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A Look at the Highland Clearances through Art

Writing: Carlos Finlay

Illustration: Carlos Finlay

James Mackay Senior stands proudly alongside his wife, Anne. They emerge as a focal point from a sprawling of children, nephews, crates, and baskets. This expansive family unit is about to depart to New Zealand in search of more prosperous pastures; the wooden ship loitering in the distance pre-empts their permanent departure from their homeland. This describes William Allsworth’s mid-19th century painting The Emigrants – a poignant insight into the disturbance caused by the Highland Clearances.

Between the 18th and 19th centuries, the Scottish Highlands witnessed an incalculable exodus of the population. One cause of this mass dispossession can be traced to the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746, after which the British government barred Highlanders from having the freedom to express their Gaelic heritage in the public domain and their right to bear arms. The succeeding 1747 Act of Proscription further repressed the Gaelic identity, outlawing the wearing of tartan, the teaching of their language, and even playing the bagpipes. The English had asserted a direct attack on highland culture.

Walking down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile today would make such facets seem ingrained in the Scottish identity; the relentless embrace of distant bagpipes and sprawling tartan stalls overlooks the fact that such symbols of Scotland were once so fervently stifled by the state. Nonetheless, this Highland culture was perceived in the 1700s as ‘backward’ and behind that of southern Scotland; Edinburgh viewed itself as more modern and progressive, identifying with its southern counterparts in England.

As rebuttal, we can see the Mackay clan dressed in a range of traditional, tartan garments asserting their proud Scottish identity. However, by sharing the composition with ample grazing sheep we gain a better idea of why this wealthy family had decided to move. The rapid development of an agricultural revolution in the mid-19th century saw an increasing preference for the rearing of sheep, who were more financially productive than the working and settling of clansmen on private land. Landowners soon saw the benefits of letting their land out to sheep rather than to the Highlanders themselves, leading to a sustained and relentless swathe of evictions across northern Scotland.

Greater agricultural crises also affected the Highlands and the newly homeless clansmen. Potato famine, the enclosure of smallholdings, and economic collapse further muddied the lives of the dispossessed, causing many to seek their fortunes overseas in the British colonies.

Such damaging effects of the Clearances are best witnessed in Thomas Faed’s The Last of the Clan, painted in 1856 and depicting the opposite scenario to Allsworth’s piece. Here, the viewer is placed on the rear deck of a ship destined elsewhere in the British Empire, looking back at the shore to the remaining members of a now fragmented Highland clan. The painting focuses on the leader atop his horse, sharing with his steed a forlorn expression of defeat. The children, elderly, and women left behind on the barren shore compose a community once unified, but now irreparably divided.

Faed’s piece insinuates the fate of those left behind, in an event often regarded as the first act of modern ethnic cleansing. We are presented with the remnants of a clan that will likely disappear, terminating what may have been a Highland rule spanning several centuries. A topic spoken of today with much contempt, we are offered through painting a glimpse of the true damage the Highland Clearances dealt to a plethora of once cemented clan communities, and to our perceived notion of a true ‘Scottish identity’.

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