Highland Clearances #2: Lord Selkirk's 'Observations'

Lord Selkirk's Observations

with a View of the Causes and probable Consequences of EMIGRATION
A. Constable and Co. Edinburgh
Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, London

[Editor's note: code words or phrases from the Improver Discourse are underlined]

I. Independence of the Highland Chieftains in former times ...
    "The state of commercial refinement and regular government to which we are accustomed to in England, has been so long established, that it requires some effort of imagination, to form a distinctive idea of the situation of things under the feudal system...This has also been the case, to a great degree, in the Low Country of Scotland; but the progress of society in the Highlands has been very different...The feudal system has been abolished [after the abortive rebellion of 1745]; but the customs that arose out of it have not been forgotten...The value of landed property was, in these [earlier] times, to be reckoned, not by the rent it produced, but by the men it could send into the [battle] field...and where two families could be placed on the land that was previously occupied by one, the proprietor acquired a new tenant, and a new soldier...This style of life, favourable as it was to those qualities of mind and body which are requisite to form a good soldier, was no less adverse to habits of industry...The desire of accumulating was checked by the insecurity of property: those, indeed, who derive their acquisitions by the sword, are seldom in the habit of hoarding them with care...See Appendix B."
    Appendix B: '...This kind of cruelty [towards outsiders], I think, comes from their dread of innovations, and the notion they entertain, that they have a kind of hereditary right to their farms; and that none of them are to be dispossessed, unless for some great transgression against their chief; in which case every individual would consent to their expulsion...' [from a letter written in 1725 by an officer of the engineers stationed at Inverness].

II. Change in the Policy of the Highland proprietors ...
     "The change which this state of society underwent after the rebellion in 1745, was great and sudden...The country was disarmed...The chiefs now ceased to be petty monarchs. The services of their followers were no longer requisite for defence, and could no longer be made use of for the plunder of a defenceless neighbour...[so] by degrees, the proprietors began to exact a rise in rent...Accustomed to transmit their possessions from father to son, as if they had been their property, the people seem to have thought, that as long as they paid the old and accustomed rent, and performed the usual services, their possessions were their own by legal right...[but] the proprietors in the Highlands have no more hesitation than in any other part of the kingdom, in turning their estates to the best advantage..."

III. Consequences of this change on population ...
     "In one very important circumstance, the antient state of the Highlands differed remarkably from the rest of the kingdom: -- every spot was occupied by nearly as many families as the produce of the land could subsist. In other parts, and indeed in every civilized country where landed estates are on a large scale, we find no more people upon a farm than are reckoned necessary for carrying on the work that must be done upon it. This is the natural result of the operation of private interest. The proprietor lets his land to the tenant who will give him the highest rent for it; and the tenant manages it in the manner that he expects will produce him the most profit. For this purpose, he must raise as much produce, but with as little expense, as possible: to avoid expense he must employ no unnecessary hands; must feed no superfluous mouths. The less of the produce is consumed on the farm, the more he can carry to market...When we inquire therefore, what population may be maintained in any district, we have not merely to ask what the country could produce, or how many inhabitants that produce could maintain; the essential point is, to know what employment it can afford and under what mode of management the land will be most profitable to the occupier...it must be expected...that in the Highlands...a few shepherds, with their dogs, will be found sufficient for all the profitable work of many an extensive range of land. Ever since sheep-farming gained a footing in the Highlands, the ancient possessors of the lands have had a very unequal struggle to maintain. It would be difficult, perhaps, to quote an instance where they have been able to offer a rent fully equal to that which the graziers would have given; and the competition against them has been continually increasing...and the consequence is inevitable, that, as fast as the current leases expire, the whole, or nearly the whole, of this body of men will be dispossessed...they are a burthen on the proprietors; and unless some new and profitable employment can be devised for them, they must continue to be a burthen as long as they remain in the country. To this the proprietors certainly will not long submit..."

