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Guest post: Nosy Crow children’s author Karen McCombie tells us about Scotland’s forgotten history of the Highland Clearances, when thousands of Highlanders were displaced from their homes during the 18th and 19th centuries

The Highland Clearances and the history of Scotland’s forgotten refugees

When you hear terms such as persecution and forced migration, and think of a country whose population might be affected by those issues, I bet you a large sack of fictional money that your first guess – or even your twentieth guess –would not be Scotland.

But Scotland has an almost secret-seeming history when it comes to the poor and disenfranchised. The Highland Clearances is a period in Scotland’s past that is barely known outside the country, or – as I’ve recently discovered – by many present-day Scots either.

So how did I come to write a children’s novel with a backdrop of this dark time? Well, at first I didn’t mean to. I’ve been a busy and successful children’s author for many years, writing mostly contemporary fiction, featuring themes of family, friends and feelings. But though I live in and love multi-cultural London, for the longest time I’d had a yearning to write a love letter to my home country.

As the yearning became more insistent, I dug out photos of my childhood, at-home holidays, the ‘70s Polaroid snaps intensifying the green, russet, golden and heather tones of the Scottish countryside. Then I remembered a more recent holiday, travelling with my own daughter to visit friends on the small island of Ulva, off the west coast of Scotland. The population of Ulva at that time was just nine, but a strenuous hike revealed the moss-covered ruins of dozens of cottages. Ulva was in fact dotted with the evidence of many small, bustling villages; its still-standing grand church a testament to the fact that hundreds of families had once lived there, if more proof were needed. So what had happened to these people, who had worked the land for generation upon generation? I knew the answer. And at that moment, I suddenly had my Scottish story.

‘Little Bird Flies’ follows the ever-decreasing fortunes of the MacKerrie family, as told by their 12-year-old daughter Bridie. And to make their story authentic, I had to roll up my sleeves and re-educate myself in the history of the Highland Clearances. And a bite-sized explanation of this tragedy reads like this…

For centuries, the Scots lived in clans, overseen by a chief. Those in the clan had to obey their chief, but they were also under his protection. In the mid-1700s, the chiefs and clans fell out of favour with the British government and monarchy.

Suddenly, rights were taken from them – including wearing clan tartan and playing the traditional bagpipes – and their society began to change. In the aftermath of this, some chiefs came to see themselves more as landlords, and new, incoming landlords bought up tracts of land in Scotland too.

In the Highlands and Islands (to the north and west of the country), the land was often difficult for poor, tenant farmers to grow crops on, and their landlords, or Lairds, began to realise they themselves could make a lot of money from sheep-farming instead. The problem was, the vast influx of sheep meant huge swathes of pasture were needed to graze them on, so the tenant farmers who scratched out a small living from their crops began to be driven off the land in droves.

This eviction of tenants in the Highlands and Islands went on for around a century, from the late 1700s to the late 1800s, with people being forcibly – and often brutally – removed from the only homes they and their forebears had ever known.  Crops and cottages were set on fire so that families had no choice but to pack up their few belongings and leave. Some evictees made their way to areas in southern (‘Lowland’) Scotland to work for a pittance in newly-industrialised towns and cities. Many had no choice but to emigrate abroad to Canada, Nova Scotia, South Africa, Australia and America. In the early days, many of these desperate travellers didn’t even survive the poor conditions of the long voyage on sailing ships. Even when they did make it, trying to begin a new life in a strange land – with very little money – must have been frankly terrifying.

The emigrants statue located at the foot of the Highland Mountains in Helmsdale, Scotland, commemorates the flight of Highlanders during the Clearances. It is also a testament to their accomplishments in the places they settled.

I set my story near the end of the period of the Clearances, when at least Bridie’s family had the benefit of a much shorter trip to America – thanks to sailing ships being converted to steam-power – and the fact that so many Scots had emigrated over the years that her father felt that they could, hopefully, benefit from the knowledge and contacts of those that had gone before them.

Some might say that the half-a-million or more Highland Scots forced to flee their homes in the 18th and 19th centuries were technically ‘economic migrants’. But that term hardly encapsulates the persecution, cruelty and devastating imbalance of power between the rich and the poor, or the terrible hardships endured.

My story of one young girl and her family’s looming future of forced emigration might be a fictional account, but I hope it helps shine a light on this forgotten part of Scottish – and indeed British – history.

‘Little Bird Flies’ – a ‘Sunday Times and ‘Times Children’s Book of the Week – is out now, published by Nosy Crow. A second novel – following the family’s fortunes in America – will be published in September 2019.



Guest post: Meet Pam, an activist in exile and one of our new 2019 Refugee Week Ambassadors

As an activist for political freedom in her native Thailand, Pam was an outspoken student critic of the junta regime. Because of this she was mistreated, jailed and persecuted. Pam is now an activist in exile and has been living in the UK with refugee status since 2016. She works with Refugee Week partner STAR (Student Action for Refugees) as their Communication and Campaign Volunteer Officer, working to improve how we welcome students from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds here in Britain. She has written a blog for us about her work, and how volunteering in the Refugee Sector transformed her life as a refugee in the UK.  


Pam at the STAR office, promoting badges from #LiftTheBan campaign with colleagues

I was granted refugee status in the UK at the end of 2018, having waited for two years for my asylum application to be approved. During that time I was unable to work while my application was pending. Thankfully, STAR (Student Action For Refugees) offered me an opportunity to be part of the team, in the position of  Communication and Campaign Volunteer Officer.

