The Scottish Clearances Speak Into the Reparations Debate

by John Ellis

I’ve been reading about the Scottish Clearances, a devasting time during the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the Highland chieftains, bowing to the immense pressure of the steamrolling commercialization of the British Isles, forcibly removed tenants from their lands. While not the legal owners of the land, these tenants were the descendants of generations upon generations who had farmed the land, built communities, fought and died for their chieftain, and developed rich cultural expressions intimately connected to the land.

Many of the chieftains were responding to winds of change that were not only beyond their ability to control but beyond their ability to withstand. Other chieftains, though, heard the clanging of gold blowing in the winds of change and allowed their lust for wealth to shape not only their perspective on the personal value of the Clearances but also the most effective means to remove tenants. The burning of entire villages was common practice for those chieftains. Regardless of the methods employed and the motives, willing or unwilling, behind those methods, families were uprooted and scattered, communities destroyed, people killed, and cultural expressions lost. As one historian put it, “the Clearances are the saddest chapter in Scottish history.”[1]

However, the fact was that the land had never been able to support the numbers living on it, and for most of its history Scotland was populated by poverty. And the chieftains were faced with economic pressures they could not withstand. Crippled by quickly accumulating debts that the tenants’ rents couldn’t even come close to relieving, combined with the promise of not just improved economic conditions for themselves but for Scotland in general, it is arguable that the chieftains were merely pawns of historical forces beyond their control.

While still burdened by high rates of poverty, it is undeniable that modern Scotland is not the Scotland of old. And the Scotland of old is not the Scotland of most of our imaginations. The romanticized versions of Scotland, kicked into high gear in the mid-18th century by Robert Macpherson’s Ossian (mostly) hoax and carried forward by literary luminaries like Sir Walter Scot and then fed steroids by Braveheart (and other Hollywood inventions like Disney and Pixar’s Brave), is largely a product of the need to promote patriotism (and sell movie tickets). Creating shared “national” mythologies helps us overlook that our modern boundaries are largely random. International trade requires nations filled with peaceful consumers, after all.

Part of what is created by our romanticized, largely fictional national mythologies is the belief in a smooth through-line-of-action to the past. We’re taught (and believe) that we enjoy luxuries now because our ancestors bravely forged a way of life for their descendants. We look back with gratitude on the willful sacrifices of our noble ancestors, as we pass on stories of the sturdy, selfless character traits of our forebears. Entire cottage industries have arisen that have figured out how to separate us from our money so that we can feel better connected to our ancestors. Our present, we tell ourselves, is deeply connected to the past; we believe that our ancestors are beaming with pride from heaven as they see the fruits of their labors being enjoyed by us.

Except, that’s mostly untrue. The Scottish Clearances are a clear case study in this.

In 1707, the Kirk sided with the Scottish merchants and the growing number of Scottish thinkers/writers in the belief that officially uniting with England as one country was in the best interest of Scotland. With the Kirk, surprising many, on the side supporting the act of union, the Scottish Parliament made it official on October 3. Much of what drove the desire in Scotland to see their nation united with England was the realization that doing so would open up England’s foreign trade partners to Scottish merchants. While greed and selfishness were at play, the union was realized to be good for Scotland in the balance. Trade benefited far more than the merchants and aristocracy. A growing middle class began burgeoning, especially in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Seaport villages reaped the benefits, too. Over the next few decades, the standard of living throughout Scotland rose dramatically, the Highlands excepted. Flash forward past the Clearances, and by the middle of the 19th century, Scotland had almost completely transitioned to a modern, commercialized state.

Do the residents of Stockbridge, an affluent suburb of Edinburgh, ever give thought to what it took to provide the economic stability and growth necessary for an upper-middleclass caste to thrive in Scotland? When they start their BMWs, Audis, and Jaguars in the morning, do they ever wonder about the forced migration of tens of thousands that was needed so that modern Scotland could finish being born? When they sit down to enjoy a delicious picnic in Inverleith Park, do they ever pause and reflect on the families who were torn apart to make way for the commercialization of the Highland farms that helped fund Scotland’s transition to a modern state?

