How far can you trust documents?

All history-writing, certainly all history-writing dealing with events before the twentieth century, is based on documents.   From the late nineteenth century onwards there are many more aids – sound-recordings, films and so on – but for events before these new inventions, historians have to depend on written documents.   But to say written documents are invaluable is not the same as to say that they are infallible.   Anyone reading a document from 200 or 300 years ago should have the same arm’s-length approach which (for example) anyone reading a political party’s manifesto now ought to have.   Here are some examples where eminent historians have failed to observe this (surely) elementary rule

Robert MacKay wrote in 1829, in his House and Clan of MacKay, that (in modern spelling) the MacKay country, “from Drumholstein, which divides it from Caithness on the north-east, to Kylesku, an arm of the sea dividing it from Assynt on the south-west, is about eighty miles in length”.1   Captain Ian Scobie, who was a Sutherland man, quoted this passage verbatim, without the slightest misgiving, in his 1914 book about the Reay Fencibles.2   Since there were now two documents to prove this “fact”, the author and expert on clan history Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, eleventh baronet, Falkland Pursuivant, Albany Herald, Q.C., Ph.D. etc, repeated the information in 1969: the MacKay country was a tract “measuring eighty miles” in length.3   However, any inexpensive map, even in the hands of a less educated reader, shows that it is something under forty-nine miles from the Caithness border to Kylesku – not much more than half of the MacKay-Scobie-Moncreiffe figure.   The documents, unfortunately, are wrong, and anyone quoting from them (without correction) is simply confirming errors.

Again, the Highland ministers writing in the two Statistical Accounts of Scotland (the first one published in 1791-9, and the second one in 1845) often gave exaggerated accounts of the size of their parishes: no doubt the aim was to magnify the amount of work they had to do, and the esteem owed to them for doing it.   Some Highland parishes were certainly very big: several parishes in the Highlands were in fact bigger than Andorra, the independent country in the Pyrenees.   However, exaggeration made them bigger still.   Kilmallie,4 Gairloch,5 and Fortingall6 were claimed to have many more square miles then they had; the statistics of Kilmonivaig,7 Kilmorack,8 Ardchattan,9 Farr,10 Lochbroom,11 and Croy12 (for example) were also considerably overstated, either in the 1790s or the 1840s.   It was presumably these inflated claims in the O.S.A. and N.S.A., clearly wrong though they are (as the map shows), that led Professor Michael Lynch, F.R.Hist.S., F.R.S.E., F.S.A. Scot, and from 1993 to 2005 the Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography at Edinburgh University (“the oldest and most distinguished Scottish History Professorship in the world”) to state that the Highland parishes “on average were 400 square miles in area”.13   However, the fact is that there are only a handful (perhaps only four) as big as that: Kilmonivaig, Kilmallie (both of which have been described as the largest parish in Scotland, as has Kilmorack), Lochbroom, and (after 1891, when it took over some of Reay) Farr parish.   There were also a few other very extensive Highland parishes, but the average size of Highland parishes was much less than that.   All this topographical information is freely available in published sources and on the internet; but to some historians the words in a document, especially a venerable one, have a kind of sanctity, and cannot be gainsaid.   The Highlands (that is, four of the old Scottish counties, and ten part-counties) cover so far as I can calculate about 16,300 square miles,14 and contain 16215 parishes: so it cannot take long to work out that the average parish is just over 100 square miles.

The average size of the Highland parishes, then, is only a quarter as big as Professor Lynch said.   A defender of the “400 square miles average” theory might claim that my definition of the Highlands is at fault, and that if a different definition of the Highlands were adopted, perhaps with fewer parishes, a different average size might be found.   Let us then look at the four principal “Highland counties” – Argyllshire, Inverness-shire, Ross-shire, and Sutherland – by themselves.   However small an area a particular observer wished to demarcate as Highland, a definition of the Highlands which did not include these four counties would be less than convincing.   The four named counties contained about 113 parishes,16 covering something like 12,407 square miles.17   (These numbers are only tentative, because some parishes had land in two counties, which meant that not every parish, and not every part of every parish, is always listed under the same county.)   If, however, we take this reckoning as being approximately accurate, it is easy to work out that the average parish size in the four main Highland counties was about 110 square miles.   As for the Hebrides, Nelson’s Gazetteer and the Gazetteer for Scotland both said that the area of the Hebridean islands, from Lewis down to Islay and Gigha (all of them, of course, in the three counties of Ross-shire, Inverness-shire, or Argyllshire) was 2812 square miles;18 and since there are 25 Hebridean parishes, that would make an average size for those parishes of 112.5 square miles.   It appears, therefore, that the average Highland parish, while certainly much larger than the average Lowland parish, was not nearly as large as an incautious reading of some of the O.S.A. and N.S.A. reports might suggest.

