As with most of Scotland’s historical events most have been turned into song, poem or ballad etc to capture and bring back to life that particular event. The Highland Clearances were no exception, many being composed aboard the ships which headed for foreign shores and others were composed in the new found land in reminiscent of their homeland left far behind. The collections below are some of the many examples of how the clearances were perceived by the composers and by those who left for a new land.

North Uist

The Gaelic voice

Michael Kennedy in "Lochaber no more": A Critical Examination of Highland Emigration Mythology in Myth, Migration and the Making of Memory clearly demonstrates that the Gaelic voice is lacking in historical discourse about emigration. Where it is heard, it is a synthetic one, as in the "lone shieling" of The Canadian Boat Song, supposedly from the Gaelic singing of boatmen on the St Lawrence but, in fact, a complete invention, according to Kennedy, from the pen of David Macbeth Moir, a native of Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, who had been neither to the Highlands nor to Canada.

The lack of this Gaelic perspective has long been accepted but Kennedy makes the point that this recognition by Bumsted, and particularly by Eric Richards, is wrongly attributed to the emigrants failing to record their thoughts and experiences for posterity. Kennedy shows that there is indeed a rich well of Gaelic sources and the fact that these are not drawn on in the major works on emigration is a consequence of the histories having been written by solely English-speaking historians. Their failure to find Gaelic material is twisted away from their own failure to look for it towards the age-old characterisation of 'the Gaelic world as inherently inept'.

In addition to bringing this to our attention, Kennedy dispels the myth that all emigré poetry was morose pining for the homeland. His essay concentrates largely on 19th century Nova Scotian writing which shows not a helpless people swept along as the flotsam of history but as those making 'a positive choice to realise freedom'. John Sinclair and Calum Bàn MacMhannain's songs praising Prince Edward Island do not look back to Scotland overly fondly but rather see the future of the Gael lying in the New World.

In this respect, earlier emigration poetry is no different. Iain MacCodrum, whose famous, Song to the emigrants, is mentioned in another article rages against the iniquity and folly of the landlords but concludes the same poem secure in the knowledge that the emigrants had a far better life ahead of them in Canada than in Scotland.

MacCodrum was born on North Uist and spent most of his life there. He became bard to Sir James Macdonald of Sleat in 1763. His songs were published by the Scottish Gaelic Text Society in 1938, edited by W. Matheson who took the text of the song from the Stewart collection (Edinburgh, 1804) where it was published as Oran du Mhuinntir a chaidh do dh'America as na h'Eileanan Gaelach (Song to the people who went to America from the Western Isles) to the tune Air tuiteam a'm chadal. Now better known as Oran do na Fògarraich (Song to the emigrants), it refers to the emigrations from North Uist between 1771 and 1775.

        Oran do na Fògarraich                                                             Song to the Emigrants
       Togaibh misneach is sòlas                                                            Be brave and joyful
      Bithibh inntinneach ceólas                                                         Hopeful and cheerful 
         Agus cuiribh ur dòchas                                                                And put your trust
   Ann an còmhnadh an Airdrigh                                                  In the help of the High King
   On as fheudar dhuibh seòladh                                                       Because you must sail
     ('S nach ann do ur deòin e)                                                 (Though it's not what you want)
    Do riogachd nach eòl duibh                                                 To a kingdom you do not know
    Mar a thòisich ur càirdean.                                                          Following your relatives                 
    O nach fuiling iad beò sibh                                                     Because they won't let you live
  Ann an crìochaibh ur n-eòlais                                                       In the land that you know.
  'S fheàrr dhuibh falbh do ur deòin                              It is better you leave of your own will
    Na bhith fodha mar thràillean                                                 Than be kept down like slaves     
    Siad na h-uachdarain ghòrach                                              How thoughtless were the landlords
    A chuir fuaradh fo'r srònaibh -                                              Who scattered you to the winds -      
    A bhris muineal Righ Deòrsa                                             And broke the backbone of King George
  Nuair a dh'fhògradh na Gaidheil !                                          When the Gaels were expelled !


