“The Glens of Angus’ is not an expression that you will see on any modern map, but most inhabitants of the county – and indeed of Scotland – will know exactly what is meant by it.”
These words are from David Dorward in his book, The Glens of Angus. How true this statement remains twenty years into the century is unclear. Indeed, the Glens remain an extremely popular location for hillwalkers, bird watchers and those who just want to be in the ‘middle of nowhere’. The county of Angus is bordered by Dundee City, parts of Perthshire, and parts of Aberdeenshire. It is a versatile county with coastal and inland towns, as well as a mass of rural land and several glens and mountains. The main Angus Glens include Clova, Esk, Isla, Prosen and Lethnot. They are areas of picturesque beauty, which explains their popularity with visitors, but there are in fact many more glen names in Angus. Dorward points out that there are in fact thirty glen names in Angus, many of which are no longer well known, even with the people of the county. The Glens of Angus are curious places which make you want to delve more into the history and past ways of life that have long been forgotten in other parts.
In a geographical sense, the Angus Glens sit firmly on the boundary line of the Highland region. When one thinks about the Highlands and Islands region of Scotland, the Glens of Angus probably are not what first comes to mind. Alongside their Perthshire glen neighbours, the Angus Glens make up the south eastern edge of the Highlands. Even today, there are continual debates as to what is classified as the ‘Highlands’; often language and culture are key features in such discussions. This is not a new debate, as C. W. J. Withers discusses:
“From time to time during the 1800s, efforts were made to delimit on a map the boundary between the Highlands and Lowlands from the point of view of a general cultural rather than simply the line of separation between two language areas.”
In the Glens, knowledge of Gaelic was decreasing as the rest of Angus county was using the Scots language. By the end of the 1700s, the fate of Gaelic in the Glens was sealed. Although many still understood the language, they could not speak it themselves. As Dorward notes when comparing the fate of Gaelic in Perthshire to the Angus Glens,
“Some of us indeed can remember from our childhood meeting native Gaelic-speakers from Strathtay and Braemar who were able to correct our mispronunciations of local place-names; but the last native speaker of Angus Gaelic died long before anyone can remember.”
Gaelic remains in these areas in place names or as Anglicised versions of such. However, cultural traditions of the Highlands remained strong in the Glens, particularly the oral traditions of song and storytelling as well as dancing.
To this end, the Glens of Angus exist in what one might define as the ‘margins’ of the Highland region, in a geographical, cultural, and linguistic sense. Historically speaking the Glens in some respects have a common history with the rest of Angus, as well as experiencing the historical phenomenon of the Highlands and Islands. But the historian must question the relationship of Angus’ Glens with both Angus and the Highlands. How these two areas coexist is important to allow us to understand events in the Angus Glens, and the effect of such events on their residents.
Thus far, works specifically focusing on the Angus Glens to a large extent have been micro-histories, or ethnographic in approach. These works are indeed interesting, but they focus largely on the Glens individually and, for the most part, do not explore the connections to events in the rest of the Highlands, or the rest of Angus. Our historical understanding of the area would benefit from much further study, for example the role of Clearance in Angus.
The Highland Clearances are a well-documented event. Since the middle of the twentieth century, it has been explored to great depths by historians. The Clearances saw a mass removal of people from the lands across the Highlands as landlords saw that more money could be gathered from sheep farming. Generally, during the first period of Clearances from the mid-1780s to c.1820s, people were moved to the coastal areas to take part in fishing or the new kelp industry. When these industries failed, cleared Highlanders were then encouraged to move to the Lowlands or emigrate or, in some cases, were forced into doing so. This second period of Clearance took place into the mid-1850s. These two periods of mass clearances are remembered very emotively by subsequent Highland generations. It is embedded in the culture and history, and there are many responses to it in popular song, stories, and beyond. Eric Richard notes,
“The subject is controversial because anger and recrimination continue to burn in the memory of the community and because the clearances are entangled in the eternal moral questions of power, loyalty, justice and truth.”
