New Book on the Clearances areas of West Coast Harris

Did your ancestors come from the Isle of Harris, and did they leave as part of the Highland Clearances? Though there was much emigration both before and after the Clearances,  the main clearance period was between 1820 and 1850 and affected the fertile machair lands of the Atlantic coast of Harris and the off-shore islands. Families who had made their living from crofting – small scale farming – were put off the lands to make way for large scale sheep farmers, many of them making their way across the sea to Canada and Australia.

This afternoon, 21st May, Bill Lawson Publications published the latest in their series of the Croft History of Harris, Volume 6 which deals with the southern end of the machair and the Isle of Pabbay, while the previous Volume 5 dealt with the north end of the machair and the Isle of Taransay – together covering almost all the main areas from which people were cleared. Since the Croft Histories not only give details of who was cleared, but also where they went to, they form an invaluable aid for the study of emigration. They also chart the progress of land resettlement on the machair, though the off-shore islands still remain empty except for sheep.

The main clearances started in the 1820s, in Scarista, and many of those cleared ended up in Cape Breton, many in the St Anns and Baddeck areas.  As the rest of the machair was cleared in the 1830s, Cape Breton was still the destination of those cleared, but by now much of the better land there had been taken up, and the new arrivals had to settle in the higher valleys and backlands, like Timber Brook in St Anns and Sterling at Framboise in Richmond County. By the 1840s, the whole of the west coast of Harris was empty except for a few farms and the manse.

In 1846 the Isle of Pabbay, some of the richest arable land in Harris, was cleared to make a farm. Some of its people headed for Cape North, at the northern tip of Cape Breton,  but famine caused by potato blight was making itself felt there as in Scotland and Ireland, and it was no longer a destination of choice for most.  Many had no option but to squat on land belonging to relatives on the Harris mainland, and to try to eke out a living from shellfish on the shore.

The Australian Governments, along with the Highland and Islands Emigration Society were offering assisted passages to Australia, and faced with the alternative of starvation many of those cleared in this and preceding clearances took up the offer. Between 1852 and 1857 10% of the population of Harris emigrated to Victoria, South Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Between them these two latest Volumes of Croft History of Harris deal with all the main Clearance areas, giving details of the families involved, and also information on family members who remained on Harris, together making an invaluable aid for tracing the families who left Harris in this period.


Vol 5 Taransay, Luskentyre, Seilebost, Horgabost, Borves

Vol 6 Scarista, Northton, Pabbay

Price £25 each plus postage  (40% overseas, 20% local)

Available from Bill Lawson Publications, Northton, Isle of Harris, HS3 3JA