Guest post: children’s author, Karen McCombie writes about the Highland Clearances

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.