Scotland’s rich and vast history spans across many, many years and involves an ocean-full of conquerors. To capture it all in only a few words is impossible. But because it’s important to glean a little knowledge about Scotland’s past to better understand its present, and thereby gain a better grasp of our own history, I offer up some of Scotland's highlights, starting with its royalty. We've all heard about Robert the Bruce, who was Scotland's king from 1274 to 1329. [He was from Ayrshire by the way] His daughter, Marjory, married Walter the Steward and thus the House of Stuart began. The spelling morphed throughout the years from Steward to Stewart to Stuart, etc. Mary Queen of Scots was from this Stuart line. Even after England and Scotland united almost 400 years later, in 1652, the struggle between the Catholics (Stuarts) and Protestants (Tudors) continued. With a country divided between the two main religions, and the king being the leader of that religion, each side would declare war back and forth until they pushed the other out of the monarchy. That’s what happened in 1688 when a Catholic King James was forced to abdicate his throne by the British Parliament because of his faith. His Protestant daughter, Mary, who married her Protestant cousin, William, took over the monarchy jointly. Not everyone was happy about this and many people continued to support James’ return to the throne. Those who were loyal to King James were called Jacobites [Jacobus is the Latin name for James] Are you with me so far?
William and Mary
David Morier's painting of a Jacobite rising called the Battle of Culloden. It shows the highlanders in their plaids they wear for battle
Around 1715, the first group of Jacobites led a battle against the crown – which became known as the Jacobite risings. These skirmishes were facilitated by none other than the militaristic Scottish clans. Clan members leased their lands from the clan chief, and being called to fight was a traditional part of the system by which they held onto their land. Respect for their way of life involved dying for it when necessary. It was during this time, as a means to disburse the clans and end the Jacobite battles, the monarchy executed large groups of clan members and gave lands to any chiefs who remained loyal to the crown. Although a few chiefs were granted land ownership, most of the Scottish landowners at this time were Aristocrats. As a clan member, one was allotted a small portion of land to use as a tenant farmer, paying rent to the land owner. This system was called crofting and the small cottages in which the clan members lived were called croft cottages. Borrowing from American history, I think the roots of post-civil war sharecropping came from the crofting system in Scotland.
Highland Clearances - The End of the Clan System
The Clan system had been the effective means of government in the Highlands of Scotland from sometime before the year 1,000 AD. Because of the Highland Scots’ militaristic nature and their eagerness to fight in the Jacobite risings, around the mid 1700’s the British monarchy attempted to destroy the clan system once and for all. To this end, the British government in August 1747 banned all wearing of the kilt [and bagpipe playing, which was seen as an instrument of war] as a means to eradicate their deeply ingrained highland identity. The Act of Proscription of Highland Garb stated that "… no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and soldiers in His Majesty's Forces, shall, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes ...[kilts]"
For transgressing this new Act, the punishment was six months in prison or, if a second offender, "transportation to any of his Majesty's plantations beyond the seas and there to remaining for a space of seven years." [Unruly Scots were sent to the Americas for wearing kilts. So do you think those guys were the first to line up and fight against the crown in 1776? Note to King – don’t make a Scotsman mad.]
But wool was plentiful then and the Scots didn’t much pay attention to British law, so the wearing of kilts actually increased. This increase spurred a greater demand for wool, and that’s when those opportunistic Scottish landowners realized that raising sheep for their domestic wool was far more profitable than leasing the same land to their clan members. Large groups of clans living in the mountains (highlands) were then cleared off the land by use of bayonet, truncheon (a billy club) and fire, and were forced to move to coastal and urban cities in the lowlands. Most of their homes were burned behind them. As the Jacobite risings ended with the defeat of King James’ son, Prince Charles, in 1746, the need for clan armies dissolved, and likewise clan loyalty went down the toilet. Thus began the Highland Clearances, when Scots were forced to leave their crofts and move to the coastal lowlands. Donald McLeod, a crofter from Sutherland, the northernmost part of Scotland, once wrote about the events he witnessed during that time:
"The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description — it required to be seen to be believed.
A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself — all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition — whether in or out of the flames — I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of these days a boat actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing-place by the lurid light of the flames."
