From the September 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard
How they got the Scottish Highlands
Even after a newcomer to Socialism has seen that capitalism is based on the exploitation of the workers, he may still feel that originally the propertied class must have obtained their property by superior merit. Surely, he will argue, riches were obtained in the first place by worthy individuals who worked hard and saved?
Marx deals with the question of “primitive accumulation”, the original gathering together of wealth, in Part VIII of Capital. This “primitive accumulation”, he says, plays the same part in orthodox economic theory as original sin does in theology. “In times gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal, élite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living . . . And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work.” The facts, Marx pointed out, are very different. Wealth was originally accumulated by a process of legalised robbery. The land of Britain, for example, once belonged to those who tilled it. The theft of the land by a few has gone on in stages throughout the last fifteen centuries.
This expropriation was perhaps most striking, as we look back now, in the Highlands of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. The reason is that the blight of private property struck in the Highlands later than in other areas, so that the whole of the coercive forces of Britain were available to help on the transformation, which as a result was particularly sudden and brutal.
The Highlands owed their long immunity to their physical configuration. Entrance to the mountainous area could only be gained through narrow passes, where a handful of men could defeat an army; and the glens and straths within the Highlands were easily defensible against invaders for the same reason. Within this area, during the first part of the 18th century, the clans owned their own clan territories as they had done for centuries. The Campbells in Argyll, the Stewarts and Robertsons in Perthshire, the Rosses and Munros in Ross-shire, could have been forgiven for thinking that their ownership of their land was eternal and unchallengeable. It was not individual ownership; no clansman owned this or that stretch of land to the exclusion of all other clansmen; clan ownership meant that every clansman had the right to hunt the game on the mountain and moor within the clan land, to share in the general grazing, and to till part of the clan's soil. The general right to a living off the land had a corresponding duty: the duty to defend the clan land against invasion. At any alarm the croishtarich — the fiery cross, a piece of wood burnt at one end and dipped in lamb’s blood at the other — would go from township to township through the clan land, and every man capable of bearing arms at once repaired to the pre-arranged rallying spot (the Grants, for example, at Craigellachie, and the Clan Chattan at Dunlichity hill) to ward off the danger.
But among the institutions thrown up by clanship was one which was pregnant with future disaster. It was the chiefship. The chief led the clan in war, and judged any dispute in peacetime. When a chief died, another chief would be chosen, usually a new or distant relative of the last chief: although this meant little when every member of the clan believed himself related to every other, and could recount his descent — whether real or mythical — from the clan’s founder. (Clan is Gaelic for children: the Clan Leod were the children of Leod — the originator of the clan — and each man was Mac Leod, or son of Leod, and each woman Nic Leod, or daughter of Leod). In time it became usual for chiefs to be chosen from the members of one family — the system of tanistry. If a chief’s eldest son were old enough when his father died to lead the clan in war, and the clan thought highly of him, he would usually have the best claim to the succession.
The Highlands, however, were not isolated. Together with the English-speaking Lowlands they formed the kingdom of Scotland. This was largely a theoretical arrangement: the king in Edinburgh had no control in the Highlands, and the only way he could force his will on any clan was by leading an army against it — and often not even then. There were in practice many kings in the Highlands — the chief was “king” of his clan territory. The chiefs soon began to meddle in Lowland politics; and to gain their support, the Edinburgh king would often grant a charter to a particular chief to say that he owned the land of his clan. These charters were of no practical effect at the time, since the chief was unable to exercise any of the powers of ownership. The clansmen paid the chief small annual sums, analogous to present-day taxes, to support him; he had no right to increase this annual tax, much less to evict the clansmen from the clan land. Indeed, if he had gone beyond his traditional powers the clan would have evicted the chief. As a matter of historical fact, whenever a chief was found unsatisfactory he was deposed, and replaced by another member of the chiefly family.
The clan (if it even knew of the fact) was probably relieved when its chief did secure a charter to the clan territory, since it meant that no other chief could do so. Occasionally a chief in particular favour at court would obtain a charter not only to the land of his own clan (which did not belong to him) but also to the land of other clans (which, equally, did not belong to him). The chief of Macintosh, for example, got charters to the lands of the Camerons and of the MacDonalds of Keppoch; and both the Camerons and the MacDonalds had to light several battles to assert their right to their own land by beating off Macintosh and his clan who, out of a mistaken sense of duty, had followed him to support his claim.
Some of the Highland clans followed James Stuart, the Old Pretender, in 1715, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, in 1745. Both rebellions were defeated. The British Government determined to end the anomaly of having more than a sixth of Great Britain still under a type of society based on communal ownership, a system moreover which produced such superlative fighting men that only a few thousand of them had seemed about to topple the Government twice in thirty years. In addition the Industrial Revolution, beginning in the middle years of the 18th century, both provided the material strength needed to conquer the Highlands, and spawned great cities which demanded large supplies of food from the non-industrial districts, such as the Highlands. Soldiers marched and counter-marched through the Highlands, garrison towns were created, and the old Highland law was crushed, making way for the new private property law of the Lowlands.