Is truagh an gnothach ri smaoineach',                                               It is sad to think
Tha 'm fearann ga dhaoradh -                                            How the land has been made dearer
  Ghrad dh'fhalbh ar cuid dhaoine                                                Our people left suddenly
'S thainig caoirich 'nan àite                                                      And sheep came in their place
Is lag an sluagh iad, 's is faoin iad                                                  Weak forces, incapable,
Dol an carraid no'n caonnaig,                                                                In raid or battle
Làn bracsaidh is caoile                                                                     Skinny and full of braxy
'S iad fo dhraoidh ghille-màrtainn.                                                   Beguiled by the fox.
Cha dèan smiùradh ur saoradh                                                   Smearing will not save you
'N làthair batail air raonaidh                                                    When battle comes to the field
No fead ciobair an aonaich                                                      Nor will the shepherd's whistle
Gnè chaochladh dhe'r n-ànradh,                                                           Ease your woe,
'S ged a chruinnicheadh sibh caogad                                        And were you to gather fifty
Mholt is reitheachan maola                                                         Hornless rams and wedders
Is beag a thogadh a h-aon diubh                                                       Not one would raise   
Claideamh faobharach stàilinn.                                                     A steel-bladed sword
 Ciod am fàth dhomh bhith 'g innse                                          What's the point of me saying
      Gun d'fhàs sibh cho miodhar                                                    You have grown so mean
      'S gun spothadh sibh frighde                                                 That you would geld a louse
          Far an direadh i fàrdan?                                                Were it to gain a farthing in value?
  Dh'falbh na ceannardan mìleant'                                     Gone are the warrior chiefs  
   Dh'an robh sannt air an fhìrinn,                                               With their yearning for truth
   Dh'an robh geall air an dilsean                                       And respect for those followers
       Agus cuing air an nàmhaid,                                                      Who contained their foes,
   Air an tuath bha iad cuimhneach                                           Ever mindful of the their tenantry
     (Cha b'ann gus an sgriobadh),                                                 (Though not to fleece them),
 Bhiodh bantraichean 's dilleachdain                                                 Widows and orphans
             Diolta gu saidhbhir;                                                                  Liberally provided for
         Gach truaghan gun dith air                                                 Without want was each pauper      
         Mun cuairt air na suinn sin                                                        A  round those heroes
        Nach sealladh gu h-iseal -                                       Who would never set their sights low           
         Bha n'intinn ro stàtail                                                                Their purpose too noble

           Triallaibh nis, fearaibh,                                                               Go now then boys,                                                                                                                                            
          Gu dùthaich gun ghainne                                                      To a country without want
         Cuiribh cùl ris an fhearann                                                    Turn your back on the land
        Chaidh thairis am màl oirbh                                                Where the rent went too high
             Gu dùthaich a'bhainne,                                                         For the country of milk
             Gu dùthaich na meala,                                                         For the country of honey
    Gu dùthaich an ceannaich sibh                                              For the country where you'll buy
          Fearann gu'r n-àilgheas,                                                          All the land that you need
          Gu dùthaich gun aineis,                                                        In the country without want
      Gun chrionadh gun stanard,                                                   Without blight, without limit
   Far an cnuasaich sibh barrachd                                                 Where you will pick up more

       'S a mahaireas ri'r laithean                                                 Than will last the days of your life

Highland poem, 1747

The verse reproduced here refers to the state of the Highlands after the Battle of Culloden, which had taken place the previous year. Of particular interest is the reference to the banning of highland dress


Living in a place with time
Living in a place where reality is
Standing on a big broad line
Watching it all go by
Ah, but you're taking it all away
The music, the tongue and the old refrains
You're coming here to play
And you're pulling the roots from a dying age.
Remember the Buachaille Mor
Reaching for the skies from the barren shores
Watching over the village of burns
And counting the days since the gael kept home
But the stranger claims it now
Sitting like a king with his gold from the south
Don't you see the waves of wealth
Sashing away the soul from the land.
Here come the Clearances my friend
Silently our history is coming to life again
We feel the breeze from the shore to come
And up and down the coast
We're waiting for the wheel to turn.
Free were the fields of fern
Free was the fishing in the coves of care
Empty are the homes of old
Empty for the sake of summer's cause
Yes, you're taking it all away
The music, the tongue and the old refrains
You're coming here to play
And you're pulling the roots from a dying age.



