Prior to the 18th century the Highlands and Islands economy was based on farming. Following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746 the clan system, which had underpinned Gaelic society and its economy, was in a state of collapse. The widespread belief that clan lands belonged to the clansfolk gave way to an imposed system of landlord and tenant. Clansman now had to pay a rent to farm their land.
Economic change in the 19th century
As the Highlands increasingly became drawn into the industrially based 19th century British economy, land was seen as capital to be profitably used. Landlords saw the introduction of sheep farming as a way to make good use of hillground. The infamous Clearances resulted, with many families being evicted from their ancestral lands and forced to move to the coast, to the Lowlands or even to emigrate.
Many of those displaced to the coast turned to the sea for their livelihood. The fishing industry grew rapidly with herring the main catch. Fishing ports were established e.g. Wick, Helmsdale, Tobermory and Ullapool. Along the drove roads through Strathspey and Glenlivet appeared the first legally controlled whisky distilleries. But the impact of the Industrial Revolution was minimal. The Clearances and the lack of manufacturing jobs led to population decline across the Highlands.
The 20th century economy
By the early 20th century the Highland economy was stagnant. Even the introduction of new industries, such as hydro power and aluminium smelting, failed to stem the tide of depopulation. Not until tourism took off in the 1960s did the economy begin to improve and reverse the out-flow of people from the Highlands and Islands. The advent of North Sea oil in the 1970s proved decisive and at last people are returning in numbers to the Highlands.
If a book listed in the bibliography below is available from the Highland Libraries it will be indicated by a book icon -
Gaelic Society of Inverness
Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness
vol 24, 1899-1901, pp 120-139, Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, 'An Economical History of the Hebrides or Western Islands of Scotland'
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