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  Clearances, Improvement, Enlightenment and Modernity

From the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, Scotland went through a period spoken of as the 'Scottish Enlightenment', followed by modernisation. This was part of a larger, Europe-wide movement driven by advances in Science and Philosophy, and radical changes in the management of agriculture, manufacture and organisation of society. Great thinkers and scientists of the time include the Geologist, James Hutton (1726-97), the Philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), and the Moral Philosopher, Adam Smith (1723-90). Hutton believed, like other Enlightenment thinkers, that the findings of science, and not tradition, should be the basis of the laws of the universe. Hume was a sceptic, a thinker who questioned everything, who sought to create a new form of philosophy which took human nature as its basis and which used scientific methods to reach its conclusions. Adam Smith wrote the bible of modern capitalist economics, entitled: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

These thinkers grew up in, and inspired the furtherance of, the industrial revolution and the modernising of society. It is hard for us to really appreciate what it was like in a period moving from a world of superstition, where anyone challenging accepted authority could be burned as a witch by the Church, into a society where logic and reason began to replace superstition.

This period was not without chaos, and had both good and bad things to offer the people of Scotland.

Improving the Land - The Clearances

After the Jacobite risings and the settlement of the new powers in Scotland, the lairds and their factors (estate managers) set about improving the estates to make them more productive and more profitable. This process had already begun in England.

Scottish agriculture used the runrig system, where arable areas were shared by families of the local clan or collective. It was inefficient, and was struggling to meet the needs of the population. As late as 1724 Berwickshire was a bleak area, with little welcome for anyone crossing the border. Yet by the late 1750s Paxton House (see left) stood grand among its improved estates. A mixture of worthless scrub moor and bog had been transformed into the breadbasket of Scotland. Such changes happened all over. Some lairds honoured the old system whereby the loyalty of the people was repaid by protection. However, many abandoned the old ways and treated the people as a problem to be got rid of.

Thousands of families, whose ancestors had farmed the hillsides and lived in the fermtouns since ancient times, were simply dispossessed by lairds who had changed from the 'guardians' of the clan estates and ancient territories, to become the 'owners'.

This modernisation was necessary, and has benefitted Scotland in the long run, but there were both kind and brutal lairds and factors in the process, and many families suffered as the rich got richer. By the mid-1790s, 40,000 bolls of grain were being moved across Berwickshire to fill the trading ships at the new docks in Eyemouth. Not only Berwickshire benefited from the new and scientific approaches to agriculture. The process swept on Northwards to the Highlands, and to every corner of Scotland. Hundreds of fermtouns marked on maps from around 1650 were seen to disappear underground as the landscape was ploughed for agriculture, or flattened for sheep grazing. In the midst of this plenty, the armies of dispossessed families and their hungry children became a problem on a grand scale.

Migration - The Scots Diaspora

Although much has been written about the 'Highland Clearances', the process started in the lowlands where the best prospects for productive farming lay. The estates of the Duke of Hamilton were one case where the people were treated better than most. The estates on Arran, for example, dispossesed many families, and in 1829 the brig Caledonia sailed for New Brunswick in Canada with 180 people from that small Island. The Duke of Hamilton paid their passage and arranged a plot of ground for each family of 100 acres in Megantic County, Quebec. Such arrangements could be made because the Scots were already world-travellers and were successful developers in new lands - not all wandering Scots were victims of modernisation - indeed many were driving it !

At least 75,000 people left Scotland between 1700-1780, and 60,000 of these came from the lowlands. This was only the start. Clearances continued right through to the 1890s in the Highlands, but other reasons included the failing weaving industry in the mid-late 1800s, and the potato blight in the mid 1800s. The earlier agricultural success led to healthier and larger populations whose need of jobs and futures attracted them onward to America, Canada, Australia and all corners of the world. By 1900 more than 2 million Scots had sailed for distant shores, creating a world-wide network of Scots who retain and wear their cultural identity with pride.