If we turn our focus to the Clearances in the Angus Glens, there is a limited amount of historiography available. People were perhaps not cleared in the same way, but the effects of depopulation were definitely felt. In the Angus Glens, it appears that natives were not pushed out by force but forced out by lack of opportunities leaving them with no choice but to leave their glen. The main reasons people left were related to farming practices and the sheep farming economy. Particularly in Glenesk in the latter years of the 1700s, higher wages drew many young men to the Lowland areas. In the 1820s, a small effect was felt on the population by measures put in place against illicit whisky distilling. For others, they felt the pull of opportunities emigrating abroad could bring. Again, to use the example of Glenesk, it is said that almost every family had relatives who had emigrated abroad or moved to England. Greta Michie’s study of the Glen, compiled by Alexander Fenton and John Beech, notes,
“There were better chances abroad and the call of adventure in the great unknown kept young men sitting round the fire discussing their problems…There was also rebels who would rather emigrate than endure existing systems at home. Many felt that they had no other option but to emigrate.”
The decision to emigrate must have been extremely challenging as many knew they would probably never see their native glens again in their lifetime. An example of this comes from James Jolly, who emigrated to Canada from Glenesk in the 1850s. In a letter back home to his family he wrote, “I believe I will never be in Glenesk again, but I often think of my old acquaintances therein. Send as full an account as you can, for it is only by letter that I can know about them.”
Moving abroad did not remove all of the problems completely, and some faced a harsh life away from the Glens while others made a great success in this new world. Something that was felt across the Highlands that should be noted here is the loss of community and culture that the Clearances brought. Again, to reference Michie’s study of Glenesk, “Wherever the small community is lost or is breaking up, the anecdotal treasure trove which it fosters begins to vanish, and people and places fade way and are, in time, forgotten.” So much is lost when communities are broken apart – connections, parts of the oral traditions, and a common experience. The sense of loss, together with the harsh conditions faced, is perhaps why these events are still so emotively remembered. In historical works, this personal experience is at times often overlooked in favour of more economic approaches.
A further complication to this history is the events of the Lowland Clearances which had an effect on the rest of Angus. As the country became more industrialised, large numbers of rural workers had to move to industrial towns or cities for work. Particularly for a farming community like Angus, the introduction of more modern machinery which meant fewer workers were required on the land had a significant effect. Tom Devine explores the Lowland Clearances in his work The Scottish Clearances and notes that there is evidence to suggest Clearance was happening in the Lowland areas two decades before they began in the Highlands. The effects of Clearances on the Lowlands in Angus were also significant, and an example from Devine’s work highlights this,
“A general decline in population was reported in the parish of St Vigeans because of holdings being united into one…Of one farm, for instance, it was reported that there had been eighteen of them in 1754. By 1790 only a single solitary family remained.”
A study looking at the role of Clearances in Angus as a whole would be beneficial, especially with regards to how these types of Clearances coexisted and perhaps affected or influenced one another.
These patterns of depopulation have continued as the centuries have gone on. In more recent years, a common reason to leave the Glens has been to attend secondary school or leaving for the cities in pursuit of further education. Those who leave do not always return which has further exacerbated the population decline. In the twenty first century, most children in the Angus Glens have to travel into the local towns for all of their schooling. As Professor James Hunter discusses, the Highlands and Islands are now an area in which people are moving into, rather than leaving. The pace of repopulation seen elsewhere is not truly matched in the Angus Glens, which these days have a large focus on tourists, sporting estates, and holiday homes. However, the Angus Glens have never been truly empty in the way that other Highland glens have, this is just another reason why they provide such an interesting case to study.
This article has largely approached the Angus Glens through Clearance and depopulation but there remain many areas in which the Angus Glens can be studied from a historical standpoint. The effects of the Potato Famine in the 1840s, the role of religion and how this compares to the rest of the Highlands and rest of Angus, and even the identity felt by natives of the Glens. Further study will no doubt benefit our modern understanding of the area.
Written by Mhairi Ferrier.
Devine, T. The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900. Allen Lane, 2018.
Dorward, D. The Glens of Angus: Names, Places, People. The Pinkfoot Press, 2001.
Hunter, J. The Making of the Crofting Community. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000.
Hunter, J. ‘History: Its Key Place in the Future of the Highlands and Islands’, Northern Scotland (27), 2007, 1-14.
McKillop, A. Holdings secured by blood: The story of land loss in Scotland.(The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900). Times Literary Supplement (6044), 2019, 15.
Michie, M. G. Compiled by Fenton, A and Beech, J. Glenesk: The History and Culture of an Angus Community. Tuckwell Press, 2000.
Richards, E. A History of the Highland Clearances Volume 2. Croom Helm, 1985.
Withers, C.W.J. Gaelic in Scotland 1698-1981: the Geographical History of a Language. John Donald, 1984.
Image of Corrie Fee courtesy of Alan Ferrier.