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Highland Clearances: The Ballad of Arichonan

On April 4, 1848, Neill Malcolm III, 13th of Poltalloch, served a notice to 40 of his tenant farmers. By the 27th May, it read, they were to “flit and remove themselves”. These people were to pick up from their homes and farms, take all of their possessions, and say goodbye to the only life they knew. Thus, the clearance of one Highland village began.

Arichonan. It’s nestled in the Caledonian forest on the Knapdale peninsula, on the very edge of the southwest Highlands. It consists of a chain of traditional stone buildings down a ridge. The south-western view sweeps down Loch Sween, to the sea and all the way to Ireland on a clear day.

The site of Arichonan overlooks Scotnish, Loch Sween and towards Ireland.

By today’s standards, Arichonan is beyond the boondocks. If you go there today, chances are you will have it all to yourself except maybe for a fox and a few crows.

But that wasn’t always the case. The sea connects Knapdale to the rest of the world like a superhighway, bringing traders, raiders, emigrants and visitors to and fro since the Ice Age, first in wicker and hide curraghs, later in mighty Gaelic birlins and Viking longships. Today, just a few ferries, yachts and fishing boats are left.

In the Stone Age, people thronged to Knapdale’s deep, cosy caves, like holiday condos, where they sheltered, hunted and enjoyed the local seafood. Later, Neolithic farmers settled here. They herded cattle, grew oats and barley, and built mysterious stone monuments to predict the cycles of the skies and earth.

This part of Scotland is a temperate rainforest, gently warmed by the Gulf Stream.

In the dark ages, illustrious Irish saints like St Columba and St Cormac came to these shores, from where they founded important religious communities and converted the Picts to Christianity.

A chain of imposing hill forts ruled by powerful Gaelic chieftains dotted this landscape like a string of pearls, protecting it from everyone from the Romans to the Saxons to the Vikings- after all, it is a gateway straight into the Great Glen, the heart of the Highlands. Some researchers even assert that the area was the home of the mythical King Arthur!

You could find worse places to live than Arichonan. A bubbling burn of sweet, cold water runs through on its way the sea, with an endless catch of fish, seafood and birds. The soil is not great for growing crops, but is ideal for grazing animals. This part of Scotland is a temperate rainforest, gently warmed by the Gulf Stream. Indeed it does rain a lot, but that’s what keeps it so green and lush, and it doesn’t often freeze here.

In the middle ages, Knapdale was part of a powerful kingdom that straddled Scotland, Ireland, and Norway. Thousands of people lived here, at one time under the protection of the High King of Ireland himself, guarded by the legendary gallowglas from their mighty stone castle on Loch Sween. That castle is still standing, by the way.

Castle Sween, home of the Medieval gallowglas, a short distance from Arichonan.

So you see, once upon a time, Knapdale was happening.

Arichonan means a shieling, or shepherd's hut, dedicated to St Conan. St Conan is another one of those famous Irish saints that I was talking about- in fact, he’s the patron saint of this area. For more than two thousand years, shepherds built shielings- temporary summer hut- in the hills on sites like this, where families spent the summer letting their cattle graze. When the population outgrew the best fertile bottom land where it’s most desirable to live, families were forced into the hills permanently. Shielings turned into houses. Arichonan is shown on a 1654 map as a township- in the native Gaelic, a baile.

The Knapdale Peninsula in Argyll

Life changed little at Arichonan over hundreds of years. People worked hard, raised their kids, savoured a dram or two at Saturday ceilidhs, went to church on Sunday. Their holiday celebrations marked the passing of the seasonal rhythms of a farmer’s life. But these folks weren’t primitive by any means. They possessed a deep, rich Gaelic language, history and culture for which western Scotland is still famous, imbued with sophisticated poetry, myth and music, highly skilled textile arts, and of course, the science of making uisge beatha.

Arichonan means a shieling, or shepherd's hut, dedicated to St Conan.

From a long succession of clan chiefs, the locals held a traditional right to settle on plots of land in exchange for tribute, things like cattle and grain, but more importantly, swords. Those swords that were hidden in the thatch, ready to seize at a moment’s notice for battle when the chief sent out the call.

But after the breakdown of the clan system, the battle of Culloden and the unification of Scotland and England, landowners didn’t need a resident army. They rarely even lived in Scotland anymore. They mostly lived in London, today’s equivalent of the trust fund kid. Life as toff doesn’t come cheap. You need cold hard cash.