I mourn for the Highlands, now drear and forsaken
The lands of my fathers the gallant and brave;
To make room for the sportsmen, their lands were all taken
And they had to seek out new homes far away.
Oh shame on the tyrants who brought desolation
Who banished the brave and put sheep in their place;
Where once smiled the gardens rank weeds in their station
And deer are preferred to the leal-hearted braves.
Oh where are the parents and bairns yonder rovin'
The scene o' their gladness is far o'er the main;
No blithe-hearted milk-maid now cheers at the gloaming
The herd-boy no longer seen on the plain.
But the lark is still soaring, she sings in her glory
With no one to listen her sweet morning lay;
The clansmen are gone, but their deeds live in story
Like chaff in the wind, they were borne far away.



Hush, hush, time to be sleeping
Hush, hush, dreams come a-creeping
Dreams of peace and of freedom
So smile in your sleep, bonny baby.
Once our valleys were ringing
With songs of our children singing
But now sheep bleat till the evening
And shielings lie empty and broken.
Where is our proud highland mettle
Our troops once so fierce in battle
Now stand, cowed, huddled like cattle
And wait to be shipped o'er the ocean.
No use pleading or praying
For gone, gone is all hope of staying
Hush, hush, the anchor's a-weighing
Don't cry in your sleep, bonny baby.  

These lyrics were set to the tune Mist Covered Mountains by Jim MacLean commemorating the tragedy of the Highland Clearances. The words are given here with the kind permission of Jim McLean of Duart Music.  The tune was first known as Duil ri Baile Chaolais fhaicinn (Hoping to see Ballachulish). The original tune was based on Johnny stays long at the Fair. 


Ye remnant of the brave!
Who charge when the pipes are heard:
Don't think, my lads, that you fight for your own,
'Tis but for the good of the land.
And when the fight is done
And you come back over the foam,
`Well done,' they say, `you are good and true,
But we cannot give you a home. 

`For the land we want for the deer,
And the glen the birds enjoy,
And bad for the game is the smoke of the cot,
And the song of the crofter's boy'
-- Mackenzie MacBride


Education as the Denial of History

The following lyric is from Runrig, Scotland's leading folk‑rock group. The lead singer, Donnie Munro, is Rector of Edinburgh University. He writes: "You share with many people from our own background the amazement at how the knowledge of our own history was effectively denied us and how this situation has changed only relatively recently, when it was presumably considered a politically safe region whose strength had been drained and its energies channelled successfully. There is a great capacity in existence to marginalise issues by keeping them separate. This is where for me internationalism truly begins, with the realisation of the global village and the common experiences of the human condition." [59]
Fichead Bliadhna (Twenty Years)

Freedom of the moor
Freedom of the hill
And then to school
At the end of a summer
Children, five years of age
Without many words of English

Here is your book
Here is your pen
Study hard
That's what they told me
And you will rise up in the world
You will achieve

I learnt many things
The English language
The poetry England
The music of Germany
The history of Spain
And even that was a misleading history

Then on to further education
Following education, more education
Like puppets
On the end of a string
Our heads filled with a sort of learning
And I did rise in the world
I found my suit
I found my shirt
I found a place in the eyes of men
Well away from the freedom of the moor

But why did they keep
Our history from us?
I'll tell you ‑ they are frightened
In case the children of Gaeldom awaken
With searching
And penetrating questions
Twenty years for the truth
I had to wait
I had to search
Twenty years of deceit
They denied me knowledge of myself

‑ C & R Macdonald, Runrig, 1979.



‘Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig’

The window is nailed and boarded
through which I saw the West
and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig,
a birch tree, and she has always been

between Inver and Milk Hollow,
here and there about Baile-Chuirn:
she is a birch, a hazel,
a straight, slender young rowan.

In Screapadal of my people
where Norman and Big Hector were,
their daughters and their sons are a wood
going up beside the stream.

Proud tonight the pine cocks
crowing on the top of Cnoc an Ra,
straight their backs in the moonlight –
they are not the wood I love.

I will wait for the birch wood
until it comes up by the cairn,
until the whole ridge from Beinn na Lice
will be under its shade.

If it does not, I will go down to Hallaig,
to the Sabbath of the dead,
where the people are frequenting,
every single generation gone.

They are still in Hallaig,
MacLeans and MacLeods,
all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim:
the dead have been seen alive.

The men lying on the green
at the end of every house that was,
the girls a wood of birches,
straight their backs, bent their heads.

Between the Leac and Fearns
the road is under mild moss
and the girls in silent bands
go to Clachan as in the beginning,

and return from Clachan,
from Suisnish and the land of the living;
each one young and light-stepping,
without the heartbreak of the tale.

