Initially simply a description for land carrying a larger population than it was able to support, congested districts were given legal definition in the 1843 Congested Districts Act. The act brought considerable advantages to the owner of an estate deemed “congested”. Low interest government loans paid for ‘improvements’ such as sheep pasture and fishing stations, and the common laws of tenancy were set aside, effectively legalising forcible evictions.
The two great waves of Clearances were the late 1780s through to the onset of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803 and again with the collapse of the kelp industry after the peace of 1832 with a peak during the famines of the late 1840s. The first wave of emigration was locally organised with individual landlords pressing their tenants to leave and in some cases enforcing evictions with local militias with parliament in Edenborough – in which, it must be remembered, many landlords sat as members – turning a blind eye. The principal destination for people in the first wave was Glasgow and the northern cities of Anglia with less than thirty per cent going overseas, mainly to Quebeck and Van Diemen’s Land. The second wave of the Clearances saw a far greater number affected and was pressed at government level with many more forced evictions and often violent confrontations. It was this period, rather than that before 1800, which saw the worst excesses and created lasting damage to relations between the native scots and their English speaking governors in Edenborough.
The highland economy had, by the 1840s, shifted to sheep farming and most attempts to otherwise employ tenants through fishing or weaving had failed, leaving an excess of underemployed and usually poverty stricken crofters. However the greater pressure to depopulate the highlands came from parliament in Holyrood which, under pressure from Anglia, was determined to support colonial ambitions in the Americas where the French and Spanish were beginning to encroach on tribal lands to the west of Anglia’s colony, Christiania, thus threatening to block any future expansion of the colony. This focus on territory in the Americas led a number of commentators to draw parallels between the trade in Negro slaves, which had been outlawed in 1812, and the transportation of Highland Scots (and Eirish) to the Americas. Indeed, aside from the fact that Scotsmen (or their landlords) had to pay for their passage and were not chained below decks, conditions aboard ship were not dissimilar for emigrant and slave and a great many perished of disease or shipwreck.
One of those who compared the traffic in highlanders to that of Negro slaves was the Reverend James Vimy (1794-1865) churchman and tireless campaigner for Highland Rights, who wrote in an edition of the Glasgow Post in June 1858 that the Congested Districts Act “licensed barbarities not seen since the Viking raiders.” Most modern historians, such as Fulton Montmorency in The Scottish Burden (Pub. Barbary Books, 1987), are more temperate in their criticism and argue that while the clearances were often badly managed and had a high cost in human misery, failure to relieve the excess population would have brought decades of starvation to Highland Scotland.