Where Did All the Highlanders Go?

The Battle of Culloden - David Morier, oil on canvas
The Battle of Culloden – David Morier, oil on canvas

The more you study the history of the Scottish highlands during the 18th and 19th centuries, the more upset you become. It’s impossible not to be deeply moved by the violence, betrayal, upheaval, and general difficulty experienced by the Highland clans during this time in their history. On two recent episodes of Simply Scottish, we bring this history into focus.

Since as far back as the 12th century, families in Scotland were organized into networks, called clans. The word clan comes from the Gaelic meaning “children.” Most clans had a chief, and families paid homage to their leader, living off his land and paying rent in kind in return for protection and alliance. Families often took on the name of their clan chief as a symbol of their loyalty. Clan life in the Highlands of Scotland was a lot different than life today. Most clan family homes had turf walls, with rafters of stout branches thatched with straw, bracken, or heather, and stamped earth floors. Fuel wasn’t purchased – it was free from the peatbanks. Clothes were handwoven of wool or flax. Furniture, crockery, and cutlery was sparse and handmade. Journeys took days, and the most common foods taken on the road were oats, bannocks, the occasional salted meat, and always whisky!

The Last of the Clan - Thomas Faed, oil on canvas
The Last of the Clan – Thomas Faed, oil on canvas

By the end of the 17th century, Scotland was in a period of transition, about to give up its parliament as it had given up its sovereign crown in 1603. A troubling era of religious persecution against the Scottish covenanters ended when William of Orange, a Protestant and grandson of Charles I, took the throne with his wife Mary. However, many Highlanders were catholic and a number supported the royal House of Stuart. Between 1688 and 1746, a number of uprisings occurred in an effort to overthrow the Hanoverian royal line in favor of a Stuart king. Supporters of these “rebellions” were called Jacobites, after Jacobus, the Latin form of James, a popular name in the House of Stuart.

The final uprising, the ’45, culminated in the Battle of Culloden, fought on Aprl 16th, 1746. It was the last pitched battle fought on British soil. It pitted a Jacobite force comprised of Highlanders, some lowlanders, and some French, against a government force of mostly English and some Scots and Irish. The Jacobites were led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, a claimant to the throne from the House of Stuart.

After advancing into England, the Jacobites returned to Scotland and met the government forces near Inverness, in the Highlands. The government army, led by the Duke of Cumberland, was larger, more provisioned, more organized, and likely more rested than the Jacobites. The battle occurred on the marshy fields of Culloden. It was short and bloody. Without being able to establish a Highland charge or engage in guerilla warfare, the Jacobites were quickly overwhelmed by government artillery. In the space of an hour, between 1500 and 2000 Jacobites were wounded or killed, as opposed to the government’s 50 deaths and around 300 wounded. The aftermath of the battle was equally brutal, as Cumberland the Butcher ordered survivors to be hunted down and killed. Many innocent people in the region were killed or harmed. Homes were burned and livelihoods dashed. Some Jacobites escaped, others were executed in England. A number of them fled to the Americas or served in other campaigns in Europe. Prince Charles escaped and went into hiding, eventually ending up back in France, never to return again.

Soon after Culloden, laws were passed that banned Highlanders from wearing clan colors or bearing arms. The Gaelic language was marginalized by officialdom. Clans lost land and power. The clan system suffered irreparable harm. Truly, Scotland changed forever during this period. And then the Highland clearances began. In the space of 50 years, the Scottish highlands became one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe. The Highlanders immigrated far and wide, across the globe in search of a better life. Today, there are more descendants of Highlanders outside Scotland than there are in the country. Listen to Simply Scottish to learn more about this tumultuous period in Scottish history.

Where Did All The Highlanders Go Collage

Rob Roy MacGregor – the life and times of the famous Highlander

Moments in Scottish History, pt 2 – the Battle of Culloden, the Highland Clearances, and more

15 Comments Add yours

  1. The sorrow of what my/our ancestors must have went through, to have to leave their beloved country. I wish that they never had to go.

    1. Andrew says:

      I agree. Thanks for sharing your comments.

