The Effects of Historical and Economic Changes from 1746 to 1886 on Gaelic Society

Essay 1999 12 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1. Introduction

2. Changes in Scotland’s Economy (1745 – 1886)

3. Demographic Development

4. Gaelic Language

5. ‘Highlandism’

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

“Stranger that wanderest through my glen, Thou lookest in vain for the haunts of men. Thou shalt not clasp a fair maid’s hand;

Nor lad nor lass remains in the land.”[1]

1. Introduction

These lines, which were presumably written by the Reverend Mr. Kelly of Campbeltown in the early 1830s and which belong to a poem titled “Farewell to My Country”, concisely express many contemporary Highlanders’ experience of the changes within their society - namely as a process of draining a cultural region of its vital powers. How such a perception of the development of one’s own culture could be formed and in how far it was justified will be analysed in this essay. Thus, the cultural changes will be looked at, at first, with regard to the economic situation, secondly, with reference to the development of the Gaelic language and thirdly, focusing on Gaelic literature and traditions. All this will be dealt with within the context of the political changes of the period from 1745 to 1886 affecting the Scottish Gaelic society. Finally, a conclusion will summarise the gained material and attempt a vision of Gaelic society’s future within Scotland.

2. Changes in Scotland’s Economy (1745 – 1886)

To start these reflections with the look at the economy’s situation in those days implies that it was this selfsame factor which had the major impact on the transformation of Gaelic society or as Youngson, with whom I find myself in accord, eloquently puts it:

[I]t may be questioned whether these measures [Disclothing Act, new Disarming Act etc.] were necessary for the destruction of the political and military power of what is sometimes called Celtic Feudalism. The old way of life was already weakened by changing attitudes and changed social and economic relations. Roads, rents, contractual obligations - subsequently potatoes and sheep - did more than Parliament to make another ‘Forty-five impossible.[2]

Political repression has always been more likely to encourage a spirit of resistance in the addressee, as the early Jacobite risings - not so much the last one - had shown. However, if a society loses or is robbed of its source of living, the system that provides, at least, the basic things to keep its members alive, then it either has to change or it is bound to die.

In the case of Scotland this system was that of the clans, with a chief as its head. Traditionally, this chief was a warlord whose interest it was to have as many people depending on his land as possible to call them up as warriors for military enterprises, such as raids or attacks on or the defence of other clans. However, this system changed. The pacification of the Highlands that took place in the first half of the eighteenth century and the process of Anglicisation that brought the interest in trade to the Highlands turned warlords into landlords. It was a change that was in progress long before Culloden, but after the defeat of the last Jacobite rising, with the new Disarming Act (1746) and with the abolition of old heritable jurisdictions (1747) there was no way back or as C. Bingham puts it, ”(…) the Highland aristocracy, now devoid of both armies and jurisdictions, became in the natural course of events an aristocracy of landlords.”[3]

Now the trade in cattle, replaced by sheep farming in the second half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, became the chiefs’ primary interest, for which they did not hesitate to use violent means evicting tenants in order to gain more space for their new enterprise. What came to be known as the Highland Clearances began in Glengarry in 1782 and continued throughout the Highlands and Islands down to the Uist and Barra evictions in 1851. It was not before the end of the nineteenth century that campaigns for land reform by people like John Murdoch, a newspaper editor, John Stuart Blackie, Professor of Greek in the University of Edinburgh, the crofters themselves in the so-called ‘Crofters’ War’ or institutions like the Gaelic Society of Inverness (founded 1871) could see a success of their efforts. Thus, the Napier Commission investigated crofting, a Highland Law Reform Association provided candidates for the Highland constituencies for the General Election of 1885 and four of them entered Parliament. As a result, the Crofters’ Holdings Act of 1886 was a first step into the right direction. “The Act granted crofters security of tenure, permitted the bequest or assignation of crofts, appointed fixed rents, arranged for outgoing tenants to receive compensation for improvements, and made arrangements for enlargement of holdings.”[4] However, the Act neither dealt with a demanded redistribution of land on a large scale nor did it help the cottars. Solutions to these problems were searched for in twentieth century, but these attempts cannot be covered in this essay.[5]


[1] From: Anonymous, ‘Farewell to My Country’ in: Blackie, p. 302.

[2] Youngson, p. 26.

[3] Bingham, p. 164 f.

[4] ibid., p. 194.

[5] For a concise account see Bingham, pp. 195-201.


ISBN (eBook)
File size
495 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Glasgow – Department of Celtic
Effects Historical Economic Changes Gaelic Society Celtic Civilisation Societies Modern World




Title: The Effects of Historical and Economic Changes from 1746 to 1886 on  Gaelic Society