In 1994 Professor T. M. Devine, the Research Professor and Director of the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen, and recipient of many honours including two earned doctorates and three honorary ones (in his own words, “in 2001 I was presented by HM the Queen with the Royal Gold Medal, Scotland’s supreme academic accolade”),19 revealed a similar belief as to the size of Highland parishes; and he gave an example of what he meant.   After warning his audience that Highland history “has long been shrouded in romance and myth through the ingenious efforts of Victorian writers who virtually invented a Gaelic past which fitted in with the assumptions and expectations of their readers”, he said that now Highland history was “based on careful examination of contemporary documentary evidence”;20 and remarked that “there were few Highland parishes under 400 square miles in extent, a typical example being Harris which was forty-eight miles by twenty-four”.21   (Those asserted dimensions, if consistent, would of course mean that Harris contained over a thousand square miles.)   In fact, as we have seen, there were very few Highland parishes, probably only four, as large as 400 square miles in extent (so the fact is that all Highland parishes except four were smaller than 400 square miles): certainly Harris was nowhere near that size.   Professor Devine’s remark about Harris is clearly based on the Harris minister’s comment in the O.S.A. that his parish, “from the northern to the southern extremity, along the common track of travelling by land, and the course of navigation through the Sound, will be at least forty-eight miles long: its breadth varies much.   Near the northern extremity it is 24 miles; from thence to the Sound, it may be at an average from 6 to 7; and, of the Sound, navigators calculate the breadth as well as length at 3 leagues [or 9 miles].”22   The N.S.A. Harris reporter thought the length of the parish was greater still: “its extent from north to south is fifty miles”.23   The acceptance of these figures constitutes another case of over-reverence for a document, and indeed for an extreme interpretation of it: the width of “twenty-four miles” alleged for part of Harris by the O.S.A. minister only applies to a small section of the parish, while the “average of six to seven miles” is much nearer the truth.   The atlas shows that though the greatest width of Harris (both the island and the parish) may well be about twenty-four miles, the greatest length of the parish of Harris is at the most twenty-six miles, from the northern point of Loch Resort to the southern end of Berneray (rather than the forty-eight miles claimed in the O.S.A., or the fifty alleged in the N.S.A.).   Apart from that, the minister made it (and the map makes it) clear that most of the space inside these maximum measurements was occupied by extra-parochial water.   Two authoritative calculations of the area of Harris are 193 square miles (Gazetteer for Scotland 2002-13), and 195 square miles (Nelson’s Gazetteer 1941).   Whichever figure is correct, Harris clearly has fewer than half of the alleged 400 or more square miles.

Professor T. C. Smout, the present Historiographer Royal in Scotland (i.e. the leader of the profession), and formerly professor of history at Edinburgh University and at St Andrews University, did not suggest an average size, or a minimum size, but he did claim that the “Highland parishes were of immense size”, and gave four examples.24   The first was Kilmallie, where the O.S.A. minister had asserted that “the length . . . is about sixty miles in a straight line”,25 a statement endorsed by the N.S.A. minister: “the length . . . is about sixty miles”.26   There were thus two documents giving the length of Kilmallie: and Professor Smout was presumably relying on them when he wrote that “Kilmallie was sixty miles long”.27   It may well be as we speculated earlier that the O.S.A. minister was tempted to over-estimate distances, and therefore his own hard work, as he went about his parish business, and it may also be that the N.S.A. minister found it the easiest option to copy his predecessor; but anyone writing now can look at a map and see that Kilmallie’s length is about thirty miles, rather than sixty.28   So where an allegation in a historical document, and the easily discernible fact, are at odds with each other, it is the fact that is rejected by academic orthodoxy.   The document cannot be denied.

Dr Smout also claimed that Glenorchy was nearly as big: “Glenorchy was sixty miles long and twenty-four miles wide.”29   No doubt a document somewhere gave these “facts”, though I have not found it yet (Dr Smout supplied no reference; and even the O.S.A.30 and N.S.A.31 only claimed a length of twenty-four or twenty-five miles).   However, the map shows clearly that Glenorchy was at the most only about thirty-one miles long and no more than fourteen wide (half the length, and not much more than half the breadth, given by Dr Smout).32   Dr Smout’s third example was Buchanan parish, which he claimed was nine miles across.33   The map shows clearly that the width of Buchanan was at the most six miles; the Gazetteer for Scotland gives the same figure – six miles.   Even in the statistical accounts, the O.S.A. minister34 had claimed only six miles of breadth, and the N.S.A. report35 only five miles.

So the historian’s motto must be – look at all the documents you can find, by all means, but don’t assume that every document must tell the truth.


1 Robert MacKay, History of the House & Clan of MacKay, Edinburgh, 1829, 1.

2 Scobie, Captain I., An Old Highland Fencible Corps, Blackwood, Edinburgh, 1914, 8.

3 Moncreiffe, Sir Iain, The Highland Clans, Barrie & Rockliff, London, 1967, 175.

4 O.S.A. VIII 47, Kilmallie Inverness-shire.

5 N.S.A. XIV 90, Gairloch Ross-shire.

6 N.S.A. X 527, Fortingall Perthshire.

7 O.S.A. XVII 543, & N.S.A. XIV 503, both Kilmonivaig Inverness-shire.

8 O.S.A. XX 401, 402, Kilmorack Inverness-shire.

9 N.S.A. VII 469, Ardchattan Argyllshire.

10 N.S.A. XV 69, Farr Sutherland.

11 O.S.A. X 461, Lochbroom Ross-shire.

12 N.S.A. XIV 445, Croy Inverness-shire.

13 Lynch, Professor Michael, Scotland A New History, Pimlico, London, 1996, 364.

14 16,300 square miles is my best calculation: it must be approximately correct.

