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Remembering the Highland Clearances in a time of climate emergency

ByFrances Tappin

Oct 9, 2019

The Proclaimers belt out “Lochaber no more, Sutherland no more, Lewis no more, Skye no more” in their debut hit ‘Letter From America’, intended to conjure up allusions of the tragic past played in Scotland’s iconic Highlands. Reflecting on this past may aid our efforts to understand the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in a time of climate emergency. In the latter half of this summer the news was ablaze with reports, opinion articles and campaigns concerning the fires torching the Amazon.

Spread throughout Western coverage was a tone of disbelief at Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s refusal to deplore the deforestation tearing across hundreds of miles of rainforest in Brazil. This disbelief was coupled with critique on the growing use of the Amazon to further Brazil’s economic development. While there remains debate over the extent to which these fires are the result of human hands, it is nevertheless clear that there are strong economic incentives for an intentional scorching and clearing of vast swathes of land in the region. The condemnations of capitalist greed, unrestrained disregard for the environment and neglect of the needs of indigenous people are articulated with a blind ignorance of our own history.

From the late 18th century until the early 20th century the people of Lochaber, Sutherland, Skye and Lewis were purged of their land, homes and livelihoods and the consequences left a mark on the Scottish landscape that still stands to this day. The combination of capitalist greed and large private estates led to the widespread displacement of inhabitants across the Highlands, where land was claimed and cleared for the more lucrative enterprise of sheep grazing and deer stalking. One of the most infamous instances of the Highland Clearances were those perpetrated by the Countess of Sutherland and her estate, who systematically forced subsistence farmers from their land with fires, bludgeons and swords. T. M. Devine aptly regards this as the “subordination of human [and environmental] need for human profit”: a tale analogous to the state of the Amazon rainforest today.

The monocultures of heather moorland, sheep grazing pastures and managed deer hunting estates are a mark of the lost biodiversity of the Scottish Highlands. Thousands of square miles of the ancient Caledonian Forest were hacked away to clear land for more lucrative pursuits, simultaneously hammering away at a unique ecosystem that has never been regained.

The prevalence of deer hunting and sheep grazing prevent the regeneration of forest or wild flowers and grasses as they feed off saplings and short grasses respectively. We now find ourselves criticising the drastic clearing of land in the Amazon without acknowledging or attempting to repair the errors of the Highland Clearances. The UK Government funds tree-planting schemes worldwide with the intention of alleviating the global climate crisis, but are yet to successfully begin the re-wilding of our Highlands.

It is paramount that the atrocious misuse and mismanagement of the Amazon Rainforest is ardently criticised. However, there is a tension in our critique if we cannot remember and reflect upon our own destructive past. How can we demand that attention is paid to the burnt out and deserted district of Humaitá whilst no attention is paid to the desolate remains of Sutherland? Only 1 per cent of the Caledonian Forest remains due to a misplaced emphasis on productivity. Surely we ought to own up and respond to the environmental crisis that has tarnished our own landscape? Whilst this analogy is imperfect, there is a pressing need to reflect upon the forgotten history of the Highland Clearances, to acknowledge their ecological impact and begin rewilding our own scorched landscape.


Image: Mike Davidson via Wikipedia

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