From the Burn of Fearns to the raised beach
that is clear in the mystery of the hills,
there is only the congregation of the girls
keeping up the endless walk,

coming back to Hallaig in the evening,
in the dumb living twilight,
filling the steep slopes,
their laughter a mist in my ears,

and their beauty a film on my heart
before the dimness comes on the kyles,
and when the sun goes down behind Dun Cana
a vehement bullet will come from the gun of Love;

and will strike the deer that goes dizzily,
sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes;
his eye will freeze in the wood,
his blood will not be traced while I live.

                                                         By Sorely MacLean



‘Tha tìm, am fiadh, an coille Hallaig’

Tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig
trom faca mi an Àird an Iar
’s tha mo ghaol aig Allt Hallaig
’na craoibh bheithe, ’s bha i riamh

eadar an t-Inbhir ’s Poll a’ Bhainne,
thall ’s a bhos mu Bhaile Chùirn:
tha i ’na beithe, ’na calltainn,
’na caorann dhìrich sheang ùir.

Ann an Sgreapadal mo chinnidh,
far robh Tarmad ’s Eachann Mòr,
tha ’n nigheanan ’s am mic ’nan coille
a’ gabhail suas ri taobh an lòin.

Uaibhreach a‑nochd na coilich ghiuthais
a’ gairm air mullach Cnoc an Rà,
dìreach an druim ris a’ ghealaich –
chan iadsan coille mo ghràidh.

Fuirichidh mi ris a’ bheithe
gus an tig i mach an Càrn,
gus am bi am bearradh uile
o Bheinn na Lice fa sgàil.

Mura tig ’s ann theàrnas mi a Hallaig
a dh’ionnsaigh sàbaid nam marbh,
far a bheil an sluagh a’ tathaich,
gach aon ghinealach a dh’fhalbh.

Tha iad fhathast ann a Hallaig,
Clann Ghill-Eain ’s Clann MhicLeòid,
na bh’ ann ri linn Mhic Ghille Chaluim:
chunnacas na mairbh beò.

Na fir ’nan laighe air an lèanaig
aig ceann gach taighe a bh’ ann,
na h-igheanan ’nan coille bheithe,
dìreach an druim, crom an ceann.

Eadar an Leac is na Feàrnaibh
tha ’n rathad mòr fo chòinnich chiùin,
’s na h-igheanan ’nam badan sàmhach
a’ dol a Chlachan mar o thùs.

Agus a’ tilleadh às a’ Chlachan,
à Suidhisnis ’s à tir nam beò;
a chuile tè òg uallach
gun bhristeadh cridhe an sgeòil.

O Allt na Feàrnaibh gus an fhaoilinn
tha soilleir an dìomhaireachd nam beann
chan eil ach coitheanal nan nighean
a’ cumail na coiseachd gun cheann.

A’ tilleadh a Hallaig anns an fheasgar,
anns a’ chamhanaich bhalbh bheò,
a’ lìonadh nan leathadan casa,
an gàireachdaich ’nam chluais ’na ceò,

’s am bòidhche ’na sgleò air mo chridhe
mun tig an ciaradh air na caoil,
’s nuair theàrnas grian air cùl Dhùn Cana
thig peilear dian à gunna Ghaoil;

’s buailear am fiadh a tha ’na thuaineal
a’ snòtach nan làraichean feòir;
thig reothadh air a shùil sa choille:
chan fhaighear lorg air fhuil rim bheò.


Many of the people living in Strathnaver at the time of the clearances belonged to the MacKay clan. One of them, Annie MacKay, was a child when the evictions took place. This poem was written by her many years later.

The Last Sabbath in Strathnaver before the Burnings


'Twas not the beacon light of war,
Nor yet the "slogan" cry,
That chilled each heart, and blanched each cheek,
In the country of Mackay,
And made them march with weary feet,
As men condemned to die.

Ah! had it been their country's foe
That they were called to brave,
How loudly would the piobrachd sound,
How proud their "bratach" wave;
How joyfully each man would march,
Tho' marching to his grave.

No! 'Twas a cruel, sad behest,
An alien chief's command,
Depriving them of house and home,
Their country and their land;
Dealing a death-blow at their hearts,
Binding the "strong right hand".

Slowly and sadly, down the glen
They took their weary way,
The sun was shining overhead
Upon that sweet spring day,
And earth was throbbing with the life
Of the great glad month of May.

