The Highland Clearances


The first wave of the Clearances began in about 1785 but it was in 1814 that the terrible burnings began. The Duke of Sutherland and his Factor, Patrick Sellar, decided that they could make more money by grazing sheep than having tenant crofters to farm the land. Thus began the cruel period where tenants were forcibly evicted from the land their families had inhabited for hundreds of years. Their fields were burned so that the cattle could not graze.  Houses were set on fire and reduced to rubble. And the people were driven out to a life of destitution to make way for the sheep. Many went to the coastal areas to try and find work in the fishing industry but many thousands went abroad, particularly to Canada, to start a new life. Until recently the most common name in the Toronto telephone directory was McRae.




Elizabeth McRae’s ancestors went from Wester Ross to Wick in Caithness where the herring industry flourished.  Life here was hard, working in dangerous, small boats or spending 14 hours a day gutting herrings that were known as ‘The Silver Darlings’. Later the family went south to Edinburgh to look for work.


Much has been written about the Highland Clearances and John Prebble’s book of that name gives an authoritative and dramatic overview of this terrible time in Scottish history.