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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Scottish Clearances Part Seven: Conclusion

Scotland's  Industrial Clearances 1931

The problem at the end of this rapid run through of the Scottish Clearances remains the same as it was at the beginning. As far as most people in Scotland and wherever Scots have emigrated to around the world, the only clearances they know about are the Highland Clearances.

To talk about the Lowland Clearances let alone the Industrial Clearances is therefore quite confusing. To bring in these other clearances cannot help but make what happened in the Highlands (and Islands) less unique. If the Highland Clearances were not a unique event, then, while their injustice remains, their significance as part of Scotland’s history is diminished.

If history was a neutral subject, such rebalancing of the relative importance of past events would not be controversial. But in Scotland history has become a mirror in which the ghostly presences of Independence Past and Independence Future are reflected.

In this mirror, the Highland Clearances have become part of a ‘Jacobite Interpretation of History’. In this, the rejection of James VII as Scotland’s rightful king in 1689 set in motion a string of disasters which included the loss of Scotland’s independence in 1707 and a Highland Clearances which were driven not by economics but by politics. After the Jacobites almost managed a second Stuart Restoration in 1745, their defeat at Culloden in 1746 was followed by a decision to destroy the last vestiges of Scotland’s independence by clearing the Highlands of their Gaelic people and culture.

This is a very powerful story with deep roots. The Roman historian Tacitus quoted Calgacus, leader of Caledonian resistance to the Roman Empire, as saying

there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.

But this powerful story of the Highland Clearances starts to lose its strength if what happened in Galloway a century earlier is examined. Here a very similar process of clearing people from the land began before the Union of 1707. In Galloway the people were cleared from the land to make way for cattle as landowners took advantage of the 1666 English ban on Irish cattle.

The people cleared from the land were not Gaelic speakers nor were they Jacobites, if anything they were anti-Jacobites who supported king George I in 1715. Although the immediate trigger for Galloway Levellers uprising in 1724 was fresh wave of clearance, some of the dykes levelled that year had been built around cattle parks 30 or 40 years earlier.

While what happened in Galloway can be seen as a one-off event, the later Lowland Clearances cannot. The Lowland Clearances saw the disappearance of a  whole class of rural workers, roughly a third of the workforce, from the land. These were the cottars and along with the cottars their cots and croft lands also disappeared. But unlike what had happened earlier in Galloway and later in the Highlands and Islands, the cottars were not driven from the land by cattle and sheep.

The cottars lost their place on the land because the new system of arable farming was based on ’enlightened improvement’. This combined a rational or early scientific approach to land-management with the economic theories of Adam Smith and his contemporaries. The aim was to increase both the quantity and quality of arable crops and thus the economic value of the land.

The expectation was that this would modernise the Scottish economy so it could catch up with the English economy.  The cottars and traditional tenant farmers were part of pre-modern (medieval or feudal) Scotland and so had to be eliminated along with their ‘superstitious’ rather than enlightened methods of farming.

According to Adam Smith’s theory, increasing the surplus produced by the land while reducing the number of  farm workers would cut the cost of food. This would encourage the growth of ‘manufactures’ by cutting the cost of labour- since cheaper food meant wages could be lower. With lower labour costs, Scottish manufactures would be more competitive, stimulating Scotland’s commercial economy.

In the Lowlands Smith’s theory worked. Improving the physical quality of the soil while rationalising the management of the land increased crop production. The ‘surplus’ people cleared from the land found new occupations in Lowland towns and villages, many of which were themselves the creation of improving landowners. The new economy began to grow and was then given extra impetus by the industrial revolution. At first the industrial revolution was powered by water. Then coal became its fuel source, creating yet more jobs in mining and the production of steam engines.

In the Highlands and Islands however, the virtuous cycle of economic growth which offset the impact of the Lowland Clearances did not happen. Instead a vicious circle of economic decline set in. With only enough good quality land available to feed the existing population in good harvest years, attempts to modernise the region’s economy focused on livestock grazing inland and fishing around the coast. Neither activity provided sufficient employment for the existing population, let alone a growing one.

So while the region’s economy could become part of the new economy by providing wool for mechanised factories and fish to help feed the new industrial workforce, most of the people could not. Even after Thomas Telford oversaw the construction of 1200 miles of roads in the Highlands between 1803 and 1827 and the construction of the Caledonian Canal at a cost of £1 million, clearance continued into the 1850s and emigration into the second half of the twentieth century.  However over the past 30 years the population of the Highlands and Islands has recovered. At 448 392 (2011 census) it is approaching its 1831 level of 504 955. [Note- this figure includes the Northern Isles.]

But even in the rural south of Scotland- South Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders- where the Lowland Clearances were over by 1831, a similar pattern of population loss  followed by recent recovery can be seen. In Dumfries and Galloway, there was a population peak in 1851 of 158 890. The population then declined but by 2011 had recovered to 151 324.

What such region wide figures miss is the fine detail. In 1851, the population of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway was just over 44 000. It is now only 24 000. In Wigtownshire the population was 39 000 in 1851, today it is 29 000, with 10 000 living in the (former) ferry-port of Stranraer. In other words, even where there may appear to be a recovery of rural population, the reality is that the growth has mainly been concentrated towns like Inverness in the rural north or Dumfries in the rural south.

