Living in Scotland in the 19th Century
|Typical croft of the period|
|Hard to believe|
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were times of brutal poverty and repression for the common people of Scotland. Under the traditional clan system, destroyed by the English after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Scottish aristocrats rented land to tenants (known as crofters) under a semi-feudal system the mainstay of which was the raising of black cattle and kelp collecting. When these industries became unprofitable, the landowners turned to sheep. Sheep required less labour, and first the highlands, then the rest of Scotland were brutally cleared of crofters to make way for the new system which was based on the enclosure of vast tracts of arable land.
The method was violent, and the common people treated worse than the animals that were to replace them. Eviction of crofters was achieved by simply burning villages to the ground. A contemporary account by Donald McLeod, a crofter from Sutherland, makes harrowing reading:
" The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description — it required to be seen to be believed.
A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself — all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition — whether in or out of the flames — I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins."
|The only alternative|
Enclosure of the Highlands destroyed the clan system even more surely than English repression. If the English disarmed the crofters, prohibited the wearing of tartans and kilts and ruled the country with an iron fist through the infamous Black Watch regiments, enclosure cut the last bonds of cultural and emotional allegiance of the people to the Laird. Those who survived the enclosures were driven to the new industrial towns in the Lowlands or to try their luck in America or Australasia.
The Potato Famine
The Highland Potato Famine was a famine caused by potato blight that struck the Scottish Highlands in the 1840s. While the mortality rate was less than other Scottish famines in the 1690s, and 1780, the Highland potato famine caused over 1.7 million people to leave Scotland during the period 1846–52.
Famine was a real prospect throughout the period, and certainly it was one of severe malnutrition, serious disease, crippling financial hardship and traumatic disruption to essentially agrarian community. The effect on the Lowlands was equally devastating with an influx of impoverished Irish and Highland Scots which increased competion for jobs, housing and food. The effects of overpopulation lasted for the rest of the century, and emigration was the only relief valve.
Wherever poor Scots gathered during these years emigration would inevitable be discussed, plans laid and information on assisted emigration schemes such as those set up by the Otago Association passed on by word of mouth. A "respectable" Scot could emigrate to Nova Scotia for as little as one pound, and little more to Australasia. The effects on the Scottish countryside are still evident today. The Highlands are sparsly populated with weak cultural identity (Gaelic was the common language of crofters in the 19th century but today only 1.2% of the entire population of the country has "some Gaelic ability", mainly in the Outer Hebrides) and many more sheep than people.
|The effects can still be seen today|