The James McCowan Memorial
Social History Society
The Lowland Clearances
BBC News, May 16 2003
Scotland's Forgotten Clearances
Bruce McCowan orders us to slow down. He jabs a finger towards the snow-covered cliffs above Lake Ontario. "That's where the original old farmhouse was," he says. "Not so long ago all this area used to be fields."
He is giving us a guided tour of [part of] Scarborough [bluffs], a wealthy suburb of Toronto peppered with million dollar homes and spacious gardens. A hundred and seventy years ago this was frontier country where pioneering Scots came to join a fledgling farming community transforming the wilderness around them.
Among them was Bruce McCowan's ancestor James, who arrived from Scotland with his wife and eight children in 1833. Back home in Lesmahagow in Lanarkshire, James McCowan had been a collier [then a coalmaster] and then a tenant farmer surviving on the crops the family grew on a small plot of rented land.
But the family was in debt. When a new landlord took over the Stockbriggs estate, he drew up fresh leases, demanding a five-fold rise in the rent. For the McCowans it was the end. They were bankrupt and the family's furniture, livestock and farming tools seized. Within two years James McCowan and his family had set sail for Canada - exiled as a result of the Lowland Clearances.
It was a fate suffered by tens of thousands of Lowland Scots during the agricultural revolution as landowners enclosed their estates and modernised farming methods to improve food production and maximise profits.
Although evictions were not unknown, the Lowland clearances rarely involved teams of policemen and sheriff officers as they did in the Highlands and Islands nearly half a century later.
The Lowland lairds pursued their revolution within a legal framework. They wrote down the leases by which they rented out land imposing strict conditions, encouraging tenants who adopted the new farming ways but making it impossible for those who did not to remain. Some landowners introduced massive rent hikes of the kind which led to the McCowans' emigration.
Others simply appropriated large areas of common land using laws passed by the Scottish parliament in the 1690's. They may seem less brutal than the events in the Highlands but the Lowland clearances were just as effective at displacing country dwellers: by 1820 an entire social class of cottars - peasant farmers who had a traditional claim on land in return for rent or service to a landlord and who made up a third of the population - simply disappeared.
"We cannot explain the catastrophic haemorrhage of population in some of these rural areas over such short time spans except by suggesting that either indirect or direct compulsion was used," says Professor Devine.
"There are still crofters in the Highlands, but there are no cottars in the Lowlands." In the later eighteenth century the simple fact of losing land and becoming landless, he says, was much more significant for large numbers of people in Lowland society than it was in the Gaelic speaking Highlands of Scotland.
So what became of the Lowlanders who were moved off their land? Many emigrated. Recent research suggests that the number of people leaving Scotland from the Lowlands during this period was far higher than previously thought and far exceeded the number who left the Highlands.
Aberdeen University's Dr Marjorie Harper has just written a book on Scottish emigration. She said: "The analogy I like to use is of the flood and the dripping tap. I think one reason we focus so much on Highland emigration is that it was dramatic. But the dripping tap makes the bath overflow in just the same way as the flood does. What was happening in many parts of the rural lowlands was the constantly dripping tap of depopulation that was going on right throughout the 19th century and the centuries before and after that."
For those who lost their farms in the Lowlands, however, there were at least options denied the Highlanders. There were new opportunities in the rapidly growing towns and cities nearby as the industrial revolution took hold. There was employment, too, in the fields of the new, consolidated farms - though as paid labour rather than as free tenants. Arguably the majority who were cleared ended up better off.
But Highland historian Dr James Hunter, author of "The Making of the Crofting Community", says this was an unintended consequence. "The term 'improvement' often seems to be accepted by historians uncritically," he says. "They seem to accept the notion that all this change was for the best in the long run. That's a very dangerous notion to perpetrate because it minimises the horror that was experienced by the people who were on the receiving end of this."
Patrick Sellar's grandfather had been removed from a Lowland farm and as a result the family had, over the space of two or three generations, moved from being peasant farmers to, in Sellars' case, being a professional man, a lawyer with university training.
The Lowland and Highland clearances were driven by the same forces: the rapid rise in Scotland's population, the growth of commercialism and the awakening of a free market economy dedicated to the pursuit of profit.
The clearances were a Scottish phenomenon but they created two Scotlands: they helped transform the Lowlands into one of the most successful farming and industrial regions in Europe.
But they left the Highlands with a legacy of poverty, injustice and anti-landlordism which, to this day, still pricks the political conscience of Scotland's new parliamentarians.
An article similar to the above was also printed in "The Herald" on May 15 2003.
Other Reviews of the Lowland Clearances Program include ...
Scarborough's Scottish Settlers
Scarborough's link to an agricultural revolution in 18th century Scotland will be the subject of an upcoming series being featured on the BBC this spring.
BBC Radio Scotland is preparing a three-part series telling the story of the Lowland Clearances, which saw thousands of farmers displaced from their property in the Scottish lowlands.
The tale of James McCowan, who came to Canada and settled in Scarborough in 1833, will be a central component of The Lowland Clearances: One Family's Story, to be broadcast in late May.
"The human element of the story we found here in Canada really finished the series for us," said BBC Scotland producer Peter Aitchison who, along with reporter Andy Cassell, made the trip from Glasgow last week after an Internet search led the pair to Bruce McCowan, a descendant of James.
"It was incredible to type in Lowland Clearances' (on the Internet) and come up with this guy's web site," Aitchison said of McCowan's site at www.beamccowan.com.