15 I have explained elsewhere how I reached the total of 162 Highland parishes: this figure too must be approximately correct.

16 I explain elsewhere that I have taken Argyllshire to have 35 parishes, Inverness-shire 32, Ross-shire 33, and Sutherland 13 (as in the O.S.A.) – a total of 113.

17 Sutherland 2028 sq. miles, Ross-shire 3078, Inverness-shire 4088, Argyllshire 3213 – total 12407.

18 The Hebrides – that is, Lewis, Harris, the Uists, Benbecula, Barra, Skye, the Small Isles, Coll &

Tiree, Mull, Colonsay & Oronsay, Jura, Islay, Gigha & Cara, plus the neighbouring islets:

Nelson’s Gazetteer and Gazetteer for Scotland.

19 website etc (the Edinburgh University website). At the event

“celebrating the career of eminent historian Professor Sir Tom Devine, Professor Devine was joined by Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the U.K.”

20 Devine, Sir T., Clanship to Crofters’ War, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1998, preface.

21 Devine, Sir T., op. cit., 100.

22 O.S.A. X 343, Harris Inverness-shire.

23 N.S.A. XIV 155, Harris Inverness-shire.

24 Smout, Professor T. C., A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830, Collins, London, 1970, 461.

25 O.S.A. VIII 407, Kilmallie Inverness-shire.

26 N.S.A. XIV 117, Kilmallie Inverness-shire.

27 Smout, op. cit., 461.

28 The Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-13, said that Kilmallie’s greatest length was 29 1/8 miles, and its greatest breadth 30¼ miles.

29 Smout, op. cit., 461.

30 O.S.A. VIII 336, Glenorchy Argyllshire.

31 N.S.A. VII 83, Glenorchy Argyllshire.

32 The Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-13, said Glenorchy’s “utmost length . . . is 31½ miles”, and its greatest “breadth 13 5/8 miles”.

33 Smout, op. cit., 461.

34 O.S.A. IX 13, Buchanan Stirlingshire.

35 N.S.A. VIII 89, Buchanan Stirlingshire.

What is a Clearance?

I think I ought to define “clearance” – I should say what I mean by the word, since some writers apparently mean something different.   A “clearance” was what it was called when a landlord cleared all his small tenants off all the good land on his estate.   Sometimes he then tried to encourage or even organize their removal to the Lowlands or overseas – especially after the potato famine which began in 1845, since he was afraid he might have to pay a poor rate to support the paupers he had created – but in the “clearances” between the 1740s and the 1830s a clearing landlord often tried to keep on his estate the people he had evicted.

During these years there were a number of reasons why the result of a clearance was actually an increase in the local population.   There were often good reasons why a landlord would try to keep his evicted small tenants on his estate.

  1. A Highlander evicted from his large joint-farm would often, rather than leave the sacred land of his clan entirely, accept a small piece of waste land – cliff-top, or rocky or marshy land – which he would spend years improving by – literally – laborious spade-work, so that it became good agricultural land worth paying rent for.   Not the least value of the potato crop was that planting potatoes often helped in this conversion of useless land to land worth something.   In other words, the landlord would get the evicted people to extend the remunerative part of his estate without having to take any trouble himself.
  2. Until the slump in kelp prices after the Free Trade measures of the 1820s, evicted small tenants (in coastal or island districts) could be turned into kelp-workers; and the landlord could sell the kelp for several times more than he had had to pay the kelp-workers to produce it.   When the landlord was getting £20 a ton, the kelp-worker seldom got more than £3 a ton – a tremendous profit for the landlord.
  3. Even when alternative sources of soda appeared, after the Free Trade measures of the government in the 1820s, in some areas of the Highlands the kelp was of such high quality that it still made a profit for the landlord.
  4. In various areas of the Highlands industries sprang up – forestry, logging, quarrying, mining, fishing, for example; and to get the profits from these industries, workers were needed, creating a demand that evicted small tenants could fill.
  5. Even apart from these industries, landlords were sometimes able to get various other entrepreneurs to establish smaller workshops in the new villages – and village rents were much higher per acre than rents for ordinary agricultural land.
  6. Sometimes the new big farmers were Lowlanders; when they were, they often preferred to bring farmworkers – shepherds or cattle-men for example – from the Lowlands.
  7. When the landlord was enjoying his increased rents (often trebled or quadrupled) after a clearance, he would sometimes build himself a fine new mansion, or extend his old one; and in the days before vacuum cleaners, washing machines, central heating and so on, this meant he had to employ a staff of domestic servants.   The new big farmers also had to employ domestic servants in their large houses.
  8. The new society also created a demand for more factors, surveyors, lawyers, merchants and so on; and these were often immigrants from the Lowlands, since in the new society they had to be English-speakers.
  9. In the second half of the 18th century, and up to 1815, Britain was more often at war than at peace; and even when there was no formal war, there was fighting in the colonies.   This meant there was frequently a demand for soldiers.   Highlanders were known to make good soldiers.   A landlord who could recruit men, and offer a company or a battalion of soldiers to the government, would make a profit out of it – not to mention making a career for his younger sons as officers.   So there was another reason to try to keep the evicted people on the estate.
  10. For all these reasons, a landlord would often not only try to keep his own evicted small tenants on his estate, but he would also try to attract further manpower from neighbouring estates.

