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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.


Call for stories of friendship with people seeking sanctuary
February 2nd, 2018

Refugee Week partner City of Sanctuary is looking for 20 stories of friendship between a sanctuary seeker and a member of a receiving community. City of Sanctuary says: We are collecting these stories to feature them as part of celebrating Refugee Week in June. The theme this year is the 20 year anniversary of Refugee Week. […]

Christian Aid joins Refugee Week partnership
January 30th, 2018

  We are delighted to welcome Christian Aid to the national Refugee Week partnership. Christian Aid works for and with people of all faiths and none, to strive for social justice and pursue our vision of a world without poverty. The support of Christian Aid will help Refugee Week to engage faith leaders and faith […]

Refugee Week 2018: Celebrating 20 years
December 6th, 2017
Girl in shades jumps to music at Refugee Week 2017 at British Museum

In June 2018, Refugee Week will reach an important milestone: 20 years of celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees. This 20 year anniversary is the theme of Refugee Week 2018 (18-24 June), and we’re be inviting you to take part by doing one (or more!) of 20 Simple Acts – one for each year […]

National Education Union joins Refugee Week partnership
November 29th, 2017
National Education Union logo

We are excited to announce that the National Education Union (NEU) has joined the Refugee Week national partnership. The NEU is the UK’s largest education union, bringing together more than 450,000 teachers, lecturers, support staff and leaders in schools and colleges across the UK. The NEU was founded in 2017 following the merger of the NUT […]

Solidarity with Refugees joins Refugee Week partnership
November 29th, 2017
SwRlogo (1) (1)

We are delighted to announce that Solidarity with Refugees has joined the Refugee Week national partnership. Having started life as a demonstration of around 90 thousand people through central London in September 2015, Solidarity with Refugees advocates for policy change that would save lives and give people the chance to live in safety with dignity […]

Schools do Refugee Week 2017
October 20th, 2017

[View the story “Schools do Refugee Week 2017” on Storify]

Ashley Community Housing Celebrates Refugee Week 2017
August 7th, 2017

A guest post by Rose Adderley, Marketing Intern at Ashley Community Housing Bristol. All of Ashley Community Housing’s regional offices have been celebrating Refugee Week across the country. In Bristol we extended the week to a longer celebration – Bristol Refugee Festival. Wolverhampton ACH also held many events to enjoy their Refugee Week. Here is a summary […]

“It feels like a family”: An interview with Sophie Besse, director of a comedy about Calais
June 22nd, 2017

It’s the refugee arts project everyone’s talking about. In the fifth and final edition of the Our Shared Future blog series, Marienna Pope-Weidemann talks to Sophie Besse, director of Borderline comedy about Calais Calais is not a place we associate with comedy. But danger, deprivation and desperation is only half the story. Sophie Besse, artistic director […]

“When I play, the distance falls away”: Mina Salama’s musical journey
June 22nd, 2017

In part four of the Our Shared Future blog series, Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Egyptian instrumentalist Mina Salama, and learns about the new route his music has taken since he sought sanctuary in the UK Mina was nine years old when he found an old keyboard at his friend’s house in Alexandria, Egypt. Enchanted, the young boy sat down to play and there […]

Refugee Choir Start Summer of Performances
June 21st, 2017
COTW sonia promo

A guest post by Tess Berry-Hart There’s an interesting jam happening in the leafy suburbs of Greenwich. A choir of over 30 members from 15 different countries are performing a rendition of “Scarborough Fair” accompanied by North African darabouka drumbeats and rapping by an Iraqi refugee. From new arrivals from Syria and Afghanistan, to older generations […]