Clachans. Clearances & Crofts


The term clachan, as used on The Diary, is defined as a small rural settlement common for centuries, up until the middle of the 19th century, in both Scotland and Ireland.  Other words are used for these settlements, such as fermtoun, baile, toun and township, but fermtoun suggests the cottages of workers on a farm, toun is associated with town, and township is more associated with the later crofting townships.  However, baile, plural bailtean, is a good alternative, and seems to have much the same meaning.

The clachan - this photo above shows Bourblaige, a cleared village - consisted of a few, very simple dwelling houses, with farm outhouses such as byres and barns, and kaleyards, walled areas for growing vegetables, occupied by a population many of whom were related.  The people lived in single-storey buildings made of local materials including wood, turf, reed, heather and, later, stone - of which the two-roomed blackhouses are the best known.

One of the problems of understanding the history of the clachan is that many of the structures, including the houses, were built of materials, such as wood for the roofs and peat turfs for the walls, which have left no trace.  To add to historians' difficulties, many of these impermanent structures may have been destroyed on a regular basis, the materials, often saturated with soot from the fire, used as fertilizer on the fields, and a new house built either on the old site, or on a different one.  It was only relatively late on, towards the end of the 18th century, when 'improving' estate owners began to insist that their tenants build houses using stone for their walls.

This map of Achnaha, taken from the OS 6" map surveyed in 1872 [2] , illustrates the arrangement that is perceived as being typical of a clachan -  a nucleated settlement, with the houses close packed but often at random angles to each other, and usually sited on the poorest ground, surrounded by its fields.  However, there is good evidence that this is only a recent arrangement, that earlier ones had the houses much more dispersed. In Bourblaige, for example, the houses were further apart, but even earlier settlements may have had the houses still more dispersed, with individual or, sometimes, small family groupings within a walled enclosure.

The farming system used by the clachan population also changed through time, though throughout the land was always treated as a communal asset.  Where reasonably large areas of flat ground were available, open fields were divided into strips about 6m wide.  The earth was banked into ridges (rigs) with weed-filled ditches (runs) between, a system known as runrig.  This arrangement aided drainage, and thickened the soil for the crops which were grown along the top of the rig.  In some places, these strips were allocated by the drawing of lots on a regular timetable.  They would be worked by the family for as little as one year and then reallocated, sometimes by drawing lots, so the better fields were available to all.  The strips were often S-shaped, a feature which was dictated by the use of the very unwieldy, wooden old Scotch plough. The system was much criticised by later 'improvers', since there was little incentive to develop the soil of a strip, as this would benefit future as much as the present users.

Large areas of good land are uncommon in most highland areas, so the small, irregular patches between rock outcrops, where the unwieldy Scotch plough could not be used, were organised into strips about 2m wide called lazy beds or feannagan.  These strips were fertilized with bracken or, better, by applying seaweed, and could be very fertile.  They were worked using hand tools such as the caschroim, a type of spade.  The picture shows lazy beds in Ormsaigmore.

The system was improved by having more permanent individual use of the runrigs and by the later introduction of James Small's all-metal plough, which could cut a straight furrow and be used in much smaller areas.  A further important development, after about 1755, was the widespread planting of potatoes.  Prior to this, the potato was only grown close to the houses, in the vegetable patches called kailyards.  As a result of the improved nutrition offered by bulk potato growing, the population soared.  This meant that existing land had to be subdivided more and more - which caused a disaster when blight came to the Highlands and Islands in 1846.

This map, adapted from Robert Dodgshon's book [3], gives a vivid idea of the layout of a clachan and how it may have developed.  The area 1, within a wall called a header dyke (a stone or peat wall), enclosed the buildings of the clachan and the well-fertilized infield arable fields.  These fields were liable for assessment by the tacksman (Gaelic fear-talc) who acted on behalf of the clan chief.  Developed beyond this boundary, 2, and enclosed by an outer dyke, were one or more outfield areas.  The fields in the outfield were fertilized by the animals being brought in and contained within them by temporary dykes and were not assessed for rent purposes.  With a rising population, further areas, 3, could be developed and settled.  Outside these areas lay the common grazings, upon which each family had a right to graze a fixed number of animals, a souming.  The area 4 was originally a shieling (Gaelic airigh, see next paragraph) but this, too, could be settled on a permanent basis.

This arrangement can be seen in Bald's map [4] of Ormsaigbeg.  The buildings of the clachan, in red,  and what were probably its infield lands are at top right, but the outfield stretches for some distance along the shores of Kilchoan Bay and into the hills behind.  There is some evidence from Roy's map that buildings were also constructed in the southwest - see The Diary's history of Ormsaigbeg, here.

