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Colonel Gordon of Cluny was not the typical Highland landlord – he became the caricature figure of the monstrous evictor, unresponsive either to human feeling or public outrage. But it would be a mistake to suppose that he was along in thinking that comprehensive emigration was the essential solution to the Highland problem at the time of the famine. By 1850 public opinion became impatient with the limitless begging on behalf of the Highlanders. Charity seemed to encourage indolence and dependence. Public subscriptions for the relief of destitution in the Highlands declined. At the same time rigorously Malthusian doctrine cast a pervasive influence over public opinion.
Though no lives were lost by starvation in the Highlands, the effects of the Great Famine were deeply depressing. There was a widespread air of disenchantment and impatience. The Inverness courier expressed the ruling mood at the end of 1850:
“That the Highlanders, after having had a sum of little short of £200000 expended in their relief, and that under the auspices of a body of philanthropic and highly intelligent men, with the assistance of a corps of officers of high character, energy and ability, should at the end of the relief operations be in a worse condition than at the commencement, is so very startling and mortifying a fact as to call for inquiry and explanation.”
The corollary of this failure of relief measures to provide a long-term solution was, in the eyes of the landlords (and many of the people themselves), emigration. The famine, which dragged on for half a decade in many places, stretched the resources of the local economy to the point at which much of the populations seemed to be in danger of becoming permanently dependent on charity. Rental incomes delinked and estate finances worsened. There was a further stimulus to clearance.
In some places landlords reaped negative returns at a time when sporting tenants were beginning to offer large rewards for cleared land. Many of the small tenants in the west appeared increasingly to favour a final capitulation to combined pressures of famine and rend. They sought, sometimes besought their landlords for, assistance to emigrate. The belief that mass emigration was the only true answer now became almost irresistible. Sir Charles Trevelyan from the Treasury spoke in terms of sending 100000 people out of the Highlands to Australia, and organised a great scheme to effect that proposal, which ultimately only expatriated a twentieth of that number. There was little opposition to the sponsorships of emigration as such: controversy surrounded the manner of its execution, but hardly in any plausible way its necessity. Emigration accelerated dramatically at the time of the famine, and, as always, there were examples of voluntary and coerced departures. Overhanging the process was the duress of circumstances which meant that even the willing migrants were victims of expulsive forces. The choices open to the people were narrow and most of course, choose to remain. At least one philanthropic organization was left with unspent funds in 1855 because it could no longer raise recruits for free emigration. Yet the population resumed its growth in many of the most impoverished districts of the west and of the islands.
Few voices were raised against the diagnosis that led to emigration, even from the conservative side of northern opinion. One, however, was the minister of the established church in Sleat, on Skye, a parish wickedly ravaged by the famine, who made no bones about the clearances that had continued in his district, nor about the morality of the proceedings. He described, in 1851, a process which had been witnessed on across the Highlands, from Lewis to the Black isle, and from Perth to Caithness.
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