The success story is built on the bones of the oppressed. The luxuries and ease that the current Scottish middle and upper-middle classes enjoy have a debt of blood behind them. And if the Scottish middle and upper-middle classes are anything like their American counterparts they rarely think about it, and if they are forced to think about it (and are, indeed, like their American counterparts), they angrily bluster, “I didn’t oppress anyone!” The question should be asked, though, of all of us enjoying life in the 21st century West, are there people living in our society that are still carrying the burden unjustly laid on their ancestors so that we can enjoy the good life now? Because it stands to reason that if a group exists that enjoys the “good” fruits reaped from oppression, another group exists still being force-fed the rotten fruits. We still live in a fallen world, after all.

One of the replies to my questions/argument is expressed as a sort of historical determinism. It goes something like, “Yeah, John, past oppressions are terrible, but even you acknowledged that the Scottish Clearances were seemingly inevitable. And without awful, tragic things like the Clearances, most people would be struggling under subsistence living and with a much lower life expectancy. We can’t change the past by denying ourselves luxuries out of misguided guilt for things we played no part in. Enjoying our lives is one way that we can honor the sacrifices of those who lived in the past.”

That response is actually a self-serving perspective disguised as fatalism. For starters, that “honor” paid to those who suffered isn’t honor; it’s a muted expression of utilitarianism. Think of it this way: If you were to tell me, “Hey, John, I’m sorry that your children are starving, but it’s for the greater good. The pain and suffering you and your family are suffering now is cultural straw that will be woven into gold for future generations,” I’d respond, “I don’t give a (fill-in-the-blank-with-the-worst-word-you-can-think-of) about future generations because my children are starving right now!”

Eating rich foods, living in houses that are far more luxurious than castles from the past, driving late-model cars, and taking self-indulgent vacations do not honor those who suffered. Doing so unreflectively is bad enough. Thinking about (and acknowledging) how our lifestyles owe a debt of blood to the past and then moving forward via a form of fatalism is disgusting. Debts should be paid. The question, though, is to whom?

Well, in this country, the question of who is owed a debt isn’t that difficult, at least on the front end. Starting with the Black community and Indigenous people groups, those of us living in the United States of America know exactly who was oppressed and how the oppression took place. Slavery, settler colonialism, and other acts of oppression financed large portions of the development of the United States of America. Have you ever wondered why the U.S. government decided to take back the land in the Black Hills of South Dakota they had promised to the Lakota people in perpetuity? The discovery of gold is the answer. Let your yes be yes, unless, of course, Fort Knox needs to be filled.

And that deceit played out across many Indian tribes. The pain and suffering endured by those currently living on Reservations is directly traceable to actions of the U.S. government. Actions that benefited this country, and benefits that have reaped a luxurious society that most of us currently enjoy.

I’m not going to attempt to trace down all instances of oppression in this country that have played a large role in the affluence enjoyed by so many in the United States of America, similar to how the Clearances helped transform Scotland. For one thing, that would make for a really long article. More importantly, though, it would likely serve as a distraction to my objective. And my objective is to help us realize that if some of us are enjoying a lifestyle that was made possible by the oppression of others (and some of us are – this is undeniable), then it’s important – in fact, I’d argue a Kingdom ethic – to do the hard work of making things right. Unfortunately, any mention of reparations is dismissed far too quickly and easily by many, if not most, white people.

Like how I avoided expressing specific applications of a Kingdom ethic of healthcare in my most recent article prior to this one, I’m not going to offer specific applications for reparations. I’m not qualified to do so (in either healthcare debates or reparation debates). My goal is to challenge followers of Jesus to lay aside political assumptions and expectations, and then do the hard work of thinking through tough topics with the goal of loving God and loving others via a robust Kingdom ethic. Unfortunately, many professed followers of King Jesus have assumptions and expectations that are shaped and controlled by contra-biblical sources. The reparations debate is no different.

Slavery (and settler colonialism) was a miscarriage of justice. That’s without question. The belief that slavery and then Jim Crow didn’t create deep rivers of injustice in America that still flow with rottenness and shame is naïve at best. Sin has consequences. Often, in this life, the larger more impactful consequences for sin are carried by someone other than the one who committed the sin. As I argued above, the question should be asked of all of us enjoying life in the 21st century West, are there people living in our society that are still carrying the burden unjustly laid on their ancestors so that we can enjoy the good life now? Because it stands to reason that if a group exists that enjoys the “good” fruits reaped from oppression, another group exists still being force-fed the rotten fruits.

Unless you can answer that question with an unequivocal, no, the discussion of reparations should remain open.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), 302.

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