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History of Scotland: End of the Clan System

Updated on January 9, 2012

Emigration from the Highlands

The end of the clan system in the Highlands and the changing use of land-not to support the largest possible number of able-bodied men but to provide the maximum return in cash-led to emigration of many Highlanders, mostly to other parts of Britain but also overseas and particularly to North America. Estates formerly capable of supporting the clansmen were often transformed into sheep runs or vast stretches of deer forest. Those who refused to leave their old homes often were forcibly evicted. The land clearances and lack of employment embittered the Highlanders and contributed to Scottish radicalism in the 19th century.

Political Reforms

In the Lowlands the revolutionary radicals of the 1790's gave way to sober whigs, who in 1802 founded the Edinburgh Review, long the standard-bearer not only of Scottish but of British Whiggism. Facing an uphill struggle to secure reform, they were not helped by radical demands for annual parliaments and universal suffrage, which were accentuated by the spread of the Industrial Revolution and the misery of the surviving handloom weavers.

The first important Whig victory was the Scottish Parliamentary reform act of 1832, which gave votes to shopkeepers, artisans, and farmers and added eight seats to Scotland's representation in the British Parliament. Scotland now could be depended on to return a large Whig or Liberal majority. Municipal reform followed in 1833. The self-electing corporations were replaced by councils elected by the householders, who were further authorized to elect commissioners of police and to levy rates on the inhabitants of the burghs for purposes of local government.

The second reform act (1867-1868) gave votes to many members of the working classes, and the third (1884-1885) granted manhood suffrage. Because seats were allocated on a strict population basis, Scotland received 72 seats out of 670. This was subsequently increased to 74, then reduced to 71 by the abolition of the university franchise in 1948. Dissatisfaction with government extended from the state to the church, where lay patronage led to the disruption of 1843, which split the national church for nearly a century.

Practical grievances and feelings of inferiority led to the development of Scottish nationalism, which is widely supported but divided against itself. The movement characteristically draws most of its strength from the industrial west. The excessive development of heavy industries in this area, with only partial success at diversification, still remains the main Scottish economic problem.

Economic difficulties continued to spur emigration in the 20th century despite a growing counter-trend of immigration mainly from England and Ireland. Financially Scotland became sounder, but this had insufficient effect on the standard of living of the ordinary Scot. The creation and development of the cabinet office of the secretary of state for Scotland and the reorganization and extension of government social services for Scotland were aimed at improving conditions for all the Scots and bringing the highlanders and islanders into the mainstream of British life.


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