So members of the clan, Gaelic for children, turned instead into faceless tenants. Extended families had to chipped in to lease poor plots of land in exchange for cash rent that grew year by year, far outstripping what we would call the inflation rate.

It seems there were six families at Arichonan in 1848, who like their ancestors, raised cattle, grew oats, barley and later, those new-fangled potatoes. These families were an intermarried and extend family group of MacLeans, MacDougalls, MacLellans, MacLachlans, Campbells and MacMillans.

The men burned the surrounding oak wood for charcoal in brick ovens. The women and girls dyed wool fabric in a big communal stone boiler and sang ancient waulking songs as they pounded urine soaked tweed on a wooden table.

The winnowing barn constructed with unique triangular windows set to allow the cross breeze to dry the barley.

The boys fattened their cattle and drove them to market in Falkirk. Everyone pitched in to plough the rigs in spring, and bring in the harvest in autumn.

"These families were an intermarried and extend family group of MacLeans, MacDougalls, MacLellans, MacLachlans, Campbells and MacMillans."

It probably wasn’t a too bad a life, to be honest, not until the potato famine. In the 1800s, things started to get really rough at Arichonan. As families grew, prime fertile land became scarcer, they had to cast lots each season to determine who would get to plough the best rigs. A failed harvest meant your children went hungry.

Just as the famine kicked in, Neil Malcolm, the 12th of Poltalloch died, leaving an immense inheritance to his son, Neill the third, resident of Mayfair, London.

An aerial shot of Arichonan clearly showing the arrangement of the houses, barns and animal pens.

The Malcolms acquired their vast wealth, not in Scotland, but in the colonies. Off the backs of African slaves, they grew an empire of sugar, rum, cotton and cattle almost beyond compare in Jamaica.

As the Malcolm’s fortunes rose, that of other local clans fell. Some were forced to sell much of their property, including Arichonan. The Campbells, traditionally Argyll’s most prominent clan, sold it to the McNeils, who sold it to- you guessed it- the Malcolms.

To a young Neil Malcolm the third, like so many Scottish lairds, the old world ways were giving way to the new world ways. When he looked at the books for his Jamaican holdings, then looked at the books for his Scottish holdings, it was a no brainer.

The British slave trade was abolished in 1807; that meant you could not import slaves into the country, so, he couldn’t exactly copy his successful Jamaican business model. But like many landowners, Malcolm modified the plantation system to fit Scotland. This was his plan.

Step one, choose the strongest and brightest men among the natives, they will stay to manage your new enormous flocks of sheep.

Step two, evict everyone else. They, their cattle and their children are taking up valuable room that your sheep need to graze.

Step three, put the people on a boat to your plantation in Australia, where, if they survive, they can work for you producing much more valuable crops than barley and oats.

By a similar process, an estimated up to quarter million people were cleared from Scotland, in both the Highlands and Lowlands. That number is disputed, but it was certainly many, many thousands. Some Highlanders were forced into fishing or the dreaded kelp business on the coast. Some immigrated to the big cities like Glasgow or further afield like Australia or the Americas.

While many landlords were forced to evict tenants due to personal financial difficulties, this does not appear to have been the case at Arichonan. Malcolm was an MP for Boston. He was a power broker on a multi national scale. His family helped build the Crinan Canal and opened up Argyll’s natural resources, such as slate quarries and timber crops that he owned, to the rest of the empire. He owned more than two thousand slaves at any one time. This guy chose to not only evict his tenants during a potato famine. He waited until they had sown their crops to do it.

Adding to the understandable resentment of the residents, they had to deal with, not Malcolm, whom they likely never met, but his estate manager, a man named William Martin. Martin was English, a former Dragoon. He had a history of quelling riots violently. That’s why he was hired. He didn’t speak Gaelic or even try to communicate with the locals in their native, and for the most part, only, language.

"This guy chose to not only evict his tenants during a potato famine. He waited until they had sown their crops to do it."

Perhaps these successive insults decided it. Malcolm’s tenants were not going to take his especially egregious eviction lying down. Instead, they went down in a blaze of glory, in one of Scotland’s most infamous Highland clearance riots.

When they got that notice from their landlord, Neill Malcolm the third, that told them to be out by May 27, just a few weeks away, the Arichonan families made no move to leave. On the day, which is a minor holiday, Whitsunday, the sheriff came by to see if they were gone and they weren’t even packed. It was obvious there was nothing he alone could do. These folks were not budging.

