Primary History

Victorian Britain: The Highland Clearances

  • Traditional Highland life

    Before 1755 over half the people of Scotland lived in the Highlands. Most Highlanders spoke Gaelic, a language similar to Irish. Their culture and traditions were different from those of people in Lowland Scotland.

    Many Highlanders belonged to clans. Clan members gave their support to their chief in return for protection and leadership.

    Most Highlanders were farmers. Poor families lived in stone cottages or 'blackhouses'. Often a whole family shared one room. By the 1800s this old way of life was changing.

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  • The Sutherland Clearances

    Many Highland farm families were forced from their homes by landlords. These removals became known as the Highland Clearances.

    The Duke of Sutherland owned vast areas of the Highlands. He was one of the richest men in the world . To 'improve' his lands, he replaced farmers with sheep. The sheep wool was sold to make more money. By 1820 he had almost 120,000 sheep!

    Patrick Sellar worked for the Duke. He and his men were mean to Highland farmers and burned their homes. 150,000 poor people lost their homes during the Clearances. Patrick Sellar himself became a rich sheep farmer.

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  • Gloomy Memories

    Some Highland families went away to the cities. Many emigrated to America and Canada.

    At first, people outside the Highlands knew little of these sad events. In 1840 the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle newspaper published letters from Donald Macleod, who had seen the Clearances for himself. Donald Macleod left Scotland for Canada. He published his stories of the Clearances, calling them 'Gloomy Memories'.

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  • Crofters

    Some poor Highlanders rented small plots of land, called crofts. They scraped a living from fishing, weaving cloth, or working as servants for rich landowners.

    Crofting was a hard life and crofters were often unfairly treated. This led to trouble, especially on the Isle of Skye, when crofters refused to pay rent to their landlords. Many people supported the crofters, and in 1886 the government made a new law to improve life for Highland crofters.

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  • New Lives in the City

    Many Highlanders moved to cities to find work. Used to fresh air and open country, they were horrified by the overcrowding and dirt of city life.

    Glasgow was Scotland's biggest city. It had 30,000 people in the 1770s, but over 200,000 by the 1830s, and by 1901 its population was 1 million!

    Poor families often lived in one room, with no kitchen or bathroom. In tenement blocks, lots of people had to use just one toilet. With no proper drains, streets were filthy and smelly too! Disease spread quickly. In 1832 cholera killed over 3,000 people in Glasgow.

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Fun Facts
  • 1792 was called the 'Year of the Sheep' because so many sheep were put onto land in the Highlands.

  • Cheviot sheep were taken to the Highlands because they could survive cold winters.

  • Patrick Sellar called the poor people 'barbarous Highlanders' and thought he was helping them make better lives.

  • A Highland blackhouse was very smoky, because it had a peat fire but no chimney.

  • Highlander farmers brought cows indoors in winter, to help keep people warm.

  • Highlanders used seaweed as manure on their fields.

  • Small strips of farm land were called rigs.

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A to D

abacus
This was a wooden frame with beads on it. It was used to help children with counting sums.
agricultural gang
This was a group of workers in the countryside, doing jobs like weeding, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops. Often these gangs would include young children.
barrel organ
A musical instrument which was taken round the streets. It played music when the handle was turned. Often the owners of barrel organs had tame monkeys.
Band of Hope
Temperance organization which tried to stop people, especially children, from drinking alcohol.
boarding school
A school where children live during term time, coming home for the holidays.
Boys' Brigade
Youth organization started in 1883 in Glasgow.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain; later became the Commonwealth.
cane
Thin stick used by teachers to beat children who misbehaved.
census
This is the record of people living at a certain time. It records how many people there are, where people live, their age and what they do.
cholera
A disease spread by dirty water.
clans
Highlanders linked by family ties, usually sharing the same name, and following a leader or chief.
coal mine
A place where coal is dug from under the ground.
coal
Remains of prehistoric trees, burned in fires. In Victorian times, coal heated homes and provided steam power for machines, trains and ships.
contraception
Another term for birth control, or stopping unwanted pregnancies.
cotton
Comes from a plant. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
dame school
A school run in her home by an elderly woman, known as a dame, where children were taught basic reading and writing.
diphtheria
Infectious throat disease that killed many children.

E to G

emigrated
To emigrate is to leave your own country to go and live in another.
empress
The female ruler of an empire, or the wife of an emperor.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

hokey-pokey man
Icecream-seller, originally usually Italian.
hopscotch
A hopping game played in the street or playground.
hurdy-gurdy
A mechanical violin, played by a street musician.
industrial Revolution
The era of rapid and great change in industry and manufacturing with the growth of factories, beginning in the late 1700s.
ink well
A small pot for ink, used by school children.
logbook
Diary or record book of events.
landlords
A person who rents parts of his or her land to other people.

M to O

magic lantern
A slide projector for showing pictures on a screen.
maypole
Tall pole with long ribbons, for dancing around on May Day.
moral
A lesson often in a story, about right and wrong.
music hall
Popular Victorian theatre with variety acts such as singers, dancers and comedians.
nanny
servant who cared for rich young children in their nursery at home.
nursery
A room or several rooms where rich children would play and sleep.
orphan
Child with no living parents.

P to S

parliament
Law-making body made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and non-elected Lords.
piecer
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together.
population
The number of people in a country or city.
public schools
Fee-charging schools for children from richer families.
Punch and Judy show
A hand-puppet show which features Mr Punch and his wife Judy. Common at the seaside in Victorian times.
ragged school
A school for poor children in the early 19th century.
reformer
Person who seeks change for the better, to help others.
reign
The length of time a king or queen rules.
school board
A group of people who were responsible for the running of their local school after 1870.
scullery
Small room with a sink, for washing up.
shaft
Deep vertical hole leading down to the tunnels and underground workings of a coal mine.
slates
These were pieces of slate (like a flat stone), sometimes set inside a wooden frame, used for writing - with a special slate pencil. At the end of the lesson the slates were wiped clean with an old cloth.
smallpox
Disease causing fever and, in those who did not die from it, leaving 'pockmarks' on the skin.
steam engine
Engine driven by steam from water heated in a boiler, used to drive machinery.
slum
An area of bad housing, with poor hygiene and sanitation.
Sunday School
School to teach Christianity: the National Sunday School Union was founded in 1803.

T to Z

wages
Workers' pay.
wool
Comes from sheep. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
workhouse
Place where people without means of support (usually the very poor, young and elderly) were sent to live; they got a food and a bed in return for work. Most Victorian towns had a workhouse.