According to this Lowland law, the charters which most of the chiefs had by this time obtained gave them exclusive rights to the whole of the clan land. This was such an enormous change, since it entailed the replacement of an entire system of society by another, that the chiefs themselves were hardly able to comprehend it for a time. Then some of the chiefs, desirous of making a fine figure in Edinburgh or London, realised that by turning out the clansmen and letting the clan land to sheep farmers, they could at one stroke increase their incomes five or six times. The clansmen were as astounded at this turn of events as if they had been told that the sun was henceforward to rise in the west. They had lived in and defended their land from time immemorial: and now the chief had brought in a lawyer who said that because of some writing in a foreign language on a small piece of paper in Edinburgh, the chief—chosen and loyally supported by the clan, and in fact the embodiment of the clan—had now the right to tell every clansman to leave, and to bring in instead a capitalist tenant farmer with great flocks of sheep! Some clearances were met with physical resistance, rioting, and violence; but where that happened, the chief brought up a detachment of Lowland, English, or Irish soldiers, and evicted the clansmen at the point of the bayonet. Often the threat of force was sufficient, especially since the local parish ministers backed up the landlords with warnings of eternal punishments as well as temporal ones. The odds against the clansmen were too great. In district after district the Gaels packed up their belongings, sold off their sheep and cattle, and left the glen for the last time, headed by a piper playing a clan lament. Often the chief cleared out his clan himself; sometimes he sold out to a buyer at such a high price that the new owner obviously intended to recoup—and did recoup—by a wholesale clearance. The tide of evictions crept steadily northwards. From the 1760s to the 1780s there were clearances among the Campbells in Argyll, the MacPhersons in Strath Spey, the various clans of MacDonalds in Glen Garry, Glen Coe and Keppoch, and the MacKenzies in Ross-shire. In the first decade of the 19th century there were many clearances in Inverness- and Ross-shires. MacNeil of Barra, the Chisholm, and MacLeod of Dunvegan were clearing out their clans; Glengarry was doing the same for the MacDonalds, Lochiel for the Camerons, Seaforth for the MacRaes and MacKenzies, and Lovat for the Frasers. Then, from 1807 to 1820, the great Sutherland Clearances took place, the Countess of Sutherland putting to flight thousands of Sutherlands, Murrays, MacKays, and the other Sutherland clans. Lord Reay, chief of a neighbouring clan of MacKays, was doing the same in what was now his land.
The clearances would have been completed sooner than they were but for two complicating factors. Chiefs who still had clansmen to call on found they could raise Highland regiments for Britain's repeated wars between 1740 and 1815; it was financially profitable to them, and in addition they could nominate officers (thus providing for impecunious relatives) and bask in the reflected glory of vicarious military adventure. Further, there was a kind of sea-weed called kelp found in the Hebrides and along the coast of the western Highlands, which when burned was a source of soda (an ingredient of glass) and of iodine. During the Napoleonic wars this burnt kelp brought £20 a ton, at a time when the kelp-worker got only £3 or less a ton. The enormous profits to be made meant that the coast and island landlords were eager to retain as many workers on their estates as they could. For these two reasons landlords would usually allow some of the evicted people to squat (for a rent) on odd comers of marsh and moor that no large farmer would have as a gift. The clansmen were always ready to accept these crofts because any toehold in the venerated land of the clan was better than none, especially when the alternatives were either to undergo the horrors of factory work in the Lowlands, or to go overseas in coffin ships to clear the thickly timbered wilderness in America—an experience many of the emigrants did not long survive.
After Waterloo great wars were few, and the demand for soldiers disappeared. Further, from the 1820s to the 1840s the kelp boom faded to nothing as Free Trade politicians allowed the duty-free import of foreign alkalis, with which kelp could not compete. Finally, the introduction of a Poor Law into the Highlands in 1845 meant that henceforward the landlords would have to pay steep poor rates to help support the very paupers they themselves had created. The clearances now rose to a crescendo. The steady driving out of the Gaels in the 1820s and 1830s (e.g. in Skye, Arran, Morven, Kintyre, Breadalbane, the Menzies country, and Rannoch) was now succeeded by a frenzy of evictions in the 1840s and 1850s. Most notable, perhaps, were those of Seaforth and Sir James Matheson in Lewis, Robertson of Kindeace in Glen Calvie and Greenyards, Colonel Gordon in South Uist and Barra, Lord Macdonald in North Uist and Skye, and Macdonell of Glengarry in Knoydart. These are only examples. Everywhere ships were ordered up to the sea-lochs of the Western Highlands and Islands, and people were herded on them for transportation to Canada or Australia without being consulted, and indeed against their strongly expressed wishes. Any escaping were hunted down and put back on board the emigrant vessels with the aid of the police. In this fashion the Highlands were emptied.
By the time of the 1880s crofters were to be found in any number only in Skye and the Outer Hebrides and along a few lochs on the west coast; even there they clung to patches of land, the good land having all gone to make either sheep farms, or deer forests where rich idlers—noble and royal— came from England and the Continent to make merry in the glens which had seen the tragic and brutal dispersal of the Highlanders. In the 1880s the groundswell of discontent burst out into a series of open insurrections in Skye, Lewis, Barra, Tiree and other places. It was called the Crofters’ War, and resulted in some measure of protection against eviction for the scattered remnants of the Gaels. But it was too late. The Highlands had already been won for capitalism, and great fortunes had been established through the expropriation by a few of what had previously belonged to the many. It may safely be said that the income from Highland land rose fifty or more times between 1750 and 1880.
Today in the Highlands many of the old chiefs’ descendants still own vast stretches of what was once their clans’ land—the Duke of Sutherland, Lord Lovat (chief of the Frasers), the Countess of Seafield (chief of the Grants), Cameron of Lochiel, the Duke of Atholl (chief of the Stewarts), the Marquis of Bute, the Earl of Cawdor (a Campbell chieftain). Lord Macdonald, Sir George Macpherson-Grant of Ballindalloch, and others. Many others of the old chiefs' heirs have preferred to sell their clans’ land, and otherwise invest the proceeds. None of them should be in any doubt as to the real nature of capitalist primitive accumulation.