Meeting Report: Historical Amnesia and the Lowland Clearances

2 November 2018
Professor Sir Tom Devine (University of Edinburgh)

On 2 November 2018 the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquities Society welcomed Professor Sir Tom Devine OBE. Tom addressed a very large turnout of members and guests with a talk entitled Historical Amnesia and the Lowland Clearances.

Professor Devine, aware that his view could cause controversy, explained that changes to the rural population of Southern Scotland in the 18th and early 19th centuries were just as profound as those occurring in Highland Scotland, especially with reference to the so-called 'Highland Clearances'.

Industrialisation, accompanied by rapid urbanisation, population increase and the movement away from subsistence farming forced massive change in the rural landscape and economy. In the mid-18th century up to a third of rural inhabitants were cottars (a person who rented and worked a small plot of land from a landlord). By 1820 this class of person had almost disappeared from the rural landscape. The result of this was a significant movement of people away from the countryside, sometimes on a voluntary basis and sometimes by clearance from the landowner. Yet these turbulent events are almost completely forgotten in the Lowlands and Borders but the Highland Clearances have entered the national psyche.

Sir Tom's new book The Scottish Clearances explains this. Apart from the Levellers' protests in Galloway there was a lack of violent protest in the south and unlike the events in the Highlands, it does not live on in Lowland poetry, song and books.

Furthermore there was a cultural explanation of the disparity. The concept of 'dualchas', largely obsolete in Lowland Scotland, was still strong in the Highlands. This idea promoted a personal connection to heritage and the paternalism of the clan and dispossession was a clear violation of this long-standing ethic. In the south it was almost accepted that, although deeply regrettable, the landlord had a right to close tenancy agreements.

Furthermore, although many former cottars were moved off the land there was often an alternative. The new industrial revolution began as a mainly rural-based phenomenon so the impact of clearance was partially mitigated by available jobs and the rise of urban opportunities. Those who remained on the land often worked as labourers or servants in tied conditions, so losing a job also meant losing a home. This tended to encourage any Lowland protest to be rather muted.

Professor Devine wrapped up his address by briefly touching on the present-day legacy of these dispossessions in terms of land ownership. The address concluded with a lively series of questions and the evening was brought to a close as the Professor was warmly thanked by an appreciative audience.