Scotland is a beautiful country. The Scottish Highlands, magnificent to behold. To revel in the grandeur of its ethereal terrain is a privilege I hold dear.
Scotland draws thousands of visitors each year. Most are now drawn to the fetching scenery of Scotland’s northern wilds. The Scottish Highlands are now Scotland’s largest tourism draw after Edinburgh.
Yet a dark narrative lurks behind its stark allure.
How did such a magical landscape become a domain for mostly sheep?
Although never highly populated, the uncultivated land we see today and subsequently the sparse population of the Scottish Highlands is not a completely natural occurrence.
Centuries of clear cutting helped to deforest an already receding woodland. Regrowth, suppressed to make room for sheep.
The populace, cleared by force… much like the trees. Ripped from their roots, to also make room for sheep.
By the 1850s the Highland culture, demonized and disregarded for centuries had been virtually eradicated.
The insidious nature of centuries of repression, maintains its steely grasp on much of Scotland’s countryside today.
The caustic relationship between England and Scotland runs long and deep.
For centuries a Brit marrying a Scot, was a crime punishable by death. The borderland between England and Scotland, a bloody no man’s land.
In time, Britons melded a bit with the lowland Scots, albeit with a wary eye. But the rogue nature of clan culture made it hard to tame the Highlands.
The dividing line between the Highlands and Lowlands has never been distinctly clear. The negative view of the natives of these Highlands have remained crystal clear.
The Stuarts / Stewarts
The House of Stuart (Stewart), started with Robert II. The Stuarts bared Kings and Queens of Scotland from the late 14th Century. When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 the true reign of the Stuarts began with James I.
It was a Renaissancian time for Scotland.
Except for the brief time that England was a Commonwealth (1649 1660), the Stuarts remained monarchs until the death of Queen Anne in 1714.
In 1707 the independent Kingdom of Scotland merged with England. The Act of Union created the Kingdom of Great Britain. In many ways this benefitted both nations. Scotland needed money and Britain needed a way to control their feral neighbor to the North.
The Jacobites of the Scottish Highlands
Although flawed, James I of England VI of Scotland, was highly regarded by his people, having experienced long standing peace and fairly low taxation.
Upon his death his son Charles I ruled with a steady hand, yet at a turbulent time. His unyielding disagreements with Parliament and the rise of Cromwell as a Commonwealth leader, led to the loss his head.
Nine years later, with the monarchy restored, Charles II became another much beloved King who reigned true. He died young.
His arrogant and disagreeable brother James II succeeded him. With the blessing of Parliament, James II was quickly deposed by William and Mary (James II son in law and daughter). The Convention of Estates in Scotland, recognized William and Mary as legitimate monarchs over James II.
Death & The Divine Right of Kings
But Jacobite leanings in the Highlands stemmed mostly from the supportive treatment of the Highland clans by James I, and their continued belief in the “Divine Right of Kings”. Because of this, numerous Jacobite attempts were made to restore James and his descendants to the throne.
On April 16, 1746, the Jacobites met their most devastating defeat at Culloden Moor.
Thousands of men died in the name of Charles Edward Stuart. (The Bonnie Prince). An ominous sense of foreboding still permeates that boggy hill in Inverness.
Cause & Effect
In the hope of suppressing any possibility of future Jacobite uprisings. The Duke of Cumberland (King George II’s son), did everything he could to end the Highland way life.
Kilts and Tartans were banned. Clans forbidden. Anyone suspected of Jacobite connections were imprisoned, executed or forcibly transported to the Americas. Scottish Gaelic was discouraged and suppressed.
Sadly, this is not where this tragic decimation of the Highland culture ends.
Most Highlanders were monetarily poor and living off the land. At the time of the final Jacobite rebellion, they mostly lived as tenant farmers. This meant paying rent (aka tax) to clan chiefs and land owners for land that had been passed down through their families for centuries.
The process of clearing out people began prior to 1745, but sped up quickly after the final Jacobite rebellion.
The deconstruction of clan society created a detachment between clan chiefs and their kinsman. In a short time, many of the chiefs grew to closely resemble British aristocracy, and saw their kinsmen a disposable commodity.
In the name of agricultural improvement, tenant farmers were forcibly relocated to make room for the more profitable sheep.
With no laws to protect these farmers, most moved to coastal areas to fish for kelp. Many Highland Scots had no choice but to emigrate. Entire ancient communities were completely wiped out.
In the 1820s the fishing and kelp industry died. To prohibit people from moving back inland, owners raised rents to unreasonable levels.
Then 1844 saw a devastating potato famine and more Scots were forced to emigrate or die.
Landowners continued to clear people from their lands until the 1850s.
Today there are more full blood Highlands descendents living in North Carolina than in Scotland.
Who the Hell owns Scotland?
Recent studies show that 432 people own half of all privately-owned land in Scotland, making this one of the highest concentrations of private land ownership in all of Europe. There is no way for the public to discover who owns what in Scotland. Nor how that land got into their hands.
The Scottish Land Commission (SLC) was formed to analyze the situation and make recommendations which could lead to significant changes in land law. It is their job to establish whether so few people holding so much land is detrimental to society.
Until something is decided, the vast open tracts of stunningly remarkable landscapes shall continue to draw visitors. As will the lochs and mountains dotted with rotting ancient brochs, farms, estates and castles on the horizon.
Winding single track roads will continue to curve through baaing sheep, and the tourists will keep coming.
A sad irony in this grim history is the accidental but prudent result of this mass misappropriation of land. If more land goes into the hands of more Scots, what does that mean for the landscape?
The uncommercialized and undeveloped land of the Highlands, undoubtedly is one of the reasons why it remains so unique. The uncorrupted vistas are the crux of Scotland’s tourism boom. Subsequently supplying a new found wealth to Scotland. Albeit, who is most gaining from the monetary insurgence in Scotland remains to be clear.
With the indubitable right for more Scottish citizens to own land, build homes and live their lives, comes the need for more roads, more shops and more commercialization. In order to progress, the things that make this land so very remarkable may also be the most vulnerable.
How does a country offer fair opportunity to regain some of the losses of a people long repressed, without destroying the best parts of itself in the process? I simply do not know.
What I do know, is that when experiencing this awe inspiring environment, as it stands today or as it may be in the future, it is important to understand its history and contemplate the depths of the loss that got them here.
When you gaze upon the huge swaths of stunning vacant land, you should also appreciate the lives that once called this place home. The harsh realities of a culture so thoroughly washed away, that its remnants have become as natural a part of the environment, as the sheep.