The Highland Clearances
A Brief History of the Clan
System in the Highlands.
The Druid Stone, Gigha
The date of the first colonisation of
Scotland is unknown but the oldest known traces date from as
little as 6000 years ago. These early inhabitants were mesolithic (middle stone-age) hunter-gatherers:
nomads who stuck close to the coastline, exploring a few of the larger river-valleys and existing on a
diet of fish, shell-fish, birds and small mammals. Neolithic (new stone-age) man first appeared some
2000 years later. These new colonisers were easily distinguishable from their earlier cousins by the
greatly improved quality and range of their tools. Flint arrowheads made them more efficient hunters;
sharpened stone axes enabled them to clear land for cultivation, and cutting-tools of various kinds were
developed for harvesting crops, cutting animal-skins, and many other tasks. They knew how to build
boats and arrived in Scotland from Ireland, by way of the Hebrides, and across the North Sea from
All around the coastal regions of the Highlands they left many burial-sites - chambered cairns and
underground passages lined with stone - but little else. The population was very small; there was land
enough for everyone and war was probably unknown; they built no forts or strongholds, certainly none
that have survived. Over the next two thousand years or so, a new wave of immigrants began to move
into Scotland, bringing a new culture, new skills, and who left us some stunning memorials to their
existence. They were the henge-builders and stone-circle-builders whose work is seen all round
mainland Scotland and the islands.
The new stone-age merged into the
Bronze Age. Trade became wide-spread, with skins, hides and grain
being bartered for bronze and copper goods, and gold, jet & amber from Ireland, Scandinavia and the near
Mediterranean. This trade reached far into the Highlands, for most of Scotland was inhabited by now,
not just the coastline. The scene was set for the next great arrival - the Celts.
The people who became the Celts of Ireland and Scotland had been spreading slowly westwards from
their origin in south-eastern Europe. With them they brought an advancing technology and a distinct
social organisation which were both to cause profound change to Scotland, its landscape and its people.
The new technology was the knowledge and ability to work iron, and with the axe and the plough they
opened land up at a previously unknown rate; the clan structure was their system of social organisation,
and when it reached the Highlands it took root with a far greater durability than anywhere else. They
completely took over the country in the years after 700BC, and were the enemies of the Romans, who
invaded Scotland in 79AD. The Romans called these natives the Picts and their Pictish language was
later to evolve into the Gaelic spoken throughout north and west Scotland.
The Celts were fortress-builders, and their fortifications were of several types and at different epochs.
Hills forts or duns (pronounced doons) used natural strong-points such as the tops of hills which were
reinforced with walls of stone and timber. Many examples of duns survive and have been carbon-dated
to around the late bronze-age. In the first century BC a new and more advanced type of structure began
to make an appearance, concentrated in the far north of the country. This was the 'broch' - a round tower
up to 15 metres (50 feet) high and with double walls 4.5m. (15 feet) thick containing internal rooms and
galleries. These displayed a huge advance in design and masonry, and were capable of withstanding
lengthy seiges; several have withstood the passage of over 20 centuries with their stonework intact. The
Celts also built underground defenses, lined and roofed with stone; and cranogs - artificial islands built
in many fresh-water lochs, and linked to the shore with underwater causeways. In the third century AD,
the Celts gained an ally in their ongoing battles with the Romans. This was an Irish tribe from Dalriada
in what is today Ulster, who had already colonised parts of the south-west Highlands. They were
known as the Scots, and with them they brought a new religion - Christianity.