The population both in the Highlands and the Lowlands was increasing, partly because of the decreasing risk from smallpox, as a result of vaccination.   In the Lowlands the population shot up; and even in the Highlands there was a smaller increase.

The result was that the population immediately after the clearances kept high or even went up.   In the long run, however, these factors ceased to operate.   Kelping became largely uneconomical; other industries did not prosper; the landlords themselves often became absentees, reducing the need for staffs of household servants.   So, in the long run, the factors making for a decrease in the population overwhelmed those making for an increase.   The result is that large parts of the Highlands, where humans have lived for thousands of years, are now virtually empty.

In the earlier years of the clearances, the landlords, and those who saw their interest was to support the new society, often claimed that there could not have been any clearances because the population had gone up.   The Countess of Sutherland pointed to the larger population in Sutherland; and so did Patrick Sellar.   It is interesting that there are writers now, as well as numbers of websites, which make the same claims.

The Highlanders – Catholic or Protestant?

Everyone writing history, or what is claimed to be history, presumably believes that he or she is writing the truth.   Even people churning out what is basically propaganda for this or that set of rulers (democratic or dictatorial) have probably convinced themselves that what they write is true.   So when I find it necessary to disagree with what others have written about the Highland clearances, and to allege that they have got their facts wrong, it is broaching a very profound question: not merely whether an account of what happened in the Highlands in 1700 to 1900 is accurate or not, but whether any account of history can be trusted – whether historians are keeping to this basic necessity of all history, or not.

Those who read my Highland Clearances will see this issue coming up again and again.   For now, let us take one comparatively small point.   In the old Highlands (say in the hundred years up to 1750) what religion was professed by the Highlanders?   Obviously you have to decide first who were the Highlanders, and where did they live: but assuming my conclusion that 162 parishes in Scotland, in fourteen of the old Scottish counties, constituted the Highlands (and I don’t think any serious estimate could differ very much from that conclusion), then Dr Webster’s investigation in about 1750 gives us an answer to that question – at any rate for people who are prepared to add up a lot of figures.   Dr Webster asked each parish minister for the total population of the parish, and the numbers adhering to each church.   In the 162 Highland parishes there were 295,566 people.   There were 282,735 Protestants, and 12,831 Roman Catholics.   That means that 95.66% of the Highlanders were Protestant, and 4.34% were Catholic.   Of every 10,000 Highlanders, 9566 were Protestant.1

It is true that the Webster figures were all supplied by Presbyterian ministers, and some people might wonder whether they might have been tempted to minimize the number of local Catholics.   However, a papal delegate (one William Leslie) estimated in 1678 that there were some 12,000 Highland Catholics: that judgement was considerably earlier than the Webster calculation, but was very close to it numerically.2   Another Catholic estimate, in 1766, only a year or two after Webster’s work, was that the Highland Catholics numbered 13,166.3   This again is very close to the Webster return.


So much for the facts.   Now for what some historians or other experts have said (always remembering that nearly 96% of the Highlanders were Protestant) –


Hugh Miller (1854): “the Stuarts, exiled for their adherence to Popery, continued to found almost their sole hopes of restoration on the swords of their co-religionists the Highlanders”.4

The Rev. James MacKenzie (1911): “the clans, when they had any religion at all [the true flavour of Lowland scholasticism comes through here], were mostly Popish”.5

A. G. MacDonell (1937): the Reformation divided the Highland clans “into two separate factions, the Protestant and the Catholic”, as if they were of much the same size: an impression strengthened by his references to “the Catholic clans of the North and West”, and to “the Catholicism of the seaboard clans or of the islands of the Hebrides” (including, presumably, the rigidly Protestant Lewis, Skye, North Uist and so on).   MacDonell also described Prince Charles’ army as “Catholic soldiers”; in fact some were Catholics, some Protestant.6

Sir Thomas Innes of Learney and Frank Adam (1965): “the clans, for the most part, were Episcopalians or Catholics”.7

Janet Glover (1966): in 1700 “loyalty to the Roman church . . .was assured in the Highlands”.8

Ian Finlay (1966): in the early seventeenth century “the inhabitants of the Black Isle were Protestant, when all their Highland neighbours were Catholic”.9   (In fact the “Highland neighbours . . . of the Black Isle” – Frasers, MacKenzies, Munros – were all Protestant.)

