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October 18th 1848

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The Landowner privilege

Robert Somers was a journalist for the North British Daily Mail and in 1848 he undertook an extended visit to the Scottish Highlands, sending back his observations in the form of a series of weekly ‘letters’ to the paper.

Later the articles were collected and published in book form as ‘Letters from the Highlands’. The picture that he paints is of a land where the landowners, in many cases absentee landlords, deliberately and systematically removed the indigenous population to make way for sheep farms and later sporting estates.

“The clearance and dispersion of the people is pursued by the proprietors as a settled principle, as an agricultural necessity……and the operation goes on in a quiet business-like way, that neither excites the remorse of the perpetrators, nor attracts the sympathy of the public……Every clearance produces misery and pauperism. It lessens the amount of work to be done in a parish, because the large farmers turn extensive tracts of soil into grass, on which the small tenants used to grow corn, turnips and potatoes. And while it diminishes the work to be done it increases the numbers of those who can only subsist by hiring themselves to do it. It grinds down small farmers into day- labourers. It is easy to perceive how inevitably a wretched and impoverished race of labourers is created by the clearances. Pauperism flows as certainly from the same source. When a small farmer was disabled by accident or sickness, the culture of his land went on as before, and his corn grew, and his cows gave milk as plentifully; but the same man when reduced to the position of a labourer, has no resources when disabled but the parish roll. And the old infirm people, who share the produce of the small farms occupied by their sons and daughters, necessarily become chargeable as paupers on the charity of the parish when the small farms are broken up and their offspring reduced to poverty and dependence.” 

Robert Somers visited Blair Atholl and in particular Glen Tilt which had been depopulated some 60 to 70 years previously.

“An event occurred at this period which afforded a pretext to the Duke for the heartless extirpation of his people. Highland chiefs were exhibiting their patriotism by raising regiments to serve in the American war; and the Duke of Atholl could not be indifferent to such a cause. Great efforts were made to enlist the Glen Tilt people, who are still remembered in the district as a strong athletic race. Perpetual possession of their lands, at the then existing rates, was promised them if they would only raise a contingent equal to a man from each family. Some consented, but the majority with a praiseworthy resolution not to be dragged at the tail of a Chief into a war of which they knew neither the beginning nor the end, refused. The Duke flew into a rage; and press gangs were sent up the glen to carry off the young men by force. By impressment and violence the regiment was at last raised; and when peace was proclaimed, instead of restoring the soldiers to their friends and their homes, the Duke, as if he had been a trafficker in slaves, was only prevented from selling them to the East India Company by the rising mutiny of the regiment! He afterwards pretended great offence at the Glen Tilt people for their obstinacy in refusing to enlist and - it may now be added - to be sold; and their conduct in this affair was given out as the reason why he cleared them from the Glen - an excuse which, in the present day, may increase our admiration of the people, but can never palliate the heartlessness of his conduct. His ireful policy, however has taken full effect. The romantic Glen Tilt, with its fertile holms and verdant steeps is little better than a desert. The very deer rarely visit it and the wasted grass is burned like heather at the beginning of the year to make room for new verdure. In the meantime it serves no better purpose than the occasional playground of a Duke.” 

Such criticisms of the Duke of Atholl were matched by similar censures of both the big landowners and the large tenant farmers, who having reduced the indigenous population to a state of pauperism grudged even paying the meagre poor rate. The articles on Blair Atholl were attacked by the minister of Blair Atholl but only on the grounds of the number of persons on the poor roll and the amount paid to them.

On the larger questions no attempt was made to refute the evidence provided by Somers.

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