Clearance village at Suisnish, Skye
Clearance village at Suisnish, Skye

The Clearances were not a single event, but a long process that changed the nature of Highland life and moved people off the land to new towns along the coast, or forced them to emigrate overseas. At the root of the Clearances was the destruction of the clan system following the failure of the Second Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.

The traditional clan system encouraged clan chiefs to look out for the welfare of clan members; treating them like an extended family. Government measures to break the power of the clan chiefs meant that a great many Highlanders had to look out for their own welfare. Many clan chiefs moved to larger cities in the south and became absentee landlords, relying on rents for income. These rents they raised as often as they could.

In the 1760s a great many Highlanders left the glens, heading for a new life overseas in Canada. This migration of the Highlanders continued, and even gathered pace into the 19th century.

Now come the sheep. Rising demand for wool meant that the clan chiefs could make more money by sheep farming than they could make by renting their land. So they turned people off land they had lived on for countless generations, and replaced them with large herds of Cheviot sheep. A large flock of sheep could be tended by a single shepherd, so there was no work for most of the people who lived on the land.

Even if they had wanted to stay, there was simply no way for them to live. Some, of course, tried to stay and were forcibly evicted. Many were forced to emigrate overseas. In the matter of a few generations, the glens were emptied of people and large swaths of the Highland was turned over to sheep farming.

Not all people were forced to emigrate. Some landowners built fishing villages by the coast and essentially forced their tenants to move to these villages. People were forcibly turned out of their houses, and the houses burned behind them. The deserted ruins of small Highland villages dot the landscape, a testament to the triumph of greed by the landowners.