On May 31, 1821, the sheriff and a dozen men entered Ascoilemore, a hamlet in the valley of Strathbrora in the county of Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands, to enforce eviction orders against its residents. At the home of Jessie Ross, the sheriff ordered her young daughters, Elizabeth and Katherine Ross, into the shivering cold. When Jessie refused to budge, one of the men, William Stevenson, still drunk from a night’s carousing, banged two-month-old Roberta’s cradle against a door frame as he moved her outside. The baby howled in the freezing wind until a neighbour, who was a new mother, nursed her back to sleep. Elizabeth, whose face was injured when Stevenson flung a piece of wood at her, wept for fifteen minutes.
They were a relatively well-off family before being forced from their home. Jessie Ross was born in 1793, a daughter of George Sutherland, one of the county’s most prosperous farmers. Her husband, Gordon, was the son of Hugh Ross, who managed several thousand acres in Strathbrora for local lairds. Gordon was schoolmaster at Ascoilemore and, like Jessie, spoke Gaelic and English. But that wasn’t enough to save them. Gordon desperately tried to avoid eviction by getting an extension on his lease, held by the area’s largest landowner, the Marquess and Marchioness of Stafford, later the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. He failed, and while in Edinburgh searching for work, his family and their neighbours were thrown out of their homes.
When Ross’s complaint over the “inhuman treatment” meted out to his family threatened to create a scandal for the Staffords, it was Ross who found himself the focus of an investigation by authorities wary of crossing the aristocratic couple. Unsurprisingly, his accusations were dismissed, and he was even forced to apologize to Stevenson. His woes continued. His daughter, Katherine, died of whooping cough. Yet despite this misfortune, Gordon Ross named his second son after the man who had uprooted him—the marquess. Then he had a mental collapse—a denouement that author James Hunter rightly describes as Orwellian.
James Hunter’s Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances is the shocking history of dislocation caused by the greed and impunity of the Staffords. He was English; she Scottish. For the last decade of their lives, they were one of the richest couples in Britain. Yet their misdeeds in Sutherland formed an infamous chapter in the Highland clearances, the long saga of rising rents and forced removals that saw hundreds of settlements scrubbed from Scotland’s northern landscape starting in the mid-eighteenth century: rent hikes, leases not renewed, evictions. These heavy-handed land grabs, backed by the threat of violence, ended a way of life, sent the Gaelic language into exile, and gave Highland Gaeldom the aspect of vacant grandeur it retains today.
This tale of the Ross family is not just the story of Scotland. Replicated countless times, it is also Canada’s story as tens of thousands of Scots forced off their land made their way to the top half of North America to establish new lives and to help build a new society.
Generations of Scottish-Canadians have polished the tales of the Highland clearances. But the perfidy of landowners was not the whole story. In The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, T.M. Devine, one of Scotland’s most prolific living historians, argues convincingly that the country was a victim of its own agricultural success. As farming improved and food became more abundant throughout the eighteenth century, the population rose—by a quarter between 1755 and 1801.
With more people occupying the same narrow tracts of arable land, the number of tenants declined; by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, landless servants, labourers, and tradesmen were the majority. A once-sizeable body of cottars—rent-paying smallholders who devoted labour to the laird in key seasons—were by that time virtually extinct. As this revolution accelerated, an army of families who had once been multiple or single tenants, or sub-tenants farming “rigs” as they were called in Sutherland, decamped in one of three directions: to Scotland’s industrializing towns and cities, to the British army or navy, or to North America. As Devine observes, as many as 100,000 Scots left for North America between 1700 and 1815, with the majority going between 1763 and 1775.
The flight was so profound that The Scots Magazine (which has been publishing since 1739) direly warned of depopulation in both the Highlands and Lowlands.
Without denying that a vast rural population was uprooted, Devine disproves the stubborn perception that Sutherland-type forced removals were widespread. With great acuity backed by vast scholarship, he documents the forces restructuring landholdings across Scotland—from the centuries-long weakening of clan structures and the impact of education in dissolving previously closed communities to the profitability of cattle farming.
There were also the grasping practices of aristocratic clan chiefs, mostly absentee landlords by the end of the eighteenth century, in extracting funds from self-regarding Highland lieutenants to support ostentatious lifestyles in Edinburgh and London. Devine’s aim is to give the aching portraits drawn in John Prebble’s Highland Trilogy—which appeared in 1960s and is still the dominant work in this genre—a firmer foundation in documented fact. As Devine recalls, Prebble’s own anger had been spurred by Victorian works that are part of the vast body of literature devoted to the clearances.
Prebble, who died in 2001, apparently first heard stories of the clearances as a child in Saskatchewan, where he lived until he returned to the United Kingdom at the age of twelve; he was later a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until the Second World War. Karl Marx was familiar with events in Scotland. Writing about “the Duchess of Sutherland and slavery” in an 1853 paper and also in Das Kapital (1867), Marx depicted “expropriation of the Gaels” in the Highlands as “reckless terrorism,” replacing communal arrangements with the cruelties of private property. Devine rebuts these seductive slogans with hard economic analysis.
By giving voice to Highlanders, Alexander Charles Baillie’s Call of Empire: From the Highlands to Hindustan casts an authentic light on three principal drivers of change in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scotland: agricultural reform and urbanization; transatlantic emigration; and the military careers that drove imperial advance in North America, India, and elsewhere. The result is a gem of historical insight, centering on two lives: Colonel William Baillie (1739 to 1782), 12th Laird of Dunain who died in India, and his nephew Colonel John Baillie of Leys (1772 to 1833), who was the East India Company resident at Lucknow.