Thomas Faed, The Last of the Clan, 1865 (Oil on canvas - Glasgow Museums and Art Gallery)
an evicted Scottish family on the ruins of their house, circa 1895
Because of the mass evictions in the late 18th and early 19th century, the Scottish government passed the Crofting Act in 1886 which protected crofters from being unfairly removed from their land, guaranteed fair rents, allowed compensation claims for improvements done to the land, and the like. Unfortunately, this law was passed over a hundred years too late. During the Clearances, land owners did with their tenants what they very well pleased. After all, it was their land.
Scotland’s Industrial Revolution and Overcrowding in the Lowlands
With a great influx of able bodied workers, the growing number of factories and coal mines located near larger towns and cities in the Lowlands relished in a huge work pool from which they could now draw. Displaced farmers and tradesmen moving down from the Highlands were quick to learn new industrial skills, such as fishing, weaving, mining, and shipbuilding. This was the time of Scotland’s Industrial Revolution which suddenly propelled everyone into a modern, capitalist world, brimming with scientific and technological breakthroughs. Based upon the efficient exploitation of Scotland’s raw materials and ready labor, new scientific theories developed by the Enlightenment thinkers were quickly transformed into practical, money-making applications. As well, the ensuing advances in the farm industry reduced the number of family members needed for farming as traditional manual work was completed by machines. Children of farmers also left their rural homes to seek out employment in various industries in the towns and cities. Young boys were enticed to work in factories as “apprentices” where in addition to learning a new skill, they were given room and board instead of wages. As one might imagine, this system was rife with child abuse. In areas such as Edinburgh, extended families packed into tiny apartments, much like the overcrowded tenements in New York City during that time. As a result, unemployment skyrocketed.
Before 1750, Scotland was predominantly a rural, agricultural economy whose rate of change grew at a snail’s pace. Religion, tradition and social customs remained unchallenged for centuries. In a window of less than half a century, however, the Highlands became one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe [except for the sheep], and poor living conditions from overcrowding increasingly plagued the densely populated coastal towns and lowland areas. Over the next one hundred years, Scotland’s Industrial revolution mushroomed, and overcrowding in coastal areas became the norm. To make matters worse, a succession of bad harvests and famine followed.
In the latter half of the 19th century is when our history separates from Scotland and begins in America. Our progenitor, Billy Clark, wanted to leave the overcrowding, famine, and inability to shed the prison of tenancy. We know it was 1870 when Billy left Scotland, bound for America. But beyond that, do we know who he was, where exactly he lived, and who were his ancestors? For me, it’s not enough to just know Scotland’s history – I want to know how and where we fit in to Scotland’s history. So let’s stop here, travel back a couple of centuries, and take a look at Scotland through the eyes of our ancestors. We’re all eager to know exactly from which Scottish clan we came [me included]. And after researching many solid sources on the origins of the Clark name, I found that we are supposed to have originated in the highland county of Inverness-shire, under the clans of Cameron and McPherson, with a few Clark's spread throughout Clan Chattan. Although the Clark's didn’t head their own clan, it was very common for families to be protected by, and thereby subject to, another closely related clan. Such was the case where historically, the Clark’s lived with either the Cameron’s, McPherson’s or Chattan’s, all three residing in the highland county of Inverness-shire. Now it’s such a romantic notion to think that our ancestors, living in their centuries-old thatched-roof homes in the highlands, caring for their few cows, perhaps a hog, and their tiny gardens, fighting when needed in the Jacobite risings, were forced to leave their ancestral lands during the Highland Clearances. They must’ve walked for days and days, with only a few belongings on their backs, only to end up in the lowlands. With just a few tools and by the sweat of their brow, they scratched out a living by farming whatever ground they could find. It's out of these stories that great movies are made.
However, I’ve found evidence to prove that’s just not the case, at least not with our family. Our Clark's were living in Ayr and its surrounding towns in the lowlands, about 150 miles away from Inverness-shire. This was way back in the early 1600’s, at least a hundred years before the Highland Clearances began.
Of course there are many explanations as to why our Clark's lived far away from all of the other Clark's. One possible reason is that our line may have actually begun with another name. Since many surnames originated from occupations, the name Clerk [or Clarke or Clark] stuck, and so this other-named clerk in Ayr in the 1600’s could’ve simply passed on the occupational surname to his son. It could also be possible that a Highland Clark may have fallen in love with a member of a Lowland clan, and followed her back home. [My romantic ideology prefers the latter explanation] At this point, I simply don’t know the answer. However, thanks to Ancestry.com, and even more so to ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk, we do know that our Clark line can be traced back to the early 1600’s, and each generation lived in the coastal Lowlands, in the county of Ayrshire.