There has been a flurry of activity around a new study linking the Atlantic slave trade to the Highland clearances. 18th and 19th centuries. Fascinating stuff.
I read the Smithsonian article first. “Sure,” I thought, “we knew this already.” Or at least some of us could easily guess. If you read history, at some point you start to notice bits and pieces that aren’t being highlighted. One of those pieces is likely to be the prominence of Scots in the north Atlantic trade, and, of course, the slave trade. As soon as someone says the profits went back home, for example, to estates in Scotland, you think, “Of course. That’s exactly how it would be.”
“Between roughly 1750 and 1860, wealthy landowners forcibly evicted thousands of Scottish Highlanders in order to create large-scale sheep farms. Known today as the Highland Clearances, this era of drastic depopulation sparked the collapse of the traditional clan system and the mass migration of Scotland’s northernmost residents to other parts of the world.” McGreevy.
OK, sure. But the surprising part isn’t the connection. It’s that the connection matters today.
The research is presented as a “discussion paper on land reform” for Community Land Scotland (“We believe that we cannot create a more socially just Scotland without tackling land ownership. Half of the country’s privately owned land is held by just 432 owners and a mere 16 owners hold 10% of Scotland (Wightman 2013) – we want to see more of Scotland’s land in the hands of more of Scotland’s people“).
The real meat here is in the Bella Caledonia article. “It’s likely that somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 acres of the western and northern Highlands today are in the hands of families which have benefitted from the profits of slavery.“
Scottish Land and Estates, “a representative body for large landowners and country businesses,” brushes off the research as irrelevant: “it is a bit of a stretch to leap from a review of social history and ancient connections to slavery as being a reason why communities should own land today. (Ooo, this is getting good.)
I like the response: “Landlords consistently seek to benefit from the historical traditions and stories associated with their land and with their houses and castles. Past connections are readily, and understandably, utilized by Scottish Land and Estates to enable heritage tourism and generate a particular version of the Highlands and indeed Scotland in general. Dismissing one element of the past as irrelevant while promoting and deploying another version as key to the contemporary economic and revenue basis of many landed estates is not conducive to a fully informed and effective discussion of land, land use and community in the Highlands.“
This is an issue that should interest the American and Canadian descendants of Scots who lost their homes in the Clearances, as well as any potential heritage tourists looking forward to visiting romantic Scotland with its castles and kilts.
I’ll never look at any of it the same way.
- Nora McGreevy. “How Profits From Slavery Changed the Landscape of the Scottish Highlands.” Smithsonian Magazine <smithsonianmag.org>. Nov. 27, 2020, retrieved Dec. 13, 2020.
- Iain MacKinnon. “Slavery Derived Wealth in Scotland Today.” Bella Caledonia <bellacaledonia.org.uk>. Dec. 8, 2020, retrieved Dec. 13, 2020.