The sheriff returned on June 13 with two-dozen estate workers. According to one story, the men of the village were lured away on some pretence, but a contingent of ladies led by feisty widow, Mrs Catherine MacLachlan Campbell, met them with pitchforks and frying pans, and proved that indeed hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. The posse bravely ran away.

On July 7, fortified with his two-dozen estate workers and now ten policemen, the sheriff’s posse came back with orders to use all necessary force to remove the tenants, their livestock and all of their house furnishings.

Armed with sticks and stones, upwards of 60 people – so by this time, neighbour villages are now joining in- they were waiting when the authorities came for that third time. Violence inevitably broke out, and in the scuffle one of the leaders of the riot was captured. The police made several tactical retreats towards the main town, Lochgilphead, and even caught a few more prisoners. However, the mob pursued them, and soon its numbers swelled to more than 200 angry Gaelic farmers. In the argie bargie the veteran Dragoon got the worst end of it.

“The mob were using sticks and stones!" William Martin complained, "I was half dragged over a dyke.”

The sheriff locked his prisoners in the local pub. But, other than Martin, and a few cops, the posse was really mostly just a bunch of estate workers- ghillies or gamekeepers, not police. They were not prepared to take on this belligerent crowd or shoot them, in fact, these were their neighbours, so the sheriff agreed to release his prisoners to “trustworthy tenants” for the time being, and again, bravely ran away.

“The mob were using sticks and stones!" William Martin complained, "I was half dragged over a dyke.”

The sheriff tried to call in the military. The government rebuffed him they had plenty on their plates to be worrying about a minor scuffle in the Highlands. It was suggested that instead, maybe he should open a dialogue with them in their language? Calmly explain the reasons behind their removal that the government said, “created such unusual disturbances among a hitherto well behaved and orderly rural population”.

Finally a Gaelic interpreter was brought in to meet with the tenants. We don’t know exactly what he told them. Perhaps he laid out the argument that further resistance was futile, that eventually the military would come in with heavy artillery, and sail right up Loch Sween to blow them all to kingdom come. After all, that's what the sheriff wanted to do.

More likely, Martin and his goons would burn the farmers’ houses down, with them inside if need be. After all, that was actually happening in other cleared villages. Whatever he said, it led to “peaceable removal” and on August 7 most everyone packed up and left Arichonan.

On September 13, five ringleaders of the Arichonan riot, including the widow Campbell, were brought to trial at the High Court in Inveraray. They received sentences ranging from four to eight months. You can still visit the jail in which they were held.

Understandably, the Arichonan families did not choose to take their landlord’s offer to move to Australia. However, a few did take positions on his estate or move to other local townships so they could stay in Argyll. Some spread out around the country. Many others emigrated.

Allan McLean was one of those charged in the riot. When he got out of jail, he moved to Canada with his family, settling in Ekfrid Township in Middlesex County, where there was an established community with Knapdale roots. A quick look at the phone book today shows a whole mess of McLeans so evidently, they thrived there.

After most of the people left, one last farmer and his family lived in Arichonan by themselves, using the bricks and stones from the abandoned cottages to do some remodelling to their own.

It’s not difficult to imagine Arichonan as it once was, thanks to the well-preserved cottages and barn.

Later, the baile reverted back to a shieling, and as the thatch roofs would have been long rotted or burned, shepherds robbed cottages of stones to cobble together crude shelters. Just like back in the dark ages, except rather than their own shaggy black cows they now herded the laird’s sheep.

In the early 20th century, the Forestry Commission bought the land and they’ve done a fine job of preserving and interpreting the site. From a car park at the bottom of the ridge, you can hike up to it in about 20 minutes.

It’s all tumbled down ruins now, but the entire hamlet is well preserved enough to see the layout, and some structures, including a barn, are remarkably intact.

"Allan McLean was one of those charged in the riot. When he got out of jail he moved to Canada with his family settling in Ekfrid Township, Middlesex County where there was an established community with Knapdale roots. "

Arichonan is a lonely, remote place, and eerily quiet. But, standing there you’re transported back through time in your mind, as if through one of those magic standing stones, to a busy place.

