Of course, the central notion in the phenomena called "The Lowland Clearances" was the "de-population" of the countryside. This de-population was apparently not brutal, there were no killings and probably only a few sudden moderate-scale expulsions of people. While these removals began to accelerate dramatically in the mid 18th century, there had been at least some similar activity since the beginning of the 17th at the time of the "Ulster Plantation".
By far, the main force at work was the landlord's need for increased rental income from the land. Local factors in certain communities had a moderating effect on the extent of de-population. One such factor was the degree to which the landlords participated in "improvements" in agriculture practice. Lesmahagow Parish appears to have been at one extreme in this respect...
There was apparently no dedicated "Improver" on the technological side among the landowners in Lesmahagow Parish. In his survey of agriculture in 1773 Andrew Wight complained of the Lanarkshire tenant class: "it is in vain to expect improvement from them, unless some public spirited gentlemen would take the lead". Indeed, the "Old Statistical Account" is quite clear on the poor progress of agricultural improvement in Lesmahagow Parish to 1792:
The Lesmahagow landlords thus probably had minimal effect on population change through agricultural improvement on the "technological side" -- that is, additional rural labour to effect improvements was not required. However, on the "organizational side" of estate management, it would appear that some of the landowners had been quite busy for about forty years. The Parish population had steadily increased to about 3,700 by 1755: "since that period, the number of the people has been upon the decrease, as well as the fertility of the soil". By 1792, the population was now only 2,810 -- almost a 25% decline. Rev. Thomas Linning had counted eighteen empty farmhouses and cottages in the east half of the Parish in 1783.
The author of the 1792 Statistical Account made several observations on the decline of cultivation:
Perhaps these hilltop muirs had been cultivated many centuries before, just after the wholesale removal of the great forest. With the forest gone, there was practically no opportunity for natural re-generation. The southern Ontario Indians, on the other hand, did not decimate the forest. Rather, they worked a patch of ground for several years and then moved on to a fresh spot. The surrounding forest was quite capable of restoring nutrients to the garden soil. Indeed, all over Europe, it was not that the "ground failed to produce its increase", but rather, that the gardeners had failed the ground.
The author of the Lesmahagow Statistical Account seems to suggest that sheep now dominated this higher once-cultivated ground:
While most of the Old Statistical Accounts were written by the Parish Ministers, the author of the Lesmahagow Account is anonymous. From the tenor of the discussion, it appears that the author was a landowner and perhaps a recent arrival in the Parish. For this reason, the Lesmahagow account may put a unique spin on the immense value of the Old Statistical Accounts. The comments relating to agriculture practically ignore related social issues. In particular, the Lesmahagow author does not provide any real detail with respect to the pronounced population decline. In this respect, the Lesmahagow Account contrasts sharply with the Account for the Parish of Libberton, only ten miles to the east, written by Rev. John Fraser:
Similarly, Rev. Joseph Henderson of the unimproved united Parishes of Wistoun and Robertoun concluded:
The tendency in the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire to place sheep on ground that had previously been cultivated by several farmers was, of course, founded in the landlord's need for secure income to finance his other activities in the broadening and more demanding international marketplace. In this late eighteenth century period before crop and tillage improvements were locally practised, Rev. Robert Inglis of Carmichael Parish, immediately east of Lesmahagow, noted that:
In Douglas Parish, to the immediate south of Lesmahagow:
Hence, it made more sense to the laird to pasture sheep than to gamble on receiving no rents from farmers who lost their crops. Four decades later, however, technological and soil management improvements and new crop rotations and refinements made it more practical for Lesmahagow farmers to attempt to vigourously cultivate even the higher ground.
There must have been a fairly significant migration from Lesmahagow to the workshops, mills and construction sites in Glasgow, Paisley and other urban centres during the last few decades of the eighteenth century. The draw of the "industrial revolution" perhaps contributed as much to rural depopulation in Lesmahagow as evictions in favour of sheep.
As agricultural re-organization and improvement progressed through the Lowlands in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; as the notion of commercialization crept into estate management practice; as local and regional trade displaced self-sufficiency; and as ability to pay the rent superseded time-honoured rights to the land -- the lower classes of rural folk came to depend less and less on the land while the larger tenants tended to prosper.