IV. Situation and circumstances of the old tenantry ...
   "The great change in the system of management throughout the Highlands...[has] unavoidable consequences...and it will thus appear that emigration is the line of conduct which the occasion leads them most naturally to pursue...In consequence of the extensive distribution of landed possessions arising from feudal manners, combined with the small progress that has been made in the arts of life and division of labour, the people of the Highlands are not separated into distinct classes of farmers, labourers, and mechanics: they are all more or less engaged in agriculture...every man must be a farmer, at least so far as to raise provisions for his family...The manners of a town, the practise of sedentary labour under the roof of a manufactory, present to the Highlander a most irksome contrast to his former life...He is accustomed to occasional exertions of agricultural life, but without any habits of regular and steady industry; and he has not the least experience of sedentary employments...in manufacturing establishments, every desirable situation is pre-occupied by men of much greater skill than the untutored Highlander...the Highlanders are certainly very inferior to their southern neighbours in habits of regular and steady industry, yet for a temporary effort, there are few people equal to them; none will submit to greater hardships or privations, wher there is a great object to be accomplished...[like] braving the difficulties of an American settlement..."

VI. The Emigration of the Highlanders ... the progress of National prosperity ...
    "It is observed by Dr Adam Smith, that ' the diminution of cottagers, and other small occupiers of land, has, in every part of Europe, been the immediate forerunner of improvement and better cultivation'...It is only when farms are on such a scale, as to be objects of attention to men of education and capital, that agriculture can be carried on with that spirit and intelligence, which are necessary for obtaining the most abundant produce of which that land is capable...The extreme indolence of these people, when they are allowed to remain in their original seats under the old system...is to be ascribed to...the want of sufficient incitements to industry, and to the habits which have naturally grown out of their situation. This is demonstrated by their laborious exertions when they come into the Low Country, and feel at the same time the spur of necessity and the encouragement of good wages...The laborious life for which any of these have to exchange their former habits, is a hard and unwelcome change, forced on them only by the pressure of severe necessity...See Appendix L."
   Appendix L   '...I have always looked upon the indolence attributed to the Highlanders as proceeding in a very great measure, from the misplaced attachment of friends and relations, and even the native spirit of hospitality, in this respect too general amongst the lower orders. It is a common practice for people to go to service in the Low Country for several years; but they almost uniformly return, and are often sent for by their friends, to remain idle at home, when tired, as they say, of work. These friends have frequently but a scanty subsistence for themselves, but no one will refuse a residence, or a share of his homely fare, to a friend or connection. They frequently share their little portions of land, so that no one dreads the danger of absolute want, however idle; and thus a great spur to industry is withdrawn. From this cause it proceeds, that no Highlander can be got to be sufficiently industrious, or to work hard in his own country.' [Some comments from a Mr McLean of Coll in the Inner Hebrides].

VIII. ... Emigration conducive to the public peace 
   "...It is not to be overlooked, that among the peasantry of the Highlands, and particularly among the tenants, a spirit of discontent and irritation is widely diffused...The progress of the rise of rents, and the frequent removal of the antient possessors of the land, have nearly annihilated in the people all the enthusiastic attachment to their chiefs, which was formerly prevalent, and have substituted feelings of disgust and irritation proportionately violent...they have not yet learnt to brook their neglect: they are not yet accustomed to the habits of a commercial society, to the coolness which must be expected by those, whose intercourse with their superiors is confined to the daily exchange of labour for its stipulated reward...in the shire of Ross or Cromarty in July and August 1792...the irritation alluded to broke out into actual violence...Roused by the circumstances of a particular estate being turned into sheep-walks, the tenantry of all the adjoining country took part with those who were ejected, and rose in arms. These poor and ignorant men...proceeded to vent their rage by driving away the sheep that had been brought to stock the grazings..."

[Lord Selkirk presses his argument with rhetorical techniques that reinforce his position as an authoritative enunciator of the Discourse of Improvement. He uses binary oppositions to considerable effect. These are words or phrases that suggest an either/or response -- that imply that the only rational alternative to this word is its exact opposite -- in a repetitive vocabulary that mitigates against negotiation or compromise. For example, the reader must accept either indolence or industry; either antient/feudal or civilized/commercial; either superfluous mouths/spirit of hospitality or spur of necessity/profitable employment. There seems no middle ground. This school-masterly style is also evident in his use of certain adverbs, like natural, inevitable, and unavoidable, as if to suggest that anything less than a completely economic 'mode of management' is ridiculously outdated sentiment, soon to be demolished by the logic of  enlightenment, 'removed' by the inexorable progress of history.]


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