James MacMillan (1969): “the Highlander was an unregenerate Papist”; “the Highlands . . . were Catholic”.10

L. G. Pine (1972): as a result of religion “the rift between Highland and Lowland inhabitants became more pronounced”, since “many of the clans, especially in the Isles, adhered to Catholicism, while the rest of Scotland devoted itself to Protestantism”.11

Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry (1985): “the devastation of the Highlands was [after Culloden] . . . applauded by many Lowland and Presbyterian Scots who hated Highlanders more for their stubborn adherence to the Roman Catholic faith than their loyalty to the Stewarts”.12

Professors Donnachie and Hewitt (1989): there were “divided loyalties among the clans – many had remained Catholic”, while “the Jacobite clans, notably the MacGregors, MacDonalds, MacPhersons, Stewarts and Robertsons, continued to support the Catholic cause after the Hanoverian succession”.13   (This may be taken to imply that all these clans were Catholic; in fact the MacGregors, MacPhersons, Stewarts, and Robertsons, and many MacDonalds, were Protestant.)

John Burke (1990): “during the century after Culloden more than forty ‘Parliamentary churches’ were built throughout the Highlands to designs by Thomas Telford, in an effort to woo Papist Jacobites finally to Protestantism”.14

Jeff Fallow (1991) the Highlanders’ “religion at that time [was] mainly Catholic or Episcopalian”.15

Tom Steel (1994): “James VI and his successors continued to see it as a mission to civilize the Highlander and stamp out his general intransigence and Papist ways”.16

The Times (1996): the clearances could be seen as an assault by the “Protestant Scots-speaking Lowlanders” on their “Catholic Gaelic-speaking neighbours”.17

David Ross (1998): “most central and western clans remained Catholic”.18

Arthur Herman, an American professor of history (2002): while in 1700 the Lowlanders had embraced Presbyterianism, “the clansmen in the north tended to remain loyal to the Catholic faith or followed their chieftains into the Episcopalian     Church”.19

A website (2006): “Catholicism was the predominant religion” in the Highlands and Islands.20

The Times (2006) commented on Gaelic: “as ‘the Catholic tongue’, it was suppressed for decades.”21

If such an incontrovertible fact as the Highlanders’ religion can be defied in this way, it is the less surprising that so much else that is written about the Highlands is so often of dubious authenticity.



1   Kyd passim

2   Alexander Leslie, 1677; see Blundell 1909, 17.

3   Sybil M. Jack, Keeping the Faith: the Catholic Mission in the Highlands 1560-1800, p. 64.   See M. Lynch, Scotland, A New History, 367; he quoted the figure of 13,166, and said it was in 1764.   In fact it was in 1766 – though the information appeared in Sybil Jack’s book at page 64.   It shows how easily a number can be allowed to infect other numbers nearby.   Numbers of other authors have quoted this same figure of 13,166, and said it was in 1764; in other words they took the information from Lynch, and failed to check the source from which he drew it.

4   Miller 1854, 373.

5   MacKenzie 1911, 650.

6   MacDonell 1937, 13, 30, 172.   MacDonell described Prince Charles’ army in 1745 as “half-savage, Gaelic-speaking, Catholic soldiers”.

7   Adam/Innes 1965, 55.  The date indicated was “after 1603”, but no evidence was given to support the statement, or to explain why (in that case) there was such an enormous conversion by 1750.   There is no evidence that any of the clans were Episcopalian.

8   Glover 1966, 193.

9   Finlay 1966, 30.

10   McMillan 1969 187, 183.

11   Pine 1972, 14.

12   Somerset Fry 1985, 197.

13   Donnachie & Hewitt 1989, 42.

14   Burke 1990, 183.

15   Fallow 1999, 74.

16   Steel 1994, 110.

17   The Times, 3rd February 2006, 28.

18   Ross 1998, 182.

19   Herman 2002, 94.

20   www.

21   Richards 1999, 368, quoting The Times, 1996.


Where are the Highlands?

In my last blog I said something about how important it is to define your terms before having any discussion: otherwise you may find that disagreements have been caused not by any actual differences, but because the people in the discussion were simply talking about different things.   So if we are going to disagree about the population figures in the Highlands, it is essential first to be completely sure that we are all talking about the same “Highlands”.   As I say elsewhere, many observers have avoided saying where the Highlands are; many others have given sharply divergent definitions, for example leaving out large swathes of the southern Highlands, or on the contrary taking in large areas to the east of the Gaelic area, or indeed far to the north of it.   When I began studying the history of the Highland clearances, I decided that an essential first step was to decide where the Highlands were.   I therefore spent a long time on this preliminary problem, and (rightly or wrongly) I came up with the following definition.   (This demarcation is given in terms of the old Scottish counties.   When in 1974 the upheaval took place which abolished the old counties, a completely new structure was substituted: and this new disposition was itself revised a few years later, in 1996.   How long the present arrangement will last no one can tell.)

