feudal lords as well as tribal leaders. Fourteenth century chroniclers who noted differences in culture, dress, speech and social behaviour between the Highlands and the Lowlands failed to comment on clanship as a distinguishing characteristic. The effective deployment of military resources depended on the depth and integrity of the social relationships between clan elites and followers. During the Wars of Independence against England, soldiers from the Highlands fought on the Scottish side, but were not given clan affiliations. It used to be thought that Highland clanship died on Culloden Moor in 1746 and was effectively buried by the punitive legislation imposed on Gaeldom after the final defeat of the last Jacobite rebellion.

in Clanship to crofters’ war
T. M. Devine

The Highland support for Jacobitism gave it a degree of military credibility in the same way that the French connection boasted its political and diplomatic standing, but the commitment of the clans seems paradoxical. The clans of the inner and outer Hebrides played little part in the '45. The appeal of Jacobitism for the clans may have been based on the fact that they could readily identify with the values of kinship and hereditary right which were shared by both monarchy and clanship. There were two key differences from the aftermath of the '15 rebellion. First, a huge regular army, supported by naval units, had been drawn into the heart of the Highlands and could be used in effective combination for punitive action against the clans. Second, the '45 rebellion had come too close to success and the social system which had produced the attempted counter-revolution had to be destroyed.

in Clanship to crofters’ war
T. M. Devine

Gaelic society and clanship were in decay long before the later eighteenth century. However, in the 1760s and 1770s there was a marked acceleration in the rate of social change and, in subsequent decades, material, cultural and demographic forces combined to produce a dramatic revolution in the Highland way of life. The cultural distinction was vital in understanding the impact of clearance on the psyche of the Gael. There were echoes of the dramatic transition in the wave of clearances and land improvements which swept across the Scottish Highlands from the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The depth and extent of the markets for all that the Highlands could export was transformed and the commercial forces were so powerful that social change in Gaeldom became irresistible.

in Clanship to crofters’ war
T. M. Devine

The central feature of the final phase of clearance was the linkage of mass eviction with schemes of assisted emigration. Financial fluctuations in the wider economy helped to shape the policies of clearance in the later 1840s. The catastrophic failure of the potatoes in 1846 and the continuation of the blight for several years thereafter was an important watershed in the history of the Highland clearances. The famine removals were different, because their social costs were greater. The famine clearances have a special significance in the history of the Highland clearances as a whole. They were the last in the cycle of great evictions which transformed Gaelic society from the last quarter of the eighteenth century. It was the large-scale removals which helped to put the crofting question firmly on the national political map and created the context for the attack on Highland landlordism later in the nineteenth century.

in Clanship to crofters’ war
T. M. Devine

At the end of his long career as engineer with the Scottish Fishery Board, during which he travelled widely in the Highlands, Joseph Mitchell noted the transformation which had occurred in the pattern of landownership in the region since 1820s. The majority of British landowners had to contend with a more difficult economic environment by the 1820s. By the 1850s, the pattern of landownership in the western Highlands and Islands had been revolutionised. Historians of the British landed classes argue that it was exceedingly difficult for landowners to reduce absolute debt levels even through the imposition of strict measures of economy. The expansion of landed debt which occurred in the later eighteenth century Highlands was simply a regional variant of a British phenomenon.

in Clanship to crofters’ war
T. M. Devine

To the rest of the world in the late twentieth century Scotland seems a Highland country. The roots of Highlandism can be traced back to the '45 and before, but an important institutional step in its development was first taken in 1778 with the foundation of the Highland Society in London. The Highland regiments were therefore crucial to the development of Highlandism. They added to the glamour of the Highlands, perpetuating the association with Jacobitism and clanship which were also being idealized. They also enhanced the contemporary image of a 'noble peasantry' uncontaminated by urban vice and displaying all the virtues of loyalty, courage and endurance to heroic effect. Much of the new awareness of the Highlands in the eighteenth century throughout Britain can be traced to Jacobitism in general and the '45 in particular.

in Clanship to crofters’ war
T. M. Devine

In many parts of the early eighteenth century Highlands the established presbyterian church of Scotland had limited impact. In the nineteenth century the religious tradition which was to have the most fundamental impact on the society and culture of Gaeldom was protestant evangelicalism. The Highlands had to be brought within the domain of the established church, because Catholicism and episcopalianism were the twin ideological sources of Jacobitism. The irreligion of the Highlander in some districts and the weakness of presbyterianism in many others had to be tackled not only for religious reasons but in order to achieve vital political ends. From the early eighteenth century, the conversion of the Highlanders became a joint mission of both church and state, a partnership designed to civilise the inhabitants of the region by destroying clanship, eradicating popery and inculcating loyalty to the Hanoverian crown.

in Clanship to crofters’ war
T. M. Devine

The decline in Scotland was paralleled to some extent in nineteenth century Ireland and Wales, but the collapse in Gaelic-speaking in northern Scotland was much greater and more rapid than in either Wales or Ireland. It is sometimes argued that the victory of English speech and literacy was a result of modern educational policy. The fundamental Act of 1872 ignored Gaelic entirely in its plan for a national system of compulsory education and even in the more sympathetic legislation of 1918 there was still no requirement to teach the language. The schools system in the Highlands therefore used English as the medium of instruction and state education became a means of anglicisation. From the early seventeenth century state policy in the Highlands until after the last Jacobite rebellion was directed to the repression and eradication of 'the Irische language'.

in Clanship to crofters’ war
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Illicit whisky-making, 1760–1840
T. M. Devine

The rapid expansion of illicit whisky production in the Highlands is a telling illustration of the capacity of peasant society to respond to market opportunity, when it possessed a real if ephemeral competitive advantage over the Lowland economy. The manufacture of illicit whisky took place at a time when demand for the spirit in Scotland was on the increase. The most common form of illicit distillation was household manufacture for family and local consumption, a continuation of a tradition long established before the days of costly licences and heavy duties. Some landed gentlemen invested in the peasant enterprises and so had an obvious economic interest incurtailing the activities of illicit rivals. Both legal and illegal manufacturers were able to exploit the growing demand, but the illicit advantage was dependent ultimately on the development of government revenue legislation.

in Clanship to crofters’ war