Tusdale glen in the south west of Skye is a valley giving shelter from the wind blowing on the summits and on the shore. The sun shines on the southern slopes of the hills. A creek meanders through green meadows.
In the middle of the 19th century, Tusdale was so busy it was nicknamed «the capital of Skye». Today, there is no road connecting the valley to the rest of the island, and Skye’s population has more than halfed. Sheep graze around ruins of destroyed cottages.
After about two months warning, the factor’s men started to clear the people by setting fire to the houses over their heads! The old people, women and others, then began to try and save the timber which they believed was their own. The factor’s men worked with great speed. They demolished all before them. When they had knocked down all the houses… they finally set fire to the wreckage. In that way timber, furniture and everything else that could not be taken away at once, was utterly destroyed.
–Donald MacLeod, Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle, 1840/1841
Up to the 18th and 19th century, local potato farmers were living in these stone cottages with thatched roofs. During the Highland Clearances, the crofters were displaced from the land by the landlords and forced into unsustainable living conditions. Many were put on emigration ships to North America, fell ill due to Cholera on the overcrowded boats, or died.
The Decline of the Clan System
The Highland Clearances were the consequence of a series of changes in traditional living conditions.
The Heritable Jurisdictions Act of 1746 abolished the traditional rights of the Scottish clan chiefs and the tribe like system in which the clan chiefs supported and protected the clansmen. Many clan chiefs – also MacLeod on Skye – sold large parts of their land in parcels. Others had lost their properties due to the confiscations after the Jacobite rising of 1745 (the attempt by Charles Edward Stuart, also known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, to regain the Scottish throne).
In the 1840s, the potato famine – caused by potato blight – further aggravated the situation. On Skye, the only alternatives to crofting were fishing and kelping. The demand for kelp collapsed when cheaper substitutes for soap production became available. Emigration to mainland cities therefor was unavoidable for many.
Lairds from the Scottish lowlands and England took over the land. Industrialization led to a prize increase for wool, and sheep breeding became more lucrative than potato farming.
The Crofters’ Holdings Act
In 1882, decades after the beginning of the Highland Clearances, the crofters began to fight back. Land was in short supply, and a group of crofters oppressed by their landlords grazed their cattle on forbidden land. The Sheriff from Portree faced an angry mob and called for military assistance. After the Battle of the Braes, the unrest spread to Glendale where crofters were sentenced to jail in a token trial. Subsequent investigations resulted in the Crofters Act of 1886 granting security to crofters.
Ruins of cleared villages are still visible on Skye in many places.