The Highland area, so far as I could see, took in four of these old Scottish counties: Sutherland, Inverness-shire, Argyllshire, and Ross and Cromarty.   (The last of these was formed by the amalgamation of Ross-shire and Cromarty-shire in 1890.)   It also took in part of ten other counties – the shires of Bute, Dumbarton, Stirling, Perth, Angus, Aberdeen, Banff, Moray, Nairn, and Caithness.   The Highland line rarely or never ran neatly at the edges of parishes; where a parish appeared to have more Highland territory than Lowland, it was included; where it had more Lowland territory than Highland, it was excluded.   (In the following summary, parishes are given in the county where they were placed in the lists of the Old Statistical Account in the 1790s.)

The 162 parishes which, so far as I could judge, made up the Highlands were as follows.

Sutherland (thirteen parishes): Assynt, Clyne, Creich, Dornoch, Durness, Eddrachillis, Farr, Golspie, Kildonan, Lairg, Loth, Rogart, Tongue.   (All of these, of course, were on the mainland.)

Ross-shire (thirty-three): Alness, Applecross, Avoch, Contin, Cromarty, Dingwall, Edderton, Fearn, Fodderty, Gairloch, Glenshiel, Killearnan, Kilmuir Easter, Kiltearn, Kincardine, Kintail, Knockbain (or Kilmuir Wester & Suddie), Lochalsh, Lochbroom, Lochcarron, Logie Easter, Nigg, Resolis (or Kirkmichael), Rosemarkie, Rosskeen, Tain, Tarbat, Urquhart (or Logie Wester), Urray, Barvas, Lochs, Stornoway, Uig.   (In other words, twenty-nine mainland parishes, and four island ones.)

Inverness-shire (thirty-two): Abernethy & Kincardine, Alvie, Ardersier, Boleskine & Abertarff, Croy & Dalcross, Daviot & Dunlichity, Dores, Duthil & Rothiemurchus, Glenelg, Inverness, Kilmallie, Kilmonivaig, Kilmorack, Kiltarlity, Kingussie & Inch, Kirkhill, Laggan, Moy & Dalarossie, Petty, Urquhart & Glenmoriston, Barra, Bracadale, Duirinish, Harris, Kilmuir, North Uist, Portree, Sleat, Small Isles, Snizort, South Uist, Strath.   (Twenty mainland parishes, and twelve insular ones.)

Argyllshire (thirty-five): Ardchattan & Muckairn, Ardnamurchan, Campbeltown, Craignish, Dunoon & Kilmun, Glassary (or Kilmichael), Glenorchy & Inishail, Inveraray, Inverchaolain, Kilbrandon & Kilchattan, Kilcalmonell & Kilberry, Kilchrenan & Dalavich, Kilfinan, Killean & Kilchenzie, Kilmartin, Kilmodan, Kilmore & Kilbride, Kilninver & Kilmelfort, North Knapdale, South Knapdale, Lismore & Appin, Lochgoilhead & Kilmorich, Morvern, Saddell & Skipness, Southend, Strachur & Strathlachlan, Gigha & Cara, Jura & Colonsay, Kilarrow & Kilmeny, Kilchoman, Kildalton, Kilfinichen & Kilvickeon, Kilninian & Kilmore, Tiree & Coll, Torosay.   (Twenty-six – mainly – mainland parishes, and nine insular ones.   Kilbrandon, and Lismore, are part mainland, part island, and have been considered mainland parishes in this list.)

Buteshire (four): Kilbride, Kilmory, Kingarth, Rothesay.   (The first two parishes formed the island of Arran, and the second two the island of Bute.)

Dumbartonshire (three): Arrochar, Luss, Rhu.

Stirlingshire (two): Buchanan, Drymen.

Perthshire (twenty-two):   Aberfoyle, Alyth, Balquhidder, Blair Atholl, Callander, Clunie, Comrie, Dull, Dunkeld & Dowally, Fortingall, Fowlis Wester, Kenmore, Killin, Kirkmichael, Little Dunkeld, Logierait, Monzie, Monzievaird & Strowan, Moulin, Muthill, Port of Menteith, Weem.

Angus (one): Glenisla.

Aberdeenshire (three): Crathie & Braemar, Glenmuick Tullich & Glengairn, Strathdon.

Banffshire (four): Aberlour, Inveravon, Kirkmichael, Mortlach.

Morayshire (three): Cromdale, Edinkillie, Knockando.

Nairnshire (two): Ardclach, Cawdor.

Caithness (five): Halkirk, Latheron, Reay, Thurso, Watten.   (All the parishes listed from Dumbartonshire to Sutherland and Caithness are of course on the mainland.)

According to the contemporary evidence, these 162 parishes were those in which Gaelic was spoken by everyone, or by many people, in the middle of the 18th century.   The only exceptions were Cromarty and Rosemarkie, in Ardmeanach, or the Black Isle.   In 1750 they were largely English-speaking, but subsequently they received so many refugees from the clearances further west that Gaelic was widely heard there as well.   Besides that, the shire of Cromarty (including these two parishes) had been considered for so long as an integral part of the Highlands that it would seem provocative to exclude any part of it.