The story’s richness derives from a treasure trove—a chest of letters that arrived in the Highland Archive Centre in 2002 after languishing unexamined in Inverness. Alexander Charles Baillie’s son Jonathan, then completing a doctorate in London, made the link to their forebears. This “epistolary cornucopia” comprises correspondence by five generations of the family between 1720 and 1869, and is “the most comprehensive collection of Highland correspondence from that era,” according to Scottish researcher Sandra Bardwell.
The letters give an insider’s account of Scotland’s rapid embrace of empire. Unlike other histories, this is not a cool rehearsal of statistics, such as the numbers of officers commissioned or sugar plantations run by Scots. Instead, the letters present a family drama of wooings, bankruptcies, statements of account, and land deals by people who mostly sat out the Jacobite rising, when the House of Stuart’s last serious attempt at a comeback was snuffed out at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
The letters offer a window on the hopes, opinions and frustrations of the Baillies and their associates. Dr. John Alves, William’s brother-in-law and manager of the estate in his absence, gossips about legacies, the value of fir trees, purloined “chintz and muslin,” and the political rivalry of the Duke of Gordon and General Simon Fraser, a veteran of the Plains of Abraham. In April 1775, Alves wrote to William, a military officer in India since 1764, that “the spirit of emigration to America still continues in the Highlands & is said spreading & gaining strength” despite the brewing rebellion in the American colonies against Britain.
He noted that Britain was sending over eight regiments to quiet the colonists but added, presciently, that “a good deal of blood will be spilt before matters are settled.”
Five months later, on September 23, Alexander Godsman, factor to the Duke of Gordon, wrote to William about the growing confidence of the Americans and London’s inability to regain the initiative: “The British senate have been all along a good deal divided about the measures they ought to pursue, which has brought a stimulus to the courage of the Americans, and may serve to spin out the contest longer than otherwise there was any reason to expect.” Again, prescient words spoken nearly two years before the decisive British defeats at Fort Stanwix and Saratoga (in what is now New York) that drew France into the war on the American side.
As Charles Baillie points out, prime minister William Pitt had counted on India’s riches to pay down debts incurred in the Seven Years’ War, particularly at Quebec. When his son Pitt the Younger became prime minister in late 1783, he inherited a string of defeats in India as well as in North America. When William Baillie was captured on September 10, 1780, at Pollilur in India, he was giving his life for an empire that appeared over-extended on three continents.
Within a few years, however, that perception was gone. New colonies at New Brunswick and Cape Breton Island were welcoming American refugees. Tipu Sultan, the sultan of Mysore in India, had sued for peace. The French empire was careering toward revolution.
Call of Empire chronicles one family’s part in a formative period of British rule in India. Another branch, the Baillies of Dochfour, were planters in the West Indies. Still others had emigrated to Georgia with James Oglethorpe in the early eighteenth century. Charles Baillie captures fortune’s ebb and flow in what Jon Wilson called “theatres of anarchy” in the British Raj in India.
Alexander Charles Baillie’s book captures the dynamism of mid-eighteenth century Scotland where cottars and Gaelic were in crisis; where tobacco, sugar, and the military were thriving; and where change and mobility ubiquitous.
These three books brim with Canadian connections. Urged on by Lord Selkirk, many Sutherland emigrants crossed the Atlantic, ending up in the Red River Valley in Manitoba. Another family from the county, the Macdonalds, had settled in Glasgow, but hard times forced them to Canada in 1820. Hugh and Helen Macdonald, with their four children, including a boy named John, settled near her relatives in Kingston.
The motives of these emigrants varied. A group from South Uist and the Arisaig-Moidart peninsulas came to the Island of St. John (later Prince Edward Island) in 1772 just to remain Catholic. A shipload of 189 souls mostly from Lochbroom embarked for Pictou on the Hector in 1773 to escape poverty. The Glengarry-Glenmoriston group who went to New York in 1773–74, then on to townships incorporated into Upper Canada after 1791, were following their tacksmen, traditional clan leaders under the chief.
These Highland Gael soldier-settlers became a prominent part of the new province’s Loyalist population, as demobilizing members of the Carignan-Salières regiment had done in New France a century before. In the end, both clearances and imperial campaigns brought Scottish fortune seekers to Canada en masse. Dimming prospects at home made opportunity in North America irresistible.
All three books reinforce one point. King William III’s so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a disaster for Scotland. Famine loomed. The Catholic Stuarts fled to Paris. Patronage was strangled. Markets and ancient institutions were stripped away. The Acts of Union of 1707, in which Scotland united with England in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, added insult to injury, as Jacobite plots or military incursions as well as a series of wars with France erupted from 1689 to 1763.
Over subsequent decades, particularly after 1760, Britain began to succeed, however, as Scottish education, literature, officials, sailors, soldiers, and trade made their mark across the empire. This Caledonian imprint was especially pronounced in Canada, where French, English, Gaelic, and Indigenous languages were spoken. Catholics were welcome, an English-speaking aristocracy never took root, and seigneurial tenure was not extended to Upper Canada. It was as if the Auld Alliance—Scotland’s historic pact with France—had been partly restored, underpinned by broader land ownership and commercial success in fisheries, fur, grain, potash, and timber.
The most successful early firm headquartered in Canada, the North West Company, revived the French fur trade from Montreal, and as Michael Fry noted in Scotland’s Empire (2001), “At the centre of the mercantile interest stood a group of related, originally Jacobite families from the Great Glen.” In Canada, the victims of Highland repression and clearance found stable new homes. The fur trade they dominated alongside French Canadian and Indigenous partners would link half a continent. Canada has been enlarging and refining this template for refugee and immigrant success ever since.