Empty glens – a brief look at Highland Clearance history

Driving north west along the Strath of Kildonan from the small village of Helmsdale on the Sutherland coast you pass through mile after mile of almost empty glen. The houses are few and scattered sparsely along the wide, fertile strath. But it wasn’t always empty like this. In fact, two hundred years ago it was very different with a relatively large population living in many small scattered communities throughout the glen. If you stop and look at the lower slopes of the hills, all about are remains and ruins of numerous pre-clearance crofting townships.

Strath of Kildonan

As part of the Highland Archaeology Festival we recently took a guided tour along the Strath of Kildonan from the village of Helsmdale to Kildonan. During our short tour of several sites in the strath we learned a little of the history of the place. The village of Helmsdale is a product of the Highland Clearances, having been planned to provide accommodation and employment to those evicted from their lands to make way for sheep.

The clearances which took place throughout Sutherland are remembered as the most notorious of all the clearances throughout the Highlands.

The deserted settlement of Caen has evidence of a long history of human settlement, including hut circles from the Bronze Age and longhouses (such as this) to the much later pre-clearance township.
Longhouse in a pre-clearance crofting township

Early in the 19th century the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland decided that they needed to “improve” their estate to make them more productive and profitable. Like many Highland landowners they were advised that they could vastly improve their income by farming sheep, rather than rely on the small income paid by the tenant farmers. To do this this had to clear their tenants from the straths and glens through a series of forced evictions and move the people to planned settlements, such as Helmsdale, on the north and east coasts. In 1811, prior to any forced relocation, the population of the strath was recorded as 1,574.

Each of the small settlements in the strath would have had a small corn kiln, such as this well-preserved example at Kiphedir. These drying kilns, were the warmest places in the township and were often used as gathering places. Sometimes they were used as schools – or as was often the case in Kildonan as the site for the illicit whisky still.
Corn drying kiln from a pre-clearance crofting township

Kildonan was savagely cleared in the years between 1813 and 1819 – so savagely that these clearances provoked the first recorded dissent against the evictions anywhere in the Highlands. In what became known as the Kildonan Riots a group of men from the Gunn clan resisted the eviction and ran off a Mr Reid, agent for some southern sheep-farmers, who had visited the strath, asking questions and taking notes. Mr Reid declared that he had been attacked by a mob and had barely escaped with his life. This ‘riot’ gave the Duke of Sutherland’s factors the excuse they were looking for to go in heavy handed. They were sworn in as special constables and a detachment of infantry sent out from Fort George. Within three months large areas of upper Kildonan had been entirely cleared, and the people offered tiny allotments of poor land on the cliff tops near Helmsdale, or sent into exile in Canada.

As well as the houses which are visible, structures such as this chambered cairn show evidence of the human population who once lived here
Chambered cairn in a pre-clearance crofting township

There were further evictions and emigrations in 1815 when 700 Kildonan clansfolk left for the Canadian settlements along the Red River and in Glengarry County. In 1819 the last inhabitants were cleared from their land. This time there was no dissent; the people had learned by bitter experience that neither government, nor law courts, nor their church, would speak a word or lift a hand in their defence. By 1831 the population of the Strath of Kildonan was reduced to just 257 people. Many of those that choose to emigrate sailed to the Red River in Manitoba and founded what is now the city of Winnipeg,

Where once stood pre-clearance houses, are now the remains of the substantial stone enclosures built to accommodate the sheep during shearing or lambing
Post-clearance sheep fank, Caen, Strath of Kildonan

The old church at Kildonan was once a busy congregation with parishioners coming from many settlements in the strath.
Kildonan Church, Strath of Kildonan

It is thought that Christianity made an appearance in this area in 390AD when St Ninian preached here on his way to Orkney. In the 6th century it is probable that the church took the form of a small stone building, with a thatched roof. The building was then repaired and enlarged in the 11th century and a mortuary chapel for the Clan Gunn was added in c1250. The present building was restored in the 18th century,

A plaque on the wall of the church commentates George Bannerman, one of the former tenants who emigrated to Canada
Kildonan Church

In 2013, it is the 200th anniversary of the first major Clearances in Kildonan and to truly celebrate this event Timespan, the museum in Helmsdale are organising several projects. They are developing a Clearance Trail in the Strath of Kildonan (visiting the sites we were taken to), but using digital technologies such as a smart phone application.

On our journey home it seemed appropriate to play the Runrig CD we had with us in the car.

Dance Called America

The landlords came
The peasant trials
To sacrifice of men
Through the past and that quite darkly
The presence once again
In the name of capital
Improvers, its a name
The hidden truths
The hidden lies
That once nailed you
To the pain

They did a dance
Called America
They danced it round
And waited at the turns
For America
They danced their ladies round

To the candles
Of enlightenment
Once lit they say don’t burn
To turn the darkest room of suffering
To a greater state of pain
Don’t tell me that’s behind you now
Don’t greet me
Don’t meet your dying blind
It’s our very last stand together
So let’s sever
No regrets


There were days
That once held confidence
Strength of will and mind
The camouflage that once washed your fathers
Your sons and daughters time

Another Tounge
My love, my island
You’ve gone international
With all the praying men of God
Who stood
And watched it all go on


13 comments on “Empty glens – a brief look at Highland Clearance history

  1. So sad.

    My ancestors were Scottish and German, and my husband’s grandmother’s maiden name was Gunn. I don’t know if she descended from Clan Gunn; she was from Mississippi, not Canada.

    Human history is very painful with wrongs done to each other through the millenia. So sad …

  2. Good article. Clearances and also the Enclosure Acts fundamentally changed the every day person’s lives on this island in a way that persists to this day. Very few of us have land to live off even if we wanted to opt out of the current system of wage packet.

  3. We all know that “The Clearances” were a tragedy for those directly involved but from what I have seen most of the decendants of those forced emigrants did a lot better in life than those who remained, the passing of generational certantiy can produce good as well as harm. Loved your Runrig video, I’ve got the CD its on – The Cutter and the Clan, but not seen them though I once bought a ticket to see them in Nottingham about 15 years ago but something got in the way.

  4. Pingback: Perpetuating some myths of the Highland Clearances « Roddy Macleod's Blog

  5. Can we get information about the 200th anniversary in Helmsdale….We want to be there. My husband is a past president of Clan Gunn of NA. Thank you so much!

  6. Even tho my Scots family left early,mid 1700’s my mother still retold may stories fof valor from the Hunter and Thompson families!

  7. Pingback: Perpetuating some myths of the Highland Clearances | Roddy Macleod's Blog

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