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February 7, 2018

Reviving the townships

The devastation inflicted on countless small communities by the Highland Clearances can never be put right but that dark chapter in our history still helps to inform Scottish Government policy going forward – much of the early motivation for land reform was shaped in the shadow of the clearances. The ruined buildings of these communities are the only signs that these remote and empty parts of Scotland were once thriving places in which many people lived. Community Land Scotland have set their sights on bringing new life to these long forgotten communities. 


Alistair Grant, Political Correspondent, Herald

It remains one of the most controversial periods in Scotland’s history – a dark legacy of upheaval that still provokes passions to this day.

Now long-forgotten townships destroyed by the Highland Clearances are set to be reborn under ambitious plans put before the Scottish Parliament.

Campaigners have called for Scotland’s deserted glens to “once again ring to the voices of children playing in their landscape” as they laid out proposals to inject life back into rural areas.

Community Land Scotland (CLS) – which represents Scotland’s community landowners – has proposed amendments to new planning laws currently going through Holyrood in an effort to right some of the wrongs of the past.

It wants ministers to be able to compulsorily purchase land for the purpose of resettlement, and also called for communities to be handed powers to buy up land that has sat neglected for three years or more – insisting current policies don’t do enough to promote repopulation.

Policy director Dr Calum MacLeod said the Highlands’ famously sparse rural landscape was “socially constructed” through historic depopulation, and argued encouraging sustainable settlement was a “really important thing to do”.

He said: “In Scottish public policy at the moment, the mapping of wild land has got a lot of attention – and, of course, there’s a role for that. But what we don’t want is for people to be airbrushed out of that.”

He added: “What we would like to see is certainly more areas that have had populations in the past actually being reinstated where that’s feasible and practicable. It’s an ongoing process.

“To be clear, this is an issue for all parts of rural Scotland, and how we are framing the idea of sustainability within rural Scotland. People have to be at the centre of that.”

Hundreds of thousands of people left the Highlands during the Clearances, which lasted between roughly 1760 and 1850.

Many of the most notorious examples of forced evictions occurred in the later years, as landlords sought to cash in on sheep farming.

In the far north, the Duke of Sutherland’s factor Patrick Sellar was even put on trial after allegedly burning down a croft with an old woman still inside.

CLS has now called on the Scottish Government to create a map of “no-longer-existing communities” in order to highlight long-gone townships – and earmark them for potential future use.

In its submission to MSPs, the body said there were many areas of Scotland where “vast tracts of land are unpeopled as a result of the (often forced) removal of people from the land in past centuries”.

It said the principle straths of Eastern Sutherland – Strathnaver, the Strath of Kildonan and Strathbrora – once housed between 150 and 200 separate communities, all now gone.

While insisting it had no wish to recreate former times, CLS said its ambition was the “reoccupation of at least some of Scotland’s unpeopled places”.

It pointed to historic attempts to take similar action in the past, such as the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act 1919, which helped return depopulated land to crofters.

Professor Sir Tom Devine, one of Scotland’s top historians, told The Herald the plans were “an interesting idea” – but warned repopulating lost villages would be an expensive process.

He said an attempt had been made to resettle one township in Ross of Mull in recent decades, but that it had failed to take off.

He added: “The main issue in terms of Highland Scotland would be the vast nature of the loss of land.

“The vast majority of clearances took place under the radar, in the sense that people were squeezed out over time. There’s hardly any part of Highland Scotland that was not affected by dispossession.

“The issue would be whether people are likely to be attracted to live in these areas.”

He added: “I think the only thing that could be managed would be a kind of pilot project to see if it could be attractive.”