    2. Morag Murchison says:


  2. Monica Shaw says:

    My family immigrated to the Americas in 1743, South Carolina, and flourished. My ancestor fought in the American Revolution alongside the famous patriot, Francis Marion. Now, there are over 350 known and connected family members, maybe of whom have returned to Scotland to enjoy the beauty of the lands left behind. We feel a deep connection to the men and women who came before us. We are Clan Colquhoun (Calhoun).

  3. Silk Eotd says:

    Many, many of the Scottish Highlanders chose to settle here in Canada and we are thankful for it! Gaelic was a thriving language in Canada for a good 200 years, in fact it was the 3rd most common language spoken in Canada at one time. To this day, there are “Nova Scots” (as my American friend likes to call them lol) who speak Gaelic and some parts of Nova Scotia with Gaelic road signs. Highland games and festivals occur throughout the country, and Lord knows there are many pipe bands, including the SFU band that has won 6 world championships. We also have 16 Scottish regiments (and I’m not much up on military lingo so forgive me if I make a mistake.) Scottish heritage is treasured here in Canada and I do hope Scotland knows it. I don’t think the Highlanders will ever be forgotten here. 🙂 P.S. Our first Prime Minister and many of our famous figures in Canadian history have been Scots.

    Oh, I so enjoyed this video from the 2010 Olympics that I found the other night. I hope it might be fun for you to see. It took place in Vancouver of course. 🙂 http://youtu.be/WkeZXebMmfo

  4. Suhani says:

    Why were the English so against highland culture?

    1. Andrew McDiarmid says:

      Suhani, thanks for your question. There are a variety of factors involved, of course. But one important aspect is that the Highlanders represented a threat to British governance and the authority of the Crown. There were also religious concerns as well as royal succession issues. I encourage you to read up on the topic through a variety of great books out there. T. M. Devine’s book The Scottish Clearances would be a good start. There are many others. Thanks for commenting and reading!

  5. kay says:

    My great grandpa (my dads grandpa) is a highlander and I have a photo of him in his outfit. He came to the USA on the queen mary 🙂

  6. joyce Coley says:

    my question is how often did the Highlanders actually go into battle? Game Of Thrones is based on The Highlanders and if were that much blood,killing,treachery and war–how did anything get built or farmed? I know Game Of Thrones is dramatized & blown out of reality but I would like to know the real facts of ordinary Highlander life or if I should still lay claim to this brutal and bloody past. My maiden name is Davidson.

    1. Andrew McDiarmid says:

      Joyce, thanks for your comment. I haven’t personally watched Game of Thrones – too bloody and dramatic for my liking. Ordinary Highland life was nothing like the show, although there were definitely periods of unrest, conflict, and war. Keep learning more about the time period through the variety of books out there. Thanks for commenting and reading!

  7. Sally Stuart-Cunliffe says:

    Sadly I don’t see South Africa being mentioned and yet, the Scots escaped to our country in droves during those dark days. Married South African women both black and white. They Created new communities here. The Stuart’s are a large nation in South Africa, especially in Natal. Stuart’s in the Eastern Cape, and other countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia. I consider this to be a huge missing chunk from Scottish history.

    1. Andrew McDiarmid says:

      Sally, thank you for mentioning this. You are right, this is a part of the history of the period that deserves to be learned and understood. When I wrote this post, my goal was not to be exhaustive. I just wanted to give an overview. Thanks for your comment and for reading the Simply Scottish Blog!

  8. Michelle Deering says:

    Just found I am of Scottish descent. I found the surname Stewart throughout my family tree. When I read what happened to my Ancestors, I became so angry! It is hard to talk about it!

  9. David Wood says:

    Scotland Forever . . .

  10. John says:

    MyDad- from Peterhead and mum from Glasgow NEVER regretted emigrating to Australia in the late 1920 s – he became an Aussie fanatic loving the absence of class distinction and equality of opportunity – e.g.I had opportunity of uni education which I mightn’t have got in UK at that time , He became a rabid cricket ( and other Aussie sports )fan especially in Tests v England —John H

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