The Highland Clearances

Abandoned croft image

In the late 1700s and early to mid 1800s Crofters and highlanders were systematically removed from their lands and their livelihoods to make way for sheep farming which was much more profitable at that time. The first mass emigration was in 1792 when many of the people were forced to leave the land that had been farmed by them and their forefathers to go to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Those that did not emigrate were forced to live in cities or on poor unfarmable land by the rugged sealine. They were not sea farers and did not know how to make a living from the sea.

Often their small crofts and out buildings were raised to the ground with fire. Sometimes with the elderly still in them.

These brutal Highland clearances devastated the Gaelic culture, split up families and clans and removed entire communities from the lands that they had farmed for centuries leaving them no option but to emigrate for a better life as in Scotland they were left fairly destitute.

There were many other factors for people worldwide having Scottish Roots.

Many of those that did not emigrate were instead moved to cities such as Glasgow. In 1840, as many as 30,000 Gaelic speaking highlanders moved from farming their small tracts of land and tending a few animals to the English speaking city where they had no skills and were forced into factories. The population grew so quickly that housing was a huge problem with many families sharing one room.

New Lanark Mill image

The village of New Lanark was created when mill owner, Robert Owen, provided good living conditions and a fair working environment. Child labour was abolished and the villagers were provided with education and free health care. In an age of such uncertainty from Clearances, New Lanark is one of the success stories.

As a result of the Clearances, this migration also has had an effect on Scottish surnames. Highlanders would change their names when coming to the lowlands for work to a surname that could be understood easily so MacDonald would be anglicised to Donaldson, or dropped just to Donald. Gaelic surnames would often be dropped in favour of something that just sounded the same.

View the top 50 Scottish Surnames and their origins.