Thatch roofed Cottages, made cosy with roaring fireplaces. The smell of bannocks and mutton stew. Walled animal pens filled with noisy livestock. There’s a barn with unique triangular windows that allowed in a cross breeze to gently winnow the barely. A large cauldron, once used to produce fine tweed, now stands upside down. A metal bed frame lies forlornly in the grass. It is heart breaking.

This cauldron was used to boil cloth in the tweed making procees.

Even separated by 170 years, standing there, you feel that these people aren’t just faceless tenants. They are folks like Neil MacMillan, a father of ten, who scratched his name in the doorway of his no doubt crowded but snug, cottage. Neil was one of those arrested in the riot. Along with Catherine Campbell and Alan MacLean, can you just imagine them; sticks and stones in hand, fighting for their homes with everything they had.

This happens time and again throughout world history, of course, clearing natives to exploit their resources. It still happens today. In some cases, Scots who had been forced to leave their homeland did the same to aboriginal Australians or Native Americans. I know, because my own ancestors were among both the cleared and the clearers.

A growing population competing for scarcer resources, successive famines, the industrial age- in hindsight we know the feudal way of life at Arichonan, however idyllic it may have seemed on the surface, was a hard scrap life, and it couldn’t last forever. Farmers eventually migrate to cities. The course of capitalism, hate or loathe it, always marches on. Isn’t this the way of things? Try telling that to Catherine Campbell from the business end of her pitchfork.

An abandoned bed frame, probably from the very last residents, tells the sad tale.

However, that said, as we’ve seen at Arichonan, the fact is, the vast empty landscapes you see in Scotland today, however beautiful, are merely a shell of what it was.

Once covered with more than 35 million acres of verdant native Caledonian forests, less than 44 thousand acres remain.

Many thousands of people lived here, thrived here, until the 19th century, many more than today, and while throughout history they did their fair share of cutting timber, farming and fishing, it was in a way that helped preserve the local resources for future generations.

It was sheep that transformed much of the Highlands into an ecological and social desert. Professor Iain Stewart describes sheep as a woolly locust. Putting profit before people in this way nearly destroyed not just a society, but also an entire landscape. And Scotland’s population, it’s rich Gaelic culture and its rare ecosystem are still struggling to recover.

To end on a positive note, I want to highlight work to restore the damage done by the clearances. Native flora and fauna, such as Caledonian pines, Scottish wildcats, beavers and eagles are being reintroduced. Government programmes are helping incentivise farmers to raise native woodlands instead of sheep. Organisations like Kilchoan Estate in Argyll are rewilding the countryside, working with other groups to create a nationwide matrix of wildlife corridors.

The blackface sheep, known as the "woolly locust", has devastated the Scottish landscape.

Gaelic language and culture is, despite what some newspapers say, most certainly not dying out. Traditional, yet always evolving with the times, Celtic music thrives in pubs, community centres, festivals and concert halls, not just in the Highlands and Islands, but around the world. Gaelic language centres, schools, advocacy groups and public signage are all doing their part to keep the language, and therefore the culture, alive.

In fact, Duolingo released a Scottish Gaelic language course for its app, and well over half a million people have downloaded it so far- that’s many times the number of native speakers.

It won’t be in my lifetime, but I am hopeful that within 100 years, Scotland will look a lot more like it did in the heyday of Arichonan.

And for myself, I often think about my own ancestors, and try to picture that fateful day when they boarded a ship to South Carolina, how they watched their beloved Scotland fade in the distance, knowing they would never see it again. What would they imagine, I wonder, that someday, one of their daughters would finally get to come home?


What are your thoughts on the Highland Clearances? Have you ever visited a Clearance village? Were your ancestors cleared and then emigrated somewhere else in the world? Let us know in the comments!

Further reading and listening:

The Imagine Alba Podcast- A Highland Clearance: The Ballad of Arichonan

Stone Voices: The Search For Scotland by Neal Ascherson

Commercial Landlordism and Clearance in the Scottish Highlands: The case of Arichonan by Allan I. Macinnes, University of Aberdeen

The Deserted Townships of Kilmory Oib & Arichonan and Kilmory Mill Historic Building Surveys by Roderick Regan

An example of a Gaelic waulking song from Scotland:


Looking for things to do in Oban? Discover the best of Oban on a walking tour with our Scottish Tourist Guides Association certified and insured guide, Michelle. Learn about Argyll's history, legend and natural environment, from cave people to clan chiefs to eccentric Victorians, as well as life in Oban today. Get in touch today about an Oban Walking Tour with Imagine Alba!


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