For at least some of the Scots cleared from the land in the Highlands and many of those cleared in the Lowlands, the growth of industry in west central Scotland provided an alternative to overseas migration.

In Lanarkshire, north Ayrshire and Renfrewshire between 1825 and 1840, iron production grew by 2000% from 25 000 tons to 500 000 tons. 15% of the iron was exported to the USA while the other main markets were the rapidly expanding shipbuilding and railway industries. By 1913, west  central Scotland produced half of the UK’s marine steam engines, a third of all steam locomotives and a third of all ships built in the UK. The shipyards on the Clyde were able to build more ships than all the shipyards in Germany combined. This growth in industrial production was matched by a rapid increase in Scotland’s overall population.

Between 1830 and 1911, the population of Scotland doubled from 2.3 million to 4.8 million. But during the same period, 2 million Scots emigrated overseas and 750 000 moved to England. If the economy was booming, why did so many Scots decide to leave? Part of the answer is that in Scotland wages were 10% lower than in England. Since as much as two thirds of the cost of building a ship were labour costs, this gave Scottish shipbuilders an advantage. But at the same time food and housing costs were higher than in the industrial areas of England. In 1911, over 50% of the Scottish population could afford only one or two room dwellings, compared with 7 % in England.

In the 1830s and 40s, apart from England and Wales, Scotland was the only industrialised country in the world. By the end of the 19th century most European countries as well as the USA and Japan were producing iron and steel, ships and locomotives. Faced with this competition, Scottish industrialists tried to keep their costs down by reducing wages. The 19th century global economy was also subject to booms and slumps leading to surges in unemployment. So while the few Scots who owned the coal mines, iron works, shipyards and locomotive works became millionaires, millions of ordinary Scots voted with their feet, abandoning the industrial hell that was North Britain to make new lives in new lands.

The two world wars of the 20th century and the recovery from them provided some respite from the decline of Scotland’s Victorian industries. Yet even during the post war boom of the 1950s, half a million Scots left the country. Despite nationalisation of the coal, railway and steel industries and state led attempts to diversify the economy, through the 1960s and 1970s all that had once seemed so solid continued to melt into air. The Industrial Clearances of the 1980s and 1990s marked the (almost) final withering away of Scotland’s Victorian industries.

To conclude: when placed in a wider context which includes both the Lowlands Clearances which came before and the Industrial Clearances which came after, the Highland Clearances lose their uniqueness. They become part of the Scottish Clearances.

The Scottish Clearances were initially an attempt by Scotland’s landowning and intellectual (Enlightened) elite to catch up with England by modernising Scotland’s economy. The aim was to transform Scotland’s economy and society by boot-strapping the country from an agricultural to a commercial nation. In the arable Lowlands this worked. In the pastoral Highlands and Southern Uplands it failed, creating huge swathes of depopulated ‘wilderness’  which remain empty of people to this day.

However, even before the process of Enlightened improvement was completed in the Lowlands with the clearance of the cottars from the land, it had already been superseded by an even more revolutionary revolution- the Industrial Revolution.  This revolution was not the commercial revolution anticipated by Adam Smith and his fellows. It was an energy revolution.

To meet the demands of this revolution, the newly improved fields of central Scotland were dug up to gain access to the coal and iron ore which lay beneath them. First canals and then railways were constructed across the corn fields linking mines, iron works and industrial towns in a dense network which all but erased the Enlightened landscape.

It was within this darkened industrial landscape, not the Highlands, that the real tragedy of Scotland’s history was played out. A tragedy that embraced  not only Scots who had been cleared from the land, but over 200 000 Irish people who had been cleared from their land by famine as well as landlords.

Over successive generations, children, women and men laboured in the factories and coal mines, shipyards  and iron works. But only a fraction of the wealth their labour created was ever returned to them. In despair, millions left Scotland- clearance on an industrial scale.

What drove Scotland’s industrial clearances was not just the appalling physical conditions Scotland’s working class had to endure. Through the power of their trade unions, the condition of the working class in Scotland was slowly improved. What helped drive the later industrial clearances was the conservatism of Scotland’s capitalist class. This class failed to heed the advice of the Communist Manifesto : ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production’.

Instead, Scotland’s industrial capitalists tried to preserve their early Victorian instruments of production even as Scotland entered the twentieth century. As a consequence, from the 1920s onwards their economic role was replaced by that of the State until they were ultimately extinguished by nationalisation. But although nationalisation did bring new investment, it could not reverse the decay of Scotland’s Victorian industrial infrastructure and an economy built on coal. Long before Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, coal mines were being closed, railway lines ripped up and steel furnaces blown-out.

If the wealth from North Sea oil had not been squandered by Margaret Thatcher and her successors in pursuit of their neoliberal fantasies, it could have been used to help build a new Scotland. But it wasn’t and now, after the failure of the 2014 independence referendum and the failure of neoliberalism, Scotland’s future is as bleak as it has ever been.

In the past, the prospect of a future of endless austerity would have led to a wave of migration, of economic clearance. Will things be different this time?


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