Highland Clearances?

Harris, Isle of Rum by Tony Page

I have often wondered, whether my MacKinnon ancestors, whom I have traced to late 18th century Inverness-shire, were living there in abject poverty as a result of the Highland Clearances?  Had they been moved on from the Highlands by a landowner throwing them out of their homes so that large sheep farms could be established?

It would seem from a recent DNA match that I have made via Ancestry, that this was not the case.  I have established that they came from the Isle of Rum and they probably left around 1770 because of the collapse of the Kelp trade and over-population of the island.  My family moved across to the mainland and found work in subsistence farming.  Meanwhile, Rum was becoming increasingly overcrowded.  About 450 tenant farmers were given notice to quit their homes.  They were persuaded to move to Canada.  On 11 July 1826, about 300 of the inhabitants boarded two ships, the Highland Lad and the Dove of Harmony, bound for Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada.  In 1827, the remaining residents boarded the St Lawrence with a group of inhabitants from the Isle of Muck.

The islanders did not find a land of milk and honey.  The land in Canada was inhospitable and it took many years for them to establish themselves in their new country.

Hugh Miller, who visited Rum, described the abandoned island;-
"The evening was clear, calm, golden-tinted; even wild heaths and rude rocks had assumed a flush of transient beauty; and the emerald-green patches on the hill-sides, barred by the plough lengthwise, diagonally, and transverse, had borrowed an aspect of soft and velvety richness, from the mellowed light and the broadening shadows. All was solitary. We could see among the deserted fields the grass-grown foundations of cottages razed to the ground; but the valley, more desolate than that which we had left, had not even its single inhabited dwelling; it seemed as if man had done with it for ever. The island, eighteen years before, had been divested of its inhabitants, amounting at the time to rather more than four hundred souls, to make way for one sheep farmer and eight thousand sheep. All the aborigines of Rum crossed the Atlantic; and, at the close of 1828, the entire population consisted of but the sheep farmer, and a few shepherds.”

It is estimated that 70,000 Highlanders emigrated, mainly to the colonies in North America and Australia and New Zealand, between the 1760s and 1803, and that over 150,000 were forced off their lands from 1783 to 1881.  It is impossible to measure whether their life opportunities were improved by emigration or how many seized the chance of a new life, but they had hard lives and sorrow, both before and after their emigration.

Sunset, Rum by Nell Roger


  1. It's a sad history. I've never visited Rum - in fact, despite being born on Islay, I've been to very few of the islands. I'd love to go on an island-hopping tour but then I think about the weather and the chances of rain for the duration and change my mind. I should just go, though, or I'll regret it.

  2. Although I was born in Scotland I have never been to any of the islands. I do intend to travel to at least one island at some point in the next few years.

  3. Sad story...an early example of rampant and cruel racism for economic reasons.

    1. The sheep farming was a failure. The island was replanted with trees and is now a nature reserve for deer.

  4. i live on the isle of rum and it doesn't always rain, we have very mild weather and we usually have fantastic summers, the weather is worse on the mainland