The deer were browsing on the hills,
And looked with wondering eye;
The birds were singing their songs of praise,
The smoke curled to the sky,
And the river added its gentle voice
To nature's melody.

No human voice disturbed the calm,
No answering smile was there,
For men and women walked along,
Mute pictures of despair;
This was the last sad Sabbath they
Would join in praise and prayer.

And men were there whose brows still bore
The trace of many scars,
Who oft their vigils kept with death
Beneath the midnight stars,
Where'er their country needed men,
Brave men to fight her wars.

And grey-haired women tall and strong,
Erect and full of grace,
Meet mothers of a noble clan,
A brave and stalwart race,
And many a maiden young and fair,
With pallid, tear-stained face.

They met upon the river's brink,
By the church so old and grey,
They could not sit within its walls
Upon this sunny day;
The Heavens above would be their dome,
And hear what they would say.

The preacher stood upon a bank,
His face was pale and thin,
And, as he looked upon his flock,
His eyes with tears were dim,
And they awhile forgot their grief,
And fondly looked at him


His text: "Be faithful unto death,
And I will give to thee
A crown of life that will endure
To all eternity."
And he pleaded God's dear promises,
So rich, so full, so free;

Then said "Ah friends, an evil day
Has come upon our Glen,
Now sheep and deer are held of more
Account than living men;
It is a lawless law that yet
All nations will condemn.

"I would not be a belted knight,
Nor yet a wealthy lord,
Nor would I, for a coronet,
Have said the fatal word
That made a devastation worse
Than famine, fire, or sword.

"The path before each one of us
Is long, and dark, and steep;
I go away a shepherd lone,
Without a flock to keep,
And ye without a shepherd go,
My well beloved sheep.

"But God our Father will not part
With one of us, I know,
Though in the cold wide world our feet
May wander to and fro;
If we like children cling to Him,
With us He'll ever go.

"Farewell my people, fare ye well,
We part to meet no more,
Until we meet before the throne,
On God's eternal shore,
Where parting will not break the heart.
Farewell for ever more."

He sat upon the low green turf,
His head with sorrow bowed;
Men sobbed upon their father's graves,
And women wept aloud,
And there was not a tearless eye
In that heart-stricken crowd.

The tune of "Martyrdom" was sung
By lips with anguish pale,
And as it rose upon the breeze
It swelled into a wail,
And, like a weird death coronach,
It sounded in the vale:

"Beannaicht' gu robh gu siorruidh buan
Ainm glormhor uasal fein
Lionadh a ghloir gach uile thir
Amen agus Amen."
And echo lingering on the hills
Gave back the sad refrain.

Methinks there never yet was heard
Such a pathetic cry
As rose from that dear, hallowed spot
Unto the deep blue sky,
'Twas the death wail of a broken clan -
The noble clan Mackay.


As previously mentioned, many of the songs, poems or ballads were composed on board the ships which headed for foreign shores during the clearances; years later the those words would give wisdom to those who would write about the event years later.  Today in 21st century Scotland in the year 2008 compositions are still compiled which relate to events of the highland clearances of the 18th. 19th and 20th centuries, these works are important in preserving the memory of what the clearances were and what they were all about. Bellow are some of the compositions from this century, which in time will become part of old history as well.


 “Echoes of another age”

They stole your voice, unable to speak out
 Beaten, subdued, women, punished
For daring to sing, their own sweet tones

Hands, bloodied, between your fingers
 It ran bright red
No hand to stay, instead, a bayonet or truncheon
Without compassion, no compunction
Lands wrenched from you, old as time

Forced, degraded, kicked, shipped
To lands far from what you knew
Sheep! Where the plough, the seed
 That should have grown

 Indentured? Another word for slave
As men, women, young and old
 Watched as the flames licked higher,
Dear Lord, the animal in the byre
Treated better than the Gael had ever been

Where the voice o’ reason, as seasons
Came and went, hunger, strength
Spent, merely trying to survive

Landlord, taker o souls
For they broke your spirit, yet!
It lives amongst us, thriving today

An age, within this land, such a rage
Indignation, damnation tae those
Wha’ ordered the clans tae be cleansed

As time slips past, let us ne’er forget
That age, let it echo, the pain
Sorrow, down the years, no more tears
 For a new age will bring hope
To the land o the Gael

Dave Wilkie
March 2008



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