Bruce McCowan's ancestors were the first to settle on what is commonly known as the Doris McCarthy property at the foot of Meadowdiffe Drive on the shores of Lake Ontario.
"Even though the McCowan family didn't own the property at any time, they're intimately involved with it because they farmed it," McCowan said during an interview at the site Friday.
McCowan reported that James' grandfather "lost his place in the kinship passing down of leases" in Scotland. Many of his family members were displaced from their properties, so James became a coalmaster in Lanarkshire and eventually immigrated to Canada.
The McCowan family of Cumnock in Ayrshire, located in southwest Scotland, was among the thousands of farming families that were thrown off their properties in the Scottish lowlands during the clearances.
However, Aitchison and Cassell said the events that occurred in the region from the 1750s through the 1850s are a forgotten part of Scotland's history.
"In Scotland, the story of the Highland Clearances is well known," Aitchison said, adding that not much is known about the Lowland Clearances, which occurred about 100 years prior.
"We found, in Scotland, people know so little about their own history," Aitchison said, which is why the BBC embarked on the series. "No one has documented it all before. It's a little bit of hidden history," Cassell said of the Lowland Clearances.
Aitchison noted that much of the orthodox history of Scotland was written in the late 19th century "when the horrors of the Highland Clearances could be seen." And, by that time, things in the lowland regions had settled down and the towns were thriving so little was documented about the clearances and the families that were displaced.
"There's a lot of history in this part of Scarborough" said MPP Dan Newman (Scarborough Southwest) who met with the BBC team Friday.
"We know Scarborough as it is today but there is a long proud history in this part of Toronto. Bruce and his wife, Bea, ought to be commended for the work they do" he said.
McCowan is also working to ensure that future plans for the McCarthy property, which was recently donated to the Ontario Heritage Foundation, will include some sort of heritage component.
"Hopefully we will get enough interest to preserve this property" McCowan said, adding the site is important to the city.
Ann Rowan, President of the Toronto Historical Association, said the location is one of 250 lost heritage sites across Toronto.
"A lot of buildings have been lost throughout the city," she said. "What is here now is a newer history," she said of the home on Doris McCarthy's property. "This is where his family arrived and there's no commemoration of that."
BBC Scotland's series on the Lowland Clearances is slated to air in late May and can be accessed on the BBC web site at wwvw.bbc.co.uk/scotland.
For more information about the McCarthy site and the history of the McCowan fainily visit www.beamccowan.com.
The history of the McCowan family is also the subject of an exhibition being held from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb.18 at North York Central Library 5120 Yonge Street.
McCowan Story for BBC Scotland
Bruce McCowan of the James McCowan Social History Society is working with BBC Radio Scotland to produce an historical documentary entitled "The Lowland Clearances".
The BBC began researching the Lowland Clearances last summer. During their research, producers Andrew Cassell and Peter Aitchison came across the McCowan Society web site. The BBC has since travelled to Scarborough to gather information about the experiences of the McCowan family.
About 250 years ago, the McCowans were forced from their land during the re-ordering of society in Lowland Scotland. The family emigrated to Scarborough and settled on the edge of the Bluffs in 1833.
"We knew tens of thousands of Lowland Scots had been forced from their lands" said Aitchison. "But what the series lacked was the human element. The interest comes not from the history of kings and queens but from real human history. We found that here in Canada."
Cassel added, "People are not going to travel thousands of miles across the world to look up their ancestors and history unless we do it for them. And that's what we're here for."
The BBC conducted a research interview at the Doris McCarthy house. McCarthy, a renowned Canadian artist, now lives on the original McCowan family settlement, located south of Kingston Road between Bellamy and McCowan Road. McCarthy recently donated [her property at] the east end of the site to the Ontario Heritage Foundation.
"The Ontario Heritage Foundation will do what they do best, and preserve our heritage and any uses this property may have, including creating walking trails, plaques and parks" said Bruce McCowan.
Ann Rowan, president of the Toronto Historical Association, said "It is wonderful to see Bruce taking the initiative and pushing it forward. It is important to honour the history of the people and the events that have taken place here."
The James McCowan Memorial Social History Society is a non-profit non-charitable organization dedicated to preserving Scottish Canadian Heritage. Bruce McCowan has written numerous books and pamphlets and created a website [www.scarboroughrecord.com] to promote local heritage in Scarborough. Many of the historical accounts in McCowan's books are told through members of his own family who farmed the Scarborough Heights area for a century until 1950.
"We know Scarborough as it is today, but it has a long and proud history," said Dan Newman, MPP for Scarborough Southwest. "There should be more people like Bruce sharing their knowledge about Scarborough."
The three-part BBC Radio series will be broadcast in late May 2003 and will be available to Canadian listeners on the Internet.
Those Celebrated McCowans
BBC Radio Scotland has taken a profound interest in Scarboroughs Scottish heritage as a result of research done by Bruce McCowan of the James McCowan Memorial Society. Bruces ancestor, James McCowan, for whom McCowan Road was named, came to Canada because of the Scottish Lowland Clearances, and was among the earliest settlers in Scarborough. The Scottish radio team researching the Clearances for a three-part radio series came upon Bruces research on his website, and interviewed him for the program. Scheduled for broadcast in May, the series will be available on the internet. For exact times, contact Bruce through his website (www.mccowan.org) or at 416-447-4895.
The Annual Report of the
Attended news conference held by BBC Radio Scotland at Scarborough Bluffs with Bruce McCowan regarding the Lowland Clearances which brought the McCowans and many other Scots to Scarborough.