Economic changes in the period between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries resulted in large movements of people as the relationship of landlord and tenant slowly replaced that of trustee and follower central to the clan system. Arguably, the most significant economic changes in this period was the conversion of clan land from a largely subsistence farming economy based on the semi-collective practice of runrig to the use of land for sheep farming.
1792 has been described as ‘the year of the sheep’ in Highland history, referring to the year of the introduction of the Cheviot breed of sheep to the Caithness region by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster. Sinclair’s introduction of this hardy breed proved successful and many of the Highland landlords decided to follow his example. The result of this was that a significant proportion of the Highland population was now surplus to the lairds’ requirements. In place of the small townships that were farmed by small sub-tenants landlords now created large sheep runs, often leased to lowland or English proprietors. These new farmers demanded the removal of the previous tenants from their lands; it was said that four shepherds, their dogs and 3000 sheep would be left to occupy land that had previously comprised five or six townships. The forced movements of people that these policies resulted in became known as the Highland Clearances.
In the Lowlands of Scotland agricultural changes had often resulted in agricultural workers moving to the growing industrial areas of Glasgow, Dundee, and to a lesser extent, Edinburgh. In the Highlands the move to Lowland cities was more problematic due to the native culture of the Highlands. As late as the nineteenth century many Highlanders only spoke Gaelic, thereby limiting their ability to move to urban areas and find work. Additionally, the connection of the people of the Highlands to their duthchas meant that when removed from their ancestral lands ‘it was of small consequence to them whether they travelled 10 miles or 4000’. While some Highlanders did move to Scottish cities to find work and, in some cases, relocate permanently, many more chose emigration to the USA, or to the expanding colonies of Canada and Australia.