This map, also based on Bald's map of 1806 [4], shows the clachan lands of West Ardnamurchan [1].  So, as well as the better land immediately around the settlement, each clachan had rights on a large area of common hill land, the common grazings, upon which to keep its animals. In summer, the cattle and sheep were taken to a distant part of the common grazings where the women and children stayed in shielings and made products such as cheese, while the men worked the arable land for crops of barley, oats and, later, potatoes.  The animals were brought back to the settlement once the crops were harvested, and grazed in the infields to manure them. Many clachans grew up close to the sea, as this provided a good fertilizer in the form of seaweed, and the opportunity to supplement what was otherwise a meagre diet through collecting shellfish along the shore, and fishing.

All the clachan lands belonged to the clan as a whole. The population paid both allegiance and rent to their clan chief through a tacksman who collected the rent - in kind or in cash - and led the menfolk in clan wars.  In return, the clan offered its people protection, security, access to land and, in old age and sickness, a sort of 'social security'. To quote Donnie Fraser (site here), "Underpinning the whole structure of clanship was the almost untranslatable Gaelic term of duthchas, a sort of collective heritage, a concept which guaranteed the right of the people to the land, not necessarily a specific plot of land but a permanent and hereditary stake in the clan territories as the common property of all."


While there were signs of change in the early 18th century, the clan system was effectively destroyed at the battle of Culloden in 1746.  The wearing of the plaid and the possession of arms was banned but, in a twist which was to have far-reaching effects in the Highlands, the clan chiefs became drawn into Edinburgh society.  This process was aided by writers of the Romanticist movement, of whom Sir Walter Scott was one, who wrote about 'the noble savage' and glorified a simple, rural existence.

To fund their society ways, the clan chiefs needed money.  While early clachan rent assessments were largely in kind, from the early 18th century these were more and more in terms of cash.  Since good arable land was so scarce, this encouraged clachans all over the Highlands and Islands to develop their pastoral assets, particularly the keeping of cattle, which were driven to the big markets in places like Falkirk along drove roads.  However, estate rents were not enough, clan chiefs began to raise cash using the clan lands as collateral.  When they found themselves struggling to repay the loans, the Highland estate landowners, as they now perceived themselves, had a choice: either to 'improve' their lands so they were more financially productive, or sell them to others who would carry out the improvements themselves.

Since there were limited ways of making money out of Highland estates, the population had to be redeployed to best advantage.  One way of making money was through sheep - Cheviots rather than the small, wiry indigenous animals - which needed to be kept on large areas of the better land.  The picture shows Grianan, the farm house which was built on the old Ormsaigmore clachan lands after it had been cleared.

Another way of making money was to use the population to collect and burn seaweed for potash, particularly valuable during the Napoleonic wars.  Yet another was to concentrate the population in seaside villages where they could be employed in an increasingly commercial fishing industry.

All of these required that the population be moved from some of the clachans - usually the more fertile ones.  On West Ardnamurchan, clachans including Camas nan Geall, Tornamoine, Bourblaige, Skinnid, Corrievuilin and the three at Swordle were cleared.  While there is some dispute about how ruthlessly this was done, there is no doubt that the populations did not move willingly.  In some cases, the people left the area entirely, moving to the Central belt, particularly Glasgow, or emigrating abroad, to the US, Canada and New Zealand.

Many clachans on the Ardnamurchan Estate were cleared between 1828 and 1839.  We know that Bourblaige, shown in this OS map of 1872 [2] with the buildings marked open, indicating that they were roofless, was cleared early on, from 1828 onwards.  Twenty-six families were moved to Plocaig, Sanna, Swordle, Glendrian and Ormsaigbeg.  Many later emigrated to Australia aboard the Brilliant (1837), British George (1838) and George Fyfe (1839), all of which sailed from Tobermory.


Those families that stayed were reorganised into a new type of settlement on land belonging to existing clachans, usually those on poorer land.  These new settlements were called crofting townships.  A good example of an existing clachan which was reorganised while, at the same time, accepting immigrants from place like Bourblaige, was Ormsaigbeg.  Instead of land being held communally, the townships were divided into self-contained farms - crofts - which the tenant rented directly from the landowner or through his agent.

The shape of these townships varied.  The original Ormsaigbeg clachan was completely destroyed in its reorganisation, the new crofts being spread out along the coast track - the map above is from the OS 25" map of 1872 [2] - while Achnaha retained its nucleated structure.  Some clachans, even after they had accepted incomers, were later cleared - this was the case with the three Swordle clachans which, after taking families from Bourblaige, were themselves cleared, some people moving on to Kilmory and Sanna.

While the arrangement of crofts in Ormsaigbeg was fairly straightforward, land divisions in other crofting townships were complex.  This map of Kilmory, courtesy of Mary Khan, shows the fragmentary arrangement of the croft holdings, probably designed to give everyone at least some good land.