I remember feeling very overwhelmed when I started my first day at the office. But I never tire of working with STAR because I truly believe the work I do has a profound impact on people, helping them have a better life.

My involvement with STAR changed my perception of the UK as a hostile environment. I’ve felt so inspired by their work and also other organisation like Amnesty International, the Refugee Council and many more for their work, creating campaigns and raising awareness, to change the minds of people who may not necessarily be interested in migration issues.

As a Communication and Campaign Volunteer Officer, I support the delivery of STAR’s national campaigns to improve the welcome people from refugee backgrounds. My role is to communicate with students across the UK and encourage them to support the cause. This is such an amazing moment to see how so many students in the UK are willing to help people who may have seemed different and distant from them. As part of my  support to these student groups running campaigns,  I am required to survey their campaigns and collate these outcomes into a report. Personally, this has given me so much experience in verbal and written communication; as well as administrative skills.

One of my highlights was earlier this year, in February 2019, when I got involved in running the 2019 National STAR annual Action Week in support of #FamiliesTogether campaign. Groups all over the UK took part in actions to encourage their MPs to support the Refugee Family Reunion Bill. During this campaign, I was sent to help groups of students campaign at their university campus, where I learned how to communicate and educate and change people’s mind to be supportive of the campaign. The highlight was getting to work in a team of passionate and like minded students. It was an experience I’ll always remember.

Some people might be aware that the aim of STAR is to raise awareness and develop national campaigns in support of people from refugee backgrounds in the UK, Europe and beyond. But in fact, STAR’s work is much more than that! With STAR I have been able to connect with thousands of students and it has made me more determined to continue my higher education.

My colleagues are so supportive and I feel so lucky to have had their support. They have guided me with their knowledge and shown their help for everything I do – especially with my application for my Master’s degree.

I now have a chance to continue my higher education because STAR has inspired me.

Group ambassadors 2019

Pam with some of her fellow Refugee Week 2019 Ambassadors.

Click here for more information about STAR, and find out how you can volunteer like Pam and get involved with their work.


The UK gave me safety and protection, which means everything
August 5th, 2014
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Now a Refugee Week Young Ambassador, Gulwali Passarlay is originally from a small village in eastern Afghanistan. He fled when he was 12 because of the war and due to fears for his safety. His family had close connections with the Taliban through his uncle, a Taliban commander and part of its intelligence service, and in […]

Refugee Week Our History and Heritage Poll 2013
June 16th, 2014

This June Refugee Week explore “the contributions of refugees in our history and heritage”. We commissioned a survey asking people from across the UK to tell us what, in their opinion, the most significant contributions are that refugees have made to the UK. The report provides an overview of the survey findings and includes a […]

Syrian Artwork to be revealed for Refugee Week
June 13th, 2014

International humanitarian aid organisation Human Relief Foundation have constructed a huge piece of artwork in recognition of Refugee Week 2014. The patchwork is made up of over 1,000 pieces of material drawn on by Syrian refugee children and British children, and depicts their contrasting ideas when asked ‘What is Home?’ It will be unveiled as […]

Pod Collective – One Thing
May 2nd, 2014
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How the Pod Collective are workng in a variety of art forms with refugees and asylum seekers across Greater Manchester in the run-up to Refugee Week 2014 Photographer Anna White and embroiderer Emily Hayes formed Pod Collective in 2012, combining their skills to work with grass-roots organisations that support refugee and asylum seekers in Greater […]

Refugee Week Conference report
May 2nd, 2014
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Kimberley Nyamhondera gives a personal reflection on the 2014 Refugee Week Conference that took place in London in March. At Amnesty International UK in Shoreditch, the 9th Refugee Week Conference started with a quietly contemplative reflection. The conference provided a clear platform to bring together interwoven motifs to shape and celebrate the contribution of refugees […]

Raising money for Bristol Hospitality Network and destitute asylum seekers
September 23rd, 2013

Our Refugee Week South West regional co-ordinator has completed his cycle challenge! On 8th September Refugee Week South West Coordinator Qerim Nuredini, who is based at Refugee Action in Bristol, completed his charity cycle. Qerim was raising money for Bristol Hospitality Network, who support Refugee Week and Celebrating Sanctuary in the region and are part […]

‘I am Nasrine’ and the UK’s Welcoming Spirit
June 21st, 2013

Film star Shiraz Haq celebrates the UK’s welcoming spirit and thinks about the importance of appreciation and tolerance in our vastly connected world today. For centuries the history and heritage of the UK has been steeped in a rich tapestry of people from all over. As much as we Britons have reached out across the […]

The Make My Day Diary launched this Refugee Week
June 19th, 2013

The wonderful English Pen has been running a Make My Day! creative writing project with the Tricycle Theatre, funded by John Lyon’s Charity, bringing writers together with young people from countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Somalia. John Hegley ran creative writing workshops and the project incorporated the Bronze Arts Award which allows the […]

Refugee Week Time-line Unveiled
June 14th, 2013

Our new online timeline is now live! For Refugee Week UK 2013 we are looking at the contributions of refugees to our history and heritage. This timeline and ‘living archive’ created by Refugee Week aims to acknowledge these contributions and highlight how refugees and their descendants have helped shape our nation. We hope you find […]

Olympic Spirit Gives Hope to Refugees
July 29th, 2012

Laura Padoan, UNHCR London, explores the lasting legacy of the London 2012 Olympic Games for refugees across the world. Laura Padoan, UNHCR London 27th July 2012 As thousands of athletes and spectators from 205 countries around the world gather in London today for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, UNHCR is preparing for […]