Dr John Walker was one of the very few people to have attempted a detailed delineation of the Highlands.1   Curiously enough, he also said that there were 162 parishes in “the Gaelic part of Scotland”, that is to say where “the Gaelic language is either preached or spoken by the natives”; but there were differences between his list and mine.   Compared with my schedule, he left out the parishes of Rhu, Fowlis Wester, Monzievaird, Clunie, Cromarty, Aberlour, Mortlach, Edinkillie, and Watten; but he included the parishes of Cumbrae, Rosneath, Crieff, Kincardine O’Neil, Coldstone, and Nairn, none of which appeared in my reckoning.   Of these latter six parishes, none of the parish reports on Cumbrae, Kincardine O’Neil, Coldstone, and Nairn, in either the old or the new Statistical Accounts of Scotland, mention Gaelic (unless to say it was not spoken there); the O.S.A. report on Rosneath seems to show clearly that Gaelic was no longer a local language; while as for Crieff, the Gaelic that could be heard in the main part of the parish was spoken by refugee Highlanders, fleeing from the improvements – many Lowland towns at that time had numbers of these fugitive families, but (without some specific local consideration) that does not justify us treating them as part of the original Gaelic area.   Dr Walker’s numeration was also affected by treating Tiree and Coll as two separate parishes; and he counted Kilbrandon, and Lismore and Appin, twice, since the two of them appeared both in his island and his mainland lists.

If anyone disagrees with my definition of the Highlands, it would be interesting to hear from them.



1   Dr John Walker, The Economical History of the Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland, University Press, Edinburgh, 1808, I 20

The “population explosion” in the Highlands


According to the standard account of Highland history, there was a “unparalleled, prodigious, stupendous” etc “population explosion” in the Highlands either from 1750 to 1800, or from 1750 to 1850).1   I am reluctant to keep emphasizing how much I disagree with many of those who have written about the Highlands, because I realize I must sound like one of those people who buttonhole you, and explain that human beings have never landed on the moon (the television coverage was faked), or that the twin towers atrocity in 2001 was done by the Americans themselves, or that they have just been for a trip in a flying saucer.   However, it must be done – here are the facts and figures, and anyone who disagrees is welcome to try and pick holes in my arguments.   A further preliminary point is this – unfortunately, any normal person who wants to discuss what happened in history has as a rule to accept what all the history books assert.   If I’m interested in the Battle of Bannockburn, which all the textbooks say happened in 1314, I have to accept that: I can’t spend months looking out all the contemporary evidence from witnesses, or chroniclers, or official documents.   In the same way, if all the books insist (which they do) that there was this extraordinary leap in the Highland population in the second half of the 18th century (or 1750-1850), then how is any ordinary reader, with his life to live, going to check up on it?   So it is not surprising that people have accepted this allegation of an enormous population increase in the Highlands.

So much for the historians: now for the facts of history.   To start with, I had to decide where the Highlands actually were (it’s strange that many experts on the Highlands never define the area they are talking about).   There are about 900 parishes in Scotland (different people give different figures).   Some parishes, everyone would agree, are in the Highlands; others are in the Lowlands.   But there is a lot of territory that might be either, according to various points of view: so I had to try and work out where exactly the Highland/Lowland boundary was.   If the Highlands are (a) the mountainous area of northern Scotland, or (b) the area where people spoke Gaelic in 1750, and indeed much later (fortunately, as it happens, almost everywhere the two areas are much the same) then the Highlands must be the four old Scottish counties of Sutherland, Ross & Cromarty, Inverness-shire, and Argyllshire, plus part of ten other old counties – most of Buteshire (i.e. Arran and Bute), half of Perthshire and half of Caithness, plus smaller parts of Dumbartonshire (or Dunbartonshire), Stirlingshire, Angus, Aberdeenshire, Banffshire, Moray, and Nairnshire.   Altogether it appeared that the Highlands contained 162 parishes: so I had to add up all the parish population totals found by Dr Webster (who made an amateur count in the 1740s and 1750s), then by the ministers of the Old Statistical Account in the early 1790s, and then by the census-takers of 1801 and each ten years thereafter – a laborious business.   (No wonder history professors avoid doing it.)   As for Dr Webster, there seemed to be half-a-dozen reasons why he probably underestimated the totals (as I explain in my book); a close study of the Highlands at that time would lead one to think the true population was at least 320,000 or 330,000.   But taking Webster’s totals at their face value, these were the results for the 162 parishes I have indicated: Webster, 295,566: and the O.S.A., 325,355.   The so-called “population explosion” in the second half of the eighteenth century produced an extra 29,789 people, that is an increase of 10.08%.   It is quite true that the O.S.A. figures would have been higher but for all the emigrations in 1750-1800; and it is equally true that they would have been lower but for the thousands of Lowlanders (sheep-farmers, shepherds, factors, lawyers, workmen etc.) who had come to live in the Highlands in those years.   The many Lowland immigrants are frequently mentioned in contemporary sources,3 but appear in very few modern accounts.   (No doubt because the “overpopulation” enthusiasts prefer to blame this non-existent “overpopulation” on the Highlanders’ failure to control their procreative urges.)  It is also true that different parishes showed different trends: under the impact of the “improvements”, some parish populations went up sharply, some went down sharply, while others changed more moderately.   So if you are merely producing propaganda, rather than history, you can quote one or two exceptional parish increases, and imply that the same thing happened everywhere.   (In South Uist, for example, the population shot up, since the landlord wanted as many kelp-workers as possible – kelp was putting thousands of pounds annually into his pocket.)