A deliberate feature of these crofts was that they were too small to support a family.  This obliged the adults on each croft to find a way of earning cash, either through working for the local estate, or by burning seaweed for potash (I am not aware that this industry existed on Ardnamurchan), or by working away - thus many men from Ardnamurchan went to sea in the merchant navy, and young women went into service in towns and cities.  Some money could be earned from the croft itself, much as it had been in the clachans - for example, during some periods Highland-bred cattle earned good money, and were driven from remote areas to markets along drove roads.  The largest market was at Falkirk.

While each croft had its land, the crofter also had rights to graze an agreed number of animals - sheep and cattle - on the township's common grazings.  These grazing areas remained much the same as those held by the original clachan, and often included land where peat could be cut for fuel.  The grazings are controlled by a township committee which is organised by an elected clerk.

Since 1886, a series of Acts have been passed through both the Westminster and, more recently, Scottish parliaments which have laid down specific crofting laws, which are now administered by the Crofters' Commission.  Some background is given on their website, here.

While some crofters have exercised their right to buy, so they now own their croft, many crofts are still rented from landlords.  The whole of West Ardnamurchan was originally owned by Ardnamurchan Estate, but over the years the land on which there are crofts has been sold to other landlords, all of whom live away from Ardnamurchan.  Since croft rents are strictly controlled by law, landlords' income is low, which means that some have little interest in the running and improvement of the crofts they own.  As a result, while some crofts are beautifully kept, and illustrate the huge potential of this form of farming, others have been abandoned and are now overgrown and neglected.

On West Ardnamurchan today nine crofting townships are still active: Kilchoan, Ormsaigmore, Ormsaigbeg, Achosnich, Portuairk, Sanna, Achnaha, Branault and Kilmory, though some of these have lost parts of the clachan's original common grazings.


[1] Map based on 'Landholdings and settlement evolution in West Highland Scotland' - Margaret C Storrie, 1965.

[2] Ordnance Survey 6' and 25" maps, survey dated 1872by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland.   View these and many other historical maps in full here.

[3] Robert Dodgshon 'The Age of the Clans' - Berlinn with Historic Scotland - 2002

[4] William Bald's 'Plan of Ardnamurchan and Sunart, Argyll', 1806, image reference RHP72, by kind permission of the National Records of Scotland. View the map here. 

Comments on this history are much appreciated - particularly where I have made factual errors.  Please contact me at


  1. This makes fascinating reading Jon. I'm looking forward to reading more about the individual townships.

  2. I am from the US and we briefly visited Kichoan while on vacation. Such a beautiful area and after reading your blog post, it is obvious we missed so much while there. This is a wonderfully educational blog!

  3. I'm so pleased that you enjoy this blog - it makes writing it worthwhile. The richness of this area's history, archaeology and wildlife leaves me breathless with wonder, yet there is so much more to find.

    Thank you for posting a comment, and I do hope you return to Kilchoan soon.


  4. Thank you Jon!
    My ancestors left Bourblaige in the clearances, went to Acharacle & Ockle before migrating to New Zealand. We came over to see where our 'roots' were about 8 years ago, but when we returned I found my camera (a 'real' one, ie not digital) had let light into the images & all our pics of Bourlaige were spoilt.

    So you have filled some gaps in our knowledge and enabled me to share with my Mum where her grandfather was born. And written about life & locations in a way that works for us.

    Keep up the great work! Thank you.

  5. Hello Jon, I am from Melbourne, Australia and have been researching my mother's family history and her great grandfather was the Schoolmaster at the Schoolhouse in Achosnich. He also lived in Achosnich with his wife and family. He has noted himself as the Schoolmaster on the Scottish Census of 1861 and he was a McQuarrie. Your website has been a joy to read and it was great to see that the Schoolhouse is still standing although it is a private residence now. Would there be any arhival pictures of history of the School or the village itself. My mother is still alive and 88 years old and she would love to find out more. Perhaps you can point me in the right direction and in the meantime I will continue to enjoy your history and updates on your website & this beautiful area. Kind Regards, Linda

  6. Hi Linda - I'm not aware of any archive material on the school house at Achosnich, which is a great pity. There will have been a log book kept by the teacher. The only place that might have been preserved is with Argyll Council, as, in those days, this area was part of Argyllshire.

    One place to watch is the West Ardnamurchan Vintage Photograph site at If your mother has any pictures, it would be great to have them added to it.

    If she would like to have any of the pictures from the Diary in a larger format so she could have them printed, I would be pleased to send them. Write to me at

    So pleased you enjoy the website.


  7. I met a man in the summer time at the ruins between Portuairk and Sanna who said His Great Great Grandfather lived there with His family after being evicted from Moidart, they lived off the sea and land ,eventually they walked to Greenock and took passage to the Carolinas where He became a landowner of a large plantation ,if I remember His name was Eoighan Mac Gillivray