Since the Highlands contain about 16,300 square miles by my most careful calculation, these extra inhabitants (between Webster and the O.S.A.) amounted to two per square mile.   So we are expected to believe that the fearsome poverty, loss of land, and emigrations of the second half of the eighteenth century were the result of one extra person appearing in each 320 acres after fifty years.   And it is clear from the reports in the O.S.A. that the ten-per-cent increase in the population (if it was that much) was more than cancelled out by the fact that food production in the Highlands had gone up by considerably more than ten per cent.   So why do experts talk about a “population explosion”?   One can only surmise that they wanted something, anything, on which to blame the poverty, the descent into crofting, and the emigrations, rather than have to admit that it was the doing of that small group of people who now owned and dominated the Highlands.

Let us consider the figures right up to 1831/1841 (the figures at those two censuses were almost the same), when the Highland population reached its peak.   The 162-parish totals at successive decennial censuses were: 1801, 331,235; 1811, 347,359; 1821, 386,038; 1831, 405,733; 1841, 405,924; 1851, 400,931.   (After that the Highland population continued to decline every ten years.)   In other words (ignoring Webster’s probable underestimation of the numbers), from say 1751 to 1841 the population increased by 110,358 – 37.34% in ninety years, a figure that averages out at an undramatic 0.41% per year.   After ninety years of the population “exploding”, there were fewer than seven more people in each square mile.   That means that in 1841, at the very highest point that the Highland population ever reached, there were still more than twenty-five acres for each Highlander (or over 150 acres for each family of six).   Can anyone honestly claim to believe that such a miniscule increase in the number of Highlanders amounted to a “population explosion”?   But writers still quote abnormal figures from exceptional parishes, and imply that they are “typical”.   While the Highland population between 1750 and 1841 rose by just over a third, the food production in the same area doubled; so there was considerably more food produced per head.   In some parts there was a greater still increase of production. In South Uist, said the parish minister in the New Statistical Account, “the produce has been more than tripled since 1796”.3   I have often read in history books that by 1840 the population of South Uist had more than doubled since the O.S.A.; I cannot remember ever reading in a history book that the produce of South Uist had more than tripled at the same time, so that (other things being equal) everyone there must have had about fifty per cent more food.   It is uncanny that the one fact should be ubiquitous, and the other unmentionable.

To say that a population where there were at the very maximum only twenty-five people for each square mile is “congested”, so that the people must be driven away, is surely to do violence to the English language.




1   A few of the many who insist on a gigantic leap in the Highland population –

In the eighteenth century, there was “a torrential growth in the Highland population”: Dr Richard Muir, Lost Villages of Britain, 1985, p. 161.

One cause of the Highland emigrations was “the stupendous growth of population”: Professor Henry Hamilton, The Industrial Revolution in Scotland, 1966, p. 73.

“The century following the overthrow of the clans in 1746 saw an unparalleled population explosion in the Highlands”: Sir Iain Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe, The Highland Clans, 1967, p. 35.

In the eighteenth-century Highlands there was “a prodigious ‘population explosion’ ”: Earl of Dundee, in a 1985 personal memorandum to the Minister of State, Scottish Office, printed in Moncreiffe, The Highland Clans, 1967, p. 251.

In the Highlands “there was a population explosion . . . from the mid eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth century”: John A. Lister, The Scottish Highlands, 1978, p.19.

“We must learn from history.   In the latter half of the eighteenth century, there was an enormous population explosion”: Jamie McGrigor, (Highlands and Islands, Con.), during a debate in the Scottish Parliament, 27.11.2000 (demonstrating how little he had learned from history)

“. . . the explosive population growth of the late eighteenth century”: Professor Eric Richards, The Highland Clearances, 2002, p. 46.

Dozens more similar quotations are given in my book.   Professor Richards stands out: he apparently believes that recapitulation implies accuracy.   In The Highland Clearances, 1982, he reiterates the “over-population” theory on pages 6-7, 8, 11, 13, 14, 21, 32, 34, 35, 58, 78, 79, 88, 89, 92, 95, 96, 97, 101, 103, 105, 107, 111, 112, 114, 117, 118, 123, 130, 145, 167, 277, 286, 287, 357, 364, and 396.   In the face of such assiduous emphasis, it is hard to believe it is still erroneous – which may be the reasoning behind such repetition: he may think that such choruses of clichés connote correctness.


2   E.g., the minister of Kiltearn, Ross-shire, Old Statistical Account, 1791, volume I, p. 274; James Loch, Improvements on the Estate of the Marquess of Stafford, 1820, Appendix, p. 61; Alexander Sutherland, A Summer Ramble in the North Highlands, 1825, p. 98.


3   New Statistical Account, 1845, volume XIV, p. 197 (South Uist, Inverness-shire).